About Powerlessness

I miss Laser Cat.

It usually comes over me at bedtime, which was when she’d most often have her bursts of affection. It was easier for her when we were lying down; we were less scary, I think, when we were flat and lower to the ground. She would purr and curl up and push her head into my hand insistently, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before she’d give up.

And when my daughter was upset, she would jump up on her bed and purr and allow herself to be hugged and squeezed and all the other things she would angrily refuse at other times.

My daughter misses her a lot. She’s never had an animal love her like that. She’s never loved an animal like that in return.

None of this takes anything away from the kittens. (They are still kittens, despite the fact that Dexter is HUGE and heavy and looks very much like a grown cat.) Pets don’t replace each other. That’s both the pleasure and the pain of them. We are getting to know the kittens, and they are warming up to us as they age and their play changes. They have moments of being affectionate, but fundamentally they sort of breezily coexist with us. They’re happy, and they clearly feel safe with us, which is nice.

But there is still a gaping Laser Cat-sized hole in my heart. I miss Editor Cat, too. But she was older, and had been ill for a long time. Laser Cat was young, and we should have had her for so much longer. The pain of her loss is different.

Time moves one way.

This is a story of powerlessness. It has a happy ending. But while it was happening, I didn’t know that. I only knew it when it was done.

***

Last spring, my daughter casually mentioned, in the middle of another conversation, that she thought she was having seizures, and I had one of those moments where my brain instantly cast around to find some benign explanation for what she was describing. When my brain hit on nothing, the next step was to freeze. I went for casual, because I didn’t want to freak her out. I knew there were all kinds of reasons this might be happening. I knew I couldn’t answer any of her questions, and that we’d have to see a doctor.

I hit the freak-out point around about the time I called her pediatrician. Her pediatrician is lovely, and spoke calmly while I was crying, and gave me a referral to a neurologist’s office.

***

When she was an infant, everybody was talking about SIDS. There’s been some good research on that in recent years, suggesting that serotonin levels are a big risk factor, that babies at higher risk could be identified and monitored. But when my daughter was little, it was only “nothing in the crib, put her on her back, she might die anyway.” She had her own room, and I would get up frequently at night just to listen to her breathing. She was a terrible sleeper, and despite the fact that I was getting two to three hours of sleep in a row, max, I felt somehow safer when she was yelling for food or refusing to settle down. I used to be relieved when she had a cold, because I could hear her snuffling over the baby monitor.

One night when she was five months old, she slept seven hours straight. I slept, too. When I woke up and saw the sunshine I ran into her room in an absolute panic, convinced she had died in the night. But she was fine.

***

The first thing they did for her was an EEG. It was an interesting, albeit tedious, process, and the worst thing about it was that she was only allowed four hours sleep the night before (she needed to doze off during the test). We stayed up until midnight watching movies. Waking up at 4:00 am was less exciting. We watched more movies in the morning. We bought donuts on the way to the hospital. We did what we could to make it fun.

She’s remarkable, my kid. Every parent says that, and for every parent, it’s true. But she really is remarkable.

The next week in the doctor’s office, they showed us the spiky brain waves that meant absence seizures. The doctor was even able to induce one while we watched. Later on, as we drove home, she expressed irritation at that. Her brain was betraying her. That this could happen to her, and she could not even notice while everybody else did, seemed outrageous and unfair.

***

Seizures are actually not uncommon. One in a hundred people in the US is epileptic. I know this for two reasons: one, my daughter had febrile seizures as a child, and I’m a mad Googler when things go wrong; and two, I had to do a PSA poster for a graphic arts class, and I chose to do mine on epilepsy. The only thing I learned that I hadn’t known already was how common it was.

When she started having absence seizures, I learned all the many and varied reasons they can happen, including that wonderful medical catch-all of “Who knows?” Head injuries can cause them (she’s had a concussion). They can be genetic (nobody in the family that we know of). Benign brain lesions can cause them. So can tumors.

***

They scheduled the MRI as a non-urgent procedure. To “rule things out.” There was nothing to suggest that what she was going through was due to a serious brain issue. She had no change in personality, no coordination issues, nothing other than these moments when she’d just go somewhere else.

Throughout it all, I maintained big, cheerful, everything-will-be-fine momness. But my remarkable kid is no fool, and she knows me. She can pick up vibrations in my mood from halfway across the house. There are no false reassurances with this one.

I held her one night, when she was scared. I told her the truth: that odds were there was nothing whatsoever wrong with her. That this procedure would show nothing serious, that they just wanted to know what was going on. That I worried because that was the sort of person I was, but that if we looked at the facts, everything pointed toward her having a fairly common condition that she would most likely grow out of.

We took her to the hospital. We got donuts again that day. They had room to have one parent in with her, and I volunteered. They gave me poorly-fitting salmon-pink scrubs to wear, and I got to sit in a rocking chair while they secured her on the table and explained the machine to her. She had headphones so she could listen to music. She had a panic button that she could press if she freaked out. The machine was massive, and the opening was tiny. I’m claustrophobic, and I don’t think I could have done it. I smiled, and told her it’d be fine, and she could do it, and they slid her in where she couldn’t see me.

She’s a tall kid, but in that machine, she looked tiny.

I tried to read a book. I don’t remember what book it was now. It was good, and it held my attention. I don’t think I’ve picked it up since. Mostly I got used to the rhythm of the incredibly loud noises, and wept in terror. Not of the machine, not of my tiny child in that massive magnet, but of what they might find in her beautiful brain.

When she got out, she told me how close she had come to hitting that panic button. But she didn’t.

***

I got pregnant easily. This is not to say the path toward trying was simple; but once we got there, it was quick. I remember the positive test, and giving my husband a hug, and having this lurching feeling in my stomach like I’d just been locked into a roller coaster and oh God what had I been thinking getting on this thing. I was certain it was what I wanted. I was certain I was not prepared for what was coming.

There is nothing quite as uncompromisingly physical as being pregnant. People call it a miracle, which is a misnomer. Miracles are rare. Pregnancy isn’t rare. But it’s transformative, strange, unsettling, uncomfortable. All of these things, even when it’s desperately wanted.

I was so sure I’d feel less worried about her once she was born. I would be able to see her. I would be able to tell she was all right without waiting for her to kick or for the midwife to pick up her heartbeat. If I could get her safely through the pregnancy, everything would be fine and I could relax.

I was a fool.

***

The strange thing about medical results is that waiting becomes a good thing. When you don’t hear in an hour, you breathe easier. When you don’t hear in a day, your heart rate finally slows down. We didn’t hear and didn’t hear, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to see the lab report online in five days, before anyone called me on the phone about it.

There’s one word I remember in the report: “unremarkable.” The MRI was unremarkable. My remarkable girl has an unremarkable brain. No lesions, no tumors.

She was fine. She is fine. She is epileptic, and she is fine.

***

I have trouble with powerlessness. I like to think of myself as rational person, but I’m insanely superstitious. When my daughter was a baby, I would never leave her room at 13 minutes after the hour. I never make jokes about truly awful things, just in case. Every morning, when my daughter gets on the school bus, I wave at her until the bus goes around the corner. I tell people I love them when we part. I hate going to bed angry.

But the truth of it is we are all powerless. There are little things we can control, but there is so much that is arbitrary. When something arbitrary happens to us, we eventually adjust. It’s so much harder when it happens to someone else.

I carried my daughter for 40 weeks and 5 days. I felt like I had control. I could eat right, and take my vitamins, and do all the right things. But even then, there was so much I couldn’t do. I couldn’t affect her genetic makeup. I couldn’t affect how she was growing. I couldn’t affect when I went into labor. I didn’t even have much influence over what happened during her birth. All of that was the alchemy of her chromosomes and the physical interaction between the two of us as she grew. Luck. Luck is just another name for powerlessness.

There are a lot of things in life that result from a web of conscious decisions. Sometimes the result is predictable. Sometimes we can’t see the web unless we’re looking back on things that have already happened. It’s a compelling idea, that if we learn to see the web before it’s complete, if we focus on our own part in it, we can change its shape to whatever we want.

And maybe we could, if we could see. But most of the time the web is too complicated for us to understand, and so much of it is assembled without our input. Powerlessness. We can’t know what steps to take until we see the result, and time moves one way. We have to make the best choices we can in the moment, and we still get it wrong.

This story had a happy ending. It was frightening. I would wish it on nobody. But the end is happy. Even with the powerlessness, I find the future looks happy, too.

But I remember that powerlessness. I remember how it feels to need control, and to not get it. I remember the overwhelming urge to bargain, sacrifice, do anything to take control of the situation, and the profound disorientation of realizing what I needed didn’t matter.

I have this sense that the act of embracing powerlessness would be incredibly freeing, that it would allow us to change our lives in ways we can’t begin to understand now.

But I suspect the truth is we’re all, always, too bound up in the web.

 

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Review: LOGAN

I don’t really intend to write regular movie reviews. For one thing, I don’t see a lot of first-run films (although The Kid may end up talking us into THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE). For another, when I like a film, I don’t always like to examine my reactions too closely. I like a lot of stuff that’s deeply flawed, and I am left cold by some movies that people rave about.

That said: we saw LOGAN today and…yeah, that was a thing. It entertained me, for its entire (checks IMDB) two hours and seventeen minutes. (Holy cats. I knew it was long, but wow.)

But I feel kind of bad about myself for enjoying the movie. Not full-on must-take-a-shower bad, but bad enough to want to wash my hands six or seven times. The TL;DR on LOGAN is that it’s a well-acted, well-scripted gore-fest with predictable winners and losers, and a somewhat fuzzy moral center.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

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There’s a point in the movie where Laura, the child saved by Logan and Charles Xavier, is sitting in a hotel room watching SHANE (1953) with Charles. We see them watch Shane’s speech at the end of the film:

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.

We are led to believe that this is a Theme. That Logan is who he is and can’t change. Except the entire premise of the film is that he can rescue this little girl from what she’s been turned into – and what she’s done – and thus change who she is.

Because she gets to do lots and lots and LOTS of killing. Only bad guys, of course; but those of you who’ve seen SHANE (and wow, that must have been a restored print, because it looked gorgeous) know that he only kills bad guys as well. And at the end of that movie, while I could get behind Mom’s sentiment about “no more guns in the valley” – they were kind of lucky Shane was there with his gun when he was, weren’t they?

It’s an interesting philosophical theme, actually: the line between aggression and self-defense. Most of us would kill to defend our own lives, and the lives of those closest to us; but how wide does that circle go? And would we kill for a cause? Many films explore this theme with intelligence and subtlety, sometimes showing us people on both sides who believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s a theme that can leave us thoughtful, and sometimes unsettled.

There’s no such unsettling exploration in LOGAN. The bad guys are Bad. One of them isn’t even human, apparently: he’s a guy called X24 (also played by Hugh Jackman) who’s apparently some sort of clone who’s taking Super-Aggresion-And-Extra-Healing Potion. He’s the Phase 2 of a project that started with Phase 1, aka X23, aka impregnating a bunch of kidnapped girls with mutant DNA and isolating and training the children from childhood. (The mothers, of course, don’t last beyond gestation.)

To bring home exactly how horrible this experiment is, we get a scene of secret video in which a birthday party given for the children is interrupted by the Evil Scientists who explain that the kids shouldn’t be treated with kindness because they are only science experiments. There’s not a lot of moral ambiguity here. THEY KILL MOTHERS AND ARE MEAN TO LITTLE KIDS. All we need to hear is that they throw away apple pies without eating them, and we have the Deserves To Die Trifecta.

And that weakens the film considerably. I know they were trying to do a lot here, but packs of Black Hats that we don’t care about at all give us only one thing: a bunch of “justified” gross-out death scenes. I’m not generally shy about violence in movies (depending on the type and how it’s used), but it seems filmmakers keep trying to make things more shocking and graphic. If I never see another person stabbed through the head, it will be too soon. Yes, it was disgusting. But…did we care? Were we really shocked, beyond the ick factor? Bad guys! Mothers and children! Apple pies! Kill them all, Logan! What’s taking you so long?

Yeah. I felt manipulated. All movies manipulate, but I don’t like being manipulated into cheering for large masses of death.

There are also a couple of bits of subtext here that nag at me a bit. One is the Purity of Middle America stuff. Our trio (later our duo) runs into bunches of nice people during their drive up country from Texas to North Dakota. Nobody seems to be worried, or suspicious of Logan’s massive number of new and old injuries, or wondering about the little girl with blood all over her clothes. And being nice doesn’t much help them, does it? I could have done without the Redshirt Family with the horses. They were nice, and didn’t deserve what happened, and we already knew Bad Guys Were Bad, so what was the point of this except to get the kid an iPod?

The other is something I notice in a lot of movies, although not all of them: where are the women? I notice this most often in the near-future semi-apocalyptic stuff (like LOOPER): in the future, women are apparently moms (or, in this case, nurses who are essentially mom stand-ins), prostitutes, or both; but nothing else. They are certainly never part of the packs of Bad Guy redshirts. And I understand why Hollywood doesn’t like to do that: we live in a culture that is still uncomfortable with the idea of female combatants, and in films like this the bad guys are intended as nothing but cannon fodder. But I do get a bit weary, sometimes, of the angst-ridden Men Fighting Other Men nonsense that treats women as something to be exploited or protected, but never as people with their own agendas, abilities, and fates.

(And before anybody comes at me with the “muscle mass upper body strength argle bargle blargh” argument: this movie establishes the existence of injectable green goo that makes you invincible to bullets through the eye so save your breath.)

Ultimately, LOGAN was an underdog movie: our aging, ill hero and a pack of children against a lot of big, threatening, beefy guys with guns. We know from the beginning who’s going to win. The ones who don’t survive to the end credits are no real surprise (although my husband pointed out – and I agree – that it might have been nice to have left us some kind of opening for possibly getting Wolverine back, like maybe a pebble moving on the grave or something), but we know, one way or another, that at least Laura is going to do the Sound of Music trek over the mountains into Canada. (This the film does well: establishing that Canada is offering them asylum, without hammering the point home. That’s about as political as we get here.) It’s the kind of movie where adults can drop like flies, and we can be manipulated into grieving for them, but kids and puppies (or, in this case, horses) are all safe.

So why did I enjoy it?

The script has some well-done dialogue, and the actors do nice work with it. Both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman sell their parts with humor and humanity. Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, does an admirable job, especially considering she has no lines until halfway through the film. Boyd Holbrook and Richard Grant have thankless parts as mustache-twirling baddies, but they twirl their twirliest, and I nursed appropriate hatred for them both.

And…okay. Gross-out-fest or not, some of the action scenes were pretty cool. I can’t say it wasn’t fun watching a little tiny girl take out some massive, heavily-armed nasties. The filmmakers did some decent choreography there, having Laura take advantage of her size and quickness to get in close to the enemy. And there’s a scene near the end where she actually runs up Logan’s back to launch herself off of his shoulders. Assuming super-strength and training, her fighting style isn’t that implausible.

I like watching fights. I am never sure whether or not I should be concerned about this.

Rating time:

Execution: 7/10. Well-written and well-performed, but the second act dragged a bit, and there were too many convenience characters. Also, that poor family with the horses. Never accept help from strangers, people.

SF elements: 6/10. I feel like I should grade this on a sliding scale, given that it’s a comic book movie in an established universe; but there’s an awful lot of Convenience Technology here, including a clone that looks just like Logan ready to go at exactly the right time, and a super-potion that wears off when it’s convenient to the plot.

Melodrama: 5/10. Some very nice “family” moments with Logan and Xavier, and also with Logan and Laura. But ultimately the film’s message on connection seems muddled, and its moral stance on murder is flat-out contradictory.

Which gives us 6 out of 10. Not bad, for a potato chip.