Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Non-Sleepy Exhaustion

 The Leftovers is a show to watch and wonder why and how one enjoys television. Alternately reviewed as the bleakest show on television, the most brutal, and even, television S&M, The Leftovers is now rightly earning recognition as the best show on television. The second season, it turns out, is even better than the first. Yes, The Leftovers is a show to be enjoyed. There is dark humor and plenty of puzzle: blackouts, ghosts, chain-smoking occultists dressed head-to-toe in white, murky histories, sane fathers, and even, in a strange throwaway moment this season, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers. Cousin Larry, of course, is one of the non-leftovers, that 2% of the world that one day went missing and never came back. Three years later the leftovers still struggle to make sense of their absence, to grieve and hope and wonder, and essentially, to plod along in the world, alternately terrified and liberated, depending on the person, the day of the week, the place, the efforts of said occultists to never let anyone ever forget that part of the world disappeared and has never come back. It is to the show’s great credit that the event--Rapture? scientific phenomenon? hoax?--is taken as fact, documented but never explained. The periodic flashbacks to the particular day of the disappearance are less contrived and more fluid in their structure and sequencing than Lost’s similar then-now schism (Damon Lindelof created both shows). We learned what happened without ever skewing toward some ah-ha! why. Here’s hoping that Lindelof, et al, continue to let that mystery be, which seems possible, even likely, since the current season’s credits newly run to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be,” a new recording of the old classic that previously closed down the series finale of Northern Exposure.

The persistent knock on The Leftovers is that it is exhausting and too dark. Indeed, the show is set in shades of bleakness. But that bleakness rewards its viewing with some mighty moments of catharsis and, if not quite hope, then allegorical uncertainty. Watching The Leftovers is to experience e.e. cumming's famous beach visit, that whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea. I like what Emily Nussbaum said about The Leftovers, that it is, in essence, a show about “grief and terror… [that] captures the disorientation of grief in a way that is provocative and rare for television.” I would add that the show also gives a realistic sense of how people live with loss, in that complicated range of choices that distinguish a middle ground of simultaneously living with and after. My favorite characters on The Leftovers struggle to do it well. I can’t think of the word for it. Grace seems high-handed, vaguely sacred. Withstanding, a little too self-congratulatory. Perhaps what I admire is the honesty of watching characters who live practically with grief, rolling the rock each time a little further up the hill. Certainly, they are not models of past-purging self-help, though in a clever twist, a whole cottage industry of counseling, insurance, life-like replicas, and pseudoscience thrives in the three-years-later world of the show.

Exhaustion is a key talking point among friends these days. With the kids stuck up on the play structure, or a babysitter safely installed at home, we wear our exhaustion with honor, alternately lamenting the bad exhaustion—kid is sick (again!), second and third dinners of (what else?) noodles, where can one possibly plant a succulent in the yard that it doesn’t get unearthed a few hours later by tiny hands—and glorying in the good exhaustion. How many cute photographs can one take of a Halloween pumpkin? Have we shown you the numbers chart? Did we tell you about the time our son brought over the Kit-Kat to share with Mom because he had given me his box of Dots to Dad and didn’t want her to feel left out? What empathy! Such sweet boys. Hard to believe he is the same boy who refuses to touch any part of the Chipotle brown rice that has already touched the cilantro, or caterwauls to the heavens the predictable and shocking arrival of bedtime. How else should we account for the burst of color in our monotonous and delicious mounds of salted, whole grain goodness? I suppose what strikes me in such moments is the boy's failsafe-seeming action of living explicitly in two modes. One moment, humane exemplar. The next, rice catastrophic. There seems little middle ground, which makes life intense and vibrant, and prone to enormous inflections of emotion. All healthy, normal, yes, of course. And so vivid!

I’ve been listening to Surf on a near constant loop the last couple of days. I know very little about Chance the Rapper, much less Donnie Trumpet or The Social Experiment, any of whose name I suspect could be a giant put-on; that, as soon as I publish this post I’ll get a few emails to the effect of, Oh, wow, you really fell for that one, eh? I only found my way to Chance (another fear: his fans call him something familiar, and writing “Chance” is the equivalent of that time in college I tried to impress a stranger by insisting, oh yes, I was absolutely familiar with the work of ANN-IE DI-FRAHNK-OH) because a few of my students recommended the album. Ask an honest question. I love especially “Sunday Candy,” a song about familial love, in particular a grandmother’s unwavering “president of my fan club” affections, with lovely shades of the ecstatic and spiritual alongside the grand-paternal:

“Let the Mystery Be” was the song that Amanda sang at Katie and I’s wedding. I’ve written elsewhere about going to see John Prine and Iris DeMent at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2002. I think of that song still as particularly “Katie,” one she loved, whose worldview suited hers, and whose elegant guitar accompaniment she instantly recognized. It made her smile. "Let the Mystery Be" is a song I find myself listening to around the time of her birthday, and again, in June. I don’t mean to put a particularly dramatic marker in the ground for the song, by the way. Much of my affection for it was diminished in those weeks and months after Katie died, if only that listening to it became at least as much a memory of grieving as it was of so many wonderful evenings. When I hear the song at the start of The Leftovers, I feel as though some cosmic force in the universe has twinned the wonderful and awful in an incredibly convenient and personal way: that I can hear the song, watch for all the disappeared faces and bodies in the credits, and recognize that strange mix of resignation and rawness that is sometimes thinking about one life while living in the next. I mentioned to a friend recently that it was Katie’s birthday, what would have been the start of her fortieth year (just to be clear, she would have turned 39 this past October 27), and my friend asked whether I thought about Katie still. Pretty much every day, I said. Was I supposed to say something else, I wondered? This is my life. That was, too. She's right at the heart of all of it.

I won’t admire particular moments from The Leftovers, if only to avoid spoilers for what turns out to be a very nuanced and well-developed plot. I do hope that you’ll watch it, and then tell everyone you know what great taste I have. Seriously, I really do thing its worth the investment of time and frustration, even bleakness. When I think of shows that I absolutely love—Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, Lost, The Office, Veronica Mars—I think of some unspoken and satisfied expectation that each satisfies, to make me think and feel some excess of what I think I know about the world, my life, the people I love, all of our regrets, hopes, failures, ambitions, etc. Like Lost, The Leftovers presents infinite variations on an impossible proposition. We live with or we live after. We live with and we live after. There is no moral or ethical aspect to the proposition, or even, consistency to when or where it is well-applied or ignored. But the choice shapes us. Whenever I watch The Leftovers, I’m left feeling engaged and alive, if pretty exhausted. I suppose the exhaustion is a fair indication of my own vitality. The life I return to from the week’s latest episode is recognizable and beautiful, precious and fleeting, and marked fairly by the absurdity that is loving anything, much less loving it well:

It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Very Tiny Universe Corner

We’ve been watching a lot of Star Wars recently, and talking about Star Wars, and posing all manner of Jedi investigations into hypothetical Star-Wars related scenarios. Was Ahsoka Tano alive when Darth Vader saved Luke? If Yoda always has a green light saber, and Luke builds a green light saber when he becomes a Jedi, why does Obi-Wan have a blue one? Will Leia become a Jedi ghost when she dies? I would say that Walt drives the interest, except that Sam is just as into it, and really, our plunge began with a set of knock-off Lego figures we ordered in a fit of desperation last fall, to bribe Walt during toilet training. The bribes worked. Our very tiny universe corner of characters expanded to include Kashyyyk troopers, alien oboists, subsets of subsets of Clone Troopers, and of course, their origin stories and back stories, complete with annotations and fold-out inset illustrations. The young readers section of the local library has roughly six thousand Star Wars-related titles, all of which arrive into our home mangled and drawn across, with pages taped together, that is, when the books are there at all. Most of the time, they are checked out, on reserve, out with the book mobile. And yet, we always check. However full our wheeled cart with other picture books and board books we stoop to the low shelf of Easy Reader Fiction (J E LEGO, J E STAR WARS), full of new hope.

I know more about Star Wars than I ever meant to. But I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of Star Wars. This all became painfully clear as I toggled through the magnificent and idiosyncratic Star Wars Minute podcast. Star Wars Minute is just that: a Star Wars movie watched a minute at a time, with following commentary of ten to forty minutes by two mega-fan hosts talking with guests. The guests include Daily Show writers, New Yorker cartoonists, foppish literary types, tenured scientists, comedians, even the guy who draws Dork Tower. Which is to say, a whole lot of people who know a lot about Star Wars, in the way that I think I know a lot about growing corn in a planter box, or professional wrestling, or building a pretty decent X-Wing fighter out of spare parts from the Lego bin under the sofa. A lot of knowledge for everyday life, but much less than what might begin to pass as professional knowledge in the larger vocational world (or barring that, the world of amateur podcasting). Much as I love Star Wars, I can't begin to imagine loving it that much.

A few weeks ago, at the rehearsal dinner for my friend Ben’s wedding, I sat next to a therapist. He was an uncle from Los Angeles. His practice was cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the model my therapist in Chicago uses, and so we got to talking pretty easily about his work. He had given a talk at a conference that week, in which he asked all of the assembled therapists to rank themselves by percentile. He knew from giving that talk previously that very few would say they were in the top 1%, 5%, even 10%. The therapists were too self-aware and polite to judge themselves so favorably. But he also knew that the majority would say they were somewhere around 70%: better than maybe two out of three other therapists in the room, which didn’t really work either. They couldn’t all be better than average. But how then to account for the inevitability of ever being merely an average therapist? Was it narcissism? Were they perhaps too good at reframing their own narratives to correct "errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, magnifying negatives, minimizing positives and catastrophizing”?

I really appreciate Adam Strassberg’s op-ed in the Palo Alto online newspaper, about parenting after the most recent suicides at Paly and Gunn. Beyond his practical tone, caution, and optimism, I was struck by what he said about regression to the mean, as it applies to parenting and expectation:

“the ‘more’ of a quality any parent possesses, the less likely their child will equal or exceed them in that quality. If you are very good at mathematics, your child is unlikely to be as good or better than you. If you are a great musician, maybe they will manage to be a mediocre musician. If you are a polyglot, they may stammer in English alone. And then there is that most damnable anxiety: If you attended an Ivy league college, your child is unlikely to attend an Ivy league college.”

It reminded me of the study in Thinking Fast and Slow, where Daniel Kahneman describes working with the Israeli Air Force. The data showed, time and again, that rewards for improved performance worked better than the punishment of mistakes. Nonsense, the flight instructors insisted. Disciplining cadets for bad execution led to better attempts the next time, while praise invariably led to complacency, and a mistake in the near term. However Kahneman explained that poor performance was typically followed by improvement, as excellent performance was followed by a drop-off, the idea that performance followed first regression to the mean, rather than the intensive influences of the teachers, was a pedagogical bridge too far. What role did the instructors play in such inevitabilities? 

Our goal, when we started swim lessons, was to get Walt water-safe by the start of summer. With three boys under the age of five, we wanted to arrive to the various swimming pools and cabin-home visits with at least one hearty swimmer. Walt is nearly there. He flits and floats with the best of them, kicking his legs mightily, lurching under the water and popping his head up to turn the goggles inside-out and look up from the step. I have a few hundred videos of the sequence on my phone. Walt loves his teacher. He knows his schedule inside and out, and he likes to ask, every day, whether it’s a swim lesson day. Really, Sam is our natural swimmer. From the first moment we lowered him into the water, he squealed and poked his way across the pool, albeit in our arms. But Sam is only two years old. Walt showed no interest until suddenly, one day, he did, and since swim lessons start at age three, he became our designated dog paddler.

There’s a fantastic moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo tries to jump the Millenium Falcon into light speed, only to find that the hyperdrive is broken. The deflector shields are failing. The star destroyer is only a good hit or two away from destroying it. It’s not fair, Han says, It’s not my fault!

This is maybe Han’s finest moment. He puts the Falcon into attack position, steering the Falcon into the enemy’s blind spot, where it seems to disappear. There is a nice moment of camp as the Falcon passes over the bridge of the enormous enemy ship. The captain and his first mate duck. I didn’t remember that detail until I heard it on the Star Wars Minute podcast, and the video shows it clearly. For all of Han’s bravado, he’s a pretty decent pilot. Despite the enormous ship and all of its technology, his implacable calm at having to visit Darth Vadar to deliver the bad news, Captain Needa loses the smaller ship. He is probably a good pilot, too, but he is most certainly toast.

I know that I harbor an unhelpful pessimism, bordering on cynicism, to think that fighter pilots will improve only with positive reinforcement. I trust that the data shows what it shows. I’d like to live in a world where constant encouragement forms the bedrock of real learning. But I know it isn’t true. Or, I suspect it isn’t, at least not without risking that worse form of discouragement, benign neglect, by which every encouragement becomes an excuse for just not thinking too hard. Of course, I'm biased. I do my best work when I am writing in the shadow of some impending failure, however imagined. I don’t really want my boys to grow up with that kind of doubt but I also worry that they might never push themselves very hard to do anything well without it. What I like about cognitive behavioral therapy is how there is a through-line to everything. Every behavior follows some precedent. Every context is interrelated. Like the Star Wars expanded universe encompassing every licensed and unlicensed manner of books, comic books, video games, toys, and other assorted media beyond the original movies, there is seemingly no way forward that does not also require simultaneously doubling back to check for consistency and logic while also altering the narrative to conform better to the present moment. Which is to say, the explaining itself becomes a kind of creative sense-making: entirely democratic, and also, full of irresolvable contradictions.

Wouldn’t it be great, a friend with no kids said the other day, if you could harness all that Star Wars-related learning and put it to use learning something important? I smiled and nodded, but of course, I didn’t really agree. Learning doesn’t work that way. At this age, what matters, I think, is that the boys develop a curiosity about anything and then pursue that curiosity on their own: imagine it, think about it, read about it, talk about it. What really matters is that the boys are well. We’re all pretty happy. I'd like to think we’ve slotted naturally into the elite stanine of parenting, as I’m sure my children are exceptional, our household a veritable hothouse of thriving children, my sensitive husbanding a perfect gift to my lovely wife. I know better. I’ve seen us tottering around the kitchen, putting dinner together while starting yet another episode of Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles. Surely, we could work harder. Chess lessons. Language classes. Tai Chi. Who knows really now how we are falling short. Every Friday, as Walt and I walk the half mile to swim lessons, I tell the stories of the first trilogy of movies, skipping the torture parts and minimizing the Ewoks, drawing out the Leia-Han kiss, which Walt loves. I can hang in for a few rounds of questions, though I’m at a loss to say whether Luke ever gets married, how Obi-Wan flies around the universe to advise other Jedi, when Han and Leia have their babies. Not even the Star Wars Minute hosts know those answers. That part of the story hasn’t been written yet, at least not officially.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Teaser #2 on Disney Video

Saturday, April 4, 2015

My TedX Talk

Last February, I was so pleased to participate in the TEDx conference at Palo Alto High School. Here is the talk that I gave there, "The Things We Don't Mean to Prepare For."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

There Is Only One of Everything

Last fall, I decided that all of the super hero theme songs were in my iTunes collection. They had been there all along. I was sick of toggling over to YouTube at red lights and in parking lots, only to burn through cellular data searching for the anthems of Spider-Man (vintage 60s), Green Lantern (cheap CGI reboot), Wonder Woman (poorly aging 70s show of my youth). And then, always: was the Bluetooth synched, were we in range, was the song so popular it had some ad click-through that terrified Baby and brother with some decibel-busting plywood pitch. Already, the pantheon was expanding faster than I could keep ahead of it. Our home celebrated bit player crossovers at Marvel and DC Comics, off-market Tinker Bells, the green fish on roller-skates with the British accent. And I didn’t really know. Did Ice Man even have a theme song? No, Daddy, one with words. It's not a theme song if it doesn't have words. So, now, Ice Man has a theme song. Performed by Kenny Loggins, of that oh-so-permanent-making flash of nostalgia by which the back catalogue slowly fills with Cyndi Lauper (FireStar!), Paul Simon live at the iTunes Festival (Falcon!), and Mr. Caddy Shack himself.

What are the Danger Zows? Walt asked yesterday on the way to preschool.

I turned down the Loggins. 

Well, I said, it's where you go when you fly in a really fast airplane.

He thought about this for a moment.

You mean Florida?

My parents live in Florida. I could see where this might end up.

Not Florida, exactly, I said. It's more like where army planes go.

He liked that answer.

To fight bad guys? 

Sure, I said, they used to. There aren't a lot of bad guys left who fly planes as fast as ours.

What about Lex Luthor? he asked, or maybe Wonder Woman. Her jet is invisible.

What about Elsa? I asked. Walt hates Elsa. He loves Elsa. I’m pretty sure Elsa keeps Walt awake late at night, wondering about her freezing power and pretty hair.

No, not Elsa! Walt said. Then, after a few seconds. Can we listen to “Let It Go”?

I've tried mixing in a few non-tights, semi-animated options. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" was a hit for a while, then the Mary Poppins soundtrack, "Everything is Awesome," "Nice To Be With You." A couple of weekends ago, Cait asked me to download "Midnight Train to Georgia." The one by the old blues guy, she said, and there was something like 300 versions on iTunes, mostly vintage and adult contemporary and karaoke versions, even a live cover by the Indigo Girls cover, but none by an old blues guy. Did she mean the Indigo Girls cover? Because I had my own, complicated, Elsa-like feelings about the Indigo Girls. So, we settled on the Gladys Knight version, and after a few listens, Walt started getting the "Woo Hoo!" in time with the chorus, and then he started asking questions.

Are they going to buy a minivan when they get to Georgia? 

Are they going to drive a car to the train station? 

Why is the mommy singing the song and the daddy isn't?

Are one of them your friends?

There’s a great Tom Hanks interview from a couple of years ago over at The Nerdist. At one point, talking about Busom Bodies, he joking refers to the 1980s as, “you know, that time in America when nothing good happened.” It’s funny how much has aged poorly since that seeming golden age of my synth-rock, anti-Communist, pro-aerosol youth. Not just Kenny Loggins, with the hoop, hair gel, and white T. I had forgotten until a friend reminded me recently that there was a stretch of years where Randy Macho Man Savage’s whole gimmick was to threaten to beat his wife.  I tried to put on He-Man for the boys, as an alternative to the snake-fighting Lego ninjas, and we didn’t make it much past the credits.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews have aged marvelously. Walt and Sammy don't deny it. We sit on the sofa and clap along to “Step in Time,” while the boys bounce on the cushions and kick furiously:

Of course, I’m always waiting for one of them to fall, and fall into the other, or splay and bonk head-first into the table, floor, wall, hutch. Who am I to deny them the manic pleasures of childhood? The guy who will take them to the ER, I guess, though so far (knock on wood), we're all intact.

Chuck Klosterman had a nice thought recently about “Boyhood,” that, in scene after scene, it plays against our movie-going expectation that dangerous situations will always end in violence. Year after year, Mason’s friends make skateboard ramps, careen in cars, handle guns, intoxicate themselves, and everyone is fine. Time passes. Before you know it, Mason is off to college. I have a year still before Walt is as old as Mason in the first shot of the movie, and since I watched it, I’ve had a kind of helpless wonder at how exceptionally hard it is to acknowledge happiness and trust it. There is a great poem from Margaret Atwood’s 1974 collection, You Are Happy, that I’ll paste below. I remember reading it first as an undergraduate and loving it as a love poem, though now it inflects all these great secondary readings about stability, pleasure, and of course, bittersweet loneliness. There is only one of everything, of course, and if you’re a super-hero, then you’re lucky to get a theme song at all.

There Is Only One of Everything (Margaret Atwood)

Not a tree but the tree
we saw, it will never exist, split by the wind and bending down
like that again. What will push out of the earth

later, making it summer, will not be
grass, leaves, repetition, there will
have to be other words. When my

eyes close language vanishes. The cat
with the divided face, half black half orange
nests in my scruffy fur coat, I drink tea,

fingers curved around the cup, impossible
to duplicate these flavours. The table
and freak plates glow softly, consuming themselves,

I look out at you and you occur
in this winter kitchen, random as trees or sentences,
entering me, fading like them, in time you will disappear

but the way you dance by yourself
on the tile floor to a worn song, flat and mournful,
so delighted, spoon waved in one hand, wisps of roughened hair

sticking up from your head, it's your surprised
body, pleasure I like. I can even say it,
though only once and it won't

last: I want this. I want