Hello

The tall, black gas lamps cast a certain slant of light as Jennifer started down the path. The primroses were in full bloom, a deep, rich fuchsia pink. At intervals were stands of blue delphinium, for height. The flowers and gaslight lamps were on her right. To her left was a stream in which the lamplight reflected and twinkled as she approached the footbridge which was verdigris wrought iron, impossibly pretty. She sighed. “Late nineteenth century excess interpreted by late twentieth century romanticism. Might as well do it up.” With her enhancer program, she added a cache of primroses near the base of the bridge and compared it with the original print inset on her screen. To her delight she had remembered correctly: Kinkade, the great painter of light, once consigned to calendars and ceramic plates, had indeed done the same.

Across the bridge, the path narrowed to a sea of flagstones that curved gently to the left and took Jennifer under the graceful arch of climbing yellow roses. The walled fence was covered with English ivy and stands of pink and white hollyhocks which obscured her view of the depths. It was a familiar sight: “Glory of Morning,” Thomas Kinkade, 1995. It was her favorite, so much better than the rea-but-boring entrance to the academic building at the small college where she taught.

The phone on her ear rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer, this is Brandon. What was the Star Trek episode you analyzed last month at MLA?”

“The Trouble With Tribbles.” Where were you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brandon, how can you not know where you were? It’s your favorite conference.”

“Don’t be so . . .whatever, Jennifer. I was stressed.  Okay? I sort of holographed that I was there and let it go.

I caught the other nets for the review but needed your subject.”

“Brandon, that is so lame. Are you really that lazy? You could have . . .”

“I know. Bye, Jennifer. Gotta another call coming.” Jennifer rolled her eyes. No manners.

As Jennifer passed through the arch, she saw the mansion, a two-story Southern antebellum with white columns and green shutters on the windows. Broad porches wrapped the structure and light streamed from both stories.

Jennifer decided to add music and chose some Yanni as she entered. The odd association was not her favorite, but the documentation from most literary societies supported her choice. She would have preferred something more stimulating, like Guns-N-Roses but didn’t feel she could go against conventional wisdom, poetry of motion, as it were.

Then she heard the laugh and saw the young woman, sitting in her white crinoline. A roguish young sailor reclined nearby and whispered in her ear. They were on a heavy wrought iron settee of the same pattern as the bridge. The laughter was high and surprised, full of the implications of what he was saying, an epiphany in progress. Jennifer knew immediately they were laughing at her. She blinked the enhancement off as she entered the building.

Her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer? This is Heather. Are you…”                                                          .”

“Not now, sorry. I’m going into class.” The line went dead.

Slowly, the Kinkade faded as she neared the lecture hall. It was almost time for her first class, Allusions 1301. Phoebe and Delbert, the couple from the settee, now just an old vinyl-covered couch, sat more quietly as Jennifer approached, but the girl’s eyes danced as the joke played itself out. She smiled at them, rather weakly, and walked up the steps. Had the program been on, she would have added falls of white wisteria down a wide marble staircase, but she now felt humiliation festering in her thoughts. These steps, copied from old limestone patterns, were badly worn. Because everyone used enhancement programs, building upkeep was at a minimum. Furniture was shabby and unmatched. Classrooms were even worse, and occasionally even students complained about weeks-old French fries or rotting hamburger leavings, munched on by little elves/mice. Administration responded by clearing trash, but otherwise things rarely changed anymore.

In her command voice, a sotto voce, Jennifer called up her daily planner. It hovered in the air as she scanned for details about her class. Phoebe and friend were there, of course. Today was an introduction to the Star Wars trilogy. Students usually didn’t like it and thought it was boring. Jennifer had netted several pieces on it her first year teaching and felt a particular fondness for it. She never understood why the students didn’t like it and insisted on making fun of Han and Leia’s first kiss. It was so, well, so perfect. And how could they understand the scene in Look Who’s Talking Now, with the John Travolta character frozen to death in the morgue, and Kirsti Alley crying, if they didn’t know the allusion to The Empire  Strikes Back? It was one of her very favorites.

“Call Heather,” Jennifer commanded

“Hello?”

“It’s me. What did you want?”

“Thanks. Well, not much. I was just wondering whether you put in that call to Lipton-Jones. You said you would after his last episode aired.”

Jennifer flushed. It was well known how she felt about Jason Lipton-Jones. And it was also well known that he felt obligated to return all the calls he received. He was old-fashioned and lived in a house that had been modeled on Kinkade’s “Beyond Autumn Gate.” It was said that he never used his enhancement program. He actually cultivated living flowers. He was hospitalized an entire day once after falling when trying to repair a trellis above the esplanade. But his writing was so wonderfully clever, so intellectually allusive, that Jennifer was smitten.

“Yes. I did it yesterday. So what?”

“So nothing. Can’t a friend just ask?”

“You’re not my friend. You’re my sister.”

The line was strangely silent. “Very funny. Well, if you’re going to be that way. . .” The line went dead again.

Heather was that way sometimes. She’d sulk a few hours then call back. Jennifer was busy thinking and didn’t worry about it. Was it worth the trouble to do a retrospective for the special effects? Should she have the class move to split screen for all the kisses? They should surely see the wonderful paired dialogue, characters switched, in the last two films: “I love you./ I know.” Jennifer sighed. Teaching was all such a chore, really. And for what? Students who read old things, odd things, like Walker Percy and Doris Lessing and Blake and Frost, for goodness sake. Where would that get them?

Phoebe and Delbert came in. They were still laughing. Gertrude was with them, and they were trying to explain the joke to her. Of course, she couldn’t get it. She never got anything. Gertrude would glance over at her with a worried nod and a smile. They were wasting their time. But Gertrude finally snickered and sat down, her eyes glued, for once, on Jennifer.

“Let me check your homework first,” Jennifer said with a certain malice aforethought. She could ask for it sweetly, as a teacher should, and still realize the sway she had over these students, at least for the month that the term lasted.

She decided to check Georgie’s first. He was her favorite. The first day of class he discussed with some fluency Gilligan’s Island and had won the respect of his classmates with his cool delivery, if not the subject matter. He sat quietly today. His program work was astonishing, Jennifer thought. He had set himself in the middle of Kinkade’s “The End of a Perfect Day,” appropriately outfitted in fishing gear and a can of Diet Coke. Jennifer felt that warm glow of success. Then she realized she had a class with nothing to do, so she added aloud: “Please download Program Two.jol.lucy.3#99.” Star Wars could wait. It was a particularly essential I Love Lucy episode, the candy factory.

As everyone began whispering the soft commands, the door swung open rather dramatically. Jennifer had forgotten to lock it. Joe Mack came in, winded, and walked toward his seat. Jennifer hoped he wouldn’t say anything. He seemed to have something against her and asked really hard questions in class.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “Family crisis. My uncle Gene, who was falsely imprisoned years ago for stealing, adopted a young girl when her mother died. Cosette was taken quite ill this morning, and Gene asked me to sit with her when he went out. He must’ve had trouble getting home.”

Immediately Jennifer was concerned. “As you know, the door was not locked. Perhaps that was just providential today, Joe Mack.” There were snickers. “I’m sure you must be quite upset.” Several students laughed aloud and looked around at the latecomer.

Phoebe said, “Yes, you must be quite miserable.” The entire class burst into loud cackles. Jennifer blushed. Joe Mack was making a joke, at her expense, based on some obscure book, she supposed.

Someone flashed an image on her viewer of a waif-like creature. She felt another hot flush of embarrassment. She should have known the reference, really. Late 20th century popular staged work, tiresome. Jennifer stared at Joe Mack, who was still standing, and told him to sit down, please. And she reminded the rest to get to work.

The remainder of the homework assignments were dull and repetitive. Students portrayed themselves in the expected settings. Sears Homelife stores were obviously the farthest things from their minds. She gave everyone a low A. They would be upset, of course, but she had her standards. Only Georgie had shown any originality and deserved the 100.

Then her phone rang. It was egregious behavior to answer in class, grounds for suspension for a student, poor form for a teacher. It was just not done. But Jennifer had that funny feeling.

“Hello?”

“Jennifer?”

“Yes?”

“Jason Lipton-Jones, returning your call. Do I know you?”

“No, not at all.” One knew and spoke to so many people, after all. “I’ve netted several pieces on your work. I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I liked your last work. It was so wonderfully . . . allusive.”

“Why, thank you so much. Really thoughtful of you. May I ask the topic of your last article?”

“Of course. “Parallel Structure: Lipton-Jones and His Use of Similarities to Earlier Works.” The Jeannie episodes in Rolling Thunder, Heaven Waits. It was . . .they were, well, really neat. I noticed particularly the double allusion to the Brady Bunch pilot. Very clever, wonderful.”

“Thank you, so much, well…”

“I wonder—ummm, would you like to download my last paper?” Jennifer was breathless, but terribly bold, bordering on rude. One did not ask. One waited to be asked.

Lipton-Jones was so polite. “I would be most interested. Your address?”

Jennifer began to give her personal code, then remembered where she was. She looked out from her screen to see the entire class in complete silence, riveted, staring, for once, at her. She turned around, actually let them see her back (it was never done), and whispered: “JennyO@gmail.com.”

“Fine. I shall be most interested. Well, I’m quite busy. Calls, you know. Good-bye.”

Jennifer turned around slowly. Should she excuse herself to the class, knowing they wouldn’t care? Should she explain what this great artist had produced? Should she plead the significance of his acceptance of her net piece?

“If everyone has finished, let’s move on to your next assignment. Tomorrow we will look at the Dallas allusions, so scan the soap references in your programs. Set a piece in a mid-twentieth century bedroom and kitchen. We’ll add some dialogue in class. Questions?” Everyone stood up immediately and began leaving.

Georgie stood up and turned away slowly. Then he turned back to face Jennifer. His enhancer package was modern and expensive. Jennifer did not approve of such extravagance for the young. The design of these enhancers also frightened her although she could not explain why. They covered his eyes like the old contact lenses on which they were modeled, but his were totally, glinty black. The outer edge had the thinnest rim of gold. When she commented on how odd they were, he said something like, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” but she did not catch his meaning. He seemed disappointed.

“I enjoyed your work,” Jennifer offered. Slowly, he moved his hand across his forehead.

He looked at her for a long time.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Jennifer was puzzled.

“Why did you give him your personal address? Couldn’t you have used the professional?”

Jennifer realized that only Georgie had heard, had paid any attention to what she’d done. “It’s permissible. Rarely. He’s a famous, well-thought-of person. I can trust him.”

Georgie looked at her directly for several seconds, and she could see her reflection in his enhancers. He seemed very wise and old, but his eye shadow was shiny, youthful, a very pretty shade of blue. Like the sky, she had heard.

“Good-bye, Jennifer.” He turned and left.

She sighed. What a rotten day. And it had been so carefully planned, too.

“Check email.” Lipton-Jones had not, as yet, asked for her net. The delay was unusual, but perhaps there was an explanation.

“Call Heather.”

“Hello?”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Class over?”

“Yes. Want some lunch?”

There was a pause. “Jennifer, you never ask me for lunch. Problems?”

“Oh, no. Just haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“At least a week. Okay. Why not?”

“We could go to a film later.”

“Depends. What do you want to see?”

“The Inwood has one of the last copies of Dumb and Dumber on this afternoon.”

“You’re kidding!” It was rare to see anything so delicious as the early Carrey works. Jennifer liked being the older sister and knowing the best things. And Carrey was Heather’s favorite.

“Great. Can we have pizza?”

“Sure. See you there.”

Jennifer sighed. She blinked the enhancer back on but did not feel like changing the Kinkade

program. As she strolled down “Lamplight Lane,” the glow seemed faded. Maybe she needed a new battery so she took off the earring-like generator. She made a note, “Remember: new battery.” She put back on the little ball that connected her to the entire world, to everyone in it who could speak, and made everything so nice.

Then her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Hello. Please don’t hang up. Your professional number has been chosen to receive…”

“No!” Jennifer said, emphatically. For once, she did not feel like listening to the entire message and hung up without listening. She lifted her hair, greying but long and highlighted a bright silver, and put it over to the other side. It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Or something like that. She smiled, surprised and delighted by the allusion to the familiar childhood book. She still felt very clever.

The Stendhal Syndrome; or, A Week in Paradise

They only want you to come if you’re well, putting obstacles in the way if you’re not. A COVID-19 test within 72 hours, for one thing, usually at your expense because why would you be taking one other than traveling to Hawaii unless you were sick. The paperwork verifying the test results takes time and effort as well, and you must report your itinerary (flight numbers and address of stay), your purpose for coming, your occupation, and more. Daunting and time consuming. The flights are long and not particularly comfortable. No one serves meals these days, concerned perhaps that you might get the virus having tested negative, thereby arriving and spreading. With no time between connections to purchase airport food, you will beg “Please, may I have more pretzels, more Biscoffs?” Landing, walking down stairs instead of through a corridor, still hungry, you wait in line with 1043 people (not accurate but not an exaggeration either) in order to provide verification that you are yourself and that the self is well. Emerge into a warm sunny day, rent a car, learn that everyone says mahalo for thank you, and drive away.

Another part of your country, yes, but within minutes of a beauty explosion, you wonder, “Why don’t I live here?” Flowers bloom everywhere—bougainvillea, plumeria, plumbago, hibiscus, impatiens—are the ones that grow in pots in your kitchen and whose names you know, waiting for spring, but in Hawaii some are 20 feet tall and a riot of colors. The non-flowering plants like pothos and elephant ears know no frost will get them, and the ivy clambers up the trees, the tubers bust out in happy groups where someone arranged them.

And that’s just the flora. The fauna also seem content. You see the sparrows and house finches, the doves and cattle egrets just like at home, but there are the protected nenes and the bright-red-headed crested cardinals. Snorkeling, you’re likely to see the reef triggerfish, with its elegant design that seems, well, designed. Its Hawaiian name is quite famous: humuhumunukunukuapuaa, which translates as “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.” Poetry all its own, for a state fish. A gray Manx cat lives among the flora at the condo, coming out to greet you, though he also hisses. His eyes are beautifully golden, and a woman bending down to talk to him drops her bottle of A-1 sauce, shattering it and smelling up the place. Clandestine food trays hide in the shadows.

The blues of the sea—so many shades from deep navy to lightest turquoise, depending on the light and the air. The greens of the plants stand heightened by the stark black of the volcanic rocks. The pale purple of the taro fried pie from McDonald’s.

The two best places take care in a car: the road to Hana (waterfalls, beaches, lava flows, mountains and valleys) and the climb to the dormant volcano Haleakalā—Hawaiian for “house of the sun (hairpin turns ascending to 10,023 feet, more valleys, the red terrain of Mars above the treeline, life above the clouds with lights so magnificent at sunset a child calls it Heaven).

And then you’ll have to come home. It’s too expensive to stay, not just the gas prices or the food prices or the rent prices but the lack of ways to earn the money for such things. Your chores will call you back. The elation continues.

The French writer Stendhal wrote of this ecstasy after in Florence, and as they often do, the psychologists call the effect the Stendhal syndrome. It’s not an official DSM-V condition, but apparently medical personnel routinely treat visitors to Michelangelo’s David for palpitations. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience at the birth of beauty. You carry it with you, that beauty, and whether or not it’s real or mathematical or Keat’s truth, you know you’ve received a great gift. You’re thankful you were well enough to come.

 

The Stendhal Syndrome:

Real or not, not in any

DSM, so named after

The writer (pseudonymous)

Who described his arrival at the tombs

Of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galilei

(Firenze, Basilica di Santa Croce).

His response—staggering, palpitations—

“Celestial sensations”:

The ramp up to Thorvaldsen’s Christus,

Summer 1995, first viewing, I, too,

Staggered and felt to weep

For more reasons than one.

At da Vinci’s Amboise tomb,

Stendhal had no sway.

Yes, awe at the genius, but the body-now-bones

Lay feet away from my feet.

Above my shoulder as I sit here,

A copy recalls but does not replicate

Those summer feelings, first viewing,

With a translucence through human-God

Fingers, cuticles even,

The artist thought to etch.

 

 

Working Hands

For many years, I worked interviewing people in their homes. The first 11 were not easy: My presence was not welcome because I was investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. The second 25 focused on entirely different criteria: Returning children to their families. One thing I learned became a motto: Don’t skip steps. The other thing I learned was to wait until I heard the most important thing, the thing that would guide all the rest of the things I would say.

Among the Things I Planned But Have Not Yet Finished is the podcast For the Girls of Laredo, written about here some many months ago. One hates to blame COVID for everything, but I think I could make a pretty good case if I don’t have to supply details. I haven’t given up the idea, and with this being Women’s History Month (International Women’s Day March 8, 2021), the concept still rings true. (Google’s animation on the 21st didn’t feature women in traditional roles, even a single one and not a nod to motherhood, which I found wrong, thereby making my own project seem off.) But that means my podcast will be apt.

In fact, I have done one interview, with the inspiration for the podcast, my daughter-in-law who builds furniture and decks. I had a good script, and things were going along fine. One of the questions, however, yielded an answer that was “the moment” described above.

“Many words describe difficulties: hurdles, barriers, closed doors, glass ceilings. Has anything stood in your way? How did you overcome that?”

Much of the rest of the interview had been expected, more or less. Her response to thing question was unforgettable. It’s the basis of the poem that follows. But I added more than the skill we were talking about (building furniture) because more women are in Hobby Lobby than in Harbor Freight. There are certain similarities, I realized. It was originally posted with a group I’m in (MoPoWriMo) which supplied the goal of a poem a day for February. Not necessarily a good poem, but I’ll quit talking and just let you read the thing.

Hobby Harbor

Is there swagger entering Harbor Freight,

More than Hobby Lobby?

The banks of carabiners—all sizes and colors—

No more tools than this year’s silks and dried

In tall black tubs, row by row.

Binders?

Hot glue guns

Soldering irons

Canvas?

Stretched for painting

Loose for protecting

Cutters, sealers, good lights,

Magnetic screw/pin holders.

 

One day, a selection of sawblades

Arrayed before me as I tested hefts and holds

(Having squinted elsewhere assessing 2x4s),

A man shopping for replacement hacksaw blades

Found the day’s deal, 10-pack on for $2.99,

But he stayed, looking at me, and then asked,

“What are you doing?”

Took some courage, I’d think.

So I explained my project, the current situation,

The current problems.

He stood silent a second or two, then asked,

“You know what you’re doing?”

Beyond courage there.

I nodded, said sure,

And without pausing this time, he asked,

“Let me see your hands.”

His just looked, didn’t touch, while I explained

This scar (from batting a kid away from danger,

That, electric nail gun. No missing fingers, I joked.

Working hands.

He nodded, said, “Hmmm. Good job”

And walked away. I see where I might have been offended.

I wouldn’t have asked him what he was doing if I found him

In the beading supplies at my other haunt.

It’s good to know two worlds, two lingos,

Neither better, both fraught.

A good pride, I hope, when I have proven worthy

And turn to making moons.

 

 

Silencing, Slicing, and WandaVision: Seeking Peace

Three things caught my attention this week. At first they seemed unrelated, and in some ways, they are. On Monday, a Christian shocked me. On Tuesday, a tweet that seemed shocking turned out to be a misrepresentation of something that was said elsewhere, which shouldn’t shock anyone these days. Wednesday through Friday, I watched WandaVision, which, shockingly, I liked.

First, listening to a scholarly lecture on Christianity in society, I didn’t expect to be surprised. But things got interesting. When the speaker began discussing the movement called Christian Nationalism, it became clear we were going to be political. He showed two clips, one of a Black pastor urging the congregation to be better at charity and one of a white pastor talking about taking America back. The differences were apparent, and our speaker described what the second preacher was doing as Christian Nationalism. It was not a term I knew. Soon, however, the speaker (also a Christian) hijacked our opinions: These voices were “dangerous and must be silenced.” I was stunned. How could a practicing Christian say that about anyone? Why does he think Jesus was crucified? Or Lincoln? Or Gandhi? Or Joseph Smith? Martyrs of all religions and causes? Each of them was considered a threat of some kind who had to be silenced. If the solution ever worked, you’d think it would stop. Never happens. Except when it does:  witness protection (WITSEC) exists for a reason, Alexei Navalny et al poisoned, and (maybe?) Jeffrey Epstein. Silenced one way or the other. It’s possible to watch many YouTubes on the topic of Christian Nationalismw or buy many books, most of which are negative. There is a political party (“thankfully very small”). General beliefs include mandating observance of the Sabbath via Blue Laws, encouraging the birth of as many children as possible, and abolishing Social Security. As yet, I haven’t been able to pin down the danger here, but lots of people are making money with the books, etc., for what seems fringe to me. Yes, fear sells.

Second, much gets said about fake news, but Tuesday produced a sample of what happens when one person has an agenda and, intentionally or not, skews news in a certain direction. A lawyer named Tyler Bishop tweeted a brief exchange from a Supreme Court proceeding. He inserted wording that did not reflect what was asked then sliced away part of the answer. The meaning was drastically changed. He also used the phrase “this literally just happened” when, in fact, it hadn’t. Comments then show the success of his attempt to inflame, though I haven’t included those. Here is the tweet:

@TBishUp

“This literally just happened at the Supreme Court

Justice Barrett: What is the interest of the GOP in keeping (laws that suppress minority voters) on the books?

Republican Lawyer: It puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.”

Here is the transcript of the actual exchange:

JUSTICE BARRETT: “What’s the interest of the Arizona RNC in keeping, say, the out-of-precinct ballot disqualification rules on the books?”

CARVIN: “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretation of Section 2 hurts us, it’s the difference between winning an election 50-49 and losing an election 51 to 50.”

The obvious concern is the phrase “laws that suppress minority voters” because it is neither the letter nor the spirit of the actual law under consideration. Whether the law actually limits minority voting is the question, not the conclusion. This article includes a summary.  The GOP versus the Arizona RNC matters, of course, but leaving out half the rest of the response changes the speaker’s meaning. So much for the “literally.” I wonder, however, why Bishop would think no one would ask how such an egregious thing might be said. Merriam-Webster defines zero-sum game as a “situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it.” The point made by the attorney for the Republican party is that the vote is the prize, and if one side wins it, the other loses. That seems obvious enough, with no suggestion of suppression. To make his case stronger, Tyler Bishop needs to present his side, not an altered version of the other one. A caveat: It is not to say that the law in question may be tossed out once the arguments are presented. The concern is manipulation.

Third, a review of a Disney original based on Marvel characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision. Spin-offs have long been fan favorites, even back in the day. Rhoda was taken from The Mary Tyler Moore Show; All in the Family generated Maude and The Jeffersons; Law and Order, who knows? Hundreds of others span the decades. Movies are the same, of course, and sequels/prequels risk failure. The Mandalorian, based on a minor character in Star Wars lore, is not a personal favorite. The story is fine, but the dialogue (in my opinion) is wooden, predictable, and shallow, to the point of self-parody. This reviewer agrees with my conclusion if not my reasons; his are better. This one focuses on a single episode that involved eggs, not good on many levels. Apparently 91% of viewers—a staggering number—disagrees with me, and I’ve found that to disagree with them borders on sacrilege. I do like the way the Mandalorian says the word “child,” and I have watched every episode, but not with great interest.

All that prefaces WandaVision, which I would argue is not a spin-off but a tribute, both to the sitcoms that frame it and the lives of the superheroes who populate its universe.

It has always bothered me that Superman can’t just marry Lois and settle down to raise a family, superheroing on the side. Superficially, that is the premise of WandaVision. As newlyweds, the couple moves into a home that resembles the one in The Dick Van Dyke Show that ran 1961-66. The first episode references the gag that opens the earlier series when Vision does not stumble when he enters. [In fact, Van Dyke (according to this source, beginning at about 1:14:45) consulted on the set design so that the paint scheme so the colors would look the same as his even though they were at first in black and white. And yes, he’s still alive at age 95!] The first episode uses the trope of the boss coming for dinner. Even with the live audience (!), the meal disaster, the witch-save, and the boss-save, it’s puzzling somehow. The next episode, released at the same time, is based on Bewitched. Another witch-save with a gum-victimized Vision. Again, not particularly resonant.

Episode 3 brings changes, and it’s not just the addition of color. The premise of sitcoms through the decades begins to thin as odd things happen. Some don’t seem significant at first. Wanda becomes pregnant (how is that even possible?) and gives birth to twins within hours with the help of a mysterious Geraldine.  A neighbor pruning bushes begins to cut into the concrete fence separating the properties, and we learn that Geraldine has neither family nor home. It is becoming increasingly clear that things are not what they seem.

Rather than share spoilers, I’ll just say that the reasons for the conflicts and mysteries do not resolve easily, with some promising another season. This poignant, iconic scene from Superman (1978) gives a clue. A 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” uses the traditional three wish plot to show the horror of unintended consequences. The magnitude of what Wanda is causing takes some time, however. (Vision’s line has been written on many a heart: “But what is grief, if not love persevering?” Yes, out of context but still wonderful.)

But how to get all of this to a conclusion? Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He gave an acceptance speech, but there is also a lecture which in this case is more specific. The topic is memory. Wiesel was himself attacked by a Holocaust denier and worked tirelessly not only to keep the suffering of the Jews in the forefront but also the stories of any other group regardless of the oppressors. The next step, found in his last sentence, is this: “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.” Vision gives Wanda that gift. The struggles of politics take on such legalistic battles, and whether the field is the Supreme Court or the pulpit, the goal of peace seems rarely the goal. I find optimism harder and harder to support lately. Peace outside of the heart may be harder to find, so inner peace may need to be the goal for now, not the need to silence others or manipulate their words. As for Wanda, it’s a monumental struggle for each of us to accept loss; it’s what we make of it that matters.

 

The Stories of Our Lives: Soap Operas, Addictions, and Truths

It takes a story to explain the story about stories. We are blessed in our day to have leisure time that ideally we’d use for recreation: “refreshment of strength and spirits after work” says Merriam-Webster. The root is PIE “to grow.” And yet, we (I) plop on the couch and scroll the channels on which there is really not much to see. A friend who works 12-14 hours a day has seen all of Law and Order’s 20 seasons at least twice. Another knows all the iterations of Star Trek (9 if you don’t want to look, including animation, plus two more in the works). But these days…

So this is the first story. After hard work one day, my daughter-in-law asked her 11-year-old if he wanted to watch an episode of The Mentalist. He couldn’t, so I volunteered. This was problematic because it’s a thing they do together, and he didn’t want to miss their time together. She volunteered to begin with Season 1 Episode 1 for my benefit. And that’s all it took. We watched a few more before I left. I was hooked, one of the terms associated with addiction.

There are other words: shame (verb or noun), junkie (also used with “news”), withdrawal, bargaining, cold turkey, craving (not just chocolate), habit, rehab. The Century Dictionary, an older source now out of print, describes addiction as “a yielding to impulse, and generally a bad one.” Weakness, in other words, and I agree. A feeling of guilt ensued. One of my mantras is that there is no guilt if I have done nothing wrong. My favorite dictionary doesn’t have a root for certain, but some suspect the Old English gieldan “to pay for, debt.” I think my behavior may reflect that sad choice.

Perhaps because of that, I could get a lot done in that stage of addition, rewarding myself with an episode or ten after sweeping, mopping, hanging clothes, freezing food, until I felt I’d earned some tv time. Paying the debt with labor. But it wasn’t enough. I liked being in the world of good versus evil, clearly defined.

Now for the end of The Mentalist: Its story arc is specific to a certain serial killer who has minions in unsuspected places. He and the lead, Patrick Jane, claim each other as nemeses. I skipped to the last season and a half after 1-3. Maybe that’s a good sign. And the series ends happily even though there is a lot of shooting along the way. That should be vague enough not to be a spoiler.

This is in contrast with The Guardian, an earlier series with the same actor (Simon Baker) playing a guardian ad litem for abused kids, a premise based on my child welfare background. In fact, one of my positions was as legal liaison, responsible for finding guardians ad litem. Lots of bad things happen, Nicholas Fallin makes avoidable mistakes, and apparently it doesn’t end happily. I watched just one season but read about the rest after a friend said she didn’t like the ending. No addicted, says I!

But when I realized I was talking to the screen, I realized I was watching soap operas. One likes to entertain feelings of moral superiority. My grandmother watched two of them, Edge of Night and As the World Turns. She was a college-educated, well-read woman. But she was addicted. If she had to be out for some really important reason during these daily showings (live at the time, no way to record if you didn’t know), she’d spend significant time on the phone talking to her friends about what had happened. Every Friday was a cliff-hanger. Smarty-pants teen that I was, I looked down on all this. A weekly Star Trek episode was beloved, but it was obviously not the same. Obviously.

The tropes in soap operas are rare in the general population: amnesia, switched babies, returns from the dead, love triangles (well, mostly), and leukemia when it meant sure death. I hear brain tumors are now in. This clip from SNL’s The Sands of Modesto is set in the time of COVID. This full episode of The Californians, stereotypical.  Here is one from 1990, All My Luggage, featuring Susan Lucci of All My Children fame (41 years there, mostly recently heard on Ralph Wrecks the Internet). Really, parody of a genre some would consider its own parody is almost too easy. A comprehensive article here includes history and listings of shows. Prime time parodies are not numerous but do have reputations, for example Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks. Of particular interest is the global phenomenon. Turkish soaps are apparently widely popular, and Mexican telenovelas are the rage in Russia.

Personal side note full disclosure: Our friend Donny Boaz recently left The Young and the Restless after two years and 108 episodes. His name on the series, Phillip “Chance” Chancellor IV, is classic. When Donny had COVID, he couldn’t work, obviously, but his role was taken over for that time by another actor, a move that couldn’t happen in prime time. His character will just disappear without explanation: no plane crash, no car wreck, no brain tumor, and no one will replace him. Read all about it here in People!

Scholars also study the genre. This summary of some of the research is a light touch. On GoogleScholar, we see over 97,000 entries with articles through the last four decades and from around the world. One title, “The deconstruction of hermeneutic gender roles in South African soap operas,” you can read here and then tell me what it means. All this leads, however, to the importance of story, the narratives that both reveal and shape our lives.

This idea is explored briefly but significantly in this podcast by Fiona and Terryl Givens called “All Things New,” based on their new book by that name. That we are given stories externally doesn’t always resonate. We may not be at “Once upon a time, happily ever after,” but we would rather feel unique even as the patterns and rhythms suggest that human nature affects us all. Terryl Givens discusses the different narratives that provide meaning to us, that tell us the great How Things Are. For example, he says, Darwin tells us a story, Nietzsche another, and I’d add by extension that our politicians insist they have the right answers to how we should live and why. In fact, even if we don’t think we subscribe to any belief system, that is in itself a belief system.

Religions all offer stories as well. Christianity has actually presented different versions of itself since the apostles died. Augustine preferred the narrative of a fallen world with a “plan gone astray.” The Restoration rejects that model of salvaging and replaces it with one of exalting, as was intended from the beginning. The link to the podcast includes the text, which is quicker to get through. Consider that for a better understanding than I’ve given.

So how did we get from addiction to soaps to the gospel? Good question. The definition of literature is characters in conflict. Mysteries are popular because the conflicts are resolved when the murderer is found out. The opposite framework, then, would be soaps which build on conflict after conflict, week after week, year after year, with no resolution. The need for a constant flow of adrenaline becomes addictive, and as our lives ebb and flow, we add that adrenaline for excitement and a break from the dailiness of it all. When I found myself talking to the characters (“Just kiss her!”) or (“You shoulda seen that coming!), I knew that I was not in a good place. My only other addiction was to Tetris, many years ago. I looked forward to the children leaving for school and played off and on until it was time to get them. Had to go cold turkey.

There are, of course, real addictions to far more serious behaviors, but the scenarios and reactions are similar. The “Just Say No” campaign was not demonstrably effective. Aversion therapy (unpleasant association with the action) or exposure therapy (introducing the anxiety in a safe space). Detox. Still, loneliness and boredom lead to escapism. I know I should just read a good book. Probably should leave it at that, so wish me luck. But if you have something good to watch…