Sunday, August 3, 2014

[OM] Familial concerns (Writing Madness) Warning: Fractal madness ahead!

I've recently just finished a splendid book on African literature, Writing Madness: Borderlines of the Body in African Literature by Veit-Wild. The book takes a look at writers in Africa and how being on the fringes of their given nations' governments (be it colonial or post) pushed them towards madness and forced them to write to deal with it (I'm not doing it any justice here, but there is a great explanation in the book on how people who are in the fringes of any society are indeed mad—driven there, or considered as such, or otherwise).

Of course, I didn't expect to have a world-shifting read when I started the book. I only wanted to read it to hear an expert give me a handful of further readings from African Authors who didn't necessarily come vetted through the normal channels such as the NY times. To that end, I found several strong writers listed; including one, Marechera, with a story collection, Scrapiron Blues (African Writers Library).

The main gist is that the book got me thinking about how madness can be seen in everyday life and how we ignore it. Living in New York one sees plenty of homeless people. Some seem to be going about their daily business, though others are notably "out of it", or mad.  The vast majority are with the former; one homeless man I've seen promises to write poems for a set amount of money. It's these ones who stir the most inside me since they seem only slightly removed from a person in a home. I always wonder what they did to gain such a lot in life.

I see the same thing with artists in the past who were talented but not recognized. Some like Zamyatin died in obscurity after they were exiled for their creations, while others were never even recognized until much later. In a way they were in the fringes. In a way that is a sort of madness.

 Writing Madness: a lively academic book

All this thinking about madness led my mind to dwell on madness within my family. In that sense many families are much the same, with their own quirks, each bordering on madness. Most families are safe from complete madness (something that tends to limit a family's ability to continue the bloodline), but they have a little of it due to the diversity inherent in our biology; and since most people I know aren't rich enough to completely hide that madness, stories about one mad relative or another abound.

What follows is a story from a friend of mine (update, feb2015, this is a story with many links that will only add to it and create a world all of its own), Gerad, who never lies. He hails from a family that is only just off the boat, from a country I cannot pronounce or place on a map. He also is a graduate of a highly respected institute of higher education and is currently pursuing a tenure at a smaller college. That, however, might make him truly the madman of his family, especially when one considers how rigged the tenure track is towards having cheap labor (he's still a lecturer).  All that follows is exactly as Gerad said (with his permission):

I have a cousin, Tim, whom I had to babysit once. Not so much babysit, for the young man was nearing an age where he could care for his own food and water and what not, but more that he was  not trusted by his parents for reasons I'll explain. I was not privy to these matters. You see my parents and Tim’s parents were from a generation where it was expected to keep things from those in the younger generations.

I don't like this. But perhaps when the moment comes to divulge family secrets to my children (of which I have none) I too will hesitate; either because I don’t trust them, or I will feel the weight of the secrets and imagine that any other being made of at least 50% me wouldn’t be able to bear such a burden.
I was wary that they would speak ill of the Tim, who had always seemed bright and somewhat kind. Most of the other stories about the madmen in my family were filled with harsh, mean men (it was always men, though sometimes spinsters would get the same treatment) and their foolhardy attempted conquests of intellectual or real lands that were ultimately unconquerable. None of these people brought good to the family name, and were usually mental and financial burdens on all around them.
The night of babysitting, I walked into the house, bid the young Tim hi and settled down to get some work done.  Tim, not yet in his teens, but achieving awkwardness with eyes that wouldn’t stay on anyone speaking to him, decided to play video games in the room next to me. He asked me to look. I watched as his avatar stalked grown men from rooftops in some long ago past, while a knife in his hand turned on guard’s throats and they screamed out in half-muffled and a-tad-too-realistic cries. I nodded, smiled, and decided that I should get to know this Tim of my family. I asked him if he was enjoying school—a horridly unimaginative question that I hated as a child and teen, but now that the roles were reversed, I couldn’t see anything else that would make sense as a question.

He talked about a couple classes which he found to be somewhat interesting: math and something or the other. I observed him a little too much as he talked, he squirmed. I laid my eyes on the TV instead, but that only increased his nervousness.

From his outside looks, baby-faced with a black mop on top, he seemed normal. But there was something in his eyes that reminded me of dreamers. We’d had a few dreamers in my family, both sides from what I hear, and none of their stories had ever ended well. Usually, they’re looked at with a mix of romanticism—at least the beginning of their stories—and disdain, for what they failed to achieve: never anything in the name of technical weighable achievements, which our technocratic family demanded.

Tim then asked me about what it was I was doing. I told him that I was writing, and could see his face fill with dread and worry. Which meant he was possibly normal for our family. I went back to what I was doing.

I looked up periodically, to see that Tim was staring at the pause screen of the video game. After some time, I looked up and he was gone, the screen still paused with a man leaping from a rooftop, a dark medieval skyline stretching out in the distance, and a guard on the bottom of the screen about to turn around. I could smell macaroni and cheese cooking, and I decided that Tim was perfectly fine for this world.

Funnily enough, my mother called, and after she asked, hushed and worried, about how Tim was doing, I scolded her for worrying about the kid, and possibly warping him with that worry. The pause and sigh that followed told me that she was disappointed in me, again. Then she started to worry about me, asking what I was doing to gain a real career or push my bosses for a promotion and all. I hung up after my mother grew tired of analyzing what I had done wrong, and went back to my writing.

Except now I couldn’t write anything because I could feel, sense, a discomfort churning up my guts. I realized that it was quieter than normal. I looked up and saw Tim staring straight at me from another room. At first I was disturbed, then a waft of pride came over me, then worry.
I asked him what he was doing.

He blinked then disappeared. I thought about going after him, but yelled instead. He didn’t return an answer. I went back to trying to write. My mind was darting about: on the conversation with my mother, on the myriad of things that could have gone wrong in my life, on things that I couldn’t ever control (but the ones that I could control it would appear that I did incorrectly). I decided to read Borges, Ficciones to be exact. For a few moments I lost my place in that Argentinian's world and was taken away.

But at this point I felt that same churning of my stomach, which spread to my chest, then my head. I looked up. Again, Tim was staring at me. This time he didn’t look away, but held my stare until I was scared. I growled at him.

He nodded and came over, sitting across from me. After a few moments of silence, I let out a sigh. There must have been something to worry about, otherwise why was he acting this way? Then, like a ghost, a memory rushed through me.

It had been a few months ago when there was an impromptu family reunion, there had been a fight between my parents and his. During this altercation Tim grew from that bright eyed creature full of curiosity to one of complete dejection. He yelled out something indiscreet and asked: "Why do I have to be here, why can’t I be there?" This statement silenced the argument and our parents exchanged worrying looks.

Now, looking at Tim, I sensed that something about him wasn’t just wrong, it were as if a part of him wasn’t around, wasn’t here. I remembered that as a young child he had an issue with craning his neck to stare at clouds, the sky, ceilings, so much so that he had to visit a doctor to get it fixed. Was that what my family had been whispering about?

I asked him what he wanted. After he mumbled a bit, I discerned that he looked up to me, so I acted kinder. Finally he told me he had something to show me. He turned and walked. I got up and followed. He led me to the basement door before pausing and looking at me. He twisted the knob and into the darkness we descended.
Not to be completely dramatic, but we entered the basement, no lights, except for a few lamps lighting up the top of a long pine desk. On it were wires made into a cube-matrix. I stood across from Tim, watching as he rested his hands on the desk, his nervousness now showing up as tremors in his fingers. I asked what it was and with a heavy sigh he explained the game he was inventing or at the worst bringing out from obscurity. It was a 3-Dimensional-go game, a variation of that ancient Chinese game that made chess look like child’s play. The 2-Dimensional version, that is. That anyone could look at that game and think that they needed a harder (as I would assume the 3d game would be) version was beyond me.

Tim proceeded to explain he game and the reason he made it and how he had made it a playable version of the 2-D original. Awkward he was, but I decided that perhaps this one of our family wasn’t so bad, that he was at least trying to be original and in a world like the one we’re living in here in this 21st century and on, originality isn’t the entire death knell that it once used to be, especially when it’s applied to something like games.

So he went on and on about how he saw this game as an all new way to make the mind smarter, something about how it would allow those who have a grasp of it to program better or solve other problems because of its multi-connectivety (its rules would be same: in that a stone when placed down—here it would be clipped on—would be taken off if all of its free spots were taken, and a group of stones needed two eyes; the main difference being that a stone when placed is connected to 6 other spots instead of 4). He explained how he had the stones (here a 3-D ball that could be clipped into place) interact with the cube (wired up to be a 7x7x7 cube) via a small electronic switch which would light up the adjacent connections to the immediate points nearby a placed stone via LED lights. This allowed one to better see which groups were where. Therefore instead of having black and white stones, he had red and blue, so that if two stones next to each other were of opposing colors, they would light it up and emit a green color.

I nodded my head, impressed. I asked him if he had played a game. He said thousands. I asked with whom. He stared at his contraption until he was sweating. I realized that I may have crushed his trust and decided to tell him that he was brilliant, and that this was one of the more amazing things I had seen (cutting myself off before saying for someone of your age). It was. I asked if he wanted to play a game.

Stuttering, he rudely said that he didn’t bring me here to play games. I held back a retort since he was too young to know that what he was saying was offensive. I asked him what he wanted to show me. Again he stared at his contraption.

It’s there, he said and jerked his head towards a dark corner of the basement. I hesitated. Not one to be superstitious anymore, not at this age, not when life throws worse things than any comic book at you, yet I felt the grip of evil. Tim grabbed my wrist. He was stronger than he looked.

He told me that he wasn't crazy. I knew this wasn’t going to be good. Then he started to go into a whole confession (that's what it sounded like) about where he got this idea for 3-D go and other such things. It was from a peoples who were living in a world which he accessed by from various points in the basement. That corner he pointed, and seeing a glowing orb of light, unlike any other, I froze in place. He continued to describe this almost alien world where the people were kind to each other and only cared about that and maybe the ideas that one could come up with, no matter how crazy those ideas were.

He went on to say that they may not speak a language close to what he spoke, but it was a perfect place to escape and that he could get away from the pressures that his parents placed on him. Not only this, but the cities where these aliens lived, alien furnaces provided the only light as their original planet had been burned out by a supernova long ago and they were forced to live on a dark rock in the corner of our galaxy. The trees in these cities were crystal and extended farther than the eye could see.

And I knew then that I had been wrong to accuse my parents and his parents of having been overly-worried. Memories and pieces of knowledge I'd suppressed floated to the top. Our family had had a handful of people who had nearly been institutionalized. Every generation had had one. I felt fear for this relative who was out in the fringes, amazing game invented, or not.

I respectfully declined to see the magic corner of his. Why? Because I too had a handful of the same quirks he did. What if I saw what he did? So I did what any normal person would. I was as nice to him as possible and in the end I decided to ignore that wing of the family for as long as possible, only helping to feed the rumors so that something would be done about Tim. I knew then what madness was. It was a decrepit disease, not some inherent trait, and I would have to try my hardest to keep it out of my system. I also understood that the fight with madness was the fight for the preservation of civilization. That's when I switched my field of study from literature to computer science.

And that's the story. I never heard any updates from Gerad about what became of his cousin.
The End

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  1. Had a cousin like this, cept he never made anything worthwhile, he would spend all his time pouring gasoline on his toys and burning them and then he would stare and we all knew he was a little off, but of course wondering who was giving him that gas, and we tried to stay away from him but also keep him close, you know keep a close eye on him and he turned out fine, thing is most times you shouldn't overreact because semi-crazy runs in the family and that's just the way it's always been, but the moment you don't overreact and something happens, watchout cause ooboy youra gonna get it

    1. Nice! Know a few friends like this. You're not from Alaska are you?

    2. Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. Maybe go fuck yourself. Thing is, Alaska, like many parts of our Empire that don't get the blessings of our dear leaders and the money they steal, tends to rot in on itself. Its resources are the only thing that sustain it, and sooner or later that will turn it into even more of a third world country, with fiefdoms and no federal law being enforced.
      So fuck you again. I gotta go now, honkie-tonk mama needs some shoes so I gotta hustle and cook up some product for the Cessna to move

  2. family man here, had a uncle like this. Thing was, the man couldn't, or wouldn't see the world in the right way, you know? I didn't see this at first, he was just an uncle, willing to play ball whilst the other adults talked about highway routes or something to that effect. And when he was gone, the adults did murmur about him in that off hand way that was meant not to tell the children that he was the kind of person to be mocked (since he was family, you know?) yet also the person not to emulate because, well, he was weird. And so I went to college thinking that perhaps these adults didn't know squat, but it turns out that they do because I tried hanging out with this uncle a few times...
    And I'm not saying he was crazy, but he was just barely making it as a sane person. Basically, the problem was he acted like a man who was, at the end of the day, a man who couldn't understand the world. It was only the other day, while we were sipping on margaritas, and (I thought at least) simply watching New York pass by when he said: "I never realized this, but the more is unsaid between two people, the less spoken, while the more is understood... even the simple things... the better off their relationship"
    Who says that kind of shit? I was trying to catch the eye of a hot girl (from Mali, I think). I mean, come on, buzz kill. Or sometimes, as I was trying to ask him to help with some moving and afterwards we would see something on TV about us fighting some bad guys and he would say that things like this were bad (not the bad guys, but the fighting) and okay people say this kind of shit all the time I don't care but I could see it hurt him... fuckin hurt him to see suffering on Tv. I mean come on man.
    So i understood then that the adults were right and this guy, this uncle was off his rocker. He disappeared, I think, soon after that, or in any event I never reached out to him.
    But I feel ya man. The crazies they're all over in anyone's family and they leave this stench that everyone in the family is trying to get off them, you know, and you just can't get the stench off your clothes and you start doubting yourself, you know? and when that happens, oh boy, because now noone can stand the fucker but when anyone else cuts him down, you gotta defend that loon because he's.. well fam.
    Stay strong

    1. Thanks, and stay strong too. This is, btw a short story. Thanks for reading again!

    2. Think you got problems, shun? Thinks not. That ain't crazy. Folk in my family are crazier than shit rats in teh subway. One cousin was so messed up in the head that she came up with her own language, all with a dictionary and all. But she never worried about our own. Came up with her own programming language too. But that all take off. Guess where she is? Nowhere, that's where. You go off the reservation and ain't no one gonna save you. Its about luck then. So roll a dice and tell me what you got?

    3. Think you got a fucked up family, Anonymous? Now, I know you're kindsa fucked up in the head for all that you're doing out there on the internets. But since you're a hacker, or a group of hackers, or a mask of that vendetta guy, then I give my props. Also good luck in fighting ISIS.
      My family, doe, they had a whole section up and disappear. I'm not talking some great tsunami or nothing.
      Well, explain that?

    4. Man, you guys have issues. You sure it isn't genetic? Because you should get checked up just to make sure. Wouldn't want these kinds of traits in the gene pool. Just sayin

  3. Let me add something else into the mix. See the link below to see another aspect of this: depression in a family. On one hand there is a truth to depression. When studies look at happy or normal people, they tend to think better of themselves than is even possible (ask, for example a large group if they are smarter than average and the average will be higher than possible, in other words they have inflated self views). Yet when depressed people take the same survey they come out to average (in other words the most accurate self portrayals).

    So who's mad now? Suppose the world requires a little of it to be happy.

  4. Mentioned elsewhere that the fans of Algo have now started to pick the best story that they followed and put it up. I bet these stories will sell the most, and here I'll add my own two cents and make a better story than that which you're creating now.


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