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.