Monday, June 06, 2011

Spent two days going through old pictures.  I'm not a good scrapbooker.  In general, I have a love-hate relationship with photographs.  A lot of time with friends and family has been momentarily ruined, in my opinion, by someone insisting on taking a picture as it tears people out of the moment.  I think the photographer has a two-pronged and equally shitty effect - to make everyone look at him or her, while simultaneously making them self-concious about how they look, how their expression will be viewed again and again.

Generally, I don't like pictures of people looking into a camera.   On the other hand it's awkward to begin taking candid pictures of people while they are unaware.  I have a few friends who take many pictures, and none of them posed.  I've just gotten used to it.  I like their pictures more than staged ones.

I have gone up and back on this.  When I became sorta, a little bit famous, people wanted pictures taken with me and I obliged.  I sometimes asked other people I admired for pictures with them.  But always with a note of embarrassment, regret, self-hate, aware of how the moment with that person was disrupted.  And I mean a "note" in that last sentence.  Not completely, not enough to stop myself or anyone else.

I also have a somewhat extreme relationship with how I look in pictures.  I care a lot, and I don't care at all.  If I cared more, I would care more to look better. I don't care but I have bad feelings about myself if I don't look good.  Good mostly means thin.  I try to relax and broaden my outlook and sometimes I succeed, but mostly I don't.  I exasperate my mother when she wants a picture.  She has many pictures of me looking into the lens with resigned compliance and a dash of resentment.

I have not put together books of memories.  I thought I would start when I became a mother.  But apparently, I didn't.  Well... I did a small album here and there.  Weirdly, the more easily pictures were able to be taken and stored -- meaning when it all became digital -- I took even less pictures.  Mulan's childhood pictures are bursts of ten pictures of one situation, and then nothing for a long time.

Back when I got pictures developed, I threw them into one of three large plastic boxes, and this is what I'm going through.

My friend Gino takes a picture every day.  He's done this for over ten years, wait --  maybe fifteen years.  One picture a day.  Just an image that reflects that day.  Millions do this on facebook now, but I like the private way he does it, just for him.

I might try to do that.  I don't know,  half of my pictures are of scenery.  Screw scenery!   (Especially when you are not a good photographer!)  Why do I have all these pictures of scenery?  I travelled around a lot in the two years before I adopted Mulan and for the most part, I was alone.  Sometimes I joined a friend, and I often took a Backroads trip.  Backroads is this "active travel" company - mostly I took bike trips with them.  Often I was the only single person along with eight or so other couples.  I didn't mind it.  In fact, I remember always feeling so happy that I got to go to my own room, alone, at the end of the day.  But these couples often wanted a picture of the two of them in some spectacular place - the Galapagos, Machu Pichu, the Swiss Alps, Bhutan, Nepal - the list goes on and on.  I would take their picture.  And then they would say, "Uh... Thanks.  Do you want us to um... take a picure of you?"

I didn't care if I had a picture of me in that far-away place.  But it felt weird to say "no."  Like I was judging them for wanting their own picture, or maybe they felt I was sad about being alone.  So the easiest thing to do was to say "Okay."  In any case, I have loads of pictures of scenery, and me by myself in exotic places, and pictures of other people on bikes.  In the pictures of me, my expression is reigned compliance, but not with the resentment I add to my mother's pictures.

I began to throw away pictures.  I threw away two large garbage bags full of pictures.  I had to develop a criteria.  It was: people who I love, keep.  Mulan.  Family, if they look good and would want me to have this picture of them in this way.  Me, if I look good.  Yes, I admit it. If I look particularly good, even if I don't know who I'm standing there with, I will keep the picture.

I began to wonder if this wasn't just ridiculously narcissistic.  Why am I doing it?  So I can remember I looked good in that moment?  I guess.  I dunno.  I think I want Mulan, in the future and when I'm long dead, to look back and rewrite the images of me with sweat running down my blotchy red full face while I ask her to pick up her room and insert an image of me with some unknown person, but looking fantastic.  I guess that's my strategy.

Forget it, those pictures are going in the trash too.

A scary moment was when I came upon some pictures of a wedding.  I didn't know anyone at this wedding.  Were they even my pictures?  Were these friends of Michael's and they somehow got into my box of pictures?  I didn't recognize anyone, even among his friends.  Then I came upon a large picture of the whole wedding party sitting down and looking in the camera - about twenty five people.  Huh.  I didn't recognize anyone, anyone at all.

Then horror of horrors,  I spotted myself in the picture.  And I was sitting next to the bride!  Who the hell were these people?  Was I getting dementia?  Is this how it starts?  My god!

A long while passed, and I was feeling seriously discombobulated.  Then, I remembered that on a bike trip in Burgundy in France - when I didn't know anyone at all in the group - one of the couples decided to spontaneously get married.  And that's who it was and why I was  there.


The picture project is going to take me all summer working on it here and there.

Okay, here is my list of movies watched in May 2011:

1.) The Heroes of Telemark, Anthony Mann
2.) My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki
3.) The Great North, IMAX movie, Martin J. Dignard & William Reeve
4.) Side Street, Anthony Mann
5.) Border Incident, Anthony Mann
6.) Everlasting Moments, Jan Troell  (saw it twice this month)
7.) The Tin Star, Anthony Mann
8.) Gladiator, Ridley Scott
9.) Inside Job, Charles Ferguson
10.) Raw Deal, Anthony Mann
11.) Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), John Sheinfeld
12.) Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki
13.) Harvey, Henry Koster
14.) High School Musical 2, Kenny Ortega
15.) Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen
16.) Serenade, Anthony Mann
17.) Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance

Once again, I spent the month - emotionally - with Anthony Mann.  So many great movies.  And some of his mediocre efforts were moved to Great Efforts simply by watching other people's movies.  A case in point: Gladiator.  I enjoyed Fall of the Roman Empire - but wow, did it get a whole lot better after I watched Gladiator, which I thought was a horrible mess.  I cannot believe Gladiator won best picture.  What a boring, yet splashy bowl-of-porridge that movie is.

I have a deep and great affection for My Neighbor Totoro - it's the third time I've watched it.  I want to go to Tokyo and visit Studio Ghibli.  I truly adore Hayao Miyazaki - he is the animator reincarnation of Yasojiro Ozu, but with a lot more action.  Later in the month Mulan and I watched Spirited Away again as well.  The first time Mulan watched this film she was too little and it scared her deeply.  Now she is exactly the right age.  She enjoyed it, mentioned it again and again for days.  And I appreciated this movie even more than I did before.

Of all the Anthony Mann movies I watched this month, I think I give top marks to The Tin Star.  No, Side Street (with Farley Granger!  So good.)  Wait, no.... The Tin Star - yeah, I like it better.   Anthony Perkins in the perfect role - in his early twenties: nervous, unschooled, ambitious, frightened, all those emotions that only Anthony Perkins can mix up just perfectly.  Henry Fonda was a delight - I might even prefer him to Jimmy Stewart in Mann's westerns.  I know!  Heretical statement.  One of the big moral dilemmas of the movie was whether to allow the bad guys to get killed when they're captured, or to make sure they get a proper trial.  I wish the Obama administration, as well as Obama (!) had watched this film at the White House before deciding to just shoot Osama Bin Ladena without a trial.  

I watched Border Incident again with my friend Cindy who was in town and had a flight delayed.  We had just enough time for a 90 minute movie and we chose this one.  It was better the second time, and that's saying something.

Two disappointments:  Blue Valentine and Inside Job.   I guess I had a lot of expectations for both of those movies.  I did not think Inside Job did a very good "job" explaining the financial melt-down.  I hated the music which vascillated wildly between nice and evil depending on who was being interviewed.  Very slick movie - too slick. I think Planet Money on Public Radio did (and does) a much better job explaining how things went down.  Blue Valentine - gosh I really thought I would like this movie.  I lerve (see - Woody Allen reference!)  Michelle Williams.  But I felt the movie had that indie-condescension of working class people.  Look at them - they buy alcohol in gallon jugs at the liquor mart and go to cheesy theme hotels!  I didn't buy them as characters and I wondered if the writer or director had any real understanding of these people  But this movie got rave reviews.  I just don't get it.  The only director I've recently watched who really does her homework is Debra Granik.  The Blue Valentine movie team should have watched Down to the Bone by Granik first.

O how I love Harry Nilsson.  I listen to him constantly.  I love his song, "Good Old Desk," which I often play just before starting to write in the morning.  I enjoyed this documentary and I learned a few things.  I wish they'd had a more in depth interview with his last wife.  She married him when she was 20 and he was much older.  They describe the wedding - Ringo Starr had to hold Nilsson's arm up to help him put on his bride's ring because he was so high and drunk.  There was story after story about Harry carousing, and showing up at friend's houses and then going off with them for three days on a big debauchery-ridden drunk.  What did she think about that?  They had five or six children together...  What was she thinking?  The film does not go there.  I wish it did.  Still, Harry Nilsson is a compelling and complicated character.  Friends describe the time when John Lennon and Harry Nilsson decided to basically wreck their voices together.  They began screaming and screaming until their vocal chords were bloody, which is so heartbreaking.  Two of our greatest singer song writers destroying their instruments.  Harry's voice was never quite the same after that, he had a lot of trouble.  It made me think of that concept from evolutionary psychology - where there is "intra-sex competition" (?)  and individuals show their fitness by being or doing dangerous things, flirting with death to show superiority and excessive sexual fitness.  So, we have two peacocks: Lennon and Nilsson, pulling their feathers out of their backsides -  one-upping each other.  Risking it all.  Very disturbing and poignant.  (Anthony Weiner, is that what it's about?)

Harvey.  I'd never seent his movie but had heard so much.  It was excrutiating to watch.  One joke.  Barely one joke.  He has an invisible rabbit friend!  He wants to introduce the rabbit to people!  He's a nut!  Harvey makes It's Pat seem like Citizen Cane in complexity.  The screw-ball comedy was so forced and fake.  I spent the whole time wondering if Koster had seen any Preston Sturges, a guy who knows how to do screw-ball comedy.  Harvey was so much more horrible than I thought it would be.  I looked it up on IMDB and found that Steven Speilberg is remaking it with Tom Hanks!  HA HA HA.  How perfect!   Wow.  I do not have high hopes for that remake, on the other hand - maybe Speilberg can reinvent it.  I doubt it, however.

I watched Everlasting Moments and was just bowled over by it.  It's a Swedish movie about a woman at the turn of the nineteenth century who is stuck in a fairly bad marriage and having kid after kid.  She learns photography and this art elevates her life.  I had such affection for this movie that I insisted a group of friends come over and watch.  They liked it, but I think they thought the film was extremely sad. When I watched for the second time, I realized how incredibly depressing (and long) this movie was.  I have to say, this is a common experience for me.  Me loving a movie, and not realizing how dark it is because to me it's mournful and beautiful.  Then I watch it again through my friend's eyes and the whole time I'm thinking.... "Oh... Yeah... I guess this is... really extremely, breathtakingly, debilitatingly and totally sad.  Oh, and long."

Now, Woody Allen.  Where to start?  I went to college with a one-sheet poster for The Front which I put up above my bed at my sorority.  At that point, and I swear that this is true - I had never met a Jewish person before. That's how white Spokane Washington is.  I vividly remember seeing Annie Hall for the first time.  It played at the State Theater downtown (now the Bing Crosby theater where Jill and I just performed.)  I went alone to the movie, and I remember that part so well that it might have been the first time I did that.  It was the summer before I started college.  I think I had actually seen The Front already.  But I remember sitting in Annie Hall and being so blown away by this movie.  Not just the film making, but the environment.  Woody Allen, Diane Keaton - New York City.  I could barely stay in my seat I wanted to move to New York so badly.  The whole movie I kept thinking, Okay, this is it.  I want to live in this world. I want to be in Manhattan. I want to be around funny and witty and smart and quirky people.  Woody Allen is some kind of comedy god.

Then of course, everything - life - happened.  I did move to New York.  Woody Allen became a creep.  Worse than that his movies began to suck.  I wondered if his movies were ever any good.  I stopped going to his movies.

But Midnight in Paris promised to be different.  And I have just recently fallen in love with Paris.  So Mulan and I went on Memorial Day.  As soon as the credits - that font -- that Woody Allen font - came up on the black screen -  I felt this chemical shift in my body.  I wanted it to be good. I wanted to feel the way I used to feel.  And the truth is, the movie is not a masterpiece.  It is not Crimes and Misdemeanors (my favorite.)  But it is enjoyable.  His characters are all very one dimensional and broad.  His characterizations of Hemmingway and other famous writers have the depth of a bad sitcom.  His characterizations of Republicans and rich people in L.A. are completely off.   But y'know what?  I really loved it.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  It's gorgeous.  It's fun.  It's a night with an old friend that you'd written off, but is somehow still around.  That's how it felt.  

And now, books read in May 2011.

1. Talent Is Overrated, by Geoffrey Colvin.   Wow.  This book had a big impact.  Not as big as the next book I read, but still. It caused me to rethink and review certain work endeavors of mine in the past - rethink my behavior now, and influence how I advise and raise Mulan.  So, that's a lot for one book.  According to this book, talent is not only overrated, it may not actually exist.  It may not be innate - although there is debate whether "deliberate practice" is enhanced by certain biological factors.  The point is, it's all about "deliberate practice" which is defined as: Engaging in highly structured activities to improve performace and overcome weaknesses.  I realized that I have not practicied much with the precision necessary to master the skills I wish I had.  What I have mastered, I realize I have done so practically accidentally.   I did a lot of sketch work at the Groundlings, and I've been working for years telling stories on stage.  But I am not organized about it - not focusing all the time on ways to improve.  I cannot stand to hear my own voice so I do not record myself.  All those things I've watched other people do, many of whom have really soared professionally. I have not really applied myself.  Of course now I am old.  But old people can still practice deliberately!  So I've started working more systematically on writing, and I've even begun to read and watch movies with more deliberate desire to learn.  When it comes to music, the book shows how ability is related tightly to how much one has practiced.  It takes about 1200 hours of practice to be merely proficient on an instrument.  7500 hours to be good.  10k or more hours to master it.  This caused me to encourage Mulan to focus on one instrument and aim to be proficient on it.  She takes violin, piano, and up till last year, guitar.  But now she is focusing mostly on piano.  We will see how it goes.  My favorite thing about being a mother right now is that my daughter is old enough to understand when I tell her these things.  I honestly don't know if I had known this - especially at her age - I would have applied the knowledge.  But still, it's advice she can take or discard. As for me, I am thinking about things differently - even going to yoga.  Making an effort to get better.  Making comparisons to other practice sessions.  It's a small psychological shift - but has had an effect.

2. Your Brain at Work, by David Rock.  I am so blown away by how insightful and useful and brilliantly laid out this book is that I said to Michael, "If Scientology had all the levels they currently have, and you moved up and up through the system, and when you got to the top - instead of telling you about the god Zenu they handed you a copy of this book, I would say it was all worth it."  Rock takes all the brain science we currently know, organizes it in story form - as in a play with two characters (the best way for us to understand information) and shows how understanding how your brain works can dramatically change your life - even though you are making very subtle changes - there is potential for big results.  I really have used the information in this book.  I understand when my neocortex is overwhelmed with emotion (often) and how I cannot think straight when that happens. I understand how I can't think of more than a couple of things at once, how the stage of the neocortex is very small.  I have a lot more respect for my brain because of this book.  I've been giving Mulan little bits of information from it here and there and she's hungry for more.  I wish I'd read this book many years ago.  I don't want to say more, I just completely and totally recommend it.

3.) Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson.  This was my only fiction for the month.  I adore this writer. I cannot wait to begin the sequel to this, One Good Turn, the next book in the series that features Jackson as the investigator.

4.) Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott.  I had a very good start with this book, and then it went downhill.  I was excited to read it because I (think) I am related to Hinky Dink Kenna - an alderman in Chicago for many years at the turn of the century (19th to 20th.)  My grandmother suggested Kenna was a relative, but now she's not around to ask about specifics.  In any case, Hinky Dink Kenna helped my grandmother's family after her father died and left her mother with seven young children to support.  The book describes a very salacious period of Chicago history, and the Everleigh Club - a fancy brothel run by two sisters.  But the way the book is written - very over the top, filled with scenes that Abbot cannot possibly have known about - too much intrigue and no footnotes and it made me wonder.

4.) The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson.  Well written, funny, insightful, sad.  Can you see I am running out of steam here on my blog?  Ha.  That's too bad, because this is the one book I read this month that I insisted that Michael read.  You should too.

I am too tired. I have to post this and get back to work.  No - to my "deliberate practice."  I'm not going to post music I use on the treamill.  Next month.   I got some good music suggestions from people writing here - thank you!  All right, until next month....