Dog as Zoloft

When the cover of a book prominently features a dog’s soulful face, you might justifiably make the assumption that the story is going to be a familiar one: a dog enters someone’s life, transforms the person through a variety of adventures, the dog dies, and you cry your eyes out. But as anyone who has loved a dog knows, all dogs are different, and every dog story is unique.

Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself is a skillfully written, deeply touching, honest, and provocative memoir. It’s about much more than a woman’s love for her dog because her dog really did save her after she sank into a depression that nearly killed her.

Julie Barton’s depiction of her mortal combat with depression is harrowing and eye-opening. For Barton the depression descended on her after a nasty break up. She was in her early twenties, fresh out of college, and trying to survive in Manhattan. When she fell apart, she literally fell on the floor and could not raise herself up. But this dark cloud had been seeded many years earlier — in childhood in fact, and that’s one of the things that makes this memoir a bit different from many others.

Barton was not abused by her parents. In fact, her parents loved her and provided a comfortable life for their only daughter. No, in Barton’s case, it wasn’t an abusive parent that derailed her happy childhood. It was a terrifying, angry older brother; her well-meaning parents simply had no idea how to keep her safe. Sibling abuse isn’t something one hears much about. As Barton said, “Sibling violence is one of the last sanctioned forms of domestic abuse.” The emotional toll that the constant fighting and name-calling left on Barton resulted in a life-time dependence on anti-depressants and a narrow escape from suicide.

Although Barton explores the unhealthy relationship she had with her brother, she doesn’t dwell on it because this is a story about a dog, a remarkable dog named Bunker that she loved enough to learn how to live again. As soon as she sees the dog, she knows he’s the one who will save her. And he seems to know that she is the one who will save him as well.

Not to get too sappy, but this is a story of a miracle, the miracle of dog medicine. And it’s not an “Old Yeller” story either. You don’t have to worry about having your heart wrenched in a million pieces as the dog dies. The parts where I cried were in the moments when things finally worked out for this poor kid, who screwed up everything she touched — except for the dog. That she knew how to do. And that’s what saved her. Curl up with your dog and read this book. You’ll love it.

Dog Medicine is published by Think Piece. Price is $14.95.  It will be available in November.

For Every TV Show, There is a Season: Turn, Turn, Turn

I just want to bow down in gratitude to Craig Silverstein for bringing this idea to the small screen and to AMC for having the guts to let him do it. History is so filled with terror, passion, and excitement, I sometimes wonder why we bother to make anything up!  And what a time period to cover: the American Revolution. I know it’s weird for an avowed leftie to admit, but I’ve always been deeply patriotic (even while believing that we’d be better off without any borders). I put my hand over my heart for the Star Spangled Banner. I disdain the very notion of “royalty.” And I still think someday I might pull out the paperwork my dear Aunt Hazel left me and sign up for the DAR.

So, what makes this series so compelling? First off, the story. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought that the majority of American colonists in 1776 were all for booting out the British. I figured the “loyalists” were a quiet little band with some sort of gutless attachment to the mother country. Apparently, at least half of the “Americans” did not want to be weaned from the mother’s tit. So here’s a history lesson. A “United States of America” was not a given. Our ancestors had to be willing to fight for it and die for it — and not just theoretically.

TURN: Washington’s Spies is a complicated story, and the pilot episode doesn’t do a great job of connecting the dots (it might be episode two or three before you can differentiate the characters and the interweaving plot lines). One of the major battles also left me scratching my head in wonder as to what actually happened. Oh, and there’s a bizarre flash forward to a major character’s death at the beginning of one episode that comes across as a complete non sequitar. But even when the story is murky, we’re given enough thread that we can follow along. And if that doesn’t work, the compelling characters and the fine acting keep us enthalled.

Jamie Bell plays Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the “Culper Ring.” Bell is not a typical leading man type. He’s more like the guy who was your best friend in high school until one day you realized he had the sexiest eyes you’d ever seen. And the character of Abe is a reluctant hero. He’s willing to take an oath he doesn’t believe in order to save his skin, but also to provide cover for his skullduggery. He vacillates between loyalty to his family and loyalty to an idea, between his good and faithful wife, Mary, and his true love, Anna. In his utter humanity, his fear, his vengefulness, and his weakness, Abe has the appeal of an everyman. But with each episode, his commitment to the cause grows, and our investment in his survival grows, too. Even when he’s willing to sacrifice an innocent Quaker to the Redcoats, we hold out hope for him. And our hope is rewarded when his plan is thwarted, and Abe proves stronger than anyone, especially he, expected.

The women characters are absolutely wonderful. You can’t help but love them all but most especially Anna Strong, who is played by a steely Heather Lind. Devious, headstrong, clever, and sometimes reckless, she shows us what it means to be an American woman. You take what they give but you get what you want. And if you have to put a bayonet in someone’s gut, well, they asked for it. Mary, the wronged wife, has no dearth of courage either. She’s a loyalist with no love for the rebels, but she proves she can connive with the best of them when it comes to protecting her family. Abigail, Anna’s former slave, played by Idara Victor, is another character who must draw on enormous reserves of inner strength from a position of absolute powerlessness. I constantly found myself wringing my hands in worry over her precarious position in the home of British Intelligence Officer John Andre (the gorgeous JJ Feild).

Stellar acting abounds. Ian Kahn as Washington is perfect. Handsome Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), the truly heroic mastermind behind the spy ring, makes us cheer. And yet, the real genius of the show is the portrayal of the “enemies,” specifically John Grave Simcoe, played by the towering Samuel Roukin. My God! He’s evil incarnate with such admirable qualities. He’s a sociopath of the first order and yet with an inner logic that makes his every move thoroughly justifiable. He’s a dazzling warrior, with finely honed killer instincts, arrogant in the face of death, bold and cunning.  And here’s the rub: while the Patriots uphold the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Simcoe is an abolitionist who treats a former slave as his equal. My Turn compatriots and I did a little research on the real John Simcoe, who went on to be a Canadian governor, and found that perhaps there is not a little exaggeration in his portrayal, but who cares. This is what makes exceptional television. A thoroughly despicable character that you thoroughly enjoy watching.

Unlike the one-dimensional depiction of the British military in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (which was a thrilling piece of cinema, regardless), the British soldiers and the loyalist Americans are portrayed as complex individuals who are a mixture of good qualities and bad. It simply makes for a more nuanced and interesting story. And it feels honest. Hollywood always exaggerates and manipulates, but in this case you know that there are some essential truths and some historical facts being conveyed. It’s not just another TV show. It’s the story of us.

TURN: Washington’s Spies is based on the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve just downloaded the audible version which I plan to listen to soon. I expect it will keep me enthralled until Season Three is complete and I can binge once again. “There are snakes in the garden, blood on the vines.”

Bingeworthy: Mad Men

I’ll admit it: I’m mad about Mad Men. Yet I resisted it for years. The first time I tried to watch it to see what all the fuss was about, it seemed like a depressing depiction of drunken, awful people, who hated each other. Not to mention, those old 1950s prescribed roles for women. Arggh!

But then while binging on Orange is the New Black, I discovered that Piper and Jason were addicted to Mad Men, and I thought, time to give it another shot. Fortunately, the Neflix gods had provided, and I quickly discovered why for years everyone had been recommending this show. It’s not a glorification of the era. It’s a critique. It’s a history lesson. It’s fun.

What I love most about Mad Men is the texture. I can feel this show with my fingers. It’s a tweed jacket, a silk dress, an elastic bra strap. Mad Men feels as though it’s happening in a dimension very close to our own, as if you could step into the lives of these characters, sit down at a picnic with them, and leave all your crap on the ground for someone else to pick up.

The stories have the pace of life. We go to work. We come up with an ad campaign. We drink, and we tumble into bed with someone else’s spouse. When someone behaves badly, well, they aren’t torturing or killing a helpless victim, they’re simply being unconsciously cruel to their children or their lover — or maybe they just abandon their dog on a city street. It’s the sort of evil for which no one gets punished and in which we are all complicit.

It’s impossible not to root for Don Draper as he takes down recalcitrant clients while simultaneously hoping he gets a slap in the face from the latest wronged woman in his life. He’s the quintessential troubled bad boy, cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other and a half-cocked smile that says he’s really just waiting for someone to rescue him. Roger, his partner in crime, is almost as irresistible, loving all the women in his life and doling out the dollars when he disappoints them — as he inevitably does.

The women, though, are the ones who bring complexity to the show, from Peggy with her tooth and claw ambition to Joan, the uber secretary, who flaunts her assets and yet can easily kick you to the curb with one of her stilettos if you wrong her. She hides her smarts, but the audience knows she can run rings around the suits. Betty, Don’s poor put-upon wife, veers from victim to vindictive villainess and back again as if she were merely crossing the street.

And what an interesting trick they play on the audience when they make the beautiful women fat. Do we still admire them? Are we no better than the sexist pigs that rate women on their looks? Are we still sympathetic to Betty when she’s got jowls? That’s what Mr. Weiner and crew seem to be asking us as our loyalties swerve from one episode to the next.

I’ve plowed through all seven seasons, staying up late for just one more ‘sode. Apparently season seven isn’t done, but I’m not the only one who feels completely satisfied with where Don and company have ended up. Don has gotten kicked around, he’s gotten what he deserved, but he’s landed on his feet, and the one thing we love most about him, his ability to imagine what no one else has thought of, has survived. We’re left believing this is enough to carry him on through another incarnation. He gives us hope.

The Binge List: Scandalized!

A while back I binged on Scandal, Seasons 1 & 2. There were a few things I bumped on, i.e. a Republican administration that cares about the environment? And a few other obviously progressive policy pursuits that must have come from some skewed parallel universe. But nuts and bolts policy issues are not the real arena for this series, and political labels are irrelevant. The foibles these characters display know no political boundaries. Infidelity, hunger for power, the selling of one’s soul to the proverbial devil have no particular political affiliation.

Just this past week, my friend Eden and I binged on Season Three. Eden and I debated the finer points of each episode. Would the U.S. really shoot down an airliner? I didn’t think so, but Eden pointed out she’d heard that may have been what happened to Flight 93 on 9/11. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but we both agreed that the far-fetched, devious ploys of the various characters had just enough of a tether to reality that while the show is obviously fiction, Truth is probably grinning in the background.

Scandal is a political soap opera on meth-amphetamine. Characters behave monstrously. Olivia Pope is supposed to be a fixer, but she usually screws up anything she touches. She saves people, but people also die on her watch. I think a lot of us can relate to a person who perceives themselves as “good” but when given a choice inevitably does the wrong thing. There’s something so human about the frailties of these “gladiators in suits,” the team of fixers assembled by Olivia Pope.

Scandal has a lot going for it — straight love, gay love, murder, family, and mystery. Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? You’ll never know as characters change and/or are revealed from scene to scene. That may be its greatest strength. Scandal is never predictable.

We also watch Scandal because A) Olivia Pope is beautiful and we drool for her wardrobe, B) Huck is the most adorable killer we’ve ever wanted to cuddle with C) We like Abby because we think she’s a little crazy and who doesn’t love a redhead? D) We loved Joshua Malina (who plays David Rosen) in The West Wing and well, the list goes on. Whether or not you care for President Grant depends on the episode. I, for one, think he’s abusive and controlling and gross (not the actor Tony Goldwyn, of course, who is pretty darn hot). But that’s just me.

Eden despises Mellie but I like her. I imagine that Bellamy Young, who plays Mellie with a deer-in-the-headlights insouciance, leaps out of bed every morning to find out what delicious lines the writers have given her this week. Her dialogue is by far the most fun. And she may be the most complex character — a mixture of Stepford wife, Miss America, evil queen, and little girl who just wants to be loved by daddy. Kerri Washington’s character is all body language, swishing hips, pouting lips, and enormous doe eyes brimming with desire and pain. But Mellie is the verbal jouster. And she’s good at it. Her logic may be twisted but it’s never flawed.

Episodes of Season 4 are dribbling in, but I’ll bide my time. I’m already watching one Shonda Rhimes series week to week and that’s How to Get Away with Murder. From the early days of binging on Grey’s Anatomy to this Viola Davis tour de force, I’m pretty sure it’s time to build a temple to Shonda Rhimes — the Empress of Addictive TV.

The Binge List: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black tops most bingers’ lists. The beauty for bingers is that it arrives all at once. It’s like a great big novel that you lose yourself in for hours at a time — not to mention that each episode is actually an hour long and not 46 minutes.

I resisted OITNB for months even though everyone I knew kept saying how great it was. My own envy got in the way of this pleasurable and decadent video feast. You see, I’d written a novel based on my own experiences in a woman’s prison and I had only just finished a screenplay based on said novel, but mine was not the one discovered by Jenji Kohan. Finally, I got over myself and started watching it and kept watching it until I had devoured Season 1. When Season 2 arrived, I held off again. Not out of envy this time, but because I had to wait for the perfect weekend so I could lock myself in my chamber and devote my full attention to the show without distractions.

The most pleasing aspect of the series to me is the justice done to the incarcerated woman. These characters are so much like the women I have known, and yet they are fully individuals in their own right. They have dreams. They make mistakes. They want more than anything else to be loved. Many people believe that only lowlifes go to prison. And when you tell them you were in a women’s prison, they ask really stupid questions like, “Did they cut up the hotdogs so women wouldn’t use them to…you know?” (Umm, no.)

Orange is the New Black plays on the stereotypes and busts them wide open. The characters, like many women in prison, come from all walks of life: a former track star, a college girl, a military “brat,” a rich girl with a crappy home life, a business woman, and so on. And, yes, some of them come directly from the streets.

Seeing their back stories sometimes evokes pity, but more often anger. Is prison really the only place for these women, you wonder. When Taystee gets out but can’t make it, the blame falls directly on our criminal justice system, which doesn’t prepare prisoners for life outside. Oh, sure, you can get on your punitive high horse and ask why should we help “criminals” at all? Well, I could write a dissertation to answer that question, but suffice it to say: because it will cut down on crime and create a more robust society.

This past weekend I went to a panel on Orange is the New Black at the Austin Film Festival. It was a fascinating look into the making of the program. Two writers for the show were on the panel, and they said that because the episodes came out all at once, the event was a little anti-climactic. I mean, when shows dribble out one at a time, then followers watch and comment on each episode at roughly the same time. But they didn’t seem too upset about the fact that we were all binging on the show. Better than not having any watchers at all. I mean, they are working on a ground-breaking series that’s got the whole country talking about steamy sex scenes and, even more importantly, about more mundane things like prison reform. What could be more exciting?

Of course, OITNB exaggerates some aspects of prison life, but no one would watch a show that showed you how boring it really is. Still, it has captured an essential truth of our penal system and that is this: those are human beings we’ve locked up by the millions. And what we do to them, we do also to their families, and by extension we do to ourselves as well.

If you’re curious about my book, there are some copies available on Amazon: This book was published in Britain a few years ago and is out of print right now, but I’m currently shopping an updated version to American publishers. I’ll keep you posted.

Oh, Baby, It’s a Wild World

Last night I went with my daughter to see the new movie Wild at the Austin Film Festival. The showing took place at the Paramount Theater, one of those old downtown theaters with an enormous, elaborately decorated ceiling, velveteen seats, and a wrap-around balcony. Though the sound system in the theatre leaves something to be desired, the effect of seeing any movie in such a setting with a packed house is deeply communal and even transcendent. Watching a film is comprised of two parts — the content of the film itself and the circumstances in which you watch it. When both aspects are extraordinary, then the sum of the two elements is so much greater than the parts.

As soon as I saw that Wild was in the festival line-up, I knew that it would be one of the highlights for me. After all, Cheryl Strayed, the author of the book, and I had shared a room and a hot tub at Esalen a few years back when we were both facilitators at a writing conference. And Cheryl had graciously written a blurb for my own memoir shortly thereafter. Through social media I’d been able to follow her meteoric rise, noting that she kept her generous spirit and delightful sense of humor throughout the process.

But even if that were not the case, this night would rank high among “entertainment” experiences for the very fact that I shared it with my daughter. I’d read Wild when it first came out and loved it. I related to it on so many levels. For one thing, I love hiking though I’ve never embarked on anything remotely resembling Cheryl’s adventure. But like Cheryl, I’d also gone through a dark period in my youth — shooting heroin, having sex with strangers, and the heart-wrenching abortion. And like Cheryl and many women, I had a profound love for my mother who had also suffered the abuse of an alcoholic husband. Finally, as a writer I couldn’t help but admire Cheryl’s skill in the telling of her tale. It’s one thing to have braved a thousand mile journey on foot. It’s another to be able to make that journey fascinating for your readers.

So when I was finished with the book, I passed it on to my daughter to read. She doesn’t read everything I give her, but I insisted that she read this book because she too had something in common with Cheryl. When my daughter was 18, I was diagnosed with cancer, and she almost lost me. It was a dark period in her life. She and her father had become estranged for reasons she couldn’t understand and then she had to face the fact that she might not have a mother to shepherd her into adulthood. She read it over a weekend and agreed that it was a wonderful book with a powerful message.

Now, three years later, here we were in Austin, Texas, which wasn’t even on our radar back when we’d read the book. But now my daughter lives here, working as a choreographer and actor, and I had come for the film festival conference to learn more about TV writing, something which has lately come to occupy my time. And serendipitously, Cheryl’s movie was on the marquee. Of course, we worried that something would foil the plan. My daughter is working on a show with a local theatre company and had a late rehearsal that day. In addition, she only had a festival pass, which meant I would get in with the badge holders, and she’d have to hope there were still seats left when it was her turn. But she managed to get out of her rehearsal early, miraculously find a parking space, and get to the theatre with 20 minutes to spare. I passed her in the “film pass” line as the badge holders streamed in.

“I’ll be on the right side of the theater near the front,” I called out to her.

A short while later we sat in the darkened theater, watching Reese Witherspoon trek through deserts and up mountains, both of us crying and laughing and relating and, I think, thanking God for each other. As I watched Witherspoon embody the young Cheryl, I remembered when my daughter was eleven years old and we’d worn out the Legally Blond DVD, watching it over and over, and how for years, we’d start out our road trips singing “Perfect Day” — the number one song on the road trip mix. And how even the night before we’d been up at two in the morning watching Gilmore Girls episodes together.

Wild is more than one woman’s journey. It’s a celebration of mothers and daughters, a reminder of that powerful bond that nothing, not even death, can break.

A Binger’s Notes: The Black List

First of all, what’s not to love about James Spader’s mouth – the way he twists it in a sympathetic moue right before his character, Reddington, tells his rapt listener that he (or she) is going to die. Or the way he smacks his lips and looks at his interlocutor with hooded eyes as if he could eat her alive while she screams in orgiastic delight. Or the way his lips pout with untold grief as his character remembers his little girl twirling on the stage. Even as a father-figure, he blurs the boundaries of what’s fatherly and what’s something else altogether. Nothing stand-offish about him. He gets in too close, but rather than back away, you stand there and will him to get closer.

Spader as Alan Shore in Boston Legal was a scandalous rogue with a compassionate heart tucked underneath his expensive striped tie and his sexist veneer. His character had the ability to appraise women with a lick of his chops that caused the female characters in his line of sight to drop their panty hose without a blink. Reddington is similar but grown up, battered — a mixture of vulnerability, lethalness, and righteous rage delivered with a mirthless chuckle.

The relationship between Reddington and Agent Elizabeth Keen, we’ve seen before. The pilot episode practically replicates Hannibal Lecter’s meetings with Clarissa in Silence of the Lambs. It’s the Beauty and the Beast theme that never grows old: the strong, brave, attractive young woman and the brilliant morally bankrupt older man. But he’s more than beast. He’s also an artist, and every male artist needs a muse — whether as lover or daughter-figure is irrelevant. The muse enables the man to create his art, which is what Reddington is: an artist of the criminal variety, rearranging people’s lives to suit his sense of aesthetic order.

But it’s not just Spader’s character that keeps us riveted to the screen. There’s also the list. Formulaic, sure. Procedural, of course. Good guys and gals versus bad guys and gals. Bad guys who are good and good guys are anything but. The villains on the list are so much more real than a Bushian pack of devil cards. They arrive on the scene rounded and complicated. The judge isn’t a homicidal maniac. She’s a woman who’s been wronged by the system and who is trying to right the world. The Stewmaker isn’t merely a psychopath. He’s a dentist with a loving wife and horrific memories. Even the exceptionally vicious Anslo Garrick, well, he’s got his reasons for harboring ill will towards Red and company.

The weekly stories are dark and delightful, but the ongoing saga of mysteries shrouding Elizabeth Keen’s marriage and Raymond Reddington’s past keeps me binging. It’s the serial aspect of the series that intrigues and delights and provides the skeleton for the flashy procedurals every week.

I binged on Season 1 on Netflix, then last week took a peek at the first episode of Season 2 on VUDU. And there was one of my favorite West Wing women with her enormous expressive eyes ready to rip the walls down. Still I’m going to hold off on watching any more episodes of Season 2 until it is in binge-able form. Because once you’ve crossed one villain off the list, the rest practically beg you to kill them as well.