Saturday, July 20, 2019

“The Chicago River?”

I got a couple of good reviews on my post about Nahuatl and mental health, so I’ll follow up on that success with something else from a recent text chain.

This one is a conversation with a very good friend and exceptional glass artist, Marlene Rose. My wife and I have had dinner with Marlene and her husband Thomas, in Chicago, a number of times. So it came as a surprise to me that she could be oblivious to the unique geography and significance of our area, even though she probably has never lived in the Midwest, and Thomas is (I think, and my uncertainty about that is another aspect of this story!) South African.

Marlene did a glass piece for us to replace art we’d had for many years which was destroyed by extreme vibrations from a construction project next door.

I sent her the picture to show where we had put her work, and she loved it, but responded to my text by asking, “What is the body of water in front of your house — is that the Chicago River?”

We laughed on this end of the text line, with a reaction that was basically, How could anyone be so stupid?

Many years ago, my wife was explaining to her Disney client Michael Eisner that she had to miss a meeting because we were moving that day. He asked where we were moving, and she told him to the beach in a Chicago suburb. He responded by asking, “Now, what body of water is your new house on?” Once again: Hahaha! Michael Eisner is so rich and powerful in Hollywood, but he’s frickin’ clueless!

The point is not what things people know or should know, but rather our reaction of estrangement. Marlene’s husband Thomas, with whom I’ve had wonderful discussions about history, might be equally disgusted with me, for not distinguishing easily and automatically between people from South Africa, England, Scotland, Ireland or Australia. I mean, they all speak English with a cool accent, right?

When people don’t acknowledge or understand realities that are close to us, especially when we cherish those realities as beautiful or important, we tend to “other” the people. We laugh at them or even feel they are somehow a bit less human.

In my text exchange with Marlene, I felt a strong need to educate her. I sent her pictures of Lake Michigan looking totally calm, like glass all the way to the horizon (which is illusory), and looking like the ocean, and I explained how the difference is all due to wind direction. I texted pictures of our beach in winter, when it closely resembles Antarctica. I recited statistics like 321 miles to the Straits of Mackinaw and 20% of the world’s fresh water.

She was politely impressed, but I still suspected that she didn’t truly get it.

Well! People know and create different things, right? How could my relationship to an aspect of the physical world (Lake Michigan) be of the same order of emotional significance as my friendship with living people?! Now that question really is a wonderful challenge.

When psychiatrists discover that their “patients” (sorry, I really do have to keep the word inside sarcastic quotation marks!) have unusual or obnoxious points of view, or don’t want to take “medication” (again sorry, but...) and don’t accept the mental health/illness orthodoxy, they are not reacting much differently on an individual level, than my wife and I do to clueless non-midwesterners.

Of course, there is one difference that’s huge.

Psychiatrists are legally empowered to force people to adopt their worldview, whereas I have no such authority for encouraging appreciation of the Lake Michigan shore in the dead of winter.

I think the only possible reconciliation could come from better understanding of the difference between our love for people, and our love for objects or places.

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