Friday, January 21, 2011

Grief

My grandfather is dying.

Not in the active, immediate way that signals that this is definitely, within days, hours, minutes, the end, but the slow way that involves Hospice and doctors giving statements in months rather than years. Because of this, I've been thinking about the nature of grief and loss, and I've come to a conclusion: I have no idea how to deal with this, and by "this" I mean this specific death, for this specific man.

To paint a clearer picture of what I mean, I have to paint a picture of my grandfather. My grandfather is the type of man who, when working at the paper mill that eventually gave him asbestosis, cancer, and COPD, would volunteer for shifts that left him on his feet for twenty-four hours. He's afraid of heights, but as a paramedic he climbed a utility pole to bring down a worker who'd had a heart attack while fixing the wires. He delivered two babies in the back of that ambulance, using softball metaphors to talk himself through it. He values hard work the way other people value money; if it could be translated into currency, he'd have a fortune in the bank.

He loves infants more than any man I've ever met. He personally carried each of his six children to the nursery after their births. When I was a colicky baby, up all night screaming, he walked circles around the dining room table, singing to me. My own father never stepped up to the challenge, so my grandfather let me be his seventh child. Now that I'm grown, he takes my son for rides through the back fields in a golf cart, looking for wild turkeys and deer and stopping to let him pick up feathers. He calls my daughter "Punkin" and says how much she looks like me.

My grandfather is a man who will admit to past failings of the most major kind, but who won't admit he's wrong when arguing over the little things. He's a man who isn't the best singer, but who sang the loudest, until cancer took his voice box. He gets cancer the way other people get the flu, and shakes it off just as quickly. When undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer in 2000, we joked about the super powers that would result, and had a huge laugh when his "super-strength" caused the rusted-out door-handle on his minivan to break free.

He has known poverty, and never throws anything away because of it. His garage is a horror show of too many tools, too many golf clubs, too much clutter, too many things that will be useful "someday". That garage was until recently, also home to the many stray cats he adopted. The first one to live there was thin-haired and scabby, missing an ear and in possession of a weeping, dead eye, but he would pick that cat up and let it tuck its head under his chin while he scratched it.

My grandfather is my super hero. Who else would roust a six-year-old with chicken pox from her bed and smuggle her under a blanket to watch a helicopter land in the B.P.O.H. parking lot? Who else would quit cigarettes cold turkey? He's always been as tough as the cowboys in the westerns he loves to watch, but he reads Women's World. He read my first book, but not my second because it was "too slow." But he cared enough to call me and tell me that a vampire movie on television had stolen my ideas. It was Interview with a Vampire, but hey, he cared.

He's usually honest, he has faith in God. He had a stroke that left him lying paralyzed on his lawn for hours, and the next day he showed up at my birthday dinner.

And now he's dying.

Grief is a funny thing. I can recognize all the stages as I go through them, but there's no road map to what I'll be feeling next, and the entire process will reset when the day I'm dreading actually comes. I'm not sure if I prefer this kind of grief or the kind that happens with a sudden phone call in the middle of dinner. Certainly it would be more easy to enter into deep denial and trick myself into surprise when it happens.

I don't know how to approach this kind of death. It's the elephant in the room. Do you mention it? Do you act like everything is normal? Do you let the person you love die without acknowledging the fact that when they go, a huge chunk of your life is going to break off, and you'll never be the same?

For all I can write about death, with the blood and gore and violence, sometimes it's a quiet, expected death that wreaks the most horror and loss.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Happy Birthday, Buffy Summers!

As regular followers of my blog and Facebook have learned over the years, I'm a huge fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I can't truthfully say it's my favorite television show of all time, but it's quite high up on the list. Despite Buffy's creator, The-Ginger-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, doing his absolute best to destroy the mythos I and millions have come to love by making all sorts of wacky decisions for his own amusement (including delivering Buffy her very worst birthday ever with the issue of the comic that hit stands today), but when one overlooks the totally bizarre second life the series has in print (seriously, could have lived without Buffy/Angel sex that destroys mountains and winds up in space), it's still the same, lovable old Buffy.

Oh dear, I didn't mean old. I know how it felt to turn thirty, myself, and since today is Buffy's big 3-0, I thought a list of my top five Buffy must see episodes is the perfect gift.


  1. "The Zeppo" Season 3
    This episode is the top of the list because it's so damned weird. A huge plot is going on involving the end of the world and the opening of the Hellmouth, but instead of focusing on impending apocolypse, the viewer instead followes Xander Harris on a hellish journey of self-discovery that begins with a donut run and ends with zombies, a bomb threat at the school, and a werewolf attack. Oh, and somewhere along the way, he loses his virginity.

  2. "Hush" Season 4
    No list of favorite Buffy episodes would be complete without "Hush." A group of shit-your-pants-scary baddies known as The Gentlemen roll into town in search of seven hearts to fulfill their nightmarish quota. After stealing all the voices in Sunnydale (the human voice is the only thing that can defeat them), they go on a rampage, surgically excising the hearts from silently screaming Sunnydale residents. The sharp acting in this one is what makes it so enjoyable to watch, as the characters have literally no voices for most of the episode.

  3. "Fool For Love" Season 5
    The plot of this episode is simple: Buffy gets hurt on the job and, suddenly faced with her own mortality, goes to Spike to learn about the two slayers he killed. On the surface, the story is about Buffy desperately trying to glean any information about her predecessors and the mistakes they made that wound up getting them killed, but on a deeper level, it's all Spike's story. As the reasons behind his wannabe hard-ass attitude are revealed through flashbacks, he becomes a fully developed character for the first time, a desperately lonely man who has never fit in with anyone.

  4. "Innocence" Season 2You know how for some people, their first time is amazing, and some people's first time is completely lame? Buffy loses her virginity and her boyfriend in the same night, when Angel loses his soul in a "moment of happiness". Over the course of the series, this somehow got reinterpreted as "had an orgasm." You say "soul-deep happiness," Joss says "orgasm." Whatever. After Buffy wakes up alone and spends the better part of a day tracking Angel down, he cruelly berates her for her inexperience and makes it clear that the night before meant nothing to him. Of course, Buffy doesn't realize yet that Angel is now evil, and she spends the rest of the episode coming to terms with the fact that the man she loved is now her enemy. This episode was so important to a certain highschool girl dealing with her first broken heart, she couldn't leave it off the list.

  5. "The Body Season 5During season 5, while Buffy deals with Glory, a foe more powerful than any she's ever faced, her mother undergoes treatment for a brain tumor. Joyce is out of the woods and making a full recovery when Buffy, returning home from the previous episode's plot, finds her mother dead in the living room. It's a brutal hour of watching Buffy and the Scoobies come to terms with the fact that, for all Buffy's strength, there are forces beyond her control, and the evil of the supernatural world takes a backseat to the horror of everyday life. The episode's title is taken from the callous words of the 911 dispatcher, who tells Buffy not to move "the body". This is a theme throughout the episode, as Buffy shocks herself by referring to her mother as "the body" and Anya goes on a heart-wrenching tirade about death and what happens to "the body".


So, those are my five must-sees from the series. I love all the episodes, except for the one where Xander joins the swim team, but these are the standouts for storytelling and general awesomeness.

Happy birthday, Buffy! Who knew a slayer would exceed their expiration date.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Greatest Comedy of Our Time: Black Swan

First of all, let me just say that everything you have heard about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is true, unless any of the things you have heard are said without irony. The truth is, Black Swan isn't a great movie, if taken as a 100% serious thriller. In fact, it's a down-right terrible movie. But I refuse to believe that such a celebrated director and top-notch cast worked on this film, delivering lines like, "Everything she does comes from some dark impulse within her," without having some kind of out-of-body experience where they're hovering over themselves, looking down as they realize that they're in a really, really shitty movie. Instead, I choose to believe that everyone involved in this movie, from the producer to the director to the actors and the craft services people, were in on the biggest movie-related prank of all time.
I'm not going to cut for spoilers, because you've probably heard all the details by now, spewed out by an ecstatic press that has embraced Black Swan as a tour-de-force. Yes, there is a big ole lesbian sex scene. Yes, Natalie Portman's toenail totally splits in a bloody mess. All the sex and blood surprises of Black Swan have already been spoiled. What you probably haven't heard are the subtle-as-a-sledge-hammer moments where Nina (Natalie Portman) is shown vomitting in a public toilet, only to return home to find that her mother (Barbara Hershey) has bought a huge pink cake to celebrate Nina's casting as the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake. Or the many times that Nina looks at rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) only to find that Lily's face has been replaced with her own.
But there was a particularly telling moment, the one in which I realized that no one involved with the production could have possibly been taking it seriously: Beth, a formerly celebrated ballerina played by Winona Ryder, looks at Nina and says, like some giant wink to the audience, "You stole my things?"
How could anyone, the casting director, the writer, the director, Winona fucking Ryder, assume that line would elicit anything other than laughter and disbelief from the audience. Which, by the way, was exactly what happened. A huge, unamimous "HA!" from everyone at our showing.
So, basically there are two ways of looking at this movie. As a prank, a group of very talented professionals seeking to make the absolute worst movie of our time and passing it off as brilliance. Or, as the absolute worst movie of our time.
The second scenario is one of optimism and joy for someone like me. If a movie as terrible as Black Swan can be lauded by critics of the highest caliber, then other creative storytelling types don't have to work as hard anymore. This includes me. As long as Black Swan exists and is praised, I don't have to worry about writing a story that makes sense. I don't have to sit up at night worrying about loose plot threads or whether or not my dialogue is realistic. Black Swan sets a new standard for excellence, and that standard is so low, it could win a limbo competition.
I'm not sure which I like better. But I'm absolutely gleeful about the badness that is Black Swan. It might be my new favorite movie.