3 Reasons Why I Loved Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things”

Finished Netflix original series Stranger Things after a few hours of major binge-watching last night. Called the surprise hit of the summer, Stranger Things has been building a steady following since its release and-some have said-is on the road to cult status.

The series begins with the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), an average 12-year-old boy from Hawkins, Indiana. As Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) launches an investigation, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) embark on their own search and quickly discover there’s more to his disappearance than meets the eye. Filled with horrifying monsters, a girl with telekinesis, and portals to other worlds, Stranger Things is the intersection of the ordinary and supernatural. Though I could go on and on as to why Stranger Things deserves all the hype, here are a few reasons why I loved the show.

stranger things cast

1. Mystery

What are stories but mystery boxes?” director and filmmaker J.J. Abrams once posed. Abrams, the mastermind behind such puzzling television riddles as Lost, knows that good story-telling is about ambiguity; it’s what you don’t know-not what you do.

Stranger Things builds edge-of-your-seat suspense by constantly denying us access to the box. Creators the Duffer Brothers, in fact, padlock the box and throw away the key. With each episode, the enigma of Will’s disappearance deepens: where is Will? Who keeps calling Joyce, Will’s mother (played by a convincingly distraught Winona Ryder)? Who is the practically mute girl the boys stumble upon in the woods and where did she come from? Why did the state claim jurisdiction of where Will’s body was found and later bring in their own guy to perform the autopsy? Just when you think the show can’t get any more bizarre, just when you think you have a handle on the sinister happenings of this strange town, something even weirder happens to complicate your theories.

This series reminds me of one of my all time favorite movies: Donnie Darko. In terms of genre, both dabble in the paranormal and both play with the possibility of other worlds.  Like the cult classic, Stranger Things preoccupies itself with the questions-not so much the answers. So if you adore slightly offbeat shows that are one part sci-fi and two parts mystery/thriller, watch this show.

dr. brennar & hawkins lab

2. Conspiracy 

In her astute analysis of the sixth episode, AV Club critic Emily Stephens considers both the literal and figurative meanings of monster:

“El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.

The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.”

When a frightening, alien-like monster wriggles through a hole between the real world and the upside down and begins tormenting Hawkins, we can’t help but think it’s the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. But as Stephens so insightfully points out, the real monster is not some creature from another world-it’s within us.

The central antagonist of Stranger Things is not a literal monster but a figurative one: Hawkins National Lab. Since the 1960s, we learn, diabolical yet socio-pathically kind scientist Dr. Brenner has been performing mind control experiments on human subjects. He kidnaps his most prized subject, a young girl named El, from her mother when it’s discovered she has telekinetic powers. Since then, Dr. Brenner has been trying to harness her abilities for the more malevolent purposes of weaponry and espionage.

In their pursuit of truth, Joyce and Captain Hopper realize Will’s disappearance is a part of this massive government cover-up. And the U.S. government is a titan adversary. The more unsettling truths they uncover, the more they realize they have nowhere to turn. Stranger Things creates a twitchy, anxiety-laden atmosphere where no one-especially those in positions of authority-can be trusted. Brenner and his team are unstoppable: dissenters who try to expose the truth are easily made to look insane…or are mercilessly killed off.

Dr. Brenner, Hawkins Lab, the U.S government- all represent the most terrible kind of monstrosity: indifference to one’s fellows. As Brenner and his colleagues ruthlessly exploit El’s powers for their own advantage, the government remorselessly covers it up.

If you love underdog stories, you’ll find it immensely satisfying when Hopper goes all renegade cop and tries to untangle Brenner’s webs of lies and cover-ups (though it’s hard to believe he’d emerge from some of his discoveries unscathed). Like all underdog tales, Stranger Things derives its tension not from the anticipation that we might encounter a real flesh and blood monster but the certainty that a less easily defeated foe lingers around every corner. 

stranger things

3. The 80s

If you’re an 80s kid like me, Stranger Things will be a nostalgic return to the ambient synth and bad hair of yesteryear. Watching this sci-fi/horror is like being teleported to 1983, a time when anti-communist paranoia was its height and we thought-for some reason- that mullets looked good. Creators the Duffer brothers do a superb job of accurately reconstructing the period, never stumbing into overblown caricature territory (you won’t see any Madonna-esqe fish nets or neon eye shadow here).

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan fittingly coined Stranger Things a spooky shot of 80s nostalgia straight to your heart. In their 1980s tribute, the Duffer Brothers pay homage to every cinematic genius of the period from Spielberg to Steven King. The group of best friends coming of age whilst chatting over walkie talkies recalls Stand By Me (not to mention another classic period piece Now and Then) while the otherworldly girl with telekinetic powers conjures up images of ET.  All that’s missing, as Mangan notes, is the glowing finger. Ryder herself is a relic of the era, bringing to mind the pseudo-intellectual banter and dark morbid humor of such movies as The Heathers.  Add a dose of creepy spirits communicating through electronics a la The Poltergeist and you have the perfect cocktail of heart-warming coming-of-age tale and spooky, eerie sci-fi thriller.

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God, Hubris & Fate: Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,

X

Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

titanic maiden voyage

In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.

The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.

Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).

Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).

titanic unsinkable ship

“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:

“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).

Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom: Lessons from Asian American Parenting

3 hours of piano lessons a day. Extra homework. Furious complaints that their son’s 600 SAT Reading score just wasn’t “good enough.”

As a teacher with her share of experience with the “battle hymn” of the tiger mom, I’ve always thought authoritarian parenting-the setting of rigid, exacting (and, some might argue, impossible) standards must be unhealthy for the child.

Yes, a perfectionist and hard-working Asian American myself, I value commitment to rigor and academic excellence, but these parents were too much. Doesn’t demanding so much from your children inevitably hurt them? Damage their self-worth?

Forever bound by the hyphen, I may be Asian but I’m also American; these Chinese-American parents’ insistence on perfection often seemed cruel: what if your child couldn’t meet your impossible expectations? He’d feel worthless, like a failure. Even if he was capable of getting straight-As, serving as president of the French club and winning the national tennis championships, wouldn’t the pursuit of such high standards wear him out? I remember watching so many of my students work themselves into a hysteria over an A-. Their parents’ unrealistic ambitions, I thought, were unfairly robbing them of a childhood. 

But after examining the statistics social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney provide, I’m a little less confident in my original analysis. Yes, Chinese-Americans are tough but their authoritarian style gets results: by the age of 2, most Chinese-American children are expected to possess the self-control of American children twice their age; Chinese-American students consistently outperform their American counterparts in school and-though they only account for roughly 7% of the U.S. population-Chinese-Americans make up more than 25% of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

tiger mom

In their fascinating study of willpower Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and Tierney make a compelling argument for stricter, Asian American-style parenting:

Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised 2 daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents’ techniques for fostering achievement. They tell how their parents started teaching them the alphabet before their second birthday, and how their mother was never one to reward a child whining for candy at the supermarket. When they reached the checkout counter, before the girls had a chance to beg, Mrs. Kim would preempt them by announcing that if they each read a book the following week, she would buy them a candy bar on the next shopping trip. Later, when Soo went off to college and asked her parents for a cheap used car to get around, they refused but offered to buy her a brand-new car if she was admitted to medical school. Thus, the parents did provide good things for their daughters-but each treat was meted out as a reward for some valued achievement.

The many Asian American success stories have forced developmental psychologists to revise their theories about proper parenting. They used to warn against the “authoritarian” style, in which parents set rigid goals and enforced strict rules without much overt concern for the child’s feelings. Parents were advised to adopt a different style, called “authoritative,” in which they set limits but gave more autonomy and paid more attention to the child’s desires. This warmer, more nurturing style was supposed to produce well-adjusted, self-confident children who would do better academically and socially than those from authoritarian homes. But then, as Ruth Chao and other psychologists studied Asian-American families, they noticed that many of the parents set strict rules and goals. These immigrants, and often their children, too, considered their style of parenting to be a form of devotion, not oppression. Chinese-American parents were determined to instill self-control by following the Confucian concepts of chiao shin, which means “to train,” and guan, which means both to govern and to love. These parents might have seemed cold and rigid by American standards, but their children were flourishing both in and out of school” (Baumeister 195-196).

Though the self-esteem movement has most Americans preaching the importance of positive reinforcement and constant praise, statistical comparisons of Chinese-American and American children show that our national resistance to more traditional forms of discipline may be counterproductive. By refusing to withhold rewards for exceptional work and instead applauding mediocrity, our “everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture” promises American children will lack the discipline, diligence and self-control to attain success at the rate of their Asian-American counterparts. In fact, our emphasis on building self-esteem rather than character has led to rampant narcissism among today’s youth; in study after study, American children are shown to feel better about performing worse. We may rank as one of the world’s worst countries in math, but our students leave that exam room convinced they did well, better, even, than students from China and South Korea.

chinese american students

Has our refusal to embed values like self-control led to an epidemic of narcissism and delusional thinking in our culture?

After reviewing the data, I think so.

A soft, nurturing type, discipline has never come easy to me. Like many Americans, I was raised with the belief that too stern a style would intimidate and damage my students. Little did I know that-by refusing to consistently enforce rules and demand that my students meet my high expectations for behavior-was I actually setting them up for failure.

We insist that every child get a trophy because we’re afraid the children who don’t earn a prize won’t feel good enough. We are a nation of coddlers. We fret more about hurting our children’s feelings than establishing real opportunities for boosting self-worth.

It is only when we delay gratification-like, say, the Kims, who required that Soo be admitted into medical school before she got a new car-that we teach our children the perseverance and hard work they’ll need to be successful. Awarding our children with trophies they didn’t earn it is like rewarding them for work they haven’t done: it sets the expectation that you will always be recognized even when you didn’t work hard enough.

Perhaps this is why Baby Boomers so often lament the laziness and narcissism of our generation. Little do they know that it is their laid-back, hands-off style parenting that is to blame for so much that is wrong with our culture.

Can their generation’s distaste for the conventional type of parenting they endured as children explain my generation’s apparent failures to be autonomous and grow-up?

Can growing numbers of “boomerang kids”-adult-aged children who move back in with their parents-be a result of “you’re always good enough” coddle-style parenting?

In many ways, my generation was spoon-fed the misleading and ultimately false belief that we mattered. When we graduated from college and still couldn’t get menial jobs, we were shocked: this wasn’t how our parents told us the world worked. We were supposed to graduate college and immediately have careers. A degree, in fact, was supposed to guarantee us a job. Like an invitation-only after party, our degree was the ticket to prosperity and instant success.

But, in reality, it wasn’t good enough.

We needed real experience in our fields to be competitive, not to mention higher GPAs. Maybe our parents did spoil us.

Because we were always rewarded no matter what, many of us held the mistaken assumption that we’d always get what we want. We expected the world to just give us things but, we soon realized, that’s not how the world worked.

By American standards, the Asian American insistence on excellence and achievement may seem severe, but-time and time again-it’s proven to get results. Perhaps it’s time we open our ears to the galvanizing battle hymn of the tiger mom.

Death & Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

robert frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.

But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.

If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.

Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.

However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.