The One That I Want

When I was 8 yrs old, Dad took me and my sister to see Grease at the drive in. If I remember correctly, Star Wars was the second feature, and I fell asleep watching it. But Grease… wow! Grease was so cool! My mom had the record and she used to play this song over and over, dancing around the living room. I loved it. I loved the song and I loved seeing my mom dance.

When I was in my twenties, I bought the CD. It’s still cool.

The part where Olivia Newton-John’s character emerges after her friends gave her a makeover is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Vocally, as well as the acting. The whole thing is beautifully choreographed, and John Travolta and Olivia execute it perfectly. Every move, every look, every grin. Perfection.

I can never watch this clip and not feel good.

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Stephen King’s Brave Teens

If you haven’t seen Stephen King’s “It” (Chapters One and Two), you’re missing out. And if you’re one of those people who says they don’t want to watch a movie about a clown that kills children, well, you’re really missing out, because this story is not about a clown that kills children, not really. That’s at the forefront of the story, but the real story goes much deeper than that. This is a story about a group of misfit teenagers who ban together to form the Losers Club and find not only the courage to fight some really violent neighborhood bullies, but also to stand up for themselves against abusive parents, and, in the midst of all that, overcome their darkest fears. This is a coming of age story. This is a story about facing your fears, no matter how terrified you are. This is a story about real friendships and commitment and the power of love. This is a story about rising above all the turmoil that is Life and finding the strength you never knew you had.

I think about these teenagers, in the book and movie, and I wonder what would have happened if Pennywise had shown up in my home town when I was fourteen. Would my “Losers Club” (not that any of us were really losers, of course…) have had that kind of courage? I don’t think so. I can’t tell you for sure what would have happened, but I can assure you it would not have involved any of us going down into the sewer – for any reason – much less to fight a serial killer clown with millions of shark teeth and the ability to present itself to each of us in whatever form would scare us most.

And today’s teens? The media is always telling us we’re raising a generation of wimps. In 2017, Psychology Today published an article about that. The article blames parents for doing too much for their children, saying that Helicopter Parents create kids who aren’t learning how to become mentally strong adults. These children are growing into adults who are still dependent on their parents. In a national survey of 1,502 college students, 60% felt emotionally unprepared for life after high school, which in turn made them more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope. What would today’s teens do if Pennywise showed up and their classmates started disappearing? My guess is they’d run to mommy and daddy who would tell them they’re imagining things.

My generation wouldn’t have run to mommy and daddy… but we wouldn’t have armed ourselves with weapons and set out to kill the monster, either.

I wonder what teenagers Stephen King based the kids on in his novel. Maybe the kids he hung out with as a fourteen-year-old boy were just way braver than any of us.

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Remembering 9-11

I wrote this one year after the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

A year ago today, I went home at lunchtime to find my roommate, who’d been working most of the night, sleeping and totally unaware of the crisis that had occurred. I shook him awake. “Don’t you know what they’ve done to our country?” I asked. It was the first time I had ever thought of the United States as my country.

When I’d first arrived at work that morning, I found my co-workers gathered in the conference room, gripping hot cups of coffee and staring blankly at the television. That’s when I saw the first of many instant replays of the Twin Towers being destroyed by commercial airlines. Destroyed by humans, I should say, for the planes themselves had no say in the matter. It was like watching a movie, a tragedy played out with the help of digital effects. It was so unimaginable that anyone would fly a plane full of people into a building, also filled with people. It had to be a movie.

But then they played a different clip of the scene. This one had sound. You could hear the plane hitting one of the buildings. It could have been fake audio, for sure, but somehow my brain knew the difference. The sound was real. And it was spine chilling.

A year later, we are once again flooded with the images, as though any of us have forgotten.

I don’t need to see those planes hitting the Towers and the Pentagon again. I don’t need to hear the sound of that plane smashing into the buildings again, killing thousands of defenseless people. I don’t need to see the tears again or hear the screams and cries of the people directly affected by the tragedy. I don’t need to hear the stories of the ones who escaped the Towers and the ones who didn’t.

What I need is to hear stories of hope for humanity. What I need is to be assured that nothing like that will ever happen again. What I need is to hear that we are all safe, that there are no enemies, that the world is at peace. But no one can offer these reassurances. The fact is that something like this – or even worse – could happen again to any one of us at any time. The fact is we are not any safer today than we were a year ago, despite what the political puppets say. We have never really been safe.

Today, a year later, as I walked back to work after lunch, after being bombarded with the replays of that day over and over, I passed the Catholic schoolyard. I pass this playground every day and pay little attention to it, but today it was different. Today the children were all dressed in red, white and blue. Today the children were all working together, sticking red and blue plastic cups into the chain link fence to form replicas of the American flag.

Maybe we will never be safe, but today those children gave me something to believe in. Today those children gave me hope.

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You – a novel by Caroline Kepnes

The first thing I have to say is I watched the Netflix series before I even knew there was a book. The series is more than binge-worthy, and if you haven’t watched it, and you like creepy, well-written psychological thrillers, you better get watching because season 2 is coming. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking did I just see what I think I saw? It was better than anything I’ve seen in a while. Dark, funny, creepy. Penn Badgley’s portrayal of Joe Goldberg, the main character, is genius. His vibe and his delivery of the voice overs is perfect. Seriously, perfect. Not since Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter has there been a more interesting character portrayed in a TV show or movie.

After watching the first season, I had to read the book.      

I tend to judge books based on the writer’s style, more so than the plot. But in this case, both are brilliant. Kepnes takes a scenario that is entirely plausible – a young, pretty girl living alone, posting her life on social media, who unknowingly attracts the attention of a stalker who will do anything to have her in his life – and, using the stalker himself as the narrator of the story, instills fear, creepiness, and humour. You even like the stalker. You can’t help it – he’s handsome, charming, funny, blunt, damaged, lonely, and desperate. As I said, this comes across in the TV series beautifully. But in the book? Even better.

Where has Caroline Kepnes been all my life? Well, it turns out she worked as a pop culture journalist for Entertainment Weekly, and she was a writer on 7th Heaven, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She also ended up working on the Netflix adaption of YOU, and it shows. The script, including Joe’s inner dialogue voice overs, closely follows the book.

Some people say, Oh, a dark comedy about a serial killer with voice overs. Sounds just like Dexter. And, sure, there are comparisons. I compared Joe to Dexter and Hannibal myself. All three are humorous, intelligent, blunt and likeable. All three are serial killers. And You is narrated by the serial killer, like the Dexter books and Showtime TV series. But that’s where the similarities end, really. Hannibal tended to kill people who irritated him (the off-key flutist, for instance), and then ate their body parts. Dexter had an innate need to kill, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. He learned to never kill anyone who hadn’t done horrible things. He spent time vetting them, to make sure he had undeniable proof that they were a child molester, or a rapist, or whatever. He fulfilled his need to kill and justified it by only killing the dregs of society, the people who were hurting the innocent. In You, Joe Goldberg’s murders are the means to an end. He has one goal: to find a woman who loves him unconditionally and will never betray him. And he’ll stop at nothing to make that happen. He becomes obsessed with one specific woman, stalks her, secretly finds out everything he can about her, spies on her through windows and social media, manipulates her and the people in her life, orchestrates a romance with her, and then, when she finds out what he’s done, locks her up in an attempt to keep her from leaving him. Very different motives for these three characters, and very different writing styles from the three authors. I’ve read the first of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books, and several of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and while I enjoyed them all, Harris and Lindsay have nothing on Caroline Kepnes.

One of the things I really love about this book is the narrator’s voice. Joe’s insights into human nature and society, along with his references to movies and music, reminded me of Gregory House from the long gone and much missed TV series House, M.D. He talks about how Prince was one of the great poets of our time – poet, not songwriter. Kepnes uses variations on a line from Prince’s Nothing Compares to You as a kind of refrain throughout the novel. It’s brilliant. Chuck Palahniuk is the only other writer I can think of who uses refrains in this way. A thread that runs through the story and keeps pulling you back to the beginning, tying things together. Kepnes does the same thing with a line from an e.e. cummings poem:

Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

The narration is filled with run-on sentences, too. I love this for two reasons: it breaks a rule with expertise, and when you read it, it sounds exactly the way a person thinks. Just look at the first paragraph of You:

You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are.  You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me – hello – when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?

We are immediately thrown into the spiraling mind of this character. We see all that he infers from this stranger walking into his shop. He puts so much stock into her just saying hello to him that we can’t help but feel sorry for his desperate need to be noticed. He analyses how she’s dressed and we see that he’s looking at her in a sexual way. And we get the first hint of Joe’s love of books with his reference to Charlotte’s Web. Who compares the color of a woman’s pink jeans to a children’s book about a spider? Joe Goldberg. Caroline Kepnes. No tired metaphors here, this is uber original. And we get all of this from the first three sentences.

And then, on page two:

You don’t stage Faulkner and your jeans hang loose and you’re too sun-kissed for Stephen King and too untrendy for Heidi Julavits and who, who will you buy?

Joe’s assumptions of this girl are almost immediate. He projects onto her the qualities he wants to find in a mate. Sexuality, intellect, a love of fine literature without pretentiousness. He saw her for the first time just seconds ago, and he’s already obsessed with what books she’s going to buy. We are sucked into his deranged mind; creeped out, but intrigued. And too sun-kissed for Stephen King! How perfect is that?

There are so many bits I’d love to quote from this book, but I want you to read it in its entirety. There really is no better word to describe Caroline Kepnes than brilliant. I mean, really, it’s not everone who can write an entire page on shower cutains and make it interesting. I am so looking forward to the sequel, Hidden Bodies, and to season 2 of the Netflix adaption of the You series.

Check out Caroline Kepnes

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