The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning

The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning following the cruel reality of Joan Didion‘s loss of her husband and fellow author, John Gregory Dunne, just as the new year was due to turn from 2003 to 2004. This came on the heals of their daughter, Quintana, having taken seriously ill just before Christmas that same year. The Year of Magical Thinking represents Didion‘s taking this deeply personal series of events, and the year that followed, to mourn, then grieve, and really to reflect through the blows that these big real things in their full magnitude meant to her, her feelings of love for her husband and daughter, and mixtures of feeling responsible, abandoning, abandoned, and the many steps of reconciling to her new reality over the course of the year that followed.

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This personal telling of the shock of instant mourning and reluctant grieving begins with the awareness that Dunne and Didion had just come from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana had just been placed into a medically induced coma. This necessity had been the result of septic shock having resulted a runaway pneumonia infection. Didion and Dunne had been discussing whatever trifle had been between them over dinner. Per this recounting from The New York Times, “Dunne slumped in his chair with one hand raised, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.”

Despite the really heart wrenching subject matter of losing her husband like this, and subsequently coping with the coma and numerous complications of her daughter’s condition, could lead you to surmise that The Year of Magical Thinking was a downer of a tale. While dealing in heaviness, Didion uses much of her experience as an accomplished writer to bring forth a much more real, matter-of-fact, and understated yet expressive and personal accounting of the true feeling that underpins these experiences.

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As the October 2005 account from Robert Pinsky of The New York Times indicates, Didion‘s:

“manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic[.]”

The effect is to share a deeply personal story of trying to process her new, sudden, and real experience. Didion aims to process her reality, and shares examples of facts she must have come into contact with yet didn’t process until much later. The processing experience for Joan Didion was partly to write to really discover, through that process, what she thought, felt, indeed feels (in the first person of a person in 2005) about her new, raw, and unanticipated reality. The deeper qualities of those feelings are revealed with an intelligence that I truly appreciated.

Back to The New York Times:

“In relation to her daughter’s life-threatening illness, involving a second coma and crisis after one recovery, Didion reflects on the class of very successful people who believe “absolutely in their own management skills,” the power of telephone numbers: the right doctor or donor or politician. This language of privilege that knows its resources, too, becomes at a certain point an evasion: everyone alive, all of us, are at best temporary kings.”

It isn’t an obvious conclusion from The Year of Magical Thinking that, for the year following her husband’s death or her daughter’s ongoing illness, that the new reality of Joan’s singular existence without John, or in the effort to bring about Quintana’s restored health, that Joan has not really completed the grieving process. She certainly has started to come to grasp with her circumstances, and still feels some sense for impractical responsibility for things she clearly couldn’t have controlled. She has made headway in actually understanding components of her husband’s death that will have set her, Joan, onto the path of recovery.

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Not really having read other narratives of mourning and grief, it is a hard field to hoe for me to really say that I wanted more or less from this first person account. The spare writing style was personally gratifying, and I appreciate the feelings reflected in this forthright narrative. The material is emotionally hard, though not in the graphic sense. I appreciate the direct style of this more than some others might.

My rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, May 14, 2017

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. As revealed in the biography of Dittrich by Penguin Random House, Patient H.M. largely tells the “true story of Henry Molaison, an amnesic who became the most studied human research subject ever.”

The book extends the exposition into Dittrich‘s grandfather, Dr. William Scoville. The book delves into much of the history of “psycho-surgeries” (read lobotomies) that Scoville and Walter Jackson Freeman II promoted widely and spread with enthusiasm through the 1940s and some of the 1950s. The book Patient H.M. shares how Molaison was lobotomized by Scoville as a “culmination of a long period of human experimentation that…[Dr. William Scoville]…and other leading doctors and researchers had been conducting in hospitals and asylums around the country.” This August 9, 2016 New York Times article is the source of that quote.

Dittrich‘s book explains that Scoville was in part motivated to find a cure for his first wife; Scoville’s wife at this point (there were two) was Dittrich’s biological grandmother. The book confirms that Scoville performed surgery on Molaison, most likely the wife that would later divorce him, and an estimate of thousands of other patients as well. That this was done with the ostensible support of the American medical establishment, even after the legal and ethical condemnations to human experimentation in Nuremburg following World War II, shocks me. See this Doctor’s Trial link for more details. Patient H.M. explores this subject in enough detail that the reader is left to struggle with the ethical mortification imbued in Dittrich’s exploration.

The book goes into some of the history Dr. Suzanne Corkin of MIT, who studied Henry Molaison as a patient for more than 50-years. (Understand that Molaison underwent the lobotomy as an epilepsy patient in his 20s, and lived into his 70s). It was through much of Corkin’s research that awareness of the way memory works in the human mind became known. Dittrich asks some pointed questions about the raw data underpinning Corkin’s research, what she had to gain from information she kept or did not, and the ownership of Molaison’s brain (and the work product governing it) after Molaison’s death.

Patient H.M. is described in this Amazon book listing as a “biography, memoir, and science journalism” book, which is where it aims and largely lands. The storytelling does demand a certain degree of focus from the reader. Many threads of the narrative tend to get explored for periods of time, dropped, and then reappear. I’ve seen commentary from neuroscientists that indicate some of Dittrich’s knowledge is lacking, though the level of information worked for my tastes as a person not trained in medical science.

I came away with more insight into memory and the different ways that it works. The larger stories of Molaison, Scoville, neuroscience in the 20th century, and the meaning this had to Dittrich‘s family, fascinated me. The ethical questions around informed consent and the lines between the research and practice in medicine, trouble me. Upon finishing Patient H.M., my interest in a deeper dive on that last subject.

I would read this book again; I recommend that others read it. My rating is 3.5-stars out of 5, mostly owing to my interest in the subject matter coupled with the author not having taken a firmer stand about his own personal feelings surrounding the morality of his grandfather’s actions.

Matt – Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Top 20 Movie “Memento.”

Top 20 Movie Memento (2000) ranks 10th in Matt Lynn Digital’s Top 20 Movies in ranked order listing. This gem as directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan joins with Interstellar (2014) as the second Nolan movie to be distinguished by a Matt Lynn Digital listing Top 20 ranking. Memento also is the first movie directed by Christopher Nolan to receive significant box office success.

Memento is the story of a guy named Leonard (played by Guy Pearce) lacking the ability to form new memories that is determined to get revenge for the death of his wife at all costs. Being as Leonard cannot recall anything, he takes to the memory aids of tattoos, Polaroid pictures, and handwritten notes to help provide contextual clues to guide his mission of vengeance. These coping mechanisms are, collectively, the central metaphor that viewers of the movie should take as the metaphoric mementos of Leonard’s mission of vengeance.

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From the opening credits the film, the audience is introduced to the truly unique and non-linear storytelling methodology that served director and writer Christopher Nolan well in both Memento and Interstellar. With Memento, we see a Polaroid picture of a bloody murder scene becoming undeveloped, which is to say going from developed to the point where the picture first came from the camera. Remember that this movie came out in the year 2000, which was before Smartphones let you take digital photos with the ease that is customary today.

Memento then begins revealing itself reverse chronologically, in alternating scenes of color and black-and-white, wherein we see Leonard killing Teddy/John Edward Gammell in color and in reverse…that is, the scene is moving backwards. First we see Teddy’s glasses, then blood moving in the wrong direction, and then the gunshot moving backwards with Teddy’s glasses returning to his face. Teddy is played by actor Joe Pantoliano.

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Moving reverse chronologically, the movie then movies on to the first of a few different black-and-white scenes in the movie, which mostly serve to offer perspective on the condition of Leonard, as Leonard experiences it. These scenes almost had a documentary feel in nature, by which I mean they explained Leonard’s behaviors, deficits, and coping strategies rather than moved the narrative of the psychological thriller along.

In the third scene of the movie, we moved back to color and into the scene immediately leading to the opening scene wherein Leonard kills Teddy. The scene moves more or less forward, though there the last bit of this scene is a direct reviewing of the scene that becomes the opening death of the movie. This setting up of the narrative, and the setting of both the unreliable narrator (Leonard) and the murder victim (Teddy) signaled the uniquely Nolan method of storytelling beautifully.

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We later learn throughout this film that Leonard was seeking revenge for the death of his wife, as played by Jorja Fox. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Natalie, who plays a villainous role that ranks ahead of the villainy of Pantoliano’s Teddy. Also keep an eye out for Burt (as played by Mark Boone Junior) and Jimmy Grants (as played by Larry Holden). The real genius of the storytelling in this movie is its structure, how the story unfolds and lets us experience Leonard as he experiences his own story, and the plot twist we get at the end of the story in learning about Leonard what he cannot see for himself. That we further get to see a reality that portrays Leonard’s humanity, and the nature of his change through the eyes of Natalie, Teddy, Burt, and Jimmy is pure excellence.

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My one complaint about the movie rests in the nature of how Leonard’s illness was drawn incorrectly. Memento aimed to explain Leonard with feeling, understanding, and a sense of getting into Leonard’s head without explicitly narrating this for us, and for this the movie deserves praise. In this process, the film gets some detail wrong. Yinnette Sano from Bryn Mawr College describes Leonard as suffering from anterograde amnesia, or “a selective memory deficit…[wherein]…the individual is severely impaired in learning new information.” The film’s emphasis that Leonard had no amnesia is wrong. Further, to suggest that Leonard might be struggling with remembering his identity, his character, and fundamentally who he was, does not ring true. The psychologically complex and emotionally messy part of Leonard, as distinct from the memory loss (aka anterograde amnesia), is fine for me.

Overall, Memento remains the breakout hit that has opened the door for other movies in the Nolan collection that I have truly enjoyed. On its own, Memento works well. Consider checking this movie out for yourself.

Matt – Sunday, April 2, 2017

 

5,863-days to a new career

Today’s post has it’s beginning in early December last year when we had the Kleenex tissue meeting at my workplace. My colleagues and I were told over the course of the morning how my business unit had been sold in a fashion where the jobs would disappear in waves over the coming 18-months.

A small number of us with specific jobs other than my own would be given the opportunity to transfer over. Others would be asked to stay through the 18-months. Most of us would be provided with a 60-day notice and a severance package.

Unlike some of my colleagues, Lynn and I chose to keep this news pretty close to the vest. That is, I waited to see Lynn in person before sharing the news with her or the in-laws. Sharing Facebook friends with other less reticent people, Lynn captured knowledge of the news before my chance to look her in the eye and address concerns that you’d expect to appear in this case. Overall, Lynn understood my rationale and accepted the news pretty well. To this day, the means of sharing the news coupled with sharing my plans for working the problem pragmatically worked. Focusing on accepting the fact of the setback while acknowledging that it hurt seemed to have offered a sense of normalcy and optimism.

Through the time since, Lynn and I have updated our LinkedIn profile, become acquainted with Glass Door, Zip Recruiter, and Indeed as services. We worked with the displacement services to finesse a more professionally written resume; much has changed in the approach to resumes in the 16-years since landing the job I was losing. I reached out to people across my current industry, from school, in Toastmasters. The idea was to network with resilience and a positive demeanor with those in a position to help.

The decisive turn in finding our next opportunity came about three weeks ago when a former boss responded with his willingness to help. In less than a week, I had interviewed with five different people while passing a skills assessment with this company. Over the weekend that then appeared, the group that wanted to hire me extended an offer. Yesterday, news came back that my background check went well. My new role will start in 10-calendar days.

Today was the end of my 60-day notice period. The job I learned would disappear in December ended today, after 16-years and roughly 2.5-weeks. Next week, I get a “spring break” of sorts as I get to enjoy some relaxation before starting in full force in my new adventure. Today, as I joined many of my colleagues in saying goodbye on our respective last day, is emotionally sad, bittersweet, and a chance for saying farewell after 5,863 days.

Life happens. You feel sad, deal with the feelings, and then use the hurt to focus on moving forward. Lynn and I are happy that things are working out for us. Things are working better for us than for others; I am extending help and empathy where I can. Offer thanks for good fortune and support where possible; do the same with a helping hand where practical.

Matt – Friday, March 31, 2017

Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is psychologically graphic and necessary

Elie Wiesel’s Night was an emotionally difficult book to read. The psychological torture of Wiesel’s experience, and so many others like him that had it as bad or worse (not sure what might be worse … American slavery seems at least similar in context and cruelty). That this happened during the lifetime of people I grew up loving brings this particular account and atrocity closer to home; that is likely about anchoring.

The legitimate nightmare and anguish of Elie Wiesel’s experience is psychologically graphic and horrifying. Descriptions including psychologically graphic and horrifying make this book both a necessary and compelling reading. It’s a bit disappointing that my seventh-grade class had us read Seth McEvoy’s Batteries Not Included. This isn’t to diminish McEvoy’s effort; my point is that seventh grade seems like a reasonable time to expose children to questions involving historical and emotional literacy.

For illuminating something for scrutiny that needs to be seen, this book earns 4.5-stars. That the brutality indicated by Wiesel in Night occurred really spells out the crime of what Erik Larson wrote about in his book In the Garden of Beasts.

Matt – Monday, February 6, 2017

Top 20 Movie “The Shining.”

Stephen King has a solid history with his writings making a transition from book to television mini-series, cinematic movie, and a little more tenuously stage production. The second movie to make a transition from novel to the big screen is the 1980 Stanley Kubrick produced, directed, and written (as a screenplay) movie The Shining. King’s novel was first published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1977, coming in at 659-pages (per the novel’s Wikipedia page).

The Shining was a fortuitous marriage of some of Hollywood’s more commercially successful stakeholders. There was the novelist King, the producer, screenwriter and director Kubrik, and the starring actor Jack Nicholson. These three brought something special and awesome together.

King gave us The Shawshank Redemption (1994)The Green Mile (1999)Stand By Me (1986), and Misery (1990)Kubrik gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)Spartacus (1960)A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)Nicholson gave us Chinatown (1974),  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)A Few Good Men (1992)As Good As It Gets (1997), and The Departed (2006).

Beyond bringing together the above three all-stars with their commercial success and influence, the story is a masterful examination of falling into madness in a place of isolation meant to force the confrontation of it. Jack Torrance (Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) give us a convincing glimpse into three characters with questionable grasps on reality. The narrative question that the viewer confronts with the Torrances is “are any of these three reliably sane?” At what point are we losing a grasp with reality? Is this person already descended into madness (mental health is a clear narrative device)?

The truth is that these questions elevate to the storytelling itself. Is the narrative itself reliable?  From the beginning scene where Jack Torrance is interviewing to be the caretaker for a snowbound hotel, Torrance is told that a former caretaker murdered his family and committed suicide. Something is clearly off, even then, when Jack brushes this off with the note that his wife enjoys ghost stories and horror films. Nothing in the Wendy’s character confirms this is true, though the frame of the story as a possible ghost story (it isn’t) and a definite horror film is set right from the start.

One might wonder where the notion of “shining” or “the shining” even comes into the storytelling of The Shining. That notion comes in with the character of Danny, who has the gift of “shining,” which is the psychic gift seeing things from the past and future while also reading minds. In this image here, you get an echo of the opening tale shared with Jack Torrance regarding the murders of the previous family, as we remember from that beginning tale that the first murderous caretaker took the lives of his two daughters.the-shining-2

That the notion of reliable characters is part of that scene comes up when Wendy Torrance doesn’t know to believe the “shining” of Danny, because it is completely reasonable to suspect that the Tony that Danny speaks of might simply be an imaginary friend. The growing drama that leads us to understand the meaning of Danny’s singing “redrum” is part of the genius of the larger tale of The Shining.

The content and tension of this movie, The Shining, is one that I recommend wholeheartedly to those with the temperament to enjoy. Psychological horror stories, as the Wikipedia page for the book tells us is true for the novel, are not for everyone. As such, Lynn of Matt Lynn Digital would neither watch nor enjoy this 18th ranked film on the Matt Lynn Digital blog. On the other hand, I do recommend that you watch.

Matt – Saturday, January 21, 2017

Looking Through The Bell Jar

This blog post may be a little bit dark. You may feel a little uncomfortable at the end of it, too.

Sylvia Plath lived from 1932 to 1963, writing poetry, fiction, and short stories. Plath was part of the confessional poetry movement, and received prestigious study opportunities aimed at advancing her career, her movement, and, ultimately, her art. Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and succeeded in ending her life at the age of 30.

Plath was born to a German immigrant father to the United States; Otto Plath taught at a small Georgia women’s college; he wrote a book about bumblebees. Otto died when Sylvia was eight years old; Sylvia’s mother raised two kids as the widow to a man 21 years her elder.

While a sophomore in college back in 1995, I first read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical book The Ball Jar. The imagery of the title is telling of the journey to be taken, as it gives us a view into The Ball Jar’s protagonist as a sensitive soul that requires delicate treatment. Like the author, the protagonist is descending into the depths of mental illness.

Somewhat naive in my first reading back then, I was not particularly compassionate to the story that was being illuminated. I saw that the story humanized mental illness from a first hand perspective. I was not feeling the feelings that the author was showing; for those that do not know, depression isn’t only sadness. Depression is feeling nothing; and sad; self-loathing and anxiety; hopelessness; guilt; isolation.

I call what I felt in response to this biography, The Bell Jar naivete. I rated the book of neutral effectiveness, which is to say a 3-star rating on a 5-star scale. “The book didn’t offer any solutions,” I said. “The book illuminated an important subject, yet failed to evoke the desire to take corrective action.”

The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman that gains a summer internship at a prominent New York City magazine. The 20-something feels nothing of the stimulation or excitement she thinks that girls her age should feel at experiencing the big city or glamorous culture and lifestyle culture has helped her to expect.

I was a 20-year-old male at the time I read this book myself. I wasn’t all that sensitive to the book that I read then as not really targeted for me. I wasn’t looking to leave the Midwest for the prominent New York City magazine. I wasn’t feeling self-loathing, anxiety, guilt, sadness, or the rest of the depression feelings. I had no firsthand experience with the subject matter the characters in The Ball Jar book felt; that the book was semi-autobiographical failed to move me as well.

I gave you some biography of Sylvia Plath. Sylvia died too young, and she wrote a book that makes me not like the person I was when I was 20-years old. I’ve outlived Sylvia Plath by more than one-third of her life, and it was not until recently that I learned that I could be, and can be, a jerk. Why? If nothing else, it is that I asked a writer to give me a solution to a problem that she clearly did not have on her own.

Perhaps it is harsh to give myself too much grief over this book report that doubles as a speech; perhaps I should not feel a little bit dark or awkward at the end of this speech for not liking the characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This book does get into clinical depression, and largely does try to bring out subject matter that seems like it could be good subject matter for high school kids going through high school angst.

I also think about how seeing the movie The Breakfast Club might not be a bad thing for those same high school students. Today, I still am not really moved passed that neutral, 3-stars out of 5-stars rating. Maybe I still am a jerk. The good news is that I am not a high school teacher confronting this idea for your teenagers today.

One last thing, Sylvia Plath died a month after The Bell Jar was first published. Please do not let this final outcome hurt you.

Matt – Sunday, December 18, 2016