Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Whac-A-Mole

Friday Night Lights has made its graceful exit from television. What a loss. There is no good reason why Friday Night Lights should have struggled as it did to stay on the air for five seasons, or really, that it should end now. The show had great acting and writing, and a ton of critical attention. DirecTV deserves major kudos for its joint production deal with NBC during the last three seasons, and here's hoping it will keep a keen eye out for future shows not quite making it on broadcast television.

When I recommend Friday Night to friends and family members (and you), most folks seem to take the recommendation, put the first season on their Netflix queue, and then keep bumping up shows and movies past it. I suppose it's a hard sell. The best way I know to recommend Friday Night Lights, by contrast and proxy, hardly helps matters: I do not have especially fond feelings for my own high school experience, football, or Texas, but man, I love this show. I can't think of another show I have so often stopped mid-episode to debate with Cait and fellow fans the relative virtues of each character involved in whatever on-screen negotiation. Parenthood, marriage, power dynamics, politics, friendships, relationships. All are handled with an exceptional degree of thoughtfulness and humanity. Still, taste being what it is, it became wonderful these last few seasons just to see it keep coming back. And, it is to the credit of the writers, and creator Peter Berg, that story-lines were kept open and closed down where they could be, without straining credulity. I wish Coach Taylor luck in Philadelphia, and hope Mrs. Coach looks up my sister sooner rather than later at Bryn Mawr.

Apparently, 90% of the music that we hear in .mp3 format gets lost in the compression, so that we only process a fraction of the original recording. For the last week or so, I have been listening to music and podcasts on a variety of second-rate headphones that we keep in the top desk drawer. My beloved Bose IE2 headphones have gone missing, and I haven't found the time yet to track them down, probably somewhere under the floorboards of the car or in one of the pockets of the diaper bag. I have a terrible habit of replacing the headset for my Blackberry Storm with $3 knock-offs that ship for free via Amazon Prime. So, toggling between my phone and iPod, walking back and forth from classes or out with Walt on one of the epic walks that puts him out for an afternoon nap, I have apparently recently heard only 10% of Terry Gross's sonorous baritone, Diane Rehm's raspy and authoritative questioning, the man Johnny Cash called the greatest living singer. It is a strange thing to think that what sounds like the full deal is a mere and minor facsimile, not unlike my feelings now about that Kenny G concert I eagerly attended in the sixth grade: I owned a saxophone, I wanted to be a real jazz man, and Kenny G could cycle-breath his carefully annotated solos.

I was talking with a friend the other day about writers who were decent people and had lives that ended, more or less, well. We had a hard time drawing out the list. She was surprised that Robert Frost wasn't such a nice guy as we often imagine him, that Wallace Stevens's personal assistant used to joke around the office that the policy he most looked forward to paying out was his boss's. I suppose it was a kind of straw-man hypothetical; regardless of the human being, the work is what matters most now. When I was teaching in North Carolina in the summer of 1998, I remember driving some students to the airport and hearing, on the way back, a Scott Simon interview with Norman Mailer, in which Mailer said that the mark of mediocrity was to seek precedent. I remember thinking, "Hey, that's pretty good--I'm going to remember that," and also having no idea what it meant. Marcus can back me up on this, but probably I went back for my senior year at Northwestern and dropped the phrase into conversation as an indicator of my own cleverness.

After Katie died, a good friend reminded me of that maxim, "May you live in interesting times." Much of our life together was constructed around travel and against convention. I had a good sense at the time that, whatever we were doing, it was against expectation and probably would prove to be very interesting. Teaching middle school and working at a nonprofit in Chicago, we bucked profiteering. Going to graduate school at FIU, we eschewed larger programs for the certainty of funding and plenty of time to write and study. Living in Romania, as in Bangladesh six years earlier, we were true expatriates, participating in theater troupes, taking overnight trains across Europe, working for issues of social justice and public health. Katie's death made for a sudden and disturbing conclusion to this approach to living; returning to Indiana, I was eager for stability, I wanted a family, I wanted, to quote one of my own poems, to make my place certain.

There are clear limits to a reactive approach to living. Then (as now, I suppose) I was much more clear about what I did not want, than what I did. Even making a "place certain" is artful and rather abstract, an expression of certain values rather than a tangible plan for the future. My student teaching mentor was fond of saying that the willow bends where the oak breaks, and I remember thinking that this kind of flexibility, essential in a secondary education classroom, made for a pretty happy life as a Peace Corps volunteer, a middle school teacher in an over-crowded classroom, a grieving widower. The problem is that it also set out a kind of professional adaptability that I don't seem able to transform into an iron-willed certainty of place or professional self, a whac-a-mole sensibility of wanting to nail down anything that pops up within reach, where quality of writing, and time and freedom to write, and freedom to publish where and when I want to, might be the more logical reaches. Put another way, having made homes in Bangladesh, Romania, Indiana, Illinois, and Miami, I am hard-pressed to not believe that wherever I end up, I'll either be or find a way to feel pretty happy with it all. But shouldn't I also at least try a little harder?

It is hard not to think of the writing world as an essentially competitive one, full of all kinds of markers of certain success and failure. First-book competitions, for poets, are exhausting and expensive. Submissions are slow and tedious work for editors and writers. Placing work with presses and magazines can seem like divining tea-leaves. I have yet to try out the job market, but I imagine that when I do, it will in some ways bring more of the same. Balancing a belief in the exceptional with an expectation of indifference; in most other human undertakings, we might conflate the two as a bit of delusion. And, in the meantime, isn't it time to order more stamps, envelopes, and toner cartridge?

My run of favorite TV shows going off the air is approaching near-epic proportions. Friday Night Lights, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, Rubicon. And soon, Steve Carrell to leave The Office. How much longer can Community sustain its fragmented and eclectic anti-narrative; how long can any show thrive on being an anti-show? Cait and I have little time to watch television these days and our lifestyle has adjusted accordingly; in that rare, golden two-hour period after Walt goes down for the night but before we go to bed, it's more satisfying to read and talk, then for me to write and Cait to catch up on work and school. Of course, we make the worthy exception. But for the most part, new and long-developing tv-narratives seem, finally, a bit formulaic to invest so much on the front-end. I'd like to say that this reflects some cultivation or evolution of taste. But really, new motivations are taking hold in my and our conception of life. Baby Walt, but also a kind of longer view about poetry, writing, teaching, and reading. Fear of failure is a good motivator, but perhaps fear of formula is a better one?

One frequent criticism of Friday Night Lights was that it got the football all wrong. Week after week of improbable come-from-behind-victory situations strained the credibility of Coach Taylor's genius. If he was so good at winning games, why was he so bad at managing the clock, making substitutions, and recruiting tall athletes? There is merit in these arguments, but I could care less about the football on Friday Night Lights. Its an occasion for the narratives and characters that I care about. Still, if football accuracy is your criteria, or football your passion, I can imagine the show seems shoddy, manipulative, and opportunistic.

I made the mistake of recommending recently one of my former favorite movies, Waking The Dead. I used to love this movie. Now, even the trailer makes me cringe. Jennifer Connelly's terrible accent. The dopey exclamations of feeling. The left/ride schism in the main characters. And that's not even getting started on the portrayals of grief and mourning. What has happened in the intervening eleven years to so clearly change my feeling about this movie? I suppose that I'm getting older and I'm less attracted to improbable stories about love and loss. But I can't say that I've seen more movies in the last ten years than in the preceding; in high school and college I pursued a veritable self-education in film, watching four or five movies in a row, director after director, Best Picture and Palm d'Or winners, foreign and rare imports, the whole works. I'd like to think that I'll go underground eventually, and stop recommending bad things to good people. But that would be a kind of self-scam. I like liking things. I don't like hedging my favorites. The benefit of naming out-loud the things you like at least forces a kind of scrutiny of favorites and the criteria applied to decide them. And, the benefit of tending to the under-confident is that it allows some space to reconsider and, who knows, even improve upon the list, the awareness that informs it, as well as what gets missed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stephen Dobyns reading "How To Like It" tonight

Stephen Dobyns wrote one of my favorite poems, for which this blog is titled. He is this year's selection for the prestigious Mohr Visiting Poet Series in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. As the Mohr Visiting Poet, Dobyns gave tonight's reading at Cubberley Auditorium. I was there with my friend Kelly, who gave me Dobyns's Velocities: New and Selected Poems back during our first year in graduate school in 2004; she was a huge fan of the collection, and of "How To Like It," and I know the work because of her. We have remained close friends while living near each other in Miami, and now in Northern California, and during our various travels and living elsewhere in-between. Kelly knew Katie. She came and visited us in Romania, and she was at Katie's service in Antioch, IL. Katie liked "How To Like It," too--I would put it right up there with Catherine Bowman's "Spice Night" and B.H. Fairchild's "The Blue Buick," as her favorites. "How To Like It" offers bittersweet consolations. It is a complicated and intelligent poem about desire and meaning that is alternately withstanding, confined, energetic, despondent, hopeful, and resigned--often within the same sentence. It deserves much more careful praise, but I want to also add here that it is a poem that I go to, time and again, to find strength and meaning, and to offer same to friends and family members. It is a wonderful poem, and I feel very lucky to have heard it read by the author himself, with my good friend, to whom I am indebted for knowing it.

Here is the video of Dobyns reading "How To Like It" tonight:


video