Friday, September 30, 2011

2nd Dan

Tonight, in front of the teachers who trained me, the students who tested with me, the other seniors who helped me and those who supported me I had a second stripe wrapped around my belt. I am now, officially, a 2nd Dan.

It's sort-of funny- I was more proud of the other students than I was of myself. Not because it wasn't a significant event in my life, but because the test itself and the training that came after it was more symbolic to me of what I actually accomplished. Tonight, while great, was more of a technicality.

But still, I must say again what a huge milestone this is in my life. I am proud of myself for what I've done, but even more determined and excited about all I have yet to do.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ear Worm

No one believed her but she knew- she knew they’d changed her somehow. It wasn’t just a simple medical procedure like they’d told her it would be. She’d never acted like this before- losing track of time, ending up in places she didn’t remember going to. And they’d never used words like “paranoid” or “delusional” to describe her before. No way a simple medical procedure would do that.

The first time it had happened she’d ‘woken up’ in a back alley. It wasn’t like she’d been sleeping- it was like coming back into conscious after fainting. Like her mind had just been somewhere else. She didn’t remember how she’d gotten there. All she could recall was the strains of a song that was familiar in a way she couldn’t place. It was stuck in her head but she couldn’t hum the chords when she tried- forever caught on the tip of her tongue without the finality of sound.

She tried to convince herself it was sleep walking or amnesia or something that would explain the memory gaps. She’d even contemplated the possibility that it might be a brain tumor but a CAT scan had eliminated that hypothesis. She couldn’t tell anyone- she knew they’d lock her up. But it was happening more and more often.

Then one day she finally ‘woke up’ in a jail cell and the police told her they’d found her standing over a body. They told her they suspected it was only the most recent of several they’d been finding. She’d had enough- she told them. Told them how they’d put something in her during the surgery. That none of this was her fault, that she wasn’t in control. That’s when they shipped her to the nuthouse and the doctors started using those terms. Idiots.

She didn’t have long to be scared though, only one day later she had a visitor. It seemed strange to have someone come see her when they’d deemed her a threat to both herself and others- especially considering that she had no friends or family or anyone else that might come to visit. But when she saw him it made sense. Plain suit, nondescript face. The kind of person you’d see a thousand times on the subway and never remember. She knew he had come from them- the ones that had made her this way.

He spoke to her in soothing tones, told her it would be ok, that he would get her out of there. Said he’d know this time had been difficult for her but that ‘testing’ was hard for everyone. He said the word as if it were standard operating procedure from some employee manual.

She tried to explain to him calmly that wherever he was from they had the wrong girl. But all of her protests were met with an air of calm disregard and hurried attitude like there was too much to do. She was getting ready to make a run for it when he started humming a familiar tune. She had just enough time to think “I wonder when I’ll wake up again”… then that strange haze fell over her vision again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Flash

“I’m dying.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought. And even though he could feel the blood pooling around his fingers and there was no one around to save him or call an ambulance he somehow assumed it wouldn’t be the last. He wasn’t worrying about that at the moment.

No, what he was thinking about wasn’t survival. It was the phenomenon everybody talked about- that whole ‘my life flashed before my eyes’ thing. That’s where the anxiety was coming from.

Last time- when he’d collapsed on the floor of his bathroom with what turned out to be a heart attack and thought he was dying- hadn’t gone so well for him. He’d spent the whole time thinking about his childhood dog. It wasn’t that he and Barley hadn’t had a whole lot of great times together, it just wasn’t what he wanted to spend his last moments on earth thinking about. There’d been more to his life than that, but his brain didn’t seem interested in it. And by the time his wife got home, discovered him, and called 911 he’d felt pretty damned stupid for having never thought of her.

Now, lying here on the concrete in this dirty alley, listening to the retreating footfalls of the perp he’d stupidly chased down on his own, he felt pretty dumb. Because once again, instead of envisioning the faces of his children or remembering the sigh of his wife as she snuggled into him or anything that was even remotely relevant to his existence, he was thinking of something from his childhood.

He was thinking of Ms. Handelson, his 8th grade biology teacher. She wasn’t his favorite teacher. In fact she’d been kind-of a bitch for flunking him for handing in an assignment without a bibliography without even giving him the chance to write one up. But she’d had a really nice pair of breasts.

They sat on her chest, perky the way that only breasts belonging to a 20-something year-old middle school biology teacher could be, and stared at him. She was always wearing button down shirts- perfectly appropriate professional attire for a teacher- save that the two buttons at the apex were always on the verge of bursting open and spilling forth the abundance held within.

He’d spent each class focusing all of his mental energy on those buttons, trying to loosen the thread with the power of his will. He’d been transfixed with Star Wars like every other boy on the planet at that time and had truly believed that if he focused his mental energy cleanly enough and released all other distracting emotions he could move those buttons.

Day after day, class after class he sat and concentrated. Every now and again as she shifted her stance and the fabric pulled taut over the mound his breath would catch in his throat as he waited for all of his mental machinations to finally pay off. Then she’d move and the shirt would relax once more, leaving him in abject misery.

He’d nearly seen them-once. As she was leaning over him while guiding his cut around the meat of a frog’s stomach he’d caught a small but unmistakable glance of side boob through the gap in her buttons. It hung there, ever so close to exposure, only a few inches away from his greedy mouth. But he’d never actually seen the promised land and was left in a perpetual state of frenzied anticipation.

He wore more long flannel shirts that year than he ever had before or since.

And it was this that he thought of as he lay there in that alley bleeding out. It was this image of young breasts threatening to burst forth and smother him that occupied his vision. And it was this that gave him an instantaneous jolt of embarrassment as a young EMT appeared over him and asked if he could hear him.

All he could do was pray the guy didn’t find a hard on as he went to look at the wound on his thigh.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine

I follow the Oscars. Don’t ask me why, I know it’s just Hollywood BS and studio politics, but I follow them. Most of the movies that get nominated, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I recognize I’m never gonna see. Mainly because the things that get nominated are often the most depressing pieces of cinema ever made. I’m prone to depression on my own, I don’t need any help in that department.

But sometimes I find out about movies because of the Oscar race that end up being really good. I never would have discovered Gran Torino without the Oscars, just as an example. And a lot of really great movies that I would never even hear of when they were out in theaters get discovered at the Oscars and I see them solely because of this awards race.

Well, I saw Blue Valentine because of all the Oscar buzz around it. And it fits the mold as one that I would have never heard of if not for following those awards: small, independent film that got little to no media attention until in was nominated. (Yes, it had already won several awards at Sundance but most of the Sundance movies don’t really get noticed till they’re then doubly validated with Oscar noms so you often don’t hear about them till then. Or at least I don’t.)

I was excited about this movie for other reasons, too: one of the two main stars is Ryan Gosling who is one of the most talented actors I’ve encountered. (Go watch Lars and the Real Girl and disagree me, I dare you.) The other main star is Michelle Williams who has done some pretty impressive stuff of her own. The reviews all talked about the way the movie was shot (they made the two actors live together while shooting, playing house in order to develop the dynamics of the characters organically) and how amazingly intimate the scenes appeared because of the cinematography. All in all it sounded pretty amazing.

Well, it was. It was also, in grand theme of the Oscars, one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen in my life. And while I have to say that I thought the acting was amazing, the cinematography lived up the hype, the direction was impressive and the whole story was terribly real I can’t say that I liked it.

There’re a few reasons for this, number one of which is the plot. The way that they did it was unique and fascinating- playing out both the rise and decline of a relationship simultaneously. The story is one of two kids- both from less than healthy families, both a bit naive in their passions, both of whom suffer all the insanities of love and end up with an unexpected pregnancy and a shot-gun wedding tying them together. Simultaneously we see the same two characters suffering from all the problems of a dysfunctional marriage- unequal parenting, the strains of work and child rearing sucking the life out of sexual intimacy, the wear of old habits causing small problems over the years and inserting upsets and irks in daily interactions.

The actors are phenomenal, as I said. Ryan Gosling is so convincing as Dean- an uneducated artistic soul who finds that being a dad and husband is really all he wants to do but falls prey to alcoholism and stagnancy in the process. His speech patterns are so illustrative of the character that seeing through the mannerisms to the actor doing them is literally impossible. And Michelle Williams is equally brilliant as Cindy- the hard-working mom who finds herself resentful of being the only disciplinarian to their daughter, feels guilty for hating her husband but is unable to ebb the flow and is struggling to keep all those feelings under wraps in order to keep the illusion of the happy family going. Seeing them young and in love right along side them old and embittered is truly artistic. But their interactions seem so real, so intimate that it actually feels like an intrusion of privacy. Particularly the physically intimate scenes- and there’s that expert cinematography- are so intense that I actually felt genuinely uncomfortable watching them. It’s as if you snuck a peak at your parents making love, were instantly traumatized by what you saw, but were too scared of making noise to move less you be discovered.

And the biggest issue is the realism of the story. There is nothing at all unique about this tale- young couple in love ends up taking on responsibilities they aren’t prepared for, forms a family and implodes because they didn’t really have anything other than a kid to base it on. But that simple fact- that it is such a statistically common story- is what makes it so depressing. In my field I see this every single day- I don’t need to be watching movies about it. And seeing two embittered people inadvertently destroy each other and their family is made worse by such brilliant acting and artistic presentation.

All in all, if you’re a movie buff who is fascinated by any of the elements that were done brilliantly- the theatrical envelop pushing done by displaying two story lines simultaneously, the way that actors inhabit the skin of the characters, the cinematography giving you a close up view of a couple’s intimacies or the overall experience of realism in story telling- I would highly recommend it. If you’re prone to getting depressed by watching vicious fighting between married couple (i.e. you witnessed a divorce first or even second hand) then I’d recommend you skip it and go watch Lars and The Real Girl which leaves you feeling pretty much exactly opposite of what this movie does.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Soulless

“Do I have a soul?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know? I mean- what if I’ve done too many heartless, unforgivable things in this work? Don’t they call it a soul-sucking job because it- you know- sucks out your soul?”

“You have a soul.”

“But how do you know? I mean- I’ve done some things that- even if you have loose morals- are seriously questionable. I’ve done some things I can’t even speak cause it’s just too… ah!”

“Dude, you have a soul, shut up about it already!”

“But-“

“I know you have a soul because if you didn’t you wouldn’t wonder if you did.”

“Really?”

“Yes. That’s how it works.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“It does. Now pass me the bone saw.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Movie Review: Contagion

Warning: the following review contains spoilers.

So, the overall idea behind Contagion is one that we all know. First there was SARS- splashed across every news channel, on the front page of every newspaper, on every internet site. Millions flocked to their pharmacy to buy a mask and everyday we received new images of the scare in Asia. Then there was Swine flu which lead every single person with a cold to conclude they’d be dead in a few days. SARS turned out to be pretty minor over here in America- a seriously small number of isolated cases and no deaths. Swine flu definitely infected a lot more people, but after all the hustle and bustle ended up being like any other flu- people rested up for a few days and got better. But the fear- the fear was what did the most damage.

And that is what Contagion does best. It leaves you needing to compulsively wash or use purell on your hands every second. And it does this within the first five minutes of the movie.

A woman (in this case Gwyneth Paltrow, our patient zero) is coughing- right before boarding a plane. A young girl- an intensely blond model- sneezes and then places a portfolio down on a desk in a busy office. A business man coughs severely on board a crowded bus. A young man looks feverish right before getting onto an elevator.

Everyday events that happen all the time and usually mean nothing more than the common cold. But now? Now you’re seeing the initial spread of what will turn into the worst pandemic since influenza wiped out 50 million people back in the 1918- 1920 pandemic. And here’s the kicker: it’s not just these people that are spreading the outbreak, it’s everything they’ve touched within the past 24 hours. That elevator button. That hand rail on the bus. That portfolio. That pen. That door knob. That counter top. Everything is now primed to spread the virus onto the next unsuspecting victim. How many things have you touched in the last 24 hours?

And that’s it- without any more elaboration or gimmicks- that’s the point of the movie. Five minutes of everyday people doing everyday things and you’re gripped with fear. That is the power of Contagion. It takes an idea and infects you with it. That’s the whole point.

Here’s the problem: that’s pretty much the only point. Any of the other things that make a movie good- character development, fascinating plot line, interesting dialogue, visual intricacies- none of those are present in this movie. And that’s really too bad, cause those first five minutes gear you up for a hell of a lot more than what ends up being delivered.

Don’t get me wrong. It was interesting to see how the thing unfolded and (I think the movie argues) would unfold if this were to ever happen in real life. Society breaking down, individual families trying to hold it together, government conspiracy theorists rallying against the powers that be, kidnapping and blackmail to try to get the vaccine, all that. But it’s also pretty predictable. There are no edge-of-your-seat twists in this movie.

And, most disappointing in my opinion, no character development whatsoever. What you see of these characters in the first scene- whether they’re a nice person or an asshole- is what they will continue to be throughout the whole thing. And when one of the main characters dies, instead of being really torn up about it, you’re just sort of like “Oh. That sucks.” And that, for me, was a huge rip off.

I can’t help but think of Outbreak which, although on a much smaller scale, gives you the same glimpse of fear, societal breakdown and government conspiracy. Here’s the big difference though: you care about the characters in Outbreak. A lot. So when one of them gets infected with this illness that you know will most likely kill them you’re pretty broken up about it and will sit on the edge of your seat to see if the other characters can figure out the cure in time.

Not so with Contagion- the one character who even has a chance of being interesting- Marion Cotillard who plays a WHO doctor who is kidnapped and held for ransom buy a group of people desperate for the vaccine- walks off the screen with absolutely no resolution whatsoever. Seriously. At the end of the movie I went ‘wait a second- what the heck happened with that chick?’ They never resolve it. It’s like you’re expected to just forget about that plot line. And the sad thing is, with so many other characters followed in these five to ten minute sequences it’s highly likely that you will.

All in all? This movie gets as good as it's gonna get in the first five minutes and leaves you feeling rather under whelmed for the remainder of the screen time. My suggestion? Watch the trailer- that’s really all you need- and rent Outbreak instead.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Buddy vs. The Garbage Bag

We were out for a walk this afternoon, doing the longer loop around the whole neighborhood, when we passed by a garbage bag that had been left on the curb for trash pickup.  Now, buddy isn’t usually afraid of garbage bags but this one was particularly threatening because the tie had come undone and the plastic was flapping in the breeze.

Buddy, big, tough dog that he is, took the offensive and started growling at it.  It flapped at him, viciously.  Buddy decided he wasn’t going to let this bully push him around so he braced himself and then charged, barking up a storm.  A gust of wind sent the plastic whipping towards him and he jumped back as if he’d been struck.  He then tucked his tail between his legs and took off in full retreat.

Garbage Bag: 1            Buddy: 0

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

I’m going to bypass the defense of the book because I trust that you know that just because something gets put on Oprah’s book list or turned into another cheesy Julia Roberts movie doesn’t make it unworthy of one’s time. That’s all BS and I’m not falling into it. Instead I will launch straight into why this book changed my life.

I personally believe that non-fiction books, specifically ones of such a personal nature, have to connect with you on a personal level in order to be worthwhile. Reading this book this year, I have no doubt, is what made its impact on me as large as it was and I am sure that if I had read it at a different point in my life I wouldn’t have reacted to it as much as I did. I am significantly younger than Ms. Gilbert and yet I am struggling with very similar issues: the scaffolding of my life seems to have imploded on me and my best laid plans are not working out. Like her, this sent me into a significant depression, one which I have never experienced on that level before. Also like her, I find myself seeking something- a source of knowledge that can point me back to the right path.

My personal journey, needless to say, is quite different. And short of winning the lottery I’m pretty sure that I won’t be taking a year off to tour Rome, an ashram in India and a pacific island to find the answers. But since Gilbert acknowledges that a sizable book advance was what allowed her to do all that I can forgive that her journey seems like such a departure from real life.

Besides, what matters here are her thoughts and that’s what I connected with. So many of her thoughts, which are so intricately and beautifully described, seemed as if they had been pulled directly from my mind. Well, pulled and then polished with her uncanny ability to turn a simple description into a line of poetry. For example, when describing her capacity to manifest an endless sea of unhealthy thoughts from her inherent feeling of guilt she says “I do a lot with guilt. Kind of like the way women do a lot with beige.” There it is- simple, funny, charming. A soul crushing personal defect summed up so succinctly that you have to smile.

There is nothing foreign about her cynicism, her self hatred, her desperation for something beyond herself and her feelings of stupidity when a simple truth becomes clear to her. Most illustrative was her description of the work she did in meditation- the conversations she had with herself, the harsh truths she faced, the dependence she had on the guides who pushed her forward. Her story was not one of someone who found all the answers but rather someone who was lead to them simply because she was smart enough to listen. And she tells it in a way that was so memorable that I embraced every word like a hug from an old friend.

Her language, more than anything else, has made connecting with her thoughts so easy and, for me, unavoidable. Her statements are, more often than not, fluid. Comfortable. She has an ability to weave words like a fine tapestry. My copy is filled with highlighted sentences- mostly meaningful “Ah-hah!” moments, but many just because I loved the way they sounded. Like “All of us are swaying like kelp in the dark sea current of night.” The book is filled with observations like that- delicious little morsels that pack a lot of flavor into a small helping. And you really need that when discussing seriously tough subject matter like, oh you know- the search for God.

If I were to try to isolate each specific idea, passage, description, or thought that I truly loved about this book I would end up writing a whole other book. But I must make mention of one thing- the last thought that closes out this story of hers. It is the idea that the aware, spiritual, self-loving, mature and capable being she becomes at the end of her long journey is the same person who pulled the younger, destroyed, self-hating, broken and hopeless woman she was through all those years of hard work and change. That she herself was nurturing herself to grow.

She describes it thus: “And maybe it was this present and fully actualized me who was hovering four years ago over that young married sobbing girl on the bathroom floor, and maybe it was this me who whispered lovingly into that desperate girl’s ear, “Go back to bed, Liz…” Knowing already that everything would be OK, that everything would eventually bring us together here.” That idea was more meaningful to me than anything else she said.

All in all, I have no doubt that this book meant what it did to me because I am me- at this point in my life, struggling with what I’m struggling with, seeking what I’m seeking. This book was a loving embrace with whispered words of comfort and wisdom that I will think of often when life is difficult. And regardless of what it means to anyone else it means the world to me. And I’m so grateful for it. I will be re-reading my dog-eared, overly highlighted, scribbled in copy many times more, I have no doubt.