Farewell to Cory Monteith of Glee, and a new pop science book on the unconscious

by Rob Tiller

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Last week I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Cory Monteith, the actor who played Finn in the TV show Glee. For a couple of years (though less so recently), Glee was one of my happiest guilty pleasures, a sweet spot on the largely mindless and boring TV firmament. I wouldn’t care to defend Glee as wholly original. It is, at one level, mostly about recycled pop songs, dance video conventions, and predictable plot lines. But they sing and dance with more than just precision. The total effect is of youthful energy and exuberance. Pop music that I never much cared for when it was new becomes fun and sometimes even moving.
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The existence of gays who were sweet, talented, and creative has been a major point of Glee, and it has pressed for tolerance for gays as a central value. How much has this affected the American zeitgeist? Some, I’ve got to think. The poll numbers of Americans supporting gay marriage have gone from negative to positive during the show’s run. Gay marriage is legal in several states, and the Supreme Court has gotten on board. Making anti-gay jokes and comments is becoming less socially acceptable. This is progress.
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Cory Monteith was probably the least flashy of core Glee cast in terms of good looks and song-and-dance talent. But he served as the anchor, allowing those around him to emote without floating into outer space. His relative normalcy gave the show more texture and sweetness than a simple music video. He was a point of stability.
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It was surprising, at least to me, to learn in his obituary that he “struggled with substance abuse,” and his death was attributed to a combination of alcohol and heroin. Plainly, he was a talented and hard-working actor. It simply is not possible to put out a weekly TV show without lots of hard work, and the supercharged Glee production numbers have got to be incredibly taxing on actors and crew alike. Monteith performed consistently at a high level, so it seems safe to say that he was not completely controlled by addiction. I don’t know more than that about his back story, and I won’t speculate. As I said, I’m sad such a talented young actor is gone.

I hope his death will encourage others to avoid addiction to dangerous drugs, but I also hope it will nudge forward the shift from a moralistic view of addiction. The “struggling with addiction” language in the news reports suggests a more medical view of the problem, instead of the traditional junkies-are-evil-zombies view. Glee reruns will give testimony for years to come that Monteith was so much more than that.
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There’s still a lot we don’t understand about our brains, but also so much we’re learning. I just finished a new book on this fascinating subject this week: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow, a physicist by training, covers some of the same territory as Kahneman and Gazzaniga, taking an evolutionary perspective on the brain and describing research into conscious versus unconscious processes and the social nature of the human brain. But his emphasis is different, and in some ways more practical.

For example, he spends little time lamenting how little of our lives are lived at a conscious, rational level, instead emphasizing how useful and efficient our unconscious processes are. Yet we normally overlook this part of life or deny the extent to which it is critical. We trust our reasoning processes without noting their common biases and errors. We rely on our memories without accounting for their imprecision and shifts. Even our most basic perceptions and emotions are prone to manipulation and error. But Mlodinow is not a pessimist. Like Kahneman, he is ultimately hopeful that understanding how prone we are to mistakes and delusions can help us improve our lives.
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The photos above are from my latest photo safari to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday morning. As usual, there were new things blooming, including some spectacular lilies. Also there were quite a few butterflies, including a gorgeous tiger swallowtail.
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