Greatest Hits: TV Episode Version

I’ve been in Rerun Land lately as I write my thesis (I haven’t been blogging much because all of my Writing Energy is taken up writing my student teaching blog and my thesis–neither of which are for public consumption, certainly not at this point) and it has gotten me thinking about what makes a perfect episode of television. Why do I return to certain eps over and over and over? What makes them so close to flawless? 

With that as my guiding question, herein find what is the first part of a discussion of my favorite episodes of my favorite shows:



Best Episode:

Two Cathedrals, 2.22 

This is one of the most flawless episodes of television I’ve seen. It opens just after Charlie delivers the news to Leo that the President’s longtime secretary, the wonderful Mrs. Landingham, has been killed by a drunk driver on the way back from purchasing a new car. It also comes on the heels of a half season plotline in which the entire staff has been reeling from the knowledge that the President hid his diagnoses of MS from not just the American public but his staff, the people who love him and are fiercely, fiercely loyal. 

TWW didn’t engage in flashbacks all that often, but when they did–see, for example, the marvelous S2 two-parter opener, In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Parts 1 and 2–they were often excellent. These flashbacks go back the meeting and longtime partnership between Bartlet and Mrs. Landingham. She was his teacher in his prep school, the one where his father was principal. As it turns out, his father was a jackass. When a young Mrs. Landingham asks a young Bartlet to consider the fact that the women at the school are paid less than the men, she knows he’s going to do it when he smiles and looks away. It’s a pleasure to see these glimpses of their early relationship echoed in their modern-day relationship. 

Over the course of the episode, Bartlet must prepare for a statement to the press about his MS and coverup as well as attend Mrs. Landingham’s memorial service. This leads to two of the best moments  ever seen on television. Let’s start with the famous scene shot at the National Cathedral, right here in Washington DC. After he flashes back throughout the service to his meeting with Mrs. Landingham, Bartlet asks for the cathedral to be cleared and proceeds, essentially, to curse out god. The way his voice breaks on the word “son”–as in, “what was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son” is heartbreaking. He breaks into Latin, which Sorkin apparently wanted to use because he wanted Bartlet talking to god in god’s language. He calls god a “feckless thug” which is just fabulous. And he closes with an angry “you get Hoynes!” and puts out a cigarette (that cigarette is why no one else can shoot in the National Cathedral) and storms out. This deeply religious man, standing in one of the best known churches in the world, screaming at god–it is something I think we can all relate to, that urge to curse the universe, whatever god you may believe in, when someone you love dies too soon.

Mrs. Landingham returns in a vision–not a vision like on Charmed, as a figment of the President’s imagination–to tell Bartlet that god has nothing to do with car crashes and he knows it, and to echo what she said to him many years ago: if he doesn’t want to run for office again because he doesn’t want to, that’s fine. But if he doesn’t want to run because he’s scared, or he thinks it might be hard–well, she doesn’t have time for that nonsense.

As the song “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet gets into his motorcade and heads to the presser. Instead of calling on the science reporter first, as CJ has ordered, he calls on an average reporter, knowing he will get The Question. Sure enough, the reporter wants to know: will the President seek a second term?

Jed Bartlet asks her to repeat herself. She does. The cameras click. He puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles. 


Two Holocaust Novels

Recently I picked up the latest Jodi Picoult novel, The Storyteller. I actually am not much of a Picoult fan, but I find her books reasonably compelling–something decent to whip through in a day. the real problem i have is that Picoult always saves One Big Twist, and once you’ve read a couple of her books you can guess the twist.

But anyway, I liked this new book much more than I’ve liked any of her more recent books. (SPOILERS)

i’m going to ignore the parts that felt much more typical–girl meets boy etc, quarterlife crisis, blah blah blah). the part that i felt was an interesting choice on Picoult’s part was to use some of the chapters in a first-world account of being a Nazi. I found this part incredibly compelling. Gut wrenching and rage making and also compelling. There’s also a narrative of a camp survivor, which was exactly as horrifying and depressing and soul-crushing as you expect. Picoult clearly did her research, and there were details in both of these narratives that I certainly was unaware of. So it was certainly not the sort of light reading I associate with Picoult. It was, instead, well….draining. But I want to say that I really respect Picoult for writing such a book. It’s true taht WWII has been written about a lot, but equally true that there are still Holocaust deniers out there, and quite honestly I think it’s a good idea for popular fiction to include descriptions of this atrocity.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a much different book, told entirely through letters–a concept I often dislike–and it is much lighter. Quite honestly it was a relief. Ever since I read the two books I have been super into WWII, and I listened to some podcasts and a book on tape and now I am watching a documentary, and after this this is going to have be it for me for awhile.

I remain fascinated by the complicity of everyday Germans–SS soldiers and citizens–in the wholesale massacre of other human beings. I think this is the part of the Holocaust that we all find fascinating and terrifying, because it gets to the very fundamental question of humanity. As I was reading especially the narrative “by a Nazi” in Picoult’s book I kept thinking that the asshole should just say NO for gods sake, stop being such a horrible person, etc etc. I wish that I could say that I know for sure that I would not have participated. But I can’t know that. I don’t think anyone can. I suppose I am as sure as I could be that I wouldn’t have participated–but I also know that it is impossible to say that completely. You never know, outside of context, what anyone will do. You cannot.  I think that is part of what leaves the Holocaust so full of ongoing mystery. It is so frustrating to listen to the news on any given day and here about the other mass murders still happening; and yet, sometimes it seems as though isolationism vs interventionism will never be resolved. There is a huge part of me that believes firmly that it is totally unethical to just stand by, and for that reason alone Roosevelt will never be a good President to me. And yet we have seen evidence that outside intervention sometimes makes things worse.

Well. I think what we are learning is that I clearly do not have any good, clear answers. Basically, sometimes people are evil, and sometimes people are complicit in atrocities, and sometimes the rest of us have no good options.

May Books

1. Whitey Bulger, Cullen/Murphy a fascinating account from two Boston Globe reporters about that city’s most notorious gangster, who was finally caught and who will be tried this summer. This is a very well sourced book, rich with info and inside info. I loved it. It also made the FBI and Bill Bulger look very, very, very bad.

2. The Guilty One, Ballantyne–a good mystery that wanted to be more than it is

3. Tuesday’s Gone –Nicci French. I dont really remember it except that it captured my attention. All my notes say is that I called the bad guy.

4. Notorious Nineteen, Janet Evanovich. Eh. I mean, these books are what they are, which is diverting enough for a couple hours.

5. The Hunger Games–reread. I really, really like this book and think its the strongest of the series.

6. Catching Fire–still pretty strong.

7. Mockingjay–I still can’t believe she killed Rue. Although actually I think that brutality is a real strength of the series.

8.  The Woman Upstairs–Messud’s new book. Wonderful. Evocative and challenging in all the good ways.

10.  Dark Tide–Davidson–good mystery–excellent atmosphere

11.  Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed. I will post a longer review of this on my blog at some point. If I could give every high schooler one book, it would be this. Luminous.

12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore–a lovely ode to the mysteries and wonder hidden on the printer page. It’s quite funny and very much of its time, with shouts outs to the market collapse, google…also an interesting use of the real and the fantastical.

13. Chomp–Carl Hiassen–i was in the mood for Hiassen but I’ve read all of his adult novels a zillion times.

14. beasts and monsters–the new denise mina–great as always.

15/16. White Heat/The Boy in the Snow–wonderfully atmospheric mysteries starring a woman who lives in the Arctic. It was a little weird at first reading all about how eats a lot of blood soup and walrus flipper and such but also fascinating. The atmosphere is definitely the biggest draw here though the mystery is quite compelling in both novels (the second of which is set in Alaska). Also a bit of a critique on the vanishing Arctic.

17. When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, Nick Dybeck–a suspenseful morality tale. I mostly liked it, but the ending made me angry. Not an unreliable narrator exactly but not one I’d want to be friends with. Ever.

18. Accelerated,Bronwen Hruska– basically a cautionary tale, if a well-written and engaging one, about giving ADD meds to kids. Imagines a whole conspiracy with devastating results. I had mixed feelings. I am definitely a fan of giving meds to kids who legit need them, whether its for cancer or ADD or a headache. I am also definitely NOT a fan of overmedicating kids or of medicating kids who don’t need it. I think that in my hippie ed circles people can conflate any medicating with overmedicating, which is a dangerous mistake to make. So..hmm. Amusing as a book, and it did make me think about the ways in which we shortchange especially boys in the classroom.

19. Chillwater Cove, Thomas Lakeman. A very competent mystery.



(xposted Books Are Pretty)

You know what bugs the ever living hell out of me?

Pseudoscience. Pseudoscience bugs the ever living hell out of me. The fact that every single day my facebook feed is filled with stuff and nonsense for which no empirical evidence exists–vaccines cause autism! not eating gluten will cure depression! antioxidants will fix your cancer!–bugs the ever living hell out of me.

Barbara Enrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read, is essentially a giant debunking of another kind of pseudoscience: the power of positive thinking.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, positive thinking HELPS US! It helps us to be healthier and strengthens our immune systems and that which does not kill us makes us stronger so slap a colored ribbon on your car and lets run a 5K!

God that bugs me.

Ehrenreich’s book, which I tore through in an afternoon, includes a fantastic exploration of the history of positive thinking, which rose, essentially, in objection to Calvinism–I agree constantly monitoring yourself for sin to see whether you are predestined to burn in hell seems a perfectly dreadful way to live. I am just not sure that replacing with the constant self-monitoring for negative thoughts is a whole lot better. A little better, but not a whole lot. And as Ehrenreich shows, there are a lot of parallels between Calvinist thinking that you ought to cast out the sinners from your life and the exertions of positive thinking gurus to stop associating with negative people–even if they happen to be, say, your spouse. There’s a lot of what she calls (heehee) “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” inherent in much of the guru-led nonsense, like The Secret and its ilk. Tell me “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” is not the exact phrase you have been searching for to explain your facebook feed!

I’m not even going to try to explain all of the ways in which Enrenreich disproves the various IPFs, but I will say that she provides some damn compelling evidence that America’s over-reliance on positive thinking–with its genuinely fascinating historical and religious roots–contributed significantly to the economic collapse. This is one of the more interesting chapters in a text where no chapter disappoints. For me, though, the highlight was the chapter on cancer. Enrenreich, who had breast cancer, talks about the pervasive belief that getting cancer was somehow a Good Thing: it was meant to happen! It would lead her to better things! She could get a pretty wig and a free makeover! She should look at cancer as an oppurtinity to find her true self!

Well, if you will pardon my French, bullfuckingshit. As Enrenreich discovered, this relentless focus on positivity actually meant that she, and other patients, didn’t have a chance to think critically about treatment options–which in the world of cancer, where chemo can hurt as much as heal, is pretty damn critical. It made it hard to pull out important information from malarky.

America has some weird strains running through it. One of these is our idea that if we just work hard enough we can all become President, or at least a ballerina. This is garbage and we should really stop saying it. Yes, you can achieve a lot of wonderful and amazing things with the right amount of determination–if a lot of other factors are also present. I can dream lots and lots of things. I can do very few of them. This is not a defeatist attitude. This is an attitude that reflects reality. This is part of why I think social programs can be so hard to get through politically–a strain of America believes that people don’t need the government to help them, because if they just worked hard enough, they wouldn’t need health care because they wouldn’t get sick, and they wouldn’t need federally funded early childhood education because they’d make enough money to send their kids to the 30K a year preschool down the road. Again, this entire notion is garbage. That’s not to say that having goals and sticking to them and working incredibly hard and paying your dues are not all important. They are tremendously important. It’s just that in addition we have this thing called reality, and the fact is that there are people for whom the deck is stacked right from the beginning, and for those people the traditional American dream requires more than hard work. It requires luck and help. This is true for everyone, actually, its just that its infinitely truer for some than for others.

So there’s that, and related to that I think is our idea that wishing can make it so. That if we just will ourselves to get better, or assume that we got sick or hurt or poor for a reason, we can Make Something Of It and Come Out Stronger and whatever other cliches you want to throw out there. This is nonsense. I can tell you right now that struggling with chronic depression does not make me a stronger or better person, or more in touch with reality. It makes it harder for me to do the things I want to do. That’s it. Having cancer did not make my father stronger or better or wiser. It meant that he had to go through a lot of pain. That’s it. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning. It is tantalizing to believe that there is.  I get that. I wish that having had depression brought me some sort of special powers of empathy or clarity or artistic talent. But sometimes shit just happens. Oftentimes that shit does not make us stronger or better or wiser. Suffering is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to be angry about that suffering. If you have cancer, if you are dirt poor, if your parents beat you, it is okay to wake up in the morning and curse the universe. The universe can take it. The universe is not going to turn into a spiteful third-grader and smite you for cursing it. Some things are not fair and some things never will be. Sometimes there is nothing the fuck up with that.

This isn’t to say that science knows everything. It doesn’t (scientists would be the first to admit that). There are not explanations for everything. There are lots and lots of things about the universe that we don’t know and probably never will. But science is and remains the best way we have to measure actual truth. Actual truth, in the way I am thinking of it, is different from your own truth; actual truth is, say, evolution, or gravity, or the way that the earth is round. You can have all sorts of truths of your own, things that you believe way into the fabric of your gut. You should have those things. It’s just that those things are beliefs. They are not fact. And there are all sorts of things we will discover that may well change the way we currently conceive of the world; chemicals that we think are safe now may prove not to be, for example. Actually I think we can all agree that’s going to happen. But we have to do the best that we can with the science and the facts and the medicine that we have now. I am not going to try to repeat the ways in which the book refutes various studies on happiness but if you are into science I suggest it.

Ehrenreich is not suggesting that we suddenly start looking at the world with mud-colored glasses–in fact, as she points out, depressed folks tend to do just that and it is certainly no healthier than unrealistic optimism. Rather, she is suggesting that perhaps we look at the world as it really is. That we use critical thinking skills–those of us that were lucky enough to learn them in school, and I am not being remotely snarky here–and reality testing and evidence based claims to decipher our world. As she says, “the alternative to both [overly pessimistic or optimistic thinking] is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death” (Ehrenreich p.196).

So if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and it makes you feel better and more able to face the day and make informed decisions about your own health care to fill your room with pink ribbons, go for it. Just don’t expect it to cure you. It will not.

Happy Easter from a friendly UU

I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of god, or that he rose from the tomb (though it’s totally cool if you do!)

I do believe in the possibility of ongoing renewal, of new beginnings, of what the Quakers call continuing revelation brought about by the light, the that-of-god, within each of us;  of trees regaining their hard-won leaves; of sheets of ice melting to reveal the life-giving water within; of that simplest, barest hope, shoots breaking through the cold hard ground;  of the possibility of miracles.

I do not believe that Jesus was the son of god. I do believe that he was a prophet, the original flaming liberal,  someone who perhaps started our proud tradition of prophets who would show us how to live. And I believe that the story of his resurrection is a marvelous, meaningful fable, the telling of which reminds us that we, too, may rise from whatever tomb we have buried ourselves in.

There are aspects of winter that I love: the bracing cold, the quiet during a snowfall, the clarity of ice. It is also the time when cold and bitterness may seep more easily into the human heart, where the iciness outside may settle itself inside. It is the time when nothing grows, when everything is in hibernation, waiting for the chance to begin anew.

This is my favorite UU Easter prayer. We must all roll back the stone. Over and over. No matter how tired our arms get, how heavy the stone; that is our work. We are here to build the house. 

And so I celebrate Easter, proudly, as a Unitarian Universalist. I do not celebrate it as the day that Jesus, son of god, rose from the dead, although I see no reason why you should not celebrate that.

I celebrate it as the reminder that spring has arrived, that that which sustains life may finally grow again, that all that we love may return to us in varying forms, that after a long time hidden in the cold and dark we may arise and walk, squinting and stumbling and blessed, into the sun.

Talking to children about rape

I’ve been reading a lot about the devastating rape case in Stuebenville, OH.
I’ve read a lot of brilliant, incisive commentary about how screwed up the media’s reaction was, centering the rapists rather than the victim. I’ve read a lot of fantastic stuff about how this reflects rape culture. I’ve read this just amazing letter to Moxie’s boys.

I don’t write this now because I think I have something unique and special to add but rather because I feel the need to write something. Because it sickens me to think of that girl who was so brutalized, whose life will never be the same. It sickens me even more, though, to think of the thousands of other girls just like her. To think of them all together boggles the mind.

I’ve been teaching comprehensive sex ed for about six years. This reminds me; parents who are invested in this kind of work, get yourself to a UU church and sign up for OWL. its an amazing program that has a genuine impact and we usually take kids from outside of the church.
Anyway. In that time, I’ve done a lot of reading, a lot of research, a lot of soul-searching, about the things that we tell our children about sex and sexuality and consent and rape. I’ve had a number of tough conversations.

And I want to tell you what I’ve learned.

In my humble opinion, there are some things that every child ought to be taught. Not math, silly. Math is pointless. I’m talking about things like this, things that are much much harder to teach:

–your body is your own.
–nobody is allowed to touch your body unless it is ok with you. this is why it’s a good idea to teach even babies and toddlers that they are allowed to refuse to hug grandma.
–some parts on your body are private. i worked with a family that called this the “bathing suit rule;” no touching someone’s body where their bathing suit would cover. That’s horrid syntax, but you get the idea.
–these parts are private not because there is something wrong with them but because they are used in special ways when you are a grown-up and those ways are private.
–no one is allowed to touch those parts except a trusted adult helping you wash and the doctor, if she or he needs to, and if your parent is there too.
–it is totally ok for you to touch these parts, but only in private.
–it is always ok to ask even a trusted adult to stop touching you.
–nobody is ever, ever allowed to do something with your body that makes you scared or uncomfortable. the only exception is an emergency like a fire where an adult might tell you to do something scary like jump.
–it’s always, always, ALWAYS ok to tell a grown-up to stop touching you if it makes you feel weird. It is ok even if the grown-up tells you it will make them sad, or angry, or disappointed.
–if a grown-up or another kid does something that makes you scared or uncomfortable, tell a grown-up you trust about it.
–this is why it is important to learn the proper names of body parts. calling your vulva your hooha or your penis a weewee might be cute but it is dangerous not to know the real names of all of your body parts, from your elbow to your vagina.
–sex is a wonderful, magical, fun thing for most people, IF two people who really want to have sex are exploring it together.
–having that kind of sex takes practice.
–having that kind of sex is a big commitment. there are lots and lots of things to think about when deciding whether to do it. (obviously you’ll want to talk about this in greater detail).
–sometimes, people don’t know or don’t care that other people are not allowed to touch your private parts or to do something to your body that you do not want them to do. it’s important to remember that not all kids know that rule. if a kid does something to your body that makes you scared or uncomfortable, just like if a grown-up does, you are allowed to tell them to stop.
–a lot of times when we talk about sex, we talk about consent. lots of people think that consent just means the person doesn’t say no. but real consent means that the other person says YES.
–it is so, so important to make sure that the person you are engaging in sexual activity is saying YES. remember how sex can be magical and fun and amazing? this is only true if everyone is saying YES.
–especially if you are a boy, people might expect you to not wait for someone to say YES. your friends might assume that it doesn’t matter. if you remember nothing else, remember this: it matters a lot. always, always, always wait for YES.
–sometimes people can’t consent. if someone is asleep, drunk, high, a child, an animal or has a certain kind of cognitive disability, they cannot say YES and you cannot engage in sexual activity with them.
–you might, one day, see someone engaging in this activity with someone who did not say YES. maybe this person is asleep or drunk. maybe she is saying no. maybe she is fighting back. maybe she isn’t saying no but she looks miserable. the best thing you can do, the most helpful thing you can do, is to step in. tell the boy “that isn’t cool.” say “stop that.” say “she didn’t say yes.”
–if it is not safe for you to step in, call the police. tell them you need to report a rape. even if you somewhere you weren’t supposed to be, doing something you weren’t supposed to do, your parents will be OK with you stopping this. it is important.
–a lot of the reason that people get away with rape is because other people accept it. that is why it is important that you be brave enough to step in.
–even if you never see someone being raped you will hear and see many, many things that are related. you will hears boys talking about girls in ways that are nasty and threatening and related just to their physical appearance. you may hear girls do the same thing. you will hear jokes about rape. you will notice that rapists are often given a pass. you will notice that women are given lots and lots and lots of tips on “preventing rape” but that men are not given tips on how to prevent being a rapist.
–that is why one of the most important things you can do on this earth is to call out that behavior. it all exists on a spectrum. Every single time you refuse to laugh at a rape joke, every single time you tell someone to stop catcalling a girl, every single time you step in, you are helping to stop rape. Every single time. What a gift you have to give.
–it will be hard, sometimes. some people will make fun of you. some people will be assholes about it. that’s ok. we are not here to make everyone like us. we are here to have whatever impact we can have, and you are in charge of making sure that impact is positive.
–it’s a big world. there are lots and lots of people in this big world who are wonderful, funny, smart, generous and big hearted. you will find them. unfortunately you will also find people who want to use their power and their impact to hurt others. one of the jobs of being human is to decide which side of the line you’d like to fall on. choose the side that works actively to help the world be a safer place. choose to step in, to stand up, to say: enough.

February books

1.The Seige (White) –good mystery
2. Speaking from among the bones–the new Flavia de Luce. I LOVED IT.
3. The one I left behind (McMahon) definitely not as good as her other books
4. How fiction works (Wood) James Wood is a New Yorker writer and this is a fantastic explanation of how literature functions.
5. China lake (Gardiner) re-read, love her
6. Number the stars (Lowry) YA i re-read because love
7/ The hours (Cunningham) haven’t read since probably high school. enjoyed the re-read
8. The playdate (Millar) a good pysch thriller
9. The casual vacancy (Rowling) No Harry Potter, that’s for sure. Traces of JKR’s themes and language came up, but it is essentially a bleaker story-the HP books are mainly predicated on the idea that people who band together in determination to do the right thing can defeat great evil. This feels more like decent, but very flawed, people defeated by inertia and the more mundane forms of “evil.”
10. Manhunt –Peter Bergen’s book about capturing bin Laden. Made me much less uncomfortable than No Easy Day. I like the intellectual distance.
11. When will there be good news (Atkinson) reread, love
12. Teaching reading a textbook about…teaching reading
13. The betrayal of trust (Hill) a pretty solid mystery
14. The hypnotist (Keplar) pretty good. fast paced if not skillfully written
15. The young unicorns
16. Meet the Austins
–both of the above are the great Madeleine L’Engle. I was in an L’Engle mood. Meet the Austins I hadn’t read since I was very young and its strange to see what an old book it is–there’s talk about the kids not using seatbels, for example. It did make me sad that she kept having Dr. Austin spank the kids, since I Do Not Approve of hitting your children and in later books I love Dr. Austin.
17. Teaching for Joy and Justice
18. You Gotta BE the Book
19. Deeper REading
–i half read half skimmed these three to learn how to teach reading to adolescents. To START learning, I should say.