Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Box

Elaborate wood box Tom Tanaka

In the third season of American television show Breaking Bad, the character of Jesse Pinkman describes a memory of making several boxes in shop class, roughly a decade before. It is a beautiful, understated scene, one of the most well-written in the five year run of a show justly renowned for its writing. It’s so good, in fact, that I feel it properly belongs in literary discussion. Bluntly stated; I have never read, heard, nor otherwise observed, a more perfect metaphor of the self imposed barriers we must overcome to find success as writers. I’d be willing to wager it accurately represents the true toil of any creative field.

Here’s a transcript of the scene. Jesse is in an addiction support group and the group leader asks him what he would do with his life if he could do anything. Jesse initially gives a blase answer about making more money, but the group leader (A recurring, yet never named character; how Poe is that?) pushes him. “Assume money isn’t an issue”, he says, and how many of us have started our own fantasies about passion becoming vocation with those very words?

Jesse: I guess I would make something.
Group Leader: Like what?
Jesse: I don’t know if it even matters, but work with my hands, I guess. Building things, like carpentry, or bricklaying, or something? I took this vo-tech class in high school; woodworking. I took a lot of vo-tech classes, because it was just a big jerk-off. [laughs] But this one time, I had this teacher by the name of Mr. Pike. I guess he was like a Marine or something before he got old. He was hard of hearing. My project for his class was to make this wooden box. You know, like a small… just like a… like a box, you know, to put stuff in. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked, you know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself, “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” [laughter] I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but It was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better,” so I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs; no screws. I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put your nose in it and breathed in; it was… it was perfect. Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse: I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes adult extension programs at the university.
Jesse: You know, I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

[Standard legal stuff: Jesse Pinkman, the group leader, and everything related to Breaking Bad are not in any way mine. This transcript is presented under the fair use doctrine, as material for discussion and analysis.]

What consistently amazes me about this scene, easily my favorite in the show’s entire run, is how succinctly it condenses every single step of not simply the creative process, but also the greater cycle of actually bringing ourselves to engage in any long term creative field. It’s all there: The utter confidence in our own capability to get by with minimal effort. The realization that natural talent doesn’t supersede hard work. The anger at a perceived challenge to our capability, followed later by an existential realization of the challenge actually being what spurred us to excel. It even manages to capture that peculiar feeling of post-partum tragedy, as we come to realize that the work is done and there’s nothing greater to it than what is simply there, nor will there ever be. We sell it for an ounce of weed, as it were. Ideally, that’s when we move on to a new project, but it’s rarely that easy. It’s a predictable, tiered process of emotional highs and lows, and I doubt it’s a coincidence the whole narration is set against the backdrop of a twelve step support group.

It’s also an extremely literary scene. The room these characters occupy is banal, the basement of a never named church. The colors are muted. There’s no real action to speak of, just a group of people sitting in a circle. Even the camerawork is restrained, little more than medium range shots of the performers sitting in their chairs, with the occasional isolated shot of Jesse, emphasizing how distant he has become from the rest of humanity at this point in the show’s run. The actors all do terrific work, but their performances are as low key as the camera’s movement. In the calculus of entertainment this scene literally only has its words to thrive on.

I just deleted nearly half this post, several paragraphs of diversion into the implications of this scene and its accompanying emotional resonance being on television rather than on a page. It was, I realized only in the reading, all written from a defensive posture. Perhaps with a bit of reworking those sorry paragraphs may find new life as a different post, but they’ve no place here. Great work speaks for itself; it doesn’t need any help raising its voice.

Is the scene literature? I don’t know. Compared to the written word, television is an art form in its infancy. We could certainly argue it qualifies as visual literature, but that distinction smacks to me of evasion. It either works, or it does not. It stirs something within you, or it fails to. To me this scene, then, is absolutely literature; even divorced from its accompanying visual element it still bestirs something in me, tapping into a fundamental truth about artistry and craft, and the how the emotional toll of investing all of yourself into something can be worth it only in comparison to the cost to your soul of not doing it.

I consciously chose not to include a video of the scene, because I wanted it judged, as much as possible, solely on its words. ”Sit down at the typewriter and bleed”, exhorted Hemingway, and to me this scene is an arterial spray, saturating the brain and seeping into the bones, even, especially, divorced from its visuals.

So, what do you think?


What Fiction Means to Me

When I was nine, I began to have my first serious, critical thoughts about the afterlife.

If the Episcopal Church is Catholic Lite, then my family was, at most generous, Miller Ultra Christians. I think it was atavism driving my parents to what little religion we did participate in, a sense of connection to a simpler, Southern past that, even then, you could sense was being buried under asphalt and masters degrees. I liked church okay, though not the occasional Sunday school class; the former took place in beautiful, unique buildings — one of the good parts of the Catholic faith that even now I feel, with a certain intrinsic nativist pride, the Episcopal church wisely chose to sift from the discarded silliness — while the latter was set in the same sort of ugly little institutional room I’d learned to despise by the end of first grade. Sermons could be boring, sure, but that’s when you dozed. Better yet, the setting allowed me to project into the past; I might imagine myself an embattled Scottish laird, receiving one last benediction before I marched my warriors off to war, or perhaps a simple medieval stone mason, trying not to get caught snoozing while the jewel bedecked priest droned in Latin. My own sort of abstract atavism.

(Side note: Atavism is such a wonderful word, perfectly suited for defining a very specific concept. I provide the link not out of pretension but because I want everyone to have it in their toolbox.)

Religion was, to me, this mostly fun little historically flavored diversion. Intellectually I realized that most of our church took it far more seriously than my parents and I, that they were there every Sunday, or would sit through all however-many-hours of Christmas mass, but that was easy to account; they just valued, or at least needed, the connection to their past more. There were the priests, of course, who obviously made their living on this strange little facet of life, but Episcopal priests are by and large either: A) semi-hip youth minister sorts who you figure on first sight probably play in a semi-hip band, or B) jocular, red-cheeked old men that can lead a boy to suspect Santa Claus doesn’t strictly consign himself to the north pole during the off-season. It was all too easy to think they were in on the joke, delivering their sermons with a wink and a lived in, “what’re you gonna do?” smile. The fact that there were people who took all this seriously, to the point of affecting their votes and feelings on people of differing sexual orientations, was a stunning revelation that somehow didn’t even occur until well into high school.

This post isn’t really about my history or feelings on religion, though; that’s fodder for a later, probably longer, piece. I’ve told you this much to provide context for the story that follows, the real story of this piece. The tale of how I came to discover what fiction truly meant to me is inextricably tied to my first musings on the afterlife and, for better or worse, human consciousness always pulls a seat to the table for religion when the murmurings of the psychological cocktail party turn to the big D word.

So let’s get more personal.

When I was twelve, my first grandmother died.

She was my father’s mother, a beautiful even at seventy-two little woman with a head of fiery red hair and an essence to match, one of those women that seem to be a genus unique to the American South, a model produced only between the world wars. She could scream your ass out of her kitchen and your fingers from the cookie batter, never buy you a single thing you didn’t need, yet never leave you doubting the fierce, even frightening depth of her love for you.

At the age I was, you tended to take for granted that the adults surrounding you, even the elderly ones, would be around forever. Hell, the way your parents go in awe of them, your grandparents can seem practically mythic, bearing a power of being that belies the relative frailty of their bodies. When my grandparents had an extremely terrible car accident on the way home from visiting us, they both went into the hospital for a long while. Even then it seemed like a setback, a brief dimming of their powers. No more.

But there are no gods walking amongst humanity, no matter what a child’s mind says. My grandfather recovered; my grandmother did not.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on. I remember the episode perfectly; it was The Screaming Skull, an exceptionally funny yet slightly creepy episode of an exceptional show. It must not have been a school night; SciFi channel showed MST3k too late even for a budding iconoclast to be so daring, but it was late enough that when my mom walked into the room, completely dark but for the desaturated bluish hues of the movie, I thought myself caught. She wasn’t angry though. Calmly, tearfully, she told me my grandmother had died.

I didn’t feel much of anything then. A bit dizzy, like I was somehow disconnected from my body. I finished my MST, and I went to bed.

My behaviour over the following weeks was similarly muted. At the funeral I didn’t cry; I simply felt dizzy. No one said anything, but even at that age, at the height of my “terrible at reading people because I don’t really recognize they exist” phase, I could see how it disconcerted people. I didn’t care, but I saw it. My parents tried a few times to engage me, before, during, and after the funeral, but I gave them little to no response. In retrospect I can see how it was worrisome, my seeming lack of reaction, but at the time I was just befuddled and a little irritated by what seemed to be everyone’s hang up on me. I wasn’t cold, or emotionally dead, but I also wasn’t old or empathic enough to understand that I might seem that way; I was simply processing.

That processing completed on a cold night in my dad’s truck, as he drove me home from whatever late night activity a twelve-year-old can engage in. It’s profoundly strange what the mind holds on to; under torture I could not tell you what we were coming back from, or even with confidence how long after my grandmother’s death this was, yet I can recall with perfect clarity precisely where in downtown Chattanooga we were. I remember how beautiful the globes of early evening rain were on the glass, and how the petrichor scented air was that perfect sort of cool that only comes in the wake of a storm. Most significantly, I remember I was reading. Not what I was reading — given my age it was probably something quite terrible — but I was reading when my father, perhaps the most gifted psychologist the South ever produced, looked over at me and said simply, “How do you feel about your grandfather dying?”

Now, I had been asked nearly this exact question about a thousand times in the preceding weeks, though of course with “grandmother” as the secondary object. Perhaps in switching up the wording my father was utilizing some sort of mental kung-fu as taught by sensei CG Jung , perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence that he changed tactics at the moment I was suddenly ready to talk. Whatever the case, this time my answer wasn’t a verbal screen saver.

“Grandpa is going to die, just like grandma did. Mom’s mom will too. Soon, probably before I’m really an adult.”

He nodded.

“What do you think happens to them?”

Here, he hesitated. I was twelve years old here; this wasn’t exactly a child asking what happened to people when they died. I was old enough to know some people thought there was Heaven, and some of those also thought there was Hell, even if I didn’t realize — Catholic-Lite, remember — just how literal-yet-Loony-Tunes many of those conceptions were. This was an almost teenager asking the smartest man in the entire world what he had for an answer to the ultimate question. These are what screenwriters call Crux Points, and would have us believe irrevocably shape people, potentially turning the course of their lives on a dime. Who can really imagine the true pressure of a moment like that? Only a father, I’d guess.

My father rose to the occasion admirably. His response did in fact shape the man I became. Wisely, like any good teacher, dad knew when to get Socratic.

“People have a lot of different ideas. What would you call Heaven?”

What a question! Not, “What do you believe?” or, “Who knows?”, but “What would you call Heaven?” What would you want it to be, in other words. He wasn’t offering me false guarantees of eternal life and happiness that he himself didn’t believe, nor was he sidestepping the issue. He was choosing that moment to challenge me. He was asking me, in effect, to be an author.

And I thought about it. With a question like that, how could I not? Whatever horrid piece of fiction — fantasy themed, I’m sure — was heavy in my hands. I knew the answer wasn’t an infinite harp jam session in the clouds, but not a whole lot else.  What would I happily do forever and ever and on and on, long past the heat death of the universe? To what situation would I want to bring in everyone I had ever known or cared about, along with presumably descendents and other worthies I’d never meet in life? What would be worth their time?

Infinite time, remember. What could you possibly do, what place could you possibly be in that, absent a complete overhaul of your perspective of time and space, would be worth remaining in forever?

“It couldn’t be any one thing. It would have to change constantly, and more importantly you’d have to have control over it.” I hefted my book. “If I wanted to live in the world of this book, any kind of afterlife worth living would have to give me the capability to do it, along with bringing people to experience it with me. And if I got bored, I’d have to be able to simply go to another one. More importantly, I’d have to be able make my own world, live in it, experience it fully.”

My father always possessed a gift for brevity that I even now lack. “So Heaven is being a god?”

I looked down at my book again. There was almost certainly a dragon or a wizard on the cover. Some being of ultimate power, capable of shaping the world around him to his whims.

“I guess so. The only life worth living for eternity would be that of a god, or at least something very much like it.”

And that’s what fiction means to me.


Da spoken word

My compatriot and fellow traveller Sumit Khanna is a renaissance man of the highest order, and one of the smartest folks I know. He speaks on religion and social justice with the haunted surety of the survivor and the elemental fire of a poet. Here he is blowing the roof off a Wellington, NZ coffee shop like a verb powered stinger missile. Get your snapping fingers ready.