Rumor has it that the future drones of Amazon Prime are a Cyber-Monday PR gimmick, sure to face insurmountable technical difficulties and never pass muster with the FAA. Who knows. And, whatever. Much more interesting is what Jeff Bezos' plan actually suggests about the culture that's drooling over it...
I have an ambivalence crush on Louis C.K. He plays the brave and humiliating role of exposing the swinging sweaty balls of the cultural id. But this doesn't make him the spiritual teacher so many want him to be, especially if we forget that he's playing a caricature.
Case in point: His now-famous admonishment, now scoring big hits through the new-age blogosphere, that his fictional daughter (played by the brilliant Ursula Parker) shouldn't be allowed to be bored, is not a borderline-spiritual encouragement for her to seize the day. It's a transference of anxiety. If we're laughing, it's to protect ourselves from the most difficult question a child will ask: "What should we do now?" The truth is that nobody knows. If we wanted we could let that soften us, but that softness won't make anyone laugh.
The fictional dialogue goes like this:
"I am bored. I am bored! I'm boooored. Why don't you answer me?"
"Because I'm bored is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you've seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you're alive is amazing. So you don't get to be bored."
The gag is that this is a hostile response to a 4-year-old, whose "Why don't you answer me?" carries all human pathos. Even to a peer, the answer would be heavy-handed. Not that Louis' character would care, which is at the heart of the joke: Here's a guy who speaks to children as if they were his competitors for resources and emotional attention.
Joking aside, the answer is both untrue and ineffectual. On the untrue side, every 4-year-old knows that the world is great, big, and vast. And no 4-year-old has seen none of it. In fact, her entire being is trembling at the threshold of the all of it. The 4-year-old has had plenty of time to navigate her internal worlds. She knows that stories, dreams and fantasies go on forever. So yes. She understands these things, and feels much more than she understands. "I'm bored" doesn't mean "I'm uninterested." It means "I don't know who I should be. I feel empty and full. I feel confused and sad. What should I bother doing?"
On the ineffectual side, the answer pretends to kindle the girl's wonderment, but it actually burns the tenderness of her question. She's asking a question about how to manage emptiness, and the answer is overwhelms her with stuff. Instead of letting it be an open moment in which the parent can share in the revelation of uncertainty that the child makes new for him, Louis crams irritated gumption and panicked work ethic down her throat, guilting her with what she already knows but was too innocent to accept, guilting her for naming a condition to which we dare not confess, guilting her for being so rude as to ask for help. We laugh because he releases the valve on our own guilt over doing the same thing.
In his essay "On Being Bored," British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips delivers an understated bitch slap in answer:
Is it not indeed revealing what the child's boredom evokes in the adults? Heard as a demand, sometimes as an accusation of failure or disappointment, it is rarely agreed to, simply acknowledged. How often, in fact, the child's boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult's wish to distract him -- as though the adults have decided that the child's life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one's time.
But you can't take time if you're terrified by your own boredom. You have to move things along. Be rushed, maybe, in the way that you were rushed as a child. You can't tolerate your children taking time or else they will expose how your own forward movement is in a state of perpetual derailment. So there's no surprise when a father overpowers his daughter with an answer several cynical clicks north of her intellectual paradigm.
The anger in the transference is clear. He's not saying, "You don't get to be bored" to his daughter, but to himself. Not getting, of course, that her boredom and his boredom belong to different categories. Her yearning boredom is about paralysis of limitless possibility, and the paradoxical wish, as Phillips puts it, to have a sensible desire. Louis' boredom is the anxious boredom of the adult: He doesn't know what to do with himself, and time is wasting away, and he fears he's forgotten how to feel wonderment, so he demands his daughter feel it for him.
But like the best of comedians of history, Louis confesses to a hypocrisy when he flutters into autobiographical mode, and turns it into shtick. In "Live From the Beacon Theatre", he belts out a delightful seven minutes on the boredom of parenting -- how he has to read all 50 books of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and watches his daughter count the spaces on their board game with excruciating slowness. He forces her token forward as she complains, "But I'm counting and learning!" He replies straight from the darkest shadow of fatherhood, where anxiety expresses its disdain for innocence: "I don't care honey. You're going to grow up stupid because I'm too bored to wait. I'm more bored than I love you." The audience roars with laughter, relieved that someone has finally said it.
From Freud's essay "Humour" (1927):
The grandeur in [comedy] clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego's invulnerability. The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.
I'm more bored than I love you. What can this mean? I think it means that the fear of death is indistinguishable from our present responsibilities to each other. We laugh at the line so that we can outsource the stress. The giddiness of that laughter comes from the fact that boredom shows us the inevitable challenge of loving.
Here's the punch line that Louis, fictional or not (and we can never know the difference), speaking for the cultural unconscious, can't afford. We have to let our children be bored, so they can explore safely the endless horizons of time, and softly confront the abyss. If we take their lead, we can also let ourselves be bored, but not with resignation or apathy. We can be comfortably bored with the endless Big Red Dog, the counting of spaces on board-games. We can know that time is passing at different rates for different ages. We could soak up a little of the sadness and openness we've closed off over time.
Perhaps if we get it, we can avoid the default to cruelty towards children who are reminding us of what we fear. Perhaps parent and child can share boredom as one of the more curious and restless forms of...
It's a tall order for many men to even acknowledge difficult feelings. But love them? That's just going too far. But of course, going farther and loving deeper than you knew you could is what fatherhood, and life, demands.
Parenting is painted through with great strokes of perfectly natural...
Our son Jacob is thirteen months. From dawn till dusk he treads the threshold between the togetherness we share with him and the secret space he is beginning to find in himself. At this age -- all ages pass so quickly! -- the contrast between the two is most visible...
Gigawatts of digital ink have been spilt over the tragi-comedy of my mayor, Rob Ford. Lots of exposure for the disease of addiction, ironic homages to his manipulative brilliance and stewardship of "Dark Politics" and even a twisted love poem from Toronto's own villainelle, Lynn Crosbie.
And kudos to Shawn Whitney, who reminds us that Ford's behavioral monstrosity is both a microcosm and a mask for his public service horror-show. His self-abuse and belligerence play a foul harmony to his agenda of greed, class stratification, privatization, anti-environmentalism and slashing public services from libraries to urban farms to mental health support.
And more shameful than his antics, perhaps, is how we have all allowed them to distract from the venality of his public campaign, which scads of button-down, crack-free and teetotaling supporters continue to rally behind. Whether slash-and-burn libertarians smoke crack matters far less than the fact that they line up to slash and burn the drug recovery programmes they wouldn't personally need because they can afford to go to swanky rehab clinics in the Caribbean, thank you very much.
So there's a big stinking pile of Trying to Figure Ford Out: such is our obsession with train wrecks -- and abusers. Who is he? What will he do next? Where is his shame? How low will he go? But the darker story is subjective. What are we going through as we watch him?
It's paralysis, on several levels. Firstly, there's our tenuous relationship to the meaning of facts. We're stunned that we can't legally remove a sitting mayor who has confessed to binge-drinking, binge-drinking and driving, and buying, possessing and using illegal substances.
He even has the gall to brag about admitting to some criminal offences. When he gets bored of bragging the truth, he pivots to his general bragging list of lying points. Lying about past behaviour, treatment intentions, bloviating on CNN that he's "built subways" and "saved a billion dollars" and that he's the "best father around." His hamster wheel of confessions and lies degrades the very possibility of "facts." We feel like a collective Ron Suskind being gaslighted by Karl Rove for living in a "reality-based community." In the post-facts world, nobody seems to know what to do when the very pretense of dignity goes up in pipe smoke, to dissolve into the spectacle of infotainment.
But many are paralyzed on a more primal level. We can see it if we pay close attention to how we feel as we're watching it unfold. Glued to our radios and newsfeeds, poring over police documents scarred with black censorship boxes, a hundred thousand grim conversations over breakfast in the murmurs that emotional hostages use: What do you think will happen today? And then at the water cooler: Did you see the press conference? How many people are walking around, teeth on edge, feeling the chaos of Ford? Not his policies, but his hung-over, hyperglycaemic, congested, pinched, asthmatic, volatile, high-blood-pressured, acid-refluxing flesh? We're not just watching something. We're living something. We're working something out.
As a therapist, I can see that so many are being retraumatized daily. By what? By the rage and violence that many of us remember from family life, from stories of addiction and enabling, from the schoolyards and locker rooms and dark alleyways of our vulnerability. We were bullied by older kids, bigger kids, angry kids, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. We know how it never stops until the bully is stopped or the addict surrenders -- and so we can't stop watching, waiting for the violence to be contained, because when it stops, a childlike trembling part of us will finally feel safe for a while.
We see that Ford only makes eye contact while menacing or sexually harassing. We see in his scarlet sweating face the pulsing arteries of accusation and veins of self-hatred. We watch the non-crack-smoking councilors sit tense and exhausted in the steel cage of the council floor. We hear Ford blend apologies with excuses and excuses with attacks. If by some miracle he isn't lying about not having had alcohol in three weeks, he's a classic dry drunk.
It boils down to this: "Rob Ford is a nightmare" is not a metaphor. For many who feel viscerally ill at the sight of him hopped up and threatening to kill some "motherf$%&er" in somebody's living room, or explaining how cyclists deserve to be hit by cars, or bumrushing elected officials in City Council chambers, it is literally true. You can toss it off as rhetoric or politics or minimize it into "personal issues" only to the extent that you are untraumatized, or at least think you are. Of course, minimizing his violence is itself a trauma response. So is enabling it.
Pundits have struggled to pigeonhole Ford's demographic, and while the pollsters are finally homing in on the less educated and the underserved, "Ford nation" remains both privileged and not, urban and not, white and not.
It's not taxes or transit or hating bicycles or gay people or "liberal elites" that binds it together. It's the general alienation of late capitalist culture felt by everyone disconnected and disempowered, amplified by unresolved familial or cultural violence that must be normalized for survival. Ford Nation is congealed by the bitter cynicism that believes that the most government should do is to save it a few bucks on car registrations and pay the garbage workers less, and otherwise City Hall can go to hell. To keep our scraps, we enable cruelty.
Ford's wife Renata might be in the solitary confinement of the direct enabler, in which she must take on the logic of the addict in order to survive: share his excuses, pardon his bad days, call the police for help when the violence at home is intolerable but then give conflicting testimony to throw prosecutors off, be grateful that it hasn't been worse (at least lately), and desperately upsell the sunny side.
But the spousal excuse of "He's a good provider" elides with the libertarian excuse of "He saves me money" -- and they're both coming from the same place: a world in which violence and fear and inequality are just the facts of life in the long shadow of the abuser. Here, your primary task, affected through a tango of appeasement and avoidance, is to not lose any more than the abuser threatens to take. As in the family, so in the city.
Short of the court trials of tyrants, has there ever been a comparable spectacle in which millions are dragged into a public intervention and are forced to collectively resurrect their memories, or confront their present horrors in such detail? It's an extraordinary moment that nobody asked for.
Perhaps we're making the best of it. Children are asking questions when they come home from school. There are so many long pauses. People are sharing what they've learned from their own sorrows. Maybe some of us are feeling a little more like siblings to each other, wondering when dad will just get help or leave, already.
Former alcoholics and drug addicts -- hats off to them -- are phoning in to CBC radio, remembering the same rage and powerlessness that Ford is denying. They slowly describe their impossible recoveries that came only after incalculable losses. And they help us understand what might be going on when we read in the police report that Rob Ford would call his staffers late at night from his father's grave, weeping into his cell phone. They know that abuse is intergenerational. They know how hard it is to stop it. They know that Rob Ford has children. Their names are Stephanie and Douglas....
For new fathers, mindfulness really boils down to paying close attention to the subtlest shifts in your partner and baby, maintaining a feeling of connection to both of them, and being able to observe your own feelings rise and fall without becoming reactive. This feeling of connection can stabilize and...