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Leaning into gratitude: the art that got me through my worst year

As bad as 2016 was for so many, it was also a nightmare for me on a personal level. I’m still grappling with the deaths of my mom and grandmother. The despair I fell into caused huge setbacks for my mental health. Simply put, there’s been sadness to spare.

But my mom wouldn’t have that. She did not allow hopelessness. That was ironclad with her. Never did she waver from her belief that there was always hope, no matter how bad the situation. Her personal mantra, one I hear her say countless times in my life, was “lean into gratitude”. Clinging to that without her here to help has been my greatest test. I waver constantly. My family helps. My friends help. And, well, so does art.

An odd irony of this year: as grief sapped my will and desire to consume art, especially films, at my usual speed, I did all the more appreciate the art that I did love. I wanted badly to write a summary of my favorite films of this year, as I did last year, but simply put: I haven’t seen enough. Instead, I’m going to write about art across the spectrum that lifted me in my darkest hours, that gave me hope when I was most in need of it. These are the artists and works of art of 2016 that I’m grateful for.

Coloring Book, by Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book came out almost exactly two weeks after my mom died. Listening to it gave me the first real sense of joy I’d felt since that day, from Chance breaking into laughter with gratitude for how good his life is in record’s first few seconds to the literal come to Jesus moment in the final track as he sings with a chorus, over and over again “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”

Never had I needed to hear words like that so badly. For a solid month, I listened to Coloring Book in its entirety, every day. It’s one of the most joyful, earnestly spiritual albums I’ve ever heard, and I’m so grateful that Chance the Rapper dropped it when he did.

Cynthia Erivo

In June, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I watched the Tony Awards. In my younger, theatre kid days, the Tonys were required viewing. They were an invaluable way of keeping up with the year’s notable Broadway productions. As I got older, I sort of fell out of keeping up with theatre and the Tonys fell to the wayside as well. But last year, I was caught with my whole family in the spell of Hamilton, the megahit musical that needs no more explanation from me. So we were all gathered in the living room to watch the Tonys, to watch a show we loved win awards, and to see the cast perform. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Hamilton swept the night, and their performance of “Yorktown” (one of my favorite tracks from the cast album) lived up to expectations. But the highlight of the evening for me had nothing to do with Hamilton. A tiny woman from London with a voice clear and powerful as a winter wind completely stole the show. Performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo completely captivated my living room and, given the huge ovation she received, everyone watching her live. From the first note she sang I was breathless with astonishment and by the end of her performance there were tears falling down my face. God bless live theatre. No other medium so easily allows one person to level crowds with sheer talent and artistry.

The Invitation, dir. by Karyn Kusama

I didn’t see many movies this year. I’m going to go out of my way to see more in 2017, but I simply lacked the energy most days. One thing no one tells you about grief: it completely drains you of energy, physically and emotionally. But I did see one film in 2016 that is going to stay with me for a long time, and that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s no mistake that it’s a movie that understands that point about grief. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in a long time, a work that shows the emotional scope possible within a genre that is so often unfairly dismissed as trivial. As someone with anxiety and who has spent most of this year grappling with grief, The Invitation was a rare film in any genre to tackle both of those topics head on, with honesty and deftness. It builds to a climax that is genuinely chilling, all the more so because the horror is the logical endgame to this story, and not simply an excuse for wanton bloodletting. The Invitation isn’t simply a scary film, it’s a heartbreaking one.

Overwatch

From a design standpoint, I could endlessly praise Overwatch to high heavens for how thoroughly it eschews everything about the first person shooter genre that I’d grown weary of. It’s so lively, so colorful, so unabashedly goofy and fun. But beyond all that, Overwatch was the perfect distraction for me in a year when I needed one badly. No matter how bad my anxiety would get, no matter how sad I might be on a given day, Overwatch was there to give me a burst of color, a quick endorphin rush, something I could count on to lift my spirits in a year that was so relentlessly trying.

Inside

I played all of Inside in one late night rush, finishing at about 5 in the morning. Although there were many points where I thought time to go to sleep, I couldn’t pull away. Developers Playdead took the basic mechanics of their first game, Limbo and refined them beautifully. They also crafted a haunting world in which the game takes place. Inside is a thrilling,  disturbing, altogether astonishing experience. Its gameplay is fluid and intuitive; the puzzles are ingeniously designed so that we understand immediately what we need to do without breaking the narrative flow. The story is wordless and captivating, saying all it needs to say with what we can see. Inside is an unforgettable experience, the sort of game that will inspire future developers to continue to seek increasingly creative ways to use games to tell original, beautiful stories.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

I wanted to keep this post to things released in 2016, but I’m making an exception for this extraordinary book, which was published in August 2015. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel as original as this one, which takes place in one of the most extraordinarily realized worlds that I’ve read in fiction. The Stillness (the planet the novel takes place in) is a chaotic wilderness dotted with cities of astonishing architectural detail that Jenisin describes vividly while never slowing down its propulsive narrative. Once every few centuries, the world is struck by apocalyptic events called Seasons, which are prevented by beings called Orogenes, who have the power to control the earth at a tectonic level. The Fifth Season is inspiring reading, and I can’t wait to begin on its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which came out this August.

5thseasonscover

“8 (circle)”, by Bon Iver

22, A Million is a splendid album, but sometimes the power of one song is worth highlighting. Bon Iver has long been one of my go to musicians for meditation and calm. No matter the period of my life, there seems to be something in their music that reaches into my soul and connects at a level that is almost spiritual. This plaintive, gorgeous song aches with uncertainty, sadness, and a desire of hope. It is the most simply beautiful song I heard this year.

Moana

As I said, I didn’t see many films this year. But I felt like I couldn’t miss this one. There is something still pure and healing about the animated musical to me. The way it transports me back to my childhood, when nothing could be more enchanting than a darkened theatre and a Disney movie. Moana delivered as much as I hoped it would, which is to say that its music made me cheerful, its story made me smile, and I got easily caught up in the sweep of it. Its simplicity was a welcome relief from the more madcap plotting of recent Disney films, whose plots often seem to be playing catchup to their worldbuilding. Moana didn’t reinvent the Disney musical, but as the holidays approached and I prepared for a series of firsts without my mom and grandmother, watching something simple and joyful with my siblings was what I needed. For that, I think I’ll always be particularly grateful for this film.

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A brief, non-movie aside about why CNN is the worst

I still check CNN.com for quick news fixes. It’s a habit. Even though CNN has a godawful opinion section, and has ditched its partnership with Sports Illustrated for sports coverage in favor of the stinking sludgepit that is Bleacher Report, it is still a solid, go-to place for a quick rundown of events that have transpired in the last day, right?

Well, not really, not anymore. The “Breaking on CNN” meme (ie, joking that CNN only breaks years-old stories) ran out of steam months ago, but it was rooted in something very true: CNN’s coverage of Dzokhar Tsarnaev manhunt was woefully behind that of local news sources, and woefully inaccurate:

Anyway, when I checked CNN.com it this morning, this was the headline.

photo

This is a terrible, terrible story, and my first reaction was, like I imagine it was for almost everyone, shock.

And then I looked at the presentation of the story, and I began to feel sick. Look at how the headline is structured: the subject of the sentence is not the victim, but the perpetrators.

And the perpetrators are not given any sort of concrete identity: they are simply “teens”. Coming off the heels of a much covered murder involving teens, this seemed oddly deliberate. Why not focus on the victim? And why is the age of the murderers so crucial?

But in just the headline and description, the word “teens” appears twice before the victim’s name, Delbert Belton, is even mentioned. That is followed by the kicker: a sentence mentioning how this is the second random murder this week committed by teens. All told, in that chunk of less than fifty words, “teens” are mentioned four times

This made it clear to me: CNN didn’t give a damn about Delbert Belton. They were manufacturing a trend. They were prepping for an onslaught of murder coverage, with teen murderers as the main draw.

Sure enough, CNN has obliged with a full course of murder-related stories today, including an obligatory opinion piece on the parental skills of teenage murderers, once again continuing the sickening trend of talking heads trying to diagnose killers from afar without any qualifications (which has led to widespread reporting of falsehoods like autism being linked to violent behavior), and ignoring the cold and less headline-friendly possibility that, sometimes, people just do evil things. Many more do good things. It’s part of humanity, but it doesn’t make for sexy headlines.

Yes, to some degree it makes sense that crime dominates news coverage. Overly positive news coverage can come off as treacly unless it pertains to acts of heroism or great human achievement. On the other hand, take a look at CNN.com’s top stories of the day:

cnn2That’s ten stories, half of which are related to murder, as well as one about destructive wildfires, and voyeurism story (complete with the chance to see the video yourself) for good measure. This is also excluding the top two headlines of the day: the Delbert Belton murder, and the conviction of Nidal Hasan for his killing spree at Fort Hood.

Now, let’s look at that top story, the one with the headline “What the hell is going on?” (a quote from a CNN.com reader of Facebook). What do you think that story is going to be about? Because the story itself is actually about how crime is decreasing, and has been doing so for the last 20 years. The story also mentions, however, that 68 percent of Americans think crime is getting worse. And not once does the story even suggest the cause for the misconception.

I think that might have something to do with the fact that CNN is the kind of news network that takes its one story about the country’s decreasing crime rate and gives it the headline “What the hell is going on with crime”, and then plasters it alongside a never-ending buffet of stories about murder.

I called CNN the worst in the headline of this post. Well, isn’t Fox News worse, you might be wondering?

Yes, Fox News is vile, but it’s also already a punching bag. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but a shill for the far right, and they are called on this time and time again.

But CNN calls itself the most trusted name in news when its news has ceased to be anything but what CNN thinks can perpetuate a 24-hour cycle of mouse clicks and eyeballs. It’s what leads them to make minor but profound mistakes like dropping the ball on covering the Wendy Davis filibuster when it quietly took the internet by storm. It also leads to doing some things that are truly sickening in the name of dictating news coverage, like interviewing the kids of Sandy Hook elementary minutes after they escaped the gunman who murdered their classmates.

CNN is precisely the reason that Americans think our country is devolving into a bloodbath when in fact violent crime in this country is approaching historic lows.

Since CNN can’t say that crime is rising, which would be a blatant lie, they go a more surreptitious route, selectively reporting murders in a way that gives the false perception of a trend (again, it mattered less to them that an elderly man was murdered than that teens did it), and then reporting that trend as if it exists (when it doesn’t). They don’t simply report a murder: they dress it up as a trend piece, connecting it to another crime that has absolutely nothing to do with it.

And then CNN has the gall to mask a story that reports that violent crime is dropping in the context of its own readership being led to believe by their own coverage that it is on the rise- all this without once fessing up to their complicity in the whole ruse.

As I said before, the murders of Chris Lane and Delbert Belton are sickening. They are tragic by all measures. And they deserve better coverage than CNN is capable of giving them.

Edit: CNN.com has just now made the story about the crime rate drop its top story. Well, that’s nice, I suppose. Except the headline is still “What the hell is going on?” Couldn’t, you know, something that reflects the actual content of the story work?

A quick, non-movie sidebar to talk about Boston


Harvard Square, empty. (Source: The Crimson)
A lot has been made (most notably in two recent New Yorker articles) about how Boston shut itself down during the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I’m not here to say whether or not going into lockdown was completely right or wrong, but I think some pundits are showing an alarming lack of critical thought and rush to judgment in a misguided attempt to provide perspective.

I don’t want to ramble, so I’ll keep this short: John Cassidy and Adam Gopnik  have both compared Boston’s reaction to the manhunt unfavorably to reactions to day-to-day life in Israel, or the reactions of Londoners after the dreadful 7/7 attacks. Bostonians cowered, they argue, while people in other places soldiered on in the face of worse attacks.

Except, Boston DIDN’T cower. On the days of the attacks, Boston came together in a way that was universally lauded. The “Boston Strong” tagline that’s taken off is a direct reflection of this communal togetherness. Cassidy and Gopnik have conviniently ignored this in favor of the narrative that the city was cowering in fear during the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But if the city wasn’t brought to its knees by the actual attack, then how do you explain it coming to a standstill during a manhunt?

Well, let me share a memory that’s long stuck with me. When I was a kid, my mom took me to visit Concord, which is about as New England as you can get. Concord was the home of Transcendentalism. It was where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. You don’t get a deeper sense of the stuff Massachusetts is made of. And in one of the houses (either the Alcotts or Nathaniel Hawthorne, my memory is a bit hazy), there was a fire bucket with the family name inscribed. In the case of a fire, we were told, everyone in the town had to bring their bucket with them to help put it out. After the fire, a roll call was taken, and it was checked to make sure that everyone who could help did. If you didn’t show up with your bucket, you weren’t supposed to expect help the next time you needed it. Harsh, but that’s Yankee culture: do your part to help, no matter how small. It’s what’s expected.

Maybe in retrospect, locking down was an overreaction by the authorities, or an overreach by the government. That’s another debate for another time. But let’s avoid the silly narrative that Boston was brought to its knees this weekend. Please. What I saw on Friday wasn’t a city cowering in fear. It was a city of people deciding that if staying off the street for a day was what they could do to help, no matter how tiny the contribution, then so be it.  You do your part to help, no matter how small. It’s what’s expected.

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