Sunday, December 02, 2012

Arden, RIP

                                                                 My dog Arden died.
                                                       He died about three weeks ago.

     I'm still getting used to him not being around.  I will blame my tardy blog entry on this event.  It's only partially true.  But still, I'll allow Arden this one last gift to me.
     My world is very different.  No more walks every day.  This is both terrible and fantastic.  No Arden to greet me when I come in the house.  For at least a week, after he died, when I came in the door, I could hear the jingling of his tags.  Auditory hallucinations embedded by repeating situations.  I hear his familiar click along the hardwood floors.  I still wake up at night and think of his last moments alive, which I witnessed, and for which I'm deeply thankful.  We knew he didn't have long, he had a tumor on his heart after all, but he'd lived so much longer than anyone expected he would (in that sense, he was like my brother Bill.)
   One night Arden was breathing particularly quickly.  Maybe even hyperventilating.  He wouldn't sit down.  Michael and I stayed up with him. It was hard to tell if he didn't want to sit down or he couldn't sit down. I figured if we went to bed, he would lie down.  We went to bed, and then I got up at 11 p.m. and he was still panting and standing.  I went back to bed, but got up at midnight, he was still doing the same thing.  I called the emergency 24 hour vet and they said to bring him in. Michael and I got dressed, Arden happily got his leash on, jumped into the car, looked out the window with expectation. I was in the backseat with him.  Then he wanted to get down off the seat.  I helped him get down. He died right there in the car. He did not look like he was in any pain, he just laid down and put his head to one side, but all the muscles in his face relaxed in this very final un-alive way.  I said to Michael who was driving "I think Arden just died."  Michael put his hand back behind the driver's seat, stroking Arden's fur.  "Yes." he said.  "I think he's dead, too."
    It was so dark outside, I could only see Arden when we went under a street lamp.  It created an eerie otherworldly effect.  But yes, he was dead.  They took his body at the emergency vet's office.  They were very kind.  There were many tears.
    Now, as I type this, his ashes are sitting on my desk.
    I am very sad.  In shavasana, at the end of yoga class, I am often crying - thinking about Arden.
    On the other hand, I am deeply relieved.  I was tired of worrying about him, tired of all the responsibility.  I don't want another dog.  That was my dog.  I had a dog.  I had the best dog I could imagine for me.  I have ten years of memories about him to enjoy for the rest of my life.  I wouldn't be surprised, when I reach the end of my own life, to see images of Arden running towards me.  His existence is so deep inside me.

    But let's move on, people.

    My book is done, done, done! It is coming out April 3rd. I am very happy that it's over and I'm already onto two more projects. I am writing a screenplay named "Fork."  This is something I am going to try to direct myself, here in Wilmette.  It's a small delicate story about a couple and their two kids graduating from high school.  I can shoot in my own house.

    The other project is my next book, "My Beautiful Loss-of-Faith Story."  This is the book that goes along with "Letting Go of God."  I am finally writing this book, something I've threatened to do for so long. I feel productive and able to accomplish things at the moment.  I didn't realize that just completing my mother book would give me such confidence in finishing other projects. I heard someone say once about their father, "He was a great finisher of projects."  Wow, what a great phrase. I struggle so mightily with that. I have no problem starting things!  But isolating the specific act of finishing projects is helpful when thinking about it.   It's an act unto itself, the finish.  Just the idea of being "A great finisher." I love it.  I want to be a great finisher.  I must say, at the moment I'm optimistic.

    I haven't listed my movie watching for three months now.

    Here are the movies I watched in September, October, and November of 2012

    1.)   Melancholia, 2011, directed by Lars von Trier
    2.)   An Unmarried Woman, 1978, directed by Paul Mazursky
    3.)   My Summer of Love, 2004, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
    4.)   Alice: Darkness, Light, Darkness, 1988, directed by Jan Svankmajer
    5.)   Grapes of Wrath, 1940, directed by John Ford
    6.)   Another Country, 1984. directed by Marik Kanievska
    7.)   La Havre, 2011, directed by Aki Kaurismaki
    8.)   Lady From Shanghai, 1947, directed by Orson Welles
    9.)   How Green Was My Valley, 1941, directed by John Ford
   10.)   I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, 2006, directed by Jeff Garlin
   11.)   Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939, directed by John Ford
   12.)   Great Expectations, 1946, directed by David Lean
   13.)   The Earrings of Madame Du, 1953, directed by Max Ophuls
   14.)   And Then There Were None, 1945, directed by Rene Clair
   15.)   Wee Willie Winkie, 1937, directed by John Ford
   16.)   Judge Priest, 1934, directed by John Ford
   17.)   Jolene, 2008, directed by Dan Ireland
   18.)   Man on Wire, 2008, directed by James Marsh
   19.)   Lincoln, 2012, directed by Steven Speilberg
   20.)   Street Angel, 1928, directed by Frank Borzage
   21.)   History is Made at Night, 1937, directed by Frank Borzage
   22.)   The White Ribbon, 2009, directed by Michael Haneke

    Considering this is three months of movies, it's not very many.  I usually watch more.  But wow, now that I've typed them out and looked at them all, what a wonderful group of films! I couldn't honestly say which one had the deepest impact.
     I only saw one movie in a movie theater, and that was "Lincoln."  I loved it, I ate it up, I think this is one of Spielberg's best films.  (My personal favorite is "Munich")
    The biggest surprise:  "My Summer of Love."  This film got so little attention.  It is Emily Blunt's film debut.  I think this is a perfect film. Really, there is not one moment, not one frame that I would change or that doesn't work. It's plot is inevitable and yet surprising.  When my friends come in January (I have three friends who come here every January for a little four or five day film festival - we watch movies in our basement home theater) I am going to show this film to them.  It's gorgeous and horrifying - a story of two girls and their friendship. One of them is wealthy and one is very poor.  Emily Blunt is great, but the other girl - oh my god, Natalie Press, she is incredible - astonishing.  This film is creepy and puts you on edge.  It also breaks your heart.  And makes you angry.  And - god, just get this film and watch it.
     One day Mulan was sick and home from school with a fever. We watched Alice, Darkness Light Darkness, a bizarre surrealist film by a Czech filmmaker.  It was the perfect kind of hallucinatory experience to have when you are a little bit sick.  Mulan loved it.  We talk about it together all the time.  It's a version of Alice in Wonderland that Salvador Dali would make.
     "Great Expectations" exceeded my expectations.  I think it's David Lean's best movie.  I watched it twice, once alone, and another time with the whole family, including my mother-in-law, Norma.  We all enjoyed it thoroughly.  I think it's time for me to finally read Dicken's book.  I have read so little Dickens.  Like none.  And he was one of my father's favorite authors.  In fact he called me Pip when I was little (he also had a dog named Pip, but to be honest, I never thought of this as an insult.)
       I watched "Wee Willie Winkie" with my own mother and Mulan one afternoon just before Thankgsiving.  I wanted Mulan to know who Shirley Temple was.  This is her least cutsie-singing-tap dancing role and directed by John Ford.  It's pretty good. I was glad that Mulan liked it.  That's another one we've spoken of several times since viewing it.
      "Street Angel" - oh God! I am discovering Frank Borzage, he directed at Fox along with Ford and Murnau.  Janet Gaynor is so entrancing in "Street Angel" - a classic, maybe THE classic Whore-Madonna story.  A lush, gorgeous silent film.  I'd seen Borzage's "History is Made at Night" many, many years ago.  It has the most ridiculous plot, it just proves that if the actors have chemistry (and Jean Arther and Charles Boyer really combust) it doesn't matter how ludicrous the story is.  You just want to watch them together.
    When I finished the book, I gave myself a present: the "Ford at Fox" box set, 50 movies he directed while at Fox.  I got it on sale for $250 (regularly $300) and now I see that it's $187.  You have to get it people!  The documentary that goes along with it is quite good, and there's wonderful commentary by Joseph McBride, and others, on some of the films.  "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Grapes of Wrath" both have incredibly insightful and informative audio commentaries that I watched right after seeing the films.
   "The Earrings of Madame Du" is possibly the best film ever made.  The DVD I got has extras too, great commentaries and even the original short story.
    I am still digesting "White Ribbon."  I had wanted to see this film for a while, since it won the Palm d'Or in 2009.  But I put it off.   I thought it was going to be a long, long film about child torture and molestation.  Children who all become Nazis later.   And, well, that's true.  But it's so magnificent.  And the film leaves so much unanswered, expertly unanswered, it's not dogmatic or manipulative.   It's not just about kids turning into sadists from being used sadistically either.  It's about the legacy of pain and how it plays out, it's about the half-life energy from oblivious land-owners and the desperation of migrant workers and the deep psychosis in the underbelly of religion and about the gossip and claustrophobia of small towns.  God, it's so magnificent, this film.  I watched it twice.

  Now, onto books.  I actually have no idea what books I read in the last three months. I know that at this moment I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior: A Novel."  It's breathtakingly well written.  In fact, I want to stop writing this blog so I can go read more.
   I do have my Kindle in front of me, so I can tell you what I've recently read from looking at that: "Writing in Pictures" by Joseph McBride.  This is the best screenwriting book I have ever read. It is head and shoulders above any other one.  I have it both on my Kindle and I got the hardcover version.  "Drift" by Rachel Maddow and "What's The Matter With White People" by Joan Walsh.  They are both political pundits with whom I feel have a great deal of important things to say. I recommend both books heartily.  "Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church" by Jason Berry.  Of course I am obsessed with the Vatican and money.  I shouldn't say "of course" because I tried for many years to keep my disgruntled feeling towards the Church concerned mainly with their dogma.  I tried to look the other way when it came to the sex abuse and the money scandals.  But now I'm ready to know, and jesus  (ha!) there is so much to know!  "The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder & the Mafia" by Paul Williams is good too.
    What else?  I will say I am not so into the Kindle anymore.  I like an actual book. My need to flip through pages, glance at the back, see how far it is until the chapter is over - all these things are annoying or impossible on the Kindle.  Actual books I read?   I did read Ayelet Waldman's "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" which I thought was fantastic. I still have images in my mind, scenes from this book, that I feel were directed - they were so film-like.  I love her details.  I read "Sense and Sensibility" again - I think I have to read all of Jane Austen's books again.  As you get older, they just get better.
   Oh, I forgot.  I read, "Carry the One" by Carol Anshaw.  Brilliant.  Just a wonderful narrative and it all takes, well it mostly takes place here in Chicago.  She is one hell of a writer.  Great details, like Ayelet Waldman.

   All right people, that's all I can think about for right now.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I'm baaaaaack.

I just turned in my second draft of my book on Tuesday afternoon.  I have put everything off until I could finish it. It's not even that long, and I can't believe it took me six months longer to write it than I thought it would.  I hope the publisher is happy.  It's still supposed to come out in April.  I'm going to New York to meet with my editor next week, and I'm also going to stop by Joe's Pub and do a story during each of Jill Sobule's shows, Tuesday and Wednesday.

I really hated that I have missed two monthly blog entries. One thing that I love about writing my blog is that it forces me to remember what I watched - movie-wise - and what I read - book-wise.

The picture above was taken by Michael on Decatur Island, which is an island in the San Juan Island chain, just off the coast of Seattle.  We went there for a family vacation at the end of July.  I could live there. I loved it so much.

I have a busy month ahead. After going to NYC, I'm going to attend, on Oct 12 - 14, in Portland, the annual Freedom From Religion conference.  In fact, I am going to speak on Saturday night. I love that organization and I'm really excited to be part of it.

So, let's get onto the books.

July was the first month in my life where everything I read was on a Kindle.   And I have to admit, even though I was soooooo reluctant, I liked it.  I like that you can change the font size.  I like the cover with the little light.  I have the cheapest black and white one, and I will never want one with color. I like it just as it is.   But I learned something, there are some books that are good for a Kindle, and some that aren't.

Books not good on Kindle for me:

1.) Difficult books.  This is a large swath of the books I read, and actually, the book I finished as July began, The Glorious Art of Peace, is a good example.  When a book is dense with ideas, ideas that are challenging to me, I need to flip back a page, skim over a page, look at the index, put it down, pick it up, highlight and make notes. These are not easy things for me to do on a Kindle. I need to have a sense of how much more book there is, physically.  Sometimes in frustration or in overwhelm, I need to flip through the chapters in a way that is impossible on a Kindle.

2.) Classics.  There's something about holding "The Brothers Karamazov" or even an Orhan Pamuk book that makes the Kindle seem, well, unseemly.

3.) Kindle popularity makes it impossible to know what people are reading.   For example, if you board a plane, it's nice to see what people are reading. Yes it can be depressing, but it's also interesting.  I do remember being on a cruise once and 80% of the people on the boat were reading "The Purpose Driven Life."  That was really an eye-opener.  But I've started random conversations with people after seeing what book they're reading, standing in line for something, for example.  It's nice. I wouldn't ask someone what they were reading on their Kindle. (i don't go around starting conversations with lots of people just because they're reading a book I am familiar with or curious about, but it does happen from time to time and the Kindle is not making that better!)

Okay, the books I read in July and August, 2012

1.  The Glorious Art of Peace, From the Illiad to Iraq, written by John Gittings (finished it)
2.  Ali in Wonderland, written by Alexandra Wentworth
3.  Girl Walks into a Bar, written by Rachel Dratch
4.) You're Not Doing it Right, written by Michael Ian Black
5.) Love Child, written by Allegra Huston
6.) Lizz Free or Die, written by Lizz Winstead
7.) Radical Acceptance, written by Tara Brach
8.) The White Castle, written by Orhan Pamuk
9.) Wired for Culture, written by Mark Pagel

I guess I read a spate of comedian's memoirs (why would I do that?) and I have come to realize that my book is not a comedy in the way these are.  And I wish it were!  I loved every one of them. I wanted to befriend Rachel Dratch, Ali Wentworth, Liss Winstead and Michael Ian Black as soon as I put their books down.  I probably laughed the most at Michael Ian Black's book.  But they were all good.  Each one had at least one chapter where I laughed out loud, very hard, and in public.

I read Allegra Huston's book "Love Child" in the three or four days before I went to her house (she's a friend and I went for a night's visit after a few days in another city close by) and I was gobsmacked at how well written and insightful it was. What an amazing thing, to know all this stuff about a friend I have known for some time, but didn't know everything, not at all, and not by a long shot.  Really compelling and her writing style is an inspiration.

Orhan Pamuk is like drinking a special drug.  I fall into his books and have a hard time in the real world afterwards.s

"Wired for Culture" is so fantastic!  Ohmygod, you have to read it immediately.  We humans are all just idea creators and digesters and propagators.  I became a little preoccupied with the author, Mark Pagel and watched every video I could find on the Internet. He has a pretty good TED talk, and other things on You Tube.

Okay, movies watched in July and August 2012:

1.) Ted, 2012, directed by Seth McFarlane
2.)  The Great McGinty, 1940, directed by Preston Sturges
3.) Christmas in July, 1940, directed by Preston Sturges
4.) The Man I Love, 1947, directed by Raoul Walsh
5.) Margaret, 2011, directed by Kenneth Lonnergan (the long version, and twice)
6.) The T.A.M.I. Show, 1964, directed by Steve Binder
7.) Daisy Kenyon, 1947, directed by Otto Preminger
8.) The Princess Comes Across, 1936, directed by William Howard
9.) Barbary Coast, 1935, directed by Howard Hawks
10.) Experiment Perilous, 1944, directed by Jacques Tourner
11.) Midnight Mary. 1933, directed by William Wellman
12.) These Three, 1936, directed by William Wyler
13.) Outward Bound, 1930, directed by Robert Milton
14.) The Ice Harvest, 2005, directed by Harold Ramis
15.) Mirror, Mirror, 2012, directed by Tarsem Singh
16.) 50/50, 2011, directed by Jonathan Levine
17.) Tuesday, After Christmas, 2010, directed by Radu Muntean
18.) Hope Springs, 2012, directed by David Frankel

Okay, we're about to leave on a camping trip in Door County, so this will be brief.  As far as the movies "Ted" and "Hope Springs" are concerned....  these are the only two movies I saw in a movie theater.  When I left the theater after seeing "Ted" - and Seth McFarlane is a really wonderful guy, and I am an admirer of his, I'm so happy whenever I see him on TV, I just.... I can't even begin to form words for this film. It wasn't that I thought it was bad, it was like going to a fast food restaurant and then being asked to weigh in on it's value as an ocean liner.   "Hope Springs" - well my friend Nancy said it best according to me, "Meryl Streep's character was so disturbing in that film that I was afraid for her."

Of the newish movies I saw, I will say that I really liked "50/50" so much more than I thought I would and so much more than I thought I would even fifteen minutes into the film!  Mulan had actually seen it before and liked it, and encouraged me to watch it. I'm glad I did.

Of the old movies I saw for the first time, the standouts are "The Princess Comes Across" with a great performance by Fred McMurray.  And "Midnight Mary," a story of a woman with a difficult past, who becomes part of a gang, who tries to get out. Loretta Young stars in a magnificent performance, probably my favorite from her.  "Barbary Coast" - we watched it twice, actually.  Howard Hawks - early Hawks.  Miriam Hopkins stars along with Edward G. Robinson as a swashbuckling gambling establishment owner with an earring!  Fantastic.

The foreign film I saw, "Tuesday, After Christmas" is a Romanian film - a really nuanced study of a bad marriage.  Very inspiring (as I'm working on a script about a marriage falling apart...)

And "Margaret." I was so overwhelmed and amazed at "Margaret" - I can't even begin. I loved it, I was profoundly disturbed by it. After I saw it the first time I was up all night thinking about it, unable to sleep. I can't even get into all I have to say about "Margaret right now." It's not a movie for everyone. Two of the people I watched it with, when I watched it the second time, didn't care for it much.  I think the movie goes out of control like the main character is going out of control, but it's a controlled out-of-control feeling, but it's so successful at doing that, that I think most critics - a lot of critics anyway - felt it was Lonnergan's fault.  But I think it's exactly the frenetic feeling he was going for. He succeeded by being so good he caused many people to think it was the storyteller and not the story.  Anyway I really think it's a masterpiece.

I have to run.
Please if you can, come to the Jill Sobule shows in New York City at Joe's Pub. She's so great, and it's going to be a wonderful time, I'm sure.  I'll do a little bit, she'll do a lot of singing....   Until Oct...

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

That Summer Feeling

Jonathan Richman with his drummer Tommy Larkins at the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago on June 4, 2012

I met Jonathan when I was on SNL and the cast was asked to participate in writing an entire issue of Spin Magazine.  I was told I could interview any musician I wanted, anyone at all.  I said, "Johnathan Richman!"  The editors told me he didn't do interviews, hadn't for years.

Oh. I was so sad.  I love his music so much.  It made me laugh.  His music made me get emotional.  It was awkward and weird. And it was melodic and complicated.  I loved his music soooo much.  How could he say no?  They had to beg him, just absolutely beg him!

 In the end, I was able to interview him and we immediately became very good friends.  We hung out constantly and even appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien a couple of times singing songs together that Jonathan wrote about my life.  I traveled with him and sometimes did shows with him.

 (If you don't know Jonathan, I suggest the following songs:  "Roadrunner" and "Pablo Picasso" are probably his most famous songs from when his band was called The Modern Lovers.  My personal favorites are "That Summer Feeling" and "To Hide a Little Thought" and "When I Dance" and "Abdul and Cleopatra" and "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" and "Vampire Girl" and I have to stop because I could go on and on.  (Also there's a pretty good cover album called, "If I Were A Richman," my favorite covers on that are "Government Center" by the Underhills, and "The Lonely Financial Zone" by Kowtow Popof)

Oh, yes, another great song that I always think of whenever anyone refers to me as a wife is "When I Say Wife" Wife sounds like your mortgage and wife sounds like laundry.... 

We have fallen out of touch in the last few years.  Even though Jonathan tours around a lot.  Partly this is because he doesn't have a cell phone or a computer.   This makes things difficult.

In any case, this time we were able to connect and he and Tommy played a great show downtown and afterwards they crashed here at our house before driving on to Detroit.

It was a highlight of the month.


So, thank you for all the lovely comments to the blog entry I wrote about my brother Bill dying.  I am still processing everything.  Even though we expected this, somehow his death is a big surprise and it has effected me much more than I thought it would.  I am really sad and discombobulated by it.  The world is off kilter, the earth is not firm beneath my feet.   It's like a physical wound where I think I'm pretty much over it and then I'm suddenly overcome with pain and grief.  I almost feel as if I'm limping.  Like when I told Jill Sobule about it.  I suddenly remembered that when Jill and I did a show in Spokane together last year, we'd had lunch with Bill.   Bill had later told me he loved Jill - just loved her, had a crush on her even, and he wanted all her music.  He was really so enthusiastic about our show.  He loved discovering her music.

Telling Jill about Bill made me remember that.  Then I was a mess for an hour or so.

I've felt really skittish and I'm finding it hard to concentrate.  I tried to go to a lot of yoga, and its helped.  But the classes seem fifteen hours long, just excruciatingly long.  My mind is hopping from thing to thing.  I'm doing a short mindfulness meditation session regularly, and that is helping.  In fact, I read a wonderful Mindfulness book this month.

On that note, let's go on to books:

I read the following books in June, 2012

1.) "The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times"by Arlie Russell Hochschild
2.) "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table" by Tracie McMillan
3.)  "Fully Present: The Science, Art & Practice of Mindfulness" by Susan Smalley and Diane Winston
4.) "The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Illiad to Iraq" by John Gittings

I really like Arlie Russell Hochschild.  I recently read "The Second Shift" and was astonished at it's clarity and even-handedness and the raw truth it revealed about the politics of home management in homes with two working parents.  I was eager to read this new book of hers.  I really enjoyed it.  She makes no big negative judgements about how we are outsourcing some of our most intimate jobs - care for our elderly parents, care for our children, and even gestating our children.  I laughed hardest at the Catholic priests in India who say masses for Americans who've paid for a mass to be said in some person's honor (in the Catholic culture, this is a common practice when someone dies.)  There aren't enough American priests to do it, and the Indian priests need the money and it goes farther there.  So they say masses all day long for people in the U.S.  I thought of this again as my mother has told me about all the masses that have been paid for by people sending her condolence cards about my brother.  Now I know that someone in India is likely to be saying a mass for my brother Bill.

Tracie McMillan wrote a very good book about food production in the U.S.  I liked the parts best when she goes and works as a peach picker and a garlic cutter in California.

"Fully Present" the mindfulness book is probably the best book I've read about mindfulness so far - and let me tell you this is a big compliment cause I've read an enormous number of them. Very scientific and fact based.  Really useful information and ideas for a lot of different ways to meditate.

I've read only half of "The Glorious Art of Peace." ADORE IT.  I was a European History major in college and I'm astonished at how history is taught, even at the university level, very war-centricly.   When you view history through the lens of peace, it looks different.  Of course defining peace is another thing.  But still.  I'm looking forward to the rest of this book.

I realize I read all non-fiction this month.  I hate that.  I just find certain types of non-fiction books completely irresistible.

Here are the movies I watched in June.

1.) Moonrise Kingdom, 2012, directed by Wes Anderson
2.) Ladykillers, 1955, directed by Alexander Mackendrick
3.) Your Sister's Sister, 2011, directed by Lynn Shelton
4.) The Angel and the Badman, 1947, directed by James Edward Grant
5.) The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, directed by Frank Capra
6.) Paul Williams: Still Alive, 2012, directed by Stephen Kessler

For me, it was a very light movie month.

I did like "Moonrise Kingdom" and I think Wes Anderson is a talented filmmaker who I am very glad is able to make movies, and I hope he continues to be able to make movies.  But...  Well, I just don't get emotionally involved in his characters in the way that I wished I did.  I liked the kids, especially the boy, but... I wish - I want to like his films more than I end up liking them.  I guess that's it.  Even though I am decidedly on the side of liking them.  But it feels cerebral, and not emotional.  Hmmm....

I found out my brother died and within five hours I was at the Evanston Cinemas watching "Your Sister's Sister" which starts with a brother's memorial.  I almost left the theater - I didn't know that that was part of the film.  But I was glad I stayed. I'm a growing fan of Lynn Shelton.  It was the exact right movie to see at the exact right moment. I cried and cried. It was about sisterness and brotherness.  And it was filmed in my neck of the woods, the Pacific Northwest.

I forgot how great "The Bitter Tea" was - I hadn't seen it since college.

On SAturday night I went to the Gene Siskel theater and saw "Paul Williams: Still Alive."  It's a very good film, and really powerful for me to see considering my last month.  Paul Williams is sober, but was an alcholic for many years.  Steve Kessler, who is a friend of mine, directed a documentary about him.  Both of them were there on Saturday night.  In fact, I'll post a picture of us with my friend Gino Salomone, even though I'm so shiney I can't believe I'm going to post this picture (it's been very hot in Chicago, I don't know why everyone wasn't all sweaty!)

Paul Williams is such an interesting mix of personality and truly a survivor.  The film is not what you expect.   It's mostly about a relationship, the relationship between Steve Kessler and Paul Williams.  But it's also a harrowing story of success in Hollywood, and about a man who was able to overcome his destructive behavior to lead a happy productive life.  Paul Williams is such a unique person too - a wonderful songwriter - his songs are on the order of Burt Bacharach in brilliance and certainly competes in the pop culture marketplace, maybe even ahead of Burt - but he's got this showman inside of him that needs an audience and wants to be in front of the stage.   He succeeded against all odds and crashed, and then survived in a hard won and beautiful way.  I highly recommend this film to you.

Steve Kessler, Paul Williams, me & Gino Salomone

Okay, bye bye.  
I'm very glad about the health care bill being upheld by the Supreme Court
I'm still really scared of the Supreme Court
I love Chris Hayes' Show, "Up with Chris Hayes"
I don't miss it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bill Sweeney 1961 - 2012

This is my family (my mother must have been taking the picture) circa 1972, having cheese fondu after skiing.  

I'm in the orange, and my brother Bill is in the striped pajamas.  He died on Wednesday.


Two weeks ago today, on June 8, my brother Bill and I were downtown in Spokane.  We’d just run an errand and both felt hungry for lunch.  He was feeling weak, and I said I’d grab something quick for us to eat.  He could wait for me in the car.

I noticed a Pita Hut across the street.  Inside, I found that the line was long.  I phoned Bill and asked what he wanted, reading a list of menu items.  “Well, the chicken souvlaki, of course.”  he replied.  We both laughed simultaneously at the memory.

You see, in the summer of 1981 Bill and I spent about three and a half months travelling around Europe backpacking.  We ended up in Greece, where we spent nearly a month on the island Santorini, almost totally broke.  We found a family that would house us for a week if we helped them with their grape harvest.  We worked picking grapes and we even helped them stomp on the grapes – barefoot – on top of a big ancient-seeming pit, with long intertwined twigs underneath us (somehow) and the grape juice flowed into a big vat below.  One night, one of the patriarchs of this family, who had only one arm,  deftly made us scrambled eggs with feta cheese for dinner.   Then he poured ouzo from a big white jug.  Bill was smiling from ear to ear.  We were really far from home. 

Back in Athens for a few days, we decided to take a bus to London that cost $50 a person.  The bus would take over 32 hours of driving.  It was also so packed, there were so many people crowding to get on, some people made bargains with others to stand in the aisle and trade places with a seated person now and again.  

As we were waiting in line for the bus, I looked in my backpack and saw a wrapped food item.  It was some chicken souvlaki I’d bought on the street the day before, or maybe it was even two days before.  I was going to toss it out, but Bill said, “Hey, I’ll eat it.” (Yes, at age 20 & 21 we were both idiots.)

We got on the bus, and began the journey.  First Bill broke out into a sweat.  Then his head started to sway.  Then he leapt up and weaved and bumped his way down the aisle, making it to the one toilet in the back just in time.  He felt sick and extremely queazy for the rest of the trip. 

Of course, I gave Bill my seat and I stood in the aisle.  It was very hot, and with no air-conditioning, inside the bus it was hotter.  A handsome guy was in the seat next to Bill, a guy who eventually insisted that I sit for part of the ride.  It was a very long travel to London, seemingly interminable.  Bill recovered and then flew home to Spokane, our long summer as brother and sister in Europe over.  I stayed in London a few more days with the guy on the bus.

But that’s another story.

Now that Bill is dead, (from excessive alcohol and drugs) I’m flooded with memories of his better times.  Bill at his best.  Many of my happiest memories growing up were with Bill.  When we were young, we skied together almost every weekend in winter – him pushing me to take harder and harder runs.  When we were adults, we went to Aspen together and he forced me down a black diamond run, far above my ability.  I cursed him all the way down, side stepping with my skis for much of the way.  But when he suggested we try it again, I did, and then it all became much less daunting. 

I think of Bill with his six-pack abs, which were sadly eroded from drinking actual six-packs.  But I don’t want to remember that.  I’m remembering him lean and taught as can be, throwing himself onto his bike.  His great long muscular legs, his unique hunch over the handle bars, his smile of enticement, “Come on, Jewels.  Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”  God, his under-bite – those teeth, gleaming.   His ability to persevere physically seemed supernatural.

He rode his bike from Spokane to Seattle several times. He hiked through the Olympic Rainforest.  

I woke up last night remembering Bill waking me up, - so many times - in the wee hours of the morning, having already made a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of hot chocolate and coaxing me out of bed so we could get to the mountain and ski, or go on a hike as early as possible. Or get on a bike.  Bill liked to stay active. He loved the early morning.  He liked to be outside before anyone else.

Sadly, Bill’s downhill run – the one his life was on – didn’t go as well as the ones we conquered on the slopes.  He was really already an alcoholic at age 20.  In his early thirties, he was lifted out of his chaotic vodka-fueled stupor by an amazing woman, Sandy, who he made his wife. 

He had about five good years, and fathered two amazing children, Nick and Katie.  When the kids were young, he began to drink even more heavily than he had before.  He became angry and cold.  Sandy turned him out, and we all knew she was doing the exact right thing.  Bill couldn’t save himself, and if you threw him a life raft, he’d pull you down with him.

Sandy heroically saved a world of hurt from her children, who Bill was not able to emotionally damage as much as if he’d been there.  They’ve grown up into resilient, thriving young adults. 

Like most addicts, Bill felt deeply.  He numbed himself, yes.  But he also imprisoned himself in his emotions, never fully able to get beyond the sting and the heartache.  He couldn't get to a perspective that was measured or thought through.  He never fully moved past Michael’s death – our other brother who died at age 33 – and I could see that the alcohol and other drugs both delivered him from, and kept him inside a nightmare of constant emotional pain.  

He caused an enormous amount of turmoil and sadness for our family.  For his own children, too.

On the other hand he had a deep caring and joyfullness about him that drew people in.  He was eager and interested.  

Weirdly, one of Bill’s best times was when he was in jail.  He was imprisoned several times for driving while drunk.  Fortunately he never hurt anyone, he was just pulled over by the police for swerving all over the road.  After three times, they sentenced him to nearly a year.  

However, in jail, Bill thrived.  He was put in the kitchen and cooked.  Bill needed supervision and regimentation.  I had some of the best conversations with Bill from prison.  While a big part of Bill’s personality was a deep defiance of authority, it seemed like in the prison system – when it was clear there was no way out – he let his resistance relax, he followed the rules, he helped his fellow prisoners.  He was lucid and articulate, and he read constantly: Richard Dawkins, David Quammen, I think Quammen was his favorite. The last book we discussed was one I sent him, “The Great Hunger” by Cecil Woodham-Smith, a book about the Irish famine, actually a book I haven’t yet read.  

In April I was in Spokane and Bill was in the hospital.  He had acquired MRSA, a staph infection that's resistant to most antibiotics.  He had hepatitis C, late stage kidney disease, and cirrhosis.  He’d also broken his wrist (which he did several times over) from falling.  He was lying in a hospital bed, really out of it, only a few teeth, emaciated, orange from the cirrhosis – even his eyes – his stomach enlarged, and strapped down to a hospital bed.  Dying of alcoholism is a grizzly way to go.  He looked at me and said, “Hey Jewels, let’s go on a hike while you’re here.”  I held his gaze.  I blinked away the tears. “Sure,” I replied. 

So unaware, so childlike, so wanting to just be outside.  That was Bill.  I never thought he’d leave the hospital, but he did.  My mother was at the end of her rope.  Bill was out for 12 days before he went back in.  Mulan and I took him back into the hospital for the last time.  

Now, when I think of him in the emergency room, cordoned off with partially pulled beige curtains for a little privacy, the flickering image I have of of Bill -  sliding off his pants and shirt to get into the gown, I think about how that was the last time.  His last time to pull off his pants.  When I think of him sliding himself onto the hospital bed, I think about how that was his last time to slide himself onto a bed.  He had an impish way about him, light on his feet, youthful even.  When he got on the bed, Mulan and I were standing right there.  He looked at up at me, his eyebrows raised, “Well?” he said with a half-shrug. Then he smiled at me with his lips closed.  

He died ten days later.  He was 51 years old.  

Yesterday I was able to say “My brother died yesterday.”  But now time is going to pull me away from him, each day will be a day with our hands farther apart.

I don’t blame Bill.  He couldn’t conquer this demon.  Who knows what kind of fate was written for him in his genes and in his experiences?   Frankly I don’t think he had a choice.  I don’t know why some people are able to change their destructive behaviors and why some people aren’t.  And I don’t think anyone does.  I think we are played rather than players, and Bill played his part as well as anyone who had to play a part as painful and as difficult as his.

He’s going to be buried in the same plot with my brother Mike at Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane.  When my mother told me that was how it was going to go, I was surprised.  I hadn’t thought of that. 

But of course, Mike and Bill, together in the ground.

In closing, I'll post this pic of Bill holding Mulan sideways at the Spokane airport, some years ago.  Mulan looks about five.  

Here's another one with Mu.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Vatican has had it with the nuns.  You know those sisters, so radical.  They've been spending their time working on behalf of the poor and fighting economic injustice!  An outrage.  Well, now they've been reprimanded.  They were told they've not been sufficiently outspoken against contraception, abortion and gay marriage.

Just when the Catholic Bishops and the Vatican seem like they've done themselves in, they do something even worse than I would've imagined.

They seem to think now is a good idea to come down on the nuns, just when the cases against the priests about sex abuse is ramping up again, and there are more and more outrageous examples of the higher ups covering up, not reporting the abuse to the proper authorities, and generally behaving heinously.  This is the time they've chosen to go after the nuns.

And...  Oh yeah.  Plus the contraception matter!  They're refusing to comply with the health care mandate that requires employers to provide contraception coverage to their employees.  They're saying it's a "religious freedom."  Yes, freedom.  They want the freedom to force their dogma on people who don't want it.

Do they ever wonder why their married, child-bearing-age employees don't have a baby every single year?

I mean, it's actually kind of funny.  It's like a guy who tripped, and then fell on his leg and broke it off, and while in pain and trying to recover, decides to distract people from watching him, so arranges for an anvil to drop on his head.  The Catholic Church as... Bugs Bunny!

Personally, I think they've made a serious miscalculation.

My friends Annie Laurie and Dan at the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked me to do a little ad for them about the contraceptive coverage issue, and I did it on Monday.  When it's put together I'll post it here on my blog.

But enough about that for now.  I'm just about to take off on a two week trip - a week in Spokane, and then a week in Los Angeles, so this is gonna be short....

Let's get onto books and movies for the month of May 2012

I read three books last month.

1.) The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, written by Stephen Goldblatt
2.) State of Wonder, written by Ann Patchett
3.) In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, written by Erik Larson

I loved all three, especially Swerve, which made me want to write a monologue based on the book so I could perform it.  It's all about a poem by Lucretius, who was a follower of Epicurus, and how a medieval antique book hunter came upon it in an out-of-the-way monastery in the 1400s and basically saved it for all humanity.  It really underscores the haphazardness of what was saved and what was not, at the same time that it shows us how much art and wisdom there was and how important it is for us now to hear the voices of the ancients who, while they did not have our scientific information, had great insights into the true nature of life and how it could best be lived.

Bottom line seems to be: let go of superstition...

State of Wonder was a wonder, and I even got to go to a lecture by Ann PAtchett, put on by my local library.  She was articulate, funny, smart, and her talk gave me even more insight into her novel, which manages to be pulpy and high literature all at the same time.

In the Garden was good too - god, I love Erik Larson.  And the story took me to the heart of things when Hitler was just gathering the forces that would come to full frightening fruition in his dictatorship.

Here are the movies I watched last month:

1.) Tiny Furniture, 2010, directed by Lena Dunham
2.) In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011, directed by Angelina Jolie
3.) Love Letters, 1945, directed by William Dieterie
4.) Kind Hearts & Coronets, 1949, directed by Robert Hamer
5.) Humpday, 2009, directed by Lynn Shelton
6.) The Wizard of Oz, 1939, directed by Victor Fleming
7.) My Effortless Brilliance, 2008, directed by Lynn Shelton
8.) Portrait of Jennie, 1948, directed by William Dieterie
9.) Come and Get It, 1936, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler
10.) Ministry of Fear, 1944, directed by Fritz Lang
11.) Lake Tahoe, 2008, directed by Fernando Eimbcke

Wow.  A pretty good month for movies.

Most memorable prize goes to "Come and Get It."  I'd seen it in college, but it was just as good if not better than I remember it.  "Tiny Furniture" caused me to have a more complicated relationship with Lena Dunham's show "Girls" on HBO.  I didn't like it as much and it was weird, like "Tiny Furniture" let me see how the sausage is probably made on "Girls."  Which made me not like "Girls" as much.  I have very mixed feelings about it all. I mostly love the show.  But I kinda wished I hadn't seen "Tiny Furniture."  Odd. I'm still not sure why I feel this way.

Mulan watched "The Wizard of Oz" with me on Mother's Day.  We had a really fun afternoon watching it.

Angelina Jolie's movie also stayed with me a long time - it's grim, very very grim.  She's ambitious as a director and I appreciate that.  The actors are very good.

Oh Lord, I've got to go.  A cab is coming in an hour and I have to pack.  Well, I suppose the summer has really really started now.  Until next month...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Out of a month of deeply memorable literary and cinematic experiences, two stand out.

(I include TV shows in my cinematic experiences...)

One is that, after thirty years, I reread "Lucky Jim," by Kingsley Amis.  I was predisposed to think I'd overrated it.  (My father's favorite book - read it a long time ago when I was still in the thrall of his opinions about everything)  But I was surprised to find that it was, in fact, even more of a masterpiece than I'd originally thought.  I guess I'm now old enough to really appreciate it even more deeply.  I had to put the book down several times because I was laughing so hard.  (This has only happened to me - well, to this extent - while reading "Catch 22" and "A Confederacy of Dunces.")

But I did another thing.  Another thing that kicked the whole experience up a notch.  I downloaded the audio version of the book from from Audible - read by Paul Shelley - a wonderful English actor.  I read the book while I listened.  I can read much faster than the narrator can narrate.  And while it was excrutiating at first, when I gave in to it - I was forced to slow down, way down - and savour each page - each word.  Because of the excellence of Paul Shelley, many conversations in the book jumped into life in a different way than if I were conjuring it in my own head.  I got much more nuance.  For example, there are several different accents by characters from around the British Isles.  One major character is Scottish.  Jim Dixon, the main character, sometimes slips into a northern English accent - sometimes manipulatively, sometimes accidentally.  I understood this - experienced it, is a better phrase, much more deeply than if I'd just been reading it.

I have to admit that the whole endeavor was one of the most satisfying experiences with a book, ever.

Great experience #2.  I began reading Muriel Sparks' "The Girls of Slender Means" about fifty pages ahead of watching all three episodes (so far) of "Girls" on HBO. I'd heard about "Girls" of course.  I wondered about it.  I figured I probably wouldn't like it.  From what I'd seen about it - looking sideways out of my eyes - grazing across pages of various publications and online, I just thought, "Eh."  Another HBO show about four young women in NYC.  I couldn't be - frankly - less interested.

In the meantime, after I was all up in arms over how little time I have left to live to read everything I wish to read (see last month's blog entry) I had looked over 1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list | Books |  And I was particularly picking my way through the comedy novels.  I was astonished how few I'd read - about fifteen to twenty out of 150.  My mother-in-law, Norma, was visiting - and she was surprised I hadn't read any Muriel Sparks - being a Catholic and all.  (Culturally! Culturally!)

In any case, I got "The Girls of Slender Means."  I'd just finished "According to Queeney" by Beryl Bainbridge - and while I thought it was mildly funny, it was not even close to the level of writing and humor of "Lucky Jim."  I wondered, "Who is the female Kinglsey Amis?"

After only ten pages of "The Girls of Slender Means" I felt I'd found a new best friend.  Muriel Sparks! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?   I was so giddy reading this novel that I had to just put it down from time to time just to compose myself.

Then, yesterday, I coincidentally dug into "Girls" on HBO.

I think it's one of the best things I've seen on HBO.

I'm completely hooked.

I can't believe Lena Dunham exists.  I love her, and I love the show.  I love every scene.  I love the characters.  It's so uncomfortable and it makes me uneasy.  Which is GREAT.  It breaks taboos, but is realistic - I believe every character completely.  It strikes me as honest and refreshing and accurate.  From my experience, this is very true and real. And painful, so painful.  And funny, so funny.

To be reading "The Girls" and watching "Girls" at the same time - how serendipitous!  It's so perfect!  These stories do not change.  Women do not change from generation to generation.  And yet, both of them feel very fresh and as if working in untrodden territory, while simultaneously dealing with perennial issues.

Wow, I feel so deeply lucky this month.  I feel I practically stumbled upon gems which became much more magnificent, even magical, with a little adjacent other-art.

That's not very articulate - but you get what I mean.

So, the books I read last month are:

1.) Hedy's Folly, The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamar, the Most Beautiful Woman In The World.  Written by Richard Rhodes
2.) The Joy of Less, a Miminalist Living Guide.  Written by Francine Jay
3.) Unstuff Your Life: Kick the Clutter Habit.  Written by Andrew J. Mellon
4.) Lucky Jim. Written by Kinglsey Amis
5.) According to Queeney.  Written by Beryl Bainbridge
6.) The Girls of Slender Means. Written by Muriel Sparks

Notes on the above...

"Hedy's Folly" was a nice read.   It's actually about Hedy and her scientific collaborator, composer George Antheil.  It should've had a title that included both of them.  The book alternates chapters - in the beginning - about Hedy's and George's early life, and since I didn't know the book was about both of them, it was severely confusing.  But still - very interesting.

I didn't read every word of "The Joy of Less" or "Unstuff Your Life."  But I'm trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have, and these books were inspiring. I also got "Unstuff Your Life" on audio book and listened to it while I walked the dog.  They both have a lot of good ideas. If I had to recommend one over the other, I think it would be Francine Jay's book - "The Joy of Less," but only by a smidge.  And try to get the books at your library so you don't have the book added to your stuff.  (I actually bought the "Joy of Less", "Unstuff" came from the library...)  Today I'm thinking about one idea that seems useful, which is: have a uniform. What's your basic uniform for clothes?  That eliminated a lot fo extra clothes for me.  And of course, former Catholic Girl that I am, I love a uniform.

I'm currently about half way through "The Girls of Slender Means."  I guess I'll try to get to her other, more well known books soon, like "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody."  Wow - there are few things in life sweeter than finding a new author you love.

Now - on to movies...

Movies watched in April 2012:

1.) Holy Matrimony, 1943, directed by John M. Stahl
2.) Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010, directed by Raoul Ruiz
3.) The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
4.) This Gun for Hire, 1942, directed by Frank Tuttle  watched it twice
5.) Children of Heaven, 1997, directed by Majid Majidi
6.) Chimpanzee, 2012, directed by Alastair Fothergill & Mark Linfield
7.) Head On, 2004, directed by Fatih Akin
8.) The Ghost Goes West, 1935, directed by Rene Clair
9.) The Reckless Moment, 1949, directed by Max Ophuls
10.) The Exile, 1947, directed by Max Ophuls
11.) Dance With a Stranger, 1985, directed by Mike Newell
12.) Barcelona, 1994, directed by Whit Stillman
13.) The Hard Way, 1943, directed by Vincent Sherman
14.) Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973, directed by Norman Jewison
15.) The Spy in Black, 1939, directed by Michael Powell

So many great movies. I can't comment on all of them, I'd be writing for days.  The Mysteries of Lisbon is a 5 1/2 hour extravaganza from Portugal.  It's as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez made love to Barry Lyndon and they had a child - this film would be it.  Very soap opera-y, very grand, very historical-period-piece-y.  I watched about an hour a day for a week in the early afternoon, after I'd finished my work.  It was like reading War and Peace - long and languid and funny and weird.

I wanted to rewrite Holy Matrimony and The Hard Way immediately for today's audiences.  Both were a surprise.

We went to the movie theater to see Chimpanzee at the first possible showing.  I really enjoyed it, in spite of it's bad reviews.  Yes, Tim Allen's narration is a bit ridiculous, and the music is TERRIBLE.  But maybe more people will see it with those elements. I  dunno - for me, it didn't get in the way and I loved it.  Anyone who thinks we, as a species, are any different than chimps, is crazy.  Yes, we can talk, and yes we can share knowledge and cooperate on grander scales, but basically, we are chimps.  Plus, what is cuter than a baby chimp?  Nothing.

This Gun for Hire was a great film noir, had to watch it twice.  Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, they were so good!  The Reckless Moment was fantastic.  Joan Bennett and James Mason, god what a great team.  The Exile was funny, and a surprise.  It stars Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. - who also wrote it.  It's about the English king, Charles the 2nd, in exile in Holland, falling in love with a farm girl.  The film slowly drew me in.  I watched it with my mother-in-law, Norma.  Part of the plot involves the Roundheads - a English political group that was opposed to the monarchy - they were very religious and wanted to push for many more conservative restrictions.  Norma said, "The Roundheads... You know, the Rick Santorum supporters - that's our Roundheads."  And that's so true.  So many movements and issues do not change, just the people promoting them.

Head On was really good too - I loved Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, so I wanted to see his earlier work.  There are similar themes, including women who cut their hair and big dramatic moments.  And people murdering each other and then changing quite a bit while in jail.  The film made me want to go back to Istanbul.

Dance with a Stranger - Oh! I can't believe I hadn't seen this film.  Miranda Richardson is luminous, and the story - of a creepy love triangle - is seriously depressing and sad.  And it's true too. Richardson plays the character of the last women executed by hanging in England - Ruth Ellis.  Gorgeous movie.

Jesus Christ Superstar: Mulan and I watched it. I thought maybe it was a good way for her to learn about Jesus.  HA.  She was so bewildered.  I realized that since she hasn't been inculcated with religious behaviors, everything just seems weird to her.  Things I would have never had the naive open-mindedness to even ask.  For example, at one point she asked me,  "Why do those sick people want to touch Jesus?"  I said, "Because they think he's magic and can heal them."  Mulan said, "Why would anyone think that?"  Me: "Because they didn't have very much scientific information."  Mulan: "That's crazy."  Then I had to stop the film and tell her that lots of people in the world still believe things like that.

Later she asked, "Why are all those women putting oil on Jesus' head, and sort of leaning on him like that?"  I said, "Well, one - Mary Magdalene, is like Jesus' girlfriend.  The other women - well, when you're a cult leader, or actually this can be true of any very high status man - women fawn all over you."  "Creepy." Mulan said.  Then she fell asleep and I didn't wake her up.

 Frankly the movie, while interesting - and with good music - and - yes, with some creative visual ideas (although oddly awkwardly realized, I felt)  - was, to me,  surprisingly boring.  I could hardly wait until it was over.  I hadn't seen it since I was 13 or so, and figured it would be a fun ride down memory lane.  Also, Jesus - Ted Neeley - is so hilariously blond.  Jesus' followers are all black, white or Asian.  The Jewish Pharisees are all middle eastern, well Jewish looking.  And then, the Romans, (played by Barry Dennen and Josh Mostel) are literallly mincing - really offensively so - exaggeratedly homosexual.

When I saw Jesus Christ Superstar when I was a kid - I thought it was so modern and open-minded.  That part of watching it was funny, how NOT modern and open-minded it actually is.

All right - I've blathered on long enough.  

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A panda ponders.

This photo taken by Michael on Thursday, March 29, 2012.  We were at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

Is this panda thinking, "I only have 5.4 tons of bamboo left to eat in my lifetime."?

Because that is what I've been thinking about lately.   So little time, so much bamboo to eat, and yet it doesn't feel like it's enough bamboo.  Or something like that more analogous to my own personal bamboo-like necessities.

I've run this metaphor into the ground.

Last week was Mulan's Spring break at school.  We (Michael, Mulan and I) went to D.C.  The weather was sublime, the cherry blossoms were blossoming, and I could happily live there.  We spent a day at Gettysburg too.  It was excruciating, because Gettysburg really needs two days - at least.  We spent a long time in the museum.  Then, we only began the driving tour, did about 1.5 hours of it.  I  guess I imagined Gettysburg as a small area, but it's very large, so many things went on, so many different factions of troops. I thought of Gettysburg as more of a meadow.  Anyway, I have to go back.  We listened to a CD of civil war songs while we drove around.  I didn't realize how many of them were re-worded Irish songs.  I loved them all.

We went to the Capitol Building, and took the tour in the new underground Welcome Center.  We spent a very short amount of time at the Library of Congress.  We went to the National Portrait Gallery, to the Postal Museum (very informative!) and to Textile Museum (Mulan insisted - she's very interested in looms.)  We hung out outside the Supreme Court while the health care law was being challenged.  There were many more supporters of the Affordable Health Care Act than detractors, but the media honed in on the crazy tea partiers (they were dressed up, and more interesting to look at.)

We went to the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial at night - all lit up, full of people (but not too many) and it was very romantic.  We spent time at the National Cathedral.  We took pictures of the Washington monument shining at night.  We didn't have time to do soooo much.  PAINFUL!  No Newseum, No Ford's Theater, No Corcoran Museum, and on and on.

Let's change the subject, shall we?  (btw, my spell check on blogger isn't working, so please excuse any misspellings in advance...)

I read one book this month.

1.) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I fell into this book like it was an ocean and I floated along on the waves until it was over.  A complete delight.  Eugenides writes in a very particular detached and yet intimate style. 

I read two books on my new Kindle, while on my road trip.  One book I'd read before, but I wanted to read it again.  The other was one of my self-help impulse purchases.

1.) Bossypants, by Tina Fey.  Fantastic, hilarious, smart, funny.  Again.  
2.) 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get The Right Things Done written by Peter Bregman.  I found this to be a very useful book.  Bregman is a blogger for the Harvard Business Review and he has hundreds of thousands of followers.    Peter Bregman — Organization Change, Leadership, Communication and Productivity  One of his basic premises is that you can't get everything you want to do done and most books on this topic are about organizing yourself so you can be more efficient and do more.  But he suggests, (and this is definitely what I've come to as well) that you should acutally do less.  Much of the book is about explaining how little time you actually have, and how unpleasant working hard and really efficiently is, in day-to-day practice.  It's not particularly enjoyable.

He says we should only have three to five areas of focus, and really three is better than five.  My three: 1.) mother and house manager and wife and friend (to a very few people.)  2.) writer of books and screenplays 3.) exercise enthusiast.  That's it.  Everything else should fit into 5% of my effort.

Yes, I lumped a lot of things together.  But I realized that, for example, performing is not on my list.  I'm less interested in that right now.  It's not on my list.  Gardening, not on my list.  (My husband has sadly come to realize that I want to enjoy the garden, not work in it.)  Volunteering, not on my list. (I know, not nice.) Socializing in a general way with larger groups of people, not on my list.  Big craft projects, not on my list.  Unless I do that with Mulan and then it's back on the list because if falls under mothering. I put watching movies and reading under the heading of writing.  This might mean that I spend a lot of rather passive time doing things - watching, reading - and then excuses it by putting these... efforts (?) under the heading of "writing." But I feel that input is justified and necessary.

But the point is, "18 Minutes" got me off and running on a deeply existential theme - I really can't do everything I want to, and I just have to accept it, because railing against it is time and energy consuming and doesn't change anything.

For example: books.

On average I read between 500 and 1000 pages of something a month.  But sometimes it's much less.  250 pages of something.  Also, I'm not including my magazine reading, which I really, really enjoy. (For example, I cannot wait to sit down tonight with my new issue of Skeptic Magazine, the cover of which promises to be about Scientology.)  But if I say I read two books a month, on average, and I live to be 90 years old, (I know this is optimistic, but let's just say...) this means I can read about another 1000 books in my lifetime.

This startling realization rocked my world.

I want to read so many more books than that.

To take another example, on average I watch about 15 movies a month.  180 a year.   This means I will be able to watch about 7000 movies.  Okay - I'm fine with that.  7000 seems like so many, it's too many for me to imagine.  My mind registers this number as: a lot. 

But only 1000 books. This is a tragedy.  I can imagine 1000 books.  I was overwhelmed with sadness when I realized that I could only expect to read another 1000 books.  Now, I could increase the time I spend reading.  Right now I'd say it averages an hour a day.  And this does not include magazine and internet reading.  It's really hard for me to get in an hour a day reading.  I really have to remember to do it.  Frankly. I do not think I can increase this amount.  Yes, a day here and there - vacations, weekends - I can do more, but honestly, I think this is a realistic goal.

1000 books.  Let's divide this between non-fiction and fiction.  This means only 500 fiction!  500 non-fiction!  Terrible!  It's so finite.  Jesus, I probably have a thousand books I haven't read in my house right now.  It feels like such a small number. 

I have to start reading the classics.  I haven't read Dickens.  I need to read Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" again.  "Lucky Jim" was my father's favorite book, a copy was next to his bedstand his whole life.  I haven't read it since I was in college.  It's a masterpiece.  I have to read it again!  I totally plan to read Dostoyevsky again, and Tolstoy, and Jane Austen.  Just the books I've read and want to read again will take up at least 100 books!  This is a disaster!  What about Evelyn Waugh?  "Scoop" and "Black Mischeif" must be read again.  If I were going to suddenly die in the next year and I realized I'd never read "Scoop" again, it would make my final moments more excrutiating.  Okay, Lucky Jim next. Followed by Scoop.

Oh, except there are other books I want to read.  I have a book about Heddy Lamar and her inventions next to my bed, and it's calling out to me.

I am circling downwards in panic. 

Okay.  This is getting silly.

Let's move on to movies...

These are the movies I watched in March 2012.

1.) "Climates" 2006 directed Nuri Bilge Ceylon
2.) "Shepard of the Hills" 1941, directed by Henry Hathaway
3.) "Three Monkeys" 2008, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylon
4.) "Anvil! The Story of Anvil!" 2008, directed by Sacha Gervasi
5.) "The African Queen" 1951, directed by John Huston
6.) "Last Train Home" 2009, directed by Lixin Fan
7.) "Carlos" 2010, directed by Olivier Assayas
8.) "Game Change" 2012, directed by Jay Roach
9.) "Distant"  2002, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylon
10.) "Babies"2010, directed by Thomas Balmes
11.) "House of Flying Daggers" 2004, directed by Yimou Zhang
12.) "Ruby Gentry"1952, directed by King Vidor

Well, I wrote a bit about "Carlos" last month.  It's really worth watching, and I'm still thinking about that film.

A note on my Nuri Bilge Ceylon month.  He's a startlingly talented Turkish director.  "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" was my favorite film of last year.   It rocked my world, that movie.  It got so under my skin, and images from this film still seep into my days - every day, in fact.  It won't let up.  That film seriously haunts me.

So, this month, I watched all of Ceylon's previous movies.  Each one was a delightful discovery. ("Anatolia" is his crowning masterpiece, however.)  Of the three I watched this month, I think "Distant" is my favorite.  His films are slow, very arty, but yet - not at all pretentious.  The characters are believable and the situations mundane and life changing.  The cinemtography is exquisite.  I just cannot say enough about this director.  He's my favorite working director right now (well, as long as I don't think about this too much.)   He's the film director I've got on my mind, the most.  I want to write more screenplays, and this director has inspired me and inflamed my desire to write.  He's moved the bar up, and yet somehow makes writing like he does seem within reach.

"Last Train Home" is an impecably made documentary about a family in China.  The parents migrated to the city to find work in factories, and their children are being raised by the grandparents.  It's heartwrenching, but the film is done without pity or sentimentalization.  Documentaries are getting better and better, and this is a good example of one done very, very well.

But aside from the Ceylon films, the film that had the most impact on me last month was... Anvil!

Yes, "Anvil."  I watched it twice.  I love that movie so much, I could watch it again right now.  In fact, there is a moment in "Anvil" that relates to my current ruminations on time.  The film is about a hard rock band that didn't make it back in the 80s when they seemed like they were going to explode. (It seems like it's a mocumentary, much like "Spinal Tap" and many critics wondered if it wasn't all fake, but these guys are real, and for me, this film is much funnier and much more profound than "Spinal Tap" - and I really loved "Spinal Tap"!!)   Anyway, Anvil - the band - had many fans.  The music they play isn't my cup of tea, at all.  But that's not the point.  The point is the dedication these two guys (Robb Reiner and Steve "Lips" Kudlow) have about their band, and all their particular personality issues and family issues and performing issues.

At one point Lips says, "You know there isn't that much time in the arts - 30 years and then it's over."  I'm reciting this from memory and I think he says it more eloquently and desperately and poignantly than I just paraphrased, but it broke my heart. Because that is what I've been thinking about too.  When you are young, you don't know how little time there is.  And when your career is ascending, you don't realize how fragile that is, and how instantaneously it can go away.  The film had me laughing both at and with these two guys, sort of like how I laugh at and with myself!  I was just bowled over by this wonderful little movie.  You've got to see it, if you haven't already.

Ta Ta until next month...


Thursday, March 15, 2012

I suppose if my sister, Meg, reads this blog entry, she will have her birthday present revealed before she actually sees it in the flesh...err, I mean... fabric.

From time to time, I've bought vintage quilt tops on Ebay and then had them actually quilted and finished.  I have a special attraction to quilt tops made in the 1930s, and this one pictured above is one of them.  I love the peach color and all the fabrics from that time - some are even feedsack cloth.  I bought this especially for Meg, and sent this off to her.  She lives in Tokushima, Japan.  I sent it on the slow route (I imagine barges and old shipmen loading boats.)  Meg is a quilter herself (and a knitter, and an embroiderer, along with many other craft skills...)

Before I get into the movies I watched in February, I have to mention my odd film watching on Sunday.  I've been giggling here and there over the serendipity of life's random events, even when it comes something as mundane as what back-to-back movies one watches.

I wanted to watch all 5 1/2 hours of "Carlos" - a 2010 French film by Olivier Assayas.   It was made for television, and as a full feature film.  I wanted to see this film because, after the Academy Awards, which were so dull and mostly depressing, I was thinking about how wrong the Academy so often is.  I wondered how long we'd be talking and thinking about the movies that won many of the awards in the coming years.  I was also thinking how the National Society of Film Critics is SO MUCH BETTER at giving accurate awards.  So I was tooling around their website, thinking about how they should have a televised show!  I looked at the past awards and was reminded about "Carlos" - it got Best Feature and Best Director in second place for films of 2010 (Second after "The Social Network.")

I got the film.  I should add that I really loved "Summer Hours" the film Assayas made just before "Carlos."  (And which won best Foreign Film for 2009 by the National Society of Film Critiics.)

So - this is a lot of lead up to explain my weird, weird Sunday.  I finished the film on Sunday afternoon, and was sort of thrown into a reverie by it.  I think it's a masterpiece. "Carlos" is about a terrorist - a left wing, PLO (kind of) associated terrorist - he was born in Venezuela and spoke many languages and masterminded several horrific terror plots, including the kidnapping of the entire OPEC conference in 1975 (I have very vague rememberances of that - I was a high school debater then - the topic, "Should OPEC be Abolished?" :)

"Carlos" is incredible, and I recommend it heartily.  But then, Sunday night, Michael and I decided to watch "Game Change."  The Sarah Palin HBO film.  I had extremely low expectations for this film.  But I was surprised at how even handed and accomplished the film was.  The peformances were so good.  I loved that they took the high road, didn't even get into family or anything other than the basic facts.  I liked that they didn't villify or ridiculous-ize Sarah Palin, they made her seem somewhat saner than I thought she was from watching her live on TV.  But how this cumulatively dealt a much darker and subversive blow - how out of control things were and how no one was really responsible and how frightening the outcome was.  In many ways Sarah Palin is a victim.


There were so many unsettling parralels between Carlos and Sarah Palin!  That's what was so wild.  No - Sarah Palin is not a terrorist and didn't murder people.   But I realized that the emotional impact of both films was exactly the same, which is - here is this charismatic person - with these outspoken ideals - who feels there is deep wrong and claims to want to change the world - who's attractive and dynamic. But who - in the end, is basically an empty shell.  There's no true idealism.  There's definitely a desperate need for attention and a deep drive to feel as if they stand for something, but in the end, they stand for nothing.  There's no there there.

Social pathology is so subtle.  Not in these two cases.  These two cases are not subtle at all.  But there is such a huge gray area in people - when is this type of drive and behavior meaningful and accurate and when is it all smoke and mirrors?  God, I love thinking about this.  And I would not have guessed that it was Carlos the Jackal that made me understand better the essential void in the mind of Sarah Palin.

That was quite a Sunday.

Okay, now on to February movie watching....

I have watched these movies during the month of February, 2012

1.)  Iron Lady, 2011, dir. by Phillida Lloyd
2.)  Garden State, 2004, dir. by Zach Braff
3.)  Ordet, 1955, dir. by Carl Dreyer
4.)  A Better Life, 2011, dir. by Chris Weitz
5.)  Hollow Triumph, 1948, dir. by Steve Sekely
6.)  The Bridge on the River Kawai, 1957, dir. by David Lean
7.)  If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, 2011, dir. by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
8.)  Drive, 2011, dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn
9.)  Rango, 2011, dir. by Gore Verbinski
10.)  Pina, 2011, dir. by Win Wenders
11.)  Jane Eyre, 2011, dir. by Cary Fukunaga
12.)  Hell and Back Again, 2011, dir. by Danfung Dennis
13.) Of Time and the City, 2008, dir. by Terrence Davies
14.) Anonymous, 2011, dir. by Roland Emmerich

Looking at this list, here is what is still resonating:  "Ordet."  "Bridge." "Pina."  "Jane" ; and all three docs: "Of Time," "Hell," and "If a Tree."

"Ordet" is something I've wanted to see for some time. I'm a fan of Dreyer's, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is a film of his that still thrusts it's images into my concious mind from time to time.  But when I saw "Everlasting Moments" and read that the story line and the style was heavily influenced by "Ordet," and knowing that "Everlasting Moments" would be having it's way with my mind for some time, I decided to put "Ordet" in my Netflix queue.  The film was both difficult and difficult not to watch.   It's style is very stilted and can seem almost awkward.  It's point of view is decidedly religious, even though the plot is about bickering religious people.  But the film gave me shivers.  I really recommend it. I might have to watch it again soon.

I did the particpation accounting for "Bridge on the River Kwai" when I was in my twenties, when I worked at Columbia Pictures in their accounting department.  I have wanted to see it since then!  It's an odd film, odder than I thought it would be. Alec Guiness (so young, so handsome!) is an officer who is willing to die as a prisoner of war over this: that officers should not have to do the physical work that the rank and file soldiers - soldiers who are also prisoners of war - are required to do.  I simply could not let go of this insanity.  I felt the point of view of the filmmaker was that we were to see this stance as an indication of his staunch defense of rules, which was a good thing.  Huh?  Or that he was completely mad.  To me, it was just creepy.  The film goes on from there. It's such a good idea for a story - the main plotline, the bridge and the men building it and then it getting destroyed and everyone having such conflicted attitudes.  It's long and I felt trapped with everyone.  The performances are great.  What a wonderful, but odd movie.

Well, now that the Academy Awards have come and gone, I feel happy that I can delve into movies that were not necessarily released this last year. I felt I had a lot of homework.  And when I watched the awards, which was only fun becasue I was following several people on twitter who I think are funny, many of whom are friends too, and it almost felt like we were all together watching.  It was a sort of sad broadcast, and the only truly funny bit was the Wizard of Oz audience testing bit with Fred Willard and everyone else who is hysterical.  That is absolutely the only time I genuinely laughed. On the other hand, I don't need to laugh.  But I do want to feel the awards mean something, and I have to say I began to feel I was losing that sense.

"Pina" is staying with me too.  I don't know a lot about dance, but Wim Wenders caused me to understand how great dance is through this documentary.  I want to see this film again.

Books read in Feb. 2012:

Only two this month, and both by the same astonishing writer.

1.) In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard
2.) Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

Reading her books, it makes me want to stop even trying to be a writer.  In Zanesville is a lovely romp with a 14 year old girl.  I surrendered to her fiction so deeply, I couldn't pull myself out and had to get to the library to get her earlier book of essays, which is also heart-stoppingly lyrical and breathtaking.  I love this woman.  I want more books from her.

Okay. That's all folks. Back to my own writing slog....