Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bad Television Will Prolong Your Cold

I have a rotten cold, and have spent the last few days reading and watching Netflix.

The reading has been wonderful ... I read some travel lit, a book called Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr.

On the very day his wife gives birth to twins, Mr. Doerr returns to his home in Boise, Idaho to find a letter telling him he's received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  For one year, he will receive a stipend and a writing studio in Rome.  This luminous, beautifully written account of a young family's year in the Eternal City almost cured me of my cold.  Mr. Doerr intertwines the writer's life with marriage, parenting baby twin boys, the dense, majestic history of Rome, Romans themselves, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the sensory experience of Rome and Umbria beyond.  It seems that his guide through much of this is Pliny the Elder's Natural History, from which he quotes liberally and with reverence and understanding.

I also started re-reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.  This book is playing a rather large part in my NaNoWriMo project, but I must say it's been a delight to reaquaint myself with the gods, goddesses, titans, nereids, satyrs, naiads, heroes and monsters of the ancients.  The Introduction to Classical Mythology at the beginning of this work is one of the most clear-eyed assessments of the Greeks and their relationship to their deities that one can read.  At age ninety-one, Miss Hamilton said this to an interviewer: "I came to the Greeks early, and I found answers in them. Greece's great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don't really act as if we believed in the soul's immortality and that's why we are where we are today." (Quote found here)

So my "resting-up" had been going along swimmingly.  The things I'm reading are uplifting me.  And then one day, I'm tired and alone.  I'm in that place where I'm not sleepy, but I can't read anymore.  So I turn on the television and start watching a show on NetFlix.  The show is called Life Unexpected, and it's considered a "family dramedy" ... something that a family with older children can watch together. I watch the first episode and it's kind of quirky and heart-warming so I get hooked.  It's about a Juno-like teenager (smart, self-deprecating, wise beyond her years) who has been in the foster care system her entire life.  Born to a teen mom who had a one-night-stand at a school dance, she was given up for adoption at birth.  She was never adopted because she had a heart condition that required surgeries, so she was not available for adoption until she was three and then nobody wanted her.  She's now sixteen-years-old and would like to be legally emancipated, so she tracks down her biological father because she needs her birth parents to sign off on this proposition.  He knows who her birth mother is, so they find and surprise her.  They all go to court and ... guess what?  The judge puts the girl (whose name is "Lux") into her birth-parents custody.

Okay, so I know what you are thinking. An adorable three-year-old with a freshly-minted clean bill of health is unadoptable?  For the sake of the story, yup.  She finds her birth-father with relative ease.  Yup.  She's smart and cute and appears to be pretty unaffected by years of rattling around the foster care system and group homes.  Yup.  A judge is going to grant joint custody to two people who appeared in her life a couple of minutes ago.  Yup.

As I sink into the morass of this fantasy of the modern family, I start to feel sick again.

This is what dissipated, promiscuous alcoholic parents look like on television.
The birth father appears to be an alcoholic womanizer.  The birth mother is a nuerotic co-host of a morning radio drive show with a guy (who's secretly her love interest) and the banter is all about sex, sex and more sex.  And Lux has been listening to this program for three years and has felt a "connection" with this woman who ultimately turns out to be her mother.  The mother is sleeping with her cohost.  They have a fight.  Then the mother sleeps with the father.  They are not ashamed, just horrified. He's mad at her about Lux, thought she had "taken care of it" all those years ago (and he's the nice guy in the story.)  She's mad at him for not being there for her.  The mother and the cohost get back together, they even get engaged.  Lux goes to live with them. The mother's mother is an alcoholic, her father has been missing for years.  The father's father is a cold, successful businessman with a would-be-mousy-if-they-weren't-rich wife, one aunt is a promiscuous psychotherapist, another aunt is a promiscuous, alcoholic, pot-banana-bread baking and eating homeless thief.  Oh, and the father owns a bar which he lives over in a walk-up with two roommates and they drink and play video games a lot.  And ... the reason Lux wants to be emancipated is so she and her boyfriend can live together.  Oh, and did I mention Lux is sleeping with her boyfriend, who's name is Bug?  Didn't anyone research this?  Doesn't anyone remember Bug from Uncle Buck? Then the father sleeps with both aunts (not at the same time), the mother asks the father if he still loves her the day before she's supposed to marry the cohost, he says "no" even though he does, it turns out the cohost slept with his ex-girlfriend during the breakup when the mother slept with the father, and Lux becomes romantically involved with a teacher at her school (they met before he started teaching ... she was tending bar at her father's place of business, so the guy thought she was much older). The teacher wants to "have boundaries" and "help" Lux, so he just necks with her. Then the father finds out his new love interest had an affair with his own father, thereby cheating on his mother. Throw in lots of soft porn and fake "alternative" music for the soundtrack and a finale that utterly suspends belief and feels like something thrown together in a hurry to tie up loose ends.  And all the allegedly cathartic interactions between the characters cause a curious effect on the overall story—it's not very cathartic.

The only nods to conventional moral behavior are the foster care situation where Lux was abused and the justice meted out as it comes to light.  Then there's the teacher ... he's confronted by Lux's parents about the wrongness of being romantically involved with Lux, for which he takes responsibilty.  These two things are the only small banners that are run up the flagpole of morality in this maelstrom of sex, drinking, lying, stealing and cheating.

Since the only consequences of all this outrageous behavior are emotional ones, there's an intrinsic lie in the physicality of the program.  No one is fat or even out of shape, even the fat guy.  The only medication anyone is on is birth control pills, and no one is suffering any of the symptoms of long term excessive drinking. No one is missing any teeth.  All dwellings are pretty clean and very hip (the setting is Portland, Oregon).  Lux's foster kid friends are emotionally resilient.  All the adults are unbelieveably, monstrously selfish but it's portrayed as complicated and textured, with everyone "working through issues."  And, once again, nobody's missing any teeth, not even the mother's alcoholic mother who goes to bed with a box of wine every night.

I spent about a half hour this morning looking at reviews of Life Unexpected.  "Heart-warming" ... "emotional" ... "fulfilling" ... even the New York Times said it had "sharp writing" and "appealing performances." I know that a lot of folks will say, "You have to suspend belief and just go with the characters." I can't. I have a hard time with a "story" that seeks texture from its writer's perception of "emotional reality," which is the idea that if feelings are dealt with properly, there is really no need for justice.

Prometheus Bound
It's the opposite of the world the ancient Greeks perceived, the world where even if you "work things out," a price must be paid. Prometheus bound to a rock on the mountain with his liver consumed daily by an eagle, Orestes losing Eurydice forever, Icarus plummeting into the sea with his melted wings and the fall of Troy are but a few examples of what happens when that price comes due. 

 Life Unexpected has its characters acting as if they don't believe in the soul's immortality or that an immortal soul even exists as the writing and acting puts the cast through their emotional paces. If that component is missing or trivialized all the sharp writing or appealing performances in the world cannot compensate for a story with a missing soul.

Monday, November 12, 2012

October? Oooops.

October is the month in which I did not blog and I am NOT proud of that.  I have been doing a LOT of writing and critiquing, however, and now I'm doing NaNoWriMo.  It started November 1st, but I started ... TODAY!

That's because I had to clean the garage.

I know that doesn't sound like a particularly compelling reason to not blog, but our garage was an embarrassment, a horror of sorts and an eyesore.

Two years of not cleaning a garage creates a turning point. Instead of cars it starts to house things like an old washing machine that's lost its bearings (for real), a dryer that screams (for real) but does not dry, a busted dorm fridge, broken garden tools, cracked snow shovels, summer tires for a vehicle we haven't owned in years, dead birds (pretend you didn't see that), dry, cracked pieces of horse tack, a lawn tractor that hasn't run in two decades, a small generator that doesn't work, pitchforks with missing tines, mallets with ill-fitting, flying heads (eek!), a tent with a hole chewed in it by a puppy who grew into a dog who's now been dead for over a year, empty containers, hundreds of plastic plant pots, dozens of old rotting shoes and boots and over one hundred dollars worth of empties.  That's two thousand empty cans and bottles.

We started Friday, cleaning the two bays where the cars go.  My husband and I both wear pedometers and I registered 18,000 steps on mine.  His registered 20,000 steps.  We sorted, culled, cobwebbed, swept, shopvacked and went on a "bottle return date."  We donned latex gloves ("snap" "snap") and prayed we would not develop repetitive motion injuries - bend, grab, put bottle or can in "bar code tunnel", repeat.  Over and over.  The machines got sick of reading bar codes, they filled up, they overheated.  We went from store to store, finishing at Geissler's in Granby where we met the nicest kid who told us about financing his school D.C. trip with $800 worth of cans and bottles.  He had to come out and help us twice.  The guy at Stop and Shop had to help us three times.  We came home with $68.  I sorted the rest of the cans and bottles for the couple that raises money for our church's cleft palate repair ministry down in South America somewhere.

Who needs gold and silver when you have a couple thousand of these lying around?  Just make sure there's enough air in the bottles so the machines can read the bar codes.

Saturday we emptied out the "tack area" of the garage ... the place where our daughters keep all their horse stuff.  More sorting, culling, cobwebbing, sweeping and shopvacking.  No bottles, though.

Even though the whole garage thing only took a couple of days, it's been hanging over our heads for months.  It's a beautiful post and beam building that should be an organized place, serving the purpose of housing cars and outdoor supplies for lawn and garden.  And horse stuff, since those rather large mammals live exclusively out of doors (although both girls, on occasion, have tried to get at least the front feet of their horses into the mudroom.)

It really is a nice feeling to know that I know where everything is, especially with winter setting in.  Shovels.  Rock salt.  Sand.  The generator that works. The snow rake. Sleds.  And when spring comes, all the gardening stuff has been sorted and stored for easy access.  As soon as the peonies bend a little, I'll have those nifty peony supports up and doing their job in a flash!  My gardening box is all set, all the tools gathered up and tucked away for the spring.  The tomato stakes are in a bundle and tied, along with the rolls of landscaping fabric and netting.  Uncle Elmer's one hundred year old French hoe is up on the wall, along with all the other long-handled garden tools.

And I can write.  It's like something that was holding me back has been cleared away.  Lovely feeling, I must say!