Archive for July, 2012


Awe-some Feeling

Throughout the summer Olympics going on right now, TV watchers and live audiences are often awestruck and inspired by the level of competition as well as the individual stories of what athletes sacrifice in order to participate in the games.

Even the opening ceremony, put together by Danny Boyle, and featuring Queen Elizabeth as a bond girl, depicted jumping out of a plane to land right in the stadium, resulted in a jaw-dropping reaction.

For me, one of the most inspiring stories involved black US gymnast John Orozco. Simply being African-American in a sport dominated by white athletes in the US, Orozco excelled early, despite being from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, NY. His father found a flyer advertising free gymnastics lessons for disadvantaged youths, and Orozco carved out a niche for himself early. Though he’s only nineteen, he dominates many meets. It’s always inspiring to see someone overcoming overwhelming odds to rise above what is expected for you in your life.

That’s just one story among many. We as audience members cheer on many individuals who achieve success simply by participating in the games. I myself was awestruck by the 23 year old Irish gymnast Kieran Behan competing yesterday. He had been told, at one point, that he would never walk again, but he refused to bow down to all that held him back, and though he became overwhelmed by emotions as he competed, he had realized a lifelong dream.

I recently read an article claiming that awe-inspiring events which we witness can actually improve our mental health. The newspaper The Independent reported that having an experience of awe also makes us “nicer” people, more patient, and creates a feeling of satisfaction as well as changing people’s perception of time. People in the study, exposed to jaw-dropping experiences, reported that the no longer felt time rushing them along. They felt they had more time available to them.

In this respect, awe had a positive impact on decision-making and sense of well-being. One of the conclusions of the study is that experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and they were less distracted by stressors.

So the lesson, I suppose, is to feel free to cheer on others and celebrate their accomplishments. It just might improve your life.

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The Great Escape

Who hasn’t ever escaped into a good read, relishing and savoring books we come to love? I often find myself slowing down toward the end of a novel that has moved me, trying to wring all the pleasure out of the tale as I can, before I’m forced to put it down. Then again, many of us return to our favorite books year after year.

For me, my top two favorite reads are Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. I just finished Irving’s most well-known novel, The World According to Garp, and I definitely enjoyed the writing, even though A Prayer for Owen Meany remains my all-time favorite work of contemporary fiction. Garp made him into a literary superstar, someone who consistently hits home runs with his bestsellers so that definitely brings more readers to his other works of fiction.

Jane Austen, of course, is timeless, and her six works of fiction have enticed readers for generations. I have always been a voracious reader, and I have sympathy for those who were never introduced to the joy of reading a new book, a great escape from the trials and tribulations of our daily life.

In Brazil, in four federal prisons, a new policy has been instituted, saying that for every work of fiction, philosophy, science, or classic novels, prisoners shave four days off their sentence. Some of Brazil’s most hardened criminals can read and respond to as many as twelve works of literature, reducing their sentence by forty-eight days a year.

These prisoners have up to four weeks to read each pre-approved selection and write about the work in a cohesive essay. A panel decides which inmates will be eligible for the program, dubbed, “Redemption Through Reading.”

Sao Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi, who heads up the book donation project for the prisoners, commented, “Without a doubt they will leave a better person.” This true story of the effort prison inmates in Brazil may make to ameliorate their circumstances reminds me a bit of the film Shawshank Redemption where the main character, Andy Dufresne, stirs up prison officials by demanding a library for the inmates. Despite his bleak circumstances and wrongful conviction, Andy lobbies on behalf of the voiceless and anonymous prison community, even for those who will never know another life.

I once read that one way prison officials determine how much space to allot for prisoners can be determined by the illiteracy rates in the community. That’s not to say that individuals are unable to rise above the circumstances of their lives, but it is indubitably harder when they can’t even reach the bottom rung of the ladder of success.

Outcasts Unite

Moonrise Kingdom

Perhaps “West Side Story” sums it up best: “There’s a place for us. Somewhere a place for us.”

To me, the movie “Moonrise Kingdom” reassures people who don’t fit the normal mode of acceptable behavior dictated by the popular, “in-crowd” that even outcasts will grow up, and find a place in the world of their own choosing.

Who knows? Perhaps these oddballs and less popular kids will even find someone else who doesn’t fit in, to pitch their tents together in the same campground, either metaphorically or perhaps even literally. It’s hard enough to be a young adolescent, much less a young boy or girl with the sort of personality quirks that make them stand out, not necessarily in a good way. Luckily, the boy and the girl in “Moonrise Kingdom” find each other, and hatch a scheme to abandon the constrictions of society. How much more liberated would each of us be if we weren’t held back by the rules of acceptable behavior?

Set in 1965, the girl Suzy meets the protagonist Sam, and they are immediately drawn to each other so they hatch a plan to run away. Suzy lives in a meticulously painted red lighthouse where she can look out on the world she seeks to leave behind. Sam is an orphan (something he never mentioned to his Khaki Scout leader), and he has been dumped in summer camp because his foster parents can’t seem to handle his personality quirks. Sam is charming in the same sort of way the adolescent heroine in “Little Miss Sunshine” is. In fact, the two movies share the same sensibility. The protagonists in both films want to become more than what they are.

As Suzy and Sam pack for their journey around to the other side of the island, to a cove they label Moonrise Kingdom, Sam takes care of the maps and the camping gear while Suzy carefully packs a battery operated record player, her fantasy books about young girls breaking away from the sort of world that constricts them, and, of course, her much loved kitten. Another question this brought up is: what would you bring along if you were to escape from the mundane ordinariness of your rather dreary, seemingly boring, ordinary life?

Then, naturally, things get complicated. A wicked storm brews, much like the storms of adolescence, and all the adults desperately try to track down the two misfits. The adult actors, perfectly cast, nevertheless take a backseat to the troubles Suzy and Sam face as they navigate their way around a first kiss and their burgeoning attraction to each other, in the face of hurricane-like weather.

As in any good comedy, all’s well that ends well, and it turns out to be a good thing to root for these misfit outcasts who truly only want to be understood. It’s definitely a film worth seeing, especially if you’ve ever felt like an outsider to your own life.

Big Fish, Little Pond

I live in a far western suburb of Chicago, population 8,897. I realize, as a writer, that without the support of the staff of the local library as well as the input of fellow writers at Northwestern University’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to pursue a career as an author. I have no idea how the writers who have come before me, without the advantages of a laptop and consistent feedback, managed to churn out page after page. Granted, they weren’t distracted by TV, movies, and the internet. Still, I’m not sure I would have the courage to continue on my mission to become a published author without all the positive encouragement of friends, fellow writing students, and professors. Let me put it this way: it takes a village to raise a writer. In my hometown, librarians such as my friend Merrill constantly cheer me on, and eagerly await whatever is the next piece of fiction I’m able to crank out.

God bless my believers.

Stephen King emphatically recommends that you not show early works of fiction to friends and well-wishers (I think his theory is that almost all first drafts are shitty and need to be retooled and reworked before anyone is allowed to see them), but I crave feedback. I have refrained for the most part from showing family members my work, but every once in a while I ache for a fresh eye. Most of all, I seem to need cheerleaders as well as critics (but be forewarned readers, I’m a bit thin-skinned). One fellow student, who writes a distinctively different type of fiction, has told me numerous times what an excellent writer I am, and his encouragement spurs me on. Plus, I think he may have gotten a bit sick of whiny text messages, so I’m forced to be positive, even when I want to give up.

In that respect, I think perhaps that’s the real value of a writing program. It teaches discipline through deadlines, and insures that we writers keep marching forward. I’m reminded of a quote by Donald Hall, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” I guess I’m going to have to sign on for the writing marathon after all.

Chad Harbach wrote a novel about baseball and falling in love and had a prominent gay character (all supposed deal-breakers in modern fiction). It took him over ten years to land a deal, but when he did, he secured a $650,000 advance for writing “The Art of Fielding.” He lived in virtual poverty the entire time, yet maintained his belief that his novel must be published. One of his close friends admitted, in a Vanity Fair article titled, “How A Book Is Born,” that early drafts of his novel were “Disneyesque,” yet he maintained a game face for his friend, and encouraged him to keep on keeping on. He and Chad scoffed at MFA programs in creative writing, but after an undergraduate degree at Harvard and a stint working as menial minions in the publishing industry, both applied to five writing programs each, and were each only admitted to one. Just goes to show that one acceptance is indeed enough.

In the meantime, I write with hope in my heart, knowing that in my small town in the western suburbs of Chicago, I am a big deal, if only because I have the gumption to pursue my dreams.

There’s a scene in the newest Spiderman movie where our hero, Peter Parker, is just discovering his powers, and on the wall behind him there is a poster of Albert Einstein, saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” This might have been the mantra of the filmmakers as well as all involved in creative industries. Imagination, in this respect, appears to be a uniquely human quality, something that sets us apart from other species.

This issue is central to the storyline. A well-meaning scientist, who turns out to be the villain, is interested in cross-species genetics, specifically how to make broken people whole again, to regrow limbs and recover lost abilities. This advanced genetics, using DNA from lizards, backfires, and turns the scientist into a monster. This particular retelling of the Spiderman tale paints the scientist as more likeable, more conflicted as to whether his research is for good or evil, and thereby engages us more fully in the story. We root for the hero, but understand the villain. Even bad guys, when they are successfully imagined, have qualities that make them human.

Part of the challenge of sequels and prequels is to re-imagine a familiar story with a new interpretation. It’s similar to the task placed in front of anyone reinterpreting a fairytale, as audiences saw in the two recent retellings of the Snow White fairytale, Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Graphic novels deal with this dilemma often, especially as comic book heroes get suited up for the big screen, where fans are already familiar with the basic premise and plot of the stories they love.

The Amazing Spiderman treads along a familiar path, and spends the first hour of screen time retelling an already well-known story, yet we are never bored. Once again, Spiderman is cast as a vigilante outsider, an outcast who must find a way to use his powers for good. This proves to be more of a dilemma for him this time around, and he struggles with discovering his “real self.”

The very end of the film acknowledges the difficulty of this task when Peter Parker returns to his high school classroom. The teacher tells the class that a writer once said there are only ten basic plots, but she announces there is only one. The only plot she recognizes is how to grapple with the question, “Who am I?” This forms the crux of the story, and it turns out to be a fascinating journey, probably the best blockbuster, and maybe even the best movie of the summer season.

When Advice Is Welcome

Augusten Burroughs doesn’t shy aware from the more painful, embarrassing aspects of his world and his crazy thoughts. I’m now reading his break-out memoir, “Running With Scissors,” for a book and film club which I started at my local library. We read the book during the month, then get together to see the movie, and discuss how they compare. Both “Running With Scissors” and “This Is How” appeal to a certain audience who are interested in the inner workings of a creative mind.

This latest novel, “This Is How,” however, reads more like a really well-crafted blog. If you don’t like reading blogs, you may find yourself disappointed. In his newest set of reflections,he’s more hard-hitting with his thought process. His story has been hard earned, which makes us cheer for him all the more.

As a non-drinker myself, I was especially drawn to his thought process on alcoholism. He doesn’t particularly endorse AA, but he has forged a path of his own choosing. On page 141, Burroughs details his process, saying, “The way to stop drinking is to want sobriety more.” Indeed.

Another thought provoking chapter is titled, “How to Be Fat.” He notes that the more you focus on the problem, the bigger the problem becomes. This relates directly to the difficulty of achieving weight loss, and he says, “In fact, the more obsessed one is with getting thin, the more certain it becomes that one will never get there,” (page 45). He suggest you become satisfied with where you’re at, not concentrating on what may prove to be unachievable goals.

Another mental aside of his: “Like so much in life, happiness is sold separately,” (page 34). Many many gems such as these are carefully placed within his reflections and musings. If, however, you’re looking for a good summertime fiction read, you’re likely to be disappointed, and if you hope his story will mirror his earlier work, it just isn’t going to happen. My mindset is, a good advice book is always welcome, especially when it is loaded with humorous moments.

The Big Fight and Fallout

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, after they began corresponding, became close friends, but Freud’s insistence that all behavior, especially abnormal behavior, stemmed from a frustrated sexuality while Jung put faith in a power greater than himself caused an irrevocable rift.  Freud was an avowed atheist whereas Jung believed we could transcend who we are as well as how we define ourselves to become spiritually reborn.  Jung coined the term “synchronicity,” and used this word to explain the inexplicable way moments and even events correspond to each other, adding layers of meaning to the seeming everyday and ordinary.  Synchronicity comes into play when coincidences start to add up and become more than coincidental.  Jung relied on the mystical elements of life to explain how things, even disparate things, circle each other.  He differed from Freud in that he believed in God, something most psychoanalysts shied away from in their attempt to legitimize analysis.  He put forward the notion that there was a collective unconscious which informed our very being.  It was like a genetic inheritance, a type of ingrained mythology linking one human to another.

The filmA Dangerous Method details the unique, somewhat strange relationship between Freud and Jung and detailed the sexual relationship between Jung and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein.  Jung juggles family life with his affair with his mistress Speilrein.  After being treated for nervous anxiety and possible mental illness, Spielrein rises from her past to become a revered psychoanalyst in her own right, although she has been virtually forgotten in recent years.  Spielrein was the first to purport that there were two distinct instincts, the life instinct and the death instinct.  Unfortunately, she, along with her daughters, were shot and killed during the Second World War because they were Jews.  Freud, also a Jew, recommended that Jews stick together.  But eventually he himself was forced into exile.

In the book An Unquiet Mind, written by Kay Redfield Jamison, Jamison details her own bipolar disorder, and her successful effort to transcend her illness in becoming a psychiatrist.  The movie, A Dangerous Method, explores the little known history of the forefathers of modern psychology.  The book, by Jamison, casts a modern light on all the advances which allow the mentally ill to contribute to society with a special understanding of what’s called abnormal psychology.  Spielrein undoubtably stands as one of the important examples of someone not defined by her illness, someone who wants to make a difference with her life.

If you know nothing about mental illness or the contributions of both Freud and Jung, check out A Dangerous Method.  If you want a more modern take on how the mentally ill can lead meaningful lives, read An Unquiet Mind.