Tuesday, January 31, 2012


My friend, B, who reads this blog, often refers to long, heartfelt messages as sincere.  I detect a mix of  sarcasm with realism in the way she says it. She can opine in the comments if she feels I got it wrong.

It strikes me every time I hear it ... I think about the meaning of the sincere message, and I wonder... how do others take sincerity ... is there anyway to be sincere without it being somewhat saccharine?  Does that make it somehow less sincere?  Is it just the nature of the sentiment? Or is the way that we go about it that causes the disconnect?  I say we, meaning Americans (say it with a Bush accent, clipping some of the middle syllable to get the correct definition).

It might just be that discourse class that has me over thinking things... blame it on the textbooks when all else fails.

I also have been thinking about it because there is a certain "trainer" who shall remain nameless that seems to think that you can say really shitty things to people as long as you are smiling.  "Smile when you say that..." from I Love Lucy comes to mind. [I would share a link but it seems CBS doesn't want anyone to watch a FIVE MINUTE CLIP... the short-sightedness of the executives is OVERWHELMING ... but we had a blackout to point out their issues already.]

In any case, while you ponder the meaning of Sincerity, Sincere and Smiling while Saying Shitty Things (I am super into the CAPITALS right at the moment) ... listen to this.  Do it quickly before someone decides you need to pay before you see this 5 minute clip!

Monday, January 30, 2012

i had a dream

... in it I was seen, known, understood ... easily.

I felt safe and loved and exalted...

and then I woke up.

For too long, I have been waiting for that dream to happen in waking time.

That is to say, for someone to see me... and understand without judging.

I know ... I have known ... that the critic that needs to pipe down is not outside me.

And, yet... I still seek that outside affirmation, foolishly imagining that it will change something, anything.

If I am going to embrace fearless, I am going to have to stop listening to the inner critic -- it doesn't mean silencing, that may never happen. But I need to find the way to make it background noise.

I am visualizing what my dad told me a long time ago:
Be like a duck, mija, let it roll off your back.

Picture me wiggling the backside to get rid of the painful criticism...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fearless, part 26

The part number changed in my head a bunch of times... technically I am not sure which number I am on between the journal, the blog, and my head.

But this morning, I was reflecting with gentleness and compassion the number of times last week I had embodied fearless.

As I told a friend last night, I have to guard against looking back with regret. I couldn't really do it last night- I just knew it was what I had to do.

In the light of day, with a plate full of yummy food and coffee and a delicious blueberry muffin, fearless became the word I used to describe my resilience and actions this week.

Blessed be.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Perspective (again)

I was walking to work yesterday when I saw the ROTC folks doing their morning run.  Yesterday was pack and boots day.  I could almost feel the weight of that pack and my feet ached for them stomping in those boots.  I watched them pass as I waited to cross the street, and I heard a friend's voice in my ear, "you think you've got it hard..."

He was a teacher at my high school, but he was never my teacher, so he was a friend.  And he was a friend... I house sat for him one summer and he came to my wedding... though I haven't talked to him in many, many years, he will always be a friend because he saved my life once.  That's another story... just to say, though, that he knew me.

He taught me perspective in his own way ... he gifted me a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle with an inscription that admonished me to gain perspective when I felt like life was closing in on me.

It was an important and loving lesson.  I guess he was my teacher after all.

So, yesterday morning as I walked to work feeling so exhausted that all the muscles in my body ached as though I had been working out every morning as my schedule suggests, I could hear that voice loud and clear.

I bucked up ... went to work, determined to have a good day.

It was not a good day ... Alexander and I could compare notes ... and write a new book.

But, I did my best to remember that no matter how bad it felt, there were others who had it much worse.  I focused on the fact that I was not running in full military uniform with a fifty pound pack on my back in combat boots.


I don't usually write blog posts live... I usually write them and post them up one or two days ahead, sometimes more... but the post I had scheduled for today could keep.

I was contemplating how to tell you about my day, and then I read this, and then I heard this.  These stories, little gifts from the universe, reminded me that everything is as it is... so I decided to include them here.

Andrea's message about the gift of the day reminded me that we are all always struggling for perspective ... and the way that can help us to be HAPPY.

The other is heartbreaking and raw and honest and lovely for all of that.  Hopefully, it will also remind us to live through it all -- to not shy away from the hard feelings or the experiences that mark us with sorrow and pain as much as they leave us with love and warmth.

Happy Friday ... we are in this together.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

El jueves de la poesia (segunda parte)

Cracking open the Pedro Salinas book to look for that last poem got me hooked (again).

Over and over again, I think perhaps I should have been born in the 1930s... these guys (la generacion del 27) really speak to me.  Before you know it, I will be trying to find my Lorca books, too.

Yo no necesito tiempo
para saber como eres:
conocerse es el relampago.
Quien te va a ti a conocer
en lo que callas, o en esas
palabras con que lo callas?
El que te busque en la vida
que estas viviendo, no sabe
mas que alusiones de ti,
pretextos donde te escondes.
Ir siguiendote hacia atras
en lo que tu has hecho, antes,
sumar accion con sonrisa,
anos con nombres, sera
ir perdiendote.  Yo no.
Te conoci en la tormenta.
Te conoci, repentina,
en ese desgarramiento
brutal de tiniebla y luz,
donde se revela el fondo
que escapa al dia y la noche.
Te vi, me has visto, y ahora,
desnuda ya del equivoco,
de la historia, del pasado,
tu, amazona en la centella,
palpitante de recien
llegada sin esperarte,
eres tan antigua mia,
te conozco tan de tiempo,
que en tu amor cierro los ojos,
y camino sin errar,
a ciegas, sin pedir nada
a esa luz lenta y segua
con que se conocen letras
y formas y se echan cuentas
y se cree que se ve
quien eres tu, mi invisible.

-Pedro Salinas
Del libro La voz de ti debida (1933)
 Versos 388 a 424
Same deal, here is the poem with accents.

 [Photo credits: me, digital, not fancy, 2009, From the Tram Station atop the Sandias]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You Must Read This ...

...and anything else danah writes!

I continue to be consistently blown away by danah's commentary. If you are not reading her posts, get on it!

It makes me feel like someday I might join her as a researcher who does relevant and INTERESTING studies that carry equal weight in an academic setting and the real world.

INTERESTING in all caps because although some think it is not a good word to describe interest, it does in fact signal that I have and take an interest in the work she does.  WINKing to my classmates... who don't actually read this, but, whatever...

Puppets update...

Thanks to B. for sharing this with me... you need to listen to the words, it is a song, but it's really a story.

I am not sure if this is what my life would like if it were put to puppets.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but I still think that I might have nightmares about this mummy casanova.

I probably should have saved this for Valentine's Day... but I couldn't not share it NOW.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I wrote this on the train ... sometime before the new year.  I just didn't get around to typing it up before the fearless hit prime time.  Just to clue you in to the time line, so you don't think I'm too crazy.
In my ear, the headphones, you know, I hear: "I'm on a train bound destiny..."  Think she knows I am really on a train??

If I were going to rewrite the words to the Rolling Stones song about satisfaction, it would definitely say... "I can't get no traction."

You can see that I'm not musically inclined, so it wouldn't actually work out.

Anyway, it would be a true statement regardless.

I can't get no traction...

I fall down, slip, slide -- literally and metaphorically -- on a regular basis.

I wonder sometimes if the falling down is the universe trying to tell me something.

I remember, I guess fall (no pun intended, really) 2010, I was rushing across campus to a meeting and I flew out of my shoes, literally.  I landed hard on the side walk.  My shoes back where I my body left them before I went airborne.  I was sprawled like a bad superman impression on the ground.

Yeah, picture it.

I didn't trip -- I just fell.

People around me stopped, to gawk and to ask if I was okay; but before anyone could help me, I was up and dusting myself off -- bleeding from wounds and shaking perhaps more out of embarrassment and shock.  I just kept rushing to the meeting.

It wasn't the first time I fell like that -- or the last.

But it was spectacularly public, perhaps making it all the more memorable.

Usually, I fall in the privacy of my own home -- or when I am too drunk to care who has seen me -- or I don't remember it at all -- just find the bruises later and have a vague, dream-like memory of getting too up close and personal with some pavement.

So, let's see... I fall when the floor is wet.  I can hardly stand if it's icy.  But, I also just fall -- for no reason.

I can't get no traction.

It feels like the rug being pulled out -- and that's why it feels like a message.

I always assume it's a "don't get too big for your britches" or, a softer "don't get ahead of yourself."

I could even contemplate it being a "just slow down."

Though there have to be less painless ways to get my attention.

My meditation training should be able to convince me that it is just life -- happening as it does -- to stop taking it personally.

But that is a lesson I am still trying to assimilate -- who knows if I will ever master it.

And if my issues with traction ended in the physical realm, perhaps I would just accept that it's just the way it works for me -- like the clumsy thing -- have I ever written about that?  If not, that's for another day.

No, worse than falling down is feeling like I can't get traction in life.  I barely hang on by the tips of my nails sometimes.


I can't get no traction...

[thinking no photos necessary for this one ...]

Monday, January 23, 2012


[This is a work in progress...]

Courage is a precious commodity.

It wanes and ebbs like the sea ... well maybe not like the sea since it is not so predictable.

I have spent time meditating on courage. Reading quotes. Trying to cultivate and encourage courageous actions and reactions.

There is nothing wrong with that. But it hasn't fed the need to have a spirit within me that is acting in a particular way. So, I chose fearless rather than courage as my word for the year because I think it embodies the spirit I need.

Fearless intimates facing fear even when you should be terrorized.

Perhaps that is too strong.


With fearless I am claiming a determination to face down fear. To have reservoir of fearlessness that motivates behavior and choices.

From the other side, I can say that courage is possible in the face of great fear. Or at least in the face of fearful situations.

Courage is mustered in the face of fear. Fearless advances where courage meets.

If you can achieve fearlessness then you do not have to have to muster courage because you have not been pushed to the point of terror. You go out to meet life - where is that lovely quote?

Does that make sense?

I have demonstrated courage on any number of occasions.

I do not lack the ability to react to fear. Rather I would like to have courage be proactive. To face the world without fear.

Is that asking too much?

I envision taking on situations fearlessly meaning that I willingly walk into the lion's den not worrying about what might happen. I would face the lion's den with an expectation of the adventure.

Perhaps that comes across as naive or unsophisticated.

However I see it as being willing, perhaps been eager, to be vulnerable.

I don't imagine it will be easy or enjoyable at first. But I hope it will be worth it. In time I may grow to love that fearlessness.

Fearless... this is my word for the year, and I am hoping the year of the dragon will help me to manifest it.

Happy New Year ...

Friday, January 20, 2012

forgot... had some articles to share

This may be emblematic of my lack of patience.

Forgot to add these two articles to the last post.

I am going to withhold comment.

You can probably figure out how I feel about this... Paula Deen.

This one just made me laugh... puppet recreations on local news.

If only I had any talent, I would do puppet recreations of my life for you.

Happy Friday!


So, I am still trying desperately to stay on schedule but not lose my mind.  This is harder than one would think...

Patience is a virtue, they say.

Does that mean that I shouldn't feel bad if I don't have any? Or does that mean that I should feel that I lack virtue since I don't have any?

Need: Patience...

Any idea where I can get some??

Thursday, January 19, 2012

El jueves de la poesia

This is one of my all time favorites.  I read it first on my Spanish sister's desk when I visited her in Barcelona in 1986.  For her, it was homework, for me, it was gold...

Perdoname por ir asi buscandote
tan torpemente, dentro
de ti.
Perdoname el dolor, alguna vez,
Es que quiero sacar
de ti tu mejor tu.
Ese que no te viste y que yo veo,
nadador por tu fondo, preciosisimo.
Y cogerlo
y tenerlo yo en alto como tiene
el arbol la luz ultima
que le ha encontrado al sol.
Y entonces tu
en su busca vendrias, a lo alto.
Para llegar a el
subida sobre de ti, como te quiero,
tocando ya tan solo a tu pasado
con las puntas rosadas de tus pies,
en tension todo el cuerpo, ya ascendiendo
de ti a ti misma.

Y que a mi amor entonces, le conteste
la nueva criatura que tu eras.

-Pedro Salinas
del libro: La voz de ti debida (1933)

I don't put accents in because the internet tends to turn words with accents into unrecognizable jibberish.  You can see the poem with the accents properly placed here.

photo credits: me, not fancy digital camera, Malibu, my uncle's property, Summer 2009

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

schedules, chaos and equanimity

The universe knows what it's doing.

But sometimes it just feels like I am always getting spanked.

I made a schedule.

I color coded it.

I put in almost every thing I have to do ... including sleep.

And this week, I tried to put it into action.

It's funny because while I was working over the weekend, I talked about how crazy that schedule was.  And the boot campers talked (when they weren't silent) about how you sometimes have to let go.

I was thinking a lot about being TYPE A... I was wondering is there a Type A-... because I am over controlling like a Type A but I am not concerned enough with outcome to be the perfectionist that Type A intimates. 

Well, in any case, on Monday, I jumped into that pretty color coded schedule I made.  I woke early, worked for money for several hours, and got ready to go for a run.  This was, in fact, all in the schedule.  But, then I locked myself out ... and all the plans I had for the afternoon had to shift.

I was not a happy camper... in fact, I was so angry about being off schedule that I got a headache, didn't eat, and was fairly unproductive (not all in the same order) for quite a few hours. The universe thought I hadn't quite got the message, so there were a few more things that didn't go the way I planned.

Ah... plans how I love to make you... and how you love to go awry.

It took a good long time (and food and coffee helped) to figure out that the universe was trying to remind me about that goal I had ... to be open... extends to going with the flow.

So, eventually, I settled into that reality.  I did some work and made friends with the baristas at my not-regular sb... and felt so much better when I realized I could go with the flow.

photo credits: me, Mendocino, Feb 2009

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I love Oakland...

I am sure I have mentioned this before, but, just in case, I LOVE OAKLAND.

Even my mother recognizes that of all the places I have lived in the world, Oakland is my favorite.

It is the place I have felt more at home and like I fit.  Hipsters or not.

Love, love, love Oakland.

So, when a friend sent me these two articles, with specific instructions, I followed them...

Read this, first, she said.

It is an article in which Oakland rates as #5 of the where in the WORLD to go... yup, it is the first AMERICAN city on the list, for those who were wondering.

Then, she said, read this.

It is a response to the entry about Oakland ... and it is right on from start to finish.

Another day, I will highlight my must go to spots... the ones that I miss the most and that feel most like OAKLAND to me.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Birthday

If Martin were among us today as a trusted elder, what would he say about what is happening in our world right now?

--about the lingering war/military occupation in Iraq?
--about the "austerity" measures aimed only at the most vulnerable of our society?
--about treating humans as illegalities?

We will never know because someone decided that he could choose for us.

I wonder what it would be like to have an 83-year-old Martin to guide us.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I am from southern California, coastal. 

I have to give the disclaimer. This is where I am from.  It doesn't matter where I have lived or for how long I have lived there.  My body was made near the coast in southern California.  And, although it is adaptable, that is where it feels it should be, climate-speaking, all the time.

I can put up with cold or hot for short periods of time, especially when it is particularly bounded -- for a few weeks, for a month.  Not for a season, though. 

That is pushing it. 

That is asking too much.

So, when it got cold here in OCTOBER...I pulled out my thermals and I thought, well, this will be good practice for Montreal. 

When it stayed cold and my legs became icicles as I was driving to Gallup on those frigid mornings, I bought boots.  The really warm kind with what the little lambs wear, but on the insides.  And I had toasty toes.  And I was still wearing my thermals... and I fished out the wool jacket from the back of the closet.  And I looked for the hat, and found the warmest scarf and I put the gloves in my purse.

But, it stayed cold... and then I went to California ... the northern part... where it was not exactly beach weather, but it was not thermal or jacket or gloves weather either.

We could talk about how I chose not to bring a jacket with me and froze in the train overnight... but then I woke up in Los Angeles, and it was so nice to see a warm sun, I didn't care.  I barely remember shivering in my two seats... that should have been pure luxury, but it wasn't.

Fast forward, and I am back in what I am affectionately refering to as the tundra and it's not as cold as it was ... but it is still cold... TOO COLD... and I refuse to wear a jacket.  I put on the long sleeved shirt, I put on a warm sweater ... I have conveniently shoved the thermals to the back of the dresser... and then I go out and FREEZE.

This is not good.

I don't like to be cold worse than I like cold (or weather, in general)... this is my denial.

My inner teenager thinks that if she doesn't wear a jacket, it will magically be warm outside.

I see the children walking around campus in shorts and sometimes no shoes... why doesn't it work for me???

Yeah, denial is not good regardless of what you are denying.

Tomorrow, I am wearing the thermals again... if at 4pm I am feeling overheated, I only have to wait an hour for the sun to go down and it will be COLD again...

Over sharing is what blogs are all about, so get over it.

Happy Friday.

Photo credits:  me, fancy camera, from the train, summer 2009.  These were overcast days, too... note this did not deter the people on the beach! :)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Poetry Thursday ... facing down fear

I am not sure if this really counts as poetry ... I guess, not in the conventional sense.  But, it will do for this week.

It is from one of my favorite people's blog.  Go here to see the original with her adorable son.

Don’t wait for the fear to go away before you start your dream.
The only way to dissolve that fear is to begin your adventure.
We have to act alongside our fears, in the face of our fears, or we will never start.
It’s such a paradox.
The thing that stands in the way of us creating the life we want will only go away if we start creating it.
The good news is this: You will feel empowered by your first steps and they will give you the courage to take many more.
Take heart in knowing we are doing it together.
--Andrea Scher

 photo credit:  me, fancy camera, from Acoma Pueblo

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Montreal Word Postcards

I am so far behind with the drafts that I am just getting to the word postcard from Montreal (back in NOVEMBER of LAST year...yikes!)

So, I didn't get in a lot of sightseeing ... ok, no sightseeing, while I was in Montreal.  But I did get to walk around some between conference workshops and receptions and what-nots.

It wasn't until the last night that we went to Old Montreal ... even though it turns out it was only a few blocks from the Convention Center!  Of course, the reason for going was that there was a reception down there.  But the walk was lovely!  Old cobble-stoned streets and gorgeous buildings.  I think being down there at night was probably even more beautiful than during the day.

The pub we went to was unremarkable (and loud because there was a hockey game on) ... except for the wood everywhere and the gorgeous man from Amsterdam.  I never wanted to visit there before, but if there are more of those out there, maybe I need to rethink that plan.

The other super memorable part I wanted to share was this wonderful bar/restaurant we happened into... Le Balmoral: Le Bistro du Festival... it is attached to the entity that puts on the Jazz Festival.  It is a non-profit restaurant that supports free arts events.  It shares a building with several other artsy/festival connected entities.

Here's what I wrote in my notes ... "homemade desserts, fabulous wine list, jazz Thursday to Sunday, and a wonderful, sweet, attentive staff".

I am picking restaurants now on the basis of them having homemade desserts.

We didn't eat any real food, just wine and dessert ... but everything that came out of the kitchen looked wonderful! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Round Up

oops... the day got away from me, and I didn't post this ... it's been sitting there, waiting to be posted.

I love this piece about how a woman handled her anxiety while undergoing cancer treatment. It's sweet... I swear.

Then there is this piece on how the homeless men of Orange County (California, not New Jersey) are handling being the targets of southern California's latest serial killer.  It's not sweet in any way, but it is one of those stories that we must not look away from.

How can I pass up on celebrating New Mexico's 100th year as part of the United States? Here is the LA Times' pictorial tribute.  Southern New Mexico is not well represented, but it's only 100 pictures with about 50 of them from Santa Fe, of course...

Here is the page of the official remembering 1/8/11 and the tragic events in Tuscon. Sending all those folks as much healing energy as possible.

This story made me long for the time to take this road trip... it might have something to do with the fact that I didn't get the road trip I had been planning this year ... but I upped my AAA membership, so I am ready for that trip and the potential breakdown, too...

I hesitated to share this ... it sat open on my computer for a while before I could bring myself to read it.  It is another heartbreaking story about how our xenophobia is ruining the lives of people we have no quarrel with ... but after watching the political shows and seeing, again, the Republican field, I think it's important to confront this kind of story, too...

Monday, January 09, 2012

... on the train, I was reading...

...and stumbled onto this...

"what does part Indian mean? (Which part?) ... You don't get 50% or 25% or 16% treatment when you experience racism - it is always 100%"

From an art installation by
Joane Cardinal-Schubert

This is just the question I ask myself when someone tells me they are half something.

Half what?

Invariably when someone says, "half," it is because "mixed" or "ethnic" is not readily apparent. That is to say, in their everyday life, they do not have to tell any one "what" they are.

Half and part are euphemistic ways of saying mixed, but emphasizing a part... the white part in "everyday" (read: passing mode) and the ethnic part ... well that's the sticky part, right?

I have almost always heard it from folks who say or do questionable things as a way of validating the action or their perspective as qualified to speak for people of color.

Yeah...back to reading and analyzing that reading...

Friday, January 06, 2012

Train train bus automobile

This, and about 26 hours, is what it took for me to be able spend new year's eve in Oakland.

Remarkably almost all 26+ hours were on the transport vehicle. The first train arrived early - leaving me just enough time to fight with the "info" booth attendant, try to find the right platform and then call directly to Amtrak to get my reservation changed.

It means I left Los Angeles Union station over two hours early to arrive one hour earlier at my final destination.

The third connection was scheduled to leave five minutes after my train was scheduled to arrive. The conductor, who had become my best friend on the ride, assured me the bus isn't allowed to leave before the train arrives.

Technically this way is longer. In a car or in a train, but it is also more scenic.

I took the ocean side portion off to watch for whales. No whales today. But a few dolphin. Plenty of majestic pelicans and hawks. And a considerable amount of deer standing around looking perplexed. I just like how deer look up at people and cars - and apparently trains - as though aliens have just landed and are ruining the vista from their porch.

There was no time to browse in Olvera Street - not sure what would have been open at 7:15 am - but had I stayed there until my bus was scheduled to pull out at 10:45 am I guess I could have browsed some stores. But with almost no sleep on the train overnight from Albuquerque and very little sleep the three nights preceding, jumping onto another form of transport seemed better than trying to find a quiet corner to read and/or nap.

I actually waited til the long bus ride to nap - only to wake to the bus driver announcing we were taking a ten minute break. Not at a station - which is very loosely construed here as we dropped people from the train on the beach seemingly in the middle of nowhere. No, not even there. We stopped at an offramp where there were various fast-food restaurants and a little mini-mart.

The rest was easy 101 N until San Jose where we took the freeway that goes right into San Francisco. Apparently it is much more hip to go to SF for NYE because I was the only one on the bus to Oakland.

My own private chariot to the east bay. It was almost perfect... Except the bus driver started to talk and he was a tad reactionary. Ah well... I was almost home.

I have more from the train... hoping I get the time to write it.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Haiku Thursday, part 5

on the mountain crests
a line of wild geese
and the moon's seal

translated by 
David Cobb

Photos by Pomegranate and The British Museum.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

One More Thing

Heartbreaking and compelling story of a woman rebuilding and learning to rely on the inner strength that she didn't know she possessed.

Wishing Ms. Mitchell all the best in 2012.

Monday, January 02, 2012


I wish I had cable... but not very often.

Here's a story that made me wish...

Essay: American Horror Story: From cliches, genius

Story user rating:

Published: Dec 27, 2011

FILE- In this file image released by FX, Jessica Lange is shown in a scene from "American Horror Story." (AP Photo/FX, Prashant Gupta, FILE)
NEW YORK (AP) - Producing and sustaining a horror show for the American television audience is not a mission for the squeamish.
Over television's 60-some years, very few continuing horror series have truly taken hold in this country. "Dark Shadows" survived five years in the 1960s by blending camp and soap opera. Joss Whedon succeeded by making "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" into a "Beverly Hills, 90210" of the undead. "Supernatural" works because it is, in effect, about two brothers on a really long road trip, and "True Blood" pins its allure on sex and deep bayou weirdness.
Then there's "American Horror Story," the brainchild of "Glee" creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, which finished its addictively off-kilter first season last week on FX. Against every single odd, this haunted-Hollywood saga managed to take all the horror cliches in the book and, using those ingredients, spin a thought-provoking stew of compelling originality. (Warning to DVR jockeys: Read on and you WILL encounter spoilers.)
The show's first season documented the travails of the Harmon family in a 1908 mansion known as the "Murder House" for all the bad things that happened there. Now here's why the Golden Globe-nominated series shouldn't work:
Watching an episode of it is like leafing through a "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" of old dark-house movies through the ages. Aside from the obvious prerequisite - a menacing mansion with a murderous history and an abundance of creepy nooks and crannies - pretty much everything you've seen in every horror show rears its head here.
There's the disembodied child's ball that rolls into the scene, the creepy and blank-eyed twins from beyond the grave, and the magnificently undulating Steadicam work ("The Shining"). There's the white rocking chair, the smarmy real-estate agent, and the menacing cellar with wooden steps that contains more than its share of dark corners and terrifying secrets ("The Amityville Horror").
There's the lens-blur of intense scenes and the muffled hallway sounds that might or might not be a supernatural force ("The Haunting"). There's the absurd abundance of doors ("The House on Haunted Hill") and the fact that they open and close on their own (fill in your own horror-movie title here). And, of course, there's the misshapen creature in the attic, the wide and looming staircase and the elaborate chandeliers (pretty much every other episode of "Scooby-Doo"). Occasional fragments from Vincent Price's oozy oeuvre and the famous horror films from the British studio Hammer in the 1950s and 1960s also pop up in cameos throughout the show.
Now. Here's a passel of fragments that explain why "American Horror Story" DOES work, and brilliantly:
The murderer in the full-body black rubber suit that might be living, might be dead. The decor-obsessed dead gay couple. The misunderstood teenage boy, dead 17 years, who turns out to be a Columbine-style killer but just wants to be understood. The maid who was murdered in 1983 while young and sexy and now is seen by some as a middle-aged woman and by others as the sexy young siren she was. The fact that dead people can be seen by the living, and interact with them physically, if they wish it. The dead wife of the 1920s abortion doctor who simply wants a child, no matter the cost. The gratuitous explanations of some of American history's more pernicious mysteries, including the Black Dahlia case and - wait for it - the disappearance of the Roanoke colony in 1590.
And then there is Jessica Lange, in a piercing performance that somehow manages to be simultaneously over the top and restrained and, as Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz points out, channels the Southern Gothic sensibility of Bette Davis' terrifying turn in 1965's "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte."
"If it were possible to take a classic early '60s camp horror movie, feed it massive amounts of cocaine, then turn it into a basic cable drama, the result might look like this," Seitz wrote last month.
Why does horror have such a difficult path in continuing to succeed over time, particularly in series form? Mostly it's because the conventions of fear, particularly the supernatural kind, rely upon the unknown itself being terrifying. But when the unknown keeps doing the same creaky, thumpy, door-slamming thing and remains unknown, it makes for a less scary story. (Perhaps that accounts for the popularity of torture horror such as the "Saw" franchise; the fear is in the gore, not the possibility of it.)
"American Horror Story," though, takes the opposite path.
Here, the living seem kind of dull but there's major character development among the dead. The house that belonged to Ben and Vivien Harmon and their daughter Violet (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Taissa Farmiga) is not a single-family dwelling. It is occupied by the people who have lived there - and, what is more important, died there - over the decades, and they somehow coexist in the same space. Some are kinder and more benign; others aren't done making misery for the living or for each other. "This," says a psychic assessing matters, "is a very crowded house."
As the season progressed, the emphasis shifted to the house's dead occupants. Or, put another way, as more people were offed, the majority of the cast became ghosts, and the center of gravity moved to the afterworld. In one of the season's more extraordinary scenes, we saw the teenage Violet gazing upon her own decomposing body in the house's bowels and realizing, wrenchingly, that she had been dead for weeks.
We were offered ghosts who decorate nurseries, ghosts who sweep up their messes, ghosts who complain that there's no Ramones album available, ghosts who trim Christmas trees, ghosts who have varying degrees of knowledge that they are, in fact, dead. And like the dead who occasionally appeared during episodes of the late HBO funeral-home drama "Six Feet Under" - albeit as hallucinations of the show's living characters - the dearly departed of "American Horror Story" offer us insights into our own lives and how transitory our problems are when compared to death itself.
"The word ancient loses all its meaning when your entire existence is one long today," the middle-aged incarnation of Moira the housekeeper (Frances Conroy) says in the season finale.
Ultimately, "American Horror Story" is a fresh take on the tale of the immigrant experience. Death is the undiscovered country of destination, the place where people must build their world anew. It took the entire first season, but this much about the show has become clear: Dying is a starting point for exploration of the human condition. And what better way to look upon the living than through the eyes of the formerly living, which share traits with us but are also permanently, irrevocably different?
Thornton Wilder dealt with this notion in the final scene of "Our Town," which unfolds in a rural graveyard. A main character, Emily Webb, has died young during childbirth - just like Vivien Harmon - and is just arriving among the dead of her community. "Live people don't understand, do they?" she says to her late mother-in-law. "They're sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they?" That's "American Horror Story" in a nutshell.
Now, in the past few days, we find that Murphy and Falchuk planned all along to end the saga of the Harmons and their LA house with the season finale. Next season, they say, they'll move on to an entirely different tale somewhere else in the vast and haunted American republic - a place with different homeowners, different themes and different ghosts with different stories to tell.
"Houses don't have memories," George Lutz said as he moved into his house in "The Amityville Horror." He was, he quickly realized, as wrong as wrong can be. Or, as the Murder House's real-estate agent lobbies a family of prospective buyers, teeing up the second season of "American Horror Story" perfectly: "No matter where you go, you'll be moving into somebody's history."
EDITOR'S NOTE - Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anthonyted