Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Silicon Valley: Satire

Irreverent Satire

I count it as a fault that we respect and trust so few of our nation’s leaders. A non-stop news cycle has tarnished the reputations of men and women once held in high regard. A few politicians, teachers, coaches, and priests without any moral compass have been tossed into a hellish pit of their own design by preying upon others. Police officers have been caught on video as they hunted down unarmed citizens, and too many citizens have been tempted to embezzle from their bosses. These seem to be common and prevalent, thanks to news in need of yet one more sensational, titillating tale of moral bankruptcy. In fact, most of us are pretty decent, but the news narrates a different story.

So we’ve come to a point where we hold our breath, waiting and wondering when the next Lance Armstrong will be proven a liar or the next Speaker of the House will be as guilty as the man he maligned while in office or when the next political rising star will be unable to “keep it in his pants” and fall from grace or when the next beloved family man we thought to be a celebrity worthy of admiration will be found to have date-rape drugs in his pocket.

And that brings me to the current state of comedy: irreverent satire, often sexual and definitely insulting. One HBO program, Silicon Valley, will serve to review satire and a classic archetype: the innocent.

Silicon Valley’s target is the struggle of a clever guy named Richard in possession of a great idea. He strives to bring his idea to the world and make some money doing it, but his nature places obstacles in his quest. He is, by nature, trusting and honest. He is reluctant to believe others may not have his best interests at heart. Worse, he doesn’t understand that many others will and do take advantage of his naiveté. They have no problem raiding or stealing his intellectual property.

Richard is an archetypal innocent. He’s like the country boy confronting harsh urban realities. He has his hopes dashed more than once by cleverly disguised angles in contracts he’s signed, agendas he can’t imagine, and opportunists of every gender and motive.

With each of these conflicts, John Altschuler, Mike Judge, and Dave Krinsky, the show’s creators, suggest most people share a single affliction: narcissism, a flaw more noteworthy and more hurtful when in the company of wealth and/or power. The show also skewers those who would use legal means to prevent Richard and his team from controlling Richard’s great idea in order to capitalize on it for themselves.

Finally, the show mocks the corporate world mercilessly. Self-aggrandizement and ruthlessness seem to be the true heart of CEOs everywhere. One recently even hinted that killing the person in his path could be the simplest solution to his problem. His personal army of lawyers were not inclined to defend a charge of murder.

The same CEO and other captains of industry featured in the series have little regard for people like Richard. He’s an artist, an intellectual, a man of ideas. He hasn’t dirtied his hands in the cut-throat arena of corporate commerce, and therefore, poor Richard has little worth.

Corporate clones try to beat Richard, but he rises again and again to claim justice for himself and his idea. With every conflict, he loses some of his innocence and optimism, but not all of it. Because he retains some of that innocence and hope, he remains the heroic figure, dwelling just outside the circle of more sophisticated and often corrupted human nature. That's where the object of comedy dwells whether he is Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or Richard. He’s kicked around, laughed at and used, but he rises every time.

We welcome him back to the front lines, trusting he will vanquish the enemies surrounding him. We also welcome him into our own circle because, after all, we've been derided and mocked ourselves. Rather than forcing Richard into the eternal role of outsider, we embrace him because we identify with him. We’d like to believe that we are as good-natured as Richard, and we’ve certainly been outside the circle of human nature. We learned to be a bit cynical--as Richard is learning to be. We see ourselves in Richard, laughing with him, not at him.

Reading Challenge:

Read Silicon Valley.

Writing Challenge:

Explain how your favorite comic character appears outside the circle of acceptance and by what means he or she is brought inside.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cinderella and Overall Meanings

And they lived happily ever after. . . . words in closing fairy tales, words that, taken literally, have inspired some modern Millies to eschew fairy tales for their daughters because, after all, we are the architects of our happiness and that happiness need not include Prince Charming or even a handsome man. Women sculpt their own happiness by following their passions, honing their talents, and sharing both with others as they see fit to do so. And, of course, so do men.

But reading to understand and explore the human experience means reading between and beyond lines. A fairy tale is more complex than its last words. A fairy tale recounts the struggles we all face, together and alone. A fairy tale is a tale about sorrow and triumph, about suffering, loss, and redemption.

Consider Cinderella in Disney’s classic version as well as Sondheim’s perspective in Into the Woods. In the animated version from 1950, friendly woodland creatures befriend lonely, put-upon Cinderella. On the other hand, Sondheim’s Cinderella is a woman on the verge of independence. She falls for the handsome prince reluctantly. When he proves to be charming and disloyal, her sense of self-worth lets her leave him easily with little residual heartache.

Both Cinderellas prove to be hard workers. They keep going in spite of setbacks, natural and unnatural hardships, and personal doubts. They put one foot in front of the other, marching onward, the truest testament to human hope ever witnessed. Hope is, after all, just getting up, showing up, trying once again. Hope is just believing that this day will surely be better than the day before; it is imagining a brighter future. Certainly hope is uncovering what this planet provides as gifts, blessings, beauty, and joy.

In demonstrating hope, both Cinderellas prove their mettle. They are not weaklings in dire need of a man to give them comfort and love. They give plenty of both to others. They are compassionate and forgiving.

Why then wouldn’t we want out daughters to watch Disney’s princesses? They are women with character, women to admire for tenacity, spunk, and spirit.

Still, I understand that a happily ever after ending without any regrets, rancor, or rage is rare. People can be foolish and foolishly take for granted the hearts of others, but even children know this. Science has shown infants without the ability to speak words recognize bad, narcissistic behaviors and prefer peers and adults who play fair, who show compassion and concern. Your daughters know that the world isn’t equal, that Prince Charmings are rare, and that sometimes wishes don’t come true because Fairy Godmothers are in short supply. Let them dream and imagine anyway. They could do worse than be as hard-working, forgiving, and kind as Cinderella.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” Grimm’s Cinderella, Cinder-Edna, and Into the Woods. Take note of the admirable character qualities each princess possesses.

Writing Challenge:

Write a letter to the parent who objects to her daughter watching Disney’s 1950 animated film Cinderella on the grounds that the film doesn’t send a strong feminist message.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also labors as a free lance writer while writing

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Good Wife: Good Wives, Like Good Guys, Finish Last

Alicia Florrick, I wish you well, but I think you’re going to need that wine--and plenty of it--in the future you’ve carved for yourself. Let’s review.

When we met you seven years ago, you stood by your husband’s side as the quintessential good wife, stoic, expressionless, and faithful to your role, if not your man. After all, he was caught on tape frolicking with prostitutes and opportunists.

As an opportunist himself, one accustomed to shaking hands and doing business with highest bidders, Peter Florrick was more comfortable with those whose moral compass had not been reset in decades.

You, on the other hand, seemed to know how to locate the moral North star. You were devoted to children. You were brave enough to stand by that philanderer, and you were kind as kind can be to a mother-in-law with the harridan gene. But as you re-entered the work force, putting to use your law degree, your compass grew rusty.

Perhaps a wonky compass is in the nature of the law. After all, it requires a vigorous defense even if the client swims in murky waters.

Perhaps that compass goes awry when a person is betrayed as you were. In spite of your grace and poise, it must sting to know your allure is not enough to draw your man to you. He cherishes the chase more than the lovely woman at home. To reassure yourself or to find love lost, you began the first of several affairs, each one compromising your moral authority over those children with whom you spent less and less time.

And they are not the only ones who struggled to keep up with your new directions. You formed alliances with Will and not Cary, with Cary and not Diane, with Eli and Eli's daughter, with anyone else and not Eli, with Peter and not Jason, and with Jason and not Peter. Your dance card had so many names penciled in and crossed out, even you must surely have been confused about the person with whom you were expected to dance.

And that is how we left you--confused, still drinking, still choosing one over the other as if you were forced to do so, slapped, left behind, and alone. We hoped for a happier end, but vows built upon technicalities alone don’t seem to hold people--at least in the world you inhabited--so alone you will journey on.

Absorb the slaps; you invited those stings.

Dry your eyes; tears never seem to change outcomes.

Pour another generous goblet of white or red. Look pensive.

Know your children are different from you, embarking on lives unimagined by you, but you’ve surrendered to their truth.

They will, or they will not make their way to happiness and fulfillment, with or without heartache--most likely with.

But that appears to be okay--heartache, that is. It appears to be the expectation and conclusion when moral compasses go wonky.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the last episode of The Good Wife and the first season’s episodes to evaluate whether the first season prepared viewers for the last chapter as novelists and playwrights do when they provide exposition in the early chapters.

Writing Challenge:

Read the first chapter of your favorite book. Does it prepare you for the end? How?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Maternal Archetypes in Room

Some years ago, I wrote about archetypes, important paths to a richer reading experience. Archetypes are also character types, motifs, and symbols that writers use to dip into the deep well of human experience.

The 2015 film, starring Brie Larson, titled Room, is an excellent vehicle to review the maternal archetype. Both mothers in the film are nurturers and teachers, capable of selflessness.

The protagonist, named Ma, bears the child of Old Nick, her captor and rapist. Yet her son, Jack, is precious to her. No matter how he came to be, he is her son, and she proves patient and resourceful. She must be his playmate and mentor, his cheerleader and disciplinarian, his normalcy and his defender.

Ma is but a teenager when she bears Jack, but she must summon a woman’s knowledge to nourish him. She supplements his meager diet with breast milk long after most children are weaned. She must also negotiate with her captor to meet Jack’s other needs, including gifts, toys, and books.

Ma uses eggshells to stitch together a toy snake for imaginary play.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin
Jack is as much a prisoner of Ma’s kidnapper as Ma herself. Pre-school is not an option so Ma must teach Jack his letters and numbers. She makes a whole world of one 10 x 10 garden shed. It is their haven, a schoolroom, kitchen, and window on a world entirely invented by Ma.

When Old Nick punished Ma by withholding power to the shed, it grows cold and Ma has no electricity to cook food. After the days of punishment, Jack develops a high fever. Ma begs her captor to take him to a doctor. He refuses, offering to bring some medicine. Ma realizes that Jack will never be safe as long as he lives at the mercy of Old Nick so she hatches a plot.

Ma coaches Jack to play dead inside a rolled-up rug. He’s just a little boy, afraid and uncertain, especially because Ma must now reveal an entire universe beyond the shed’s doors--a universe she had never shared so that Jack would not be aware of his deprived life in a prison.

Jack is understandably incredulous and that exacerbates his fear. Nevertheless, Ma is willing to let him go in order to give him a chance to live and rolls him into the carpet. She lies to Old Nick, telling him Jack died and asking him to carry the boy away in the rug.

Old Nick does so, tossing the rug into the back of a pickup. Ma had coached Jack to roll free when he heard an engine start up and a vehicle begin to move, and Jack remembers. He is quite slow to act, however. He doesn’t jump free quickly, and when he does, Old Nick sees him go over the side. With Jack’s knee hurt, Old Nick catches him easily, but a stranger tries to intervene until the attention from passersby causes Old Nick to drop the boy and drive away.

Another woman, a police officer on the scene, comforts Jack and coaxes him to speak. She listens closely and pieces together clues that lead back to Ma so mother and son are reunited and soon together in Ma’s childhood home.

There another mother must nurture Ma, her own daughter, and Jack, her grandson. She must be patient to help both endure and thrive. She must be understanding beyond all measure. Jack is receptive; he longs for stability and family, for play and friends. Ma, on the other hand, needs professional help to overcome trauma; a mother’s love alone is not enough--except the mother’s love she has for Jack. She overcomes her sorrow and rage and fear to survive and mother her son.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Room.” As you do, consider the ways in which women are shown to be nurturers and teachers. List the ways in which they are selfless.

Writing Challenge:

Identify and write about the maternal archetype in Cinderella. It’s not the stepmother, is it?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.