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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The Merits of Social Media

Some people think Social Media is a waste of time. Scrolling through Facebook posts of funny cat videos and baby pictures, reading blurbs about what this person ate for dinner or what that person watched on TV. It’s true, it can certainly be viewed as a waste of time. But as humans – busy humans with whirlwind lives and overwhelming demands – don’t we sometimes need a break to just sit quietly and waste time before jumping back into the grind or winding down for bed? Sure, every parent or grandparent thinks their child is the most beautiful, special, awesome child in the world, and do we really need to see pictures of them from every angle, in every outfit, every day? And nobody really cares what anyone else ate for dinner. But seeing a picture of a mother holding her baby, her eyes filled with unconditional love, or laughing at silly cat videos, or reading some humorous quip about the absurdities of life, those things bring us some much-needed respite from a world filled with tragedy and horror. It’s our comic relief, the modern-day equivalent of the cartoons in the newspaper.

There are also posts that are interesting and thought-provoking. They make us consider things we may not have considered otherwise. And educational posts – articles on medical breakthroughs, household hacks to fix clogged sinks and banish blemishes and chase away the creepy crawlies. Surely these can’t be labelled a waste of time, not if we’re opening ourselves up to learning something, be it a quick fix for an annoying problem or a new way of thinking about something.

But then there are the people who use Facebook and other social media sites as a diary. Some find it disturbing, that anyone would tell the world about their personal problems, air their dirty laundry as it were, be it relationship woes, or health issues or whatever struggles they’re facing. I think these people must be very lonely. They are reaching out to the entire world, desperate for some understanding or interaction, or even just a modicum of co-misery. If responding compassionately to such posts allows people in need to feel connected, isn’t that the most worthwhile waste of time of all?

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“Song Beneath the Song”

Every now and then I see (or hear) a performance that completely blows me away. Sometimes it’s a scene in a movie (like Vera Farmiga’s final scene in The Boy with the Striped Pajamas). Sometimes it’s a dance performance. Sometimes it’s a vocalist. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it stays with me, haunting me, creeping to the front of my brain when I’m trying to focus on something else. It brings tears to my eyes, not because it’s sad, but because it’s so damn beautiful.

Sara Ramirez of Grey’s Anatomy gave such a performance on Episode 18 of Season 7 (entitled “Song Beneath the Song”). I was never a huge Grey’s fan, but I had watched a few episodes here and there over the years, and had seen this one when it first aired, back in 2010. For nine years, this performance stayed fresh in my mind.

I recently took the Shonda Rhimes MasterClass on writing, and was drawn back to Grey’s Anatomy as she referred to the specifics of it and her other shows during the classes. When I finished the course, I started watching Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning. And when I got to this episode, this one scene still grabbed my heart and shook me. Hard.

This one episode is done as a musical, which is unusual for Grey’s, but works perfectly here. In the episode, Callie (short for Calliope, which literally means “beautiful-voiced”, and, in Greek mythology, Calliope was a muse who presided over poetry and song) is in a serious car accident. Pregnant at the time, her baby has to be delivered prematurely while Callie is unconscious. In this scene, we see Callie in a coma as Arizona talks to her about her baby, desperate for her to regain consciousness. Throughout the episode, Callie is having an out of body experience, seeing herself on the operating table, and seeing the doctors trying to save her and her baby. In this scene she sees herself lying unconscious, walks through the hospital to see her baby for the first time as the baby’s father sits by their infant’s side, and then circles back to her hospital bed where she grabs her own legs and forces her unconscious self to wake up. It’s dramatic. It’s beautifully done. And her voice is so powerful, so emotional, so heart-wrenching. Her acting here is absolutely flawless. The expressions on her face, the emotion in her eyes, the vocal performance – it’s one of the most enthralling scenes I’ve ever seen on television.

Even if you aren’t into Grey’s Anatomy, I dare you to watch this three-minute scene and not be moved.

Sara Ramirez – The Story on Grey’s Anatomy

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The Skinny on Being Skinny

These days, social media is full of people championing the bodies of “real women” – women who wear a size 10 or more.

Are women who wear a size 6 not “real women”? Should skinny girls and women be made to feel inadequate? Like they are less of a woman than those with lots of curves and padding? It’s great that females with fuller figures are being taught to love their bodies. But does that have to come at a price for those of us on the other end of the scale? It seems to me that people who claim to be promoting positive body images for young women are, in fact, shaming skinny girls. And, whether intentional or not, that is not okay. Making someone feel badly about how they look, when those aspects of their appearance are completely beyond their control (ie: being skinny, having red hair, having freckles, being flat-chested, being tall, being short…) is never okay.

I’ve always been thin by most people’s standards. As a teenager, I was underweight. There were lots of days in high school when I would come home from school and cry. I wanted to look like my classmates. I’d sit down in front of the television with a big bag of chips, eating as many as I could before supper, desperate to gain weight. My mother use to make me hot chocolate using cream instead of water or milk, to give me the extra fat.

Nothing worked.

I remember one day in high school, I was standing on a chair to erase the top of the chalkboard for the teacher. As I finished, and jumped down to the floor, one of my classmates shouted, “Timber!

When I was about fifteen, an adult male family member asked me if I used Band Aids for a bra. And at the end of my first year in university, a few of the more popular girls in my dorm did up a little presentation for everyone on our floor. They said something funny or cute about each of us. When they got to me, they said, “What exactly do you put in a double A Cup anyway?” Everyone laughed. Everyone but me.

No woman should ever be shamed into thinking she is less of a woman just because she’s not curvy and doesn’t have big breasts.

Mother Nature got her jabs in, too, because puberty comes late for extra skinny girls. For me, it was three long years after it hit all my friends and classmates. It’s hard to relate to your peers when they’re all having periods and going on dates and growing breasts, and you still have the body of a ten-year-old girl.

Now that I’m middle-aged, the tables have turned. Watching as my peers struggle to lose the extra weight they gained as they aged, I can finally see my high metabolism as a gift. But that was a long time coming and the road getting here was full of steep hills and deep potholes. And just as everyone’s metabolism slowed with age, so did mine, it’s just that mine is now where theirs used to be. I can no longer eat entire bags of potato chips and not gain weight. And it’s more than a little irritating when people say to me, “You’re so lucky, you can eat whatever you want.” As a teenage girl, I tried desperately to gain weight so that I wouldn’t be teased. And now, as a middle-aged woman, I very closely watch what I put into my body, so that I don’t gain a lot of weight. There’s nothing lucky about any of that.

So please, if you want to jump on the positive body image band wagon, let’s be sure we’re promoting the importance of a natural, healthy body, whatever the size.

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