Monday, September 30, 2013

The End of the Line for Walter White

Of course it’s the end of the line for Walter White because Breaking Bad is over.  So, no, that wasn’t a spoiler.  But, if you don’t want to hear about the finale then STOP READING NOW (though, really, how you won’t find out somehow, somewhere, someday is beyond me).  And I’m assuming some familiarity with the show, so if you’re not interested in this TV show used in a discussion of story arc, probably also stop reading now, though without the capital letters.

I thought this was one of TV’s most satisfying series finales.  It was not as transcendent as the end to Six Feet Under, and it wasn’t as provocative as the end to The Sopranos, and though I guess time will tell, it wasn’t as so-all-wrong-seeming-at-the-time-while-ending-up-so-exactly-right as the end of Seinfeld.  But it was exactly and perfectly satisfying, and I think Vince Gilligan and the writers managed this miraculous feat a few different ways.

First, I do think that being satisfying to their audience was an important goal they had established for themselves. And what a diverse audience to work with, as this show attracted a number of different viewers:  the literary types, the moral justice types, the logical and science geek type, the shoot ‘em up types.  How could one storyline possibly reach all these constituencies? (If you need to know, I’m a literary type!) Early on, Gilligan said that he wasn’t leaving an open-ended ending; as a true writer, he wanted control over the story and its universe.  And once the show started taking off, it seemed to me to be very fan friendly, with contests and a big presence on social media and lots of affable interviews with the actors and Gilligan and a tremendous promotional effort on social media. I know most shows do this nowadays, but that is a change from the environment the shows I previously mentioned operated in.  So, to me, this seemed like a show that knew its fans wanted to emerge feeling that they had traveled a complete journey.

And here, with this ending that wrapped up all loose ends with a logic that any science geek, process-oriented type could admire: the money, the revenge, the freedom delivered with a gun attached to a Radio Shack-like gadget and a remote control one could imagine putting together in the garage following a diagram in Wired magazine (not me, but one).  Moral justice was delivered: while everyone in the show did Very Bad Things (except for Walt Junior), the truly bad were punished, and the less bad were able to be set free in a way that gave us glimmers of hope for the days and years ahead.  I’m not a shoot ‘em up type, but one could hardly expect a bigger, tenser, more nail-biting blood bath of release.  (How’s he going to grab that remote off the pool table!!!!!)

And then the literary types, the ones who definitely admire all the above elements, but who perhaps care primarily about character and story arc and Chekhov’s metaphorical gun over the fireplace.  The ones who write stories and know just how hard it is to get to that perfect ending that is surprising yet inevitable.  What I admired most along these lines is how the elements that were in play early on came back here at the end:  there are many example, but one that was especially notable last night, is Lydia.  Lydia’s incessant fussiness and rigidity which had seemed like an amusing tic became the way that we could believe Walt would know how and where and when to find her and how, precisely, to cause her demise…with her constant request for Stevia and the ricin cigarette that had been set up already (and used) in a previous season and which, cleverly, the writers reminded us about in the beginning of this season with that return trip to the house when Walt snags it from the house, signaling to the audience that “something” will happen to it but leaving us in suspense as to what, exactly, that will be.  (That’s the Alfred Hitchcock theory of suspense executed perfectly, by the way.) 

All along, from the very first episode, Walt has been “doing this for his family,” and so we know that the family and this very basic element of motivation must come back in the end—as it does—and yet there must be a change, and there is:  he IS doing it for his family, as he finally finds the way to get the drug money to his family to get them to accept it…and yet, he finally admits what we’ve seen all along:  he is also doing it for  himself.  “I liked it,” he admits in a final bit of honestly and self-awareness. Obviously, we knew that the big relationship here, between Walt as the father figure and Jesse as the son, had to come into play at the end, and it does…but also as a shift, as Jesse finally does not do what Walt wants him to, and yet as Walt saves Jesse one last time.  There are a dozen examples of things returning full circle, including the biggest:  from the beginning, with the diagnosis of cancer, we were promised that Walt would die, and he does.

But in the end, the very end, we see Walt in the lab: exactly where he started, with his love for chemistry, with the science of it all.  That, too, is why he did what he did: because he was a scientist.  Because he was good at it.  Science is about science, not moral judgments.  That’s an essential part of Walt’s character from the beginning, tucked away, because people don’t normally think of scientists as amoral.  His bloody hand sweeps over the tank, leaving a W, as Steve pointed out:  Remember my name.  And here, we think back to the “Heisenberg” spray-painted on the wall of the abandoned house which we saw at the beginning of this season.  No, no…Walt was Walt all along.

And that’s why this show was so satisfying to me, as a viewer and a literary type, because it wrapped up the questions in a believable-enough, concrete way while offering a certain moral ambiguity and a reminder to all of us: that we are Walter White.  What makes Walt finally leave New Hampshire?  His son hates him, Walt thinks it’s all been for nothing, he’s called the DEA, and then he sees Gretchen telling the TV audience that Walter White, that sweet man, is gone.  That’s the exact moment.  Sure, being reminded of Gray Matter (set up in season one) gives him the idea of how to move the money to his family, but also, this moment reminds him that Walter White, actually, is NOT gone:  this man is not, in the end, ONLY Walter White OR Heisenberg.  He is both, he is Walter White AND Heisenberg.  We are both.  We make the choice.

We cry when he places his hands on Holly’s sleeping head.  We cheer when his clever gun device mows down the Nazis.  All of us have within us that complexity, that yin and yang of good and evil.  We would do it for our family.  And we would like it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Two at the Most: Barmini in DC

Sheesh, it looks as though there hasn’t been any drinking going on around here…which is so not the case! Unfortunately, our regular “Two at the Most” columnist—aka husband Steve Ello—has been unable to write up a column for a while, so I’m commandeering his slot because I found a sleek new bar in the Penn Quarter area of DC that I must spread the word about:  Barmini.

It’s a project of the famous and fabulous chef Jose Andres (who started out with one of my favorite go-to DC restaurants, Jaleo, and now runs a food empire) and the usual high standards are present:  kind greeting despite our entering the wrong door, gracious hostess leading us to the right place, no reservation but snagging us a space for us at the bar, a friendly and smart bartender who is able to juggle drink recommendations and allergy concerns and come up with perfect solutions for both!

The interior is white, kind of like a laboratory (which is appropriate, as it bills itself as a cocktail lab), and kind of like what I imagine 1960s London to have looked like, as if Twiggy might stroll in.  Nevertheless, there’s a sense of whimsy with a cactus-shaped couch, a wall lined with porcelain hands (I think?? I didn’t touch) holding limes and lemons, and a scary-at-my-age-now hanging basket for a chair.  I think I was happy to be at the bar, surrounded by bottles and droppers and vases of fresh herbs and whatever else might be needed at this Potions Class of mixology. (See the link to photos below.)

There are 100 drinks on the menu.  That’s what I read online; I didn’t count.  Also, this figure doesn’t include the fact that they’re quite willing—and excited—to mix something off-menu…a conversation about mescal led to a woman seated nearby getting a tall concoction that made me drool and long for one more.  (But, remember our motto:  Two at the most!)  Note for next time: when I asked the bartender what her favorite drink was, she mentioned the whiskey sour.

I was feeling autumn nipping at my heels, so I wanted a drink with rye, and the Brooklyn Cocktail was recommended:  Overholt rye, vermouth, maraschino, and what I remember as amer picon (I need to take better notes, or, actually, notes).  It was exactly what I wanted, crisp and spicy, assertive while staying friendly, all the way down to the brandied cherry at the bottom on the (beautiful!) glass…I knew I was in a good spot just from a quick survey of the wide selection of vintage (or vintage-inspired) glassware, including some pilsner glasses with colorful decks of cards printed along the side.

My friend ordered a drink with a name I can’t type because I’m too much of a tech-idiot to know how to produce a tilde sign on my keyboard—so imagine the letter N with one of those squigglies on top.  Anyway, a mix of cucumber vodka, tomato water, ginger syrup, lime, garnished with cucumbers, shaken into a lovely froth.

I couldn’t resist the lure of a Rusty Nail with a float of gently whipped cream…I’m not sure why.  I like the Rusty Nail fine on its own (that blend of scotch and Drambuie is magical!)—and while the drink was gorgeous (and that calcium in the cream is good for my bones!), a Rusty Nail probably didn’t need the addition of cream.  Nevertheless, I drank it all.

As for bar food, I had one of the most amazing grilled cheese sandwiches ever conceived of, with that perfect crusty, butter sheen to the brioche (I think) bread and a mix of four cheeses: blue, cheddar, goat, and something else that was gooey. My only complaint would be that I could probably eat a dozen of these sandwiches and still want more.  Oh, so-so-SO yummy!  And my friend had some excellent Spanish ham as well as a small burger that made her look for new superlatives…apparently, mixing ground beef with bone marrow is a Very Good Idea.  Just like everything about this place:  it’s the exact place I would design for myself if I were 1000x smarter than I am.

Reservations are recommended, but if you must walk in, go on a slow Tuesday as we did.  You will be warmly welcomed and be hard-pressed to tear yourself away.

Here are some great pictures of the interior.
Here’s a link to the menu, though I think there have been a few tweaks.
Here is the official website, with a link for reservations.

And just because I like this photograph...note the Brooklyn Cocktail in reach!!

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Inside View on What's So Great About the Converse Low-Res MFA (apps due 10/1!)

What are you waiting for?  The deadline to apply for the Converse low-residency MFA program is fast approaching…October 1 to join us in January.  Fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction…we have amazing teachers in every genre, and our director, poet Rick Mulkey, is the hardest-working man in the MFA business.

A few food-wise and other points to consider that aren’t in the brochures and website (which you should check out anyway):

Our summer residency site is Spartanburg, SC, which is the home of the famous Beacon Drive-In (and chili cheese a’plenty and fried pimento cheese sandwiches) and our friends at Hub City Press, a wonderful small press.  There’s also a very divey dive bar in walking distance with a legendary open mike night, frequented by professional musicians.  The lovely independent bookstore, Hub City Books, located in the restored Masonic Temple in downtown Spartanburg offers an intimate and excellent coffee shop, if that’s more your beverage style.

In the winter, we typically meet at the 1906 Pinecrest Inn, in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s the perfect place to relax around a beautiful fireplace in the main lobby, talking about books late into the night.  May I note that the Inn is renowned for its food and Wine Spectator award-winning wine list (and ghosts roaming the secret passageway)?

One of our graduates met an agent during our residency program, was invited to send in her novel manuscript, was accepted as a client, and—that book will be released by William Morrow in January 2014!  (Did I mention that our program only started in 2009?  Things move fast around here.)

I just got an email this very morning from another recent graduate who had just learned of that first story publication.  I say this to brag (of course) and also to note that the relationships we build at Converse extend beyond graduation day.

I can only speak for myself here, though I know I’m not the only one who feels this way:  I leave every residency exhausted and exhilarated, inspired by the lectures and words of my fellow faculty members, yes, but also moved by what the students have shown and shared:  their hard work, their eagerness to learn, their deep devotion to the craft, their dedication; the students learn from me, but I learn from them.  We make writers at Converse, and we also make friends for life.

Here’s a quick list of important info:

~Website for more information

~Contact emails for questions: 
Rick Mulkey, MFA Director: rick.mulkey AT
Kristy Meehan, MFA Administrative Assistant, kristy.meehan AT

~My post about what to think about when considering an MFA
~My report on our last residency period

~Application Deadlines:
October 1 to start in January
February 15 to start in June

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Redux Is Open to Submissions: ISO Previously Published Literary Work

Redux is accepting submissions of fiction/poetry/essays during its annual open reading period: September 10 to October 15.  We’re looking for literary work of high quality that has been previously published in a print journal but that is not available elsewhere on the internet.  Our mission is to bring deserving work to a new, online audience.  Preference will be given to older pieces (i.e. published before 2010).

No novel excerpts, poems that appear in chapbooks, or pieces published in anthologies…even if these books are presently out-of-print.

Please read our guidelines for important submission information.  If your work is accepted, you will also be asked to write a short “story behind the piece” essay a la the Best American series.

Authors we’ve published in our first two years include Margot Livesey, Sandra Beasley, Robin Black, R.T. Smith, Michelle Boisseau, Kelle Groom, Erica Dawson, Walter Cummins, and C.M. Mayo.

We look forward to seeing your work!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Writing Tics & Shenandoah Open for Fiction Submissions

Shenandoah’s blog “Snopes” recently featured my piece on the dangers of writing tics:

“There’s nothing wrong with smiling. I do it myself now and then. And I even laugh in my real life. Let’s hope we all do. But I’m struck by how often characters in beginning writing smile and laugh when there are a zillion more interesting gestures or sounds the writer could choose to convey the same emotional state of mind.”

And speaking of Shenandoah, the journal opens tomorrow for submissions of fiction and flash fiction.  Here are the guidelines:

Since I’ve definitely got Shenandoah on the brain, here’s a link to my short-short published there:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fall for the Book: September 22 ~ 27

Wow…I just checked the line-up for the upcoming Fall for the Book Festival (September 22-27) and was overwhelmed with a cornucopia of authors. Whatever your taste, you’ll find a writer (or many) to please you.  Among the speakers/readers:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Marie Arana
David Baldacci
Dave Barry
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Eduardo C. Corral
Benjamin Percy
Bob Shacochis
Cheryl Strayed
Manil Suri

Check here for a full list of participants:

  Here is the schedule:

And here is just a whole lot of general information about the festival, which is free, and which is spread throughout Northern Virginia, Maryland, and DC:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.