The Day I Met An Angel

I’m not the type of person to trumpet my spiritual beliefs from the highest mountaintop, flood social media with memes and online requests for declarations of others beliefs, or even argue religious and spiritual issues in the presences of others. I have researched and studied many religious belief systems, from Wicca to Buddhism to Tao to UU to just general New Age, and one thing I have discovered is that there is a “higher power,” a connection to the Universe, a mystical and unexplained energy that brings things to us. Call it God, call it fate, call it Karma, but it’s there.

I encountered it the day I met an angel.

A real angel.

Laugh if you will, but she was an angel.

It was 4 years ago today. My son was sick and had been for several months. His pediatrician, however, claimed she could find no illness. He exhibited the symptoms of an ear infection – runny nose, holding his ears, low grade temp, irritability – since he was just under a year old, but, with the exception of one round of antibiotics 6 months prior, she said my son’s ears were clear. When he started not responding to sounds, ceased his language growth, and started making strange guttural sounds we knew something was wrong, but we got no support from his doctor. Four days prior, just days before his 2nd birthday, I took him in once again with the same array of symptoms, and once again, I was told his ears were clear. When I asked about his behaviors, she referred me to Early Intervention, stating he probably had a delay or a disability and that they would help. The fact he had delays was obvious, but once again, I left the office feeling I wasted my time. Frustrated and angry, I tried to grapple with the impending knowledge that something was truly wrong with my son.

I spent the next few days crying. I trusted his doctor, although my gutt was telling me something wasn’t adding up. I began to believe maybe she was right, that my son’s problems wasn’t physical but more cognitive. For any parent, this realization is overwhelming, but given the months of going back and forth to the doctors with no answers I was completely drowning in pain and confusion. What was wrong with my son?

I was in a completely desperate state. I had no clue how to proceed. Looking back, I should have pressed it with his doctor, should have sought additional opinions, should have gone with my gutt, but I was so upset that I couldn’t rationalize anything. I didn’t know where to turn……

I don’t know how I ended up there, but I ended up at the church down the street from my house. To this day, I don’t recall why I went, how I got there, or what I was doing prior to my visit. I know it was 4 days after that doctor’s visit, I know my daughter was with me, and I know I was crying constantly. I remember my daughter asking me why we were there, and I just told her I had to talk to God.

It was dark out, although I cannot recall how late. My daughter and I went into the lower church where people went to pray. I knelt down, and prayed for guidance, for insight, for help for my son. I prayed for answers. I was crying, not quite sobbing, but definitely upset. My eyes were raw from days of tearful emotion, my color was pale, my nose was red. I must have looked a mess to any bystander.

It was then a woman approached me in the pew.

“You look like you need a shoulder,” she said.

I looked at her and couldn’t hold back. I cried, sobbed, on this strangers shoulder. She stroked my hair and gave words of comfort that it was going to be ok. I just cried.

When I lifted my head up, she asked me if I wanted to share what was wrong, and all I could say is, “My son.” I told her nothing more. Not his age, not his situation. Not that I knew he was sick – that something was wrong – and his doctor can’t seem to identify it. Not that he didn’t seem to be able to respond to sound, that he had stopped talking, that he seemed in pain.

“God is telling me to tell you that he will fix what is broken,” she said. “He will make your son whole.”

These words brought such comfort to me that I sobbed again, this time out of happiness. Sure, it sounded very vague, very much like what you might hear in a fortune cookie, but it was just what I needed to hear at that time. I had some hope, a renewed faith, that my son would be healed.

We spoke a bit more – I don’t recall the topic or what was said – and she soon resumed her original seat. My daughter and I left the church.

“Who was that, Mommy?” my daughter asked as we walked to the car.

“An angel,” I replied. “God sends them sometimes when we need them most.”

“Where were her wings?” my 4 year old asked.

“No, He sends them in different ways. Sometimes as ordinary people, sometimes as a whisper in your ear that you barely hear, sometimes as a sign, but he sends them.” I wasn’t making it up. It was always my belief that we get the answers we need when we need them most. How the message is delivered varies, but it’s always there. Call it fate if you will, but it happens. And this, I felt, was one of those moments.

That night, my son was in extreme pain, holding his ears, crying inconsolably, hanging his head upside down. As he was rolling on the floor screaming, I called his pedi, but instead got the on-call doctor. She heard my son in the background and told me to bring him in right away. It was nearly 9 at night, but she said she’d open her office for use. “He needs help right away,” I recall her saying.

It took her one look in his ears to have our answers – not only were his ears infected, but they were full of thick fluid (known as ear glue). The ears were so full that she could not see his eardrum. She theorized the ears were infected for a number of months and that he has had diminished hearing for that time. He was probably so used to the pain, she believed, that he didn’t react to it until it got so intense that it was unbearable. The ear glue was thickened infected fluid that didn’t drain from his ears and he probably was hearing “like he was underwater.”

She put it plainly to me, “He can’t hear.”

Again, I cried, this time out of relief, and out of anger for the pain he had been feeling for months that went untreated.

She gave him strong antibiotics, referred him to an ENT, and gave me more advice on how to make him comfortable.

Another angel.

I switched to her as my son’s pedi and never saw the other one again. My anger over her negligence, and my own guilt over not going with my instinct and pressing the issues are emotions I’m still dealing with 4 years later, but his road to recovery did begin on that day, with those angels.

My son has had three ear surgeries, had tubes placed in his ears, has seen multiple specialists, and has his hearing tested twice a year. We will never know how impaired his hearing was prior to his treatment, but we know now his hearing is 100% normal. That year, however, damaged his development. He is delayed in many areas, and still struggles to learn to learn to speak. He had to learn language all over again, and now deals with sensory issues from that year of sensory deprivation. He’s in special programs in school to help him regulate his sensory input, and to help him develop his speech and social skills. Our world changed that day, and we began a journey to give our son back his voice.

But it was an angel that harkened to me the message that he would be saved and “made whole.” And an angel that showed us the answers we needed in order to begin his recovery.

God never told us how long his recovery would be, nor how long it would be before he was made whole again, but I am confident he will be. We are on that road now and though I wish it were quicker, I also realize sometimes our plans are not how God intends them to be. But it is hard to remember a day like that day and not see a greater power’s hand in it. Yes, you can chock it up to coincidence or fate, but I feel a greater pull in the events than that. Whatever you want to call it, it was a day when we got the answers we needed when we needed it most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Walking Dead Season 6 Midseason Finale: Seeing The Big Picture

For years now I’ve been writing analysis, not reviews per se, of episodes of the Walking Dead. I’ve always marveled at their subtle use of symbolism, surprising utilization of foreshadowing, and slow development of theme and characterizations. They take chances with story structure, experimenting with nonlinear progression of the plot, flashbacks and cold openings, and “bottle episodes” meant to highlight the conflicts of just one character or small group of characters. Each individual episode would stand alone as an independent piece of storytelling, yet also provided a link to a greater arc that usually climaxed in the midseason finale, careened full speed into the second half of the season, and came together in a finale episode. However, this season I found such analysis difficult to do on one signal episode at a time. Although the episodes in season 6 did continue the use of unconventional story structure and progressed the development of certain characters, they seemed more to be leading up to the penultimate midseason destruction of the walls of the safe zone (and as the 2 minute extra scene showed, the first utterance of the name “Negan”). The themes that I loved to see explored in past seasons were boiled down to one oft asked question, “Is any place truly safe?” – a theme that answers itself as soon as the tower falls and the Walkers flood in. This season more than any is a season in which the viewer has to see the big picture and where each episode is leading rather than to watch each individual episode for the quality of the story told within it.

This is in no way to say the season was “bad” – or as some would argue, “jumped the shark” – it’s just to say it is different, and showrunner Scott Gimple has never shied away from unique before. Some of his best episodes utilized his trademarks of nonlinear storytelling (“Save the Last One”), irony and foreshadowing (“Pretty Much Dead Already”), characterization and symbolism (“Clear”) and symbolism. Ironically, some of his iconic episodes were in season 2, a season most criticized as being “too slow” yet had one of the biggest midseason reveals of the series. Season 2 showed the “slow build” of carefully stacked and crafted episode, and many of those episodes contained the elements of effective storytelling that I have come to expect from the show since Gimple took the reins as showrunner. So, when season 6 opened with a brilliant nonlinear structure, a trademark of Gimple’s, I expected another such season. “First Time Again’s” cold open was actually a midpoint event in the episode, with flashbacks leading up to the moment portrayed in a Hitchcock-esque black and white. The scenes jumped back and forth through time from past to present, leading us to the “plan” of Rick’s to draw the Walkers away from their inevitable parade to Alexandria’s door step by use of a slow motorcade led by Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha (a ride they would spend most of the season on). Flashback showed the citizens of Alexandria dealing with the fact that their safe community is, well, not safe, and that Pete’s son Ron is severely pissed off. There are some minor moments of conflict revealed between Morgan and Rick and Daryl and Rick, but the real battle of conflicting beliefs doesn’t occur until the next episode between “Kill or be killed” Carol and “Life is Precious” Ninja Morgan. Episode 1 set the scene that danger was afoot and the Alexandrians better toughen up or their community was as good as gone.

The second episode utilized flashback to examine the story of a minor character, Enid. Once again, a cold open was used to set the rest of the episode up, and Enid’s story is heartbreaking as the viewer sees why she is so distrustful. “JSS” also sets up a major character conflict in the season, Carol v Morgan. We see the unsuspecting and far too trusting Alexandrians be brutally murdered not by Walkers but by humans, a Manson-like cult of butchers who literally bathe in blood. The action was intense, and the fact that the Wolves attack took exactly 45 minutes and was “timed” by Carol’s kitchen timer was a fascinating use of real time story structure. Other than that, the episode did not have much “meat” to it. A battle of survival philosophies began (a debate that has been argued before between Rick and Shane in seasons 1 and 2), a flashback to show the harshness of survival was shown (another issue we have seen before), and a sanctuary was breached (the prison? the farm?) – all high points in the episode, but all done before throughout the series. “JSS” was a thrilling ride and you knew it was leading to something even bigger, but it wasn’t the kind of episode I could really “analyze.”

By the time “Thank You” aired, it was obvious the Gimple once again was employing “varying perspectives” in his episodes. The first half of the season takes place over the span of just 24 hours and each episodes show a different perspective of the same events and epoch of time. Episode 1 was outside the walls with the large group, episode 2 was inside the walls, episode 3 was “Glenn’s group” with some of Daryl and Rick’s point of view, and so on…..The big moment of course was the apparent “death” of Glenn, an event that once again manipulated point of view to make the viewer think he was dead, and showed a different point of view (Glenn’s this time) to inform us of his survival. Here I think is one of the best episodes in the 6a season. The journey of David trying to get home to his beloved Betsy before he dies and turns parallels Glenn’s journey to make it home to Maggie. Like David, Glenn appears to be unable to make it home to his wife and is taken by Walkers with no “closure” or goodbyes. Also, Heath learns a lesson about survival and how vicious the Walker world is as he is covered in blood, which  he cannot distinguish if it is his friend’s or walker’s (as Michonne told him would happen). But the beauty of the episode is the journey home, what is learned, and what is left unfinished.

Next up is a series of episodes, all from within that 24 hour window, whose job it can only be to sustain our anticipation – and at times frustration – over learning Glenn’s ultimate fate. An entire 90 minutes is devoted to the back story of – Daryl? no – Deanna? no way – Father Gabriel? uhuh – Sasha? nope – MOGAN. I love Morgan, although I can’t stand his new found Zen-ness, but an entire extended episode devoted to him? That can only mean one thing – this demise. His master died because of his philosophy, and death seems to be the result of Morgan’s life sparing beliefs. Given who is coming in the season finale, I think we can guess Morgan’s fate and at whose hands. “Now” was, I believe, an attempt to get the viewer to care about Alexandrians before they get massacred yet again. I call it the “Woodbury Lesson,” a major flaw of season 3 in which the show didn’t let the viewer learn about the people who lived in Woodbury before executing them or saving them. “Now” suffered from the “Woodbury Mistake” but may have taken it over the line. Infuriating still is the episode “Always Accountable,” the only episode in which Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha get off their slow ride and have any lines or significant actions. Daryl gets kidnapped by Hewy, Lewy, and Dewy, while Abraham clears his past and comes on to Sasha. Other than that, this episode served only as the vehicle to introduce the Saviors and Dwight (whose name is never mentioned).

The pity of the season, despite it’s good moments and rising action, is that in order to tell the story of some lesser characters (Deanna, Jesse, and Morgan to an extent), most of our core group was sacrificed. Rosita, Tara (Tara who?), and Father Gabriel had little more than a walk on role. Maggie and Glenn were separated yet again, which seems to be the only way they develop, and characters like Sasha, Abraham, and Daryl are underused. Abraham, by the way, continues to impress. He’s got the best dialogue of anyone on the show, and the delivery of the lines is perfect. Abe’s PTSD feels very real to me and I love his bravado yet inner demons. He’s a character I’d like to get to know better, but he was regulated to one episode with fan favorite Daryl.

I do believe the series has gotten better at handling character development, and, for the record, I think season 4b, the season where the group was splintered after the prison fell, was the best of the series, not because the group was split up, but because they were together – paired up – and allowed to interact. The show is at it’s best when the characters interact WITH EACHOTHER and unfortunately we’ve seen very little of that this season. Rick has had few lines with Maggie all season, and he had only one small scene with Glenn, Daryl, or even Tara. I don’t think he’s spoken a word to Abraham all season, and I don’t recall Michonne speaking to anyone from our main group outside the walls. Abraham and Sasha reminded me how good the group interactions can be. This group works because they have chemistry, and it draws all of us into the story.

The reason the group wasn’t allowed to interact with each other was in fact the 24 hour time window of the season and the varying perceptions. I get that. The concept was brilliant and well done, but it did deprive us of seeing our heroes all together. That is why the episode by episode analysis doesn’t work. We are analyzing one day here, replayed through different lenses. Therefore to analyze it we must look not at each perspective, but how the different views come together as a whole, big story – the story of the day the walls fell in Alexandria. The story of the day Glenn almost died. The story of the day Alexandrians learned how to survive. The story of the day…..fill in the blank. After all, the day isn’t done yet, and neither is the story….

But for that, we must wait until February.

For now, we look at The Story of The Day as one whole complete package. Then, the season can make sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Very Special Easter Bunny and A Very Special Santa For Very Special Kids

It’s quite ironic that the two characters most aimed towards the imagination of young children, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, also contain the most stress for kids when they go to visit them.

Picture it – lines of young children at the mall. Shoppers crowding around them, lights blaring, music echoing over the load speakers, uncomfortable fancy clothes, crowding in the lines. A domino effect of screaming kids begin: first one kid, then the next, then a few more kids, then a line of children, crying, wringing in their parents arms, contorting themselves in odd positions as they attempt to escape their mother’s grasp and dart from the space in line they have occupied for the last 20 minutes. By the time they meet the old man with the white beard, or the person in the giant bunny suit, they are overwhelmed, over tired, and over stimulated.

And probably scared to death…..

For kids with challenges and disabilities, this experience, which is stressful enough for all children,  is a nightmare. Whatever their challenge, waiting in line with so much sensory stimulation is too overwhelming and can cause meltdowns. By the time they reach the big guy in red or bunny, there’s no way the photographer can get any sort of descent shot in the three takes allowed. That is, if they can even get the child to sit on Santa’s lap or even come near the guy in the big headed huge eyed bunny suit.

And let’s not forget the discomfort of those with physical disabilities, like those in wheelchairs, who cannot navigate the “holding areas,” wait in lines, or even approach their holiday characters.

My son has sensory integration processing disorder (SPD) which in its simplest form means he has difficulty processing and dealing with sensory input. Certain sights, sounds, and situations cause sensory overload, producing a “fight or flight” response from him. This disorder, acquired during sensory deprivation when he lost his hearing for a year, has made it challenging for him to visit Santa Claus or Easter Bunny each year. We’ve made it to their laps, but rarely if ever got a photo of him in which he didn’t look stressed or distracted. At least he was able to sit on their laps, I rationalized. Some kids can’t even do that. Many parents of special needs children have given up trying to give their kid the seasonal experience enjoyed by other children, meeting Santa or the Easter Bunny.

Thanks to a program in the Simon Malls, that has changed. “A Caring Santa” and “A Caring Bunny” provides a stress free environment for students with special needs to meet their holiday character. The program started in my area five years ago with “A Caring Santa” and they added an Easter Bunny visit this year. We stumbled upon the program in December, which happened to be held on my son’s 5th birthday. I had no idea what to expect. I thought, at most, that they would allow the photographer to take multiple shots, or perhaps more understanding staff when a meltdown in line occurred, or ideally providing kids with disabilities to move to the front of the lines.

What we got was so much more….

It didn’t occur to me at first that the times of the event were before the mall’s hours of operations. Allowing these kids to visit Santa prior to the mall opening means they avoid the crowds of holiday shoppers. This automatically eliminates one of obstacles they face with sensory stimulation. A very wise idea.

Then came the complete outpouring of support, and the realization that these staff members were trained to handle kids with all challenges. We were stopped when entering the area directly in front of Santa’s seating and asked if we were here for the “special event.” When we replied in the affirmative, we were ushered to a reception area with chairs and tables decorated in simple holiday decor, told to “grab a snack and art project” and then given a number. My mother, who attended with us, stayed back, thinking it was just for the kids, but she was told to join us because “this is for the families as well.” The “snacks” was a full breakfast spread  provided by Au Bon Pain- bagels, scones, fresh fruit, large muffins, coffee, juice, danishes. The arts and crafts ranged from “Santa kits” to simple coloring.

I watched as the staff gave each family a “count down” of their appointment: “You’re number 24, correct?” they’d whisper. “Number 20 is up now, so you have about 10 minutes if you want to prepare your child.”

Anyone with a special needs child knows forewarning is paramount to comfort.

I noticed the escalators were all turned off – another stimuli that scares and overwhelms some children – and the Christmas music, usually blaring through the mall, was off. To our left, the lines began to form of parents and screaming general population kids waiting for the mall to officially open so they could have their chance to see Santa as well.

My daughter, a general ed student, looked at the line and said, “Do we have to get in THAT line?”

“No,” I said. “We get to wait right here, eat our breakfast, and wait for our number to be called.”

“Cool!” she replied.

I explained to her the reason we get to do this: because Santa and nice people who know about her brother’s difficulties have set this up so he and kids with other challenges won’t be scared.

“This helps them meet Santa,” I added. “And we should be very thankful to them for helping.”

And how nice it was that Santa set it up on his birthday.

My son, in the meantime, sat happily eating his bagel, looking around, and smiling as if he believed they really did set this up just for him. He was stress free, comfortable, relaxed, and very very happy. We took him to see Santa from a distance a few times as we waited, and he smiled.

When our number was called, it was a relaxed experience. My daughter approached him as she always does, but this time my son ran right up to him as well. He hugged Santa, he laughed, he smiled, he sat right next to him and snuggled close and – this was the most amazing thing – he looked at the camera and smiled. No distractions, looking around at everyone else in line, covering his ears, or trying to shield his eyes. He was relaxed, focused, and smiling. The photographer took multiple photos – 5 or 6 – but he got the shot on the  second take. The result – the best Christmas picture we’ve ever had of him with Santa.

After our visit, we hung around some more, ate some more, and observed the caring staff help each child individually. One child was too afraid to enter Santa’s seating area, so he and the photographer met the family at their table. Another time, a wheelchair bound child couldn’t navigate the photo area, so once again the photo area came to him.

As the scheduled mall opening time grew near, I heard staff talking.

“We still have three more families….” one staffer asked.

“OK, don’t open the general line until those people have had their turn,” the manager replied.

Then the manager came over to me. “Do you mind if we turn the escalator on now?” she asked. “Will it bother him?”

I replied he was fine with the escalator, and thanked her for the program. She told me they had partnered with Autism Speaks and a council for parents of children with special needs to put it together. Last year, she said, only about 20 families took advantage of the program, but this year, it doubled to 40+ families. In fact she was wondering if they needed to open the program up even earlier, allowing for 3 hours of visiting time instead of the 2 hours they scheduled for today. And, she added, for the first time the Easter Bunny would be participating in the spring.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude that these people understood my son and his challenges and that they were able to provide such a safe environment for him and our family. No people staring at us in line, no stress for him or me as I try to calm him down, no worrying about whether or not they will “catch him” looking at the camera. Just a peaceful and fun environment for him and us to be like other families. I cried walking out of the mall as I stared at the his happy and relaxed picture.

I uploaded the photo to Facebook and was bombarded by comments, both on and off line, that my son looked so content and at ease. Everyone agreed it was his best photo with Santa yet.

Last week, on Palm Sunday, the Easter Bunny did come as promised, and once again we participated in the relaxed atmosphere before the mall opened. I told my son how we were going to see the bunny just like we saw Santa, and he smiled. He was so happy when we walked in that once again it was like he thought they did this all for him. His photo was once again the best he’s ever taken with the bunny, and the photography snapped many shots of him hugging the bunny, kissing the bunny, and even kissing his sister. We continue to be amazed at how well trained and compassionate the staff is and grateful that such a program exist. I only wish more parents knew about it and participated as the more their child experiences it, the more it helps their child be more comfortable even in non-ideal situation.

My kid did see Santa and the Easter Bunny, and he did enjoy it, thanks to Simon Malls.

In Defense of Literature

One day,

I fell in love.

An affair that has lasted

My eternity.

I fell in love

With literature.

I fell in love with Hawthrone

With Twain

With Austen

And Shakespeare.

With Dickens, Alcott, Frost

Dickenson, Emerson and Thoreau

Wharton, Hughes, Whitman, Harper

And many more…..

Silas Marner and Ethan Frome

Moby Dick and Hester Prynne

Darcy and Dimmesdale

MacBeth and Prospero

I entered a brave new world of literature

Of which I still remain.

As Bach and Beethoven

Compose a symphony

With carefully aligned notes

And a dancer

Becomes art in motion

With a combination of music, choreography, form, and expression

Or Monet and Renior

Chose their colors

Their shadows

Their perspective

And frame it on canvas

So does a poet

Chose his words

To create beauty on the written page.

Imagery and theme

Language

Flowing

Creating

A character

A conflict

A scene

That transcends time.

Gatsby and his green light

Atticus’ closing argument

Ahab’s obsession

Emerson’s advice to trust thyself

And poet’s plead to the virgins

They call us to “carpe diem”

Or carry us away to Neverland or Camelot.

They are the stuff that dreams are made of.

My loves –

They die out.

Are attacked

And called vile words like

“Archaic”

And “complex”

Too “removed” from the experiences of today.

And irrelevant in a world of ipads, kindles, and audible

Apps.

As students sharpen their #2 pencils

To regurgitate back what politicians proclaim

Is vital for them to know

And do

And decide the pursuits

They should pursue.

And medicine, law, business, engineering,

these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.

But poetry,

beauty,

romance,

love,

these are what we stay alive for.

Said Keating.

And so I live

In defense of my loves

The art

The beauty

The soul

Of the written word.

TWD Finales: A Countdown of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

In anticipation of the season 5 finale of The Walking Dead, I began thinking of all the finales of the past 5 seasons – midseason finales and season finales. Season 5, in my opinion, has been one of the finest season since it’s premiere, yet it’s midseason finale left me very lukewarm. I was fearful the finale might do the same as it seems difficult to keep up the intensity they have had all season long. However, I was gravely mistaken as the finale was one of the best finales in the series. In celebration of Sunday’s final episode until October, I am going to evaluate each finale in order of the best to the worst, starting with the one that I feel was a complete waste of air time and unworthy of TWD standards…..

9. “Welcome to the Tombs” (season 3 finale) – I will never ever understand this episode. I get that then episode was refilmed (particularly the ending and Andrea and Milton’s demise) because the show runner Mazzara had been replaced by current show runner Gimple, and that Gimple wanted to give Andrea a better send off and let her “explain” herself more, but it didn’t work. Among TWD fanatics, we laugh at everything in that episode, from Andrea’s pedicure, to the hour of her using her feet to grab pliers, to her monologues as Milton lays dying, to the horrid anticlimactic “prison attack.” Killing Milton was a waste as he could have been used as part of the season 4 story arc (especially with the prison flu arc) and killing Andrea was more about getting rid of a character they had screwed up and couldn’t fix. I don’t know what the prison attack was all about, and why The Governor would kill everyone is beyond me. An anticlimactic way to end an uneven and poorly pacing season. I’ve always wanted “This Sorrowful Life” to be the season’s finale episode, leaving Woodbury in place as the major nemeses for season 4, but instead we got an illogical episode pieced together by two different showrunners.

8. “Coda” (season 5 midseason finale) – All “Coda” did for me was put to bed the Bethyls who were hoping for a relationship to develop between Daryl and the kidnapped Beth, but in reality, I felt the episode was boring, unsatisfying, and confusing. What was up with Dawn? Why was she trying to connect with Beth? And what’s with the demand for Noah after the exchange was set? And Beth’s attack on Dawn was juvenile and self-destructive. The “Daryl uses a Walker head in the tar” was cool, and Rick’s gunning down of Officer Bob was also cool, but other than those two scenes, the only purpose of the episode was to kill off Beth after spending 2 episodes focusing on her. The death itself was so fast I had to ask, “What happened?” and I’m still asking.

7.  “Made to Suffer” (season 3 midseason finale) – Highlights include the Michonne and Governor fight, and the reunion of the Dixon brothers. The mission to rescue Glenn and Maggie was suspenseful, but overall the episode just missed the mark for me. In fact, it was so uneventful, other than the Michonne fight, I don’t remember much of it.

There is a  jump in quality between #7 on the list and #6. Every episode from 6 to 1 are truly high quality episodes, while everything above 6 is sort lukewarm. So now, for the best….

6. “TS-19” (season 1 finale) – A computer sequence showing the brain regenerating, a countdown to destruction, and a decision to end it now or continue the fight makes this one a great finale. It was a short season and many comic purists were upset with the CDC addition to the TV show. However, I felt it was a necessary addition, showing us exactly how and why the dead reanimate and giving us a look at the life and death decisions people would have to face throughout the series. And Jenkins gave us a cliffhanger that took all of season 2 to resolve: “What did he whisper in Rick’s ear?”

5. “A” (season 4 finale) The reason this didn’t rank higher is that it seemed like two different episodes to me: the first half had the incredible Claimers sequence, which features a near rape of Carl, the near killing of Rick, the reunion of Daryl and Rick, and Rick’s throat bite. Then there was the Terminus half, which was good but not amazing. A high-speed run through a maze of bullets, Gareth’s awesome dubbing of Michonne, Rick, Carl, and Daryl (The samurai, the leader, the kid, and the archer), and a classic comic book inspired last line made it a great episode and awesome end to Gimple’s first full season as showrunner. However, the second half didn’t rise to the intensity of the first half and the introduction of Gareth seemed almost anticlimactic.

4. “Beside the Dying Fire” (season 2  finale) – Michonne appears. That should say it all, but the epic battle between the walker herd and the heroes as the barn falls is another reason why this episode ranks high. It was all action, not much in way of character moments, but it was the type of finale that was needed to cap off a season of character interactions. Beautiful cinematography, haunting images, and two powerful moments: Rick revealing they are all infected with the virus (ending the speculation “what did Jenner tell him?) and advent of the Rickatorship makes this a pinnacle episode. And then, the reveal of the prison in the distance to McCreary’s haunting soundtrack.

3. “Conquer” (season 5 finale) – Specifics will be analyzed in my next blog post, but this is the highest ranking of the season finales. Action, the return of a lovable character, and conflict both internal and external makes this a perfect finale.

2. “Too Far Gone”  (season 4 midseason finale) – This was the battle we all waited for. The battle we should have gotten during last season’s finale. The Governor. A tank. A beheading. “Kill ’em all.” Finally, the prison battle was here. Season 4 spent half the season fixing the mistakes of season 3. Characters long ignored had to be developed. The Governor somehow had to get another army and even another tank (lucky him to find two tanks during the apocalypse!). He needed a reason to go after Rick and the prison again. The prison needed to be a home worth fighting for. All this had to happen before the battle happened. In essence, the show needed direction. Gimple provided all of that and more. Although some complain about the Governor episodes leading up to the finale, I thought they were necessary to get us to that place where the battle could happen. And the move to make Hershall the executed at the prison gates instead of Tyresse = brilliance. I screamed. I cried. Rick’s speech summarized the theme of the entire first half of the season, and David Morissey was amazing as the Governor. Megan’s death, however, had me screaming even louder as yet another innocent falls in a world of undead and people who don’t know how to deal with them.

1. “Pretty Much Dead Already” (season 2 midseason finale) – Sophia in the barn. The barn massacre. Shane’s fabulous “you gotta fight” speech. This was the episode that hooked me on the show forever. This episode had me shaking for weeks. The irony of Sophia being right next to them the entire half season, of Shane killing the only person who could have told them where Sophia was, and of Daryl’s assurance that they would find her (well, they did, just not in the condition they hoped) made this a top-notch episode. Bear McCreary’s amazing ending composition added to the suspense, and the pain staking look on Hershal’s face as his loved ones are killed yet again made me actually feel sympathy for the walkers. And Rick, finally, being the one to step up and put Sophia down proved that he was their leader, the only one who could do what needed to be done. This is the bar by which I measure all finales.

A Message from Hawthorne

Last week, I met Nathaniel Hawthorne.

OK, so he’s been dead since 1864, but still, last week I met him.

Sort of.

My students and fellow teachers all laugh at me. While others want to meet celebrities like Mark Walberg or athletes like Tom Brady, I want to meet a man whose been dead for over 150 years. But my connections with Mr. Hawthorne is more tangible than any with a living celebrity.

Hawthorne is the reason I became a teacher. Back in 11th grade, my class read The Scarlet Letter and I was captivated by the rich story of unrequited love. Yes, that’s all my 16 year old hormone driven mind could get out of the text – well, that and a few bits of symbolism (A = adultery, I get it….) – but the story of Hester and her ill fated lover was intriguing to me. Add to it the background of Salem and stories of witchcraft, some family guilt, and the fact that this town was right down the road a bit from us, and I was hooked.

Of course, we took a field trip to Salem, and my love affair with Hawthorne and the city he loved to hate and hated to love had begun. Even though the witch trials really didn’t take place in that town, I felt it was magical all the same. A city full of myth, of history, and of literature. Historical houses. Maritime history. The bizarre. Witch stores. Psychic readings. Lantern light walking tours. All this, and Hawthorne had walked these streets.

Our school bus drove by the high school, and I proudly said to my partner on the torn green bus bench, “I’m going to work there some day.”

13 years later, I did.

During that time, my love for Hawthorne grew. I reread The Scarlet Letter multiple times, as well as his other words, analyzing it, dissecting it, and teaching it to another generation even more detached from its archaic language than I was. The themes, the symbolism, the imagery, the language became rich and tangible to me. I aimed to make it the same for my students. I ignored other teachers who complained that I was teaching “dead white males” with themes too detached from our students’ present day experiences. Here was a story about a woman shunned from her  peers because she got pregnant. Her baby daddy won’t take responsibility, causes her to be a single parent, raise the child herself, and deal with those who would brand her. How is this not relevent to teenagers today? Add to it rich beautiful language, the theme of redemption, and a timeless love story and its a masterpiece equivalent to a painting by Renoir or a symphony by Beethoven.

Every so often, I visit Hawthorne’s grave, which is in Sleepy Hollow Cementary in Concord MA about 40 minutes from me. I get so emotional standing by the headstone of the man whose words have traveled across time and touched me so much. “Young Goodman Brown,” “Minister’s Black Viel,” The House of the Seven Gables – all stories which I read and reread and find deeper meaning in them each time. I touch the ground to feel closer to the man. Beneath all that earth is him. It is the closest I can get to him beyond reading the words he put on paper.

But last week, I had the opportunity to get even closer when his descendent, his great great granddaughter, also a writer, made an appearance in my area to speak about her latest book.

Alison Hawthorne-Deming is the granddaughter of Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel and the only one of his children to produce heirs. She is a professor at the University of Arizona but grew up in New England. Her latest book, Zoologies, is a collection of essays and memoirs about animals and their importance in the circle of life. She traveled to Salem, the birthplace of her ancestor, as part of a book tour. When a fellow teacher brought me a local article on her appearance, there was no doubt that I must attend.

I must admit, I fangirled. I was so excited over the prospect of meeting her, that you’d think I was going to see Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead fame. In many ways, this event was even more special to me. Here is a connection to a legend, someone I have studied and taught for more than half my life. It’s not him, but it’s a living monument to him.

I walking into the small lecture room so excited I could hardly breath. When an employee pointed her out to me, I felt I would faint. I could see Deming only from the back, long greying blond hair, and a black jacket with oriental designs, but I could feel her energy. I teared up watching her talk with the sponsors of the event. I sat down and tried to take stock of my emotions. I knew meeting her would be a physical connection to Hawthorne, but I never expected I’d feel a spiritual one as well.

She spoke, reading from her book. She had a style completely different from her famous ancestor, but the talent for painting pictures with words was there. Like her great great grandfather, she was able to capture the soul on the page, but these souls were of animals – elephants, dogs, wolves, even clams. She was able to do the one thing Nathaniel struggled to do, connect the human soul to nature and express the beauty of all souls, animal, plant or man. Nathaniel studied  the darkness of souls, while she captured its light.

After her reading, I followed her and spoke briefly to her, expressing how much of an influence her ancestor had been in my life, a tale she probably has heard many times before. She sincerely thanked me for the kind words, and exalted the work I do with kids. She spoke some more but that all got lost in my overwhelming feeling in her presences.  I felt him in her. Her energy was his energy. It transcended time and generations as I stood there. He was with us.

We adjoined to the other room for a book signing. Of course, I purchased a book and waited in line with her other followers, most of whom knew her for her work with animals and conservation. I handed her the book and told her my name so she could address it to me. But, suddenly, she stopped, pen in hand, looking at the blank page. We spoke no words as she remained frozen, her eyes and ben hovering over the book for what seemed like several hours, and then she began scribbling feverishly. I read the words as she wrote them and it took all my strength not to cry. I saw this on the page:

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The message was from Hawthrone.

I felt certain it was Hawthrone’s hand that wrote it. A message to me, that what I’m doing is purposeful and that he, the brother in law to Horace Mann, father of public education, and Elizabeth Peabody, founder of the first public kindergarten in Boston, approved. He was thanking me for keeping his literature alive and fighting the good fight in the face of state exams, data collection, and the belief that teaching is more about “how-to’s” than heart. It was my message. My approval. My reaffirmation that what I do is good.

A message from the beyond, transcending time, to his “biggest fan.”

Not a bad way to spend a weeknight. Meeting my mentor, my inspiration, a legend, and receiving his message from beyond the grave.

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Teaching The Dead: Red as a Color Motif and Symbol of Loss and Emotion in TWD

“I see red!”

Morgan’s monologue in which he describes the death of his son in season 3’s episode of “Clear” was a chilling (and Emmy worthy) moment. One of, if not the, best episodes of a lackluster season (and arguably one of the 10 best episodes of the series), those three words established what would become a reoccurring motif and symbol in the series – the color red.

When Morgan shouts he saw “red” as his Walker wife bit his son, he is doing much more than describing the red blood that spilled from Dwayne. He is also proclaiming his passion – his anger at his son’s demise, his regret that he didn’t put his wife down when he had the chance, his vengeance for all Walkers, and his loss of sanity as that death put him over the edge. Red is color of passions of all kinds – deep love, regret, desire, anger, vengeance, hatred. Therefore, the reoccurring images of red is entirely fitting in a series that touches upon these emotions in our characters.

The most obvious use of the color is the red blood that is spilled as Walkers kill their victims, but the red is also visible as humans kill other humans as well. The man on man murders are usually perpetrated out of emotion, be it a deep need to protect the family they love, revenge over past wrong, or a desire for power. It is interesting to note that the decaying bodies of the undead do not “bleed” red blood; it is instead black, almost tar like, yet our heroes are coated with red blood after attacks. The death of humans, and the onslaughts caused by the living, are marked with red, but the putting down of the undead are not. The undead kill out of robotic instinct, while humans kill out of passions. Therefore, red literally marks the humans, their emotions, and their losses, especially the loss of humanity as they delve deeper into savage behaviors.

The most recent use of the color occurred in  week’s “Try.” The red balloon was seen three times throughout the episode and was used to symbolize the loss of control of Rick’s emotions. Rick is being consumed by many different “feels” since landing in Alexandria – anger over the recent loss of lives, desire to gain control of the place, lust over the married hairdresser, and rage over her abusive husband. As the red balloon rests on the pond’s surface, his emotions are in check, but boiling under the surface. He’s able to stop himself from attacking Pete, telling him instead to just “Keep Walking.” But the higher the balloon rises in then episode, the more Rick losses control, finally going “full Shane” on Pete, beating him the way Shane beat Ed and delivering a speech about “fighting to survive” which rings eerily similar to Shane’s speech before the barn massacre of season 2. Rick is becoming Shane, even lusting after a married woman, and this loss of emotions, and loss of himself, is illustrated through the red balloon.

But that’s not the only use of “red” in the episode. Fire is also red. Fire as in the note that Deanna set ablaze from Carol. Once again symbolizing emotion – in this case, grief and anger – it’s interesting that the burning note was written by Carol as fire has been used to symbolize her since she set Karen and David alight last season. In fact, an entire episode, Consumed, was dedicated to exploring fire as a motif in the series and using it symbolize Carol’s journey from mousey housewife to Betty Crocker series killer (see my blog for more on that episode https://teachingthedead.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/teaching-the-dead-fire-smoke-and-resurrection/ ). Fire once again is “red” – from the burning of the barn, to the fall of the prison, to the funeral pyres of the dead, and the burning of Terminus – the motif is throughout the series. There is loss in each burning: loss of home, loss of hope, loss of self (and in Carol’s case a reemergence of a new self), and loss of life.

Let us also not forget a more subtle use of the color, the red handled machete that Rick promises Gareth he will use to kill him. Once again, here is emotion (anger, revenge) and a loss of control and humanity, as Rick butchers Gareth as he’s on his knees in a church. Not that Gareth didn’t deserve to die, but bravo to the show writers for changing the location of the massacre from the comic book location of their camp to a church, a place of sanctuary. Just as Terminus was no sanctuary for Rick’s group, the church was no sanctuary for Gareth’s group, and to spill blood within its walls is further loss of humanity. The sight of Gabriel trying to clean the blood from the floors is symbolic of Rick’s decent into savagery, but also symbolic of Gabriel having blood on his hands that he cannot wash off. I can hear “Out damn spot!” echo as he scrubs…..

Also from season 3 we have the orange backpack of the hitchhiker, a backpack so warn and sun faded that it looks red at times. Rick left that hitchhiker to his fate – death – while the Rick of old would have helped him. But here is a Rick slipping into savage cold survival, and the backpack with any supplies it might hold becomes more important that the human who carried it. Then backpack is worth stopping for, not the man.

And so red is used through the series to show emotions and symbolize the loss of humanity and drive to survive. I will predict the color red will also harken the arrival of the character that began this motif, Morgan, as he reunites with the group in the season finale. Red is passion, and Morgan is the epitome of passion and loss, a theme explored throughout the series.