Sunday, December 25, 2011

It was the Worst Christmas Special Ever

There is a lot of junk that comes along with Christmas.  Junk presents, junk songs, junk movies, junk such as starting the shortened NBA season on Christmas Day as if it were a sport like football or baseball that people actually have a deep emotional connection to.  These are the things we dredge through on the way to all the quality aspects of the holiday.  Personally I prefer Christmas Eve over Christmas Day anyway, as my family has a fantastic tradition of each person making diverse and unique appetizers for dinner.  But I digress.  I'm here to talk about the junk.  Specifically this Christmas special I saw on the usually reliable ABC Family last night.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (link to Wikipedia synopsis.  I'll send you to the YouTube at the end of this)

You would think perhaps from the title that this was a retelling of the popular but really not that good poem we all know (Fun Fact: actual title is "A Visit from St. Nicholas").  I'm fairly certain that this title was chosen simply to draw in unsuspecting viewers hoping for something familiar.  What you get instead is a heavy-handed morality tale that itself is actually quite immoral.

The story is about a fictional town named Junctionville, NY where mice and humans oddly coexist.  Someone from the town publishes an anonymous letter to Santa signed "All Of Us" proclaiming that we all know you're fake it's obvious there's no way you can possibly exist why did you lie to us.  Santa for some reason reads the Junctionville Register (oh, that's how he keeps up on who's been naughty: police blotters in local papers) and returns all letters from Junctionville unopened.  The town clockmaker tries to program their clock tower to play a song which will convince Santa he is still loved and cause him to come to town, but it breaks and EVERYTHING IS RUINED.  Until the little mouse who wrote the letter in the first place comes and fixes the clock and Santa returns.

I'm not here to complain about the shoddy quality of the animation, the kind that's clearly turned out quickly for a Christmas special, though let's take a peak:
What is with your eyes, girl?

I take offense to the messages here.  Christmas is one of those interesting cultural artifacts that everyone is trying to put their own definition on.  "Christmas to me means..."  And there are so many conflicting definitions.  What's interesting is that no one is vetting these interpretations, except me and my warrior blog.  Any time a song mentions Santa or winter or snow (but please not Jesus) it gets automatic radio play and becomes part of the cultural definition of the Christmas season.  Doubly so with TV shows, as we have that week before Christmas where networks only play Christmas specials and we all gather around to watch them.  But what comes of this is whenever someone has the power to to make a television special about Christmas, they have the power to redefine Christmas.

Generally this is a good thing.  Not many people are going to disagree with the message of "It's A Wonderful Life."  A good version of "The Christmas Carol" will teach you a lot about life.  I saw one the other day with Patrick Stewart that apparently was made by the SyFy channel but it was AWESOME.  It starts to get shakier between those two.  Elf, for example.  Excellent movie for its entertainment value and one of Will Ferrell's funniest roles.  But you leave the movie with the message that Christmas is about singing a lot and being cheerful for no specific reason.  Nice message, I guess, nothing wrong with positivity.  My honest belief is that they loved the character of Buddy immensely (who wouldn't?) but just had no way to end the movie so they did it that way.  Dumb message, but no harm done.  Whereas "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is openly bullshit.

There's a very clear agenda going on in the story.  The wording of little Albert the Mouse's proclamation to Santa sounds like an atheist manifesto where the word God has been crossed out and replaced it with Santa.  This mouse is highly intelligent and into science so he doesn't have time for Santa.  Boo hiss.  Eventually he comes around to the Santa party and the message is that a man of science can still be a man of faith, which isn't a bad message, but it's so over the head.  It's not a realization that you come to through the course of the story; it's evident in the first two minutes.  The innuendos in Katy Perry songs are more subtle that the message of this film.  But that's not what irks me; that's just bad scriptwriting.  Plus it brings us such awesome wacky lines as "You may know algebra, son, but this time the whole town's counting on this clock.

Here's the real problem.  The way that Albert is convinced to come around is by everyone in the story being a complete dick and guilting.  After it comes out that he wrote the letter his father takes him around to show him all the ways he ruined Christmas (his words, not mine).  When the clockmaker's clock doesn't work the whole town turns on him as if HE had ruined Christmas, and then denies him further access to try and fix his mistakes.  But worst of all is Santa.  What the hell Santa?  You see one letter claiming don't believe in you and you're so petty that you tell the whole town to piss off?  This is where you can't just have any hack screenwriter churning out these Christmas specials.  That's not how Santa would act, not at all.

I believe one of the many purposes of Santa is to begin to introduce children to the more difficult concepts of Christianity.  Christianity Lite.  A child's mind is not developed enough to understand ideas of sacrifice.  But they can understand someone who gives and asks for nothing in return.  They can't truly understand sin but they can understand that you do better if you're on the nice list.  Yes it's weird to do it in such a commercial way; I'm not saying there's much of anything right with modern Christmas traditions.  But whether or not you're a Christian I can't see anyone getting behind the idea that Santa gives out presents so that people will thank him and sing him songs.  Or that Santa will stop as soon as we say one mean thing about him.

You may think I'm putting too much thought into this.  I also realize that when put into words I sound a lot more fired up about this than I am; really I just found this to be a laughably bad Christmas special.  But these shows are supposed to warm our hearts and inspire us to be nicer to each other, and all this one did was make me think Santa's an asshole.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: Crumbtown by Joe Connelly

This ended up being a good palate cleanser after two really heavy books.  Something short and light-hearted and comical.  Another find on the library stacks, this one jumped at me but had its warning signs, too.  On the book jacket there were a ton of positive reviews for the author's first book, and none for this one.  Highly suspicious.  So let's jump right in and see what I thought about it.

The concept of the book at least in terms of plot is brilliant.  A serial criminal spends multiple stints in prison, the last of which is for a Robin Hood-style bank robbery where he throws cash to people on the street.  But he lives in a town so desolate and run-down that television studios have made it a habit of filming their crime shows there ("It looks more like New York than New York does, they say").  This leads to the prison creating a program where prisoners can receive early parole if they take on jobs on movie sets as crime consultants.  Our main character, Don, becomes a consultant for a show romanticizing his own crime spree.

I misjudged the direction of the book at first.  I thought it was going to be a story of redemption slowly played out through the making of the show.  As it turned out, it was actually a comedy of errors.  Within an hour Don goes back to his thieving ways and unleashes a string of chaotic events - including an attempt at robbing the scene of the reenactment of his bank robbery, which for some inexplicable reason is using real money. 

In a lot of ways this was a good thing.  The story plays out like a modern day Ulysses (which I haven't read and therefore will make no deeper comparisons).  It's fascinating to see how one day in one town can change so many lives irreparably.  At least it would be fascinating if the whole situation weren't so contrived and impossible.

The style of the book is very punk rock.  Things move quickly.  People make rash decisions.  The chapters fly by in a blur of noise and music.  More noise than music.  You'll find it almost a chore to keep track of which characters are which, not just because there are so many of them in such a rapid succession.  The real reason is because there is so little discerning them.  Everyone's a drunk or a junkie with a regrettable past, and it tends to be that the only thing that separates characters are their afflictions.  It's not until the final act (the story is divided into acts, like Shakespeare I guess?) that you start to get a feel for any of the individual character's souls.  There are some beautiful moments then, but for the most point the train has already come off the tracks and you're left wondering why Connelly didn't build them up when he still had the reader on his side.

This even extends to the main character, who should at least be a little more defined.  His first day out of prison, his first hour out of prison, he's immediately into trouble.  He's required by law to keep in touch with his parole officer by phone and always answer when she calls.  But when he can't figure out how to answer his cell phone (it's 2003 and he's been in prison for 15 years) he panics, runs out of his hotel room and then goes on a crime spree.  Now I understand the idea that criminal behavior can be a disease that one never recovers from; I'm sympathetic to that.  But after 260 pages I still have absolutely no idea what caused Don to make every possible mistake a person can make.

If I had to go back through and count how many times someone was bit by a car in this book, I don't think I could.  Same thing with people getting shot.  And people falling in love.  There is a woman in the book, Rita.  She is the muse of the man writing the TV show that sets everything into motion.  She is also the muse of every criminal in the story.  And just about everyone who meets here.  Yet we know absolutely nothing about her as a person except that she's beautiful, has a Russian accent and is constantly bored/annoyed.  Nothing to inspire the reader to love her.  I got the feeling that Connelly based her on someone he knows in life, someone he felt deeply in love with.  And in the way that a man falls for a woman suddenly and inexplicably, he thought by just writing about her it would make perfect sense to the reader the way it makes perfect sense to him.  That or he just writes very one-dimensional female characters.

Reading this far you would think I found nothing positive about this book, but I did.  There was a lot of good happening too.  There is one fascinating character who is such an obsessive method actor that when asked to play the role of a criminal he becomes a criminal.  There's a beautiful moment where a man is reading his list of demands to police and it quickly morphs from a humorous list of things the police could never provide (I want Ted Williams to play baseball again) to a heartbreaking list of things the police could never provide (I want my mother to understand me).  There is a man who even as he lies dying from being shot by his wife still tries everything in his power to make her happy.

These moments are powerful but are few and far between.  The rest of the book plays out too quickly with too little substance.  In a lot of ways it's paced like a TV show.  Being a book about a TV show, that could possibly be seen as an interesting commentary.  I just felt like my time would have been better spent actually watching TV.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time and the Passing of it

I've been considering the idea recently that I'm addicted to wasing time.  It's definitely an activity I would consider myself an expert at.  The amount of my free time I spend on activies which provide no real benefit to my life is outstanding.  Internet and TV mainly.  The usual suspects; Facebook, Twitter, Reddit.  It's become a bit of a problem, and something I'm seeking to understand so that I can work to correct it.

I know that addiction is not a word to be used lightly, and I don't intend to.  If this is indeed an addiction it is a low-level one without any of the consequences of worse afflictions.  But I do acknowledge that inproper use of time or procrastination can be considered self-destructive behaviors.  They decrease someone's confidence, self-worth and can have lasting effects on their success.  When I'm more than an hour into browsing the internet I'm usually not having any fun.  After two hours I'm actively frustrated with myself but often won't just walk away.  After three hours we get into the realm of guilt and self-loathing.  But something keeps drawing me back.

A lot of the anger I feel with myself when wasting time has to do with the way I view time.  Since my sophomore year of college - when I got serious about my studies - I've always mentally divided my activities into useful and useless time and am constantly categorizing everything I do.  This is a double-edged sword.  On one hand it does keep me focused or at least keeps my eyes on the prize.  On the other hand it causes me great amounts of stress and, as I mentioned earlier, guilt.  Especially when I feel I can't control how I use my time or get myself to stop doing things I want to do.

I'm also frustratingly arbitrary about the way I categorize my time.  Time spent reading a book is useful time.  Time spent on the internet is usually considered wasted time, even though I'm often doing just as much reading.  I really only use text-based websites; most of the time I'm reading news articles.  Time spent watching TV isn't always wasted.  If there's a show I watch every week, that's just part of my routine.  The problem is if it's 10 am and I just flip on Sportscenter for half an hour even though there are better things I could be doing and really I kind of hate Sportscenter.  Writing in the blog is considered useful, though I can never just consistently write; I always feel a need to keep flipping back to social networking sites between paragraphs.  Some activities seem obviously productive, like playing bass or exercising.  But if I think about them in terms of my long-term goals (finding a career and a place to live), do they get me any closer?  I'm not going to be a professional bassist or an athlete.  How are they more useful than reading the news?

This last question had frustrated me for a while.  I've come close to answering it recently, with a realization about the importance of enjoying life.  I feel better if I'm making music; it doesn't matter if it won't ever bring me financial success.  After a good workout I feel like a million bucks.  I shouldn't feel guilty about spending time with friends instead of searching for jobs, because it improves the quality of my life.  These things don't worry me anymore.  But wasting time on Reddit doesn't improve the quality of my life in anyway.  Yet I can't pull myself away.

The actual addiction I'm referring to here is a physiological need for dopamine.  Recent research has shown that the novelty we experience finding new things on time-wasting websites releases dopamine in our brain, which we become addicted to.  Unforuntaely the only article I have about it is from the always reliable, never biased Huffington Post, but here ya go:

Classifying it as an addiction actually makes it easier for me, especially since it really is a low-level addiction.  But if I can acknowledge that it makes it easier to approach it as a physiological problem that can be addressed in steps instead of a character weakness.  I am not a person incapable of using time productively.  I just have a problem that needs to be fixed.

I'm never going to reach a point where I wake up at 6 am and then write, read run and play bass nonstop until I go to bed at midnight and start all over the next day.  But I will take steps to reduce my wasted time and resist the urge for a constant dopamine rush.  And if I can train myself to see my time-wasting activities as a reward at the end of a productive day instead of my go-to activity, I know I'll enjoy life much better.  And like I said earlier, any time spent enjoying life is time well spent.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

I am not a reader of horror.  In fact, I've never read a horror story before this (except Goosebumps and works of a similar vein as a kid).  It's sort of strange that I ended up reading this book.  But I was at the library a few weeks back, completely directionless as to what I should read next.  So I started walking through the stacks and in the K section The Shining caught my eye.

I had never read anything by King before, besides a nonfiction essay in an English class once.  But that essay was fantastic.  After years of failed lectures from teahers it was the only thing that ever convinced me that passive voice is something to be avoided.  But I had never felt a need to pick up any of his novels.  I've always had a negative stereotype of both the horror and mystery genres.  I guess I associate them with dime-a-dozen pulp novels.  I know it's a totally unfair characterization so I figured I'd take a chance to challenge it by picking up something by the king of horror.  I was also curious about if a horror novel could actually scare me.  I'm a very visual person so I imagined it would be hard to get me frightened over something I can't see.  But the movie of The Shining is the most terrifying thing I've ever seen, so I figured it stood a chance.

I was amazed right away, though I know I shouldn't have been, by the quality of the writing.  Horror is by no means a lesser genre.  In terms of literature there is a lot of good being done here.  The descriptions and characterizations are very clear and astute.  For the most part, at least in the beginning, it feels like very real people with real concerns.  The first half of the story, the better half of the story,  is actually a lot more about a struggling family and a father's battle with alcoholism than any paranormal activity.  It's about a man who has made mistakes and is trying once more to piece his family together.  He gets a job as the winter caretaker of a hotel up in the mountains because it's the only job he can get after the mistakes he's made but also because it will allow him and his wife and kid more time together .

Things start to go wrong as the evil forces at the hotel begin to affect him negatively, and as the snow comes and the family is fully isolated it all goes from bad to worse.  The horror starts.  I was actually dissapointed with how this transformation comes about.  King does a good job of taking his time building into the paranormal stuff, but in the beginning there is a really good tension where we don't yet know how much of this is real.  Are there really ghosts at the hotel or are isolation and personal demons causing hallucinations?  I was excited about this question and then dissapointed to see how early King answered it for us.  I would have preferred more mystery and more time in limbo.

I had a tendency while reading to compare the book to the movie.  I know this a mistake, but I'm a novice reviewer and I'm doing this as a hobby so who cares?  It's inevitable.  It actually made the read more fun.  There were things I preferred about King's version, such as the aforementioned depth of character.  But Kubrick's version is signifcantly more frightening, and not just because you can actually see what's happening.  I didn't feel like this book was much of a horror story at all; it's more of a psychological game.  All of the frightening moments are based on the feeling you get leaving a basement that you don't feel comfortable in.  You know something is behind you but you're not going to look back, you're just going to walk a little faster.  Walk, don't run, because if you let it know you're aware of it it will pounce.  You rush out of there and then turn to find it was never there but you KNOW it had to be.  This happens multiple times in the story, and even though it's relatable it seems like a weak way to try and scare the reader.

I am fascinated by isolation.  I was very drawn to the idea of the hotel as a place far away from the world.  This isolation is what draws Jack and his family in - a reprieve from his mistakes and from anxiety and alcohol and all the pressures of everyday life.  But it eventually becomes what does them in.  Isolation is no longer an advantage when you realize the hotel is not a place, it is a character, and its intentions are not pure.

Overall I enjoyed the book, I would recommend it, but there is a major weakness in the fact that King does not (or at least did not at the time) know how to write children.  He sets up Danny as being incredily intelligent for his age, and the parents take pride in never talking down to him, but his thought process is way above that of a child his age.  And then King tries to make him more childlike by cutely misspelling or misunderstanding words (i.e. Presidential Sweet) and it just comes off as a failed attempt.  I'll give you an excerpt as an example.  The first three paragraphs are actually third-person narration, but they're describing Danny's wandering thoughts, and then the quote at the end is him interjecting:

     But it wasn't really empty. Because here in the Overlook things just went on and on.  Here in the Overlook all times were one.  There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party favors in each other's faces.  It was a not-yet-light morning in June some twenty years later and the organization hitters endlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly.  In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.
     In the Overlook all things had a sort of life.  It was as if the whole place had been wound up with a silver key.  The clock was running.  The clock was running.
    He was that key, Danny thought sadly.  Tony had warned him and he just let things go on.
    "I'm just five!"

Indeed he is just five.  So how is he coming up with this very complex, very adult, very metaphorical thought process?  I think this example shows a lot of the inconsistency in this early writing of King.  There are unbalances like this throughout a book.  A lot of quality ideas executed poorly.  It's not surprising to me that Stanley Kubrick took the shell of this story and led it in a more complete direction, even rejecting a script written by King.  I'm sure King felt writing this book the way I feel with these attempts at reviews; I know exactly what I want to say but not quite how to organize and present it.  This book serves as an interesting stepping stone on the path to him eventually becoming a great writer.  Or at least someone people say is a great writer.  I wouldn't know.  I've only ever read one horror story.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Music and Musicians

I had the pleasure of seeing my favorite band live last night.  Here's the obligatory plug for their website, which is quite nice: .  It has their new EP streaming for free, and a video of them performing by a hotel pool in Canada.

I saw them at a small club in Milwaukee with a few other local bands, put together by this group that promotes events in Milwaukee (, plugs aplenty today).  They tend to always be at small clubs.  They seem to be allergic to success, which is confusing because their music is excellent.  But it's good for me because I never have to worry about their shows being too big to get in.

Don't worry.  This is not one of those stories, about how the bands I like are more underground than the bands you like and I always see them in small clubs and I'm so cool.  This is a story about how we react to encountering the people who write the music we love.  Because when you see them in a small club you come face to face with these people.  Standing next to them in the crowd, or handing them some equipment or you both end up watching the same basketball game on the bar TV.

I've never bought into the mythology of the Rock God, or the hero worship doled on anyone who plays guitar.  I think this is because I'm a musician and spend time around musicians, so I know what we're like.  A lot of us are selfish and narcisstic and just plain strange people.  There's something to be said about someone who charges others money to hear them perform, and I can say that because it's something I've done.  Not all musicians are bad, I wouldn't even say the majority of musicians are bad, but the assumption that someone is worthy of endless praise because that person makes good music is absolutely false.

I also wonder about the way in which musical skill is celebrated.  Music is hard.  Really hard.  It takes years and years of practice and dedication.  But so do a lot of things.  There are so many skills that take just as much hard work, but don't receive the same adoration.  You'll never hear someone screaming with joy at the sight of a doctor or journalist or firefighter (maybe the last one, if you are on fire and overjoyed to know that you will no longer be on fire).  But this strange phenomenon occurs with music.  You know what I'm talking about.  The crowd going nuts because the guy on stage says "It's great to be here in (name of your city)!"  This is especially strange these days, now that so many folk bands are popular.  It's a little awkward to hear people losing their minds screaming over a man playing banjo, no matter how good he is.

I think a big factor in this is the emotional connection we feel to music.  There's no denying that it's stronger than the connection we feel to other art forms, and to most things in life.  To so many people, especially young people, music is everything.  So I can understand that a lot of this passion you see at concerts comes from the deep emotional connection we share with the music.  But it's weird to me as a musician who knows musicians.  Knowing that guy on stage is not some hero.  He's just as insecure and confused as every single one of us; he just happens to be the one singing about it right now.

So where does that leave me at my show last night?  Too cynical maybe?  I was super excited to see the band, I love love love their music.  And their live shows are hugely entertaining.  I just don't get into the hooting and hollering about every thing they say or every song they play.  I enjoyed the music and clapped emphatically after each song and felt a deep emotional connection to the songs.  I just didn't feel a need to worship the singers.

It wasn't until I was riding home, though, that it dawned on me.  Yes these guys are just normal people like everyone else, and playing guitar is not a heroic feat.  But all night I had been standing a few feet from the folks who created the music that for a few years has defined a part of me.  I feel a deep connection to these songs, I feel they relate to my experience, but they come directly from the experiences of these gentlemen.  The words and sounds sprang forth from their minds before they could ever reach my eyes and impact who I am.

I guess it's a lot cooler than I had led myself to believe.  Maybe we do give too much praise to songwriters, but I realized I myself probably have not been giving enough.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Hartsad

I never know how to choose books to read.  I don't read literary publications or really know where to get recommendations from.  I'm also an obsessive spendthrift, so I only get books from the library or borrowed from friends.  That's where I found this book, in the New Fiction section at the front of the library.  I was drawn in by the beautiful cover (classic mistake) and the fascinating title.

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?  What a perfect title.  It gives you just enough to pique your interest while revealing nothing about the story.  Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon.  Famous runner-up.  What happened to you in all the confusion?  What happens to someone who does something amazing, world-changing, and is simply seen as the second person to do it?

So I grabbed the book and was even more excited as I read the jacket.  Turns out it was written by a highly acclaimed Norwegian author who had finally been translated into English.  Yep, this was the book to read.

So the book is not really about space travel at all.  It's about a man about to turn 30, Mattias who lives a simple life in a coastal city in Norway.  He enjoys working hard and being a cog in the machine (as he puts it).  All he wants to do is live a good life and go unnoticed, which is why he idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the little celebrated second man who was actually a better pilot and scientist than Neil Armstrong.  Mattias has two best friends, a girlfriend and a job in a garden and could never want anything more.  But everything falls apart and he finds himself in a mental health facility in the Faroe Islands.

I won't give you any more of the plot because I hate spoilers but also because it's not important.  The quality of this book comes in its structure and flow.  It's very postmodern in the way events are presented.  Pages and pages are devoted to exact details of everyday life, routines, late-night conversations and long drives.  Then life-changing events occur - getting fired, deaths of characters - that receive no more than a paragraph.  I don't think this is done just to be subversive.  This is a book about mental health, and the slow battle for recovery.  It puts us in the head of Mattias and not just because it's written in the first person.  But Mattias is depressed and it's written like the narrator is depressed.  Days drift on and on, the whole book seems to be described through a haze.  Harstad employs a few tricks to do this.  The whole book is divided into short sections, each no longer than two pages.  Some describe the smallest details and give them the heaviest weight.  Other times Mattias will be talking about something mundane and then slip in an observation profound sadness and wisdom.  It's always raining or sunless.  All of this works together to make the book move in a calming, directionless phase with sudden manic bursts of plot.

This style is not unique to Harstad, it's quite prevalent in literature these days, but this is one of the few books I've read where I felt it served the plot and strengthened the characters instead of just looking and sounding cool.  It also made it personally good to read because I could pick it up for a few minutes at a time, read a section, and then go on to something else.  Yes this makes me a lazy reader.  I'm sorry.

There are a lot of pop culture references in this book.  Deep ones and obscure ones.  I noticed this when I read a passage, recognized it and had to spend about ten minutes reflecting on where I knew from.  It was the note that Kurtz sends home 2/3rds of the way through Apocalypse Now, something I would have never caught if it hadn't watched the movie a week before.  This took me aback.  I understand the purpose of all the references, to plant Mattias firmly in my fragmented, connected generation, but references this specific it just made me wonder what else was missing.

Mattias is still lovable.  His role as a happy also-ran, a devotee of Buzz Aldrin, is something I think we all can relate to.  I'm a baseball fan, a Brewers fan, and my favorite player is Craig Counsell, someone who you would never confuse for a superstar.  But I can appreciate the virtue of just being a reliable good person who happily does what is asked of him and doesn't ask for anything more.  When Mattias has this idea of himself and of life shaken so fundamentally, you feel his pain.  You want him to get better.

Ultimately this is a story about healing.  About the peaceful monotony of slowly getting better, day to day.  Most of us don't have an experience as dramatic as losing everything you love and waking up bloodied in the rain in the middle of a street on the Faroe Islands.  But we all know how it feels to have your life shaken and the daunting journey of just living through it, just making it to the next day.  Harstad describes this more realistically than any other book I've experienced.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why "The Walking Dead" is Amazing

The Walking Dead on AMC is one of the few shows that I make it a point to catch every week, and the only non-comedy non-sports show that I watch.  I first gave it a try because of my passionate love for zombies but stuck around because it’s so well made.  There are plenty of flaws to it.  The dialogue is bad and the acting is not spectacular, though I feel a lot of these actors would do well with better scripting.  It’s not scary, if that’s what you’re looking for.  In fact, there has been more than one occasion when in an hour long episode we only see zombies for less than two minutes.  But the plotting, structure and cohesion throughout are so solid that it is still a must watch.  The first few minutes of this last week’s episode were so subtly brilliant that I just sat dumbstruck and said to the empty room I was in “This show is brilliant!”
I’d like to break down those first few minutes as an example of the quality of the writing.  Obviously, there’s going to be spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet.  Actually I’m going to write as if my audience has seen the episode, so there really is no point to reading this if you’re not caught up on the show.  Sorry.
So, dear reader and loyal Walking Dead viewer.  As I’m sure you know every episode starts out with a cold open that nine times out of ten is a flashback to the time when Rick is in a coma.  It always gives us some new bit of back-story, which is fascinating, but the good ones will also remind us of facts we need to recall from earlier episodes and give us a deeper view of the character’s motivations.
This week’s opening was pretty straightforward.  The group (not yet fully formed) is in a traffic jam on the highway.  Lori Grimes is looking for food for her son Carl.  Carol offers to give him some of their food, but her abusive husband chastises her for her charity, making her go back and lie to Lori, saying she had been mistaken about the amount of food.  Shane and Lori go ahead to investigate what the hold up is, until they hear explosions in the distance.  They run through the woods to see the military firebombing Atlanta.  Lori cries as Shane comforts her.  Roll opening credits.
On the surface this scene works because it’s dramatic and exciting.  We get a glimpse of the terror present in the early days of the outbreak.  We get some of the death and destruction horror fans love.  But what’s really going on here is the audience is being quietly reminded of events from earlier episodes.  Instead of cramming it all into the “Previously on the Walking Dead…” portion (which the show does have), we get a segment that reminds us while still advancing the plot.
In the present-day portion of the story Carol’s husband has been dead since season one, so it’s easy to forget that he existed.  But in the world of the Walking Dead only a few weeks have passed.  Carol is not in mourning, she hated her husband, but the impact that his control had on her personality was huge and comes up in this week’s episode when Carol is afraid to speak for herself at all.  His appearance in the opening brings this all back to us without wasting any time.
The biggest thing going on in the plot right now is Lori’s pregnancy.  We know it’s Shane’s baby, Lori knows it’s Shane’s baby, and Rick has no idea she’s even pregnant.  The tendency in these situations is to blame the woman.  “What a slut, moving on like that.”  I’ve seen various immature postings on the internet implying just as much.  But this quick opening reminds us of a few facts:
1)      Lori believes Rick is dead
2)      Shane manipulates Lori into believing Rick is dead
3)      Shane wants to act like Rick and be Rick, which is why he wants to get with Lori and treat Carl as a son
We already know these things but needed reminding.  The most aspect of this opener is that it sheds new light on Lori’s response to Rick’s “death.”
            As viewers we are always in a world where Rick is alive.  We are with him through his coma and when he awakes.  By the time he finds Lori in the second episode she has lived for weeks without him.  We see Lori staying tough and focusing on keeping her son alive.  We see her relationship with Shane and think “oo, drama.”  But at this point we’ve skipped right past her grief.  We don’t see her when Shane tells her Rick is dead.  We don’t see the days and weeks afterward as the world falls apart around her at the same time that the person who means the most to her is taken from her.
            What we do see is her standing on a hillside looking down as Atlanta burns.  This is all we need to see to understand the full collapse of her life.  Without any dialogue, any explanation, it finally makes sense.  She is not some bimbo who runs to the next man as soon as her husband dies.  She is a woman who is living the most absolute of horrors, and when her husband’s best friend seeks to take advantage of the situation, she does what any person would do.  She seeks human comfort at what is clearly the end of the world.  We spend most of the show feeling bad for the accidentally cuckolded Rick, and we should; his situation sucks.  But Lori is the true victim here.  The creators respect the viewer enough to never state this; they just show it and trust that we will understand and have our sympathies in the right place.
            All this from two minutes of people running around in a panic.  This is why the Walking Dead is one of the best shows on TV this year.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbough

A few weeks ago I was preparing for a trip to Minneapolis which would involve a 6 hour bus ride each way.  I love long bus rides because it's a chance to sit and read uninterrupted , but recently my finger has been far from the pulse of the literary world and I had no idea what to take with me.  I asked a friend if she had any books to recommend, and she let me borrow "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach.  It appealed to me for three reasons:
1) Harbach has been compared to Michael Chabon, my favorite author
2) Harbach's from Wisconsin and the story is set there
3) It's a book about baseball.
Enough to convince me.  So I read it over the course of a few days and loved it and I'm hear to tell you why.  All of this occured before I had a blog, before I made the decision to start composing essays about my opinions of books I read.  I didn't take any notes while reading, didn't think about what I would say, and it's been almost two weeks since I finished it.  So bear that in mind.

As I mentioned, the book is about baseball, but it's not actually about fielding, as the name would imply.  It is a fictional account of a college baseball team at the imaginary Westish College in imaginary Westish, WI.  I can hear you groaning as you read this, but don't worry.  This book's not about the rise and fall of a team, following their tribulations through a championship season that hinges on a single climactic game.  It's about five people who are connected through the team, and it focuses on the interweavings of their lives.

The book has no clear protagonist, but it doesn't make a large statement of that fact or treat it like a gimmick.  You start following one character, thinking it will be his tale, until another is introduced and suddenly he is the focused.  The story bounces around seamlessly from person to person until you reach the end and realize you wouldn't be able to name one person as the main character.  This is a structure that's been around for a long time, Harbach didn't invent it, but his use of it is masterly.  The story is written in third person, but the narrator seems to change depending on who is the center of attention.  Maybe not change so much as change its focus.  Details that are important to the narrator when talking about the chancellor's daughter - such as how a dormroom is decorated and what people - aren't as important as during the chancellor's adventures - when suddenly status and intelligence are what defines a person.  It's a very subtle distinction that takes you much deeper into the character's lives much quicker.

I realize I jumped right ahead to describing the conceptual and structural strengths of the story without giving a proper plot synopsis.  That was because the plot is unimportant.  There is no defined conflict that needs to be resolved by the end.  This is one of those postmodern novels that focuses on interactions between characters and the minuate of life as years go by.  If you like that sort of book, you will like this, if not, you won't.  And you don't have to be a fan of baseball to dig it, though basic knowledge is a prerequisite.

I'm not the most keen literary mind, so a lot of my response to a book is on the emotional level.  Chances are if I can relate to the plight of the characters I'll be drawn in.  This book spoke to me because a lot of the themes resonated.  One major focus of the book is how you react when you and your friends work hard towards a common goal, and then they become successful when you don't.  In the book it takes the form of teammates having to congratulate each other for their continued success while they themselves fail.  As a recent college graduate who hasn't found the success he wished or the success his friends has, this spoke to me.  It was good to read about a character living with the same pains and know that at least I'm not making the rash decisions he is.  This book spoke to me because I am going through exactly what one character did, but I don't think that means it is exclusively a book that works for me.  The characters go through such an array of experiences and problems that I feel someone at any point in life will find something in here.

Perhaps that's the strength of "The Art of Fielding."  Harbach speaks about life so accurately and creates situations so human that we all see ourselves in them.  I do not recommend this book for anyone seeking escapist literature.  You will be confronted with the problems that happen in every day life, and it doesn't all wind up as neat and happy as we would like in our books, but the ride is beautiful and hopefully you can learn from it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reflections from a Caregiver, part 2: Dependence

The first part of this essay was about the qualities and necessities of independence.  Thank you to everyone who read it in all its obviousness; of course independence is a positive thing.  What fascinates me far more is the idea of dependence and how it can be beneficial.

We all buck at the idea of dependence, and for a lot of good reasons.  It’s often seen as a sign of weakness; we all want to be able to survive on our own and we think there’s something wrong with us when we can’t.  It hurts our pride to think that we need others, but we all do.  Almost everything you do in life requires dependence on others, whether it be interacting with your loved ones or trusting that when you buy a sandwich it isn’t brimming with salmonella.  When you embrace this you can see a beautiful balance in the world.  You are an integral part of a giant web of interdependence, and that’s pretty neat.

The type of dependence I’m discussing today isn’t as grand, as glamorous.  What do you do if you can’t walk?  If you’re an adult but you can’t make your own personal or financial decisions?  If you can’t cook for yourself?  If you can’t go to the bathroom without assistance?  No one in their right mind is going to tell you any of those are a good position to be in; they all suck.  But their’s a beauty to them.

Dependence makes trust a necessity.  If a person is taking care of your most intimate needs, you need to be able to trust that they have your best interests in mind.  Unfortunately for a lot of people whose care is provided by agencies they don’t have an opportunity to choose who cares for them.  But what happens often in these cases is that you learn that most people are generally alright.  If you give them the benefit of the doubt they will rise to the occasion.  This is a truth that many of us who aren’t in a position of dependence are never confronted with.

That being said, there will always be people who take advantage of the weak.  We see this is in the news every day.  The fact is the world can be cruel.  No reasonable person would expect the same forces that put them in a wheelchair – be they God or fate or random luck – are going to protect them from further pain.  So what can be done to protect people strong enough to trust others?  Those who are good enough to be trusted must ensure the others are protected.

This brings me to the second positive quality of dependence – it fosters generosity.  There are a lot of people in the world who seek out opportunities to help those who can’t always help themselves.  I consider myself one of these people.  I’ve worked in group homes for four years and if I weren’t doing that I would want to do something else where I’m helping others, such as teaching or working for a charity.  And being around people in need only makes this desire stronger; the more you help others the more you want to help.  I met a woman today who for decades was a high ranking member in a corporation.  She is at retirement age and has enough money that she never needs to work another day in her life.  But she had a son with a cognitive disability who passed away a few years ago, and now she works in a group home making the same low wages that I do to make sure others receive the great care that her son did.

A companion of generosity is gratitude.  The people I work with are completely grateful for whatever I provide.  For the most part.  Interestingly enough I’ve noticed a divide in reactions among male and female clients I work with.  Some of the guys expect every little thing done immediately and will never thank you unless prompted.  The ladies I work with, however, will thank me constantly, to the point of ridiculousness.  If I make them dinner they thank me.  If I bring them a spoon to eat the dinner with they will thank me for that.  If I ask them if the food is okay they will thank me for asking.  It was actually these ladies and their gratitude that led me to think about independence vs. dependence in the first place.  I find the gender difference telling and fascinating, though I know my sample size is too small to indicate any real patterns.

In the past week or so I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on these topics and it has changed my outlook on things. 
Makes me more grateful for what I have, gives me more desire to thank those that I am dependant on (like it or not).  Hopefully it got you to take some time and appreciate what you can do in life and also the things others do for you that we sometimes forget to appreciate.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reflections from a Caregiver, part 1: Independence

 I work at a few group homes for adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. It's extremely satisfying work and makes me appreciate every day my own personal health. The past few days I've spent an unusually large amount of time at work and it got me thinking; I concocted this idea of a two-part series of essays on dependence and independence, and how each is a beautiful thing in its own way. Thank you in advance for allowing me to muse.

I'll start with independence, because that's the easy one. I know it's not going to take a lot of work on my part to convince you that independence is a beautiful thing. For the purpose of this writing I don't mean any sort of political or financial independence but simply the ability to function without the assistance of others. Not requiring or relying on others (as for care or livelihood), as Merriam-Webster would tell you. The ability to clean and cook for yourself, provide your own care, go where you wish to go without someone else taking you there. Things we are accustomed to and at times take for granted.

The stated mission of my agency is to “help people improve the quality of their lives.” I love this wording. We do not improve the quality of people's lives for them. We work to give them the ability to improve their own lives. The distinction here is so important. My goal in work is to allow my clients to be as independent as possible, and then complete for them the tasks they can't otherwise. This sounds lazy but in a lot of ways it's more difficult than just doing something for someone. Anyone who has helped a child learn how to read knows the patience involved in watching someone struggle at something which comes easily to you without interfering. But it is what needs to be done, because independence is such a beautiful thing.

Independence and freedom are commonly linked words. Another good choice would be “opportunity.” The less you need someone to care for you, the more you can do. That's obvious. It also gives you control of your life. In college I studied music education, and in my education classes we learned about Choice Theory. This idea (created by William Glasser) stated that there are five human needs, and all of our actions are a result of trying to achieve them. These needs are:
  1. Survival
  2. Love/belonging
  3. Power/significance
  4. Freedom
  5. Fun/enjoyment
Independence in the way that I'm discussing it falls into both categories 3 and 4. It is power in the sense that if you can do something for yourself, no one can hold you back from doing that. It is freedom in that you are not limited in your ability to live your life.

I work for a man who can't cook himself dinner, can't drive, can't handle his own finances, and can't articulate complex ideas. But he can shower himself, get dressed and fold his own laundry. I work for another man who can't move any part of his body except his head and a little bit of his arms. He can't speak at all. But with guidance and patience he can let you know what he needs. I work for a woman who has all sorts of difficulties and setbacks in life. But she's her own guardian, and she'll let you know that, and don't even try to give her advice because she will make her own decisions thank you very much.
Even the smallest levels of independence are empowering. They build our confidence and our sense of self. That is the beauty of independence.