Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Difference Between Glee and Madeline L'Engle

Seeing the first commercials for Glee was like all of my wildest dreams had come true. I’ve been a sucker for musicals and choral arrangements of popular songs since middle school when I saw “Singing in the Rain” for the first time. How could Glee fail? It is about a band of misfits. Matthew Morrison, star of stage, and Jane Lynch, star of mockumentaries, were to lead the way. It even grabbed Lea Michele from her promising Broadway career. And the backstage casting stories were surreal: he’s from a boy band! And he used to be a bag boy at a grocery store! And even better – this role was created FOR HIM.

Then it premiered, and it quickly broke my heart. The music was outstanding, wonderfully sung and staged. Put Matthew Morrison in a tight shirt and make him dance, and I’m sold. It even took on some hot topics and did them justice…kind of. It became a rallying point for those who are bullied and teased. But even as my heartstrings were tugged, I started getting more and more frustrated.

Fifteen plot points were slammed into hour-long episodes. Couples broke up and reunited multiple times during the first season – the writers created about as many pairings as there were students, and most only lasted for an episode or so. People almost died, just to be okay for the next episode. Couples got engaged and married within one 42-minute block. Don’t forget the musical numbers, which became more and more extravagant and less about the plot.

I don’t mean to whine. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and I’m pleased if it makes kids join choir or admit to someone that they are being bullied. I even continue to watch it each week – it is incredibly addicting. But I can’t say I enjoy it that much, and here’s why.

In a nutshell: it does not trust its viewers. Plot points are fed to the viewers blatantly and quickly. For example, in a recent episode, the very first lines of the episode gave the theme: dealing with teenage drinking. I didn’t need it stated for me in the first 20 seconds; I could have figured it out. I feel like the writers don’t trust me to stick around, to enjoy the journey, to understand how and why things happen. Instead, story plots are crammed down my throat without much rhyme or reason or depth, only breadth. And it’s frustrating because I like development of stories. I like living with and through them and being trusted to be able to follow along, understand, and stick around long enough to take a story to its end.

I finished a book recently that does the opposite: the third book in Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet, titled A Swiftly Tilting Planet. In all of her books, it’s obvious that L’Engle is a writer who trusts her readers. She tackles big issues and does not shy away from them. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is not the best of the quartet (my humble opinion is that the honor still belongs to the first and most famous of the series), but the premise is…Charles Wallace has to stop nuclear war. Nuclear war! This is a pre-young adult book, written in 1978 at the end of the Cold War. She’s telling her viewers that they are old enough to deal with this reality. From there, it goes into time travel and unicorns and interconnected story lines, all things the reader can handle because the writer has already proved her trust. And because of that, you trust her.

L’Engle’s tale differs from how Glee does things. Obviously, there is less audio (though there are songs in the text). The book has a cohesion that is missing in Glee, a sense of continuity and development within the storyline. You grow with the characters, instead of being told that they have grown and you’ve gotta take their word for it.

Also, instead of being handed a story blatantly and asked to simply keep up, L’Engle’s writing says, “You’re smart. Figure it out.” She gives you wild premises, explains them in one sentence, and then moves on, not out of disregard for the reader or the fear that the reader will move on to something else if she doesn't first, but because she trusts that you understand…and that you trust her to tell her story. Instead of a rushed feeling, it’s a comfortable pace, one that keeps the pages turning without rushing you through the text

I know it’s a strange comparison, and granted, these are two very different mediums. But they are reaching for the same audience, and I’m afraid I know which one is more popular: the one where it is unnecessary to think. I find myself guilty of the love of escapism often - it's easier. What this world needs is more care and engagement with issues, instead of themes and skimming over the surface.

Here’s my challenge: don’t pander to your readers, your viewers, or those you are trying to reach with your story. They will know, and they will not love you for it. Treat them as thinking people, trust them with your story, and they will respond. Make them work to understand, because then the understanding will mean something and they will respect you for it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

true quote of the day...

You'll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty.

-- C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), The Philadelphia Story

I don't care that this movie was made in 1940 and is only in black and white and shades of gray. It is stellar. Funny, witty, and only slightly provocative, it's the movie that gave Jimmy Stewart an Oscar, made America like Katharine Hepburn again, and let Cary Grant flash his smirk around. No complaints here.

It's funny, though, how truth sneaks up on your when you're not expecting it. Dexter says this line to Tracy, a woman who is cold and brash and not very likable because she's so busy being a pillar of strength, a goddess. She doesn't suffer weakness or fools, and this makes her harsh.

Dexter's right - the audience doesn't feel like she's human. Because in order to be a honest-to-goodness human being, you must have some regard for frailty, both in yourself and others. You must be honest about your own life and your shortcomings, while letting others have theirs. To recognize that this frailty is part of life, this weakness and sadness and brokeness, that is what it is to understand life. To truly live.

I know everyone and their grandma's dog is talking about this, but today I read the GQ interview with Billy Ray Cyrus. It's long and incredibly saddening. He's a broken man, rambling on for hours to the only one who will listen to him - an interviewer - while sitting in the dark at his kitchen table. Nothing is his fault, and everything's falling apart. For someone who assisted his young daughter in a meteoric rise to success, this is a low place indeed.

But to see his humanity, his loneliness and deflection, his capacity to blame everything on Satan (which, I mean, okay, but also, there's, y'know, you, Billy Ray), that makes him human to me. That makes me pity him and love him because he's not some C-list celebrity on some tipsy wooden pedestal. He's just a guy who lost his family because of some crappy decisions.

To be first-class human beings, we have to see and love the frailty in others. We have to recognize how it creates character and motivates change. And we have to own our own fragile nature. How quickly we can fall and break - let us extend to others the grace we would extend to ourselves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Slightly Annoyed Valentine's Day Letter.

Hey you,

It’s February 14th, 2011. Today, Oregon had a light drizzle in the morning that fooled us into thinking that the gray skies would just hide the sun for a while. Not so, as the skies opened like a hatch to dump water down onto my windshield during my commute home. I talked to Mom and Dad on the way home until it got too rainy, then I turned off my phone to concentrate on the road, the rotation of my wheels a backdrop to thoughts too dark to speak aloud.

I dropped some books off at the library and went to the gym, which was awfully quiet for a Monday. Running put some endorphins in my system, but I think I’m pulling that same muscle again because it’s starting to ache. The problem is, undoubtedly, that I run like an uncoordinated goose, all knees and elbows. Now I’m at home, waiting for Nicole to come over, bringing an action movie for our evening in.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my love. Where the hell are you?!?

You must be alive. There’s no way that I’m going to rob the cradle that much. But other than that, all I know is that you’re not here and that pisses me off. And you know what else pisses me off? Thinking that you might be on a date right now with someone who isn’t me. Well, lady, have fun, because it won’t last. He’s mine, ultimately. You’re just the appetizer.

I’m sorry – Valentine’s day is for lovers, and I don’t have you yet. I started out this day very strong and brave, happy to love those in my life who support me while I’m waiting for you. All of those people whom you now know, either in person or through pictures and stories, who have sustained me and loved me when you haven’t been able to. And I am thankful for them, and I love them more than I can say.

But everything around me is shouting. Either the world is saying, “Sex is the most important on this and every day” or the Christian culture is saying, “Just wait on the Lord for your future spouse and be a nun until then,” or the Christian counter-culture is saying, “Celebrate your singleness and sexuality, but we don’t know how to do that and it’s the Christian culture’s fault.” It all sucks, as does the flowers and the surprise dates and the chocolate – well, not so much the chocolate. I had plenty of that without you.

I’ve been listening to this song non-stop, called “To Whom It May Concern,” by this new fantastic band, The Civil Wars. It’s just been playing over and over in my car, in my office, in my mind. The chorus says, “I miss you, and I haven’t met you.” Love, there are no truer words, and yet that does not suffice. How do I miss someone whose face is a blur, whose arms are wisps of smoke, whose voice is barely a puff of breath on my cheek?

I’ve lost many of my romantic notions, the inner cynic so close to the surface. In those hormone-strewn days of high school, I bought a journal “by” (how can a journal be by anyone?) Rebecca St. James, called the “Wait for Me” journal. I had lofty goals of writing in it daily about how God would bring us together, and when I found you – at a Christian college, of course – I would read pieces of it at our wedding and we would cry blissful tears along with the entire congregation. Eh, never happened. And good ole RSJ is getting married now, so I think either I missed the bus on the letter thing, or it just doesn’t matter. Now, if you’ve written me letters, that’s a wholly different story. There’s nothing sexier than a man who writes letters. You can quote me on that.

If I laid everything else down – my expectations, my fears, my insecurities, my loneliness – I know why I haven’t met you yet. You’re not done baking. That’s what my mom would say whenever one of us kids had just woken up from a nap, cheeks still red and warm, eyes drowsy, brow furrowed because the world just seemed so loud and fast compared to the comfort of dreams. Still baking, she’d say, and it applies to everything. You’re not ready for me. And I hate to say it, but I am not ready for you. I’m still baking, each day getting a little warmer and a little browner and a little more firm. I’m becoming the Christ-image that he wants me to be, and you are too. And I don’t want you until you’re “done” – that is, until your life is ready for a hot biscuit like me. And then we’ll keep baking together, our warmth feeding each other’s growth. It’ll be the greatest and hardest thing we’ll ever do.

But for today, February 14, 2011, I hope you had a good day. I hope you saw the sun, whether it was figurative or literal. I hope you ate a cupcake or two, smiled at your friends, worked hard. I hope you watched a good movie or read an excellent book. I hope you dropped that girl off early…or had a good time with her. Whichever one. But mostly, I hope, just before you fall asleep, you think of me and feel my breath on your cheek. I’m here.

I love you. I'll see you soon.

Love, Sara.

Revisit: [prose #9] Haven't Met Him Yet

or, How Michael Buble Continues to Ruin My Life

Just saying the name Michael Buble causes hundreds of girls all over this world to fall into a dead faint, regardless if they are within earshot. The syllabus of his name have a timbre to them that reverberates through the earth's core and touches the hearts and souls of women. It's understandable - the guy sings love songs in a clear jazz voice and looks stellar doing it. Buble is this millennium's Bing Crosby: accessible and normal-looking, with a quirky personality and smooth voice. He's our go-to guy to tackle any jazz standard (runners-up: Brit singer Jamie Cullum and N'awlins boy Harry Connick Jr.).

My roommate loves him. My sister loves him. Even my mom brightens a bit when she hears his name. I too enjoy his music, but I'm not quite as smitten with him. He causes me to be "that girl" that I hate so much: the hopelessly pathetic romantic. When I listen to his music, my heart pangs and I start looking around wistfully for someone to fall in love with - a dangerous occupation when walking down the street.

He's hard to avoid these days, Buble, especially with his hit single "Haven't Met You Yet," an anthem for every single girl (or guy, but let's be honest - girl) about waiting and wishing and hoping. I love the song, I do. It has a good perspective on this whole looking for love journey, saying that waiting patiently is a good and necessary thing. But what I love (and loathe) even MORE is the story behind it.

Rumor is that he wrote this song in 2008 after a devastating break-up with Emily Blunt (now married to Jim Krasinski - please, someone keep me away from In late 2008, he met an Argentinian actress with about five names, the majority of them starting with L. Bada bing, bada boom: she stars in his video for the not-quite-in-love song, they're engaged, wedding on the beach.

Here is where a chorus of my happily-in-love friends chimes in with the moral of the story. All together now: "Once you begin being satisfied and stop looking for a significant other, that's when he'll show up." Next comes the part where each person tells her individual story about how she gave up on love and then love found her. And to end it all, a pat on the arm or encouraging look, followed by, "He's out there. It's going to be so great when it happens for you."

I love my happily-in-love friends. I roll my eyes at their flirting. I make "awww" noises at their romantic gestures. I dance at their weddings. I'm happy for their happiness, because I truly believe that all of us are meant to go through life with other people, and for many of us, that means a spouse. I love that they want me to experience the same joy they have, and I hope I get the chance someday.

BUT. I say bull. I don't believe that this love thing works the way they tell me it does. I don't believe that all I have to do is close my eyes and wait in order for the perfect one to suddenly appear in front of me. I believe that falling for another person is hard work and often painful - hence the term "falling." It's a risk, it's a struggle, and along with the joy comes a bunch of frustration.

Ultimately, it's like sticking your hand in a bag containing many pieces of diamond-shaped glass and a few diamonds. Sometimes, you know you have a diamond and you grab onto it. Sometimes, it's just a piece of glass, and you've got to let it go and swirl your hand through the options again. Most of the time, it seems like it's hard to tell until you look at it in enough different lights. Regardless, that piece of glass or diamond will probably make you bleed. But the diamond refracts the light in the most beautiful ways, making rainbows everywhere you see. The trick seems to be putting your hand in the bag.

Sometimes it seems that the only options presented to me are disregarding the other gender or viewing each single man I meet as my future spouse (hint: neither are healthy). Instead, I'm trying getting to know and love others. In this way, I can create a support system of people who care about me. And if sometime, my future partner finds his way into that system, I'm going to spend my time marveling at how that diamond makes the most beautiful rainbows in my life until my final days on this earth.

OR I suppose I could choose this fourth option: writing something about how I'm fine with waiting forever. It seemed to work for Michael Buble, and - let's be honest - I'd be fine with an Argentinian.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

true quote of the day...

Yes, I'm bringing it back! My goal is not to post a giant long essay each day, because boy, not gonna happen. I'm thinking 2-3x per week, as the muse inspires, and the other days I'll post some darn good quotes. There are many people who have walked this earth who have said impressive or poignant things. I like that.

"We are such spendthrifts with our lives, the trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out." --Paul Newman

Well, obviously, this quote is amazing because it's by Paul Newman. Paul was a man who didn't pull punches; he said what he thought and he meant what he said. He probably was a little rash, a little harsh, a little rough around the edges, but that was part of his appeal. His smokin' good looks and crystal blue eyes didn't hurt either.

This is pretty deep for a pretty boy, I must say. He's right, you know. We rush around, throwing our lives to the wind, never caring that our days are meant to be numbered and purposeful. We think if we run fast enough, we can outrun time and consequence. I know I live most of my days without thinking of death and my own legacy...until it's too late for someone else and I'm stuck looking their legacy square in the face. A sobering thing.

But we have a choice. We can "put back in the soil what [we] take out." As people are kind to us, we can be kind to others. As we receive generosity, we can give what we have to those in need. And as we are loved and encouraged, we can do the same for others. Small, simple things can mean everything in the grand scheme of the Creator. And then we'll slip off with little fuss, satisfied that we left the soil rich and full, and that the Farmer will continue to use that soil to grow beautiful things.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Three Short Words, or Encouragement

January was a lost month. The reentry into reality has been somewhat rocky, so I’m re-resolving and trying to get onto that tall, tall horse that keeps wanting to buck me off. Changing your habits can be terribly tiring and discouraging. This last week, I had a crisis of self, where I forgot all of me – my abilities, my talents, my passions – and saw myself as just a frozen pile of material things, unable to do or go or be anything worthwhile. But something wrapped my wounds.

Facebook is a mysterious thing, in that it gives us access to people we don’t even know and sometimes tells us just what we need to hear. A few months ago, I got the chance to attend a spoken word event called the Poetry Revival. I was so moved and intrigued by the experience that I wrote a piece about it, which I posted here on the blog. Poetry about poetry still makes me shake my head, but how else can you express what happens when poetry gets inside? Prose isn't built for that.

I decided to send my poem through Facebook to the three individuals who performed that night: Anis Mojgani, Buddy Wakefield, and Derrick Brown. I have this deep need to thank people for the experiences and art they create, but I am so terrible at conversation that I literally can never think of a thing to say when they’re right in front of me. I express myself best and fullest through the written word, and thus I write fan letters and poems and messages to people I admire because I feel I can actually communicate what they have done for me.

Regardless, I sent the poem to Anis months ago after editing it, but I never got around to sending the poem to the other two guys. The task just was pushed to the bottom of my to-do list. Partially, I was feeling embarrassed by the poem itself. It was, to be fair, terrible after my edits. I had edited it self-consciously instead of editing it poem-consciously. I could feel the grating of the words as I tried to make them fit and fit better. So I left it.

Until this week. I needed to finish something, cross something off my to-do list to redeem the smallest piece of my self-worth – because you know the surest way to find yourself is to DO THINGS on your to-do list– so I saw “send poem to two other guys” on the bottom of my list. So I did. I took the original draft of the poem, made a few small edits, and then found the two guys, Buddy and Derrick, on Facebook. Messages sent. Cross that off.

Unexpectedly, I received Facebook notification in my email. A message from Derrick. It said:

“this is beautiful!”

Three words. That’s all. I took in each word as if it was a lozenge quieting this raging cough of frustration and doubt. “this,” meaning the piece, right in front of him, in his hands. “is” – continues to be, at this present moment. “beautiful!”, the word I love the most followed by an exclamation point. Meant to be shouted.

That’s all I needed. I needed more than a “thank you for your time,” more than a “I’m glad we inspired you.” I needed affirmation, however slight, and it came. Maybe he didn’t mean it – maybe it was a flippant kindness. But it was the kindness I craved. I needed a fellow artist who I admire for his work in writing, performing, and publishing to tell me that my words are beautiful. It took him three seconds to type. And it gave me the boost I needed to use my words again.

Never ever underestimate the power of encouragement. Of using your words to tell someone else what good and beauty you see in him or her. Because it might be the most important thing. It might be the only thing they need.

Yes, we as Christians need to get our self-worth from Christ, but he is so cloudy and fuzzy and wispy like cold smoke. Sometimes we need warm skin or warm words from another living this life with us. We need others to be the words of wisdom, of love and truth in our lives. And we, after we are filled, need to be those words to others. It’s our gift, our calling, our pleasure to both give and receive in turn.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Good-bye (and Good Riddence) to January

So January got away from me. It was my first experience of life speeding up beyond belief in the real-world, and all I could do was hang on. It was beautiful and sunny and warm, and rainy and dreary and stressful, and cold and snowy and sad. It was full of life and death, and new things and old things, and time zones and family and past-lives. And at the end of it, my body told me in a very forceful way to stop. I did. I had to.

So February is going to be full of writing about and processing all that January brought me. I will get back to those resolutions, because I am flexible and I am not afraid of changing my life. And you are welcome to come along and see it. Sorry I haven't been around. I've been at beaches and gravesides and bleeding on bathroom floors. But I'm back now.