Philip Seymour Hoffman died with a needle in his arm. Five empty bags of heroin surrounded him. If this were a movie, he would have been the man who had seen too much. In the movie, his mother couldn’t afford a wheelchair so her neighbor carried her around on his back, in exchange for sex. Hoffman, the character, had walked in on them. His mom was squeezing lemons to increase blood circulation. She needed to work what muscles she had left before they all atrophied. Philip could tell by her eyes, because carrying-man doesn’t stop his sex-having, because she needed some help getting to the grocery store later, that she wanted to provide a bit of flesh for him. But she was all skin. Her eyes made wide by the flesh falling in skinny skin all around them.
The lemons made Hoffman remember his kit. He carried his own for times like these. He promised his mom he will bring her some milk next time, so she doesn’t have to be carried to every grocery store, every time. Then, because he can’t afford to buy his mother a wheelchair and because he saw sex-haver on top of his mother and because he wondered if she went to the store only for the lemons, he taps some of his powder into his spoon. Maybe she wanted the lemons only. Maybe she wanted to be carried on the back of the sex-haver. Maybe the sex itself was good. Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t want to think about it so Philip Seymour Hoffman took out his syringe and turned his powder into liquid with the heat from a match. And he didn’t think about it any more. Well, five bags later, he didn’t think about it anymore.
Or maybe Philip and William Rivers Pitt, senior editor of Truthout, whom Philip probably knew well, were having coffee in Brooklyn at Tillies. William had a coffee. Philip ordered chai. William tells Philip about a coal company that had just dumped tons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in the Elk River in West Virginia.1 Three hundred thousand people were told not to bathe, let alone drink, the water that came from their tap. Philip told William he would have to humanize the story to get people to care, to add some narrative, some character. So William told him that a child living in Elk River snuck out of his bed at night, went to the faucet, turned the handles, and poured himself a drink. The child’s esophagus is now as a seventy-five-year-long smoker.
Philip said, that’s the ticket. I will play him in my next film.
Philip wouldn’t live to hear about the fifty thousand and eighty-two thousand tons of coal ash, polluting some twenty-seven million gallons of water with heavy metals and other poisons, near the towns of Danville and Eden in North Carolina, but he had lived through droughts in California. He rubbed his hand over his parched skin, rubbed his scraggly beard. He breathed in. The dry air burned his lungs. He is currently missing the wild fires in Los Angeles. It is May 15 and Southern California is on fire again. William tells Philip the fracking and drilling might be causing drought in some of the states that use the Ogallala. They use so much water to get the oil out of the ground. Ninety-seven billion gallons that is lying heavy in some pools, heavy and undrinkable. Philip both cares and doesn’t. Although he once lived in California, he feels deeply depressed, like Oklahoma.
“The state department says there are no serious environmental concerns about the Keystone pipeline,”2 Philip, sipping his spicy latte, told William.
“Yeah, if you don’t count the fact that like fracking, you have to infuse the tar sands with water to get it to come up out of the ground.”
“Canada’s going to mine it anyway.”
“Canada used to seem so promising.”
“At least it’s winter,” Philip said, pulling his coat tighter around him.
“I used to love the snow. When I look at it, I think how beautiful it is. How it transforms everything. And then I remember that it is being wrecked, poisoned, denuded and ruined for money and I want to go outside and sit in the snow and listen to it as it buries me until I am gone from this country that would do such harm to itself, brazenly and without restraint, for profit.”
“Well,” said Philip, “we probably shouldn’t go killing ourselves over global warming.”
“Well, what should we kill ourselves over?” William asked.
Russell Brand said in The Spectator that drugs and alcohol were not his problem. Reality was his problem.3 In the movie of Russell Brand’s life, an actual documentary of him shooting up: “I sit wasted and slumped with an unacceptable haircut against a wall in another Hackney flat (Hackney is starting to seem like part of the problem), inhaling fizzy black snakes of smack off a scrap of crumpled foil.”4 And in a movie of your life, reality is your problem and drugs are a very good solution. Russell Brand, who has long hair, now says that drugs are not, in reality, a very good solution to reality but what solution is?
On Facebook, after Hoffman died not only in the movie of his life but in his real life, someone said, addiction is a disease. Someone else countered, it’s a choice. Someone else said, it’s not a choice you can make if you have children to raise. It’s selfish.
Hoffman had children. As any good parent, he was slavishly devoted to them. He apparently, although twenty years sober, was still a slave to addiction. But we are all slaves to choice. It seemed like such a good idea, free will. Mr. St. Augustine said that man was not born evil. That it was only through the fall of man, his bad choices, (woman, sex with lemons), that evil came into the world. You can choose God or you can choose evil. But even if you choose the Grace of God, you still have to stop in hell for a time to purge yourself of sin—purge yourself of choice. Hairshirts and flagellation. Heroin is a good way to get to God, to beg off reality for a while, skip purgatory. Close your eyes to your mother and her squeezing lemons and you tie a rubber chain around your arm. As you squeeze a lemon in your fist, you’re choosing against choice. No kids, no planet, no saints, no hell. Just a quick ride to heaven. We have to miss out on heaven to save our kids? Yes, maybe. Because heaven is not a verb, just a distant, annihilating noun.
What do we have to do for our children? My friend Justin emailed me a report that said, the Antarctic ice sheet is breaking up. “It’s pretty much over.” I emailed him back, “We had a good run.” But sarcasm only staves off the terror so long. I don’t care about me. I could evaporate today. But my kids. Why did I hand them this misery? Why did I let this coastal shelf collapse? The air is shifting. The ice sheets are tilting into the sea. Step on it, make it flat. Or at least stand up. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Please stand up.
Did my dad have a drinking problem? Or did he have a standing vertical problem? When I visit him in the condo he bought after my parent’s divorce, I see there are no lemons. There are the vestiges of a home as made by a kitchen—plates, bowls, cups, but no spices. No flour. There is no reality of a home without at least the pretense of baking. My dad leans against the counter, approximating sobriety. He cups his chin in the crotch of his hand and nods while I tell him that although Drew and I broke up, we might get back together, even though he’s started dating Rashna. She is from Singapore. Why would he choose me from Utah over Rashna from Singapore? I have all these hang-ups. Boring sex. No lemons. My dad is a drunk although maybe not today. He seems like he’s hearing what I’m saying. He likes Drew. He reminds him of himself as a young man, as all older men say of all younger men, especially those young men who can hold their liquor. Drew’s an expert. Straight gin, three olives. No vermouth required. Like my dad could once but now, liver-challenged, cannot. But maybe my dad has quit drinking. Today’s the day. Here he stands, in the kitchen, nodding about my boyfriend, seeming vaguely interested, seeming like this is the story that might make him stand all the way up straight. Perhaps he has an opinion. Dump that guy. He’s not good enough for you. You can hold your own against any Singaporian lemon sexer.
But my dad doesn’t say that. He says, “Ars seemila.”
If only my dad knew Latin. Then I could convince myself of his sobriety. Maybe he’s talking to Augustine. This is my punishment now. This liquor that is my God and my hairshirt.
Ars seemila: It is seamless. It does seem like this. Ars seemila means it’s good to see you. Ars seemila means I could care less you are here. Ars seemila means bring me some lemons. Ars seemila means, this house could look like a home if I could stand up straight. I will bake for you. Lemon bars. Lemon bars go very nicely with gin.
I could be mad at him. How selfish. How uninterested you are in others. How lacking in willpower. How sick. But really, I just think, I hope it’s better in there, dad. Out here, it’s kind of rough.
I want to have opinions about addicts. I want to say, as Russell Brand says, 90% of people can have a drink, even smoke crack, and not be an addict. But 10% of us, we have one sip and we can’t go back. But I don’t get that. Reality is everywhere. It can’t be only 10% of people who are trying to avoid it. Is drug and alcohol addiction fundamentally, Augustinely, worse than watching TV all day, playing video games all day, reading all day, shopping all day, avoiding the fact that those stitches in your clothes were sewn by a five-year old girl in Zhang Zhou, that the big box store just cut the hours of the cashier so: no healthcare, that the plastic of your credit card is made from petroleum sucked out of the ocean next to the last swimming polar bear? Or worse than the anorexic whose mind shakes with hunger or the bombastic loud talker who can’t stop making noise or he’ll disappear or the football player who keeps ramming his head to make the singing stop or the member of the NRA who shoots so many holes in his backyard tire swing that he forgot what swings were for, or the mom with her lists, so many lists, that she’s papered over the wall of reality and the nondrinker so proud, he pats his back, makes a percussive sound, what’s there to hear over the deep boom of self-satisfaction? We’re all trying to get out of here, it seems, through guns or lists or heroin. Everyone addicts every day.
It’s not that I like being in a room with an addict. I like people who can stand up straight, on their own strength, of their own free will. People who need a counter to lean upon seem ungodly and unwilling to do the good work of choosing a healthy choice. But I don’t know many people who can stand up straight, all by themselves, and look the world in the eye all day long.
I could have told my dad what Russell Brand wishes he had told Amy Winehouse: Don’t take a drink, don’t take drugs, one day at a time. But who am I to tell my own father what to do? Don’t people get to make their own bad choices? If I said (which I did say) please dad, stop, and he didn’t stop, is he just now choosing drink over me? If I’d never said anything, I never would have thought his drinking had anything to do with me. But now that I’ve asked, I’ve been denied. The sound of vodka drowns out the pleading voice of a child. Be quiet, child, maybe the gurgling will stop. The mind of an addict, like anyone’s mind, is a confusing place. Maybe it’s better to get out of there. Get out of here. Maybe here and there are the same place. Then what do you do? Where do you go? God. This child is breaking my heart. I need a drink. I don’t mind dying if I don’t hear her say “stop,” anymore.
Humans like to name things. Put a label on it. Tie it back. Keep it away. Name it other. Addiction. Selfishness. Slow suicide. Bad. All those words are “not me,” “not me,” “not me,” “not me.” But drugs are just a way, more destructive than most, but more effective too, to deal with what is sometimes a bad reality. It takes a lot of work and a lot of imagination to make reality good.
The same day the New York Times ran a Philip Seymour Hoffman story advocating widening the distribution of an opiate antidote, Naloxone,5 they also ran Porter Fox’s story called “The End of Snow?,” a depressing, off-the-wagon-throwing article about how in a few years, there may be no more ski resorts.6 And, while ski resorts may sound frivolous, the water the ski-resorting mountains produce from snow is not. Without snow, predictable water resources disappear. Irrigation methods become obsolete. Agricultural systems dependent on run-off disappear. It’s enough to make anyone suicidal.
And yet, one of the nice things about the end of the planet is that it does not feel like the end of the self. As I sit here and read about this not-too-distant future, I’m thinking, at least it’s not me that’s a mess on the news today. I am a mess. I didn’t get a job I didn’t think I wanted. There’s a typo on an expensive flier I just made. My colleague just emailed me in all caps. I keep trying to explain to my son Max that to play walkie talkie, he has to hold the button down to talk, let go to listen. He does not listen. I’m trying to work while he’s yelling, “What you say?” from the other room. I cannot type while I hold down the walkie talkie button, which is pointless because now my son is standing right next to my ear, still asking “What you say?” It’s twelve o’clock and while I do not want a glass of wine right now, I probably will want one tonight. I count my glasses. One. Two. I open a seltzer. I slice a lemon. It’ll be five o’clock soon enough.
But this planet! It’s a bigger mess than me. There is no water in California. California’s on fire and it’s too cold to ship natural gas from the Midwest so there is no heat there either. California on rations hot and rations cold. It is not snowing in California. California has the intelligence to be two things at once but neither can it remedy. California forgot to verb.
This is the reality, but not the kind that makes you want to die. The only death reality is the reality that the wolves are dying and the tigers are dying and the polar bears are dying all because you, addict, should live.
So I should do something. I should look at this from the point of view of a wolf. From the point of view of the hawk. From the POV of the worm. From the rabbit. This reality out there is more interesting than the reality in here. Paul Ricoeur, in The Rule of Metaphor, says the ability to see is the ability to do something:
On the one hand, the mass of images is behind all voluntary control, the image arises, occurs, and there is no rule to be learned for ‘having images.’ One sees or does not see. The intuitive talent for ‘seeing as’ cannot be taught; at most, it can be assisted, as when one is helped to see the rabbit’s eye in the ambiguous figure. On the other hand, ‘seeing as’ is an act.7
To understand is to do something.
And while I would like a lemon tree to grow in my back yard, here at seven thousand feet, here in the mountain desert, here in America, I would also like water to go with my lemon. Snow, let it snow, snow.
What’s cool about snow? Cooler than lemons? One flake at a time builds a whole watershed. Is it foolish to imagine that little changes can have significant impact? Porter Fox argues that, “Nothing besides a national policy shift on how we create and consume energy will keep our mountains white in the winter—and slow global warming to a safe level.” That’s like they say in AA, you have no power in the face of your addiction. Submit and you shall be saved. Your purgatory will be over soon. But that’s not likely. Submission only makes you thirsty. If you wait for a National Policy Shift, you will be skiing on sand, under the hot flap of palm fronds.
If you’re going to change reality, you’re going to have to go outside. First, maybe you should pick up some garbage. Go down into the ravine in your hometown. Pull some tires up the greasy slopes. Step on plastic bags tucked under rocks. Pull them out. Pick up lower containers and water bottles, trucker bombs and ice cream wrappers. Put them in a bigger, more responsible plastic bag. This won’t stop global warming but notice how there is no rubber tie-off wrapped around your arm.
Then stand up. Straight up, even if you’ve been drinking all day or shooting heroin all night. Fake it until you make it. What can you see as? See as an owl? See as a worm? See as a bear? See as the night? See as. Make it seem real. As an actor in the movie of your life, you can see through the point of view of a lemon tree where “squeeze” means something new again.