Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Committed

*A quick disclaimer before I begin: I love Elizabeth Gilbert.  I love her the way that people tend to love their favorites: unconditionally, irrationally, beyond concrete specifics or reasoning.  Therefore, I cannot write anything critical about her.  I just can’t.  So although I am positive there are things about this book that could’ve been executed better, I didn’t see those and I won’t be commenting on them.  This is not a critical book review; this is a fan explaining their overwhelming love for an author.
Now that we’re all on the same page, on to the review:

I must start this by saying exactly why it is that I love Elizabeth Gilbert so irrationally.  Although I referenced this growing attraction when I read Eat, Pray, Love (henceforth referred to as E,P,L) last year, my love and understanding of the reasons for that love has grown exponentially since then and requires further explanation.

I love her because she reminds me of my undergraduate college.  My college, which I also hold intensely passionate and unreasonable admiration for, was the kind of place where you would often find yourself engaged in intense, amazingly stimulating conversation with people who are astoundingly intelligent, well spoken, articulate, creative and passionate.  These conversations, due to the nature of the parties involved, were meandering and varied, covering a large number of vaguely related topics and often lasted for hours- sometimes split up over several consecutive meetings.  And I loved them with the kind of fierce, soul-defining passion that can permanently alter a person.

Reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s books- thus far- has been like having those conversations.  It’s sitting down in a peacefully lit, sunny little coffee house and talking to a friend whose intelligence and understanding absolutely floors you.  And why does it floor you?  Because in the midst of all that intelligence and passion there is a distinct lack of the qualities that unfortunately tend to come packaged with those: condescension, patronization, haughtiness or arrogance. 

This is not a woman who is educating you, lecturing you or in any other way talking down to you.  This is a dear old friend who is not only brilliant but also warm, comforting and welcoming.  It’s someone who you’ve known for years and who still overwhelms you with such a flood of positive emotion every time you see them that you can’t understand why you don’t see them more often save for the fact that they’re always working or traveling or taking care of their family or keeping up with their bounty of activities or just, you know, living life.  But every time you see them you’re reminded that they are one of the absolutely coolest people you know and you can’t help but thank god that they’re your friend.

My dear friend Vanessa whom I’ve just had a soul-nursing weekend with falls into this category as well, by the way.  And I was discussing this book with her while she was here.  And it was sandwiched in one of those conversations I was talking about.  So I’m not just reminiscing about college here.

So by now you will have already correctly assumed that I loved this book.  I loved it in my typical "I’ve highlighted so many passages and sentences and ideas that there’s not a single non-yellowed page in this damned thing" sort-of way.  I love it in the “that’s exactly what I said!” sort-of way that I experienced so many times with E,P,L.  I love it in the “thank you so much for addressing that- I was afraid you were going to leave it out for a second” kind-of way that she does so well.  I love it in the “how do you do that?  How do you sum up something so profound so eloquently?” sort of way.  I love it in the way that makes me feel compelled to become a college professor on marriage and family just so I can assign this book.

It occurs to me that I should probably make a quick note about what the hell the bloody thing is about, huh?  I’ll let Elizabeth Gilbert herself sum it up for you: “This entire book- every single page of it- has been an effort to search through the complex history of Western marriage until I could find some small place of comfort in there for myself.”  That sums it up better than I possibly could.

She does explore what seems like the entirety of the history of marriage and references facts from what sounds like intimidatingly large numbers of massively heavy volumes on the subject.  The critical part of me wants to read those books myself before accepting what she relays on face value, but I have no reason not to trust her and that’s not really the point anyway.  Nor is it where this book- or she- shines.

No, this book shines in the same ways that E,P,L did: in her personal stories revealing her life and the lives of the people she encounters.  The most overwhelmingly touching sections were those exploring the marriage histories of the people who had the biggest impact on her: her parents and her grandparents.  Her mother and grandmother are clearly the centerpieces of these, in her mind, and the way that she describes their choices, the sacrifices they made, and the paths they went down are hauntingly beautiful.  Honestly, her grandmother’s wine-colored coat with the real fur collar which she purchased with her own money and later on disassembled in order to make a dress for her daughter will stay with me for the rest of my life as the single greatest description of the deeply mysterious losses a woman suffers in marriage.

Which isn’t to say that she’s making the case that marriage is bad.  She admits that she wants to think that, mainly because she’s a self-proclaimed cynical divorcee being forced into a second marriage so that her Brazilian-born boyfriend will be allowed to live with her in the US.  But she somehow always manages to balance her own judgments with the realities of the lives she describes.  None of these people- not a single one of them- is used as an anecdote of a bad marriage or a good one.  All of them have their own stories and their own complex reasons for choosing the path they do.  Again I must quote her, because she says it best: “My mother herself had probably given up long ago trying to draw tidy ultimate conclusions about her own existence, having abandoned (as so many of us do, after a certain age) the luxuriously innocent fantasy that one is entitled to have unmixed feelings about one’s own life.”

I suspect that this is Gilbert’s greatest strength- the ability to see and accurately describe the world around her.  Not just flash descriptions or one-line categories.  But the beautiful and the devastating, the miraculous and mundane, the epiphanies and the mistakes- all at once, all in the same person.  I don’t think I know a single other writer who does that as well.

In the end, this book, like E,P,L before it, touched on a lot of personally significant questions for me and gave me a more comprehensive understanding of one of the most complicated milestones in human existence.  I have a lot more reading to do on the subject, and will be following some of Gilbert's recommendations for that purpose.  But without this starter guide, if you will, I don’t think I’d be as interested in studying up on it. 

In addition, after reading a second of her books and loving it so thoroughly for the writer more than the subject I am now convinced that I would be a massive idiot not to try out some of her less famous works that proceeded E,P,L.  The Last American Man is a thought-provoking title, don’t you think?

To learn more about Gilbert, click here.
To see her TED talk, one of the greatest explorations on creativity I’ve ever been exposed to, click here.
And to read my review of Eat, Pray, Love, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 Outdo Yourself Reading Challenge

I love Fridays.  Not just because it’s the end of the work week which, of course, is vital.  But because it marks the time when I am thoroughly reminded of how many truly amazing writers there are out there.  I have the blog roll and it reminds me, too.  But I don’t check as often as I feel like I should and Friday provides that terribly needed kick in the ass to go and read and remember.  And what I’m remembering is that reading other writers is just as important as writing.  That’s something I forget sometimes.

Like last year when I was so busy trying to meet my self-mandated blog post count that my reading list was disturbingly small.  Of all the amazing books I had sitting and waiting on my book shelf I only read… maybe five of them?  A terribly low number, considering that the whole point of all this is to get better at writing.

But thankfully, I am not alone in this.  Many other people feel like they should be reading more, and one of my fellow bloggers relayed me to a useful tool to assist with this.  I came upon it last Friday when I was trolling my blog roll for new posts and I came upon an interesting side bar over at Eric J. Krause’s Writing Spot.  Eric is a good writer and in order to become a better writer he, in his infinite wisdom, has set a challenge for himself to read more.

That challenge has a name, because another blogger I discovered thanks to Eric’s link, created it: The 2012 Outdo Yourself Reading Challenge.  I had never run across the Book Vixen before clicking on the link in Eric’s sidebar.  But I’m glad I did because it reminded me of how vitally important that reading piece is- not just for my writing, but for my brain.

So, I am officially signing up to outdo myself.  I’m going to blow last year’s measly list of books out of the water by reading a total of 12 books this year.  Why 12 books?  Because it’s 2012.  And, more practically, because a book a month seems reasonable to expect of myself.  And because I already read one so I technically only have 11 to go.  And because I figure this blog needs more book reviews.

I actually started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed before I finished Pride and Prejudice because I was so disgusted with the marriage obsession that I needed to read the words of someone coming from the other end of the spectrum.   But now it’s just that on my reading list, and I’m giving myself a week to finish it because of the need to outdo myself.

Thanks to The Book Vixen for creating this challenge and thanks to Eric J. Krause for linking me up with it!  And if you too would like to outdo yourself, click here or on the icon to your right.  You can sign up at any time and challenge yourself to whatever number you see fit.  Happy reading!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dim Sum

All around them the normal chaos was erupting.  The rattling carts navigated the overcrowded tables while uniformed servers unveiled clouds of steam as they removed lids and reshuffled baskets.  The new patrons ooo’d and aaah’d as the colorful entrĂ©es were spread out before them while the veterans wielded their chopsticks like swords as they dove to get their favorite pieces before the bowls were cleared by their fellow diners.  All the smells, all the sounds, all the sights were familiar and comforting.

          But at their small table in the corner there was no comfort to be found.  They took unenthusiastic bites of their dumplings and steam rolls interspersed with sips of fragrant tea; but neither one spoke.  Jess did her best to keep her eyes busy, watching the excited baby three tables over spit rice porridge all over his bib while his mother frantically tried to keep the sticky substance in his mouth.  The site might have made her lose her appetite, but she’d do anything to keep from looking across the table at the man she was supposed to love more than anything.

“You ok?” Dan asked her through a mouth-full of spring roll.

“Sure,” she answered without looking at him.  “Just tired.”  It wasn't true, but it was before noon on a Sunday and they’d gotten up relatively early to take the train into China town so the excuse would work, probably. 

“Hey, remember this?” he said, and she finally turned to look at him. 

She watched as he tucked his chopsticks underneath his top lip and pulled up his arms up in a T-Rex fashion, arching his eyebrows at her as he made the characteristic high pitched noise.  She’d called the pose ‘the retarded dinosaur’ the first time she’d seen it and laughed far harder than the pose really warranted.  Now she only gave him a weak smile.

She remembered their first time at this place, all those years ago.  They’d come early in the morning with a crowd of drunken grad students after concluding that dim sum was the only appropriate end to what had become an all-night pub crawl.  That was the first time she’d really seen Dan outside the confines of class and she’d allowed herself to fall for him right away, with no reservations or cautionary investigation.  It’d been so unlike her, which was exactly why she thought it was right.

Observing it from the other side of her young adulthood she knew how wrong she’d been.  It wasn’t for a lack of love or passion or anything else she’d thought it was supposed to be at the time.  They’d allowed themselves to succumb to the madness characteristic of young love and developed a number of bad habits in the process.  But they stuck it out, the way she thought they were supposed to, and managed to make quite a respectful showing of the coupling over the years.

But life had changed, for both of them.  Not because of anything that either one had done wrong, but just change.  The inevitable kind that marches you forward, whether you want to go or not.  And all the revitalized bedroom techniques, screaming matches full of fiery passion, and quiet concessions made afterwards in the dim light of morning weren’t enough to undo the inevitable change that drew them apart from each other.  The everyday revolutions always led to them reorganize in ways that were just a little too different to be manageable in the long term.  It was like seeing the landscape and wondering when it had shifted- it happened too slowly for you to notice but now everything just looked different.

Now as she watched him fumble to control his chopsticks- a trait she’d once found endearing- she knew there was nothing left.  Everything had been said, everything had been done, all sentiments had been exhausted and all anger faded into the past.  She’d been playing the charade of someone still in love for a while now and even her built-in need to stay the course had faded.  Now there was nothing left but empty civility. 

“You done?” he asked her, wiping his face and setting the cloth napkin on top of his empty plate.

“Yes,” she said.  As she raised her hand to signal for the check she waited for the moment to hit her. 

She'd expected that once the moving boxes has been packed and monetary settlements has been made and all the other details had been dealt with she would feel that soul-crushing defeat, or pain at having loved and lost, or something.  But she didn't.  It was simply done.  She wondered if this was the way things always ended, ultimately.  Picking up the check and heading out.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Puppy Training

Before we got Buddy, I read Caesar Milan’s “How To Raise the Perfect Dog” and I vowed not to make the same seemingly stupid mistakes that he talked about other people making.  Fast forward a year and I’ve made most of those stupid mistakes, one of which was not getting Buddy socialized early on so as to avoid anxiety or aggression in response to other dogs.
            We were told that Buddy needed ‘puppy kindergarten’ early on to get him healthily socialized.  Like a lot of other tasks that linger on the periphery of everyday focus, we always meant to get it done but it was never at the top of our list.  We thought we had time- he’s still so young, after all.  Which is why when we finally got in touch with a dog training organization in the area and were told that Buddy was well past the proper age for puppy kindergarten we were shocked.
            We got a bit of the ol’ riot act when we sat down for our first consultation last night.  The proper age for puppy kindergarten, the lady repeated several times, is between 2 to 4 months old.  Which meant that we were about, oh, 10 to 8 months late to the party.  Because of this, she informed us, Buddy might have some trouble keeping up with the other dogs in the class we were going to put him in.  Hearing all this shrunk me down to that ‘two cents’ feeling very fast.
            But I rallied when the trainer actually started working with Buddy.  Because while we missed out on socialization, we didn’t miss training.  Buddy is a proverbial master at SIT.  And DOWN ain’t too bad, either.  He did great at a painfully easy game called “Name Recognition” simply because he knows his name and responds instantly to it.  He displayed his nature- which is to want to please- in everything he did.  This makes him very trainable and relatively easy to work with (at least in comparison to a lot of other dogs).  I was proud, I gotta say.
            Still, as we were driving home I couldn’t help but wonder aloud whether or not we were bad dog owners for having missed that so-much-smaller-than-we-thought window for socialization.
“Seriously?” was the response I got.  “He has two people who not only shelter him, feed him, and shower him with toys but also play with him, hold him and give him affection, worry and fret over him and basically do everything they can think of to try to make him happy.  This is not a neglected dog!”
Valid point.  Plus I figure, better late than never.
           Classes start next month and I'm sure that many interesting, entertaining and likely funny events will unfold.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Celebrating Dickens

Google reminded me this morning that it is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday today and, being a fan of his, I felt compelled to say a little something on the occasion.  I have listed Dickens as one of my favorite authors throughout various times in my life and, having several of his tomes still sitting on my shelf waiting patiently to be read I am sure that I will continue to do so.
            The reasons for this are many but the single most important, at least for me, is the characters.  Having been exposed to his writings first in school by being assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities I stood out as one of the few kids in class who actually enjoyed reading the book.  Through my teenaged passions I developed a deep love for Sydney Carton- relating to him (thanks to an abundance of teen angst) for his self hatred and revering him for his ultimate sacrifice.  I prided myself on earning one of my best grades for a project I did on him in English class.
            Then came Great Expectations and Wemmick charmed his way into my heart with his humor and steadfast separation of the seriousness and dreariness of work and the nearly magical wonders of social life (he built a moat- complete with drawbridge- around his tiny house and called it "the castle", for Christ’s sake!).  His devotion to keeping those parts of his life so firmly separated has and continues to serve as an inspiration for me in my adult life.  Then finally there’s David Copperfield who, in my mind, is the most fleshed-out and 3D character I have ever read.  (I would argue it’s easier to do this when you’re writing someone’s life story as if it were an autobiography and drawing most of it from your own personal experience but still, it’s damned well done.)
            There are a billion other things to say about Dicken’s writings, of course.  His settings are so real that I almost forgot I’ve never actually seen a 19th century London court session and his writing is stylistically loaded with all the tricks and tools that are now textbook.  And let’s not forget that his Christmas Carol is largely responsible for the cultural behemoth we now think of as “a classic Christmas”.  But for me, the magic is in the characters who have dug themselves very deeply into my heart and remain there as old friends whom I will be devoted to long after I’ve read the final page.
            I may not be able to list in a clear and thoughtful manner all the ways in which my writing and my way of reading characters has been influenced by him but let's just assume that it's a long list.  And on this anniversary I must say that I am grateful for the birth of one of the greatest imaginations I've encountered.  Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens!

Monday, February 6, 2012

First Rehearsal

As I said earlier, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually done any acting.  There’s a lot that I’ve forgotten- mainly that it’s an art form that varies just as widely in style and form as visual art- and artists- do.  Some directors like to do acting exercises before looking at the script and have you doing touch sound or physical movement for a long while before you address the play itself.  Some directors don’t even want to look at you until you’ve learned all your lines and know the play inside out.  Some directors throw stuff at you so crazy that it might seem completely unrelated to the work of producing a play.  And there’s no way to know what you’re getting when you audition.
            Perhaps that is why as an actor I have a deeply rooted need to please the director.  I’m reading every facial expression, watching every movement, hanging on their words to try and figure out if what I’m doing is “right”.  It’s a reflex, something I don’t do consciously but which dictates almost all of my reactions in rehearsal.  And I was reminded of that tonight.
            My director seems like a pretty grounded guy so far.  We started off reading the script and last night jumped right into blocking.  Blocking, for those of you not versed in theatrical lingo, is figuring out where the actors need to stand, when they need to sit, what props they need to position themselves near and what lines they’ll be saying as they do.  So last night we walked around the fold-up chairs as if they were the sofas or tables that would eventually be there and figured out where we’d need to move throughout the scene.  We read our lines but the focus was on the physicality.
            Having only read the play once and wanting to better understand my character I was full of questions about why she was acting this way or responding by saying this and therefore had a really hard time clamping my tongue down to keep from asking him.  He did a lot of thinking- looking at us as we stood there and trying to figure out where he wanted us.  I interrupted his train of thought a few times with “Should I start from my line…?” or by starting to read again when his cogs were still turning.  He had to stop and explain that this is how he works, we’d get to the character later.  And I- in classic Bev style- was over-apologizing for interrupting the process of a man that I’ve never worked with before and therefore had no way of knowing I was interrupting.  And just like in karate, my colleagues are already teasing me about it.
            I now have a pretty good idea of where I need to go and when but my mind is buzzing with all those questions I didn’t get to ask yet.  My next task is to learn all my lines so that the next time I go in there I’m ready to tweak the delivery and actually interact with the other actors instead of looking down at my script.  The rehearsal schedule itself tells me that this process is going to pick up steam really quickly starting next month so I better get ready.  It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fifth Period Gaming

“I have to break up with Mark.”

“Wait- what?  Why?”

“He rules out too many other options.”

“Ok, you’ve already lost me.”

“It’s like that game I’m always playing during free period-“


“No, the new one- but that one, too.  They all work the same way.  Anyway, the way it works is every time you make a match; you lose the option of another match.  Usually you lose two other options.  And the more matches you’re making, the more you’re losing till eventually there’s no more moves left and all the pieces vibrate for a second before the whole board explodes and that horrible, soul-crushing ‘Game Over’ comes on.”

“You’ve really gotta stop playing those games- they stress you out too much.” 

“I’m not giving up my games, you’re missing the point.”

“Well, clearly you’re not explaining it very well.”

“Mark!  I have to break up with him!”

“Wait, wait- let me see if I can decipher this… he’s a match and you’re losing too many other options and eventually it’s just gonna be game over on your whole social life.  Something like that, right?”

“Well it sounded way more profound in my head, but yes.”

“I’ve told you that you can read books on your phone now, right?  Or wikipedia?  Here, look at this great wikipedia app-“

“We’ve already covered that and it’s so not the point so why are you going back to it?”

“I just think that, if you’re looking for theoretical models to give you a better understanding of romance, bejeweled might not be the best one.”

“You’re so unoriginal.”