Monthly Archives: September 2013

Celebrating Breaking Bad

5 seasons and a lot of intense and memorable hours later, Breaking Bad’s finale is finally upon us. I got on to the bandwagon very late – in fact only after the first 6 episodes of the last season had been aired. Fresh off completing all 5 seasons of The Wire for the second time, I had decided to not watch any more TV shows. It was just not worth it – all the time spent (wasted??), the lack of any productivity, a desire to do something more useful and constructive with my time, etc. got me very hesitant to embark on another massive investment of my time and ….., well, nothing else really. But ultimately it was the lack of sufficient returns with regard to the quality of the shows available that I decided to take a break.

I do not know who finally tipped the scales in favor of this show, but I got started on Breaking Bad. And that was all it took – getting started – and I had committed ALL my non-working time to complete watching all available episodes. Thanks Netflix. Within a few weeks I was done. 41 episodes of drama of the highest quality – a quality matched only by very few TV shows. Only 2 come to my mind – The Wire and the first 3 seasons of Damages.

Who’s there??

The story line and the plot was what kept most people hooked on to the show. Admittedly original, the premise of the show opened up a range of possibilities for the story to develop and take shape. But the writers stood grounded – all the time. No outrageous plot developments, no fabricated coincidences, no cliche situations, no Deus ex Machinas to save the day, and for once we did not see the inevitable game of institution politics  being shoved down our throats in the name of reality. None of the painful cliches holding up plot and/or character development – something any seasoned TV show viewer will attest to.

However, the real strength of the show lay not in the successful absence of the cliche, but in the development of plot and characters. Fact is these two were never separate entities. Most story lines (TV shows or movies) have scripts where the development in character follows the development in plot. That is something happens to the character and then the character begins to think and act differently. Breaking Bad, for the most part, did this in reverse.  They defined an initial sketch and history for all the characters and created initial situations (Walter White diagnosed with cancer and his meeting with Jesse). After this,  the characters’ own natural responses and weaknesses were allowed to dictate the direction in which the story and the plot developed.

Walter White’s persistence with ‘providing for his family’ on his own terms, Jesse’s inability to cope with the impacts his actions have had on those he loved, Skylar’s disapproval of Walter’s choices and her initial fear of her family coming under harm, Hank’s single minded obsession to nail Heisenberg – and all the things that led to and resulted from these formed an intricate web of action and consequence involving every single character in the show. It is really a beautiful thing if you meditate on it.

Think of it. A set of people with a certain initial characters/personalities and tendencies living through different times in their lives. An initial set of circumstances are thrust on them and thus begins the indefinite and incremental loop of response, consequence and further stimulus. But every time the response is going to be incrementally different because of the characters’ previous experience and newer set of circumstances to respond to. All this happening with minimal to no external interference or involvement. It is almost like an elegantly crafted genetic algorithm.

Maybe it is. (Or maybe it is an allegory for free market economics).

But to me, personally, Breaking Bad was a celebration of the human condition. A celebration of how everyday people respond when subjected to stress, loss, unexpected wealth, getting caught, uncertainty, guilt, cancer, and ultimately just plain old fear. Everything – Walter White deciding to embark on his meth making venture, Jesse helping the cops to capture Walter, Skylar cheating on Walter, Marie returning to her kleptomania, Walter revealing the location of the money in the desert – was all just the perfect portrayal of what a normal person under extreme stress and uncertainty would do.

There is an inevitable viewer disillusionment that comes with the vicarious experience of watching the plot unfold on a Television screen. It leads the viewer to having a false sense of superiority over the character for ‘knowing’ what the correct choice the character ‘should have’ made for his/her own good (which is usually nothing more than just the viewer’s preference). But the question to ask yourself is this: If you were really in that character’s shoes with that much stress, fear and uncertainty looming around you all the time, would you be reacting any differently? Once you answer that question honestly, Breaking Bad begins to transcend to a whole new level of TV drama.

The show will be missed. All the characters will be missed – everyone from Walter White to the most adorable Saul Goodman and Huell. But most of all, I would sincerely hope that the series finale does not go overboard just to create a happy ending. I would be at complete peace if Walter never gets to see his family, Jesse commits suicide and Skylar gets hold of part of Walt’s money. But that’s just me. I have a feeling I won’t be disappointed.

2 Months with My Parents in America

It is now a little more than 4 years since I set foot in America. The last 2 of them have been under far more financial freedom and stability than ever before in my life. It was during this time that I traveled significantly – taking in new experiences and dwelling in the wonder of what I saw. I went to dozens and dozens of concerts, visited big cities, explored national parks, discovered places that even none of my American friends knew about. At no point in time did I forget to appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to do all those things that I did and to visit all the places I wanted to. Yes I had to work hard and go through significant troubles and bear through uncertain times to get to where I am now – like so many of my friends who chose the same path. But behind all of that was this one constant, unchanging thing: the  support, encouragement and trust of my parents. Having always been very close to them since as long as I can think of, they gave me a sense of belonging and a platform I always knew I could fall back on in times of need. I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that I would not be where I am today without their effort over the past 25 years or so. And so, during my travels in America, everywhere I went and felt the wonder of having discovered something beautiful, I ALWAYS imagined myself sharing that same experience with my parents – to bring them there and show them what they had helped me to do.

I finally got the opportunity when my parents’ visa got approved (in what ended up becoming a 1 minute interview with exactly one question asked). They arrived in the second week of July and I immediately absolved myself of all responsibilities related even remotely to the kitchen and other household stuff- including but not limited to the maintenance and upkeep of the house, laundry, dishes etc. My mom was more than happy to take over for the duration of her stay and I just let her run the house – like she has done for the past 27 years or so.

I was more than happy to have them at my place. But there is no denying my apprehension about how my lifestyle would be affected with their arrival – especially with having lived by myself for over 2 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was able to work my way around it and my parents were understanding of my evening disappearances to see my friends. And I have to admit, just the food almost made it worth it. I had long forgotten about the idea of a proper breakfast during weekdays. There was also the whole thing about someone actually serving me food – that felt like a long forgotten experience. My mom’s cooking also reminded me about the existence of so many different dishes that I immediately decided that I would simply over eat at every single opportunity and not care one bit about potential weight gain. And today, I am extremely happy to have over eaten (to the point of feeling gluttonous) at least 3 times a day continuously for about 2 months straight.

There were exactly 4 places I wanted to take my parents to. And I am very happy that I was able to accomplish all of that and under very pleasant circumstances. I got my parents to ‘hangout’ at the Old Market district in Omaha – something they never got tired of. It was and still is one of the most beautiful few blocks of downtown I have ever seen, and my parents clearly shared my view. The 3 days we spent in Chicago was extremely fulfilling too. More than the downtown boat ride, Navy Pier or the Shedd Aquarium, I had one specific thing in my mind that I wanted to do. On the second night, I took my parents to the Observatory on top of Hancock tower. A mind blowing night view of the captivating Chicago skyline – especially when you get to look down upon it. But it was not just the view that I had in mind. Yes, both my parents were thrilled beyond words at the sight in front of them. But it was only when I got my dad a glass of Jameson, right there in the Observatory, did I feel the experience complete. Sharing a drink with my dad at the Observatory was the first thing that had come to my mind when I had visited the place previously. And finally being able to do it felt like a landmark moment and a perfect celebration of my relationship with him.

As far back as I can remember, my dad has always wanted to see the Niagara Falls. My mom too. So I took them there in the Maid of the Mist. For about 5 minutes, we were completely transported to a different world – one where all you could see was this gigantic rushing mass of water. It really is one of those out-of-this-world experiences when you are at the foot of the falls in that small boat and looking up at this massive sea of water falling with an incomparable intensity. It was there at that moment that I asked them to remind themselves of where they came from, how and where they spent their childhood, and all the things they went through. And with that as the context, I asked them to look around and see where they were at that moment. The contrast dawned on them immediately and with that, a strong sense of fulfillment took me over.

Our trip to New York City happened mainly because my parents wanted to go there. I had no intention to visit the place as a big city experience has never been my idea of travelling somewhere. If you want a tip, here it is: Don’t go to NYC unless what you want to see is swarms of tourists every step of the way, a big gaping hole in your pocket and generally nothing to admire. (I will admit the Museum of Modern Art was a clear exception. I saw Starry Night and THIS painting which I now have on my wall).  But my parents wanted to do the tourist’s trip which inevitably included the Empire State Building (and the mandatory 2 hour waiting period), the Statue of Liberty (an eyesore that is to be avoided under all circumstances), a drive through Wall Street (the only place where it is OK to openly admire the testicles of a bull) and the Brooklyn Bridge (good engineering, no aesthetic offering). So clearly, I did not enjoy it (and I would definitely not be going back) but I was fully aware that this trip was not for me – it was for my parents. And so it never occurred to me to complain at all.

But perhaps the best was really kept for the last. I took my parents to Wisconsin over Labor Day Weekend. Arguing against my parents’ wishes to see another big city in Minneapolis, I took them to House on the Rock, Madison, New Glarus (including the Brewery there) and Lake Geneva. The House on the Rock was where I really wanted to take them. It is a place which nobody can ever satisfactorily describe. It is a celebration of humans going beyond the limits of imagination. It is a reward for those who seek something beyond the mainstream offerings of tourism. And my parents were left in complete awe and wonder – and rightly so. Trips to New Glarus, New Glarus Brewing company and Lake Geneva was really an eye opener for my parents with regard to the other side of America – the one with the small town, antique shop and record store feel to it. My dad was particularly pleased with the New Glarus Brewery – a place which felt more like some ruins in an old Mediterranean city than a brewery where you could sample some of the best beer in the Midwest. Lake Geneva was perhaps the best portrayal of a small town American city which had maintained its small town feel in spite of the popularity of the place among tourists. Both my parents enjoyed it and the whole trip was an extremely satisfactory end to their travels here.

In addition to the travels, I was particularly happy that my parents just took in what the American Midwest – and specifically Des Moines – had to offer with great satisfaction. The extremely good nature of the people, the laid back lifestyle, a complete lack of noise or air pollution and a beautiful and safe suburb experience – all served as the perfect getaway from the stress of working life. My mom declared her love for Dunkin’ Donuts, making that her first go to place for breakfast in Chicago and NYC. My dad had never been spoilt for choice in beer before he came here (For one, he was not even aware that there were options beyond Lager). So I took him to the El Bait Shop on his birthday and he was clearly overwhelmed at their selection of beer. But perhaps my dad’s biggest achievement during his stay here was his discovery of Pink Floyd and his strong desire to see The Wire. Clearly, my dad is going in the right direction.

They left a couple of days after the Wisconsin trip. My mom made sure I did not have to cook for the following 2 weeks and I still have quite a bit of her cooking in the fridge. They took back with them bags loaded with goodies for all my family back home (including what is perhaps the best of the lot –  a ‘Better Call Saul’ shirt for my cousin) along with some memorabilia from every one of their trips. But to me, their trip was more about all the things that they had always wanted to do, all the places I wanted to show them and all the experiences I wanted to share with them. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with them after a long time. And I can happily say that I was able achieve all of them.

All in all, very satisfying experience for my parents and me. Now I am back to living my old lifestyle and still savoring my mom’s cooking.