“Cartoon dramas,” political & personal

September 23rd, 2014

The Globe published a good op-ed this weekend by Meta Wagner, a writing instructor at Emerson, about “cartoon dramas”:

But, now there’s a new, popular TV genre that somehow pulls me in while preventing me from becoming fully invested. I’ve come to think of it as the cartoon drama.

With cartoon dramas, the people, the storylines, and the situations are so unreal — or perhaps hyper-real — as to be laughable, which perfectly befits cartoons but not traditional dramas. These shows (their precursor is “24”) take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion. It’s television for an age where we’re concerned and terrified yet simultaneously suffering from compassion fatigue: the age of ISIS, ISIL, the beheadings of two American journalists, war in Syria, a do-nothing Congress, the militarization of our police forces, the Ebola virus, etc.

And so viewers not only turn to sitcoms and reality TV to escape, we also turn to cartoon dramas to confront the ugliness of current events, but in a way that can leave us ultimately untouched. Murder, torture, corruption — none of it sticks.

She identifies “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” as three of the biggest offenders, or perhaps I should say “delighters.” Ever since Bertolt Brecht, we’ve known that while drama inherently draws people in, there are also techniques it can use to push an audience away–not in the sense of disengaging, exactly, but in the sense of making people aware, suddenly or stubbornly, that they are watching a piece of staged entertainment. Brecht called it the “alienation effect.” If you’ve ever seen a show where you can see all the ropes and pulleys backstage, or where the stagehands move the furniture around in plain sight, not trying to be unobtrusive–that’s a little Brechtianism, right there.

Television can’t simply show you the wires and hired help, like theater can, but it has other ways of reminding the audience that this is just a show. (Besides the most obvious one, commercials–which to this day no one has employed to better Brechtian effect than Alfred Hitchcock in 1950s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program.) Television can get the alienation effect by being over-the-top, or self-referential, or–and no stage director would dare try this–simply not very good.

I wrote a similar analysis to Ms. Wagner’s about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which I still consider, pace “Scandal,” to be the finest exemplar of the genre.

An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called “epic theater.” It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today.

“L&O: SVU” achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good.

Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them–those are often very good indeed.

In the episode “Disabled,” for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed–even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out.

After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. “I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister.”

YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in “The Good Woman of Szechuan.”

This is how “L&O: SVU” works. It doesn’t distance the viewer with theatrical “breaking the fourth wall” tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the “Duh” response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing.

Whether the fears are international terrorist threats or the psychopath next door, “cartoon drama” helps you put them in a box and cope. You can read the whole thing here.

“Mad Men” is my day job, part I: Portability, or why Joan needs that money

June 26th, 2014

I mentioned earlier that “Mad Men” is basically the audio-visual supplement to my day job as a researcher at Harvard Business School. My boss, Boris Groysberg, primarily studies high achievers at professional-service firms. He’s particularly interested in how women advance in male-dominated environments.

You can see the relevance.


Dawn and Joan gaze in disgust and consternation at the face of the patriarchy (not shown).

Joan Harris has made some stunning advances, both professional and personal, this season. She handed over her administrative duties to the super-efficient Dawn, and promoted herself to “account man” with the support of Jim Cutler and Ken Cosgrove. (Joan’s whole process of becoming an account rep is a classroom-worthy case study of the importance and boundaries of relationships in the business world. Before she re-invented herself, Joan made sure she had support from above–a senior partner and the head of accounts backing her play–as well as someone to fill the role she was trying to step out of. Though not stated overtly, it’s clear that one of the reasons Joan chooses Dawn to succeed her as office manager is that, as one of only two or three African-American secretaries at the agency, Dawn isn’t looking for girlfriends in the secretarial pool or a husband in the executive suites. She focuses on doing excellent work and keeps herself aloof. Joan knows Dawn will be fair and stick to policy rather than doing favors and bending rules for her friends.)

Because of her professional rise, and greater honesty and warmth in her personal life, many critics have found it strange that Joan is also increasingly money-hungry and still deeply resentful of Don for keeping the firm from going public last season. This is where Boris’s work comes in.

Boris writes about portability: the extent to which a worker can move around in the labor market without losing value. You know who is portable in “Mad Men”? Don Draper, that’s who. Don’s power at Sterling Cooper Whatever MacGuffin Foo is based on the fact that any other agency would hire him in a heartbeat. He has a clear portfolio of accomplishments and the nature of his work is such that it can be done anywhere. Give him a file box of product research, a pad and pen, and Don Draper is ready for action.

You know who is not portable? Joan Harris. Joan has tremendous company-specific human capital: She knows everything about SC&P’s operations, clients, vulnerabilities, future projections. She has a deep understanding of the psychology of the people she works with. She has off-the-books leverage over name partner Roger Sterling.

If she moved to another firm, she would lose all of that. If she even could move to another firm. It’s doubtful she could take any clients with her if she did–she’s a new account rep and no one is especially loyal to her yet. While women are breaking into creative, client work is overwhelmingly male-dominated–as are most of the client businesses themselves–and Joan would be faced with the depressing, overwhelming task of making men take her seriously all over again if she were to try to start somewhere new. She could easily get a job as office manager elsewhere, but that would be a step down. Joan spent 16 years building her career at SC&P, and that work simply won’t transfer elsewhere.

This is why Joan so desperately wants the cash that a buyout–or a public offering, like Don blew up–represents. She’s a queen in her little kingdom of SC&P–a second-floor office! a 5% partnership!–but if anything happens to that little kingdom, and plenty has already, she goes back to being Head Secretary and Dirty-Joke Target at some other shop on Madison Avenue. Unlike Don, and even Peggy, she won’t have other agencies offering her comparable or better jobs. And unlike Roger, Jim, and the rest of the male partners, she doesn’t have any wealth to tide her over.

This is why she wants the buyout, and why she’s still so very angry at Don for spiking the public offering. Don has two forms of security: job portability and wealth. Joan knows–although she hasn’t found a b-school professor to give her the words for it yet–that she doesn’t have the former. It’s no wonder, as a single mother in the 1960s, that she’s so bound and determined to get herself the latter.

Is “sorry” the wrong number?

June 24th, 2014

Anna North–I like this woman’s writing!–has a piece up summarizing reactions to the Pantene “Sorry” commercial:

In part, she points out, the women in the commercial aren’t actually apologizing:

The linguist Deborah Tannen tells her the word often isn’t an admission of guilt; it’s merely a way of “taking into account the presence of another person.” The woman in the Pantene ad who apologizes when a man bumps her elbow doesn’t really think she’s done a bad thing — she’s just politely acknowledging the man’s existence. But men don’t tend to reciprocate with their own sorrying. Ms. Tannen says:

“I see this as the more general phenomenon that language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it’s used the way others use it — as a ritual. But those who don’t share the ritual tend to take the words literally. Since American men don’t tend to use ‘sorry’ this way, they mistakenly take women’s use of it literally, as an apology.”

Just because the men are getting it “wrong” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop doing it anyway, of course. North defends the casual “sorry” as an expression of empathy–”At its best, ‘sorry’ may be an expression of caring for someone else — whether it’s a real admission of wrongdoing or just a simple acknowledgment that sometimes two people have to occupy the same cramped waiting room.”

I’m not buying it, though. I think the auto-sorry blurs the line between empathy and culpability in a bad way. We all know what a crappy apology sounds like–”I’m sorry you were offended,” that kind of thing, in which the miscreant uses the proper apology words but never invests in them. The auto-sorry devalues the language of apology in a similar way, albeit with a kinder intent. You can’t possibly be sorry for your physical existence in a shared space with another human being, as in regretful of your choices and determined not to let that happen again, so don’t say you are.

The English language has a phrase for those situations in which you want to acknowledge another person’s possible inconvenience without assuming blame for it: “Excuse me.”

Save the “sorrys” for actual apologies.

A very special “Breaking Bad”

October 10th, 2011

When most television shows decide to do a very special episode, the guy in the wheelchair gets to impart life lessons.

When “Breaking Bad” does a very special episode, the guy in the wheelchair imparts death. Grand-Guignol-style death, climaxing in one of the most shocking scenes ever to jolt this horror fan to the edge of her seat.

Throughout season four, drug kingpin, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Gustavo Fring has been portrayed as near-superhuman, a man of awesome psychological and physical resilience, a man whose discipline, resolve, and reserve make Captain Picard look like a Chevy Chase character. With cameras everywhere and plans within plans, Gus Fring is in control.

Until his ancient enemy Hector Salamanca, trapped in a wheelchair in the dismal “Casa Tranquila,” takes a last draw on his oxygen tank, stares into Fring’s eyes as his own fill with tears, and taps his finger — the only part of his body he can move voluntarily — on his call bell. Over and over, until the bomb beneath his chair is triggered, and Hector and Gus make their final bad break together.

Hector’s suicide bombing is his most shocking use of power, but not his only one. To lure Gus to Casa Tranquila, Hector sets up a meeting with the DEA. Gus is to think Hector is turning state’s evidence, but once the DEA meeting is set up, Hector’s nurse brings out his letterboard so that he can spell out his message to the agents clustered around the table. She reads each letter aloud, clearly and slowly, and Hector rings his bell when she hits the correct one. Her voice begins to shake with anger and humiliation as he forces her to spell out “S – U – C – K – M – Y ” before the agents stop her. When he begins again with ” F – U ” she is nearly in tears.

People who want power will find a way to get it.

That’s one special lesson “Breaking Bad” has to teach us: Everyone wants power. Control of the story. A seat on the hospital board. Money. Information. A bitchin’ car. Influence. An orderly, well-labeled mineral collection. Clues. A shoplifted tiara.

People with disabilities aren’t immune to the drive for power. They just might have to break a different way in order to get it.

Hector’s power lies in the capacity of the neglected and disabled elderly to shame, to embarrass the decent. It also lies in his capacity to bring out the sadism of the indecent. Gus, the most disciplined of men, cannot resist the chance to torment the man he believes is helpless. Gus gets about three seconds to absorb the life lesson that this was a mistake before the right side of his face is blown off.

Hector’s is not the only broken body on “Breaking Bad.” The series begins when chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer. TV-land tends to be populated by strong, beautiful bodies, bodies that eagerly bend themselves to seduce, to run, to work. On “Breaking Bad,” bodies often don’t help. Bodies get pregnant accidentally. Bodies get injured. Bodies become addicted. Every major character on “Breaking Bad” has been betrayed by their body or brain at this point. Walt’s cancer. Skyler’s unplanned pregnancy. Marie’s mental illness. Jesse’s addiction. Hank’s PTSD and spinal injury. Walt Jr.’s cerebral palsy.

Unlike the others, Walt Jr. was born with his disability. It doesn’t represent waning power, the way Hank’s paralysis or Skyler’s fading sex appeal does. Perhaps because of this, Walt Jr. comes across as one of the least neurotic characters on the show, the one most comfortable in his skin. Disability is relative; Walt Jr. has never known a life without his wrist canes. They don’t diminish his mojo — having to drive a PT Cruiser, Skyler’s idea of a hip hoopty for a 16-year-old male, takes care of that job. Even so, Walt Jr. reacts to the less-than-ideal birthday present with resigned grace. Walt Jr. can absorb an insult to his dignity better than any other man in the show, certainly better than his father can.

With his halting speech and matinee-idol features, Walt Jr. is kind of a Woobie. Is there anything a fan of “Breaking Bad” dreads more than the look in Walt’s anime-huge brown eyes should he ever realize the truth about his father? And yet, after four grueling seasons, it’s hard to believe that the child of two people as smart as Walter and Skyler White hasn’t begun to smell something rotten. We all seek power, we all seek control. Walt Jr. accepts his imperfect body. But he is unwilling to accept the hints that his family might be disrupted and corrupted. For the world to make sense to Walt Jr., his father must be a decent man. For his father to be a decent man, Walt Jr. must learn to rely more heavily on his powers of rationalization than on his powers of observation.

This is what gets people killed in the world of “Breaking Bad.” This may be the only true disability there is: willfully chosen blindness.

Which brings us to Hank Schrader. Originally portrayed as a blowhard and something of a bully, Hank’s abilities as a detective reach their peak when he is shot through the spine and forced into a bad-tempered convalescence. Walt Jr. was born with cerebral palsy, and Hector Salamanca’s near-paralysis was acquired over a long lifetime. Hank was brought down suddenly, in midlife, and wastes much energy on such pointless exercises in power as verbally abusing his wife and obsessing over a mineral collection. The Heisenberg case gives him reason to focus. When he goes to the DEA to present his findings, he takes care to use his cane rather than a walker — he’ll give away as little of his injury as he can. And yet, when he is ready to make his most theatrical pitch, to sell his former colleagues on the notion that Gustavo Fring, apparent friend of law enforcement, is in fact the man they are looking for — he uses that cane to point to the picture of Fring on the wall. Four prongs, nailing his story down. Without that cane, and the injury that necessitated it, Hank never would have seen the truth.

I don’t ever recall seeing an hour of television with three prominently featured characters with disabilities, in which the story itself was not about disability. “Breaking Bad” violates realism in many ways, but it is profoundly realistic in this: that disability is not a metaphor or a trope. It’s something that happens to people. Many people. Most. There are a lot of injured, sick, disabled characters on “Breaking Bad” because there are a lot of injured, sick, disabled people in the world. You can analyze the different ways disability plays out in the show’s themes of power and self-delusion, as I have. You can parse the semiotics of the cane versus the wheelchair, of the deep themes of mobility (physical, geographic, social) that gird the show.

Or, you can simply enjoy the novelty of seeing people with disabilities portrayed. As people. With disabilities. And rivalries, and egos, and loved ones, and memories, and secrets.

Your secret avatar

June 28th, 2011

Here’s today’s question, friends: Who is a fictional character with whom you identify, but whom no one else would ever think of as being like you?

I identify hugely with Eliza Doolittle, but anyone who knows my commitment to upward mobility and cute straw hats could call that one. Back when I was a professor, none of my students were particularly surprised when I showed up on Halloween as Minerva MacGonagall, either.

But you know who else? You know who Mr. Improbable and I totally, totally identify with?

April and Andy from “Parks & Recreation.”

Yes, folks, this couple:

… holding flowers and meat, is for all intents and purposes, this couple:

… except with the addition of positive IQs and demonstrable work ethics. My Harvard-educated husband would not be mistaken for a character who, when commissioned to write a song “five thousand times greater than ‘Candle in the Wind,’” wrote a song called “Five Thousand Candles in the Wind.” Nor am I, the Woman of a Thousand Jobs, all that much like April, whose most valuable skill as a receptionist is a complete inability to take a message, therefore sparing her boss the task of returning his calls.

But the relationship? Yeah, that’s actually dead on. His optimism and faith in me. His remarkable ability not to annoy me, when almost everyone else on earth does. Our leap-of-faith wedding. My hatred of the outdoors and love of goth music against his cheerful, softball-playing self. The fact that Mouse Rat — excuse me, Improbable Research — really needs me as a manager.

Who’s your secret avatar?

Lightening up

June 24th, 2011

The atmosphere has been rather heavy around here of late, I’m afraid. Shall we lighten things up a bit for Friday? “True Blood” is coming back to HBO this weekend, friends! Here are Sookie and her supernatural suitors:

The three of them seem rather ideally suited for a game of Marry, Fornicate, Kill, do they not? I’d kill Eric because he is the most dangerous — the strongest, smartest, and most self-interested. Also, I’m not into blonds. Fornicate with Bill because he’s attractive, but too neurotic and self-deluding for a relationship. And marry Alcide, because what would be more fun than a good-natured, incredibly hot guy who builds houses for a living and can give you a chance to study wolf behavior up close?

What would your choices be?

Charlie Sheen

March 3rd, 2011

Am I the only person in America who hasn’t seen him yet? It seems half my Facebook and Twitter feeds are Charlie Sheen jokes — my friends, not just the media, are obsessed.

I can’t get with it.

This is a man who has damaged other people and himself multiple times. I’m not a clinical psychologist, and as noted I haven’t seen the interviews, but you can’t avoid hearing the quotes, and it’s obvious that Mr. Sheen is not in his right mind. The extent to which he is consciously driving his own downfall as opposed to being exploited by the media, doesn’t seem all that relevant to me. Either way, it’s not something I want to observe. Either way, it’s not something I want to participate in. Over the weekend, I posted a link to LOLcats captioned with Charlie Sheen quotes on Facebook, but I took it down almost immediately.

I’m not claiming some moral high ground here. Maybe I’m a deeply sensitive soul, maybe I’m too thick to get the joke. I try hard never to mistake the latter for the former. Some of the most compassionate and also media-savvy people I know are posting some of the best jokes.

What’s your take on it all?

Gems on Hulu

February 22nd, 2011

I’m not getting any money from Hulu for this plug, but we recently decided to subscribe to “Hulu Premium,” and I’ve been very pleased with it. It’s only a few dollars a month, and just recently, they began carrying the Criterion Collection of films. (We watched “Lord of the Flies” last week and found it stunning, both in its visual beauty and in the sense of existential despair it evoked. The look on Ralph’s face at the end of the movie has haunted me ever since: his rage and pain and terrible, terrible knowingness feel like an indictment of everything in the world.)

The problem with Hulu, of course, is that there’s so many hidden gems on the site. Have you found anything particularly enjoyable or odd that you’d like to share? I recently found that the premium version offers the entirety of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which I missed on its first run. They also have “Caprica,” the remarkable spinoff of “Battlestar Galactica,” which has all the complex personalities and moral dilemmas that marked the first two seasons of BSG, along with some of the most gorgeous sets you’ve ever seen (a real change from BSG’s dull starship interiors). If you never caught the original UK version of “The Office,” that’s on there as well. And an anthology series called “Masters of Horror,” with classic and modern stories directed by — well, masters of horror. The quality on that one is varied, but some of the episodes are quite good.

Have you found anything good on the site to recommend?

Who should it be?

February 3rd, 2011

Steve Carell is leaving “The Office,” and according to rumor, the top candidates for Michael’s position are Dwight, Andy, and Darryl. Look, I … I have to. This is a perfect little business case study. You could remove some of the grosser absurdities of the characters and teach this baby in a classroom: The underperforming boss of a fairly solid, stable team is leaving. Do you replace him from within or bring on an outsider? If you replace him from within, whom do you choose: the highest achiever, who is disliked by most of his coworkers; the popular and pedigreed underachiever; or the recently promoted, but high-potential, former production worker?

See? When it’s not just the “the idiot’s leaving, do we replace him with the Amish Klingon beet farmer, the Cornell falsetto, or the black dude with the Kindle,” it actually sounds like something worth thinking about, doesn’t it?

All of them have their plusses and minuses.

Dwight can clearly sell, which will give him credibility even if he isn’t liked. And it may be the case that for an company that’s having to fight to stay alive in its sector, the bottom line is that employees want someone who will keep the doors open and the lights on. People do tend to prefer authoritarian leaders in hard and uncertain times. While Dwight’s poor interpersonal skills would have made him a bad manager during boom times, he might be a surprisingly good “war president.”

Andy is an incompetent salesman; even a warehouse worker or two has outsold him. However, he has a Cornell degree, making him by far the most on-paper qualified, and has a network of alumni and former coworkers at high-profile (now defunct) corporations to draw on. He is well-liked in the office, and is quick to take good advice when it is offered.

Darryl, the former warehouse foreman, was recently promoted to administration. He has little formal education but is intelligent and hardworking, and committed to self-improvement. He also has a strong sense of organizational dynamics, and has been known to advise people much higher up in the organization to their benefit. He is respected and well-liked both in the warehouse and in the office.

Whom would you promote and why?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

November 30th, 2010

… will be airing tonight in Boston! I might … just … have to watch it. Some things transcend the fact that I am Jewish, don’t believe in Santa Claus, and am not particularly fond of deer. Those trippy, trippy stop-motion Rankin-Bass Christmas specials left their indelible mark on my childhood, as they did most of my Generation X cohort. Would we have loved “The Breakfast Club” as much if we hadn’t had the Island of Misfit Toys to prepare us? I don’t think so.

As a child, I found “Year Without a Santa Claus” to be a revelation primarily for its awesomely funky “Snow Miser/Heat Miser” sequence. (I have the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy version of this song on my iPod workout tunes playlist.) As a baby geek, I appreciated the way “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” filled in the blank spots of Santa’s history — years later, of course, I was to become equally fascinated with such burning questions as “What was Sarek and Amanda’s courtship like?” and “Why did McCoy join Starfleet, anyway?” I didn’t yet know what fan fiction was, but I knew it when I saw it, and I liked it.

But Rudolph … ah, Rudolph.

“Here Comes Santa Claus” just fills in some details. “Rudolph” creates a whole new world. A world in which everyone is either a rigid conformist or an exiled, despised outsider. The North Pole in “Rudolph” isn’t some happy workers’ collective: if you’re an elf, you make toys, and if you’re a reindeer, you fly, and you damn well know your place and don’t get fancy about it. And it doesn’t matter whether you have different ideas (like wanting to be a dentist) or if you only look different (with a shiny red nose) — if you are different, you are The Other.

It’s no wonder that watching “Rudolph” doesn’t make me feel weird. It’s pretty much about the most Jewish Christmas special there is.

It’s no wonder two of my favorite gay friends call their annual Christmas Party “The Island of Misfit Toys,” either. “Rudolph” is, for all intents and purposes, a story about growing up gay in a military family. Rudolph’s father, who forces him to wear a cap over his nose, is basically the Great Santini with antlers. The only thing keeping him from bouncing a basketball off his son’s head is that he doesn’t have opposable thumbs. Rudolph’s mother is a stereotypical beaten-down military wife — she accepts her son, but doesn’t have the backbone to defend him against her tyrannical husband. You know she’s got a secret substance-abuse problem and runs off to the Valium lick as soon as Donner goes to work in the morning.

Church, people

November 9th, 2010

Did anyone see last week’s episode of “The Office”? I’d been about ready to trash the show for good last season, especially after the unforgivably heinous “Scott’s Tots.” But dang, they had to go bring Timothy Olyphant in as a guest character. Now that, I’m afraid, is just not playing fair with Miss Conduct. I adored “Deadwood,” and am also a big fan of “Damages.” In both those shows, though, it’s never clear if Mr. Olyphant can act, or if he can just clench his jaw meaningfully.

So of course I had to watch that episode, and then I wound up watching the rest of the season, which has definitely been on an upswing. (And yes, Mr. Olyphant can act, as long as there are no guns around. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “If there is a gun in the first act, do not cast Timothy Olyphant, because all he will do is stare at it and clench his jaw meaningfully.”)

ANYWAY.

I thought last week’s episode, “The Christening,” was one of the best television episodes about church, and church people, and how non-church-people cope with church, ever. Television doesn’t do religion well, by and large; it’s either ignored completely or made the utter center of things in a way that doesn’t reflect most people’s lives. (“Six Feet Under” was a notable exception.)

“The Christening” was, perhaps obviously, about the christening of Jim and Pam “Halbert”‘s baby. (This is the one thing I found wrong. In my experience, no clergyperson at such an intimate, high-energy church would agree to christen a baby if she didn’t even know the couple’s last name. Clergy make mistakes, but they’re performers: they keep it fresh every time, remember names, and realize that babies aren’t reliable at ritualized events and have plenty of options on hand at naming ceremonies, christening, and brisses in case things go wrong. Regardless of how good your scriptural exegesis is, you don’t graduate preacher school without knowing how to handle a vomiting infant.)

But aside from that … it was about church. I grew up with church people, and that’s what they’re like. On the down side, they can honestly believe that going to a Mexican city for three months to build a school will make them “practically Mexicans.” On the plus side, they accept, and love, and have fun, and enjoy dorkiness. It was brilliant how even Michael Scott, a man who expects to be welcomed as a hero wherever he goes, is taken aback by genuine Christian hospitality. Deep down, he never really expected anyone to like or accept him — but Christians will. He is faced with people who are willing to believe in his goodness, in his capacity to transform himself, who believe in dreams and making them come true — and he is terrified, and runs from them.

William James described the two types of religious temperament as “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled.” Jim and Pam, the youth group — for people like this, religion is … calm. An ordinary part of life. Community, moral and emotional support, the beauty of the Scriptures, saying a prayer at night. No drama.

Michael, though, wants the drama. Religion can teach you the truth about yourself or it can bolster your self-delusions like no other power on earth, and for some of us sick-souled ones, it can do both with vertiginous speed and force. Michael yearns for an authentic life, at the same time as he clings desperately to the very delusions that keep him from having one.

And Toby? Toby, who wanders outside the church for almost the entire episode, unable to step over the threshold. Toby, who when he does, walks up to the altar and asks, simply, “Why you always gotta be so mean to me?”

A prayer for the ages.

Juxtaposition

November 3rd, 2010

… in the New York Times Health blog:

Tough questions, but hilarious sitcom hijinks!

Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this

October 15th, 2010

I recently discovered that the ConductMom felt that I suffered, somehow, from an amusement deficit as a child because I had no siblings. She was wrong about that, but perhaps growing up as an only child did enhance my ability to amuse myself.

Such as … when I am walking around in the city, either with Milo or by myself, I sometimes like to play a game I call “‘Law & Order’ Intro.” You know how every episode of L&O opens with someone discovering a body? A couple of joggers are stretching when one of them notices a body by the side of the path. A woman walking her dog thinks that he’s pulling the leash to go after a squirrel, but it turns out that behind that tree is — a dead body. A busy executive talking on a cell phone during a noontime power walk goes to a dumpster to dispose of a plastic water bottle only to find — right.

So this is the game I play. Ooh, what is that in the reeds by the Charles? Tucked behind the dumpster at Chang Sho? Underneath a Harvard footbridge? It’s a mental game, I hasten to explain. I don’t do anything, I only try to imagine what kind of person I am, what my goal is, how I will react. Maybe I am a professor of criminology who has never actually seen a corpse. Maybe I am a stay-at-home MILF whose plans for a yoga-and-coffee date just got radically disrupted. Maybe I am a former junkie trying to stay clean and terrified of encountering law enforcement again in any context.

It’s a nice way to enliven a dog walk or an errand run. Thanks, ConductMom and father of blessed memory, for not having any other kids to disturb my imaginary games. Thanks for being big fans of crime dramas, too.

Serendipity

October 11th, 2010

I was doing some library research on the work of David McClelland, and the following references popped up in succession:

A decent summary of the first season of “The Office,” if I remember correctly.

Answer me these questions three

September 22nd, 2010

“Dexter” starts this Sunday, and to put it mildly, it will be interesting to see how the show evolves after last season’s shock ending. I’ll put the rest of this after the jump in case anyone hasn’t finished the fourth season yet.

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