Monday, September 30, 2013

That colossal wreck, boundless and bare or, you know, saturated and bright.

Warning: Spoilers.  Yeah, bitch. Spoilers. 

This looks like a post about Breaking Bad.  See - there's even a picture  of the show logo here: 

Today everyone's talking about Breaking Bad.  About what it means.  About Stevia and garage door openers and "Yeah. Science."  And that's awesome.  I am a fan of Breaking Bad and will be forever grateful for Vince Gilligan's fiction. I'll get to my show-based talky talky at some point in the future when yesterday's finale stops hurting so damned much. But this isn't about the show, really.

Sort of about the show, I guess, in that it's about how I relate to the show. It's a piece about me. Or maybe it's about cancer, too.  A piece about me and cancer and Breaking Bad.  See, the show started about four months to the day after my stepfather had a surgery for a stomach rupture caused by the chemotherapy doctors were using to treat the multiple cancers riddling his body. When I read the promotional material for BrBa, I wasn't sure I could watch it.  A schoolteacher diagnosed with terminal cancer decides to cook meth?  First of all, it's insane.  Secondly, it's insane.  Finally: the cancer.  Because we'd just lived it, who, having seen it in real life, wanted to watch it?

Turns out, I did.  The first episode was hard to take.  The lonely MRI and PET scan machines.  The awful news. The vivid moment of diagnoses when all of the sound gets muffled.  Despite having just ended watching my stepfather battle cancer for five years, I took on watching a show depicting a similarly awful diagnosis. Because it was fiction.  Because I believed  in the face of awful, terminal cancer, maybe I could learn something interesting from this strange little television show.  I'm glad I gave it a chance despite everything in me screaming that I shouldn't.

In the past six years, I've gotten to see Bryan Cranston play a fictional guy who did it all wrong, highlighting for me, the amazing choices of the real-life guy I know who did it right. Walter White said he did it all for his family.  The real guy I know - he did it all for his family - he lived in the face of a horrific diagnosis with acceptance and grace.  Six years ago today, we unhooked every tube and monitor from my stepfather and he lifted his hand in the air with the movement of a graceful bird taking flight.

Last night's finale was hard because Breaking Bad was a beloved show in our home.  We looked forward to every episode.  We watched them all. Some more than once. Or twice. Or, ahem, well, just more.  I love the characters Vince Gilligan created - and how they interacted with the world and with each other.  Above all else, I appreciate how real the morality of the show was and how terminal the show was. Because let's get this straight - no matter how much cancer faded into the background, I didn't believe for a moment that it was survivable.

More than that though, I appreciate how deeply and beautifully the show made me understand the real life cancer story we lived shortly before the BrBa universe appeared -- and how strikingly different were the choices of the real man who lived it.

BrBa left us with Ozymandius's colassal wreck - and the hollow command: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair".  And last night, we did.  Every one of Walt's hubristic choices over the course of the series led up to this awful, difficult, dreary end. But the series finale also challenged me to reflect upon my stepfather's works - a lifelong dedication to people, dedication to and participation in the lives of his children, his last days in a hospital room filled with love and light, with laughter and family and friends built through a lifetime of giving. I realized with distinct clarity all of the things Walter White was missing. As he caressed Holly's curls in last night's episode, I remembered six years ago tonight, my daughter in her pale pink ballet slippers dancing in my stepfather's hospital room as he clapped with joy. As Walter White stood alone watching Jesse drive away, I remembered a crowded waiting room full of people who loved and supported my stepfather in his final days. As Heisenburg lay all alone, I remember my stepfather's death surrounded by a crowd of people who loved him and loved each other.

Yeah, bitch! Isn't that one of the most amazing things about art?  That sometimes it's meant to take us to our dark places and remind us of every bit of brilliance and light worth remembering.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The importance of playtime

One day, in the distant future, my son won't forgive me for this.  

This week, as I await the gritty and real conclusion of Breaking Bad, I'm looking for shiny and interesting things.  I've seen two that were particularly sweet and dreamy. The first was Ricky Gervais's blog entry on creativity and the second, Jimmy Fallon's second lip sync dance off. Both highlight, for me, the importance of play.

Yes. Play. Gervais discusses it outright in his piece and Fallon makes play his vocation. But play is essential to who they are and what they do - and in many ways, essential to who we all are.  It can make what we do feel so much more inspiring and fulfilling.

Once when my daughter was young she was playing with a friend. Her friend, breathless, ran out to report in a bit of a tattle-tale tone, "Monkeymoo is using her imagination! She says the bed is a boat but it's not a boat, it's a bed." Her mom giggled, embarassed.  But this little gal was taken aback by an essential skill in our place:  You have to play to live here.

Or, rather, you have to play to live.

Everyone in this house plays - while we all spend a fair amount (too much, I'd wager) of time with our heads buried in screens, we also run around in the backyard or take action figures on crazy adventures.  Even Honeybadger plays - mostly mommy/baby themed dramatic numbers that involve someone being lost.  But we also play with music and words. We teach the kids to imagine different endings to movies and tv shows - to envision cross-overs with our favorite superheroes.  We dress up for the Zombie crawl and wear costumes to Denver Comic Con.

Because you have to play to live.

I struggle every year with trying to get my Composition students to recognize that play is an essential skill in writing.  I don't teach them creative writing - I teach them formal academic writing, but we still play. We play with words.  We play with sentence structures - take what's up front and put it in the back and see how it works.  Try fragments!  We play with ideas and writing construction - breaking rules (don't state the thesis outright!  Wait until the END!) along the way. To be a successful writer, even a successful formal writer, requires a sort of play. I work hard throughout the semester to get them to shrug off the seriousness, the big bold THIS IS WRITING CLASS and try to get them to embrace a little writing class, we are!  Maybe it works and inspires them maybe they think me insane. I'm not sure.

But this week, I challenge you to read Gervais's column and watch Fallon's video and find some way to bring play into your life.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Can't Stop the Signal: Why Banning Books Makes Me Want to Read Them

As a teacher and a writer, my life-long love affair with words is undeniable.  But I don't just love words for their fancy dancing on the page.  I love them for their point and purpose as the beautiful wrapping around ideas.  Be they brown paper packages tied up in strings or the most ornately decorated hatbox wrappings that Pinterest can inspire - what they hold matters. 

And what they hold is, well. Everything. 

This week, bibliophiles across America will celebrate Banned Books Week by taking a long look at the books that have been banned or challenged across the United States, scratching their heads, and wondering why.  To be on the list, someone must take some sort of citizen action with a library to have the book removed from the shelves.  This year, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian took second place to Captain Underpants. The Banned Books Week website provided a handy list called Banned Books that Shaped the World to show us the most historically challenged books that have had the greatest influence on our nation. 

It includes some of my favorites and they all have something in common - these books threaten and challenge some of our most basic assumptions about the world and the people in it.  They make us think.  They make us hurt.  They change us in some lovely, difficult way. Or, you know, like Captain Underpants, they're full of fart jokes. That's cool too. Or, like Fifty Shades of Grey, they're knockoff fanfic disguised as BDSM that took the world by storm long after The Story of O came along. That's less cool, but whatever. We all have our opinions, right? 

For me, I guess, if a book inspires such a visceral reaction in someone that they would beat down the doors of their library and complain or start a letter campaign to have those words hidden from the public - there is something worth exploring in that book, some idea important enough to hold in my hands and mind long enough to find some value there. 

Me, I'm off to the library to find The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian and And Tango Makes Three

What banned book will you read this week?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Yup. Met Lucy. Sorry you think so poorly of her.

I've been thinking a lot about a blog post I saw reposted by a gads of friends on Facebook.  The one about Lucy, the Generation Y whiny brat. It reminded me of that crabby old "From Gen X to Gen Y" post I saw six months ago but can't remember the link for. The Lucy post and the crabby Gen X post both did two things:  They made a lot of assumptions about the broad attitudes of Gen Y and the Millenials and they both made me mad.  Not the seething rage of the entitled turned disappointed mad, just mutter under my breath mad.
You. and you. and you and you and you.  You're NOT the same. 

Why?  Well, for one, I know a Lucy.  She's not Gen Y. She's a Millenial.  In the whole I've known her, I don't think Lucy's asked me for much or demanded anything more than a cup of water or maybe a snack.  She expected a little - like, say, a functioning pancreas and when she was four and her first Disney trip was ruined because her islet cells shit the bed, Lucy got a fancy bracelet that said "Diabetic" and skipped on.  No whining. No disappointment.  Shit man, if everyone of every generation can be THAT Lucy,  we'll all be better for it.

But we're not all that Lucy.  And Generation Y is not all the Lucy described in the post that made me so mad.  Because no matter how much people would like to pretend it is so, Generation Y is a pretty random bunch of people trampling through life as best they can.  Some saw their parents enjoy the spoils of Lucy-in-the-post.  Others, like me, watched their parents and grandparents work hard their whole lives to mixed results - due to the randomness of the universe or their own choices or devastating illnesses or winning the lottery.  Few of the people I know carry an air of expectation and specialness described in the "Why Gen Y yuppies are unhappy" post.

Some of us have taken jobs, as I have, in public service - working hard to make the world a better place - without demanding more money  or job security or even insurance for our services because we believe what we're doing is worth it.  Other Gen Y yuppies have been fighting and dying overseas for a decade now.  Those lucky enough to return demand things like Veteran's services and the GI bill so that they can build some sort of life for themselves and their families after laying down their lives. Still others run around feeling like Lucy-of-the-post-that-made-me-crabby but you know what? Those people are assholes and we all know it.

They aren't disappointed because they're Gen Y yuppies turned Gypsies or whatever the author creatively called them - they're disappointed because they're whiners and here's some breaking news:  Every generation has to deal with their fair share of assholes. It's another thing that the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, the Millenials, and whatever we'll call the future generations have in common.  There are those among us who are jerks.  This is not shocking. This is not news.  I'm sure there was probably a 13th disciple named FlimFlam who walked out on Jesus because Jesus just wasn't recognizing how special a guy FlimFlam was. 
Flim Flam argues with Jesus over who gets to sit in the middle of the table

The Why Gen Y Yuppies are Unhappy post is right about one thing:  Generation Y isn't special.  They're just like every other generation - a broad group of people aligned by historical zeitgeist that fights, sweats, and bleeds to build an America in which their children have the right to fight, sweat, and bleed to pass it on to their kids.  Congrats, Lucy.  Welcome to it.  I'm sorry you're sad.  Let's work on that. Come on over and meet my friend Lucy.  We have a lot to learn from her, I suspect.
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