Friday, May 21, 2010

And the Grief Goes On

Last night, I came as close as I'll ever get to a Star Trek convention. No, I'm not a Trekkie, but I am a Lostie, and I gathered with my fellow fans of the soon-to-be dearly departed drama at the AMC River East for a Q&A with "Lost"'s dynamic creative duo, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. On a scale of 1-10, I'd rank this a solid 7 for pure geekiness.

Mind you, Cuse and Lindelof, or Darlton as they've been dubbed by some in the media, were in New York and I was in Chicago. But they technically were appearing "live," as the session was beamed from New York Times headquarters to 500+ Dharma stations, I mean theaters like mine, across the U.S. and Canada. I paid $12.50 for the privilege, and it wasn't even broadcast in 3-D.

Some of us--and I imagine that in total we numbered well into the thousands--had come for answers. Like "were you making this up as you went along?" and "What's up with Walt?" The short answers: A) Mostly not, honestly and B) The actor grew up. (As Lindelof noted, Malcolm David Kelley started out as a 12-year-old playing an 8-year-old. By the end of Season 1, his voice started doing the "Peter Brady" crack and the producers determined "We've got to get that boy on the raft, stat!") Some of us had come to show off our nifty Dharma jumpsuits. (One dude in NY was sporting an especially awesome "Not Penny's Boat" t-shirt that I spent half of the morning searching for online.)

But I suspect most of us, myself included, had come because, like Darlton themselves (itself?), we're "Elizabeth Kubler Ross-ing." We're greiving, and stuck in denial that this astounding television show, whose characters have been a part of our lives for 6 years, is, as of Sunday, no more. We're not ready for it to end.

So, after staying up late this week to catch Matthew Fox on Letterman, only to hear how happy Jack Shepard was to leave the island and move on to feature films, it was comforting to hear that Lindelof cried so hard watching the finale that he got kicked out of the recording studio where the brilliant Michael Giacchino was conducting the show's final musical notes.

What's made parting particularly difficult is that this sixth season has circled back to the near-perfect and much-beloved Season 1 in a nifty bit of symmetry. (Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly's resident Lost savant, predicted this last year.) In the same way that S1 flashbacks gave us greater insight to the characters, S6 flash sideways have shown us alternate shadings of these same individuals. "Let's give the audience the experience of getting to know these characters again in a different way," Cuse explained. Yet just as we've fallen for James Ford, detective, poof, he's gone.

Fans have not only become profoundly attached to these characters--witness the fury over Jin choosing to make his daughter an orphan, as if there really were a little 3-year-old Korean girl who was now parent-less--but they also feel deeply involved in the process of the show's development. Darlton have been particularly sensitive to fan reaction and have at times responded via various plot points, which made it feel as much our show as theirs. That kind of power can be dangerous. Lindelof reminded the audience that the whole Nikki & Paolo debacle of S3 was initially an answer to viewers questioning why, out of 40+ plane crash survivors, we had only ever met a dozen or so. On a more humorous note, Hurley's stash of Dharma ranch dressing was added to quiet detractors who wondered why Hugo hadn't gone all "Biggest Loser" and dropped some major tonnage. (This prompted Cuse to point out: "Nobody ever asked why Kate's hair looked so good." Or, I might add, how she kept finding t-shirts that fit like a glove.)

While Cuse & Lindelof were more than willing to cop to their mistakes (Nikki & Paulo, 'nuff said), they also deserve credit for tackling big ticket topics--on broadcast TV no less. "We set up this thematic debate of faith vs. empiricism. What's the cost of faith?" Cuse said. Try and find that on "CSI." They also upped the ante in a way that few other shows dare, which they signaled in the very first episode. People would die. OK, maybe it was just the Oceanic pilot, who had all of 5 minutes of screen time. But just when we felt comfortable that "Lost" was playing by established rules--extras are expendable--they knocked off Boone. He of the amazing cheekbones and eyebrows. And then they killed Shannon and Ana Lucia and Libby and Mr. Eko. And Charlie. Granted, they told us Charlie was going to die, but even after all of the carnage mentioned above, we didn't believe them. He was a hobbit for crying out loud. You don't kill off a hobbit.

Except they did. "The hardest plot point was killing Charlie," Cuse admitted. Having constructed a narrative path that dictated that outcome, they found themselves in the writers' room thinking "Oh, we are such bastards." But it also had the effect of telling viewers "no one is safe." Of keeping us on edge. Of instilling in us the troubling notion that we might not get a happy ending. Just like real life.

In the event we don't get that happy ending, Darlton has left us in good hands--each other's. When asked which television shows were their major influences, Lindelof referenced "Twin Peaks." (Cuse, who's like the senior partner to Lindelof's wise-cracking, pop culture-referencing junior associate, hearkened back to "Gunsmoke.") He'd watch it with his father and at the end of each episode, "We'd talk and say 'what just happened?'" In "Lost," he created a similar dynamic--a show that got people talking, and expounding crazy theories, and buying Dharma jumpsuits. A show that created not just fans, but a community. Like Lindelof, I watched the show with my dad (albeit in different time zones). And after each episode, I could count on a "WTF" phone call from Pops (which I would prepare for by reading every recap in sight in order to sound like a friggin' genius). By the end, I don't know if my dad even liked the show, but he stuck with it, for me, because it was something for us to share. I'll miss that.

Because I don't have cable--and perhaps not even if I did--the candidates (pun totally intended) to fill the gaping hole left by "Lost" are few if non-existent. Of late, I've grown fond of "Parenthood," but not in the way that I gave my heart to "Lost." (I like Peter Krause, but he's no Josh Holloway--with or without a shirt.)

"This show has provided us an opportunity to illuminate our ideas of faith," Cuse said. Characters started out as loners, came together and formed a sort of family (live together, die alone) and found strength in each other. "We all lifted each other up--that's what matters in life."


Friday, May 14, 2010

A Tyra Tirade

Tyra Banks, novelist. Someone shoot me now. Seriously. Put me out of my misery.

According to various news outlets, Banks is under contract for a three-book young adult fantasy series called "Modelland." It's about a girl trying to keep up with the beauty game at an elite school for supermodels, or Intoxibellas. I am not making this up. Tyra is (or, more likely, someone on Tyra's payroll).

I know it shouldn't bother me. Anymore than Lauren Conrad getting a book deal or the fact that Nicole Richie has an ISBN to her credit. But it does.

It bothers me because I've always wanted to be a writer. Lauren Conrad just wants to be famous. Ditto for Nicole, who also dabbles in TV and designing jewelry and clothes (as does Conrad). Writing isn't a calling, it's more like a pair of shoes for these girls--something to try on and discard if it doesn't fit or goes out of fashion.

Banks made a name for herself as a model, but has of late become more of a media personality, one who's admitted she's bent on Oprah-like world domination. Wikipedia lists her as a "businesswoman" and I imagine that, for her, inking a three-book deal was a simple transaction. A means to the end of extending the "Tyra brand."

For me, it would be a halleluia, tears-of-joy, pop-the-cork-on-the-champagne moment. The culmination of a life spent toiling in anonymity, sitting in front of a blank computer screen, staring at a blinking cursor that refuses to magically transfer the thoughts in my head into words on the page. Affirmation of my very existence. I might even tweet about it.

The first story I remember writing, back in the first or second grade, was a mystery involving a jewel heist. The thieves had hidden the stolen gems in a roll of Charmin for safe keeping, which Mr. Whipple discovered when he handled the toilet paper. It was not squeezably soft. Hardly the stuff of Jane Austen, but it was a start.

I won't bore you with all of the twists and turns that my life has taken since then. Suffice to say that I did not become the Next Great American Novelist. After a long and winding detour into the corporate world, I'm back at square one, trying to convince editors that I'm worthy of writing for their web sites--for free.

I would like Tyra to feel some of that pain. Before she pens a single word of "Modelland," I would like her to listen to lectures on structure and voice and narrative distance. I would like her to agonize over whether to use a semi-colon or a dash. I would like her to debate active versus passive verbs. I would like her to sit in a workshop and have her writing critiqued (aka, ripped to shreds), by her fellow students, to her face. I would like her to live with the knowledge that she'll never be great, and then to question whether she's even passably good. I would like her to have a passion for this one and only thing--writing--and to never have that dream come true.

The day Tyra's deal was announced, I received the latest in a slew of rejection letters. I spent two days staring at the envelope before I worked up the courage to open it. I already knew what was inside. When you see your own handwriting on your own self-addressed stamped envelope, you know the tidings won't be glad. I'm not sure which is more insulting: the fact that I have to pay for the postage to have news of my non-acceptance communicated to me or the fact that I mailed out a 30-page essay, which took painful months to craft, and in response I got a form letter that dared to wish me "best of luck!" when the deliverer of this chipper drivel was fully aware that the best of luck would have been having my essay published in their magazine.

I can't even soothe my wounded pride with a hefty dose of trashy TV. I flip on "Gossip Girl," only to see Dan, a high-school student for Christ's sake, have a piece accepted by The New Yorker. It's a wonder I ever get out of bed.

One could argue that Tyra has felt the sting of rejection as well. After all, models try out for lots of jobs that go to someone else. Sorry, I don't care. The mere fact that you call yourself a model suggests you have a certain impression of your appearance, which is that you're better looking than 99.999% of the other humans on the planet. If your ego gets taken down a peg or two, best of luck.

Except for that, according to Wikipedia, Tyra was a phenom out of the gate. I quote: "Within Banks' first week in Paris, designers were so entranced by her presence on the runway that she was booked for an unprecedented twenty-five shows--a record in the business for a newcomer." (I have a slight suspicion that this copy was lifted from Banks' PR materials. Who, in the Wiki-universe, says "entranced"?)

That's what really ticks me off. Tyra already won the genetic lottery. She's tall. She's beautiful. She turns heads. She has a commanding presence. She's a freaking supermodel. That she gets to add author to her resume isn't fair.

It isn't fair to anyone who's ever clutched a copy of "Jane Eyre" as their personal bible, as proof that the shy, bookish, average-looking woman eventually wins the day with her smarts and her wit. We'll concede categories such as modeling and acting and the chance to win The Bachelor to the pretty girls as long as they keep their long legs and perfect hair out of our Plain Jane territory--writer, anthropologist, Green Peace activist, Supreme Court justice. We'll allow Tyra & Co. their superficial rewards as long as we're left with everything else of substance.

Tyra Banks, author, blows my world order out of the water. It doesn't just rub salt in the wound of "best of luck," it shoves a bayonet in it, twists it and rips out my guts.

At least I get to write about it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Bird in Hand

If I ever turn terrorist and get picked up by the CIA, they can skip the waterboarding. If they really want to torture me, all they have to do is make me listen to the sound of a trapped bird flailing around in a metal cage. I'd sell my own mother up the river to make it stop.

I learned the amount of mental anguish a single little bird can inflict when one became stuck in the duct work of our condo late on a Saturday night. It announced its presence with a thump, and then a flurry of scraping ensued. At first, we thought the sound was coming from outside--such is the shoddy insulation of our building that conversations conducted on the street below sound as though the people are chatting in our bedroom. But no, as anyone familiar with horror movies from the 1970s will immediately recognize, the noise was coming FROM INSIDE OUR OWN WALLS!

Mind you, at this point, we had no idea what kind of critter we were dealing with. The scraping suggested feet or claws, the fluttering suggested wings or a tail, which narrowed our options to a rat or squirrel, a bat or bird. Our early bet was on bat, solely because our neighbor had one in her duct work last year. Her account of the ordeal was so dramatic that we've taken to calling her Bat Girl (admittedly because we're not sure of her actual name). Highlights included her locking her cellphone, with the bat, in her bedroom at 3 a.m. and trekking to the corner gas station in her pajamas to beg to use the phone to call Animal Control. As if Animal Control works nights and weekends, but such is the mindset of someone whose home has been invaded by a bat at 3 a.m.

With this cautionary tale in the back of our minds, we immediately determined to 1) stay fully clothed (it was closing in on 11 p.m.), 2) keep cellphones handy, 3) close all of our vents, which reminds me, we need to reopen them, and 4) grab a tennis racket. That last was my husband's idea. I'm not sure it was the most appropriate weapon of choice--I've seen his backhand and frankly, it's not all that lethal.

I suppose the simple and smart thing to do would have been to try and free the thing and somehow coax it back outside. But that would have required a certain amount of courage and while I don't mean to call Dave's cojones into question, I'll readily admit that when it comes to creatures of any sort, I'm a complete and total wuss. I deeply fear them all, and never so much as contemplated coming face to face with whatever was roaming around our ceiling.

So I flipped through the phone book, looking under "exterminators," which does not exist as a Yellow Page category. Gee, and publishers wonder why print is dead. Google at least has the courtesy to ask, "'Exterminator'? Did you mean 'Pest Control?'" I managed to find one company that touted its 24/7 service, along with plenty of others whose advertisements included pictures of the very pests I was trying mightily to avoid. Who, pray tell, thinks a photo of a rat is going to entice anyone to do anything other than turn the page as quickly as possible? Anyhow, 24/7 turned out to be a bit of misnomer; basically it meant that the company answered their phone on weekends, to set up appointments for Monday. Monday? We could be rat kibble by then.

I don't know how we slept, but eventually the thing quieted down--in our dreams, it found its way back from whence it came--and we went to bed. With the tennis racket at our side.

The creature woke us up at 7 a.m. with his thrashing, which was louder and more furious than the night before, sounding, I swear, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a drumroll. (Yes, it could have been a she, but I tend to assign the male gender to all rodents and pests. Cartoons always show female critters with cute little bows in their hair and there was nothing cute about our invader.) Dave patrolled the hallway with his racket, as the thing moved from the position it had taken up between our bathrooms toward the vicinity of the furnace.

I wanted it gone.

A teeny tiny part of me felt a teeny tiny bit of sympathy for the thing, which obviously was frightened and wasn't any happier than we were to find itself our unwelcome guest. I pictured a human, bound in a straight jacket, bouncing off the walls of a padded room. But my sympathy had its limits and mostly I wanted the thing to get the hell out of my home and stop freaking me out. A second go around with the Yellow Pages produced better results. Animal Trackers promised to send someone out within a couple of hours, which wasn't soon enough for my liking, but better than Monday. While we waited, our visitor grew increasingly impatient, banging itself against the ducts in what seemed like its death throes. I tried to drown out the noise by putting on headphones, but I couldn't concentrate on the music. Even though I couldn't hear the thing, I still knew it was there. I'm not proud to admit this, but I started to whimper, "Make it go away, make it go away." "Are you crying?" Dave asked. "No." But I wanted to.

Jim from Animal Trackers arrived at the midway point of his one-hour window. He exuded the confidence of a cowboy, only in a logo-ed polo shirt and ball cap. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if he had tipped his hat and said, "Don't you worry 'bout a thing little lady."

Instead of a holster and six-shooter, he came armed with a net. "I'm going to open the vent," he advised. "If it gets loose and starts running around, don't panic." Don't panic? Seriously? If the thing got loose and started running around, the very first thing I absolutely, positively would do would be to panic. That's when I decided to shut myself away in our spare bedroom, er, to protect the computer.

As you might have guessed, the bird did not saunter out and calmly step into Jim's waiting net. It started flying around, air brushing Dave's head, and zoomed straight for the master bedroom, which we'd stupidly left unguarded, door wide open. "My clothes!" I yelled from behind my barricade. I pictured the bird leaving a trail of poop--scared shitless, as it were--over my entire wardrobe. Jim eventually barehanded the elusive starling and put him in a cage. My hero. Animal Trackers pledges to humanely trap its prey but at that moment, I would have gladly looked the other way and let Jim break the damned thing's neck.

Here's the thing that gets me about the whole experience: it was a bird. Birds are like 6-inches tall and weigh all of a pound. Even if it were our worst-case scenario, a rat or a squirrel, we'd still have a huge height advantage. Aside from, say, being accosted by a bear or a tiger, people are tops on the food chain. Every shred of logic indicates that we shouldn't be afraid of small rodents and other pests. And yet we are. We're terrified of spiders and roaches and mice, worms and wasps and tiny lizards, when it most assuredly ought to be the other way around. I'm not sure why this is so, I suspect part of it has to do with the filth and squalor and disease associated with many of these pests, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that logic isn't really part of the equation, at least not where the pest is concerned. You can't reason with a roach--"Hey, buddy, get out of my sink, you don't belong." You can't tell a bird, "Dude, you're in our ceiling duct. Turn right, walk straight to the furnace, fly up two stories and exit at the chimney vent." Animals operate on instinct, which makes them unpredictable and wild and out of control. Not to mention they have teeth and claws, much sharper than our own pathetic incisors and fingernails, and they're not afraid to use them. Where we're taught to avoid a fight, they're wired to attack.

To be fair, not all of us are overcome by this fear. I came across a guy on Twitter (TomDark9, whom I've identified only so that you can avoid him) who tweeted: "A very busy wild bird has been building 2 nests in our living room for a week. Leaving door open so he can get an early start." If Tom invites you to dinner, be sure to take your tennis racket.

But most of us live indoors to keep the wild at bay. We mark our territory with walls and roofs and, rather foolishly, expect the animal kingdom to get the message. Keep out. If you want to come inside, you're supposed to ring the buzzer and if I know you or you've brought pizza, I'll let you in. The fact that critters don't know their place, that they insist on gaining entry behind my back--through a hole in a window screen or a crack under the door--leaves me feeling vulnerable, and not particularly hospitable. You don't come sneaking in through the ducts and expect a welcome wagon. I've got Jim on speed dial.