Watch The Leftovers (the HBO series)

This is an older series on HBO I thought I would review because it is just such a good show and in a world where most television these days just sucks, this one is worth watching.  A lot of people have discussed this show already, and it has long-since gone to pasture in the rotation on HBO streaming and on-demand.  The Leftovers is about a post-apocalyptic world–quite possibly the literal Apocalypse–and a myriad of characters all surviving in a time shortly after 144 million people around the planet just vanished in their tracks.

There will be spoilers.

From weird religious cults (the Silent Remnant, the Holy Wayne guy who hugs people to take away their pain, and others), to people just completely unable to cope in life.  Nora is a woman who works for an organization that investigates disappearances and validates who has actually been taken away in a Rapture-like event.  Kevin is a small town police chief whose life always seems to be just on this side of running off the rails.  Then there is his wife, Laurie, who has joined a cult of people trying to smoke themselves to death, and all they do is stand around in white sweatsuits, chainsmoking, and annoying people.  There is Nora’s brother, a minister, whose wife is in a catatonic state.  Various family members who are their own special blend of crazy, and everyone in between.

Each has their own weird way of showing that things are no longer right with the world.  Nora hires people to shoot her while wearing a bulletproof vest.  Her loss is significant because the event took her entire family.  Kids, husband, everyone.  Kevin’s loss was during the act of cheating on his wife, and then there is a subplot about his own father dealing with mental illness, which may be hereditary.

There are three seasons of this show, which are too hard to summarize.  Characters come and go.  There is even a move to a town that was unaffected by the event, and the third season is more or less an exploration of Kevin’s mind and the possibility that he may be some kind of messianic character.  Nora’s brother, thinks so anyway, and starts a chronology of his life and experiences.  Which mostly just pisses Kevin off.

The reason I want to talk about the series is to paint a broad brush about what it is about.  I’ve heard YouTube channel reviews about how it’s the typical literary trope about everything being imagined by Kevin or Nora, and there was no Rapture.  Which is pretty standard in theory and criticism since freakin’ Freudian psychology got introduced to English majors back in the 80s and 90s.  It’s exhausting. It’s annoying.  It’s one way of looking at it, but it’s also lazy.

The nice thing about fiction is when you write it, you can take an idea and run with it.  I think in the case of the Leftovers, the premise was “What if this Rapture happened and what would it mean to everyone left behind?”  I think that’s fairly easy to imagine.  If you have ever read the comics and pamphlets some churches distribute about airplanes suddenly being without pilots or cars without their drivers.  Children.  Teachers.  Everything else, where people are taken at seemingly random and the spaces they leave behind, and the chaos which ensues.

But that’s only the surface.  The Rapture event is just the device to bring the story on a universal level that gets our attention.  The truth of the matter is that the world of the Leftovers isn’t much different than the real world.  This is because the events of this story are happening every day.  The theme of the Leftovers is simple: loss.

Each of us has experienced or will experience loss in some way in our lives.  The loss the characters experience are just ways to investigate a different element of loss.  For Nora, it’s sudden loss of her husband and children.  For Kevin, it’s the loss of his family because the trauma fractured everyone and pulled each of them apart, even though they all still exist somewhere in the world.  Laurie abandons her family and clings onto a cult, creating a new family, who doesn’t necessarily want her for altruistic reasons.  Their children spiral out of control, the center no longer able to hold together.

Matt the reverend loses his wife to a catatonic state, to where he has to become her full-time caretaker.  It is what happens to everyone, every day in the real world, but the story strips it down to its skeleton and forces us to examine an entire world that is reeling from loss, openly.  Even to the point to where each year, they relive the event in their minds with a festival, where many people expect the event to happen again and take even more people.  The Event becomes something everyone fixates upon.

Some have a need to make sense of it.  Others demand that it be ruminated upon to the point of a cult focus, begrudging any who refuse to obsess over it.  Terrorizing them.  Harming others for their need to hold on to this trauma (the Smokers).

Our world, like the world of Kevin, Nora, Matt, and Laurie is filled with loss.  And like a game of Tetris, when blocks are taken away, the order of things changes.  Everything falls to the next level, affecting that place as well.  A chain reaction of how people deal with loss is happening all around us.

Whether it is the loss of a loved one to death, there is confusion, regret.  Maybe that last moment of arguing with someone, only to realize that anger and sour words were the last things you shared with that person.  Or maybe it was just something as simple as dropping a child off at school and never seeing them alive again.  Maybe it was someone you expected to lose, but it hurts no less than something that was sudden.  Loss isn’t always death.  Sometimes it is something like divorce or estrangement.  Abandonment.  Retirement.  A loss of a job.  Moving from one town to another and feeling like a stranger.  A brief stint in prison or jail.  A tour of duty in a war zone.  Or just the inevitable act of a child growing up and leaving home. It’s any experience that leaves you feeling changed.  Unable to connect with the life you once knew.

We make choices in how we deal with loss.  Some handle it stoically, pragmatically.  Others turn to vices.  Affairs.  Risky behavior to overcome the feeling of numbness or depression.  And others might just shut everything out and pretend that nothing has changed. Others might choose to take their own lives or harm themselves in other way, unable to process the grief.

The emotions are the same.  Guilt.  Anger.  Sadness. Regret.  Isolation. Relief (and even guilt associated with that).  Depression.  Numbness.  Anxiety.  Euphoria.  Religious/emotional catharsis/crisis.  The pieces that once fit together so well are like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing pieces.  The picture can never be complete. Those of us who remain…are the Leftovers.  What do we do with a world that is broken?  A life that is shattered?  What can we do?

I think the characters, complete train-wrecks in their own right, personify literally every way we deal with this every day.  It just puts a name and a face to it.  Sometimes they handle it, sometimes they don’t.  They yell, they fight, they weep, they exist.  Some are haunted by their deeds, or those they have hurt.  Some reach out to God or some other higher calling.  Some just fade out of the story.  There are characters who just want to be left alone.  Some make a point to never give up.  Others that take drastic measures to make sure they never risk losing their loved ones again.

Of course some of them join death cults, some of them shoot stray dogs, some take Aboriginal hallucinogens, some drown themselves in a lake and come back from the dead, some sing karaoke in Purgatory, and some find each other and do whatever they can to fill the gaping holes in each other’s lives.

But the event has also broken up the fabric of the norm. New connections, new relationships, new beginnings are all starting over again.  Dynamics between parents and children, old lovers, family, community are all forced to shift.  People in the Leftovers are getting on with their lives after the Event.  They are coping.  They are finding each other amid this chaos and confusion, just like real people do.

At the end of the series, Nora actually travels to the place where everyone was taken and the realization that in her world, they lost 1% of the world’s population, but in this parallel world, the people she encounters lost 99% of everyone they knew.  And they still come together and start anew. She comes back and drops off the grid.  The final episodes where this is explained give closure to everything.

In our own way, we are all leftovers.  We each suffer loss.  Our world is always changing.  Loss continues to pick the keystones out of our lives.  Maybe not necessarily in the dramatic way of Kevin and Nora’s world, but significant nonetheless.  But we manage to continue on as well as we can.

And with that, comes hope.

Anyway, watch the show.  Stick with it through all three seasons and remind yourself, this story is about all of us.  It’s about loss.  And yes, sometimes when the characters do something completely asinine, that’s us too.

A couple different reasons why

Sometimes my blogs and my writings have been said to be too personal.  I learned a long time ago that no matter how personal something seems to be, as a writer, that still isn’t the core of you.  It’s just another layer you have chosen to show others.  It might actually be a layer or three you have put between yourself and the audience.  They may look at it and see absolutely nothing that is you.

Today, I want to share a story about achievement.  How to measure it.  What it means.

Four years ago, I started a new journey in my life.  It might sound cliched, but I had decided to take the necessary steps to end what could be simplified into an “unhealthy relationship.”  I had tried for fifteen years of marriage to make things work.  I had compromised nearly everything I was, sacrificed my friends and extended family, and endured what I would consider a hell on earth.  I was lucky enough to get out of it with the help of my family and very supportive friends.

After leaving, it took a year for the divorce to be finalized.  We had nothing except exactly what we had during the marriage, which was constant conflict and chaos. Only now it was sublimated into a new battlefield: the courtroom.  When the divorce was done, I decided to set my course to a new horizon.

As an employee of my day job, I can take up to 9 credit hours per year of Graduate level courses; I just have to pay for the books.  So I applied for and was accepted to the English MA program.  I started my first course.  It is hard for me to admit what happened next.  In many ways, it resonates with a lot of my regrets, but in other ways, I have gained from it as well.

As a kid, school came easily for me.  I was always on the Honor Roll, and struggled briefly in High School, but mostly because of hormones, depression, and some teenaged angst and rebellion. I excelled at academics, such as band and knowledge bowl, but quit track.  I didn’t play sports.  My friends and I were outcasts who used to fight with swords in the park in the middle of the night.  We were often considered “at risk.” I graduated 3rd in my class and got almost no scholarship money.

I did about the same in college, never really having a hand on the tiller of my own life.  I picked the college I went to because it was close to a girl I was dating, and just far enough from my parents to not warrant visits from them every weekend.  The tuition was also affordable–unlike the California colleges that offered me the moon and the stars for a liberal arts program.  I picked English as a major because it required the fewest credit hours for graduation.  I didn’t really know what else to do. At the time, all that mattered was getting a BA and the rest of the world was open to you, or so I thought. I went through my classes, did fairly well, A’s and B’s. I discovered beer during my senior year and was out at least three nights a week.  I nearly failed two of my courses because I never bothered to show up.  I was burning out. I no longer cared about college or grades. I had broken up with the girl I had been seeing.  My friends had all shifted to other social circles, and I found myself living alone and depressed.  My goal of being a self-taught artist had shifted to being a self-taught author.  Mostly because the only art class I took during my college experience told me how much I sucked.

But writing…writing was something I was good at.  Or at the very least, something I loved working at being better at.  (Yes, I did just end two sentences with prepositions).

Fast forward to a newly divorced single dad 17 years later.

I decided to take advantage of the Master’s program. (Btw, going back to grad school is another divorce cliche).  At the pace I could afford, I could finish my degree in about 4 years.  The first course taught me a lot about myself.  It was “Literary Theory and Criticism.” Though the other students in the class seemed to think my answers were brilliant and thought-provoking, my professor usually just eyed me with contempt or would flat out tell me I was wrong.

Taking this class had two effects.  First, I was reminded of all the bullshit, Marxist inculcation that I had slogged through during my undergrad years, which usually lost the coin toss to closing down the Smiling Moose on a weeknight.  And second, I realized that maybe the time had passed me by to go through a program like this.  I am a father of three, I had worked in the private sector, and then academia, and I had just finished the most grueling and stressful challenge of my entire life.  I was befuddled by the assignments and even the way to post my work on “Blackboard.”  There was so much reading.  Then the hours of lecture each week.  After half a semester, I decided this wasn’t for me.

You know those dreams you used to have of being late for class in High School, or you don’t have any pants, or maybe it’s a college dream where you forgot to attend for an entire semester and OOPS!  it’s now the final exam and you need to take it?  Those dreams come back when you are a non-traditional student in an Master’s program.

The only thing that kept me hanging on was the words of a dear friend, who said, “An education is something no one can ever take away from you.”  This is true. I felt like I had let them down.  Let myself down.

Years later, that sentiment was slammed home by a psychologist, who said to me, “You have a high IQ, you are a smart man.  Why is it you aren’t doing better than being a guy with a BA who works as an administrative assistant?”

To this day, those words hit me in the chest.  Considering what I have lived through, and how far I have come, those words are an unfair value judgement on my life.  Summed up nice and neat for someone who didn’t really know me.  They weren’t a wake up call.  They weighed down on me like cinder-blocks tied around my ankles just before I was tossed into a lake.  I was in my 40s and compared to where I should be, I wasn’t up to snuff.  I was a failure.  My ex-wife was right all along. I was a loser! Maybe I should have stayed in the Master’s program.  I wasn’t capable of following through with anything, just like my high school track coach warned.  “You’re a quitter, Harris!”

Feeling like that, wondering why I couldn’t continue through a program most twenty-year-olds sleepwalk through, it hurt and it was frustrating.  Something had blocked me to where I would have done almost anything other than sitting through another minute of that class.  But my value as a person who lives in their head and works with words, was assaulted by this.

Worst yet, the dark corner of my mind told me, “You are a fraud.”

***

Grad school isn’t for everyone.  I am at peace with that notion.  I am at peace with knowing too that my day job doesn’t define me as a man.  It’s something I do to pay the rent.  It doesn’t make me any less of a person, or less of an intellectual to realize my own limits.  It wasn’t for me.  I learned that.  Some people go through an entire PhD. program before they come to that realization.  I figured it out five weeks in.

When I write, whether it is paid blogs, journal entries, chapters in my books, poems, etc. I feel a sense of fulfillment that graduating from college never gave me.  Constructing plots and filling worlds of my own creation with characters beats anything I could have written about the criticism of Altrusser or Barth or Marx.  What I did get from college was the practice of typing.  A few profs helped me with critical thinking as well, but that is either something your brain eats like candy or it doesn’t.  Mostly it was just the typing.

Two out of four years of my degree could have been accomplished by reading “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

I don’t know exactly why I didn’t want to continue on with grad school.  Sometimes I wonder how things would have been had I stuck it out.  But to find peace in this, I needed to come to terms with the fact that I had made a decision.  I hadn’t just gone along with what I was supposed to do, as I had nearly my entire life.  I was protagging.  I was calling the shots and making my own decisions.

That also had value.

Maybe if I had stayed, I would have been a bigger fraud.  Just like with my BA, I would have just been going through the motions and feeling disappointment when my degree didn’t open doors for me automatically. Like many of us foolishly believe (myself included).

At the end of the day, you can feel depressed even if your life is “on track” on all accounts.  I recently watched a video that inspired this post.  It showed me that you can be doing what you are supposed to do and on the outside it can look like you have the world on a string.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, for some of us, those demons of depression can gnaw away at us.

I know now that getting an MA wasn’t going to solve my problems.  It wasn’t going to give me joy.  Following my dreams will.

 

Day Three of No Facebook

It’s laughable that I’m treating social media like a substance addiction.  But I don’t know if it is all that much of a stretch.  In many ways, the prevalence of Facebook is said to have been influencing the last few Presidential elections, that algorithms and how information is distributed among groups of friends, lending itself to bias is how this is being orchestrated.

Twitter is the voicebox of a Presidency that seemingly has no filter, no restraint, and is making a lot of things worse, because the information is coming directly from the mind of someone, without delay, who should be one of the people on this planet who take a long, long time to think before they speak.

People’s lives are being affected in ways that they have never been before.  The worst thing about social media, the internet, information, etc. is there are no ethics behind any of it.  People can take your picture, post it online for anyone to see without your permission.  Your words can be removed from context, even private conversations, and shared with others in damaging ways.  Facebook itself has become a resource lawyers use in court to influence the rulings of judges, in civil and criminal cases.  Posts to Instagram have resulted in job terminations, jail time, and worse.

Twitter is often used to communicate secretly, out in the open as it were, for protesters, terrorists, and even law enforcement who counter activity originated there.  It used to just be for flash mobs of people swarming train stations to do the Thriller dance.

Net neutrality would be a wonderful thing, that is if anyone had any idea what responsibility was in our world these days.  Electronics, social media, texting, etc. are rewriting how people interact socially. How children spend their time, socialize, respond to stimuli outside their own heads.

Due to what has become 24 hour a day bullying, suicides are on the rise from social media.  It used to be you could just go home from school if someone was tormenting you.  Now you carry them with you in your pocket wherever you go.  And if not them, their friends, your mutual friends, and complete strangers looking to dog pile you.

Kids are sending naked pictures of themselves to each other. There’s an app that will help them do that.  It’s called Snapchat.  Everything “goes away” after it is viewed.  Right…idiots.

The proliferation of easy to get pornography is so much more different now than 25 years ago.  Not only does the easy access to porn mean that the audience of watchers can have greater exposure to this kind of addiction, but also I feel that violence towards women, especially in regards to rape and murder, are spurred on by people being eager to act out these oftentimes violent theatrics.

YouTube algorithms are influencing teens in ways that are making them question ideas of gender, possibly needlessly so.  Combine that with the echo chamber of nearly anonymous peer groups spread across the country, and you have a recipe for ultimate confusion.

So, does it cheapen the idea of addiction to say that social media is bad?  That Facebook was slowly causing me to slip into a state of depression?  I mean, it’s not booze, pills, opioids, or meth, it’s just the computer, right?  Who can’t just step away from a computer?

What’s my point?  I’m not trying to get attention for battling some kind of addiction. Honestly, I know it’s my own damned fault if I’m on social media and wasting time on it.  I don’t want to pull out the victim card just yet.  I’m not looking for pity.  What I do know if the world is a lot quieter without it.  I’m getting more done.  In spite of the reflex whenever I get bored to see what my Facebook friends are up to, I don’t really miss it too much.

Last night, I made changes to a chapter in my book.  I wrote five paid blogs.  I did some reading.  I went on a walk for an hour and put in 12,000 steps.  I watched a movie.  Facebook is a massive waste of time.  In some ways, it was a nice place to escape.  But when you are escaping your life, you aren’t living it.  Anymore than you are living your life at the bottom of a glass, needle, mirror, or hot piece of foil. Or card table, porn site, refrigerator, or cross-fit class.  Addictions come in all shapes and sizes.  The way to recognize them is would you rather be doing that than anything else?  What is it costing you?

I think I’m at the preachy part of my recovery.  It’s a nice way to convince myself that changes like these are good.  It’s also a good way to be held accountable for my decisions.  It’s harder to ignore these decisions when you write them down.

Maybe I wasn’t addicted to social media so much as I was comfortable with the routine?  Well, what I know is the routine left me feeling empty and worthless.  That’s not healthy.  It made me covet lives of people, things they have that I won’t, it made me less of the man I want to be.  It left me feeling alone.

The funny thing is yesterday, I chatted with about half a dozen people, having actual conversations in person, in text, etc. outside of social media and it felt great!  Eventually I realized I had a lot of work to do and had to excuse myself.

People are still out there.  You don’t need social media. In fact we might find ourselves closer to each other without it.  In no time at all will it no longer be Life without Facebook.  It will just be “life.”