All posts by Lane

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached

I remember Beirut

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir, Graphic Novel
  • Summary
    • The memories of a childhood spent in the middle of no man’s land, during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Character Empathy
    • Characters are sketched very simply, but in a way that doesn’t diminish them. In the same way that a silhouette can trigger a more visceral reaction than a photograph, the characters here don’t suffer even a little for the brief glimpses you get of them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Simultaneously light and thought provoking. I brought it to work and finished it in one lunch break, then was mulling over it for days later. It’s sad, but in many ways also beautiful and hopeful.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • As you can no doubt see from the cover, the art is absolutely beautiful.
    • The contrast between the perspective of Zeina and her brother, for whom all of this is normal, and their parents, who remember the old days and are trying to give their children a normal life despite everything. It’s understated and perfect.
    • There is a story about a terrible barber that I absolutely loved. I can’t explain why, but something about it was immediately familiar and made me laugh. You’ll just have to get the book and see what I mean. 
    • Almost every sentence in the book starts with “I remember,” but it never gets tiresome. It just pulls you straight through. I don’t know how she does that.
  • Content Warnings
    • Although the time is brutal, there is no graphic violence. It’s more about psychology. How does the human mind adapt to a world where violence is your next door neighbor? It’s about damage, but also resilience, and finding joy and beauty in the little things.
  • Quotes
    • “I remember that during the war, the school bus skipped our neighborhood. The neighborhood’s alleys were close to the demarcation line and had a dangerous reputation. The bus would stop at Ward’s ice cream parlor at 6:30 every morning and 3:30 every afternoon. By virtue of being on the edge of the zone where the bus didn’t dare go, Ward’s had been turned into a bus stop.”
    • “I remember back when you could still smoke in planes. I remember that during the war, we were short on water, bread, electricity, and gas… but never cigarettes. I remember that every living room had a platter with packs of cigarettes on it. The hostess would offer them to her guests, as if she were passing around chocolates.”
    • “I remember my brother collected bits of shrapnel. I remember that after my brother’s outings with Chucri, he would spread his loot out all over the coffee table. Then he would put the shrapnel away in a basket my mother had given him. I remember that I had taken to leaving my backpack by my bed at night. In my backpack, I had everything I wanted to take with me, if we had to run.”
    • “I remember old Kit Kat wrappers. I remember the three steps before eating: ripping through the glossy red paper, folding back the white tissue paper, and crinkling up the foil.”
    • “I don’t remember the last day of the war. But I remember the first time you could take a real shower.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

Where the Line Bleeds

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Drama
  • Plot Summary
    • Upon graduating from a poor high school near New Orleans, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe look for work. Joshua finds it, but Christophe doesn’t, and turns to pot dealing. As Joshua becomes afraid of the path Christophe may be following, and Christophe becomes resentful of Joshua’s good luck, both struggle to keep the relationship that has let them survive this far. 
  • Character Empathy
    • The two protagonists are lovingly detailed. Some of the secondary characters are a little less fleshed out, but on the whole, I liked all of the main characters, even while I felt the need to scream “what are you doing? Don’t do that thing! That won’t end well for you!” 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The pace here is simultaneously luxurious and suspenseful. The book takes time to set up the characters, so you never have to ask “why do I care?” You care because you know Christophe and Joshua, and you know what they’re going to do, and if they don’t get through their shit okay then so help me… and once the book has you in that position, it just lets you stew, for page after page while the tension builds and the climax is inched towards. It’s agony, but god help me if I didn’t love it anyway. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The scenes are full of the kind of sensory details that too many authors neglect. Jesmyn Ward knows that to really put readers into a scene, you shouldn’t just tell them what a thing looks like. We need to know smells, sounds, tastes and textures. I can still remember a scene where their grandmother was preparing shrimp, not because of anything special that happened, but just because I really felt like I was there.
    • Teenage characters who actually feel like dumb teenage boys, while still being incredibly sympathetic. Not many people can pull that off. 
    • No spoilers, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t like the ending and I very much did. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Some fistfights and obviously drug use (mainly alcohol and marijuana). Without going too deep into my personal politics, I think the substance abuse is handled very well; not demonized, not glorified, just portrayed as something people are vulnerable to when they have nothing else in their life to look forward to.
  • Quotes
    • “Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love.”

New Youtube Channel!

So, my best friend Sister Mark and I have started a Youtube channel, Lectio Fictina, where we read our favorite lines from our favorite books and ridiculously overthink them. We are very much at crappy-webcam-in-a-bathroom level quality, but hey, we’re both broke. Anyway, we’re having fun making them, and if you want to check them out I hope you have fun watching them.

My favorite so far is our third one. It has a kitty.

The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton

people could fly

  • Genre
    • Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • A series of tales passed down by generations of Black storytellers, gathered from collections and primary sources by award winning children’s author Virginia Hamilton.
  • Character Empathy
    • As with oral folklore found around the world, the characters are more archetypes than individuals. However, this book does bring subtle but powerful empathy for it’s storytellers, as Virginia Hamilton points out the elements of the stories that came from the struggles of slavery and reconstruction. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The loving care put into this project is evident on every page. So many of these stories have either been erased from mainstream folklore collections, or only presented in whitewashed or minstrelized versions. This was a work that came from a passionate hunger to put these stories back in their rightful place.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I loved the variety in this collection. There’s humor, fairy tales, animal fables, riddles and tall tales. I love studying the common roots of fairy tales, and I saw ones that clearly shared DNA with stories I’ve read since childhood, and ones that were brand new to me. Either way, I was a very happy folklore geek.
    • Each story comes with a note on the cultural and historic context, which again made the folklore geek in me really happy.
    • Virginia Hamilton worked very hard to add in elements of the original dialects, enough to make it evocative and honor the original voices but not enough to confuse the average reader (as opposed to those old Uncle Remus collections that are almost unreadable). In my opinion, she hit that balance perfectly.
    • Most of the stories are pure fun, but the title story was so beautiful I honestly got a little choked up. 
  • Content Warnings
    • It is intended to be suitable for parents to read to their children, so there’s nothing to talk about here. 
  • Quotes
    • (from the author’s introduction) “These tales were created out of sorrow. But the hearts and minds of the black people who formed them, expanded them, and passed them on to us were full of love and hope. We must look on the tales as a celebration of the human spirit.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Fences

When this episode begins, Connie is waltzing through Whit’s End, narrating her sundae-making like she’s on a game show and complimenting everyone in sight. Her father is coming to town. As we learned in previous episodes, Connie’s parents have divorced, a rarity in Odyssey, and her father lives back in California. We, the audience, have never met him, and it’s implied that she has barely seen him since they moved. So it’s devastating when, upon arriving home, her mother says he cancelled his trip.

Apparently her father’s new wife’s mother is sick. Connie tries to be understanding, but she can’t help but mope through life for the next several days, and things only get worse when she learns that her father has a chain of upcoming business trips and meetings, and so has no plans to reschedule his visit with her.

Whit and Eugene, her coworker, notice her sudden change in behavior and ask her about it. She is honest about how she feels; miserable, mixed with a little guilt over feeling miserable. No matter how often she tells herself the reasons for his cancellation were out of his control, the hurt will not subside. So she goes through the motions of her ordinary life, hoping that eventually non-nauseating emotions will return again. Whit and Eugene have an aside about how she is behaving. They agree on the following; 1. Connie is upset about her father, 2. They want to help her, 3. Connie won’t let them help her.

The first point is rather obvious. She says as much, explicitly. The second is an admirable response, and an expected one. The third, however, is bizarre. The problem is not that she won’t let them help her, but that there’s nothing they can do to help. Connie’s sadness is not an inappropriate reaction. Whit and Eugene cannot change her father’s mind, nor can they fly to California and drag him back to see her, and furthermore Connie can’t ask them to. Instead of accepting this, they frame it as Connie being stubborn, and hope for her to get her mind back on God. It feels almost like they are blaming her for not enabling them to fix her. What do they expect? Do they want her to give them an itemized list of things that will make her feel better? There’s nothing wrong with her. A truly upsetting thing happened, and she’s going to be blue for a little while.

Now, I can think of one thing they could do that might make her feel better, if not immediately, then in the long run; validate her pain. Part of what’s hurting is the contradiction between her conscious desire to defend her father, and her unconscious understanding that something is up with his behavior. And one character does do this, albeit accidentally. Her elderly neighbor, Mr. Mitchell, is having a fence put up, courtesy of his son, who hopes it will help protect him. While they watch the construction, they chat about family. Connie asks, if his son lived in California, and couldn’t come visit, but Mr. Mitchell could get around more easily, how often would he visit? Mr. Mitchell says he would make the trip four or five times a year. Connie is dumbfounded, but Mr. Mitchell doesn’t think it’s a surprising answer. He loves his son, and no matter the distance he would have to make visiting a priority. Connie realizes that the problem isn’t her. It’s her father. Yes, life gets in the way, but the problem isn’t that this one time, he had trouble with his schedule. The problem is that Connie, his own child, is about seventieth on his list of priorities, which just makes him a shitty human being.

What does this revelation make Connie? A feminazi.

No, seriously. That’s what they think the next logical step in this character arc should be.

She gives a Bible study lesson that consists of listing every man who ever screwed up in the Bible, quoting verses that announce that men are filth (it’s never pointed out that she’s using examples where the Bible is actually saying humanity is filth and using “men” and “all actual human beings” interchangeably because sexist archaic language) and making posters of male models with their heads cut off. This causes every girl in her Bible study to spontaneously form the Men-Haters Club and go around locking boys in closets.

Again, I’m not making this up. That is literally what happens; they corner guys, lecture them on how awful they are, and lock them in closets. Because of one crappy lesson.

There is so much wrong with this. First, if Connie has the ability to so radically change people’s behavior with one lesson, that is a seriously misapplied talent. She should be going into peace talks and hostage negotiations. Second, this reaction makes no sense as a consequence of what happened to her. I thought it was weird even when I was a kid, and now I find positively enraging. I’ve also known actual women who, after a series of traumatic experiences, went through a distrusting-men-generally phase, but mostly it’s nothing like this. They are still basically tolerant and get-along-y towards the real human beings in their lives, but take a little longer to really trust new men, and get really into analyzing the ways that male privilege and toxic masculinity does teach men to solve problems in aggressive, hurtful ways. That’s not to say people who aren’t truly, actively mean to men in general don’t exist, just that there’s really only one type of person who does that; an asshole. Connie’s not an asshole. That’s what gets me really mad. Why the show is willing to assassinate Connie’s character like this? Of all the ways for her to act out, why the hell did they go with something uncharacteristically mean and petty?

I’m sure the answer has nothing to do with a desire to squeeze in a message about how feminism equals men hating, so as to discourage their female listeners from paying attention to actual feminists.

Anyway, Whit gets mad at her and tells her not to come back to Whit’s End until she gets her act together. He’s not firing her, he’s just… grounding her? I’m not saying it’s unreasonable for him to keep her out like this in response to those things, just pointing out that his role in her life is weird. He switches so frequently between mentor who happens to also be her boss and boss who happens to be her mentor that it gets hard to figure out the boundaries.

The resolution is shitty and contrived. Mr. Mitchell has a heart attack, on his porch and out of sight because of his fence, and he nearly dies but a series of coincidences let Connie find him just in time. She’s a hero, and Whit arrives to lecture her about how the fence that nearly killed him is a metaphor for the bad writing attitude that is cutting her off from people who want to take care of her. If she wants to get better, she needs to let people help her, and also God. God will fix everything, and if he hasn’t already it’s because she didn’t let him. Connie says that he’s right, and she’s now suddenly her normal happy self. Her father’s still a piece of shit, and he’s still rejecting her in a way that would fuck up a real human being in a serious long term way, but she is totally fine, because she realized her whole life can be explained with a metaphor about fences.

I was torn between putting this under the upcoming social issues theme, to talk about the shitty straw man representation of feminism, and mental health, to talk about what they teach kids about how to handle stressful, painful situations. It ultimately went under the latter because I think the straw feminist problem of the former is fairly obvious; too obvious to even be worthy of analysis. What’s more insidious is the fact that they let a misguided attempt at making fun of feminism get in the way of handling an important character moment for one of their most significant cast members. Connie is being rejected by her father. That is one of the most painful experiences possible. Yet, instead of showing how she gradually goes through a grieving process and eventually arrives at a semblance of acceptance and closure, they force her to lash out in a way that is out of character, then berate her for not being perfectly well behaved throughout the entire episode.

There is nothing complex or constructive here. Worse, because her actions do not resemble actual human behavior, this show, which prides itself on being a moral authority for kids, does not leave them with any constructive guides on how to handle real pain. Instead it has aphorisms about shutting people out and how that’s bad; it’s true, but without a well-constructed story, those aren’t enlightening. They’re just generic cliches. AIO is capable of writing complex character stories, as we saw last week. But unfortunately, this type of story, where they go for a contrived, cheap plot device, an obvious epiphany, and no real character growth, is far more common.

Final ratings

Best Part: the brief moment of happiness at the beginning

Worst Part: The Men-Hater’s Club

Story Rating: Contrived and awkward. D –

Moral Rating: Remember everything positive I about the last episode? This is the complete opposite of that. Also D –

Rose, by Li-Young Lee

Rose

  • Genre
    • Poetry, Free Verse
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of memories, beautifully told in free verse
  • Character Empathy
    • Tender and immersive; his family is a main topic, and each poem made me feel like they were a part of me, just as they are a part of him.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Soothing like a lullaby. I could have finished this book in a day, but after a few poems I wanted to take a break and luxuriate in the impressions for a little while. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • At first I thought this was just a collection of lovely moments, and I was all right with this. Once I had begun the third section, though, I realized it had been telling me a story all along; one so personal and honest I felt oddly privileged to have been allowed to read it. I won’t spoil it here. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Not applicable
  • Quotes
    • “It’s late. I’ve come to find the flower which blossoms like a saint dying upside down. The rose won’t do, nor the iris. I’ve come to find the moody one, the shy one, downcast, grave, and isolated.”
    • “I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater. He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back. It is the sweater he wore to America, this one, which I’ve grown into, whose sleeves are too long, whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner. Flamboyant blue in daylight, poor blue by daylight, it is black in the folds.”
    • “Other words
      that got me into trouble were
      fight and fright, wren and yarn.
      Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
      Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
      Wrens are small, plain birds,
      yarn is what one knits with.
      Wrens are soft as yarn.
      My mother made birds out of yarn.
      I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
      a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.”

An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black

  • Genre
    • Drama, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of William Bellman, 19th century English entrepreneur, starting with the day when he was ten years old and killed a rook. On that day, he attracts the personal interest of Mr. Black, a man with a strange connection to death itself. That interest, for good and for bad, will follow William through every joy and every tragedy of his life.
  • Character Empathy
    • These is another of those books where even the minor characters get unexpected layers. The main characters, meanwhile, are some of the most nuanced and engaging that I’ve ever read. William is a great protagonist; bright, warm hearted and gifted, yet relatably flawed. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It has a richness of language and theme, a luxurious pace that doesn’t get boring, and a naturally developed Victorian countryside setting. I discovered Diane Setterfield a year or two ago, and she immediately became a favorite. Her books make me feel like I’m reading Wilkie Collins or Jane Austen back when they were first published. That is, I don’t feel like I’m reading a modern author mimicking classic literature. I feel like I have been transplanted back into the 19th century, and am reading something contemporary in the past. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This book is full of death, but it’s not a depressing book. It’s a book about a brilliant man who can conquer nearly everything, except death. It’s about how that can destroy you, but also how rich and beautiful life is between birth and death. It’s about hope and rebirth as much as death and decay.
    • The magical elements are ambiguous without pretension. I love some mystery in my fantasy, but in so many books, the mystery doesn’t conjure up a sense of wonder so much as an image of the author wiggling their fingers and saying, “woo-oo-ooo-ooo!” Not so here. In this book, everything is warm and happy and logical until suddenly it’s not, because that’s death. It’s not mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It’s mysterious for the sake of being honest about the thing that takes us all by surprise.
    • Sections are broken up with passages on the biology and mythology of corvids, told by an anonymous narrator. It’s creepy and fascinating and cool as fuck. 
    • Most of these I review after one read, but this is one I re-read within a few months, and caught approximately three thousand things I missed the first time around. I already want to read it again.
    • A minor gay character who is really likable and has a moderately happy life. It ends eventually, but for once that doesn’t feel like gay erasure. It’s just that the entire point of this book is that, eventually, all lives end.
  • Content Warnings
    • One attempted suicide. Lots of deaths, mostly not graphic.
  • Quotes
    • “The rook is a skilled survivor. He is ancient and has inhabited the planet longer than humans. This you can tell from his singing voice: his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute, and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers, and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself.”
    • “His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her tea cups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.”
    • “People remembered. They wept and they grieved. In the spaces between, they were glad that the leeks were doing well this year, envied the bonnet of the neighbor’s cousin, relished the fragrance of pork roasting in the kitchen on Sunday. There were those that registered the beauty of a pale moon suspended behind the branches of the elms on the ridge.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Letting Go

This week I’m going to talk once again about an episode that does better than average. My current theme is mental health, and this episode starts on the topic of grief.

This episode follows Zachary, who lost his father in a car accident that also left him in a wheelchair. He comes home early one day to find his mom, Eileen, being walked home by a guy. This guy is Blake, who she met at work and has started dating. She was waiting to see how this worked out before telling her son, and now that Zachary knows, they decide to all get dinner together.

All is a foursome, not a threesome; Blake lost his wife to cancer several years ago and has a daughter, Jill. Throughout dinner, Jill is sweet and chatty. Zachary tries to follow suit as Blake asks him about his interests. Unfortunately, Zachary quickly realizes that Blake is faking interest in science and model trains in order to connect with him. The longer the conversation goes on, the more stilted and uncomfortable it becomes.

Eileen convinces Zachary to give Blake and Jill a second chance, and they go out to the mall a few days later. Jill drags Eileen off to look at cute hats, and Blake attempts to impress Zachary with his pitching skills at a speed throw. After boasting about his college days, he throws an utterly pitiful fastball and nearly throws out his back. This actually nearly creates an opportunity for some real bonding; Zachary prefers laughing at Blake, the actual human being, rather than making stiffly polite chitchat with Blake, the guy reciting All The Right Things. Blake tries to capitalize on this banter with an invitation to a baseball game, but this kills the mood. It’s only later that he learns that ball games used to be Zachary’s guy time with his father.

Despite these fumblings, the four continue to hang out as a group. One day, Jill corners Zachary and starts talking future plans. She hasn’t seen her father so happy in ages, and is one hundred percent ready for a new Mom, to the point that she has already been researching wheelchair accessible houses for them all to live in. Full points for good intentions, but she freaks Zachary out, understandably. This prompts a confrontation between boy and potential-stepfather. When Blake comes over a few days later to pick up Eileen for a theater date, Zachary asks him point blank if he plans on marrying her.

Blake doesn’t know yet, but he does really like her. He counters with his own honesty challenge; what does Zachary really think of them? The honest answer is that Zachary doesn’t like the way Blake is rushing his way into their lives. Blake sees his point, but feels the need to remind Zachary that more peoples feelings are at stake than just his.

Afterwards, Blake finds himself conflicted. He postpones their theater date to instead go out to dinner and talk. He does feel bad for moving so quickly, and understands how this must feel to Zachary, who hasn’t had nearly as long to move on as Jill has. When Eileen comes home to tell Zachary about this, she finds him watching old home videos of his dad’s birthday. The anniversary of which, by the way, is tomorrow, the same day that Blake and Eileen have moved their theater date to.

That morning, Blake finds out that Eileen has taken the day off work, and goes to check on her. He learns she is being hit unexpectedly hard by her former husband’s birthday, and tells her how his wife’s birthday has the same effect on him. He offers to drive her and Zachary out to the cemetery, even though it’s a two hour trip.

At the grave site, the two of them reminisce. Zachary’s dad had a great sense of humor; Eileen tells a story about how he made her crack up in the middle of their wedding vows. Zachary realizes that, like Jill, he wants to see his Mom happy like that again. Eileen has her own realization. She never gave Zachary the “he’s not a replacement for your Dad” speech. There is a difference between being open to new, good experiences and forgetting the old ones.

Zachary says he’s ready to give Blake another chance, and a while later, they all go to a baseball game together. As they pile into the car, Zachary finds himself talking to Blake, not like a Dad, not like a distrusted doppelganger, but just like a couple of people who are excited to see some baseball together.

What makes this episode work is that Zachary isn’t rushed into a moral epiphany. He is allowed to have mixed feelings, moments of frustration, and conversations that don’t end in everything being magically better. Instead, he goes through a variety of reactions, none of which is perfect but each of which moves him a little closer to a healing. Nor does anybody else react perfectly. Everyone is in a new situation, and everyone makes at least one mistake that they have to learn to get past.

Like many shows (secular and religious) AIO often ends on a moment of revelation, as if all flawed behavior could be fixed by just realizing what was wrong. The reality is that healthy, appropriate reactions to tough times are a skill, just like writing or cooking or running a marathon. With any skills, no matter what you think should happen, actually doing it is another matter. There will be mistakes made before the desired result is reached. Epiphany therapy shows just set up people to believe that, if they can’t just will their emotions into matching what they think they should feel, there is something wrong with them. Worse, they can lead to people supporting those who are struggling to think that, if the grieving or hurting person just understood how they were supposed to feel, they would stop being so inconveniently miserable. We need more stories like this, that show what realistic adjustment looks like.

Unfortunately, this approach is pretty rare on Adventures in Odyssey. Over the next few weeks, I will get into some examples that are more typical of how they approach pain, grieving and mental health crisises.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of options I could pick from. For purely subjective and arbitrary reasons, I like the moment when Blake messes up the speed throw and his perfect nice guy facade to reveal a still pretty nice guy.

Worst Part: I honestly can’t think of a scene in this episode that didn’t feel authentic and moving.

Moral Rating: Honest and affirming without being cloying or preachy. A+

Story Rating: Well rounded characters with relatable conflicts resolved realistically. Also an A+