Gilmore Girls

My wife and I just finished watching Gilmore Girls in its entirety. We watched it a little out of order — seasons 4-7 first, and then we came back through seasons 1-3. I kind of tuned out at some point in season 7, so I watched the last episode of the series right after the last episode of season 3.

Anyway, the show’s great. Love it.

The show is basically a single mother (Lorelai Gilmore) raising her teen daughter (Rory) through high school and later through college. Lorelai had Rory when she was sixteen, so the conceit of the show (I guess) is that the slim age gap means that they’re effectively best friends, and since Rory is such a high-achiever, the parent/child role is often passed back and forth between them.

The dramas are all interpersonal, and frankly fairly low-stakes, considering that setup. The appeal of the show is really the characters and their interrelationships. Every main character has some shading to them, so you never really think they’re bad people. Timing is a huge element of the story overall, and I think the show is very fair to even its most thinly-drawn characters, even when time and circumstances put them at odds with each other. Even Kirk, the town weirdo, ends up getting the girl. Rory’s dad, who left Lorelai to raise Rory on her own at the age of sixteen, and who pops in periodically to fuck things up, even ends up being at least understandable. He’s weak, but you still love him, because you get it. That’s just Chris being Chris! He’s Rory’s dad!

It all takes place in the American fantasy of small town life that is the town of Stars Hollow. It’s always either East Coast turning-leaves autumn, or a winter wonderland, or even bright, sunny spring. You never see litter in the town square, or graffiti on the expertly-maintained buildings. Everyone attends town meetings to discuss their officious (but ultimately benevolent) town Selectman’s (Taylor) ridiculous schemes for drumming up tourism, or trumpeting some anniversary of a little-remembered revolutionary war event. With the exception of humorous disagreements, people are happy and have the money they need. Everyone in Stars Hollow has time to meet for lunch, or breakfast, or at whatever town festival, or … All of that.

Weirdest of all, maybe, is that the entire town treats Lorelai and Rory like their own daughters, effectively. They all want to make sure Rory gets into Harvard! When Lorelai and Luke (the whole-series-long love interest/intrigue for Lorelai) breakup, the whole town takes sides. At times it feels like some kind of Truman Show-esque experiment.

This is a weird element of the show’s tone. Lorelai fled her overbearing blue-blood parents and landed in Stars Hollow, working as a maid at the hotel that she would be running by the time of the show’s first episode. The town of Stars Hollow and its residents really did serve as Lorelai’s parents, in a sense — but you don’t really feel that. You can’t really believe that the Lorelai you meet could have ever been a maid.

Since you never really feel the pain of what that must have been like for Lorelai, it seems odd that they feel that way. That must have been crazy hard for her! But Lorelai is 1000% confident. Everyone in town looks up to her and she’s always three steps ahead of them all, usually to very funny effect. So, you know, it seems weird sometimes. I guess a version of the show with a more realistic feel around all of that would be completely different. Probably less fun, maybe more like a Friday Night Lights, or something.

Likely the biggest appeal for most viewers — and me among them — is the motor-mouth dialog between the smarty-pants Gilmore’s and everyone they come in contact with. The show has this heightened dialog that wedges the perfect comeback, quip, and topical reference into every sentence, and it’s all delivered at rapid-fire pace. The rhythms of the dialog are great — really fun.

I don’t know if Lauren Graham (Lorelai) is a great actor, or if she’s just incredibly charming and playing some heightened version of herself. She’s certainly great in this show. Melissa McCarthy, who plays Lorelai’s best friend Sookie on the show, is the bigger star of the two nowadays, after her role in Bridesmaids (among others). But Graham fully overshadows her in this show, and it’s not like Sookie just isn’t given anything to do — everyone on the show is talking in the same comedic language — but Graham is the only one for whom it seems like her native tongue.

Rory (Alexis Bledel) does fine with her role, but I never feel like she’s that great. But… The character of Rory is a very strange character… Rory is basically Superwoman: she’s the valedictorian of her high school class; she gets accepted to Yale, Harvard, and Princeton; everyone loves her, but on the rare occasion that someone doesn’t, she totally takes care of business anyway, and never assigns those feelings to herself; and she always — always! — makes time for whoever needs it. Even though Rory has the pressure of redeeming her mother’s life choices, comes from a broken home, lives in a town where every citizen projects their hopes and dreams onto her… Even with all of that, she never crumbles. Ever. She doesn’t start self-sabotaging, she doesn’t get short with people, and she doesn’t get depressed… That shouldn’t be an interesting character, but it is. I don’t know how much of that is the writers, Alexis Bledel’s performance, or a testament to how much you want Lorelai to have a daughter that amazing, since that validates everything about Lorelai’s choices. There’s a nice message there: that love, laughter, and believing in yourself will get you all the success you want. I think that probably works a little better as a parent’s fantasy than as achievable life advice — there’s no mistaking that this is Lorelai’s show, not Rory’s.

The show’s also interesting as a time capsule from a not-at-all distant time (the show ran from 2000-2007). Watching the changing cell phone technology (they have pagers in the first couple seasons!) is funny, the clothes, etc. It’s hard to believe 2000 is fifteen years ago, I guess.

But the more interesting time capsule element, to me, is the differently-represented America you can see in a relatively recently ended show. For instance, I think this show was probably considered extremely liberal for its time, but it’s a very white show. Well, Lane and her family are Asian, but… There are always people of color moving around in the background of the show, or extras in crowd scenes. But you don’t really hear from them. This seems like 2005’s version of working hard at representation, not 2015’s. Or am I giving 2015 too much credit?

That, and there’s tons of gay jokes in it. Lorelai in particular seems to hit that note really hard. Was the Michel character gay, or…? Seems like there might be an openly gay character on the show if it was starting up today. I can’t imagine 2015’s version of Lorelai would make those jokes, at least.

(OH MY GOD this blog is insanely long and I still feel like I have tons to say about this show. Warning: watch with plenty of Kleenex on hand. Bye.)

Posted in Television | 4 Comments

Sports!

I haven’t watched a baseball game start-to-finish for maybe ten or more years. It’s a wonderful game to play — the big, wide openness of the field; the brightness of summer skies and the anxiousness of sitting in a dugout, on dirty, etched benches, with spit and sunflower seeds underneath your feet; the quietude between the bursts of activity; the unnaturally vibrant green of the grass and the silty recently-dampened dirt; the snap of a ball in your glove, that hurts, but only a little. Blah blah and other rhapsodic things of youth and will and all that.

But it’s a really boring game to watch. Really boring.

Apparently the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series twice in the last few years (2010 and 2012). I was busy — I missed it. Again, baseball is boring. But I always like the way a winning team can work its way through a community. People are happier, more unified. SF doesn’t always feel like a very unified place.

This year the Giants and the Oakland A’s were “wildcard” teams — both playing a single-elimination game to determine whether they’d go to the playoffs. For no particular reason, I watched the Giants play their elimination game. What I saw was Madison Bumgarner pitch a 4-hit complete game shutout that left no doubt that the Giants were going to roll away with that game.

Bumgarner is a long-haired, bearded 25-year-old North Carolina beanpole with sloped shoulders and sleepy eyes. He looks and sounds like he needs to hurry up and finish the game so he can rush home, sneak back into his bed, and get his rest before getting up before dawn to spend the next day baling hay for his tough-love father. Outside of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how poised and calm he was on the mound. Totally in control. And that’s a thing that happens — dudes throw great games. He’s a professional athlete. It’s a thing that happens.

After the game, I listened to some of the players do their post game interviews — which are always entertaining for their non-controversial platitudes and the way players seems to want to bland their way away from reporters. But I was really struck by how blithely confident the players were. “Just a game, we’ll start preparing for the next one.” (etc.) I thought, Well, they’ve won a couple World Series, right? They probably are confident. But, if they were really any good, they wouldn’t be playing a wildcard game to get in the playoffs. They’ll probably just roll over in the next series. Right?

And then I tuned out again. Over the next couple weeks, I watched that regional excitement swell — people that never really seem interested in sports talking about it constantly. “Where are you watching the game tonight?” or, “Let’s talk later, the game’s on soon.”

I had to work on Saturday, but the guys I was working with had to watch the Giants World Series game (game 4 of the best-of-seven series, played in San Francisco). The Giants won and everyone was happy. I was home on Sunday, exhausted, nothing on TV, so I turned on the game that day — game 5, also in SF. And there was Bumgarner. Apparently he was on a roll since the wildcard game and had won the most valuable player award for the last playoff series. He had won game 1 of the World Series.

So I watched him, still that oversized NC kid, still poised, with an otherworldly calm. He threw another 4-hit shutout game. Dominant, totally relaxed. Accurate and in control.

I think I wanted to watch him fail. That’s the thing about sports. To its fans, sports are an arena for excellence. It’s aspirational to watch that excellence happen, so they say. At any time, you might see something incredible — life itself, in all its mundanity, might actually, momentarily, prove to be excellent instead.

But games mostly aren’t excellent, and they’re so often anything other than incredible. Which isn’t even to say anything about the more complicated social components of sports and its culture. It just isn’t often very incredible. It’s often just some guys, perhaps people that you may or may not want to impact the culture at large, given maybe a disproportionate platform with which to do so, just doing some stuff that rarely follows any kind of satisfying script.

Bumgarner kept pushing his way into that script, though. After his masterful game 5 win, the Giants only needed to win one of the two remaining games, even though it would be back in Kansas City, in the opposing team’s home arena. The narrative became, “will he pitch again in game 7, if it comes to that?” Because Major League pitchers don’t pitch that often — only every 5 games. It would be a stretch for him to pitch again so soon, even at the end of the season. It wasn’t just that it would be weird, it’s that it would be assumed that he wouldn’t be very good. Pitchers need rest, etc.

I didn’t watch game 6, but the Giants got blown out — 10-to-nothing. The game wasn’t in doubt after the second inning.

It was game 7 coming up — only one more game. Whoever won would win the whole thing, and then it would be over. Would Bumgarner pitch again?

That’s the script: He would pitch, they would win. He would be tired, sore, wobbly from the long season — but he was unstoppable, unbeatable, an ubermensch of the highest order. He would lead them to impossible, last-second victory, and mankind would be capable of great things.

The other reason I wanted him to fail was that I kept expecting him to. I know baseball pretty well. Bumgarner is good — he has “good stuff,” as it’s said. But he doesn’t have dominating, intimidating “stuff.” He just has good stuff. Whenever I watched him, he got hit — hard. The whole goal of pitching is to make people miss. He just threw strikes — an unusual amount of strikes. He wasn’t trying to make people miss, he was daring people to hit him. I’ve seen pitchers do that before, but they usually have extraordinary “stuff.” And even those extraordinary pitchers sometimes fail spectacularly.

He didn’t seem to care about that. He seemed utterly focused and unafraid. He believed in himself and his team, and he showed up, focused through all the quiet moments, and the preparation, and the lights, and reporters, and fans, and all of those distractions — and just did the simple thing, that he’d practiced thousands and thousands of times — he threw the ball straight at a glove, sixty feet away, slightly downhill.

Even though he got hit hard, the ball always found its way to his teammates’ gloves, or they made great plays, or guys missed hittable pitches. It was the perfect combination of great play around a pitcher just throwing great pitches. It seemed like it could fall apart at any moment. As soon as some of those hard-hit balls started falling into uncatchable places, that sync would splinter, and then the whole thing would collapse. Once it collapsed, I could stop paying attention again. And through the 5th game of the World Series, the walls just kept holding. But at any moment, Bumgarner’s unnatural cool and confidence would be shattered.

In time, everything is destroyed. But sometimes, if something lasts long enough, you wonder…

Game 7, the Giants up 3-to-2. Bumgarner hadn’t entered the game. That’s normal. We wouldn’t be following the script, we’d be following reality — the boring reality of so many professional sports games. And then they put Bumgarner in.

He went on to keep pitching strikes, guys kept catching balls in play, and five shutout innings later, Bumgarner had forced himself into some grand narrative again.

It was amazing to watch. He built up the tension and then held it together, gloriously — for weeks. And maybe all those incredible things that people say live within the lines of these games were real. Maybe excellence was real, and demonstrable. I had just seen it.

The outstandingly named Buster Posey, a former most valuable player, and the guy catching the ball when Bumgarner pitches, didn’t play very well in the series. During the post game interviews, Buster was in tears, overcome by Bumgarner’s performance. In the slow-mo replay of the last out of the game, when it was clear to Posey that the ball would be caught, he turned to Bumgarner and smiled hugely, slowly walking up to the mound. Bumgarner didn’t look away from the ball until it was secure in Pablo Sandoval’s glove. And then he turned to Posey and they embraced. In that moment, Bumgarner was the emotional epicenter of his entire team. They had trusted him and he had improbably delivered.

After the game, Bumgarner drawled to the reporters, “I’m tired.” I don’t believe him. I think he felt like he could crush a rock in his hands.

And a little while after, I thought about him — just twenty-five, too young to have felt his body start to betray him. He’s been on three World Series championship teams in his first five seasons. He just pitched at a level that almost no other people have — in a sport that’s been fastidiously tracked for over a hundred years. He’s an all-timer, and he’s only twenty-five.

What will he ever do in his life that comes close to bringing him into the surreal harmony that he just experienced? He might have a great, long career, free of injury, retiring on his own terms. But it would be impossible for him to achieve that high again, right? Will he go to sleep tonight knowing that he will never again be what he once was? Will he live and die unable to stop believing in an inevitable moment of transcendence that never comes? Will he be haunted by himself? I really hope not.

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Not of Symbolic Significance

In works of narrative fiction, transitions might have symbolic markers. Probably not so much in real life. So, after being very busy for several months, I’m trying not to ascribe any special meaning to waking up this week with a burst blood vessel in my eye.

My writing life has really taken a backseat lately, which is a bummer. I’ve been active in submitting completed stories, and I’ve written some new stuff so I meet the baseline requirement to keep showing up at my writing group, but I haven’t revised anything at all, really. And I’m not working on any of the things that I think are probably the things I have the most tangled and angsty motivations to work on. Those are the things that I know will draw me into the real writing places, and I know without even thinking about it that I’m not able to be there now.

I feel like I’ve made some progress on the short story submission front. Most of my rejections lately have been encouraging. Lots of “this is good but I don’t want it.” An editor doesn’t have to say anything at all, so if they do, I take it as encouragement. Very mild encouragement, but still. I guess I feel like maybe I’m at least writing at a level of clarity that an editor has a choice to make. That isn’t nothing.

But the difference between not-nothing and something is significant. I’ve been thinking about that lately. The universality of narrative, and the way that resonates with literally everyone, everywhere — be it in reading the difficult reading, or in watching the easiest of easy — means that everyone understands the shape and purpose of these things. It’s the framework with which we understand our lives.

To go from that awareness to being able to mimic and deliver something story-shaped is just a matter of work and practice and discipline. It just takes doing.

To be inventive and to hold a point of view, to create and innovate, or to be critical in new and interesting ways… That probably takes being.

So I wonder how much a person that is so busy being something else — so busy and focused elsewhere that they might even believe that their body is physically responding to the pressure of all of those things… How much can that person be a writer?

A hobby, or a craft, is something that a person can pick up and put down whenever they want. They might even become very good at it. But it is by definition something other than their mastery. A hobbyist isn’t an artist. Where is that line within us?

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The Busyness

It’s definitely been a busy time for me. Lots of activity… Travel, pressure at work, and now my wife and I are trying to buy a house. The whole house thing has gone from nothing to everything over the course of a week, but it looks like it’s maybe cinched-up now, so, great!

Tonight I had this real quivery feeling of looking for the next task to manage and then realized that there wasn’t anything I could do. Everything is in place, things need to just unfold. I guess we did it. Time to relax?

I do worry a bit when I go through these bursts of activity that I’m not paying enough attention to artistic pursuits (writing), or not nourishing myself enough with meaningful things (reading might be an example). But on the other hand, taking on too much stuff satisfies in its own way. It’s like jogging a little further than you normally would, until you get past that barrier that you keep thinking you’re right up against. And then you’re past it and there never was a barrier after all. That’s a nice feeling. That’s its own kind of nourishment, I guess.

The surprising thing about the house stuff has been how prepared I turned out to be to take that on. That’s been a bit of a shock to my self-perception. Everyone close to me has been ultra-supportive, and otherwise I don’t know how I would have moved forward with it. That too has been a bit of a shock.

The negative side of doing-things-too-much is pretty negative. Yet, everyone supports and rewards near-pathological efforts when they’re in a socially acceptable forum. If that condition is met, efforts have intrinsic value. The ends completely justify the means, in these cases. It’s not really a bad thing to overwork, since working hard is such a respectable value. But that brush paints many things, doesn’t it?

The past is essentially changeable through the actions of the present. Distrust becomes trust. Fear becomes love. Very few events are so malignant that they corrode in our memories forever. Things pass, or they become something else; we bring a different focus to past events as more events shift in front of them. And given enough time and altered behavior, things might even seem to disappear into our consciousness.

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Luther, etc.

I was really looking forward to getting some reading and writing done over the long holiday, but I didn’t get very far on any of that.

On Sunday, I did do something I’ve meant to do for a long time, which is write, word for word, someone else’s story. I once read that Hunter S Thompson did this for a novel (though I can’t remember which author he chose), so he could learn more about their writing style, and I always thought that was a cool idea. But that seemed like a huge time commitment — I was looking for a Sunday morning-size task. So, I copied Fragments of a Hologram Rose, by William Gibson, which is a delightfully concise 2,000 words.

I have to say that this is an incredible way to engage with someone’s work. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything so critically. This is Gibson’s first published story (1977) and it’s kind of amazing how fully realized his aesthetic is in this one tiny short story. And for a first story, it’s really solid. There were literally only two sentences I had any critique with — one because it was kind of elliptical and could likely be excised without losing anything, and the other (the last sentence of the story) because it had this weird double-but construction.

The story itself is pretty thin: A guy (Parker) grieves for a lost love, and plays a tape on an ASP machine (something that allows people to experience others’ experiences) of a trip his ex-lover took to Greece. But it’s a lot more than that, covering this whole history of the main character, how he came to be where he is in the present of the story, what role his lover played in that, and how mutable history and experience can be. The symbolic framework of this is the postcard he has from the lost love, a hologram rose. After shredding it in the garbage disposal, he reflects on how, in each of the fragments of the hologram, you can still see the entire rose.

Divorced of all SF trappings, this might not be enough of a story (but I’d have liked it). But it’s the history of the main character that contains all the aesthetic and conceptual elements that Gibson is known for: a future built upon layers and layers of history, technology, and stratified access to the same. Part of the through line is that the city is going through these constant brownouts, which I thought was such a nice touch — it isn’t the future Star Trek imagined, it’s a future that’s filled with technology that Parker needs to kluge together to get to work correctly because their isn’t enough power to support its function. This all seems pretty well-worn at this point, but I’m writing this thirty-six years after the story was published (I was a baby when this story came out!)

Anyway, you can find it in its entirety on the web if you want to read it.

————-

On Saturday I was woken up by a work call at 7am and spent most of the day dealing with nonsense. Boo. When I got home around 3pm, my wife told me she had watched the first episode of the BBC show Luther (starring Idris Elba).

We’d both been meaning to watch it, and she said the first episode was good, so we decided to re-watch it together, and then we watched the entire 1st and 2nd series. On Sunday we watched the 3rd series. So, that’s a lot of TV watching. But, it is a BBC show, so it was 14 episodes in all (okay that’s still a lot of TV watching).

The broad strokes of the show is that London’s Detective Chief Inspector John Luther doesn’t take any bullshit and has detective skills that border on the magical. He can shake off a bullet wound in the leg over the course of an hour or so of walking around, and his preternatural skill is only overshadowed by his unwavering desire for justice — at any cost!

Luther is an old-fashioned, haunted-hero, loose cannon, action detective show that’s sometimes a procedural and mostly tries to look and act like a David Fincher film. It exists in a world where its possible for a single detective (in a single locale) to be involved in a never-ending string of investigations of diabolical serial killers while simultaneously dodging internal affairs and having every single person he’s ever been even passably kind to get murdered. And meanwhile, he’s playing a combination of cat-and-mouse and will-they-won’t-they with the lone serial killer he couldn’t put behind bars — the scenery-devouring Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a cross between little red riding hood and the big bad wolf. She’s a sometimes particle physicist, most-times malignant narcissist, and full-on crazypants badass.

Alice, probably planning something stylish, elegant, and totally crazy.

The series owes a lot to Thomas Harris, the aforementioned David Fincher, Dirty Harry, and, sometimes hilariously, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) of the Lethal Weapon series. At one point Luther literally wakes up in the morning to what we’re led to believe is his new routine, playing russian roulette over morning tea in his shithole apartment, before putting on his single outfit and heading out to be the best fucking cop London’s ever known. If only the internal affairs division wasn’t up his ass, he’d have eradicated crime months ago!

At another point he’s (extremely dubiously) charged with the care and protection of a runaway teen (Jenny) that’s gotten mixed up in drugs and truly bizarre pornography. The finale of their time together is the two of them getting an ice cream together and her teasing him for not being cool — you know, exactly like Schwarzenegger and Alyssa Milano in the movie Commando from 1985. It may not be a coincidence that the pairs in both cases are named John and Jenny.

I guess what I’m saying is that I loved this show.

Now, it’s not without faults, for sure. The rate of “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” developments can be jarring, and it does settle into the grimdark trappings of a lot of cop procedurals of late. Being honest, I think I’m just getting old. I’m becoming a lot more bothered by violence in TV and movies, and this is a very disturbing show, at times. There’s a fine line to that stuff, and… I don’t know. I’ll admit to being pretty bothered by some of the more grotesque developments.

For instance, an episode in the 2nd series begins with a guy terrorizing some people at a gas station. The scene is truly horrifying. At one point the killer sprays down two dudes with a water pistol filled with acid, and then proceeds to beat one of them with a bat. Again and again. I was genuinely stunned by this scene, and it was definitely horrible in its realness. And then that was all somewhat undercut by the fact that this guy is a TWIN and the twins are engaged in some kind of real-life role playing game where they literally role dice on the middle of the street before assaulting people. I mean… OK…

And then there’s the sexual violence, the home invasions, the child abuse, and… And, you know, the same kind of stuff you can see over and over again in any and all Law and Order: SVU episodes, or on any show on the channel that my friend Karli calls “Crime TV.” So, I don’t know, maybe it’s me.

But Idris Elba is really superamazingterrific in this show. I’m pretty convinced that he could play more or less any role and I’d be fine with it. Another Abraham Lincoln biopic, starring Idris Elba as Abe? Fine. Idris Elba playing the Clark Gable role in a remake of Gone With the Wind? Sure, why not. Idris Elba as Christoper Columbus? Yeah, all right. Idris Elba as Patch Adams? I’ll allow it.

He really gives the character of DCI Luther a lot of dimension and vulnerability, which, given the ultra-pulpy trappings of the show, is probably the show’s primary saving grace. You can totally forget his physicality in the role, too, which is actually a little funny (when you suddenly do remember), because he towers over everyone else in the production.  But on the few occasions where there’s a shot of him squaring off against some 5’7″ guy… You already can’t believe that anyone would go against him, just because he’s such a determined badass, but then the actual sight of it just seems kind of absurd. And yet, somehow, there’s very little stand-up-and-fist-fight sort of action on the show. And Luther doesn’t even carry a gun (which is a chronically disarming realization for those of us weaned on US cop shows, where everyone’s packin’). He mostly talks and thinks his way around and out of every confrontation.

I’m not sure how he’s doing what he did in this role, but it’s pretty cool. He DEFINITELY should have been cast in that Jack Reacher movie that was out a little while ago. He would have killed it in that. Anyway, I’m in on Idris, is what I’m saying.

Luther, probably about to do something awesome, or self-destructively awesome — who can say!

Posted in Television, Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

But Why?

I wonder if I’ll ever be the kind of writer that sits down to write a story and has a clear idea of what the story will be and what it’s supposed to mean and accomplish. But I think that there are writers that do just that, that think, “I’m going to write a story like THIS that is allegorical in THIS way, that draws from THESE inspirations, that employs THIS symbolism, shaped like THIS thing, in THIS genre, with THAT KIND of emotional content, THAT KIND of social awareness, and THIS KIND of voice.”

One of the most exciting things that can happen in writing is to have the story reveal itself, or, to feel that unconscious impulse expressing itself right at the end of your fingers for you to look at. I think it’s also a little psychically risky, but maybe that’s its appeal too.

These things that come forth in that way are like story-shaped dreams. Nobody feels responsible for their dreams, but we should take responsibility for our stories, if we expect others to read them.

I feel like there’s plenty to read about how to write. Some of that advice is so particular that it almost couldn’t be useful; and some of it is so general that it almost couldn’t be useful. Understanding and inspiration come to us in unusual and unpredictable ways. In general, it seems like learning to write comes down to understanding the shared language of writing — the grammar, style, the stories that have come before, the preoccupations that currently hold us. This is why reading is so integral to writing, and writing is so integral to writing. Grammar and style can (obviously) be learned. But gleaning the overall is a very involved process. So, read anything you can find, write anything that comes to mind, know the rules of language. Simple but not easy, like many worthwhile things.

Of course the largest component of writing is all but impossible to advise on: have something to say, have a story to tell. People say, “write what you know,” and that’s perfectly good advice. Something that underlies what we know is what we understand. I think that might be better advice — write what you understand. And I would also add that we should take responsibility for our own understanding of the world.

But beyond even HOW is the bigger question of WHY. Why do we write? That someone would attempt to write presupposes that they know the answer, or that the answer isn’t important.

Are there any successful writers (by successful, I mean actively selling work, not best-selling, necessarily) that write expressly to make a living? Maybe there are as many writers that approach it that way as there are doctors that just want a paycheck. Or maybe it’s a spectrum of motivation. I guess I’ll never know. For me, and I suspect for most people that write, it begins as a thing I love to do. So really the question is why do we write and share that with other people?

I guess my answer is that we believe our writing has intrinsic value to others’ understanding of the world, aesthetically, socially, or otherwise. I think that reinforces that we must be responsible for our stories.

I had a conversation with my dad recently where he told me that he was considering writing down some of our family history as he understands and remembers it for me and my brother. I get it — he’s retired, he’s looking back on his life, he’s concerned that the narrative of our family will erode little by little with each generation. I thought it was a pretty lovely idea, and I told him I’d be excited to see what he did with that. But I don’t think he’ll actually do it…

His big concern? That it would be self-serving or immodest. And that concern just kind of floored me. Because that’s the thing about the WHY of it: If you’re having trouble with that, you wouldn’t even start. I wonder if anyone that’s written a memoir ever really doubted that it was a thing that should exist. It makes me wonder how many meaningful stories die in the minds of those that never get past the question why.

So, maybe the answer of WHY is tied to the writer’s belief in the universality of story. There’s the ego of believing that my story is universal, but there’s also the empathy in my recognition of the fundamental similarity between all of us — that we all need something similar, and that we can get some portion of that from the stories of others. I wonder if it’s also because we want to be understood, and we think that, if we write it just so, make it compelling enough, we might be seen. That we might use the language we all understand to tell each other how we feel and what we think, and that we’ll understand — in the recognition that comes from doing it well — that we’re not alone with those thoughts and feelings.

When I read a really good book, it feels like a conversation I’m having with the author — or maybe even more than that. It feels like a shared dream. That such a personal experience can happen in that context is part of what makes stories so powerful and interesting. Some stories are nightmarish, and it’s comforting to know that you’re sharing that with another mind, that you aren’t alone with those fears. You might have trouble sleeping, but you won’t wake up screaming.

In a way, it feels a little easier, for me, to draw that dark energy into the form of a story. But is that the kind of story I want to tell? Why?

I’m going to try very hard to be thoughtful about the way I construct my stories. And if I can’t quite articulate it all consciously before I start, I’ll try to dream better dreams.

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No Man’s Land

Yes, that IS Gandalf and Professor X. Plus a guy you don’t know, and Billy Crudup.

“in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent.”

Linda and I saw the play “No Man’s Land” at the Berkeley Rep last night. Yep, I am just that fancy, don’t you know.

I have to say, it was very awesome. But pretty crowded. Yes, the Berkeleyites were out in full force to watch Magneto and Picard square off in a battle of words, wit, and elegance.

I’m not a theater-goer generally, and not because I’m not interested — I just didn’t grow up with that. I don’t know how else to put it. I feel pretty ignorant of that entire realm of artistic expression. So, I’m always a little surprised, when I go, that it’s so entertaining. My brain thinks that watching a play is supposed to be a little like doing homework.

And since I’m ignorant of the form, I don’t really know what to expect about the theater-going crowd, other than poshness, I guess. Most of the people there were drinking wine, but it was from small, clear plastic containers with lids and those little straws you stir coffee with. It seems kind of hard to be posh while drinking wine in that way, but, there you go.

But anyway, the play. It’s a Harold Pinter play, and as I learned while reading the program, he’s kind of a big deal as far as plays go.

It was a very weird premise for a story (to me). A successful writer (Hirst [Patrick Stewart]), now old and senile, is manipulated by a pair of young thugs (Briggs [Shuler Hensley] and Foster [Billy Crudup]) and an old friend (Spooner [Ian McKellen]) that never amounted to much, but that the author knew when they were young at Oxford. Hirst has some demons: he’s a drunk, his wife drowned (I think?), and it seems like he was a real asshole in his youth.

That premise seems straightforward enough, but the play starts right in the middle of everything (obviously) and you have no way to understand these relationships except through the context of the dialogue, through the course of the play. That, plus Hirst is senile and being manipulated, so none of the characters are very reliable.

And I guess that’s just a thing about plays, or certain types of plays — it’s something that would only really make sense in a play, where you just can’t dispense that expositional information without something that just took you out of the play.

It all takes place in Hirst’s (totally awesome) parlor/bar/sometimes bedroom (for Spooner) and there are only four characters. Again, a very play-like thing that always seemed kind of amazing to me — they did it all in one take! in one little room! and there’s just four of them! wow!

The performances were all great, but I kind of expected that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen would be rad. I thought Crudup (Foster, the assistant/lover(?) of Hirst) and Hensley (Briggs) were so good. Crudup plays this dopey, protective, peacock of a man; and he does it with a lot of vigor, menace, and vulnerability. Shuler is the heavy of the story, and he is a large presence on stage — very intimidating. Totally different than he seems in any of the pictures of him in the program. With the confused main character and the shaded motivations of the other characters, there was a sense of bubbling violence underlying the scenes. Very tense.

And it was hilarious! In the way that plays can be hilarious, which I expect to be more punny, or roundabout. But it was just out and out funny many many times. Including this exchange, which I’m (at best) paraphrasing between Hirst, Briggs, and Foster:

B: You’re a cunt

H: How dare you?! He’s your friend.

B: That’s why I called him a cunt.

The apex of the story is an exchange between Hirst and Spooner in the second act — Hirst, lucid for really the first time in the play, starts calling Spooner by the name of a childhood friend, reminiscing (hilariously) about the longterm affair he had with his friend’s wife. Spooner at first seems to just be egging him on, but as it continues, it becomes clear that the stories are intermingling with real stories about Spooner and Hirst when they were young. Spooner and Hirst start really going after each other, and it feels like some truth is being doled out, until this rad dialog (which I just found on wikipedia):

(Hirst) “You are clearly a lout. The Charles Wetherby I knew was a gentleman. I see a figure reduced. I am sorry for you. Where is the moral ardour that sustained you once? Gone down the hatch,” after which, Briggs “enters, pours whisky and soda, gives it to” Hirst, who “looks at it” and then says, “Down the hatch. Right down the hatch. (He drinks.)”

Anyhow, a really wonderful thing to experience live. And we had good seats, so, yay again. It was a really impressive performance and an emotionally involving play.

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