Reading “Felina” (Breaking Bad spoilers)

How late can you be to writing about TV?  Breaking Bad ended two months ago, and yet my days still hang sometimes with the sagging, earthen colors of Bryan Cranston’s craggily, bespectacled furrows, the haunting thought that Jesse Pinkman is locked away in a meth dungeon, and Damocles’ Sword swinging over the Southwest.  The end of one of TV’s best shows ever predates this blog, but the DVD set’s release occasions this post, as well as this recently-released video of Cranston and Aaron Paul reading the script of the finale, which of course you should only watch if you are, like me, similarly satiated by the completed story, rather than lucky enough to still have that show and its savory final season before you on a platter, fully-cooked.

The last season was worth all the acclaim it got, as was the whole show.  Not until season 5 did I watch episodes when they aired.  Instead, I mainlined them like a fix for a stint, before the darkness got too dark and invaded my normally sunny life, until I needed to come up for air for a few months.  The show had its closeness to home for me from the pilot, the “there but for the grace of God go I.”  A teacher, feeling regularly emasculated, like a big old nobody after all the promise and genius that filled him with expectations/delusions otherwise.  That feels like me.  The bitter rationalizations of the victimized, victimized by the contemptible world, by the rich, by the fates, who senses the moment and seizes the excuse to finally be powerful, autonomous, and right.  I get that.

Walter White hates the dirty work, but he’s reveling in the chemistry; he finds the climb to criminal power deeply distasteful, but necessary to protect his family, his name, and his surrogate son Jesse; he dons the dark hat as a disguise, but he’s truly, truly beige and white and maybe, just for kicks, the purest blue.  No, by the end, that’s all unmasked.  Just about the most poignant moment I’ve seen in a TV show, when he curses out his wife over a tapped phone and says the opposite of everything he means as perhaps his parting words, at least until he can see her again and come clean enough to recognize that he did it all… for himself.  The dirty work, the distasteful empire, the dark hat… it was no more or no less Walter than the beige pants and the tighty whiteys and the sanitized chem lab or chemo clinic.  We are all shot through with Heisenberg, with the will to power, just as we are all crumbling and tearing apart, like Mr. White.  We are all clutching desperately for survival and our families, just as we are all, in fact, filthy to line our pockets with security, ego, vengeance, and wrath.  It became my mantra after watching each season, a deep sigh with the words, “I am Walter White.”

What disappointed me about the ending was that there had to be someone much worse for Walt to kill in order for him to find redemption.  There had to be irredeemable Nazis and an icy, merciless Lydia.  Not that Krazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, or Gus Fringe were great souls, but you could root for Walt to be free rather than rooting for them to meet grisly deaths, and in all cases, the end felt like a twisted necessity, a Ricin-less last resort.  In Felina, the fist-pumping moments were for a calculated unsheathing of raw violence, like rooting for Travis Bickle’s trench coat drawer-slide contraption to work and forgetting how morally misaligned it had all become.

And yet, watching that newly released video of Cranston and Paul read the ending, moved to tears, I was moved in turn.  Jesse and Walt are these horrible people, but people, whose humanity had been reinforced by each moment that it was being withered away.  (The same, it must be said, could have–should have–been done for the Hectors and the Andreas and, heck, even the Gomeys, as it seemed to have been for the Mikes and the Janes and the Hanks).  Every degradation flecks off a piece of what is undeniably flesh, hardened or burnt as it may be.  The terror behind Jesse’s eyes is not the dissociation that makes Todd a different species from himself, but the even more terrifying recognition that he is just heartlessly angling for what Jesse has already become.  My sympathies for Walt and Jesse don’t persist in spite of their failings, but exactly because of them.

I am Walter White.  This is not a confession tape.  I have not manufactured any illegal substances, under compulsion from my brother in law or otherwise.  But I got choked up watching Walt’s end and Jesse’s tortured liberation, not just because it was the end of a great show, but because it was a sweet and terrible relief to not live inside their plausibility structure any longer.  I was moved by the end for the same reason I’m so moved watching this video of Paul and Cranston being moved.  Because they had inhabited these guys for so many years, and as both have said repeatedly, not in defense of their actions but purely out of the commitment actors must have, they have rooted for them as well.  Rooted for them to live and thrive and choose well.  No empty absolution of their sins, no denying justice waiting in the wings, but just simply to wish for the quality of mercy on men who have become, five/six seasons of moral water under the bridge, people.  Terrible, beautiful people.

I look back at a lot of my own human endeavors with the same ambiguity and finality.  As I bookend things, even in celebration, I can’t help but see a soiled mess.  Even in victory, shot through with selfishness and greed.  And yet, in the end, the notes of grace to unwarranted monsters like us–nothing captures it better to me than Holly White– remind us that even on a road to hell, we are humans, caked in dirt, imago dei.

 

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Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

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Recently published, O’Connor’s prayer journal seems like a bit of an intrusion.  She’s only twenty to twenty-two years old at the time.  In my experience, my prayer journals are full of sincere yearnings and unguarded complaints, with the occasional thought that someone in public someday will read it but mostly the private effort to narrate in visible words the groanings of my spirit to God.  They feel like an intrusion because they seem so very authentic, and they seem to me so authentic because they sound and flow and twist and unfurl so much like my own prayers.

The rhythms of her prayers are completely familiar, a remarkable relief of recognition, like someone else’s soul speaks the same language.  The turns and the movement, from supreme confidence to self-deprecating humiliation, from exultant praise to supplicant pleas.  She even says at one point that “Supplication” is the only one of the four she’s good at, and like so many thoughts in the book, I know exactly what she’s thinking of, having not only learned the pattern of Adoration, Contrition or Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, but also felt the guilt of having come to God with nothing other than the last of those.

Some cries are eloquent, some guttural.  They are stunningly honest.  She has ambitions to be a writer, a great writer, a professional writer, and she is not afraid to ask God for that.  But reading prayers are listening to one end of the conversation, with only our imaginations and inference to construct the other end, but you can see the ways her ambition and desire is being fine tuned by God, pointed in the process of the asking.  They are not separate from, but coterminous with the general ways in which she seeks God’s face.

But I also learn from her the sense of writing as redemptive and painful labor.  “If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service.  I would like to be intelligently holy.  I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.”  Writing has often felt like lonely and directionless labor, and Flannery inspires me to bear it, bear it with a prayer that it will be an instrument of grace.  “The intellectual and artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with a thirst for the attendant suffering.”

My Very Own Lighthouse, by Francisco Cunha, and strange dreams

Our city’s main public library, just down the street from our house, has a shop where they sell books, so I picked this one up for little E.  It has the feeling of a book from another place.  I think it’s from Portugal.

Lately my daughter has a strange reaction to stories with certain kinds of conflicts.  For one, she’s starting to read more books that have conflicts.  Early on, books with narrative usually just wound up toward bedtime or successful potty.  The closest was Hug by Jez Alborough, where the child gorilla noticed that every other animal hugged its parental figure but his own was missing, until they help him find her and Mommy gorilla and Bobo gorilla embrace, and all the animals join in a big hug.

My daughter has started to listen to these stories with a knitted brow.  Dotty (by Opal) has trouble crossing the little river, and when she tries to fly like a bird, she falls down.  My daughter is troubled, and frowns, and avoids the book next time until we clarify for her that everything turns out okay, and it’s okay to run into a little trouble crossing the river, if you just keep at it and find a way.

And in the stories that I tell her (they usually feature Linus from Peanuts, for some reason her favorite narrative protagonist), I’ve started having conflicts… conflicts of loss, of defeat, of loneliness, or struggle.  She knits her brow, looks up at me, wonders why I would lead Linus into this wilderness.  And she’s started to like Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go!, a gift from my professor Laura Sterponi, and she points at the creatures on the darker pages when triumph is not at hand and there are Seussian monsters and pugnacious adversaries littering the page.

Cunha’s book features a young girl, staring out the window at the boats beside her house and having nightmares about her fisherman father facing dangers at sea.  Assuaging her fears, her mother shows her a book of lighthouses, and she is inspired to make one (with the assistance of her toys) of her own.  She reaches up for the brightest star, a close personal acquaintance, to hold on her lap to light her very own lighthouse so that her father’s ship can find its way home.  No reunion completes the story, but it ends with the same waiting, the same harbor of expectation, that inspired the dreams in the first place.

The book is devastating for we fathers who throw ourselves into oceans of labor.  But it’s mostly beautiful for children’s patchwork hopes, for the reminder that they cannot imagine any real reason, not seas or the distance to stars or the darkness of waiting, why they and you cannot be together again.  It is my duty as a father sometimes to see that distance, to recognize that I have to get away to work, to fish, to provide.  It is also my duty sometimes to be just as blind, to see no other beacon lights than the one she seizes for me.

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“All the acts of the drama of world history were performed before a chorus of the laughing people. Without hearing this chorus we cannot understand the drama as a whole.” -Bakhtin

It’s hard for me not to think synthetically about educating youth, studying language and literacy, living faithfully and ethically, and also attending to readings of contemporary consumer culture (popular culture, literature, music, books, and technologies.)  By thinking synthetically, I mean that they are categories but not categorical, because of the role that culture has in shaping young people, and old for that matter, because our symbolic interchanges are so thoroughly embedded in cultural signifiers, and because in this world of symbol, praxis, and story, we strive and fall and negotiate and pray as human beings.

The quote is from Rabelais and His World, part of the conclusion of Bakhtin’s extended reflection on the carnivalesque and grotesquery of the world captured in forms of storytelling, but certainly true to life itself in varied performances.  He reminds us that if a millennium from now, our Alien Robot overlords tried to decipher our present by studying Politico, the Dow Jones, and NSA Surveillance records, their understanding of the actual stuff of life would be misguided without bawdy Tweets and barroom banter, without Roseanne and Sanford, without reality TV and, well, Rabelais.

Not everything I write about will be mirthful indulgence bracketed off from stringent authoritarianism, but Bakhtin reminds us that human and democratic energies reside in the flea market and farmer’s market, the Saturday night fever and the Sunday night football.  Attending to these is not to escape the world, but to read the drama of the world.  I hope I learn to read it with wisdom and discernment.

Charmed but not chortling at Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Sometimes, you just amass talent.

Let me be clear: I’m a Mike Schur fan…sort of.  Not an Office guy, definitely a Parks and Rec guy.  Down with the SNL sensibility.  Overwhelming cynicism makes me chuckle but I rarely laugh so heartily as when I care, and the disarming and frenetic positivity of Leslie Knope/Amy Poehler/Pawnee makes its humor irrepressible.  At heart, I want to laugh at people who make me feel like I’m home with my little brother and his wacky friends, not looking down my nose at those idiots over there.  That scene in that one of the last few Parks before NBC my$teriou$ly waylaid its best show, where Leslie leads Ron Swanson on a scavenger hunt for a Europe singularly Swansonian, and he is moved to tears… that is why I cannot help but chortle like Nick Offerman at the show’s deft and self-deprecating goofs, no matter how silly or subtle.  What makes me laugh the most satisfyingly is the bared earnestness of honest humans.  I think the Office characters were too often shaded with their own wryness to let that dimension soak.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, despite being on Fox, has been the one new show this year I’ve watched.  Like virtually all sitcoms, it took a while to strut in its shoes, and now I think it does.  The talent is what got me here: Joe Lo Truglio seems like he hasn’t aged a day since The State, Andre Braugher’s second life parodying his first has worked for me since Men of a Certain Age, Andy Samberg has stuck the landing (in my opinion) that folks doubted he could from the schtickiness of SNL and Lonely Island, and Terry Crews and Chelsea Peretti are veering toward the right balance of flexing their bombast while finding their place in the ensemble.  I’m still watching because I’m rooting for the stoichiometry to work out between these divergent talents.

And there is a certain something in Lo Truglio’s doe-eyed dorkiness, Samberg’s bluff and bluster, and Braugher’s multidimensional gruffness that are working for me.  But its big flaw in my view is that it hasn’t done for policing what Parks does for government: satirically expose its darkness and inject it with such earnestness in its human beings (even the insufferable Jeremy Jamm character is at least earnestly reprehensible) that you can laugh at someone without feeling any betrayal of your respect for their worth as humans.  Like all great humor, what would make you otherwise seethe becomes instead the object of laughter, and–this is key for me–not derision nor mockery, but cartoonish and carnivalesque revelry.  Then, I chortle.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has gotten some of the way there with its characters, but not with its subject matter.  I’ll see how it goes this season.  Bunk and McNulty comically recovering the trajectory of bullets in a murder scene does not detract from The Wire’s unerringly serious treatment of homicide, but suffuses it with humanity.  For me, if by the end of season one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I continue to have less respect for the people on both sides of those one-way glass windows than before watching, then I’m out.

 

 

 

We’re serious. Seriously not serious. No, serious.

 

A favorite podcast I listen to, Pop Culture Happy Hour, featured an episode about turning your toddlers into nerds (in the pop culture sense), their recommendations for things to get your children into, from Calvin and Hobbes to Nancy Drew to Chaplin’s The Tramp.  It’s fun to listen to, and interesting to consider the relationship of our senses of nostalgia to how we love and nurture our children.  That film we watched at that pivotal moment in our lives, that album we played again and again when we first learned to groove, that dog-eared book we carried around when we first found something to read obsessively… those things that transported us when we were children, somehow they transport us back to when we were children.

Nostalgia is a funny thing for me, though.  When I was a kid, a Chinese immigrant growing up in the Bay Area, I somehow found my way to a weird sequence of cultural obsessions.  Pretty typical, I guess, and typically nerdy: comic books, movies, mystery novels.  But I burrowed deep into the shelves of my library and perhaps discriminated less than my peers, and so I read all of Calvin and Hobbes, but also Pogo, and Nancy, and eventually Gasoline Alley.  Those Encyclopedia Brown books had me rapt for a couple months, but I soon exhausted them, and then I was reading Sherlock Holmes, Hammett and Chandler, and was maybe the only 12 year old subscriber to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in my zip code.  And I liked movies, especially as an adolescent when I sought role models for how to be a man, and so I watched Bogart in Casablanca and James Dean’s short oeuvre and then Brando and Clift and Newman and Pacino and soon I had worked my way through several eras of Hollywood and much of the way through the canon of classic American movies.  Michael Jackson to Boyz to Men, but also somehow to Sam Cooke and Cannonball Adderley and Miles and Bird and Satchmo.  Nostalgia was fresh for me, fedoras and drive-ins and bomb shelters, the originary state of something now pastiche and bygone and weathered.

And I realize now that I ate up nostalgia, but not nostalgia that was my own, nor that even had anything to do with my public identities, little to do with being a teenage Chinese boy, trying to be gangsta and attract attention from girls, win the student body council election, pass Earth Science class.  And it was nostalgia that was rarely a memory for my parents or older people I saw around me; my mom and dad might have known the old movies and music I dug up, but they neither introduced me to it, nor shared my enthusiasm for it.  Rather, I think it was I who sat my parents down in front of A Place in the Sun, trying to remind my mom of how stunning Elizabeth Taylor was.   The seventy year old midwestern lady who could talk to me half the culture I consumed was nowhere to be found in my real life.

It was a world potently American, saturated with Whiteness, built on an interlocking net of references that I had no real reason to know that well.  Other than they echoed in my adoptive country as signifiers of some kind of belonging and knowingness.  Some lineage, some architecture, that made the present day intelligible, that made the Simpsons twice as funny and Harper’s readable because had contained the multitudes of American culture.

Those experiences were precious to me, and so were the objects associated with them.  They came be discarded with time, with consciousness, with opportunities.  And now that mu daughter nears the age when this question arises, what will I sit her down in front of in an attempt to make her fall in love with what I fell in love with… what will it be?  What do I think of this past self who searched so hard and searched in vain to find a mirror in a world of shadows?  Yet would I deprive her of that, when that immersion meant so much to me?  Or does she in fact grow up in a time when the consumption of nostalgias does not mean the same as it did for me, no longer means one definition of the world and one exclusionary framework of discourses, but just one among many?  Will my daughter obsess over nostalgia about Korean television dramas and Afro Cuban music and The George Lopez Show?  What will happen inevitably, and what do I want to introduce her to?

Giggly wiggly precious pearl, I’m so glad that you’re my girl

Girl of Mine by Jabari Asim

One of our friends, an educator, gave us this book at our baby shower, which she picked up at Hicklebee’s (among other nice titles I will probably post about in the future).  I forgot this, but I guess we knew it was a girl and I guess we told everyone by that point.  I liked a lot of the books that I could thumb through and imagine reading to the baby taking shape in my wife’s womb, but this one immediately became my favorite.  I did extensive research (wikipedia) on Jabari Asim, the author, and imagined a professor publishing textbooks on black literature and books for popular audiences about the significance of Obama, and then also writing these books inspired by his five children, by each of them sitting on his lap when they’re little and wanting to read something to them filled with a father’s affection, playfulness, and wonder.

From the first months of her life, when we started reading to her and trying to institute a bedtime routine to try to ease her way into night sleep, Girl of Mine was a constant, the last book I would read to her before we started trying to get her to sleep.  The book’s thread has the parent (father?  I think so, but could be a mother) finding the titular daughter at play and playfully scooping her into his arms, narrating his delight in her, and then singing her an adapted “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” (less grim, more dream-like) before settling her into bed with her teddy bear.  I read that book so much that its words are like a lyric of the first year-and-a-half, emblazoned on my consciousness.

I might as well say now a few things: our baby has got me wrapped all around my finger, is all kinds of amazing just the way that a couple of very sentimental and overprotective parents would think of their little girl.  She also has completely consumed our attention and taken over our lives, like in the ways that make loved ones encourage you to go to therapy and work on your attachment issues.  Whether our affection and over-attention created a high maintenance baby, or whether she would have been one even if we were negligent or laid back, we will never be able to answer.  But there it is: she seemed to need a whole lot of attention, still does, and we are all too eager to give it, as costly as it is to our balance and sanity.

So my Girl of Mine reading has always had a twist of irony.  She loved it for a while, loved it since her eyes began to focus on images, loved it when her fingers began to grasp pages and precociously turn them, loved it because it meant those intimate moments before sleep.  Except that they weren’t the last moments before we’d put her down for an easy rest.  Our baby, God bless her beautiful soul, was and maybe is the toughest sleep resistor you could imagine.  Her daycare provider, a thirty year veteran of the baby-care trade, has never seen one like this.  My wife and I amazon-ed a library of sleep books, read them all like holy grail questers pouring over every clue and detail about how to get this girl to fall asleep at last, and still no Sears, Ferber, or Weisbluth could crack this nut.  Every night of bedtime routine was a calm and peaceful entrance into restfulness, ending with a sweet reading of Girl of Mine and then lullabies sung and gentle rocking and the most delicate touchdown you can imagine into the crib… and then WAAAAAA!… FOR HOURS!

I have since soured on books whose story arcs seemed essentially manipulations into sleepiness, and especially ones that do it not very artfully (isn’t that the enduring appeal of Goodnight Moon, how artfully it lulls?).  But Girl of Mine will always represent all the bittersweetness of the early months, the first year, the hard struggle over sleep and the pangs of pain at watching her cry and putting her down, all the attachment and emotion, all the desperation at 3am, sitting on a yoga ball for an hour trying to soothe her to sleep… Girl of Mine is a for me a reminder of how sad it was when she didn’t sleep, how sad I was that I didn’t sleep, and then how sad it was when she finally did, and she didn’t need us quite so much anymore.

And then, a few weeks into the heart-wrenching process of sleep training, she started to know what that book meant, and she started to resist it.  I would pull it out and she would cry, bat it away, call out for another book.  It was a prelude to her great struggle to be as alive and awake as her vivacious spirit wanted to be, her parents’ insistence on the 7pm bedtime be damned.  I was so sad that our book, our favorite, the one I hoped to pick up again and again for the rest of her childhood, came to signify such a painful process.

So for a while, we put it away, didn’t pull it out, just like we stopped saying the word “sleep” or “nap” to her, just like we learned to turn down the volume on that monitor before her screams crushed our souls.

She did learn to sleep, eventually, and when she did she slept like a champ.  More consistent than our friends’ kids, even though it still never got easy.  Recently, not I but mom started picking up Girl of Mine again, and now, at eighteen months, our girl looks a lot more like the one on the cover.  She stacks blocks.  She’s always had “dazzling and bright” eyes, but now they are so expressive and perceptive, they detect our joy and disappointment.  She points out stars and holds a bear to sleep and smiles her way to dreamland sometimes.  So the book is beautiful to me for the tender ideal it depicts, far as it was from our reality, as it narrated for us the affection and hope that she came to grow into.