Saturday, 10 September 2011

Happiness Is...

I recently watched This Emotional Life, the excellent documentary series written, researched and hosted by sociologist Dan Gilbert (yay Netflix!).

In it, he details many issues associated with mental health and follows interesting cases of people with wide-ranging concerns - everything from PTSD to depression to attachment issues to cancer. Throughout the documentary, Gilbert compassionately addresses how these and many other mental issues impact a person's general well-being and happiness, and the last episode becomes something of a pursuit of happiness, as Gilbert explores a new wing of science - positive psychology.

One of the most interesting gems from this documentary is the connection between aging and happiness. As someone with a bit of a phobia about aging - I'm terrified by the years passing, of not accomplishing enough, of getting old, of my body and mind falling apart, of losing loved ones, of losing myself - I'm of the school of thought that aging must spell unhappiness. What's more depressing than knowing you don't have much time left, or watching your friends and family die? Just thinking about it stresses me out.

But fortunately, science is rather reassuring on this matter. Several longitudinal studies (here and here - although I couldn't definitively find the one reported in the documentary) show that happiness (or a sense of general well-being) is actually improved as we age. That 40-year-olds are happier than 20-year-olds, and that 70-year-olds are happier than 40-year-olds.

So, theoretically, at least, it just keeps getting better and better.

And looking at my own life, I have to admit that it does. When I was in my early-twenties, I was crippled by a terrible depression, a malaise that took years of my life, and almost took my life as a whole. So, while the bar is set awfully low, I can happily (ha!) say that I am exponentially happier now in my mid-thirties. While I think I'll always be a 'recovering depressive,' I've learned tools over time to counter my depression, and  I have a far more positive outlook now than I did fifteen years ago.

And not surprisingly, the things that have made me happier over the years are the same kinds of things that get better for most people with time: close, long-standing interpersonal relationships, greater financial stability, connection to a community, pets, professional satisfaction, sense of purpose, pursuit and engagement in hobbies and passions. And according to this study, these are the kinds of things that help us to age well - to live longer and healthier.

My grandfather is a perfect case in point - at 92, he's as engaged as ever: he plays the fiddle, he jams at the legion, he lives at home, drives, takes care of himself and his house and his yard, and goes out to dinner with countless friends three-to-five times a week. And counts himself as a pretty happy person.

While I'm lucky I think I can count on some good genes - in the age department, anyway - this documentary really hit home about the importance of mental health, particularly as we age.

While I don't believe wholly in the Louise Hay 'You Can Heal Your Life' philosophy - put simply, that negative thoughts cause cancer, and that positive thoughts alone can heal it - I am reminded that we are what we think, and that our thoughts can actually cause long-term changes in our brains. For example, as the documentary tells us,  fMRI-imaging has shown depressed people to have hippocampi (the part of our brains that controls our memory, amongst other functions) that are shrunken and atrophied. There is positive news that with some anti-depressants to improve the regulation of neurotransmitters, depressives' hippocampi can show renewed cellular growth. So, as depression eases, our brain structure changes to accommodate new thoughts, new health.

This is powerful stuff. I'm not alone, I'm sure, in feeling like my depression was a period of stagnant self-pity. That if only I was stronger I could 'shake myself out of it.' While I know that I, like many others, had/have a brain chemistry imbalance, depression is still a mental illness with great social stigma, despite it being as common as it is (statistics being anywhere between one in four, to one in six people will have at least one major clinically-depressive episode in their lives). Reinforcement of its medical causes and impact is always positive in my book.

So can we look forward to greater happiness as we age? I hope so. I know I wouldn't want to repeat any of the steps that I've already been through -not that they've been bad, just that I've been there, done that (even though a piece of me would love to be just starting my post-secondary career again, with all the hope and the possibilities that time of life entails), I'm pretty happy to be where I am, and I'm optimistic about the future. And counting the blessings in life sure helps to remind us how sweet it truly is.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Television Addict's Drugs of Choice

My name is Marliss and I'm a television addict.

(Hello, Marliss...)

I love the excitement of discovering a new series, the thrill as the characters meet their first conflicts, the rush of anticipation when a season ends on a cliff-hanger, the ache for the next season and the high high high of watching episode after episode, critiquing brilliant and ridiculous story choices and the satisfaction of getting to know characters over the long haul, the long arc.

And the bone-crushing sadness when it's all over. The grieving for friends you'll never see again. Then the craving to find something new, something as satisfying as the last.

And repeat. It's a viscous cycle, and I love it.

I love television for its ability to tell huge stories in an intimate medium. We invite our television programs into our living rooms, and the stories live with us, in our homes and our hearts. Television used to be the black-sheep brother - the auteur's prodigal son - to film. And television actors, writers and directors still don't get the credit - or the money - of their larger format colleagues. And I think this is a crying shame.

I am a television addict - now, more than ever before - because where big budget films these days recycle tired but sure-thing concepts from video games and comic books, much scripted television surprises with original content. It takes risks, it is allowed to fail and get back on its feet. It is given time to tell huge stories with great impact, great honesty and humanity. My attention span is too long for movies, and I'm grateful for the hours and hours of content - for the escape, for the vicarious experience, for the role-modeling and for the lessons great television teaches us about what it means to be human.

So here are my top five drugs of choice. They are in no particular order - an addict loves all her drugs equally after all:

1.    Friday Night Lights (NBC - 2006-2011)

Oh, Dillon, Texas. I want to forget that you are a fictional town, or that Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton aren't actually married. I want to forget that I don't like football, and I want Tim Riggins (I love you, Tim!) to live on his land, happy in Texas forever. This show moved me in so many ways - the way it mirrored my own home-town childhood (as I already wrote about here), the stirring, inspirational speeches Coach gives to his players, the sense of belonging and teamwork, and the portrayal of the most authentic and beautiful marriage and family life I've ever seen on tv.

I love this show for its inventive filming style - 3 cameras, no rehearsals, giving the actors freedom to improvise within set plot points. This style gives this show a raw, real, organic sensibility. You never get the sense an actor is just trying to find his light, or that a writer is just hitting the marks the network wants (ok, except for the Tyra-Landry plot arc in Season 2 - no show is perfect). This storytelling is visceral, authentic and brave - what television should be. The only thing that would make it better would be the ability to use stronger language than "bull crap," but that's my own potty-mouthed HBO bias.

It's wonderful to see a show with so much heart that never crosses the line into sentimentality. It's wonderful to see real consequences for the actions of real people reflected on the screen, rather than hollow and pretty plastic models. And it's beautiful to see writing, acting and film-making that accurately portrays and celebrates the best of (North) American life and culture. This show is my American dream, and as a staunch and proud Canadian, that is high praise indeed.

2. Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi 2004-2009)

Confession: I'm not that into Sci-fi. In fact, generally, I can't stand the oeuvre. I can't get past the weird-looking aliens, or wooden melodrama and crazy prosthetics and bad cheap special effects. Or the assumption that sci-fi is only watched by weird geeky guys who live in their mothers' basements.

Now, I realize by this confession, I've just alienated (pardon the pun) the vast majority of my friends, not to mention my husband who is a passionate consumer of all things space-shipy. In fact, it came down to a deal he made me: if I'd watch the pilot miniseries of Battlestar, he'd watch the first season of Sex and the City (a deal he still hasn't made good on, btw...).

So, I watched it. And then I quickly consumed the remaining four seasons like the crack that it is. And my mind was blown open.

This show does so well what only sci-fi and fantasy can accomplish: it takes us outside of our traditional bounds and roles and forces us to examine ourselves - humanity - from a new angle. And we learn so much, as we explore the alien, about what it means to be us.

While I appreciate the lack of funny foreheads and lizard skin I associate with traditional sci-fi, I would accept all the Klingons and Ferengis (ok, so I admit to a closeted affection for Star Trek TNG) in the world, for the brilliance of the writing, the bravery of the storytelling and the non-reliance on special effects to tell one of the most human stories ever told.

Plus, this show is chock-full of fantastic female characters, led by the superlative Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin (a woman I want to be when I grow up). Battlestar teaches us about leadership, faith, hope and the fragility of our lives, our peace and our planet. And it's underscored by some of the most beautiful music ever written for television. Just thinking about the music for the opening credits makes me cry.

Love. Love, love, love. So say we all.

3. Mad Men (AMC 2007- )

While I'm hesitant to include a series that hasn't completed its run, for fear of a shark-jump in its last season or some such tragedy, I can't do up this round-up justice without this series.

So much has been written about Mad Men's historical accuracy and the '60s changing social mores. For me, I'm left with a collection of images: the casually-slapped child at a birthday party, the nonchalant, pregnant and smoking Betty who drives with her wrestling un-seat-belted children in the back seat, the litter that's left after the pretty picnic in the park.

It's these casual callouts to how much the world has changed that drives my passion for this show. And for the context that it gives me for the world my parents grew up in, for the culture I inherited from them. And what I get from all of this is that we can't just rest on our laurels for the successes we've made. Sure, as a culture we've made some pretty major changes (we'd never litter at a park now, would we?). But we have to keep looking at the injustices from this era and make sure we're not repeating them in our own time. And to honor the things, like the burgeoning women's lib movement, the Mad Men-era got right.

This show is important in the cultural record of the last century. And it's also great television. Complex, flawed characters, brilliant performances and such nuanced visuals make it worthy of all the critical acclaim. While not always likeable, this show is always engaging and profound.

4. Six Feet Under (HBO - 2001-2005)

I miss the Fishers so much. Much like the Taylors from FNL, I feel like they're a part of my family, and like a dearly-departed loved one, I wish I could have just one more visit, more time with each of them. As this show teaches us, there's never quite enough time with the people we love.

I watched this show during a tumultuous time in my own family. My mom was recovering from a brain tumor, and shortly after, my dad was diagnosed with cancer (fortunately they're both just fine now, thanks for asking). But this enormous confrontation with my own family's mortality was eased somewhat by this show. I loved it for its unflinching exploration of death and dying, but also for its sensitive portrayal of what happens to the people who are left behind, who are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.

I still love this show, now for the gorgeous harmonies in the characters' arcs. The choreography of each character's highs and lows make for an emotional dance like no other. When Nate is up, we can cheer for him, but in the next moment we're crying for Brenda or Claire. And as Claire's life picks up, Nate takes a turn for the worse, and Ruth spirals out of control. This is the kind of writing that can only be accomplished in the long-form storytelling medium of television, and on a network that loves writers and gives them freedom to use powerful language and non-traditional arcs.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB 1997-2003)

Yes, again, I was skeptical, especially after dragging myself through the miserable first season. And yes, again, I was led unwillingly to Buffy by my husband who assured me it was good. That first season was one of the first tests of our marriage.

But by Season Two, I was driving the Buffy-boat, and I couldn't get enough of those quick-talking Scoobies and their irrepressible heroine.

I love Buffy for its use of language - nobody writes or tells a story like Whedon, and while I'm not in the camp that thinks everything Whedon does is brilliant (I can't quite get into Angel and so far, Dollhouse has left me cold), I just can't get enough of the Scoobies' clever retorts and the quick one-two punch of even the throw-away lines.  And of course, the story structure of facing a new Big Bad over seven years has allowed for some of the most memorable and enjoyable villains of all time.

But what stands out the most for me are the risks Whedon took: allowing his characters to graduate from high school, for one thing. Suddenly giving Buffy a sister after several seasons of only-childness. And allowing Buffy to move on from her true love Angel. 

I also love and admire Whedon's playful experiments: the silent episode featuring the uber-creepy 'The Gentlemen,' the winsome musical episode, and the heart-wrenching music-less death episode of Buffy's mom. Whedon consistently thumbs his nose at television convention, and while it often seems to backfire on him in other series, causing them to be canceled before their time, in Buffy, his creativity is given full-throttle and will remain one of the most influential and memorable shows of its time.

This addict may never be reformed...

I've noticed the tv shows I love have a common thread: there's usually a dynamic female lead, often a bit older than me, who I can look up to - who I can champion when she succeeds, who I can learn from when she fails.

Friday Night Lights has Connie Britton's Tami Taylor - she is the mother I hope to be some day. She is also the 'full heart' of the show, the reason why Coach 'can't lose.' The modeling of the Taylors' marriage is what gives me faith in the institution.

As I already mentioned, Laura Roslin from Battlestar is another role-model/mother figure I love. I don't think I've ever lost it quite the way I did in Battlestar's finale - you know the part I'm talking about. Sheesh. I needed therapy after that.

Mad Men's Peggy Olson shows us how people can grow and mature and prove themselves when they're given a chance. And Six Feet Under's Ruth is the mother I'm glad I don't have, and yet her new discovery of life in her fifties is a path I look forward to taking when I'm in her stage of life.

And of course, who doesn't have a favorite Buffy character? While Anya will always have a special place in my heart, I'm a full-on Willow fan. I love good Willow and dark Willow, and I shiver with fear and joy whenever I hear the words "Bored now."

I am fully committed to tv as a medium, now more than ever. Despite the Jersey Shore-esque dreck that gives tv a bad name, scripted drama is better than ever. I look forward to getting into series I've somehow missed, like Breaking Bad and Dexter. And I can't help but feel this list needs honorable mentions like the BBC's Spooks, ABC's Lost (hey, it's my blog, I can love it if I want to) and of course the iconic Sex and the City.

Good quality tv has the ability to shape our popular culture like no other medium, thanks to its easy accessibility and long-format storytelling. And because of online streaming through Netflix and iTunes etc, tv is more accessible than ever before. I am curious as to how the broadcast model (and with it, the ratings machine) will change as online technology gets older, but I'm cautiously optimistic that it will mean good things for my favorite medium.

I guess we'll have to stay tuned.

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Mirror Up To Nature...

I've recently become obsessed with NBC's small town football drama Friday Night Lights.

This is an unlikely object of my affection, as I don't remotely care about football, and am pretty suspicious of all things Middle America. But as everyone will tell you about this show, it is not about football, it is about the people who play the game and the dynamics of a small town. Kind of like how Glee used to be about misfit kids trying to get along in high school, before they all got so pretty and the show became an American Idol variety-show-type rip-off.

I digress.
What Friday Night Lights is about, though, is Middle America. Set in a small fictional town in West Texas, FNL (digression again: I always think SNL when I see it shortened that way, and my brain does a "wha??" for a moment) explores the American country values of decent church-going folk, all of whom are struggling to make a living in the recession-era economy, with dreams of getting ahead, looking to find a comfortable, authentic life in the heart of family and friends. There are no flashy cars, nobody's too pretty or plastic, kids have curfews and get in trouble when they break them, and good parents are actually engaged in their children's lives.

Dillon, Texas actually looks like a pretty nice place to grow up, despite the obvious economic hardship many of the characters face. So, maybe Middle America ain't so bad after all.

But I think the thing that really drives my passion for this show is that for better or worse, it so very closely echoes my own growing-up experience in small town Alberta. The dynamics are the same, the differences superficial and semantic: my town was into hockey, not football, and nobody said "y'all" in any kind of serious conversation. But the differences pretty much end there.

What FNL does so well is that it finds the universal in the mundane reality of growing up rural. And interestingly, this is what makes this show stand out from the rest of American high-school dramas. There's reality here and heart - kids aren't living in mansions and running around in Manolo Blahniks. These kids, and the adults who love them, work hard, love with truth, make mistakes and deal with real consequences (except for that ridiculous plot point in Season Two - you all know what I'm talking about). And rather than painting a rural setting as backward with lampoon-like hicks chewing straw, the characters are smart, honest, loyal and decent, like the people I grew up with.

Now, I'll be honest. I left my home town for the "big" city as soon as I could. Did I hate it growing up? No. Did I want to live in the bible/rodeo/hockey/farming belt of central Alberta? No. At the time, I didn't think my little town reflected my personal values, nor did it hold for me the opportunities I wanted in my life.

But what FNL shows me is that I actually had it pretty darn good growing up in my little town. And it's helped me to find pride in where I came from, and to honour that time of my life and the people who shaped my childhood.

I think what FNL answers for me is the desire to see my life, my world reflected in the media, as Shakespeare tells us, a mirror up to nature is the "purpose of playing." It's ironic that a story set thousands of miles away from where I grew up would more accurately reflect what I perceive to be my culture than shows set in my own backyard. Shows like CTV's Corner Gas - which although charming, does nothing to explore the complexity or the authenticity of small town life. Nor does CBC's family-friendly Heartland really feel all that familiar, it's just too squeaky clean and neat and tidy.

But perhaps it's the very fact that FNL is set in Texas rather than Alberta that actually makes more of an impact. It's the chance to find the familiar, the universal, and the authentic in a far-away setting - a setting that reflects where I came from, rather than is where I came from. Perhaps there's more power and more unity in realizing these similarities can cross borders - political, geographical and ideologically speaking. Perhaps there's great comfort to take in the fact (no matter what our pundits and politicians will tell us) we're not that different from our cousins to the south, that they (and we) are not to be feared, dismissed or insulted (as we self-righteous-at-times Canadians are wont to do). Perhaps they are us and we are them, a thought I find oddly comforting in a "global village, 'we are the world'" type way. Folks is folks, and with that knowledge, perhaps we can better work together to find greater collaboration and consensus in our world economy, politics and North American culture.

After all, clear eyes, full hearts can't lose.