Thursday, December 31, 2009

"What I Liked in 2009--My Year-End List"--A New Year's Eve Journal

Every January 31, we close the lid on the previous 365 days, as though that period of time was a box, a container of the same size and shape of all the others that passed before. So we play that amusing year-end game of filling the box with a set amount of objects that can easily be portioned into bundles of 10, or 100, or some other arbitrary number:  10 Best Films or Books, 100 Most Memorable Images, 5 Things We'd Like to Forget, and all the rest. 

It would be so much more interesting if each person filled his or her "container" of a year with just their own appropriate amount of artistic or cultural favorites, memorable events, or significant trends.  As few or as many items could be included, without having to stretch in order to fill a pre-ordained list...or worse yet, to squeeze out a true favorite because the pre-ordained list is limited.

And yet, it's a nice time to review the things that we gladly carry with us across the threshold into the new year.

An old year coming to an end is like moving away from home, or leaving school.  A new year feels like a blank slate, a second chance, trying a new restaurant or seeing a new film.  Of course, years don't finally end or suddenly begin.   The joys and anxieties of 2009 will follow us into 2010 like a New Year's Day hangover, that will remind us either that we had a great time, or that there were a lot of questionable things that occurred that we would just as soon forget, but that we're sure will come back to haunt us in some way.  I'll bet that for most of us, it will be some of both.

I wonder what I will want to remember about 2010, when I look back on it a year from now.

For now, here is what I'm filling my 2009 "box" with...(and to keep it festive, I won't mention the world events and personal headaches that will sneak in like unwanted insects, destined to annoy me well into the new year!)

What I Liked In 2009

Book: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout.  13 linked stories featuring an unforgettable title character. A deceptively simple collection about love and regret, the naive wonder of youth and the terror of aging, and the unique stories hiding in the most ordinary places.

Book: "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku.  What is impossible? Time travel? Invisibility? Death Stars? Teleportation? Physicist Kaku's entertaining argument for long-term possibilities...gave one of my dormant brain muscles a good, invigorating stretch.

Book: "Alex and Me", by Irene Pepperberg.  The story of the bond between  scientist Pepperberg  and the parrot (Alex) she trained to speak.  Funny, amazing and heartbreaking...Alex' last words: "You be good..I love you."

Book: "The Lazarus Project" by Aleksandr Hemon. Bosnian expatriate and Chicago native Hemon penned this novel that parallels a photographer's visit to Europe with a history of his ancestor's mysterious death.  Politically astute and funny, with haunting photographs as might be imagined by the fictional protagonist.

Additional Favorite Books and Re-Reads to remember: "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (Michael Chabon); "Land's End" (Michael Cunningham), "Hot, Flat and Crowded" (Thomas Friedman), "One Nation Under Dog" (Michael Schaffer), "Revolutionary Road" (Richard Yates), "Columbine" (Dave Cullen), "Independence Day", (Richard Ford), and "Middlesex" (Jeffrey Eugenides)

Movie: "Milk".  I saw it first last year, but re-visited it in 2009, still the most satisfying and moving work I have seen all year.  A faithful and worthy tribute to a singular human, Harvey Milk.

Movie: "Every Little Step" . A documentary look inside auditions for the Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line". Rare and wonderful study of the creative impulse.

Movie: "Capitalism: a Love Story"  Michael Moore continues to tackle timely issues with unbridled honesty and amazing footage. (Reviewed here October 11)

Movie: "Nine" (Reviewed here Dec. 29...I've said it all there).

Movie: "An Education", A young british student preparing for Oxford must choose between her intellectual future and a life of excitement with a seductive older man. 

Movie: "I Love New York".... An "anthology" of several short films whose link is the diversity of the people of the Big Apple. 

Additional Movies I will Want to Remember: "Away We Go", "Brothers", "Taking Woodstock", "Precious", "500 Days of Summer".

And I will never forget these: 

Talking to Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, see above) at the Printers Row Book Fair

Starting this "Reinvention" Journal!!

New York in October

The Imagine Circle in Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mark, Jillian and Max in theVillage


The Bethesda Angel

Fenway Park! (See Photo Above)

Harvard, The Book Co-Op, and the Huffington Post Book of Blogging

The Ferry from Boston to Provincetown

"Hair"--and dancing with the cast on-stage for the finale.

My shared birthday with Mark on the North End, where we were both Italian for a night

Provincetown, the theater, and "Take me Out"

The Breakwater on Cape Cod

A Night at the Opera---"Merry Widow"

President Obama's Inauguration

"39 Steps"

"Superior Donuts"

"Fiddler on the Roof" in Chicago, starring Topol

"Jersey Boys"

NPR and Fresh Air, especially Tom Ford's Interview, and so many others

Friends....old and new...from California, to Maine, to Phoenix, to Connecticut

Maggie, who will always be there....

All of you....

Best 2010 to everyone!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Baby Pigeon Saved My Life Today--Tuesday Journal

As soon as we arrived at the Wellness Center to begin warm-ups for our workout, we noticed, just outside the picture windows, an unusual bird walking aimlessly on the frozen-snow-covered grass. It was the size of a full-grown robin, maybe larger, but it had the fuzzy small feathers of a baby bird. Soon, other people gathered around the window as if at a maternity ward incubator. No one was sure of the type of bird it was. Too large to be a sparrow, too small and too early to be a goose….it had a beak like an albatross, and a skinny, bald neck.

All he wanted was to come in. He walked toward the window, peered inside, and tried to flap his way into the warmth, tumbling back each time as his pointed beak hit the window.

A sibling bird that must have fallen from the same nest, somewhere on top of the building or near a heated vent, lay lifeless on the grass.

It was a very cold late afternoon, and fortunately I was wearing my sweat pants (not shorts as usual) when I went out with my towel to bring the poor creature in. Mark made sure the door remained unlocked as I followed the (now frightened) bird around the yard. This bird almost outran me, and I had not even hit the track yet.

I gently laid the towel over the bird’s head and scooped it up in both hands, creating a warm “nest” for him to lie within, and so his head could stick out.

My first impulse was to take him home. Then I realized that I was deficient in my knowledge of the type of bird he was, and the appropriate way to nurse him. Mark remembered a local feed store and animal sanctuary nearby that would take in orphaned animals--Animal Feeds and Needs. We both tacitly agreed, and as I held the creature, drawing curious onlookers and sympathetic comments, Mark got our coats from the lockers.

The attendants at the front desk assisted us by providing us with a cardboard box to place the swaddled little bird inside for the brief car ride.

Mark drove and was sensitive to slow down on curves and avoid bumps in the road. In the car, the bird and I regarded each other easily. I spoke softly, looking back at the one black beady eye that faced me. He chirped softly at times, and soon stretched his neck until I thought he would try to escape. Instead, he began to preen the terrycloth of the white towel wrapped around him.

The Animal Feeds and Needs people welcomed Mark and I and our little boxed passenger. One of their employees happened to be a wild bird expert. Jeff removed the critter from the towel and lightly examined the beak. It was a baby pigeon. He was happy to take this bird into his care, and raise it along with his pet blackbird. He would name our pigeon friend, “December”.

I felt less stupid then, for not knowing the type of bird he was. Pigeons are by nature cliff-dwellers, and in our “urban” environment, they build their messy nests of twigs and mud on top of tall buildings. Females lay only 2 eggs at a time, so this mother’s entire progeny were lost to her prematurely. Female pigeons are usually very good mothers. It is extremely rare to see baby pigeons (or squabs, to the gourmets out there).

We left the shop to return to our workout, already missing the little guy we bonded with, and who would have adopted us as his caregiver if we held him any longer---pigeons, if raised by hand, become tame, and make nice pets. (When they mature, they can actually attempt to mate with their human caregivers.)

“December”, the little pigeon, was placed in my life today. I was stirred by an instinct to care for this helpless bird…I gave it no thought…. When I find my life in free-fall, these small incidents provide purpose, energy, and I see then where my value as a person lies.

I was quite emotional on the drive back to the gym. I reassured Mark that I was not upset. Although I mourned for the one I couldn’t save, I rejoiced that, small and insignificant as December’s life seemed, Mark and I helped save him from pain, and cold death.

Wherever my life takes me, or whatever changes I choose to make, I am reassured that to remain close to the creatures that need us so badly provides me with one of my life’s transcendent satisfactions.

(For more information on caring for fledgling pigeons, see these articles by Hannah Holmes and
Frank Mosca)

Movies: "Nine"-- Brilliant

If Federico Fellini had directed Bob Fosse’s 1979 autobiographical musical extravaganza “All That Jazz”, it might have resulted in something very much like “Nine”, Rob Marshall’s smashing, exhilarating homage to Fellini and Fosse. “Nine” is based on the 1982 Tony-winning Broadway musical, which in turn derives its source from Fellini’s 1963 visionary film, “8-1/2”.

Like the Fellini film, Marshall’s “Nine” is a fantasy, a romantic dream-world, a portrait of an artist in creative crisis, a film about a director not sure what to say in his ninth motion picture, and it is also Guido's ninth picture, as creatively free and brilliant as anything on screen this year. Unlike” 8-1/2”, it uses brilliantly staged musical sequences to explore the creative malaise of its protagonist. Well-designed, impeccably photographed and staged, with pulsating sound and score, and astonishing performances , “Nine” made this reviewer glad to “be Italian”.

At the start of the film, Guido (the world-famous director played by Daniel Day Lewis with wiry charm , always in motion, always cool, always holding himself close to the vest) speaks during a press conference to introduce his ninth film, saying that “to discuss one’s creation is to kill it. You kill your movie…by talking about it”. It exists in the dream-life of its creator, and once it goes into production, the dream dies. For an occasional brief moment, a performer plays a scene and brings the dream perfectly to life, but then it fades again. In a way, that is how I feel about talking about this movie…it unfolds like a dream, it is tightly focused on this character, his creative agony, his attempts to cure his block through the validation that sex with beautiful women gives him.  It enters one’s senses and excites and inspires one in mysterious ways; it's like a musical Rorschach test.  I worry that I will kill the experience by speaking about it.

(But a writer must write…and I will do so gently, so as not to destroy the delicate object of my admiration!)

This could be the most intimate big-movie-musical ever made, and I suspect many viewers will not willingly enter the psyche of this self-absorbed character, nor wholly adjust to the movement from reality to fantasy and back. Yet even for those who do not identify with creative process, or who are uncomfortable with the personal revelations this character makes, there’s still the energy, the humor, the emotion, and the skill and the care that have produced an elevating, entertaining work. Of course, if you bring to it some knowledge of Fellini or his works (or have just seen “8-1/2”, which I recommend) the film might be even more satisfying.

The films of Fellini captured my young attention, and I am sorry to admit that his is no longer a household name. That may hurt this film’s reception with modern audiences. In Fellini’s heyday, the 1960’s and ‘70’s, college students and film-lovers worldwide regarded the work of Fellini with the same artistic appreciation as they did works by Antonioni and Bergman (neither of whom, I am afraid, are pop culture icons today, either). He was a generous artist, voluptuous with his imagery and unbridled in his imagination. After “8-1/2”, he moved away from sophisticated realism and turned to magical imagery, fantasy, dreams.

Marshall not only pays homage to the director, but also acknowledges Fosse, his primary inspiration, quoting from “Jazz” and “Cabaret” and even, in black and white sequences, “Lenny”. He is true to Fellini’s vision and stages his numbers in an effective and convincing representation of the inner world of his Guido/Fellini. If anything, I would have liked Marshall to do more within a shot instead of cutting too rapidly within a sequence; his precision here occasionally works against the imaginative dream-logic of his “director”. This is a minor quibble, however. Marshall is masterful in his handling of movement, either with his camera, or from his performers.

The highest praise I can give Marshall is that despite the amount of incredibly fertile material from which to borrow, and the influences available to be plundered, he makes this vision his own. Marshall’s emerging signature-style of confining his musical numbers to brilliantly lit, marvelously designed sets (a-la “Chicago”) is perfectly suited to the material here; and Day-Lewis is so convincing that Marshall manages to also convince us that what he has staged is coming from within the psyche of his protagonist. I would love to see Marshall attempt a musical version of “Fellini Satyricon!”

But enough analysis… this movie is fun. Day-Lewis can sing, too, and finds the perfect tone of irony to play reality and fantasy easily. Everything is about Guido--the name Guido is perhaps the most-repeated word in “Nine”--but Day Lewis plays up the charm of his character’s egotism. In “Guido’s Song,” his desire to be everywhere and retain his youthful energy spoke to me very personally.  With “I Can’t Make This Movie”,  Day-Lewis convincingly speaks to many who feel defeated by their own vision.

As the women in Guido’s life, each one is terrific, and most of them have excellent material to play. Penelope Cruz takes her spitfire image as Guido’s na├»ve mistress to new levels, and lets a sweet vulnerability shine through. Judi Dench, as Guido’s costume designer and confidante, has a surprisingly bravura turn belting out her memory of the “Folies Bergeres”. As Claudia, Guido’s long-suffering wife, I thought Marion Cotillard is more heartbreaking and more natural here than she was in “La Vie en Rose”. There, she proved her vocal prowess; here she is beautiful and strong, and when she confronts Guido after a painful screen test that recalls their falling in love, you may have a visceral response. She is a ferocious stage presence as well in her big dance number.

Kate Hudson is fine as the American journalist, but her number is superfluous .  Nicole Kidman has surprisingly little screen time, and her voice is the least strong of the cast, but she is required to look good, which she does, brilliantly.

Sophia Loren brings an incomparable authenticity to her role as Guido’s mother. No matter what she had to do for this film, I was supremely happy to see her on the big screen again, her presence as comforting as an Old Italian relative.

Last, and best…I am least familiar with contemporary performer Fergie, but I will start to pay more attention to her career. She is a blooming natural in her turn as Saraghina, the whore who fed little Guido’s boyhood fantasies. “Be Italian” is a showstopper, the best thing in the film, and Marshall works it like a visual and aural goldmine.

I enjoyed Marshall’s painstaking attention to period detail and his faithfulness to Fellini’s work. I was especially warmed during Kidman’s and Day-Lewis’ romantic scene by a fountain, reminiscent of “La Dolce Vita”, and like “La Dolce Vita”, includes a stray cat wandering the streets of Rome. (This was a small detail, and I was very happy they remembered to include it.)

I cannot understand the criticisms that have been leveled at this tremendously entertaining and satisfying movie. “Nine” requires an intensity of focus from a viewer, which the film rewards with a tightly moving observation of a complex and self-absorbed artist, one who must exercise his fantasies in order to recharge his creative energy.  The songs are not chart-topper material, but they never were, even when the Broadway show was universally praised.  "Nine" presents itself as big and brassy and accessible to the world, but it has complexities buried within it that many do not wish to see revealed. It is self-reflexive, much like Guido…and much like the Fellini of “8-1/2”.

I admired the film’s graceful final image. Rather than a Felliniesque parade, Marshall arranges all of the persons in Guido’s life in a silent tableaux on a scaffold behind Guido, where they will always be. Through his work, Guido has found his way to reconcile with his wife, thus freeing himself to create again; and as the dolly carries Guido, adult and child, up to the heaven of the studio floodlight, we hear the final word, the word Guido yearned to say all along: “Action!”

Bellissima! My favorite film so far this year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

100th POST! What I've accomplished...Where we're going...And A Poem --Monday Journal

Various musings on my having posted for the 100th time....

On September 7, 2009, my life spun off in an exciting, agonizing, exhilarating and terrifying new direction with my Journal of Reinvention.  The process iteself has given me a new way of seeing myself, and the confidence to attempt new things...but I have only dented the surface...  To my friends who "like me the way I am"...that guy is still here, only newly shaped, and perhaps more useful...
~ ~ ~
As personal journals go, it's entertaining, fairly revealing, covers diverse topics, and stretches my creative muscles.  I have enjoyed doing it, and am eternally grateful to all who have found it, read it, commented, and encouraged me.
~ ~ ~
Sometimes, I wonder if my journal does any good,  and whether it's worth going on, continuing.  Is my writing important enough?  Then I ask, important enough for what?  I guess I want someone to come on here and say, "Tom, we think you have something to say that the world needs to hear, so write for us and reach our million-plus circulation of readers".

Then I remember my original intent, with a metaphor: I'm behind the wheel..with plenty of passenger space.  I know the direction I want to go, and a notion of one or two destinations, and no map.  I pick up passengers along the way, and hope for a fun and interesting ride for the long run.  My passengers become my friends, who give me as much as I could hope to give them. I may reach an unexpected destination, and decide to stay a while...Or, I may go beyond the boundaries of my imagination.

~ ~ ~

From Kiddieland in Melrose Park, Illinois to the breakwater in Cape Cod's Province
town; from the howl of a dear basset hound to the warble of Mrs. Miller to the achingly beautiful "Vilja";  through the cinematic equivalents of Nashville and Berlin, the Florida Everglades and '60's London, American suburbia, Wyoming wilderness, Harlem, and Rome; From Christopher to Don to Joni;  All around New York, from Times Square to "Hair"; touching base from Afghanistan to Congress, writing about War and Health; contributing to the conversation about gay civil rights from Washington DC to Vermont to Maine to Uganda;  from the terrific contributions of all my commenter-visitors to the support I have received at home; ....This has been a whirlwind trip, and I'm not ready to settle just yet!   
~ ~ ~

In the next 100 posts (which are like 100 miles in cyberspace!) I want to do the following: make some scenic visits to the world of my grandparents; travel to Iowa city again, after summoning the courage to read the letters I wrote home back then (all had been saved, and re-discovered); spend more afternoons at the movies; talk about learning languages, and new technical skills (maybe my readers can help me learn to post videos here); allow my heart to follow an animal or two and find out where it leads me; take some detours to new travel destinations; embrace unpredictability; make new friends; and learn about the world from old friends and new.

 ~ ~
I will post my creative writing, and will debut a few short stories . Here's a simple poem I once wrote, that seemed appropriate here...  Creativity is a lot like courtship...and when art and artist find that intimate space, it is more than rewarding, it is bliss....


Climbing and striving,
A high rocky hill
Rises in challenge;
I climb harder still,

Breathing and reaching
My being renew,
My soul, my desire,
The promise of you

High on that hilltop
Your world, your domain,
You would not notice
My struggle, my pain

To reach a fulfillment
Beyond all I knew,
Humbly in search of
My sweet reward, you.

Climbing is over!
I stand face to face
With you; I rejoice
In our fervent embrace

And joy, beyond pleasure
You tell me that you
Were climbing and striving
In search of me too.

~ ~ ~

"We're Here For You--For Life" Sunday Journal

Re-inventing myself has involved a small physical transformation.  It was so obvious to me as to have been taken for granted.

Since last April, Mark and I have spent considerable time together visitng the Wellness Center, a health and fitness facility connected to a large hospital.  It was about a year after we lost our dog.  Both of us were in reasonably good shape but we needed something to re-tool our outlooks and help us find our energies.  Brooding was no longer working.  We looked around at various alternatives to get us moving again, and felt immediately comfortable here.

It is a regular commitment of time and a major activity that we share, which has somewhat transformed me, and I never wrote about it.  What can one say about exercise?  Well---not much, I think, unless one is an expert on fitness and has helpful advice for others on health and activity.  Besides, it sounds pompous and boring, to describe one's fitness routine, and it is only a little more exciting than hearing about one's hygenic activties like showering, or brushing one's teeth. 

No, I simply want to pay brief tribute to this place that has made us feel welcome, in spite of our previous reluctance to take the risk.  In a few brief paragraphs, I will attempt to record my thoughts and impressions about the experience. 

~ ~ ~

When we had our first visit, we were offered a family membership.  No questions asked, no raised eybrows.  Our initial assumptions resulted in our holding an unfortunate and totally unfounded stereotype of a "jock mentality", and that we would be intimidated or treated with condescension. The truth was, for a facility located in a fairly conservative suburb, we were treated like friends, like family.  We still are.  

~ ~ ~

We have made a lot of friends, on staff, and among the other members.  I try to circuit-train and am nowhere as advanced as the long-time regulars.  I observe, among the men who work out here, an almost embarrassed reluctance to make contact with other guys.  But when they are greeted, with a nod, smile, or simple word of encouragement, many of them take it in almost gratefully, surprising me with something like warmth.  Soon I am able to carry on brief conversations with some, more extended chats with others.  People who I thought would ostracize me or make fun, have become very supportive.  No one cares if I'm a beginner or advanced.  All are concerned about what others think of them.  The most generous of the lot appear to be the ones who attend regularly.  We go as much to see our friends as to reap the benefits.

~ ~ ~

It has been more crowded since Christmas.  People are on vacation and have more time; some wish to burn extra calories from holiday festivities, and others are eager to use their new gift memberships, or their new sweat-suits or tennis shoes.  After a few days of soreness, or after the new apparel cycles through the laundry a few times, the crowds might winnow down to the regulars again.

~ ~ ~

15 pounds have been shed.  I honestly don't feel different, except that my trousers need a tighter belt.  And my jaw seems tighter....the character has emerged.  People notice. People who know me comment.  Drastic comments, amazed.  It's motivating.

~ ~ ~

I have come to rely on the calm that settles over me after a steady round of activity.  Sometimes I want to give up after about five minutes.  At first, I did.  Soon, I paced myself to those around me, and now a good hour is normal.  I have always loved to stretch.  Now it has become something of a religion.  Yoga has my reverence.

~ ~ ~

The track can be the loneliest place on earth.  I ran a lot in my youth, even through adulthood, but good habits not repeated are often broken.  So I challenged myself to the track.  People much older than myself walk many laps.  I reflect on aging, and hope I will never lose my ability to jog, but this is wishful exuberance.  Folks younger than myself lap me on occasion...and leave the track before I'm through.  We always wave in greeting....

~ ~ ~

Instead of counting laps, I count minutes, and keep a rhythm in my head....I don't use an i-Pod at the gym, so singing to myself provides me with the appropriate pace, and a mental exercise to coordinate with the physical.  Show tunes, of course...classic rock of the '70's...Rossini's Thieving Magpie...I surprise myself.

~ ~ ~

The track is on the second floor, overlooking the gym, where guys shoot baskets or play half-court games.  But the isolation, when I'm frequently the only one up's's like fear....I can look out of the large windows that wrap around the track, and often can see the sun set, and I feel like the only person on earth, even though I know Mark is downstairs, doing his usual aerobic machines.

~ ~ ~

The trainers are a varied and interesting group.  One senior trainer shared a spaghetti sauce recipe with me in the locker room.  Another has his arms and back and legs covered with exotic ink....he has to wear long sleeves and sweat pants while on duty. A third gave us our first assessment, and she always talks to us about food after we're through...we always threaten to go straight for the nearest hamburger and fries. And the women at the front desk are as affectionate as sisters, sharing stories about their travels, their friends, and the classes they're taking.

~ ~ ~

I am comforted by the large sign that is also visible from the track. "We're Here For You--For Life".  What a nice thing to hear a friend say.  May we all have friends who express that sentiment to us.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Up in the Air"

I write about my efforts to re-invent myself, but I admit that, once in a while, I wonder at the fate of these efforts if I ever lost my job. It is easier to make changes, move in new directions, and have the time to be creative if one is subsidized, either by a pay check, or a patron. Unless I’m willing to risk starvation, or death by exposure, for the sake of art (noble but impractical), the tasks of basic survival would naturally supersede loftier pursuits, if my source of income disappeared. Although I am fairly sure I am secure in my job at the College where I work, these are unpredictable times; and neither competence (to say nothing of excellence) nor loyalty is enough when the bottom line of a company, and its financial officers, are at stake.  What would I do?  Would I follow my dreams?  Would the world find those dreams valuable enough to sustain my life?

I entertained these thoughts as I watched Jason Reitman’s slick and surprisingly well-received film, “Up in the Air”. Maybe I wanted the film to provide answers, (but that is a lot to ask from any movie).  This is a great-looking and great-sounding film, likeable, entertaining…”palatable”. It’s smooth and goes down easy, and promises something profound; and while you're watching anyway, you might not mind that its focus is misplaced and that, in the end, it’s something of a cheat.

George Clooney is fine as Brian, a man that constantly travels for a firm whose business is to terminate employees at its client companies. Brian is skilled at personally bringing these emotional and vulnerable employees through the process, showing "empathy", giving them the requisite packet, and counseling them to return to the dreams they once had, before they decided to give them up for the paychecks at their current (former) jobs. “Anyone who has ever built an empire sat where you are now.” This is attractive advice and Brian gently pulls it off. Yet we wait for Brian to find himself in the same position as his hapless charges….but the film misses this opportunity.

Brian’s love of travel is meant to fill emptiness in his personal life. He lives in a sterile apartment, takes pride in his expertise in navigating airport security, is completely at home among the “artificial light” of airports and hotel lounges, and admits that he is not the type to find his world grind to a halt while gazing into the eyes of a romantic partner. He does find a comfortable sexual liaison with a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga) who also travels, although we never really learn what she does, and what allows her to be on the road so often. The plot twist involving her character, and Clooney’s reaction to it, stretch credibility as much as Clooney’s finding an immediate parking spot on a Chicago side street.

There's a subplot involving Clooney’s estrangement from his family of origin, the wedding of his sister, and his attendance at that event with Alex. He has pangs of guilt, feels left out, and is asked to use his negotiating skill to coach the reluctant groom. This segment of the movie rang particularly false---this whole concept was done extremely well last year in “Last Chance Harvey”---and it could have been deleted to improve the momentum of the film.

The opportunity for Clooney’s character to “empty his backpack” (he conducts dreary motivational talks on the side) almost arrives, when Brian is introduced by his smarmy boss (Jason Bateman) to a new young female employee (Anna Kendrick), who has created the technology to fire people by videoconference, and has coined the gag-inducing term “glocal” (make the global local). Clooney is about to be grounded, but instead, he is charged with showing this girl the ropes--on the road. So rather than exploring Brian’s distaste for what he’s doing, the film sets up a conflict between personal interaction and technology, and the movie uses the terminated employees as plot devices, and rarely invites us to care about their fates.

I was especially disappointed that the death of one of these employees was a setup for Clooney’s acts of redemption, none of which involved him offering solace to the family of the deceased.

Clooney’s character’s love of travel provides many product placements for Hyatt Hotels and American Airlines (whose slogan “we appreciate your loyalty” appears constantly….like a Welcome Home from some form of surrogate family). It almost seems that the movie is a subliminal commercial for the travel industry, and regardless of the distasteful job Brian does, and the hard lessons we have seen him learn on the road, there would be no way that that he could really hang up his wings; the corporate sponsors (I assume) of this movie would never allow it!

Clooney has engaged us so well that by the end of the picture we want to see him free himself, from his bleak life, from his romatic disappointments.  It is possible that Clooney's charm and looks work against his portrayal as the character is written. A less charismatic actor might have been more believable as an isolated man who has few dreams apart from earning a million air miles.

The movie deserves credit for introducing some worthy themes to consider outside of the theater: the alienation we feel due to lack of real human interaction in favor of digital relationships; the anxiety in today’s workplace, and how our economy cannot absorb or accommodate the dreams of everyone; how we can free ourselves from the things that weigh us down in life, and what is worth keeping; the pleasures and perils of marriage and mature romantic relationships. Yet there is not a complete follow-through. Instead, we have a pleasant-enough story, an intriguing central character, and some well-played supporting roles, none of whom are challenged to follow their dreams after losing everything.

Visually the movie is terrific. Aerial shots were achieved with great difficulty. Motifs abound, such as world globes, maps, and a simple floor lamp, appearing everywhere Brian does, suggesting he is at home everywhere. I admired the quick and creative editing, which loosened up whenever the story entered more personal territory, then quickened again when Clooney’s smooth exterior is threatened. The actors portraying the fired workers were also fabulous in thankless roles. They gave the film an edge and a realism that made me reluctant sometimes to give myself over to the main story.

The sound and sound editing are also unusually crisp, and the music is well chosen, especially a song over the end credits that was sent to Jason Reitman on cassette tape by a man out of work. And the opening, bluesy rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was great, although its almost sly tone seemed out of place, until the ironic finale.

A lot of critics, and friends, have enjoyed this film. It is already a front runner for a slew of awards. Perhaps, like me, viewers are tired of being pummeled by sequels, comic book characters, senseless depictions of cruelty, and pre-adolescent humor. In comparison, “Up in the Air” is a mature and thoughtful work…but it seemed, like its character, ultimately, bogged down by its ideals instead of liberated by them. I wished, given its timely subject matter, that it managed to be great.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Books, Music, Nostalgia, Animals, and Other Gifts--A Christmas Journal

It's time to pull back a bit on this peaceful night in Mt. Prospect Illinois and look closely at the world within my immediate grasp.  There's time enough to concern myself with applying my own piece to the mosaic of the world as I wish it to be.  Tonight, I am reflecting on the Christmas that just was.  Anxieties about family dynamics, weather, budget and deadlines aside, I am happy to say that my reflections are of a quiet and welcoming small world was a pleasant place to be this holiday.

It was a "wet" Christmas instead of a white one.  Travel was easier without the treacherous snow and bitter chill we are accustomed to.  The brief appearance of the sun, upon our arrival at my parents' house this morning, was an omen that grace would descend on our festivities, and keep the usual petty conflicts in check

It was a 4-generation celebration: My parents, my sister and her husband,  and Mark and I, along with my sister's two boys, and the 1-year-old son of one of them.   This combination is a whole lot of raucous fun when everyone is behaving pleasantly and moving along on the same wavelength (like the set of "Moonstruck").  Otherwise, it's a minefield.  Today, the minesweepers did their job...all was calm, all was bright.

It was an active and delicious day.  I found my old film editing equipment I used in college, and, together with Mark and one of my nephews, we looked at old motion pictures I had made back in my impetuously creative days.  The equipment is ancient, but the films held up perfectly.  Soon, I will have these converted to DVD, and then to my files, and I will share some of the more interesting ones here.

Shrimp, lasagna, salad, and wine was our simple, traditional and filling meal.  My parents' tiny kitchen barely sat all 8 of us plus a high chair.  And there is no dishwasher...that's my job, and always has been.

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--Thanks to the generosity of my special friends and family, my re-invention has received a boost from the thoughtful items that were presented to me as gifts.

  • "True Compass", the memoir of Ted Kennedy--  A bright light of insight for my political education. A look back from the 1960's and up to his recent death, and, for me, a speculation of his impact on the health care bill, and what could have been if he survived.
  • "A Night at the Opera", by Sir Denis Foreman-- Subtitled 'An irreverent guide to the plots, the singers, the composers, the recordings."  A hilarious yet comprehensive study of the greatest operas, a detailed description of their librettos, arias, history, even running times; and a lively appreciation of the art form itself.  Sir Foreman would seem to have a formidable grasp of opera and excellent credentials..and it looks like fun!
  • "Sicilian Odyssey" by Francine Prose-- A travel memoir and history by one of my favorite writers; the book is described as a guide to "a land whose 'commitment to the extreme' makes its history more vivid, its sun hotter, its cooking earthier..."  And it's the birthplace of some of my more colorful ancestors!
  • "To Dance With The White Dog" a novel by Terry Kay.  A famous story about a recent widower and the bond he forms with a mysterious white dog.  I received a first edition signed collection grows...
  • "Girls Like Us", by Sheila Weller-- A triple-biography of musical contemporaries Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell....A revel for me, and an addition to my eventual expertise on '60's pop culture and one of my musical heroines.
Music and Such:
  • French and Italian Phrasebooks and Dictionaries--I need to pursue my love of languages and plan our future travels accordingly.
  • DVD's--"Joan Baez How Sweet the Sound", and "Leonard Cohen Live in London"--  A PBS Baez Documentary and a 2008 Cohen concert film.  More nourishment for my '60's musical soul, and material for an "artistic" memoir some time in the future...

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Mark and I surprised each other by presenting each other the Christopher Isherwood Novel "A Single Man".  Now we can read it "together".   I have discussed Isherwood in recent posts this month--he has emerged anew as a literary favorite of mine. It is a brief book but packed with beautiful phrases and ideas.  (The movie just arrived in Chicago).

We saved our gift exchange for this evening.  After an energetic two days with our families, we were ready to have a relaxed time, and enjoy the reactions to each others' surprises.  The snow began to gently fall once we were safely in the house.  Scrabble ensued, and a look at new DVD's.  My mind drifted out to those whose lives are somewhat foreign to my own, lives that are more, or less, comfortable, than mine....and was content in the moment.  I resolved to pay attention to the less comfortable ones, human or animal.  I also breathed a sigh of gratitude for friends, old and new, who always have a welcome place to spend in our company, and for Mark, who allows for my hours of writer's solitude, and makes sure I am not out in the cold.

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Christmas Eve was at the home of Mark's sister Diane and husband Steve, and happily Mark's mom was able to join us.  Helen is the force that unites the family, and the teller of family tales and history.  She worked all year on her pottery and presented me with a painted ceramic rabbit, and a lovely and delicate ornament of a white deer.  Fortunately, she was feeling fine and laughed hard at our "witty" banter and crazy photo opportunities.

I have such fond thoughts about Christmas Eve last evening.  I used nostalgia as a theme in my gifting.  I found books for Helen about the Great Hotels of St. Louis, and Lighthouses of North Carolina, both cities where she once lived.  For Diane, I presented a book on the old amusement park "The Highlands", a favorite childhood locale for her and Mark.  And for Steve, I sleuthed and researched, and called his old home town of Millstadt Illinois, which is too small for it's own book!  The woman who runs the Historical Society sent me their annual calendar with vintage pictures, along with a personal note. She knew his family, and was able to relate news regarding his old childhood home's renovation. This calendar, with pictures of places and people he recognized, was something he never expected, and his (and everyone's) appreciation was palpable, and sincere.

A favorite moment: Dusty, Steve and Diane's cat, entering the kitchen on Steve's shoulder.  Christmas is a time for children, and animals too.  My favorite figures in the manger scene were always the creatures.  As I posted recently, having them around me this time of year reminds me of the giddy pleasures I knew in childhood. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas During Troubled Times---Wednesday Journal

"It's coming on Christmas

They're cutting down trees

They're putting up reindeer 

And singing songs of joy and peace

Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..."

This lyric from Joni Mitchell's classic, "River", speaks for so many people during Christmas season. How many of us haven't wished we could escape what seems to be the forced sense of merriment around us?  There are many personal reasons why someone would not feel enthused about participating in Christmas celebrations, or may feel unable to enjoy the traditions that were a source of comfort and happiness before.

What makes it more difficult is that we are expected to feel upbeat and merry. Some radio stations start their 24-hour carol-thons before Thanksgiving, and trees and decorations fill store shelves by Halloween.  Television ads warn us that we must shop now to get best the deals (spend money to save money!) We somehow are made to feel deficient if we are unable to purchase the latest gadgets, toys, or other popular items, because we can't afford them or we haven't the time. 

Perhaps we have suffered traumatic holidays in our past, due to family squabbles or resentments.  Maybe friends have turned their backs on us. Maybe we are questioning our faith, and the very foundations of the holiday.  Maybe we have a loved one who is ill or disabled, and few resources or time to  provide care. Perhaps we have experienced the death of friends, family members or pets during the past year.  Maybe we are overextended at work or need to do several jobs to make ends meet.  Or, more likely, a possible job loss has thrown our life into disarray, and we are caught in the vortex of keeping families together, saving our homes, and providing for basic needs.

Or, perhaps a romantic relationship has come to a bittersweet end.  That explained the melancholy of Joni Mitchell's narrator in "River", which was featured in her 1971 album, appropriately titled "Blue".  The song has, in the last several years, become something of a modern seasonal classic, covered by singers such as Tori Amos, Betty Buckley, Rosanne Cash, Sawn Colvin, Allison Crowe, Herbie Hancock, Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Barry Manilow, Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Corinne Bailey Rae. 

It is a sad song but oddly comforting. Mitchell articulates and validates our desire to drop out of the melee for a bit of calm and meditation. What an attractive fantasy it is indeed, to conjure a river on which to skate to sanity and quiet isolation. But most of us tough it out, and cheerfully keep a brave face to preserve the hopeful anticipation for the sake of the kids in our midst;  or for those who genuinely wish us well and derive happiness from our presence in their celebrations.  To be able to do this is a form of giving as well.

A lot of people are hurting.  Smiles and hugs can't pay bills, or get folks out of difficult employment or legal situations, or return our loved ones to us.  But they do create energy; a sincere smile or word of encouragement, to one who is discouraged, sad, or anxious at this time of year, is like a natural caffiene boost, a warmth out of the cold, a reason to live another day. 


There is another reason why we might be reluctant to wholeheartedly get into the spirit of celebration at Christmastime.

It is that the world seems to be so precarious, so unenlightened, so dangerous, so unforgiving.  We hear a never-ending string of news stories about wars in the middle east; the threat of terror; the the incompetence of our leaders to create important legislation; the persecution of  sexual minorities;  the terrible mistreatment and living conditions of the world's most vulnerable; the corruption of  our politicians corporations, "charitable groups",and religious organizations; and the physical destruction of our earth and its species.  We are polarized, and always seem to be in conflict.  What business, then, do we have in celebrating? 

At such a time it's good to find a welcome bit of perspective.  While we live in a world that seems on the verge of exploding, the 1960s were a time of upheaval and anxiety; those who lived then were sure that the world would not survive.  The disparity between what the peace and wonderment of Christmas is supposed to be, and the reality of the world that flies in the face of Christmas spirit, is perfectly captured in a recording from that period. 

For me, that perspective comes in the form of a track in the 1966 album "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme". The track is titled, "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night".

It is a simple and devastating concept. Under the soft and peaceful rendition of "Silent Night" sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, we hear an actual news broadcast from August 3, 1966.  I was lucky to find the text of that broadcast:

This is the early evening edition of the news.

The recent fight in the House of Representatives was over the open housing section of the Civil Rights Bill. Brought traditional enemies together but it left the defenders of the measure without the votes of their strongest supporters. President Johnson originally proposed an outright ban covering discrimination by everyone for every type of housing but it had no chance from the start and everyone in Congress knew it. A compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee.

In Los Angeles today comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be an overdoes of narcotics. Bruce was 42 years old.

Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogleby asked King to call off the march and the police in Cicero said they would ask the National Guard to be called out if it is held.
King, now in Atlanta, Georgia, plans to return to Chicago Tuesday.

In Chicago Richard Speck, accused murderer of nine student nurses, was brought before a grand jury today for indictment. The nurses were found stabbed an strangled in their Chicago apartment.

In Washington the atmosphere was tense today as a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American activities continued it's probe into anti- Viet nam war protests. Demonstrators were forcibly evicted from the hearings when they began chanting anti-war slogans.

Former Vice-President Richard Nixon says that unless there is a substantial increase in the present war effort in Viet nam, the U.S. should look forward to five more years of war. In a speech before the Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in New York, Nixon also said opposition to the war in this country is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.

That's the 7 o'clock edition of the news,

Evey era has its seemingly unsolvable, apocalyptic problems.  But, 43 years after this news broadcast, we have managed to survive.  Call me naive, or better yet, guardedly optimistic, but I think we will survive again. Give a smile and some encouragement to someone you know who is hurting--offer more if you can--. 

If you are reading this and you yourself  are hurting, tell your story.  

Let's resolve to pull together and make some positive changes happen in 2010.

I'll be back on Saturday.


Animals at Christmas Time--Tuesday Journal

Whenever I need to recapture some of the natural and pure joy I felt as a child around this time of year, I recall the animals around me. They don’t know Christmas is coming; they don’t care about the family visits and the shopping and the cards and decorations, the cooking and the wrapping and the carols. They don’t expect anything, and most of them can't reciprocate in material ways..but they all give something back in their pure and innocent fashion!

Giving something to an innocent creature reminds me why I loved the Christmas season in the first place. The satisfactions of making others happy, or providing for even small needs, satisfactions which were meant to be the unique focus of this season, go beyond how any of us celebrate a holiday, or whether we celebrate it at all.

I dedicate this Christmas, and this post, to animals. Enjoy these small, true anecdotes from my archives, and consider giving to an animal, wild or domestic, this Christmas season. I give many thanks to those of you who help creatures in your homes, in shelters, or in the wild, all year. And I wish special happiness to those of you who bond with your domestic animal companions, and who know the terrific joys and sorrows attached to that bond. You are the best example of what it means to be human!
~ ~ ~

Maggie our Bassett Hound made Christmas her special domain. She used to help us open our gifts by completely shredding the wrapping as soon as it was torn off a package.

When the tree was up at last, she would lay under it and look at us contentedly, with an air of calm, of safety, a look that said that all was right in her world, the way good children feel when they know Santa is coming.

She loved the snow, burying her nose deep within it to catch the many scents still trapped in the frozen ground below. Her little legs made it hard to transport her sausage-body through any more than 3 inches of snow. We would actually shovel a path for her in the yard.

Her ears and belly were sensitive to the cold, and so we dressed her up in the most fashionable Bassett garments, a fleece coat and babushka made from a bandana…so that she looked like an extra in “Fiddler on the Roof.”


Squirrels are plentiful in our neighborhood. In a large knot-hole in the maple tree in our front yard, a mother squirrel annually builds her nest within. One would not think that her plump, furry body would fit comfortably in there, but she manages to glide in gracefully. Once in a while if she hears us nearby, she will come out to chatter at us, often running away for a while, and always returning. She had babies in there once. I just learned that baby squirrels are properly known as “kittens”.

You can buy “squirrel food” at many pet-feed stores. Basically, it is a bag of raw corn. We use Maggie’s old food dish (she would have approved) to fill with this “squirrel chow” and set it near the back patio, where from the bedroom window facing the back yard we can observe sometimes five critters, sitting up on their haunches as at a trough, happily munching, or stuffing their cheeks with kernels, and running to the back fence to bury their treasures.

Some of these squirrels are good farmers, as we have found forgotten kernels sprouting into full-fledged cornstalks in our garden.

~ ~ ~
Birds are particularly needy in the winter.  Even a small seed cup filled with bird food is a real gift to small non-migratory birds.  Here, I want to pay tribute to an English teacher who taught me poetry in grade school.  One of the poems we analyzed was the lyirc to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sparrow".  This was a powerful influence on me, and set me on the road to paying more attention to my non-human friends.  Read the lyrics here.

~ ~ ~
Mark had the great idea to use only animal-related decorations on our little Christmas tree this year.  We have a collection of ornaments that goes way back:  among them lots of dogs, (hounds mostly), cats,  a Russian polar bear, and several cardinals (Mark is from St. Louis, and the cardinal is Illinois' state bird).  A couple of our ornaments were purchased to raise funds at our new local animal shelter, The Buddy Foundation With the purchase of the ornaments, a pet could be remembered on their tree.  We are remembering one sweet dog, and one loving cat. You may recall I will soon attend orientation here to prepare myself to volunteer as a caregiver to the sheltered dogs and cats.

~ ~ ~
Most animal shelters could use your donations.  If not money, many items are needed, from dog and cat foods, paper towels, stainless steel bowls,  blankets, office supplies, and cleaning supplies.  Call your local shelters to find out what they need the most.

~ ~ ~
Take care of your domestic companions.  Be sure their paws are clean after trudging through salt and sharp ice.  Avoid anti-freeze (it tastes sweet and dogs like it)... keep poinsettia plants far away from your canine friends...  Be strong and resist their begging for extra holiday treats, for the sake of their health.... Don't leave your animals out in extreme cold, because the fur on most dogs can't protect them for very long in near-zero-or-below temperatures.  And wait until after the holidays before considering a pet adoption, unless you are committed to making this animal a part of your home for good.   Have a great holiday season, and thanks for reading!!