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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Breaking Bad Fever in Albuquerque II: A Critique

Warning: Contains spoilers.
Two months later, and, yes, Albuquerque is still hot for Breaking Bad. Walking to the car from my food co-op, I spotted the sign for a realtor who is clearly besotted with the show. I have to give it to Saul Hoffman for cleverness, but would you trust a realtor who styles himself after Saul Goodman? Really?

The show, of course is now flush with 25 major awards in 2013 and 2014 alone, several still pending. It has been contrasted favorably with a show that I deem far better, Six Feet Under. People who know me might expect me to have been opposed to the tremendous violence in BB, but actually my criticism is mostly artistic.
As I mentioned in “Breaking Bad Fever in Albuquerque I,” (11/13/13) Allen St. John wrote in Forbes that what made BB the best show ever to hit TV was the fact that Walter White’s character is dynamic rather than static; in other words, he changes over the course of the show. Here is where I have my greatest criticism. Yes, he changes, but his changes are extreme and nearly immediate. With such dramatic character alteration, I needed to see much stronger motivation for the change. Wanting that motivation did keep me watching because I kept thinking, “There has to be more. Surely it will show up in the form of flashbacks. Something.” I wanted to see more of Walt’s ordinary world, his world before cancer.
Walt’s most powerful motivation throughout the show is presented as his need to provide for his family, especially in the event of his demise. When someone turns from eminent researcher and teacher to a murderous drug lord for that reason alone, I want to see some backstory. How did his family of origin contribute to this overwhelming need to be a good provider? The show didn’t have to go completely psychological on us or provide lengthy backstory—just enough to make the man’s chief motive solid. It isn’t until the very last episode when Walt comes into Skyler’s house that he gets real with her and the viewers. He tells her that he did all that he did, not to provide for his family, but because he liked it. He liked the power. He was good at it. Finally I felt some satisfaction, but I could’ve enjoyed it a lot sooner.
I feel that Six Feet Under is the better show in small part because it enabled me to laugh at the profoundly serious subject of death and at the human comedy, however dark. That relief was important to me and dreadfully lacking in BB. Even Saul’s shenanigans did not bring more than a chuckle. There was very little about BB that could be called redemptive, including the release that could have been provided by humor.
Some would argue that redemption is not a real part of human existence and that art should reflect that, but I disagree. Redemption still exists in life in abundance, and it is rightfully a part of art. Walt’s tender relationship with his infant daughter, the tear he shed at the death of Jesse’s girlfriend, and his passion when teaching chemistry offered the few paltry restorative moments in five seasons of human depredation.
            Naturally, as a former educator, I have many teacher friends. So I saw several posts stating that the message of BB was to pay teachers more. I believe with all my heart that teachers must be paid more. But in my mind the message of BB is, “Legalize drugs.” It becomes increasingly, deadeningly (no pun intended) apparent that drug lords and law enforcement would not be able to wreak the carnage they do, were drugs sold legally and transparently. Nor would manufacturers and sellers be able to demand the billions of tax-free dollars they rake in each year.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Breaking Bad Fever in Albuquerque I

            Breaking Bad is over on AMC but not in Albuquerque. Exactly one month after the show ended, the Albuquerque Journal ran a front page opinion piece entitled “Why We Love ‘Breaking Bad’” and had a 12-page insert, “Breaking Bad Leaves Its Mark on Albuquerque”. Reportedly over 1,000 fans pass Walter White's house every month, the majority presumably Albuquerqueans. Nearly three weeks after the show ended, a mock funeral was held in a real Albuquerque cemetery, where
Bryan Cranston, who played White, was the first to throw dirt into the grave. Not everyone is happy with this latest development; there have been protests from families whose loved ones are buried at Sunset Memorial, folks who don’t want the place to become a tourist attraction. And who did Albuquerque kids want to be for Halloween? You guessed it—Walt and his sidekick Jesse. Their images have become iconic. There are Breaking Bad tours here now as well.
            Breaking Bad (BB) was not only popular in the Q. Over the course of five years it became a national and international phenomenon. Author and journalist Allen St. John wrote in Forbes that BB was the best television show ever, mainly because creator Vince Gilligan, sets Walt’s character “in motion.” In other words, Walt is a different person at the end of the show than he was in the first episode. St. John contrasts this with characters from such shows as The Sopranos. Consummate actor Sir Anthony Hopkins was so impressed after binge-watching BB that he wrote Cranston a fan letter. Entertainment critic James Poniewozik felt that the show did the country a service because it got people engaged in some deep discussions on the nature of morality.
            Just for the record, I did not watch BB during its run. When my daughter first told me about it, I said that I’d had enough dealings with drug addiction and the violence it wreaks in my work as a counselor. As enthusiasm for the show ramped up in its final seasons, I couldn’t help noticing that people whose opinions I respect were praising it to great heights. Of course, there were also people whose opinions I respect, who like me wanted nothing to do with it. Curiosity got the better of me in the end, and after the final episode aired, like Hopkins, I began binge-watching. I got depressed. As one friend commented, the show is very noir, and the title alerts us to this fact. I tend to avoid the dark in my reading and watching, and somewhere in the fourth season I’d had enough. Commentary kept coming my way, however, and based on what I had already watched, I had some strong opinions—not so much about the drugs and violence. I had complaints about plot and character development. Never mind the ethical questions. Eventually I decided that if I wanted to share my opinions, I could only do so honestly if I watched the entire show. The final episode proved that to some extent.
            I will share some of my opinions about the show itself in my next post. Right now, though, back to the Q’s enduring obsession with BB. Albuquerque and its wild and beautiful surrounds definitely became a major character in the show. Admittedly that was one of the attractions for me and
other denizens of my town. It was fun to identify houses I’ve walked past and eateries where I’ve had a meal or many meals. The Dog House, where Jesse made his drug connections, stands behind Washington Middle School where I worked as a counselor for four years. Jesse’s house is in the same neighborhood, and I passed it often on my lunchtime walks. Tuco Salamanca’s office is upstairs from Java Joe’s, a café I’ve frequented. The Navajo Reservation of Tohajilee, with its resplendent red rocks where several episodes take place, is where I cofounded an alternative high school in the 1970s.
Aside from the nostalgia bit, BB brought money into a state that lies near the bottom of the US economic pile. Money to the tune of a $1 million direct-spend per episode—for 52 episodes. Not bad. It gave jobs to a lot of New Mexicans, including some major TV roles to New Mexico actors as well as extras. It also brought notoriety (often of the infamous kind) to a city in a state that many Americans think is a foreign country (“It’s like Puerto Rico, isn’t it?” “Can you drink the water there?”). As Tufts University senior Madeleine Carey wrote in a Time Ideas column, it has given her a way to explain Albuquerque without saying a word." She goes on to report some of Albuquerque's saddest statistics.
So, did I like BB? Did I admire it as so many fans (more than 10 million watching the finale) and critics did? Stay tuned for my next post, Breaking Bad Fever in Albuquerque II.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Walking Ridgecrest

Last Saturday I met my friend Gloria at Habitat for Humanity’s Restore. The store is moving from a large warehouse off old Route 66 to a more upscale store near my neighborhood. I’m not sure why. Selfishly, I love that it will be closer to me; I always feel happy when I step inside. It’s a store full of stories and possibility, questions. Where did that ragged turquoise door once hang? Will that corner-shaped sink fit in my bathroom? And the earnings support a worthy cause.
The neighborhood it’s been in is closer to where poorer people live, so the move seems somehow not quite right, though. Until Saturday, I’d thought there were going to be two stores.
Because of the relocation, everything at the old store was half price, and Gloria scored a special vent pipe for her wood stove at a magnificent bargain.
            The other great thing about the old location is that it backs onto one of my favorite indoor flea markets, housed in the old Rainbow Roller Rink. Gloria had never been there, so that became our next explore (as Winnie the Pooh would put it). I was scouting for three things—a day bed with trundle (no dice), a moveable kitchen island (nada), and some serving trays (nope). However, I got two very nice stackable, wooden occasional tables at an excellent price, and they will be of service when I host my book group this weekend and for many gatherings to come.
            After that jaunt we set out on our planned walk. We’d picked the location for its proximity to Restore. Ridgecrest is both a street and an older neighborhood in southeast Albuquerque. The street runs on a curvy angle connecting three major arteries and causing crazy zigzags among the side streets and thoroughfares trying valiantly to run parallel to the arteries. The houses are large and individually designed—some old adobes, fifties prairie style houses, and sixties modern. Tall and venerable trees make Ridgecrest a shady place to walk in the heat of the afternoon, and there is a wide grassy median, also populated with trees.

            We walked a narrow path on the median, and there we found intricately patterned roots, which
we examined, stopping to marvel at some, stepping over others. We talked of autumn and the heightened awareness it brings of the cycles of life and death.

I have tried photographing roots often because their configurations have such power to captivate, but I am not usually able to do justice to them. Nevertheless, I will share two root pictures and one of a knot at eye level, which I crossed the street to snap.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sudden Fall in Albuquerque

            On the hot nights of summer, if the temperature outside goes below 80º before I go to bed, I open all the windows. Because of Albuquerque’s altitude, the temperature does eventually go down, and opened windows cool the house. Sometimes I get up at three a.m. and open them then, because it is

Red chile ristra
still too hot before I sleep. In the mornings I stand in front of the open windows to feel if it’s still cool, and later I close them to shut out the warming air. I keep the curtains closed, all but the ones in the kitchen where green plants sit on the table by the east window.
            This week, all those actions changed. One night I kept the window at the head of my bed closed, so the chill would not set off my sinuses. The next night I left all the windows closed. This morning I opened the curtains to let the sun warm the house. This afternoon, as the temperature is expected to rise to 82º, I may close them.

            Fall came of a sudden, over the last three days, to Albuquerque. I made atolé, blue corn mush, which seems a fall food and ate it with butter, honey, walnuts and chia seeds, all washed down with strong, hot black coffee. I hung a red ristra. My neighbor came over with a zip-lock bag of long green chiles his wife had roasted on a grill in the back yard, and today I will make a green chile enchilada casserole. It will be different—no beef or chicken. Instead kidney beans and yellow calabasitas. All over the city the smell of green chiles roasting rises on the air. On my first walk this morning, I saw two of the giant
Purple asters
silk balloons, tiny over the West Mesa. In less than a week they will fill the sky. Purple asters are blooming. The trees are tingeing dull green, waiting a while yet for true autumnal brilliance. Yesterday I picked up two long, skinny catalpa pods. If my house doesn’t sell, I will plant some seeds and have a little tree next year.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Great Magnet of the Universe

When Cheyenne and I lived in Cuba, NM, there was a running joke about how it was like the Bermuda Triangle. If you weren’t raised there from generations back but you moved there, you fell into the triangle, and you couldn’t get out. I saw people try, over and over, to leave and stay stuck there. It happened to us, too. Finally after an apocalyptic seven years, we moved to Albuquerque.
            Now it seems that Albuquerque may be my Bermuda Triangle. There has been almost no interest in buying my house. The one person who really wanted to buy it has failed two efforts to qualify. It will be on the market for another month and a half, but I have given the realtor instructions: No More Extreme Measures. Do Not Resuscitate.
            Even if the house should by some miracle sell between now and September 30, it seems that the Great Magnet of the Universe is holding me in Albuquerque. In June I had a bad accident in my beloved truck (See “Practicing Gracefulness,” 8/15/13). That very traumatic event caused me to think deeply about life choices and eventually decide to—yes—remain in the Q.

            Standing Still had been on hiatus since April 25 when it looked as if I would no longer be standing still, making yet another big move. Since my first post of the New Year (“New Year, New Direction,” 1/4/13), I had hoped to shift the content of Standing Still. I set the intention to shake some trees and shift some thinking. What really happened was that Standing Still continued in much the same vein as before, exploring my cantankerous relationship with the Q. Until I decided to move back to the Bay Area, at which time Standing Still came to a dead stop.
            So now what?
            I still want to shake some trees and inspire deeper thinking. I also know, now that I’m staying in Albuquerque, I will have more to say about this city, the state of New Mexico, and my relationship to both. So Standing Still will continue as it was.
I didn’t really want to start a second blog. Keeping up with one was demanding enough, though also rewarding as most demanding things are. But a second blog has been gestating and is now being birthed. This blog will do what Standing Still proposed to do. Bridge People is about people, organizations, media, and ideas that form bridges across great and small divides to create unity in diversity.
            Many Bridge People are like me—Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) or Adult Cross Cultural Kids (ACCKs). Expect to hear lots more about these and about people who are making a difference in the world by bridging the gaps and healing wounds. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization… The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
            The first post, “Struggle for the Soul of a Generation,” is a review of the controversial cover of the August 1 issue of Rolling Stone, portraying the surviving alleged Boston bomber. The post also highlights Eboo Patel’s pluralistic approach to extremists who diligently recruit today’s youth to their causes as they did Jahar. A bonus is the 10-question quiz you can take to find out how much you know about interfaith cooperation in diverse ethical and religious traditions. For example, do you know which president, while addressing a Jewish community and affirming America’s commitment to interfaith cooperation insisted that “the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”?
            Please do check out Bridge People’s new post and consider subscribing by e-mail. And keep coming back to Standing Still. More to Come.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Practicing Gracefulness

This post was first published in The Gallup Independent on June 29, 2013 and is reprinted here with permission.

I literally did not see the blue SUV until it was smack in front of my little silver truck. The hit was so shocking that I didn’t even hear the crashing of metal. The other driver had run a stop sign, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent the accident. The SUV flipped onto the driver’s side—the
From the Police Report
most terrifying experience I’ve ever had in a vehicle. Thankfully, neither of us was seriously hurt. The insurance company declared my truck totaled the next day. I went to the tow yard to get my belongings and to sign the truck over for parts. I felt like I was abandoning a person I loved. I told my daughter that I’d only ever owned one other car that I loved as much as this pickup. At the same time, I knew I should be grateful because a truck is replaceable, while my life is not. And I was grateful, but I was also sad.

There is a Buddhist saying, “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” I aspire to all of these, but recent events, including what happened to my truck, have motivated me to focus on practicing the third: gracefully letting go of things not meant for me.
            There are a lot of things in life that are not meant for us. Some of them we can easily say are simply not good for us, and that is why they’re not meant for us. Other things may be very good, but they are meant for others, not for us. Some things that are not meant for us are neither good nor bad; they’re just not for us.
            One of my heroes is Viktor Frankl, who survived four concentration camps during the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust he developed logotherapy, which is a way of treating emotional and mental problems by helping patients find meaning in their lives. The death camps were the supreme test of Frankl’s belief that finding meaning in the most horrible situations can help a person survive them. Like Frankl, I believe passionately that what happens to us is not random, that there is a larger purpose as to why they happened.
I’ve found that it’s easier to let go gracefully of something that isn’t meant for me, if I try to understand what I can learn from it. Sometimes the lesson can take quite a while to figure out. Clearly, I was not meant to have my truck any longer. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, I learned several things. I have not always had such positive feelings toward the police. But all of the first responders, including the police, were respectful, caring, helpful, and professional. I was grateful to be granted a different perspective. My daughter had moved out of state, and there was no one I could think of to call. Two of her good friends happened to drive by. When they saw me, they stopped and drove me home. It was almost like having my daughter there with me. A neighbor dropped everything she was doing to take me to pick up a rental car. The insurance people, too, were kind and compassionate while doing their job. People have offered me rides, and two people have offered the temporary use of their vehicles. I tend to be very independent, and accidents and injuries seem to happen, in part, to remind me about the eastern African worldview called Ubuntu. Ubuntu can be summed up in the phrase, “People are people through people.”
For a long time, I have wanted to rely more on public transportation to reduce my carbon
footprint. It’s not very convenient in the Albuquerque system, so I haven’t done it much. Now I have an opportunity to follow through, to make more of a commitment. Walking and depending on the bus system can also give me more empathy for people who have very little choice about how they get around in the city. Most of all, perhaps, losing a beloved possession reminds me of what is really important in life—how well I love, how gently I walk through life, and how gracefully I can let go of what isn’t meant for me.
            There are, of course, things that are much harder to be graceful about letting go than a vehicle. Losing a child, a partner, another family member; losing a job; losing the support of one’s family come to mind. It’s natural to question why we were not meant to have such meaningful parts of our lives. Gracefully letting go is a process, a practice that often requires commitment, support, gentleness with ourselves, and time.

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