Friday, February 5, 2016

Old Sins Cast Long Shadows

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl is a marvelous and tragic book. It is also an exceptional one, of form—Alexievich’s curates the book, as she does most of her work, in what she calls a “genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents”—and by orientation. Voices From Chernobyl is a continuing study of consolation and sequence at and beyond the human scale, unpredictable in its humanity but also (especially for those in power) its immediate consequence. As Sergei Gurin notes in his testimony:

People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another. There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about. About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative. In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books. Sooner the other way around. People aren’t heroes.

In the book, there are heroes, the many heroic individual who race to the scene (words of national admiration—heroes, victory, sacrifice—are often shorthand for impending illness and early death), but also, those many who speak now of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, recount the devastating effects of its initial denial by the Soviet government, name the politicos who denied and exploited it, and give witness to the continuing, decades-long poisoning that follows it in the region, especially Belarus. Always, the human perspective comes forward. The interest to deny and “move on,” whether political or national or personal, is denied at every turn. Memory is lived with, rather than past. In this way, Voices From Chernobyl is a moral and democratic work, willing a perspective—arbitrary, individual, vulnerable to memory and time and bias, felt and continuous—that un-writes, with each recounting, the oppressiveness of a single (national, official, historical) narrative. We are, as Alexievich notes in her postscript, at a debt to these people who have prematurely fixed their relationship with death and time. "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future."

I have not so actively read a book in years. I was showing Cait my copy this evening, and the progression of my notations is positively manic, beginning with a periodic single line that becomes underlining passages, then double-underlining and writing in the margins, making all kinds of symbols to distinguish one passage within another, one form of admiration against the next, a shorthand I’m still not sure I really understand. Surely, this was part of Alexievich’s design, the accumulation of testimonials, their impact and effect. Still, I feel at a loss to describe exactly how I enjoyed this book. I did enjoy reading it. I felt very alive while reading it. The book is full of feeling, and with each account made, an overwhelming sense of the ephemeral is twinned with some magnificent intrusion of the natural world. The forests turn, in the days after the accident, yellow, then orange. An abundance of cows and chickens are seized and eaten by bandits returning to the city. Rusting, radioactive hulks are unearthed from mass graves and deep pits, scavenged and sold across the region. Alexievich has said that she is interested in

what happens to the human being, what happens to it in our time. How does man behave and react. How much of the biological man is in him, how much of the man of his time, how much man of the man.

Nowhere in Voices From Chernobyl is suffering ornamented. Suffering is never secondary to anything except, perhaps, feeling. But the natural world, modified and, with some 48,000-odd years of inhabitation to follow and certain to be neglected in large swaths, persists in spite of a human sense of consequence, much less the individual.

There is a Danish proverb, Old sins cast long shadows. I came across it while watching an episode of River on Netflix. River is the sort of excellent BBC show that I am less and less interested to watch. Beautifully shot, very well written and acted, full of unpredictable twists that elegantly resolve across scenes, episodes, and seasons, River suggests a kind of familiarity to the crime drama that feels strangely lifeless. Stellan Skaarsgard is terrific in the lead, as a police detective who lives between the worlds of the living and the dead. His partner—his best friend and confidante—is recently murdered. He works to piece his life together and solve her murder. He is a brilliant mess. At the end of the second episode, I thought, Okay, I sort of know where this is going, right? Big twist. Revelation. Someone is either not dead or really dead. The external will gradually become the internal, or vice versa. Life will go on but it really won’t. Was I so wrong? I have no idea. I can’t emphasize how essentially good the show was, and how disinterested I was in its excellence. I don’t think it's a disinterest in the show, so much as a dread at whatever horrible final twist—the excellent Broadchurch, the pretty-good-until-the-end London Spy, the thoroughly okay The Fall—will finally release our hero from his suffering. What is there to live with, finally, that will not inevitably come next?

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen gave out a free download of his recent Chicago live show. It was a gesture to his New York fans. Winter Storm Jonas had postponed the Madison Square Garden show of his tour in support of the 30th anniversary of The River and the wonderful bells-and-whistles box set reissue, The Ties That Bind. So, The Boss offered all of his fans a fantastic consolation prize. It’s a terrific live show and recording, and of course, amazing that The E Street Band is more or less at it still, and so well, all these years later. I liked it so well that I downloaded much of The River that I hadn’t really listened in a while, which led me to this terrific 1980 (Tempe, Arizona) live version of “Out in the Street”:

Bruce is skinny. Little Steven is really skinny! Clarence Clemons is dapper, in full force. The tone on his tenor is unbelievable. The song is up-tempo compared with the Chicago version. The vocals have a bigger range. The arrangement is so tight: fast. It’s hard to believe that this is the same song as the Chicago concert. It sounds like the original that it is. The new version sounds almost like a cover. Both sound wonderful. YouTube is well populated with great Springsteen tunes from across the years but those prime middle years feel distinctly uncurated and live, (sorry to use this word) visceral. Near the end of his 1980 review in Rolling Stone rock journalist Paul Nelson says this about The River:

While most of The River runs wide and deep, there are a few problems. Ever since he started conceptualizing and thinking in terms of trilogies, Springsteen has lost some of his naturalness and seemed more than a bit self-conscious about being an artist. At times, you think he's closed off his casualness altogether, that he can't bear the idea of playing around with a phrase when he could be underlining it instead. Will we never hear the spring and summer of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" again? Must even the brightest days now be touched by autumnal tones and winter light? Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?

''Suffering and I,'' Mr. Updike concludes, ''have had a basically glancing, flirtatious acquaintanceship.'' I see no harm in that, no reason why those flirtations should not continue. I trust they will. Mr. Updike writes, in ''Self-Consciousness,'' as if he had nothing to look forward to but sunset and the western porch: ''Between now and the grave lies a long slide of forestallment, a slew of dutiful, dutifully paid-for maintenance routines in which dermatological makeshift joins periodontal work and prostate examinations on the crowded appointment calendar of dwindling days.''

Meanwhile I note that he is four years younger than I am.

A few weeks before he died, Cait and I saw Clarence Clemons getting out of a car in Marin. He was using crutches, or a cane, I think. I remember that he was moving really slowly. I said to Cait, “Hey, that’s Clarence Clemons!” and she had no idea who he was, and by the time I explained it, he was smiling and talking with someone, and we didn’t really want to interrupt him, so we kept walking. Clemons is 38 in the above video. Which is to say, he is my age. It’s hard to think that there is anything more representative of this time in life than sitting here, writing a blog post, listening to Sam snore loudly in the bedroom, the baby waking and crying, Cait grading papers, Walt finally gone to sleep after some epic Minecraft-related page-turning. Sure, yes, there is an eagerness in my attentiveness. It feels a bit too on the nose, a warmness to the kitchen (autumnal?) light and wistfulness for Bruce Springsteen that is maybe quasi-elegiac in its anticipation, or worse pre-nostalgic, a sure symptom of what the Chicago doc calls an unease with happiness, or perhaps even a wariness for what Josh Billings notes is “the only difference between the poor and the rich…the poor suffer misery, while the rich have to enjoy it.” Better, I think, to try to leave such happiness alone, rather than topple it with acknowledgments and testimonials and evaluations, to “just for this evening” let it alone, a line I curated right out of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, a collection that begins with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace:

The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.

Walt loves the 1980s television game show, Press Your Luck. We watch it most nights. I turned it on in a moment of desperation a couple of weeks ago, when Walt and Sam were home sick, and I haven’t heard the end of it since. His enthusiasm and our watching have led me down any number of internet rabbit holes, the least fascinating of which might be my extensive knowledge of the life of Peter Tomarken, the creator and host of Press Your Luck. What Walt loves, of course, are the whammies. Before every episode begins I have to reassure him that we are cheering for the whammies, we want the whammies to win, even if we like one of the contestants, which isn’t really the point of the show, we want to see more whammies. Walt loves the Tarzan whammy the best. The Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper whammies are beyond him. I love that this is one way to spend time with him now that’s new, a way to share what I know will one day become his sense of humor, a concept I associate frequently with leisure and silliness, as opposed to the gallows, the satirical, the ironic, and feel fortunate to do so.

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