And . . . Holidays

December 19th, 2016

The tumble to our annual holiday sojourn east hasn’t been particularly fast this year, but it has been a tumble. I feel tempest-tossed not merely by terrifying political events (though plenty by those) but also work deadlines, health issues (I’m fine), technical hiccups (NO THANKS, Comcast), random one-offs (Hey, carbon monoxide alarm: Maybe don’t go off falsely, okay?), and the usual hullabaloo around getting everything tied up and bagged before we board the flight. We leave on Christmas Day, and I’m already beat.

That said:

  1. I took comfort (and sorrow) in this book.
  2. We’ve been watching this show. (I recommend it for the Mediterranean light alone.)
  3. Counting blessings remains an important and useful and gratifying practice.
  4. I’m trying to be intentional about ways to participate in our democracy such that I will be helping to preserve it.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Here’s hoping that we experience light in the dark hours and love in the season of fear.

November Two-Fer

November 25th, 2016

Two Highly Recommendeds in one post:

1) Moonlight. It’s just as gorgeous (and as gutting) as reported. The direction is so taut, the acting so contained (it’s almost all in the faces), the mood so encompassing . . . and the end, my friends, the end. I still feel wrecked by the end. What a perfect last moment, capping a perfectly composed film. Cue sobbing.

2) The Wangs versus the World, by Jade Chang. A funny, compassionate, intelligent, and sneakily ambitious debut novel about a once-wealthy Chinese-American family that has gone bankrupt. It’s a warm, companionable book—the kind you don’t want to step away from—but it doesn’t shy away from showing you things you didn’t know.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. I hope it was a good one.

Heavyweight

November 14th, 2016

Last week was not a good one for . . . humanity, I would say. And while I usually embrace darkness in art, literature, and podcasts, on Thursday I was tending carefully to my shredded nerves. I searched my podcast subscriptions for an episode of something that would cradle me in hope, and instead I found . . . something devastating that is also gorgeous.

Episode #7 of Heavyweight. Haunting.  Unexpected. Gutting. And astonishingly relevant—although not literally. Highly recommended, unless you’re in emotional danger.

I’ve also been dipping into the work of Kate Braestrup, who told my single favorite story on The Moth. I started with her second memoir, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, and now I want to read the rest of her books.

It might also be time to head back to For the Time Being, the Annie Dillard book that helped me through a dark year in 1999.

Sending out love to all of us who need it, which is, of course, all of us.

Bigger Bird

October 12th, 2016

A friend of ours was coming over for dinner, and John and I were discussing what to prepare.

John: She eats like a bird, so I don’t think we have to worry about volume.

Me: I wish I ate like a bird.

John: You do, Sweetie. You eat like a bigger bird.

Said with nothing but sweetness and appreciation, of course.

This guy.

I think I’ll keep him.

September Culture Update

September 20th, 2016

As loyal readers may recall, I have a saying about this time of year: “When it’s September, it’s December.” In past seasons, I’ve enjoyed the rapid free-fall into the holidays, but this year I’m experiencing some freak-out. There’s a lot I’d like to accomplish before the calendar turns over into another year. But honestly, rather than attempt to get it all done, I’m probably going to have to breathe into some lower expectations. Sanity matters! As does my physical health.

Meanwhile, a culture update:

1) American-Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. Delightful, surprising, funny, and smart graphic memoir about the author’s experiences as the only Chinese-American in his school—what it felt like, how he coped, and what happened when he attempted to date. His story is braided together with the ancient Chinese fable of the Monkey-King, which is not only beautifully (and hilariously) rendered but which pays off in unpredictable ways. I found the book perfectly composed, both at the level of the frame and the level of the story. Highly recommended.

2) Season 3 of BoJack Horseman, Netflix. A look at Wikipedia reveals that I am not alone in my assessment of this show. I set the first season down after a couple of episodes and didn’t bother to check out Season 2. But when someone I trusted recommended the third season, I gave it a shot, and I could not stop watching—and exclaiming wonder. It’s not just smarter and funnier; it’s deeper. BoJack is now just as likable as he is lost; his relationships matter, and so does the arc of every other character (even/especially Sarah Lynn). Plus, the storytelling has become wildly innovative, with techniques I’d never seen before (but instantly understood). No opportunity has been overlooked; every moment is densely packed with gifts from the writers. LOVED it.

3) A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. Another rec from people I respect, and I agree that it’s fantastic and important; I learned a tremendous, crushing amount about India during the Emergency years. But I could barely tolerate it. As I wrote to a friend, the quotient of brutality and injustice essentially broke me, such that I felt my heart closing (and my eyes squinting). The title refers to life’s supposed balance between what is intolerable and what is beautiful, and to me, this book lands heavily in the intolerable camp. Still, I can’t blame a book for an honest portrayal. And the beauty is there. One of my mothers-in-law told me that she found A Fine Balance especially memorable; she read it many years ago and still thinks of it.

4) Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Charming, hilarious, heartfelt story of a foster kid and his antisocial foster father, on the lam in the New Zealand bush. Watch the trailer; it’s everything you imagine it will be, and then some. Emotionally rewarding. Muchos tears. A good movie to see with the hubband, if your husband loves wilderness, feelings, kindness, and teenagers.

Happy December!

Kitchen Emergency

August 27th, 2016

We had our first emergency ever, and I’m relieved to report that it was not a terrible one. But it was unsettling.

Background: Our kitchen has something I call a “pasta spout” but which Google thinks is a pot filler. Our house was built in 1910, so this spout is not original. A previous owner had it installed and, as with everything they did by way of renovation, bad choices were made. More on that in a moment.

A week ago Friday morning, I was heating water in a kettle on the stove. While standing there, I noticed that the pasta spout was hanging at a non-normal angle. Unaware of the potential consequences, I tried to tap the spout back into position. It fell from the wall, and hot water started shooting out.

I don’t mean pouring, or even gushing. I mean shooting, horizontally, from an open pipe in the wall. The force was so powerful that I couldn’t get the spout back on, even to hold it in place. Frantically, I began trying to stop up the flow with my hands, but I knew I was in trouble, so I yelled for help.

John came running, but by the time he made it to the kitchen, water had already reached the floor by the door. As he flew into the kitchen, his legs went out from under him, and he fell, hard. When he sprang back up from the floor, there was blood coming from his shin.

“I hurt myself,” he said, racing to the spout.

“Badly?”

“I think not great.”

“Ugh, sorry,” I said. “What do you need?”

“Get me a pot. No—a bucket.”

“We have to shut off the water, though, right?”

“Yeah. Bucket first.”

I got him a bucket, and he handed me two oven mitts.

“Hold these against the spout.”

I did, though the force was so intense that it was challenging, and plenty of water (which was getting uncomfortably hot) was spurting through my fingers. By this point, both of us were drenched, and blood was flowing from John’s leg, mixing with the water on the floor. He grabbed a garage door opener, ran out of the house and down the front steps, opened the garage, and turned off the water. Later, I would see that he had left a trail of bloody footprints behind him.

Once the water was off and John was back in the kitchen, we had some time to think. (“So,” he asked. “What happened?”) I grabbed every towel in the house, and we sopped up the water; there was a lot of it. We emptied all the cabinets on that side of the kitchen. Then it was time to a) get John to Kaiser and b) get a plumber. Complicating all of this: John had to be in Philo (4-5 hours away, given traffic) to lead a weekend InterPlay workshop at 5 PM, and he was not yet packed. And I had a jammed workday with immediate deadlines.

All things considered, we did well. John got into Kaiser shortly after 9:00. I had a plumber (Fernando! Love you!) here by 11:00, and we had worked through much of the problem by the time John got home at 11:15. John and I made decisions about what to do and learned that the mechanism connecting the spout to the wall had been poorly designed. (Previous owners! Argh!) Then John packed and went to Philo. I worked a nerve-shredding day (running towel laundry all the while) and, from 5:00 – 9:00 P.M., cleaned the kitchen.

Throughout the ordeal, John and I bickered only once. We had different opinions about which tape should be used to attach the “Do not touch” sign to the spout’s shut-off valve—a conflict I believed had been resolved in The Great Tape Debate of 2015*. At one point John said, “Sweetie, I can’t hear what you’re saying; I can only see that you’re upset,” and I burst out laughing. “Good job,” I said. “You got the gist.”

*Which I won.

What was toughest for John (in addition to being injured) was that he had to leave so quickly after everything had happened—and not just leave but launch himself into the energy it takes to lead a group for an entire weekend. I, on the other hand, had the luxury of a weekend at home alone to clean up and sink back into myself. But both of us were a little shaken. It was one of those reminders that surprising and dangerous things happen in life, at 7:49 A.M. on what you thought was a regular Friday.

Quick gratitude check:

1) John was not seriously injured. (He did need stitches.)

2) I was not alone when it happened. (I didn’t know how to shut the water off! I do now.)

3) Our house was not damaged (unless the kitchen floor starts to buckle in the next couple of weeks).

4) Our marriage is a cooperative and not a blaming one.

5) Our first emergency a) occurred nearly 15 years into our relationship and b) was a minor one.

Four Excellent New Things

July 18th, 2016

Two highly recommended reads, a stripped-raw and gobsmackingly brave confessional, and the funniest podcast I’ve ever heard:

1. We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler. The co-founder of Bitch magazine (for which [full disclosure] I penned a few features, back in the day) writes beautifully, passionately, and wittily about the depressing co-optation of feminism by popular culture. Her point is that the transmutation of feminism into a “go-girl” individualist cheer, entirely decoupled from political action, leaves behind the actual societal shifts we desperately need to enact. It also puts the onus of empowerment on individual women, ignoring the structures that have been in place for centuries which prevent/limit/undermine women’s achievement.

At the same time, pop culture’s version of feminism (“feminism”) leeches the power from what is supposed to be a political and social movement by rendering it “judgmental” to call out specific actions as unfeminist. In other words, as long as any woman chooses to do something, we’re told that implying that she might be choosing against the common good is wrong and even anti-feminist. SIGH. At any rate, Once is a fantastic book and a reminder that the work of feminism is very much unfinished. It’s also fiercely entertaining, for whatever that’s worth.

2. I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro. I read a lot of memoirs by comedians, in addition to a lot of comedic memoirs, and I feel conflicted about them. I find the genre compelling and funny, which is its point. I also love getting to know more about people whose work I admire. But it’s almost inevitable that writers joke lightly about what I take to be serious things, laughing over their pain. It can feel like they’re selling out their wounds for a laugh, which . . . I know, I know. That formulation applies basically to all of comedy, right? That’s kind of what stand-up is? And yet there’s something about the book version of it that amplifies my discomfort and sorrow. I wish everyone had the permission to let the bad shit be as bad as the bad shit actually is.

Cue Tig Notaro’s recent memoir. It’s certainly funny, at times, and it’s always compelling. But mostly it’s real and heartfelt and well told and emotionally present. She’s not trying to make her suffering smaller. It’s the opposite, in fact: She’s diving deep into the details of her now infamous Four Months of Extreme Agony, in which she nearly died from a bacterial infection, her romantic relationship broke up, her mother died in a freak accident, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, and she had a double mastectomy. It’s all right there in the title: Hey, I’m a person with all of the terror and confusion and conflicts and non-knowing that everyone else has, and/but I’m happy to share that with you in my very specific and charming and humble voice. Beautifully done.

3. Elna Baker’s recent segment on This American Life. To say too much about this piece would be to risk ruining its many heart-plundering surprises, so I mostly want to recommend a listen. It’s not long, but it is dense, packed with moments of epiphany and wonder that you’ll need to press Pause on. I had already listened once when I shared it with John, and by the end, his entire face had cracked open and his eyes were wet with tears. I almost can’t believe the degree to which Elna Baker is willing to be publicly vulnerable, particularly because she is in the middle of what she’s relating; she’s taking us through a new, raw, and frightening crisis that’s currently playing out for her and for her marriage. I bow in deference and in gratitude.

4. My Dad Wrote a Porno. A podcast in which a thirty-year old British guy reads his father’s self-published pornography, line by line, and he and his two charming friends deconstruct it. This is the stuff of gut-clenching hilarity, and you don’t even have to feel bad about it, since the father (whose pen name is Rocky Flintstone, natch) is delighted. Just a few quick deets to help convey the beauty of this project:

  • The book is called Belinda Blinked.
  • The heroine’s full name is Belinda Blumenthal.
  • Belinda is a sales manager for Steeles Pots and Pans. Not Steeles Kitchen Supply. Not Steeles Restaurant Wares. Steeles Pots and Pans.
  • Rocky tends to use overly medical terminology to describe female genitalia—and/but he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the landscape. At one point, for example, Belinda’s partner “grabs her cervix.”
  • There is a sex-slave situation in which the safe word is “thimble.”

Start at the beginning, because the jokes build. And don’t listen while riding your bike! There have been accidents!

Misleading

June 30th, 2016

The trailer for The Lobster makes it look like a madcap send-up of our culture’s obsession with romance and its privileging of romantic couples. The actual movie is a logically inconsistent and stomach-turningly violent examination of the atrocities of totalitarianism.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

While I’m on the topic, you know what else had a misleading trailer? The Savages. Looks like a bittersweet family comedy, admittedly dealing with some tough content, right? It’s actually a dive into a depressive and largely non-redeemed tunnel of mortality. (Yes, I have been carrying this resentment since 2007.)

YOU HAVE BEEN DOUBLY WARNED.

Every *Gilmore Girls* Plot Ever

June 3rd, 2016

I’ve almost finished the entire series! Sure, I’d put my FF rate at 70%, but the gist, people. I’m getting the gist. For example:

Lorelai or Rory: This thing happened, but I’m not going to tell [current boyfriend].

L or R: You should tell him.

L or R: It’s not a big deal. It’s fine if I don’t tell him.

L or R: It actually is a big deal. You should tell him.

L or R: No, it’s not a good time. I’ll tell him later.

L or R: Sooner would be good.

L or R: I need to find the right time.

L or R: I would tell him.

L or R: And I have to figure out the right words.

L or R: Or you could just tell him.

L or R: I promise you, I’ll tell him.

L or R: [Sigh.] Okay, whatever you think is best.

TWO EPISODES LATER

Boyfriend: HOW COULD YOU NOT TELL ME?!?!?!

Other person: Somebody’s pregnant, and abortion does not exist! There are babies! Babies babies babies!

The Perks of Being a Bedflower

May 19th, 2016

I wasn’t planning to spend the bulk of two weeks in bed, no matter how many times I’ve fantasized about it (flashback to 12-year-old me, huddled over a science test, realizing with sudden and self-knowing rue that if only I’d had control over my own life, my first choice for time-spending would involve bed and a book), but hey, my spine does things. And this time, it decided to go on a major strike. Not a petty little Day Without a Melissa. Nope: This was a full-on, massively coordinated, all-points-bulletin French transit strike. Nobody was going anywhere. For weeks.

I made the best of it. And by best, I mean I read books and watched shows. Here’s what rose to the top:

1) Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I love the way Brownstein writes—and thinks; i.e., with a smart and sensitive specificity of voice, of herness. I love that this book is so much about how hard it is to tour, as opposed to the glamour that we all project onto entertainment. I love how vital and vivid and evolving her relationship to music is, what it means to her, what she gives to and gets from it. I love what she says about fans’ needs (that they’re bottomless) and how she has to protect herself from them. I love how honest she is about her difficulty in relationships; she refers achingly to romances she wishes had lasted, admitting, in some cases, that she doesn’t understand why they didn’t. Brownstein writes with a plain rawness that doesn’t apologize or pander. It might be defense, but it comes across as power.

2) Lindy West, Shrill. And here’s an entirely different way to be powerful as a woman: big, proud, and loud. This is an absolutely fantastic book, a gorgeous and hilarious and enraging and fiery manifesto by someone who is really killing it as a woman and a person in the world. I can’t recommend it highly enough, for everyone everywhere doing anything. I’m immensely grateful to West for having the guts and the willingness and the strength to keep advocating for human decency (also known as feminism) despite the ceaseless stream of hate that’s directed at her. She’s brilliant and glorious and should be elected not merely president but also queen.

3) Transparent, Season 2. I was an enthusiastic fan of Season 1, but 2? OMG OMG OMG. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the topic of Jewish trauma, and more specifically what Eckhart Tolle refers to as the pain body—as I understand it, the trauma that is passed down through a people over generations—explored so overtly on the screen. And it’s executed so incredibly beautifully, so feelingly, that it’s electrifying. Half the time, I couldn’t believe what I was watching: how smart it was, how careful, how knowing, how deep. Jill Soloway is showing us things we’ve never seen before but that we instantly recognize; another word for that is naming. And she’s doing it with tremendous compassion as well as aesthetic integrity.

4) And . . . um . . . Gilmore girls [sic]? I obviously feel guilty about this, given its Height of Twee, plus the fact that every single character—except, notably, Emily (and Dean, but he has no traits!) (and Jess, but he doesn’t speak!)—speaks in Lorelai. They even put patter into Luke’s mouth, which snips the strings of my suspended disbelief every time. The fast-forward function is important with this show, because there’s an awful lot of filler.

That said, there’s plenty of beauty, too, in the form of strong dramatic moments between mother and daughter that feel loaded and messy in all the right ways. The central premise of Lorelai/Rory/Emily is incredibly rich, such that even in the fifth season, there’s new stuff to mine (although again, retreading is rampant; hence the FF). As a binge-watcher I’ve also noticed the show’s crypto-Jewish sensibility, which is something that escaped me way back in the early oughts, when I would now and again catch an episode on actual television (but would always stop watching b/c of the twee).

One thing I wish: Why can’t they give Rory a boyfriend who’s worthy of her? Lorelai gets them. I understand that the show needs conflict, but I’d be happier if the conflict came from a more authentic place, as opposed to “Dean is a townie with no personality,” “Jess is a bad boy who at all costs remains mute,” and now, ugh, we’re on the path to getting “Logan is an entitled asshole who isn’t even remotely attractive, so WHY WHY WHY?” We’ll see whether I make it into Seasons 6 and 7, about which I have heard depressing things.

Another thing I wish: Less racism. (None, actually, would be my preference.) It’s not just the lack of diversity but where they place the characters of color. I just watched, in horror, as Rory “returned” the African-American chauffeur to Logan, saying, “I fed Frank.” Because Frank is both property to be returned to his rightful owner and an animal that needs to be fed. (Never mind that Frank was with Rory for nearly 24 hours and would have needed more than one meal, not to mention a place to sleep, not to mention relief from a legally appropriate 8-hour-shift.) HOW did the people producing this show miss THAT one?