Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Taking its toll

Brendan texted me yesterday to say that Robin Williams had taken his own life. Williams’ untimely death shocked the world. How can someone so talented who has given so much pleasure to so many people be so utterly depressed as to want to end it all? Poor mental health is a huge problem in our society and it shouldn’t take an A-list celebrity suicide to get people talking about it. Every year about 300 people are killed on New Zealand’s roads. Road deaths are readily reported on the news. You can find the figures all over the internet, and they’re updated almost daily. Road casualties are broken down month-by-month, by age, location, and type of road user. And wouldn’t you know it? NZ road fatalities are in steady decline. We’re all becoming better drivers and our roads are becoming less dangerous. But while the road toll is decreasing, over 500 New Zealanders are killing themselves every year, and that figure isn’t going down. Just imagine for a minute that suicide statistics were displayed so prominently and in such detail on a government website, and updated every time a suicide was confirmed. Suicides would be the second or third item on radio news bulletins. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money would be spent on suicide-prevention adverts, specifically targeting those most at risk. By tracking the stats, you’d know exactly who those at-risk people are because, guess what, they aren’t the same people they were in 1994. Knowledge is power. Yes, John Kirwan’s depression campaign has been a definite help, but so far it feels like we’ve only just scratched the surface of the problem. Depression, and suicide in particular, still seems to be largely a taboo subject.

I talked to Brendan on the phone last night. We talked about Mark, a 23-year-old guy who, for a while, attended both the Auckland autism group and the North Shore men’s depression group. He died on a sunny afternoon in August 2011 when his car crossed the centre line and collided with a truck. I don’t think it was ever determined whether or not it was suicide. Mark had a combination of mental health and other conditions: depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and Asperger’s, although I never would have guessed he was on the spectrum. He was what I’d call a “pretty boy”, and he had a habit of getting closer to women than they might like. He came from a well-off family north of Auckland; I don’t think he had a good relationship with his parents. In September 2010 he wanted to move away from home and he asked me if I’d take him on as a flatmate. I said no, using the age gap as an excuse, but really I knew he’d be hard work with all his conditions. If I’d said yes, he might still be alive today. If a butterfly flaps its wings and all that.
The autism group on Monday worked rather well. Our facilitator had to leave at short notice but that wasn’t a problem – we were more than capable of facilitating ourselves. My phone app – remember that? – cropped up in conversation. If I’m ever going to create apps or games myself, perhaps my best bet is to make a Facebook game.

Here's a great article on FiveThirtyEight about Nigel Richards, the Kiwi Scrabble player who is number one in the world by some distance and gets virtually zero recognition here in New Zealand. He's almost a recluse and is Zen-like when he plays Scrabble. Both his interests are obsessions: Scrabble and cycling. If he wasn't somewhere on the spectrum, I'd be surprised.

Here's another good article from Joe Bennett, describing a moneyed suburb of Auckland. He's right - house prices have reached almost mythical levels in that city. Things were bad enough when I looked at properties in 2009. The no-price thing was a real turn-off. I'd look at a place and ask an agent for just the first figure of the price. Three or four? Four or five? Give me a clue. Of course if I'd actually bought, we'd be talking six or seven now. But that was 2009, the year when my income peaked. I'd be really surprised if I ever earn as much in real terms as I did then, and I knew that even then (and if by some miracle I do make that much, it won't be from a salary). The earning power of a graduate is "supposed" to peak around fifty; mine peaked in my late twenties. Going back to the article, Joe Bennett has a remarkable knack of making mundane things, like that road sweeper, sound interesting, almost beautiful.

I had my Chinese lesson tonight. I still think it'll be ages until I can speak vaguely comprehensible Mandarin, if I ever do. And as for reading or writing it, that will take even longer. At the moment we're using pinyin, which is the most popular Romanisation system. The design of the system was headed by Zhou Youguang, a remarkable man who is still alive at 108. The Language Log blog is interesting reading. It covers Chinese quite often. The latest post on the blog, written by Victor Mair, features a Chinese restaurant menu. The two most impressive things in that post (to me) are that: (a) the Chinese have at least seven words for cabbage, and (b) Victor Mair knows them all.

My car failed its warrant. I'm not surprised. It's got some fairly large patches of rust on both of the front pillars. I'm getting the patches repaired for now, but all this rust will probably be end of my car eventually.

It feel like rust patches are sprouting all over this blog too. I don't think my writing is up to much these days, and I don't enjoy it as much as I used to either. So we might be nearing the end.

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