Je Suis Samuel: Freedom of Speech, Cancel Culture, and the Need To Educate

Yesterday’s shocking news of the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty resonates with- and horrifies educators all over the world. Paty was a beloved teacher in a middle school who wanted to discuss ethics and morality and the freedom of speech using cartoons from the infamous Charlie Hebdo magazine mocking the prophet Mohammed. He gave Muslim students the option to look away. He did all the right things an educator should do in choosing material that was thought-provoking but very educational, understood particular sensitivities and allowed students not to participate, and continued with what was presumably a detailed, complex discussion of the subject matter, examining different sides. And yet, he paid the price with his life for attempting to engage in freedom of speech in an educational context.

As an educator myself, I am so deeply saddened, outraged, and disgusted by the murder of this well-intentioned man that was conducted in the most gruesome way. I’m also outraged at the way the murderer and those who support him could not have the moral complexity and nuanced thought to be able to understand that Monsieur Paty was not personally doing something to mock Islam, but trying to present a controversial topic to his students in a classroom setting. His beheading is the worst possible example of cancel culture, for if we cannot discuss the most difficult subjects in an educational institution, what hope do we have for the rest of society?

Religion, race, culture, and sexuality are extremely fraught topics; they are loaded with centuries of history and baggage, they are often used as means for discrimination, and they become a lightning rod for morality. While teaching, I tend to use a very diverse curriculum, but I am always very careful to listen to those who disagree, whose viewpoints might be conservative, politically incorrect, or generally not “acceptable.” This is important, for we need students to see differing opinions on subjects they may hold near and dear. We all have our hot buttons, or triggers that will be pushed for some issue or other. But a good educator will steer the discussion carefully if someone says something too off-color, or will try to ask more about where this person is coming from and look at the flaws in their logic.

This becomes especially challenging when we are discussing subjects that involve people who have been historically and/or systematically marginalized. It is true that there may be a “right” answer (i.e. there is NEVER an excuse for the police brutality against innocent black people). France has had a long history of not being successful with integrating Muslims into society, and of statistically verifiable discrimination. While I love satires and parodies, Charlie Hebdo is sometimes repulsive and tasteless. In any case, we need to allow the dissenters to speak, to be countered by those who disagree, and to allow discussion to continue in a constructive, healthy way. Not doing so, in my opinion, is what creates all kinds of backlash, trolling online, violent protests, and frightening political climates. We did not listen to the poor, white conservatives in the recent past; Trump gave them something to latch onto, and now what we have is worse than anything we could have imagined. Liberals AND conservatives and people on all points of the spectrum all need to speak out and be heard.

A terrorist/extremist is a terrorist/extremist no matter what the belief system or location. The Chechen-origin Islamic extremist Abdoulakh Anzorov, who murdered Samuel Paty (and who was himself shot by the police), exhibits the same thought processes and behavior as the six Michigan militia man who wanted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the Basque separatists back in the day. These sociopaths generally feel marginalized, on the outside of society, and feel that something valuable of theirs is being attacked or taken away. Horrible deeds committed by these asocial individuals have always occurred through history, continue to occur, and unfortunately probably will always occur to some degree. We need to be watchful both of these individuals and of the social conditions/psychological factors that create these them. Intervention is key, just as we saw in the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, to foil any violent acts.

Many young people today engage in cancel culture, where they do not want to hear, discuss, or read about points of view that differ greatly from their own, due to their own sensitivities. We must learn to separate the personal from the idea in an educational setting, to practice a sense of detachment, even when we may feel very offended or outraged by something. This is not to say that there should not be healthy limits, for sometimes in America there is an excess of freedom of speech that allows all manner of anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-everything hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have done a terrible job of monitoring hate speech. But I am talking about carefully moderated, academic debate for the sport of it, because that is the only thing that can truly develop our minds and make us better human beings in a world that is becoming frighteningly violent.

Speaking in (Many) Tongues: The Benefits of Being a Polyglot

At the end of this week is the international polyglot conference (www.polyglotconference.com, for those who are interested), an event which I am greatly looking forward to. There will be numerous talks in all aspects of language, learning languages, what it’s like to be a polyglot, and more. People from all over the globe will be attending, bonding not through the common enemy of Covid-19 but through language. This is something that is truly heartwarming and uplifting to the soul. When we think about what separates us from all other living beings, it is our specifically verbal mode of communication. Cats may meow in different ways to get different things, as any cat lover knows all too well, primates have different shouts to express their distress in the forest, and birds can deploy a variety of calls during mating season. We are also the only living creatures that have a written mode of communication, thanks to the ways our brains have developed from our pre-verbal days. 

What does it mean to be a polyglot? The word polyglot itself, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, comes from the Greek, “polyglottos” which is made up of poly- (many) and glotta (language). Fairly self-explanatory. But in reality, what it means is having to grasp different grammars, syntaxes, vocabularies, phonetic systems, expressions, idioms, and even physical gestures. When one is a polyglot, it requires one to shift modalities in thought and in one’s very being. Naturally, polyglots will differ in their levels of fluency with the languages that they speak. Neuroscientists and linguists have studied how the brains of people who speak more than one language work, and it differs from those who speak only one language. A linguist once told me, for example, with people who are bilingual, two sets of vocabularies are coming up simultaneously, and the speaker will choose whichever one is appropriate to the situation. This all happens in a fractions of a second, a completely subconscious process that one has no idea of. 

On the day-to-day level, what this means is there is a certain richness of language and expressions one can choose from, a sort of “word palette” with many verbal colors to choose from. Certain languages just “get it right” with expressing certain emotions or thoughts. Whenever I see cats, I immediately lapse into Tamil because I find it more suitable to speaking to them in ways that are humorously chiding, loving, and expressive. There is a certain intimacy of the language that I cannot find in any other language I speak, and I confess I think cats love being spoken to in Tamil. A Korean native told me that Korean is so much more expressive with colors, that there are multiple words for yellow. Italian is incredibly robust and rollicking and highly physicalized, Russian is very rich and melancholy, English is very inventive and has a tremendous vocabulary that draws on many languages. The list goes on, and for each polyglot, the buffet of languages offers much to choose from. There is of course always the difference between speaking and reading and writing language. For some people, the auditory skills are much stronger, whereas with others, the literary skills dominate. 

As one polyglot who speaks 7 languages told me, he feels that he has a different identity in each language. This is very beautiful and also very true, for each language will bring out a different facet to our identities, freeing us or confining us or perhaps allowing us to be more serious or more humorous, more or less expressive. Many children of immigrants struggle, for they do not speak their parents’ native tongues easily, and often report feeling “forced” to speak those languages. This is truly a shame, for I feel that so much of culture is attached to language; perhaps many of our multicultural problems in the United States would be ameliorated by people speaking more than one language, therefore having a window into another culture. In many parts of the United States, such as California, it is advantageous to speak Spanish and one can initiate a conversation with a native Spanish/non-English speaker who will usually be grateful and this can facilitate an interaction to go much more smoothly. 

Sadly, language education begins too late in most of the United States, past critical periods, for when it comes to language acquisition, younger the better. I saw an example of this when a French woman brought her five-year-old daughter to a sewing workshop. They had only come to the U.S. five months before and her daughter was placed in kindergarten without knowing a word of English. The little girl watched me and asked, “Where are you putting buttons?” Though spoken with a mild French accent, it was astonishing, for the child had grasped vocabulary, syntax, and understood how to formulate a question in a remarkably short time. Children are like a sponge at a young age, and we must teach them non-native languages as soon as possible. A friend sent her children to Spanish language preschool so that they would have the advantage of another language; her children spoke Spanish with perfect accents, and no one would have suspected it was not their native language.

Language is a great way of uniting the world, and I can only hope that as so much tension and strife is tearing apart our world now, we can come together through the beauty of language, whatever those languages may be. If there is a language you’ve been yearning to learn, try it! It teaches us so much about ourselves, about others, about humility and patience. And it might just bring you a new friend, lover, or colleague. 

Who Got It Right as a Woman II: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Femininity is something very controversial in the discussion of feminism, as are traditional gender roles. Being ladylike–even the use of the word “lady”–can draw a lot of ire from many women. Being a woman who appeals to men is also often a taboo topic, as women are often told to be strong in themselves and never to need a man. Taking an interest in one’s appearance is also regarded as frivolous. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was feminine, somewhat traditional in her gender roles (at least earlier in her life), ladylike (she was, after all, the First Lady), a woman who appealed to many men and was thought quite desirable, and a global icon of style and elegance even decades after her death. She always seemed to have a suitable man on her arm to escort her to the American Ballet Theater, and made it classy to go to Studio 54. Jackie never quite defined herself as a feminist, though she supported Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, went back to work later in life, and did not marry her third “husband,” her beloved companion Maurice Tempelsman. And we can consider her a role model for women, someone who really “got it right” and was not bitter about her gender. Let us examine why.

Jackie had conviction. From the time she was small, she knew what she liked and what her tastes were. She read Chekhov as a child, had a passion for the arts, and a longing to go to Paris. She carried her passions with her when she went to the White House: she restored that historic mansion, she brought the fine arts to great visibility, making it fashionable to be cultured, and thanks to her efforts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was founded. After a level of a few years, she eventually found her way back to her love of books, becoming a well-respected editor in New York. She fought for causes she believed in, like the preservation of Grand Central Terminal. Despite that infamous whispering voice, she was no shrinking violet, and she knew herself and her mind. That is why Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie was so poor, for she conveyed none of the strength of Mrs. Kennedy.

She was emotionally intelligent. Jack Kennedy’s presidency would not have been the same without her. As recently released audiotapes reveal, she was a shrewd observer of politics and politicians, seeing through people’s façades and offering her own opinions. She raised two children well, putting their well-being as her priority, knowing that extensive contact with the Kennedy clan would possibly lead them into a downward spiral like Ethel Kennedy’s kids. But she did not shelter her children, sending them out on their own as teens and young adults to spend time in Appalachia or India. Jackie wanted her children to toughen up and not to be pampered, to get out there and see the world and people from all walks of life.

She was highly cultured. Though she gave the appearance of being a mere clothes horse, Jackie was very well read in the classics, history, and spoke other languages like French. She appreciated great art, classical music, and clothing design. It was not enough to be an American first lady; she was global, show the world how enjoyable it was to visit other countries, make it admirable to be more than just a socialite. Thanks to her, high culture in America experienced a renaissance, something that was so necessary after the war and America’s revival. Later in life, after being widowed twice, she became a book editor and finally was able to use her intellect that she had had to hide away as the first lady and as the wife of powerful men.

She moved with the times. The beribboned 1930’s girl with her horses at shows, the elegant debutante of the 40s, the prim and proper young socialite of the 50s, Jackie Kennedy reflected the zeitgeist of America. Through the 60s, she went from graceful First Lady observing protocol in her manner and her dress to jet setter in minidresses without stockings who enjoyed dancing late night on a yacht or walking barefoot in Capri. And when she was widowed again in the 70s, she showed us how to adapt: she put on pants and a sweater, went downtown to a high-rise office, and became a single working mother. She enjoyed the company of men, but she also came into her own at this time, befriending Andy Warhol and enjoying New York City and her career. And then as relationship conventions changed, her companion Maurice moved in with her and lived with her for the rest of her life. They never married, despite Jackie being a devout Catholic. And yet it always remained acceptable, for Jackie was always dignified.

She promoted diversity decades before it was fashionable. She brought African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry to the White House, was a friend of gay Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and adored Nehru, just as he adored her. She had a lifelong love of India and Russia and traveled there multiple times. 

She maintained a sense of mystery. That Sphinx-like smile the lack of interviews, the low voice–it all added up to create a personality whom we wanted to get to know, but who did not want us to get to know her past a certain point. Tabloids speculated on every aspect of her life, and yet she remained silent. In an era where everything is on Instagram and celebrities make candles named after body parts, Jackie remains a paragon of how to keep to oneself and let only those who are close into one’s confidences.

She enjoyed being a woman. Jackie loved fashion, decorating, motherhood, and marriage. She loved presenting herself elegantly, be it in Oleg Cassini or jodhpurs. She loved it when men took an interest in her, offered her courtesies, drove her places. In short, she loved men. Even as she always did as she wanted, being her own kind of feminist, she still always loved men. Various writers have described her as “seductive” or “a geisha”–there is nothing wrong with that. She often used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted, and even charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

American feminism can often be very prescriptive as to what is correct or not regarding how we present ourselves as a woman. If we dress too nicely, we might not be taken seriously enough. We are forced to work in a work culture that is really set up for men, and that often penalizes us for wanting to be who we are, be it a tomboy or a princess or anything in between. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed us that we can embrace our womanhood and it does not mean any compromise of strength or independence. She showed us how to have a will of steel wrapped in a velvet glove. The fact that we still admire her decades later shows us that she was a timeless role model as a woman.

Celebrating 8 Years!!

Celebrating 8 Years!!

When I started this blog eight years ago, I had no idea what it could become and how much it would nurture and support me. It’s been a wonderful journey through literature, art, politics, social issues, interviews, and anything and everything to do with creativity. During this time, I have grown as an opera singer and developed a writing career, finished two book manuscripts, and completed an MFA. This blog has been there for me during some very very difficult times, which is a testament to the healing power of art. 

In my first post on September 30, 2012, I paid tribute to my favorite American author, Willa Cather, the Grande Dame of American letters. It only seems fitting to pay tribute to her through a quote from The Song of the Lark, in which she describes the heroine’s artistic awakening in her soul after seeing the Chicago Symphony perform. The heroine, Thea, realizes this inner light is so powerful and yet so fragile, and she is afraid that it could be taken from heron her crowded journey home. Cather writes, 

“They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. she would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it–it!

This breathlessly passionate scene in the novel was what propelled me forward and led me to where I am today. I can only recommend that everyone find what magnificently inspires them, that ecstasy that drives you forward and can’t be taken away. 

Thank you, Willa, Lev, William, Oscar, Wolfgang, Giuseppe, Antonín, Jan, Niccolò, and all the countless artists of all media, dead or alive, who have magnificently inspired me!

Who Got It Right as a Woman: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Today’s post was supposed to be about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another excellent example of American womanhood, but it only seems fitting to pay tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. RBG, a titan of American law and arguably the best feminist America has ever had. Her death is nothing short of tragic, and it leaves our country and its women with a huge loss. This is a painful post to write, understandably. What makes her an exemplary model of womanhood? Here are some thoughts:

-She was always a lady. Her mother had given her advice to be a lady, meaning she needed to be independent, and not let negative emotions control her. RBG embraced womanhood, never denied the fact that she was a woman, always presenting herself elegantly. She loved wearing different collars with her robes, had good taste in art, and came across as someone with a sense of propriety rather than brash vulgarity. Diminutive and soft-spoken, her demeanor belied a formidable intellect.

She was smart as hell. The first time I saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak was on a panel of women in law that was being presented on C-SPAN. Never in my life had I heard anyone choose their words so carefully. It is a tremendous accomplishment even today, for anyone male or female, to attend Harvard and Columbia Law schools (where she made the review) as well as Cornell University (where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa). She knew her facts and she knew them cold. She spent countless hours researching and writing and was highly informed–perhaps this was why her male peers were so intimidated by her, because the open secret is that nothing is as intimidating to men as an intelligent woman.

She used facts and stayed calm in order to create great social change. While numerous activists were outspoken, radical, and even abrasive, RBG worked within the system–the most rigid system in the country: the law–and quietly and steadily helped dismantle policies that discriminated against women, minorities, and even men. No one could dispute her ideas without being equally informed and calmly persuasive.

Feminism was about gender equality. Many feminists in the 60s and 70s became quite radical and partisan; their strategy was to remedy the centuries of gender-based oppression by fighting for things as individuals and dismantling patriarchal structures in society. For many of them, this meant opting out of marriage, childbearing, or even relationships with men. Unfortunately, American feminism still often bears the stigma from these individuals–even Gloria Steinem, the poster child for this movement, has in some ways done ordinary American women a disservice. But RBG never bore a deep hatred or contempt for men even as she fought vehemently against the entrenched discrimination against women. Her greater belief was in gender equality, for when she encountered a case in which a widower and single father, Stephen Wiesenfeld, did not receive his late wife’s pension after she died in childbirth, she fought for him to be able to receive benefits just as a widow would. While she stood up for women like nobody else, she also valued men.

She got along with the enemy. This is especially important at a time like now, when America (both its people and its politicians) is more polarized than it has ever been for decades. She vehemently disagreed with the conservatives in the court, like Justice Antonin Scalia; however, the two of them were very close friends outside of work, sharing many common interests such as opera and celebrating holidays together. She was often questioned about this, and her response was to say that their shared humanity and friendship were greater than their differences. An opera was even made about the two of them, thereby immortalizing the justices through art.

She was happily married and a mother. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the great fortune to choose a spouse who would support her not only in her career, but also in her personal life. Martin Ginsburg valued his wife’s intellect in a way that was rare for his time and encouraged her to do what she believed in. While many men do this today, they do not often take the action needed to ensure a woman is not overburdened at home. Martin Ginsberg famously did the cooking, helped care for the children, and reputedly campaigned for her to be nominated as a Supreme Court justice. What comes across in interviews is how much Ruth loved her husband, and how happily married they were for decades. It is inevitable that she would have struggled with work-life balance. But the point is, she did not become radical or bitter about “traditional” life choices even as she lived as a very modern woman.

She never let adversity stop her. This is also extremely significant, as we live in an age of cancel culture, hypersensitivities, and a lack of personal responsibility. Ruth Bader Ginsburg scarcely got to know her sister who died as a child. She still graduated high school, despite the fact that her mother died the day before. She chose to get married even though many educated women had to stop working once they bore children. She still spoke fondly of her husband even though she was battling the very male establishment. She persisted in becoming a lawyer, even though she had to make a case for her presence simply because she was a woman, and even though no one would hire her, despite having a degree from Columbia Law. Later in life, when her serious ailments arose, Ruth Bader Ginsburg valiantly battled them, not letting them stop her pursuit of legal justice. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem or–even worse–Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon seem to be excuse makers in comparison. Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced the same obstacles as everyone else, but she did not seem to feel the need to adopt some sort of radical role as a woman.

It is a tragic loss for our country, and now we are left with a crisis. I personally belong to the camp that feels she should have retired during Obama’s administration. It is true that there would have been no guarantee she would have been replaced by another liberal; however, anyone Obama chose would have been better than anyone Donald Trump chooses. It was not wise to bet on having another Democrat in the White House after two terms of Obama as we have not had three consecutive Democrats as president since FDR (and his was a special case due to the war). This was her one great flaw in a lifetime of tremendous public service to this country. One can only hope that there will be another female superhero in the legal system of this country, although nobody could truly take the place of the tiny, elegant woman with the owlish look and calm, measured voice. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for being such a wonderful role model for young women–and men.

Deleting the Donald Trump Post

Dear readers,
When I wrote the post “Donald Trump: The One Man SWOT Team” it was intended to be an exercise in understanding the enemy. Donald Trump was, is, and always will be to me a horrific joke and a dark stain on the democratic principles of this country. Not to assume otherwise would reveal a terrible right wing stance, one which I absolutely abhor. I have noticed that the Trump post has still been searched for and read over these years, and it concerns me,  for I don’t know if people are misusing the points I have made. Therefore, I am deleting it, just as I wish we could this narcissistic sociopath from the White House. Thank you.

Truths about the Developing World

Those who live in the West and in highly industrialized, developed countries often have many misconceptions about people living in less-industrialized, developing countries. People might assume that everyone lives in a jungle, that they have never heard of Facebook, or that they are all miserable and unhappy. Having studied anthropology and development studies as an undergraduate, and having been to the developing countries of India, Bhutan, and Mexico, I would like to share some thoughts on what the situation is really like.

-People have technology and electronic goods. Granted, this is not everyone, but to assume that nobody has a phone or a computer or a television is completely erroneous. Some might find that the technology in certain situations in developing countries is more advanced than what we would find in the West. For example, over a decade ago, there was a cell phone charging station with at least seven different types of chargers at Madras Anna International Airport–something I had never seen anywhere in America. However, one could generalize that there are issues with regular power supply, the grid, frequent blackouts, and getting electricity to rural and undeveloped areas. Many tech companies have been working on this issue. The infrastructure for power and electricity are what is often most problematic in developing countries, not the actual presence or not of technology.
-There is great wealth. A wealthy family might throw a quinceañera costing tens of thousands of dollars, send their children to boarding schools or American colleges, or fly to Milan or Paris to buy the latest clothes by Prada or Dior. However, a single digit percentage of the population may hold 90% of the country’s wealth while the rest of the people live in great poverty. A middle class may not exist at all, or be a minimal segment of the population. There are extremes in class stratification to a degree we might not see in Western Europe or in many parts of America. America, however, is becoming rather like a developing country, where the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer since the Reagan era, and the pandemic has highlighted this to a heart-wrenching degree.
-A history of colonialism. This point is so large and rich that I cannot even begin to address it here. However, there are still many countries that are suffering from centuries of being ruled by a European power, and the United States has created a new form of economic colonialism as well. The CIA has committed countless atrocities overseas.
-Infrastructure, especially with transportation, can be a problem. You might have to fly out of your country to a different airport in order to fly back to another city in your country. A distance of 200 miles may take two days to drive, because there are not suitable roads. This affects access to services and goods.
-Medical care. This varies greatly between developing countries. You may find world-class medical facilities in urban India or Bangkok that service Western medical tourists. However, in parts of (West) Africa, such as Liberia, you may have 10 doctors per million people. Even with medical facilities, there may not be adequate resources and equipment. Airlifting a gravely ill patient may not be a possibility due to large distances or the availability of air transport.
-Political instability. This is a big one. Many developing countries have incredible natural resources or services that could bring the country tremendous wealth and therefore development. However, corruption, mismanagement, fraud, political violence, unstable governments, embezzlement, and a lack of social structures that distribute these resources and services cheat billions of people worldwide from having basic needs fulfilled. However, America, being a hybrid of superpower and developing country, has no right to criticize developing countries, not when we have a revolving door of politicians under our current embarrassment of an administration.
-Epidemics are often a part of daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic is something shocking and unexpected to most Americans, but for many people all over the world, public health crises in the form of diseases is nothing new. Swine flu, HIV, etc. have inflicted so many millions of people globally prior to the pandemic, and developing countries are often better equipped or more knowledgeable as to how to deal with these crises.
-The tension between traditional and modern medicine. Again, this varies greatly between countries. But it is still a significant issue. Scientists may try to suggest that allowing animals to defecate in a river is contaminating their water supply, but people pay no heed. Someone suffering from an epileptic fit might be taken to a shaman to be exorcised from some sort of demon, rather than being given the proper medication to work with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Or, modern/Western medicine may be regarded with some skepticism, as the tool of the white man. Sometimes, local traditions may actually be more effective and inexpensive for treating certain conditions, and Western medicine has come to appreciate these ancient forms of wisdom.
-Climate change. Whether it’s fatal flooding in Bangladesh or drought in farming areas, our modern world is affecting the developing world disproportionately. We have a staggering refugee crisis, and while these may have a political or sociological basis, there is also an environmental component. We have a responsibility in the developed world to do our share to help this problem. However, there are serious issues with pollution in many developing countries, due to the type of vehicles people drive and the type of fuel these vehicles consume. Governments in developing countries could do a much better job of regulating emissions, banning certain types of vehicles and fuels, and working on more environmentally-sustainable alternatives.

There are so many more points to be discussed, but let me conclude by saying that another misconception is that everyone in the developing world is miserable, ailing, and decrepit. There is no question that poverty is one of the most serious afflictions we have in the world today. But we cannot dismiss the fact that human beings are human beings everywhere, that whether rich or poor, people share the same fears, joys, the needs to celebrate, jealousies, curiosities, life milestones like weddings or funerals, etc. What people in the West and developed world need to understand is how better to help the developing world so that people in those countries are not exploited or do not suffer certain (easily ameliorated) conditions–especially those created by wealthy countries like the United States.

Serial Thriller

I have been greatly enjoying, as I wrote last week, the television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This has gotten me thinking about the pleasure of serial forms of art–namely what we find in literature and television. Many great works by canonical authors were serialized in newspapers, such as those by Dickens or Tolstoy. A neuroscientist or psychologist could explain the psycho-physiological processes in the brain, but I’d like to take a literary stab at explaining why we like episodic entertainment. Why is this such an important, time-tested way of engaging with an audience? 

-A premise that hooks us in. There is something that grabs the reader from the get-go. The stakes are high, there is something about the situation that makes us want to know more.

-Investment in the characters. How else do we get into a story if not through the characters? Is the character an underdog or victim? Hero(ine)? Or is it an ensemble cast, perhaps a family that has some sort of a crisis? We need to feel allied with these persons immediately, or at least one, so that it is enough for us to want to follow her/his/their journey(s).

-An intriguing plot. This is very crucial. How does the writer unfold the story neatly, little by little, with expert pacing? How does each episode or chapter or section deliver just the right amount of drama at the right time? It takes extreme skill as a writer to know exactly how much to give the reader or viewer, the right “dose,” so to speak.

-An engaging story. This is closely tied to the premise, but even if the premise is strong, if the story doesn’t deliver and hook us in, we will lose interest.

-Knowing when to cut us off. I almost feel that the writer has to take us up to the top of a mountain to the point where we could fall over the cliff, and then to stop that particular episode or chapter. That way, we are completely hooked and the greatest amount of dramatic tension is generated.

-Multiple plot lines, most often. We are reading character A’s journey toward getting married, but also about character B’s illness and impending death. Alternating A’s and B’s plot lines keeps us very intrigued, so that way when the episode drops off with A, the writer picks up with B.

-Playing with our anticipation and expectations. We are waiting for next week’s installment, wondering if Mr. X will be sentenced to jail or if Mrs. Y will get the opportunity she has been longing for. The wait gives us a chance to reflect on the various possible outcomes, and when we get the next installment, we might be completely surprised as to what happens.

What could we criticize about this kind of art? Well, one could easily say it is formulaic, and that would be very true. Make sure the right amount of dramatic tension happens in each part of the series, a classic Freytag’s Triangle. Some might argue that it is teasing the reader or viewer, and perhaps even a weakness on the writer’s part, not being able to continue with the story or plot line, but having to break it up. It also relies on very traditional narrative forms, and so metafiction or non-traditional narratives would not work well. Finally, each segment or episode has to fit a particular length or time limit, and this might not always be useful. Sometimes a particular scene has to be drawn out to give it more emotional weight. So this serial/episodic manner of telling a story relies heavily on structure. 

There is room for both, the traditional and nontraditional narratives. We like both for different reasons. In the modern world, we see serialization globally, be it in telenovelas, Hindu myths made into TV series, or dramas on Netflix. Traditional narratives and serials give us a deep-rooted sense of familiarity, the artistic equivalent of comfort food, be it macaroni and cheese, rice and lentils, or kimchi jjigae.

For My Readers

As always, I have huge gratitude for my readers and thank you deeply. For anyone who has enjoyed these posts and would like to be a regular follower, kindly sign up! If you scroll down past all the right side sidebar information, you will see on the bottom right that there is a space to enter your email and a button to click to follow. That’s it! Then you will automatically receive notification every time I write a new post. Having followers as a writer is very necessary, and the readers are equally as important as the writer.

Best wishes,

Sonja

Truly Marvelous: Mrs. Maisel

This is a post I write with hesitation and shame, as I abhor Amazon and Jeff Bezos for profiting during this pandemic at a pathologically disgusting level, earning billions when his employees are not adequately cared for, when he has put so many people out of business, including independent bookstores, and as the richest man in the world, has an unconscionable amount of wealth when billions of people in the world do not have enough to eat. Unfortunately, a vital item I needed urgently could only be purchased through Amazon; hence, I received a trial of Amazon prime, as I did earlier when I was a student. I also have ethical qualms about paid, streaming TV disproportionately getting nominated for awards, as it means that only those with the means to afford it can watch these acclaimed programs or films.

Thus with these disclaimers, I must confess that I am a huge fan of the program “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is both revolutionary and retro at the same time. It is nothing short of brilliant, even with its flaws and oddities. It is one of the best modern examples of pure entertainment that I can think of in recent years that engages the viewer with gorgeous visuals, first-rate acting, good humor, and a gripping story. It is the very definition of pure entertainment, something so pleasurable to watch with humor, song and dance, family drama, romance, and ambition.

The production design and art direction are simply stunning. The colors pop vividly on the screen (would that I had a big-screen TV!), the clothes are enviably elegant, every detail is flawless and seemingly appropriate to the time period. As the viewers, we get the sense of what it was like to live in the late 50s and early 60s, when American life was prosperous and booming, yet ready to tear open at the seams socially. There is an irreplaceable sense of style that we have lost in our crass, modern, Kardashian world. I have always been a huge fan of movies from the late 50s and early 60s, largely because of the visual appeal and style of clothing.

Needless to say, the acting is first-rate. The all-star cast is virtually flawless, there is no character who is a weak link. There are of course some standouts. Title actress Rachel Brosnahan’s impeccable timing, snappy dialogue, moxie, pep, youthful beauty, and good cheer coexist with her delicate stature and vulnerability, her willingness to push boundaries, rendering a multi-faceted character we cannot take our eyes off. Tony Shalhoub as her father Abe is a complicated man, whining, irritated, emotionally difficult, yet curious and slightly boyish at times. Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon is unbelievable: her crass, Phyllis Diller-esque stage persona contrasts with her absolutely chilling, manipulative, patrician status in real life, and it is remarkable how one woman can play such opposite characters so convincingly. And finally, there is Susie Myerson (who alone is worth the price of admission). Sarcastic, grumpy, hilarious, like a butcher version of Rosie O’Donnell, yet incredibly loyal, this character is arguably one of the best TV characters ever, and certainly like no other. I have long been a fan of Alex Borstein since her MADtv days, and she brings an elusive quality to the character. What are her motivations for supporting Midge Maisel so fully? Why does she dress as she does, and what is her sexual orientation? Why is she so militantly unsentimental? Emotionally complex, disturbed, outspoken, driven, we never know how Susie is going to react to something–there are plenty of things that surprise us about her, such as her love of bubble baths or children. She says the things that we dare not say in public, and her character is so fun precisely because she is so badly behaved. Alex Borstein has addressed her characterization of Susie in interviews, for those who wish to read more.

The story is absolutely fascinating: an affluent New York housewife with beautiful children and a handsome husband has a talent for stand-up comedy, and decides to pursue it, against all social mores of the day and against her proper Jewish family’s wishes. On the one hand, this is a classic pre-feminist story, about a woman’s drive to make a career for herself at a time before it is acceptable. On the other hand, it is what writer Christopher Castellani might call an alternative reality history (as per his lecture on this topic at my MFA program). Midge Maisel did not really exist, she did not interact with Lenny Bruce or other luminaries of the period. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a brilliant mind and writer (along with her husband Daniel Palladino, who also directs, and the other excellent writers) who has created a most engaging story, for we want to see how a young woman might have done in such a difficult, male-dominated profession. It is a show about comedy with a lot of comedy, and the dialogue harkens back to the age of great Hollywood screwball comedies, with zingers a mile a minute. It is refreshing to see a female protagonist in the arts who is trying to make it while holding her personal life together.

Of course no TV show is perfect, though this one comes close. Where it flounders sometimes is in the storyline. At times, it can feel a little bit as though the writers are making the story up as they go along. For example, it was certainly an unlikely move that Midge’s mother would suddenly up and move to Paris. Midge’s father has, oddly, taken up with Communist beatniks. There are also a few things that are little bit too familiar or clichéd. Joel Maisel’s parents are almost a little too stereotypically Jewish, especially his mother, who is the classic overbearing Jewish mother, complete with raspy voice. The scenes in the Catskills recall “Dirty Dancing.” Sometimes there are detours and plot threads that are unnecessary and feel like they are there to fill the time. And finally, given that everything is so perfect and era-appropriate from the makeup to the music to the furniture, the ending songs that always play over the credits are incredibly jarring since they are modern. Would that they changed this annoyance.

Nonetheless, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is nothing short of enjoyable for all (preteen and above) ages. It is truly a brilliant concept that is well-executed and feminist in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head with being feminist. Most importantly, it is a bright spot in a time of such turmoil in America and the world. The origins of the word entertain are in the root of “to hold”–I am completely held and mesmerized by this wonderful series, marred only by the fact that it is produced by the evil empire of Amazon.