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"With all that he never succumbs to dispair. Every so often he'll snap out of a doze, gaze around at whoever happens to be hanging around his chair, and sigh in his New England accent, "Ahn't I fohtunate, having you all home like this." Having never been exactly what you'd call a demonstrative family, we bask in this reflected warmth, emboldened to let out all the stops. We have always depended on him, but now he is gripping our hands, grabbing our shoulders accepting our help. The effect is transformative. We, who tend to communicate by ridicule, blurting out, "I love you, Dad" - right in front of everyone. We, who have always prided ourselves on our sarcasm, are reporting back to each other on his every word and move, in voices hushed with reverence. When we look at each other, tears flow so spontaneously it's like breathing: after a while, we don't even bother to wipe them anymore."

A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding
by Heather King

Posted at 04:47 PM on October 26, 2008 | Comments (1)

John Mayer will sadly not be paying me for this

Currently my very favorite CD is Continuum by John Mayer. This is his third album, and while I liked the first two, this one is just another category. By this I mean, TO ME it is, I'm not sure I should be attempting to make general comments about the quality of his music, I don't feel competent. But anyway, when I first started listening to it, I had more or less the same reaction I have when I hear any of his songs for the first time... something like: "Ok. Some guitar, some singing. A song. Ok. Nice. What's the next one like?" His voice is breathy and doesn't really overwhelm you one way or another, so for me it really takes a lot of listening to "get" to the song. I wasn't very impressed at first, but then as it so often happens with good music... somehow it finds its way back into your car, your nano, over and over until you find yourself ready to go out the door and your last thought is: Did I bring the John Mayer CD?

For me this album has that magic balance of good melodies and intriguing lyrics that channel a type of honesty that's rare to find in music today. First of all, forget the first song, the one that's all over the radio (Waiting on the world to change). It's not a bad song, but the rest of the album is so much better, I could almost do without that one. There is one more political-ly track (Belief), but the best part of the disc are the songs about growing up (and older) and about breaking up and moving on. It's obvious the album was written around the time a relationship ended for him and even though I'm very much not in that situation right now, it was easy to relate and revisit those feelings of sadness from my a safe and happy distance. There seems to be a continuum (ha!) between a few songs, going from the break-up (Slow dancing in a burning room) to waking up the day after (Dreaming with a broken heart), to getting over it (In repair) to finally pushing oneself on unsteady feet to be open to new love (I'm gonna find another you). If it wasn't as excruciatingly boring as retelling a movie in exact detail I would now pull all the lyrics that I think are genius and tell you why I am right, but I will spare you. Let me just say that listening to these songs you will be heartbroken with him all over again but it will be so sweet...! (Now of course if I was truly going through a heartbreak I might not find it so sweet, so be warned.) Dreaming with a broken heart starts with this piano line that is so chilling you just want to "roll out of bed and fall on your knees", yet once the song is over you go and hit "repeat".

I don't know how a good songwriter manages to find that exact line that separates whining and self-absorption from honest self-expression, which then instead of making you sick of listening to the singer's problems gives you a fresh perspective on your own. Is it in the lyrics or the delivery? I don't know. My favorite song on the album is "Heart of life". It's kind of an obvious choice I guess, it has the appeal of his earlier hit "Daughters", but I can't help myself. It's uplifting and hopeful and "defends the silver lining" and I am grateful for an artist that dares to be positive in such a simple and honest way. I'm also grateful for a song that's putting things in perspective when I'm exhausted, riding in a car with two screaming toddlers and wondering how exactly I got here and what is the best way out.

But all lyrics aside... I am impressed with just how direct and honest Mayer sounds. Listening to the album with headphones, it really feels like he is talking to you, or he is singing on your living room couch. It's close. The whole album has such a warm quality to it... it's like wearing your boyfriends sweater. It's familiar, understanding, a little complicated, a little terrifying, always reassuring.

"Just keep me where the light is..."

Posted at 04:59 PM on May 07, 2007 | Comments (2)

Random thoughts and a movie review

Back in December I saw a movie and now, in February I will tell you about it. We were in Pennsylvania on vacation, there was one movie theater with four movies and the choices were not great. I don't remember them except "The pursuit of happyness" and both Lincoln and I were not thrilled about seeing that one. Did you see the previews with the father and child sleeping in the public restroom? Having children has completely robbed us of the ability to see movies that "face the grim truth" or are "distrubingly real" or are "showing the gritty reality" or are of the "really real reality" variety. If on top of that children are involved - forget it, we cannot separate our real feelings from the empathy we are supposed to feel for the fictional characters. It's a thing your brain does and there's nothing you can do. So what did we do? We saw the movie.

It went as expected (I almost cried, Lincoln almost didn't cry), but not entirely. What I expected to be a very sad and depressing movie was actually very uplifting as the story was told honestly but with very little manipulation. The reality of it wasn't brutally shoved in your face nor was it glossed over. The script follows a memoir by Chris Gardner, who in the 1980s decides to fix his more than dire financial situation by starting an unpaid stock broker internship, which would be a boring story if he didn't have a five-year-old son to take care of (the mother is out of the picture pretty early in the story). In the two hours we see the father struggle from one enormous problem to the next, trying not to panic when he has to move from his apartment to a motel to a shelter to the street and at the same time trying to maintain some sort of stability for his son. I was completely taken in by this tension: On one side the feeling of enormous responsibility, the worry for your child's wellbeing, the fear, the struggle to maintain yourself above water - all of it enough stress to make you combust at the end of every day - on the other side the commitment to always uphold some type of normalcy for your child, to be the anchor and the home, the one thing your child can lean on every night. There is no room to breathe, no moment to let go, there is only one way out and it's forward and there is no time to stop. I have never had to struggle for survival this way but I still found myself completely represented in this situation. It is one of the best movies about parenting I have seen in a long time.

There are many ways to realize the value of life, but I believe becoming a parent will give you a pretty quick shortcut to that realization. So many lessons your parents taught you become clear - not that you didn't understand them before, but you didn't know the weight of it. Seeing your life completely owned by another (so tiny) person shows you what it means to be really invested and consequently shows you that all the little things you do matter in a whole different way. You create the world for this person, it's in your hands entirely.

Another thing I really liked in the movie is how the father stays on the right side of the law at all times. I'm not sure if it's just the reflection of the general quality of this man or if it's a consequence of having to be a role model at all times even when one could easily be justified for stealing a piece of food. And this is the thing: So many movies present the protagonists immorality not as a weakness but as "the only possible way" because nobody could expect him to stay moral given the terribly difficult circumstances. We are supposed to feel relieved, comforted, that really, no human being could be expected to be good, we are all so flawed, we are so human, it's all a gray area, nobody knows, we are all just figuring things out, we did what we could bla bla bla. And I'm not saying those statements are inaccurate in describing what we are like, but none of them however beautifully cinematographed will inspire anyone to anything. They might tickle our self-introspection a little and maybe make us feel comfortable with being so flawed, but it will not help us fight for anything better.

While watching I was feeling a little put to shame given my constant struggle to hold it together and be patient even though all the basics in my life are beyond taken care of, but afterwards it made me feel motivated to throw myself back into the daily sameness. All the little things do matter, even though it doesn't feel like it most of the time. We are so quick to find solutions to make our lives easier, but if we don't struggle, we don't grow. It's just how it is. We have to aim higher than we can reach and then walk through the whole exhausting mess to get there. That gives life dimension and excitement. You have to keep digging deeper and in the process you become a real human being.

Ironically the same director, who portrayed sacrifice and meaning so well in this movie, wrote and directed another movie called "L'ultimo bacio" (The last kiss), in which - also quite successfully - he portrays narcissism and shallowness as a legitimate way of life. We watched it a few nights ago and could not get over all the whining about how hard it is to try to combine a successful monogamous relationship with being able to induge one's own (lusty) whims whenever the appetite strikes. The characters are constantly bored and unhappy, yet they have always done whatever they wanted.

It sucks, but suffering restores our perspective. It also makes us interesting people. It's not that I'm prescribing suffering as a remedy to life's dullness, but avoiding it on principle means cutting yourself short in every possible way. That's what ultimately made "The pursuit of happyness" a very watchable movie for me: the perspective was hopeful, not dooming. It didn't end with the "gritty reality", the agonizing moments of suffering, but with the personal transformation that follows - which in my mind is telling the whole story.

Posted at 02:54 PM on February 27, 2007 | Comments (1)

Yet another book review

Most of the books I've reviewed here came out at least a few years ago and the review was written months after I finished reading. Not this time though. I need to write it all up while it's still fresh in my mind. "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith was published last year and was a great success - not so surprising, since her first and second books were bestsellers. Zadie Smith is British and a month older than myself (I am green with envy. Not that I ever thought of writing a novel. But STILL.) and wrote "On Beauty" on the framework of Howard's End by E.M. Forster. I was not aware of that until I was almost done, so I suppose it might be a nice perk if you've read Howard's End (I haven't.), but it is definitely not necessary. Zadie Smith is a household name in Britain and I assume in the States as well among the literary interested (or by the library employed).

Anyway, beyond those details being myself unable to give a professional and balanced review I will just simply blabber on why I loved this novel so much. Primarily this book is not as much about events (although there are enough) as about people, about characters - something I am always interested in when reading a novel but that usually disappoints. It truly shows incredible gift when someone is capable of inventing and describing convincing characters, people you almost believe are real. Zadie Smith portrays them good and bad but not in that forced way, where the preachy message of "We are all so flawed!" is so thinly veiled in every passage. She connects the seemingly redundant descriptions of surroundings and actions (I don't know, playing with muffin wrappers while fighting with your sister, or the random picture on the wall that will forever stay in your head because you were looking at it as you were watching your marriage fall apart...) in such a perfect way that certain passages and their atmosphere would stay with me for hours later... As I'm changing Ivan's diaper I find myself worried about the main character's wife and her emotional turmoil. I loved how certain emotions were expressed in such a close and personal way... it almost felt like looking at the perfect painting describing a familiar scene much better than reality every could. Maybe all this is familiar to most people and the reason why it has such an impact on me has something to do with the fact that I rarely read fiction these days, but even if. This is the first book in many years that I feel I will need to own.

Oh, what it is about, yes. It's about a family - the father (white), a decidedly liberal British professor at a small Liberal Arts college on the (US) East Coast, his wife (black) a health care professional, somewhat uneasy in the academic world, their three (almost) adult children and the family's rivals - a conservative reactionary college professor (black) with an ill wife and two children. The novel follows the possible demise of the main characters' marriage after 30 years - how it is played out publicly and privately, how it affects the children but conveys in the process more about questions of middle age, about the meaning of life, about things relevant and irrelevant, about the lies we tell ourselves, about truth, about... beauty.

Why you should read it: You will enjoy this if you are interested in people, how they think and operate and how those two things sometimes are completely at odds. If you are interested in what constitutes identity and the push and pull between our convictions and the public perception... you will like it. You will find yourself on an emotional journey and benefit from seeing the world with other people's eyes while in the process get to know yourself a little better. The novel doesn't manipulate or make judgements but inevitably dares you to make your own as well as question your own perception.

Why you should not read it: Sigh. I suppose there are people out there who will not like this and I feel I should warn you, although obviously I really wish everyone would agree with me! You will not enjoy this book if you are bothered by people making very wrong choices or having opposite beliefs (opposite of yours of course) and not necessarily improving in the end. You will not like it if you are having a hard time with characters being inconsistent, vulgar some times, loving at others, loathsome and lovable and generally confused. Stuff happens but this is not CSI or High Noon, so don't read it if you want a lot of action and compelete simple resolution at the end.

In short, I find myself completely incapable of doing this novel justice in terms of accurate and all-encompassing description. Maybe a few favorite quotes will help:

p 235 (three siblings meet by complete coincidence one morning in the city):
"People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great, sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. (...) He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away."

p 398 (the husband making a plea to his wife to forgive him, trying to explain his love):
"But I don't want to be without... us. You're the person I - you're my life, Keeks. You have been and you will be and you are. I don't know how you want me to say it. You're for me - you are me. We've always known that - and there's no way out now anyway. I love you. You're for me," repeated Howard."

p 424 (a mother going through old things in the basement):
"Several small items made her cry: a tiny woolen bootie, a broken orthodontic retainer, a woggle from a cub-scout tie. She had not become Malcolm X's private secretary. She never did direct a movie or run for Senate. She could not fly a plane. But here was all this."
- (I thought this was one of the sweetest and most accurate ways of indicating the satisfaction and ambivalence of motherhood... the sacrifice and the success..."but here was all this"... perfect.)

Posted at 08:51 AM on September 27, 2006 | Comments (2)

Books & Music pt 2

How Not To Live Abroad by Shaun Riley


Why I liked it: I think it's fairly obvious why this book caught my eye. Living abroad? Check. Spain? Check. Witty writing? Check. (I am just joking about that last part!!) Anyway, the title is catchy and it looked like an easy read and knowing that I won't be able to visit Spain until my jail sentence is over for the next 15+ years, why not live vicariously through other people, who do have the time to travel AND write about it extensively (totally no sarcastic undertones here). In this travel memoir the author Shaun Briley and his British girlfriend escape their living quarters in London, which they share with her mother (!) to vacation in Spain and in a fit of what can only be called "typically clueless behavior from teenagers in their twenties" buy a house in the dry deserted countryside of southern Spain (Andalusia). Why is it deserted? Because more and more Spaniards think living without indoor plumbing or electricity in the middle of nowhere with no money to make is no way to live, but our heroes, they are blinded by their dreams of "living off the land" and so they find themselves in a dark house (no light!) stinky and sweaty (no water!) and having to pee (no toilet!). Despite this somewhat tediously sounding premise, the book is very enjoyable, because Riley is a very funny writer. Having lived in Spain, it made me revisit familiar situations and the promise of virtual travel was fulfilled. The south of Spain has a particular reputation and very peculiar idiosyncracies... The same way you will have a certain idea when someone is described as "from the South" in the US, you will also understand "Andalusian" as more than just a geographical indicator. What really makes this book work though is Riley's capability for introspection, which gives it a dimension without sounding trite and kitschy. His relationship is doomed, he doesn't know what to do with his life and this whole Spanish adventure really drives this point home. He is successful at balancing the serious with the comical and absurd, add to that the Spanish flavor and you have a few fun hours in front of you.

Why you should get it: I don't know. It's funny, you'll laugh. It's a fast read and will not upset you in any way. You will find out about Spain and also about the life of unrealistic people. You'll laugh.

Why you should not get it: I have to admit I probably would not have enjoyed the book as much had it been set in France or Kazakhstan, so maybe the story won't work for you if you've never been to Spain. If you find people talking about their lives annoying and a waste of your time, it won't work for you either. Also, if you've never tried to grow and sell olives for a living you might not be able to relate. At some point in the book they get a dog, so I guess it has puppies and who doesn't like a puppy?

Posted at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2006 | Comments (2)