Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
Morning has broken, like the first morning!
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird!
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning!
Praise for them springing fresh from the world!
There’s an episode in Phineas and Ferb’s second season that opens with the titular inventors perched in a tree in their backyard, aiming a strange ray gun at the sun. “Time to make the sunniest day ever!” Phineas announces, pulling the trigger.
The device blasts the glowing orb — a direct hit! — but has no effect. Phineas’s trademark smile, however, doesn’t waver for even a second.
“I guess it’s already as sunny as it’s gonna get!” he shrugs. And as the two clamber back to the ground, he adds, “It’s not even lunch time and we’re already done with today’s project! Think about it, Ferb — that means we have the whole rest of the day to do another project!”
In a sense, the sequence was atypical of the series (which, sadly, airs its final episode on June 12th). It was, after all, rare for a Phineas-and-Ferb invention to fail. In a truer sense, though, it encapsulated the program’s irrepressible (and irresistible) message in just a handful of seconds: Don’t waste your time. The day is a gift. Create something.
It’s such a wide-eyed and pure message that it almost feels out of place in contemporary animation, and I can’t help but think that might be part of why it took co-creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh the better part of 16 years to sell a studio on the concept. One can almost hear the voices of skeptical producers demanding to know why this project was so different from their previous efforts. Where was the sarcasm of The Simpsons? The unnecessary sex jokes of Rocko’s Modern Life? The contempt for all of humanity of Family Guy?
And the answer, of course, was nowhere. In its place was nothing more than a sincere lust for life and an unstoppable drive to make each day of summer last as long as possible.
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven —
Like the first dewfall on the first grass!
Praise for the sweetness of the mint garden —
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass!
In a way, it’s not hard to sympathize with those hypothetical producers. Conflict, as the saying goes, is the essence of drama, and the show really did struggle to generate emotionally honest conflict in its first handful of episodes. Early incarnations of the resident “bad guys” — Candace the busybody sister, Buford the bully, and supervillain Heinz Doofenshmirtz — are almost oppressively unlikable, and even Phineas himself comes off as snide and opportunistic in the pilot. But as the show succumbed to the simple, irresistible pull of the creative spirit, that needless “edge” melted away.
I know firsthand how painfully deliberate the creative process can often be, and I don’t want to diminish the hard work of Marsh and Povenmire, but I like to think Phineas is one of those characters who surprise even their own creators. Phineas’ irrepressible smile and insatiable drive to create quickly became as pleasantly overpowering as the warmth and light of the sun itself, and in its presence every hint of irony evaporated as naturally as the dew on the grass.
It’s not uncommon for the end of conflict to spell the end of a show’s appeal. (How many TV series have been killed dead when their central will-they-or-won’t-they couple finally got together?) But the opposite proved true with Phineas and Ferb: the more innocent and wide-eyed the show became, the more I found myself yearning to return to the Flynn-Fletchers’ backyard.
A similar change took place in the program’s secondary characters as well. Eventually even the antagonists found themselves unable to resist Phineas’s optimism — not a glass-is-half-full sort of Pollyanna-ishness, but an active drive to seize the day, to take something great and make it better: to create — not as a means to an end, but for the sheer joy of making something and sharing it with others, as freely as the sun gives its light. That Phineas and Ferb’s creations proved as evanescent as the summer days themselves — reliably disappearing whenever their mother came home — made no difference, any more so than the coming of night undid the beauty of the preceding day.
Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning —
Born of the one Light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation! Praise every morning —
God’s recreation of the new day!
It’s a happy quirk of the English language (but no coincidence, linguistically) that we use the same word — recreation — to mean both “fun” and “creating anew.” To bear the Imago Dei is to be driven to create, and the rising of the sun each morning — as God re-creates the day — provides us the canvas to paint on and the music to dance to. There’s no need to ask why we create; creation itself is pure joy, bringing order to chaos and pleasure to those around us. The joy of creation is the joy of being human.
I’ve often wondered if the predictable dissolution of each of Phineas and Ferb’s inventions was mere text — a plot device inserted simply to foil Candace’s repeated attempts to “bust” them — or a deeper subtext: a metaphor for the ephemerality of childhood, imagination, and the too-short days of summer. But as the sun sets on the program’s eight years of production, I’ve come to decide it never really mattered.
Everything dies, after all.
But just as night doesn’t undo the day, neither does death undo life. The new creation of each summer morning is, ultimately, the promise of the New Creation given to us all in our death and resurrection with Christ. Life has already been created, redeemed, and won by the Lord and Giver of Life; all that remains is for us to shine with this Glory, knowing our bodies, our souls, and our own feeble creations will be redeemed and refined with fire to last for eternity. The music’s been written; we’re free to dance.
It’s already as sunny as it’s gonna get.
And I know what we’re gonna do today.
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