Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco

Despite having recently lost my ability to read anything with a discernible plot (or written by a man, for that matter), I read and enjoyed James Franco’s first selection of shorts stories, entitled, Palo Alto: Stories. And, it was good. I mean, everyone’s reading it and wondering if they’re just reading it because he’s famous, and while that might be the case, the writing holds its own. He tips his hat to his teachers, and I so hope that he workshopped this stuff with like the rest of us.

While it’s got a major publisher, it feels independent. Ideally, this is the sort of text that could help bridge the gap between big conglomerate publishers and small independent presses. I don’t really think capitalism or consumerism work that way, but as a reader, I cannot tell you how badly I want to read more of this kind of work.

Anyway, these are small, plot-driven stories. They are careful and conceptually rich. While I’ll admit I wasn’t too eager to spend a lot of time with teenaged-boys or high school, I think some of the territory Franco covers is important, even necessary. The first story, “Halloween,” is really so good. It’s one that has stuck with me for the past few days. It’s one I’ll remember.

I’ve been a fan of Franco’s since his Freaks and Geeks years (or rather, when I watched it on DVD several years after the fact), but even still, I’ve been a fan, and I’m glad to see his genuine success in writing.

As you know, I read George Saunders this summer, and I actually thought Franco’s work could be categorized with Saunders. Franco’s work is much more accessible, mind you, but it is somewhat indicative of the real made strangely dystopic that is happening in contemporary male writing these days, and it’s satisfying to see that aesthetic emerge culturally.

Also, and more importantly, is it just me, or do the pages smell vaguely of cologne?

palo alto

image from amazon.com

 

Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty by Diane Keaton

I read Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty by Diane Keaton because I remembered liking her Then Again awhile back. Also, more importantly, Diane Keaton has done things a little differently, and I’m always looking to read about women who are doing things a little differently because I do things a little differently too.

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

It’s an odd book, and much more stream of consciousness than I remember of Then Again. And, so I was glad to read something entirely different. It was insightful to be privy to Diane Keaton’s mind, which was, just like her, brilliant, annoying, confusing, legendary.

I mean, you can tell that a frenzied editor tried to assemble her bedside journal scribblings, but that’s okay. It never needed to be a perfect to begin with.

She writes about beauty. It’s mostly about beauty. The introduction is so promising, and there are only glimpses (though worth it!) of this promise throughout. She writes about the process of discovering beauty as a young girl, and hearing the opinions of others, she and writes “Don’t tell me what beauty is before I know if for myself.” I think that line is so important. The most honest, provocative moments are when we fall in love with something beautiful before we realize or understand if it meets a shared social standard of beauty: our mothers, the fabric on grandmother’s old chair, a tiny glass figurine weighted just right. Of course, soon enough, we are told what beauty is, and all is lost, and we can never again really know how much we’ve mixed up our own sense of beauty with society’s standards. C’est la vie.

Later, of Picasso’s depiction of Marie- Thérèse, Keaton writes that Picasso paints her, “through loving her, living with her, and seeing her as both ugly and magnificent. Because of his sculptures, Marie- Thérèse emerged as a symbol of unsightly, frightening, even hideous but also, I have to say, complete beauty” (xix). I can think of nothing more romantic than the thought of two people loving each other and timelessly fascinated with the ugly and the magnificent in the other—the unsightly, the frightening, the hideous, and the beauty.

Keaton is a romantic and appears to be unlucky in love, but has also had some luck in love. Her questions of love and beauty were really nice to think through with her, even if just for a couple hundred pages.

Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

I enjoyed watching Whiplash over the weekend. This is a movie that will take you up to the edge and over the waterfall, if you know what I mean. While I enjoyed watching it more than I enjoyed Birdman, I think Birdman will have the edge during awards season. Here’s why: Whiplash takes a close look at just a few ideas, whereas (despite my criticisms of the film) Birdman takes a nuanced look at a lot of ideas and characters.

Still, Whiplash is a joy to watch. Some say the movie is about teaching method, but I think the movie is about the music, talent, and art overcoming the process. And, this is evidenced in the way the film ends–paying homage to the music. The audience loses sight of the drama and the personal dynamics as the final performance plays out. And I loved that.

I also really loved the relationship that Miles Teller’s character Andrew had with his father Paul Reiser. It was a minor aspect of the movie, but this was a highlight of the film for me. If the film had followed a more predictable narrative, the relationship between father and son would’ve been strained. The father would have either pushed the son too hard, or would have disapproved of the son’s pursuits all together. Instead, the film portrays a gentle, loving, and supportive relationship between father and son, and it results in a tenderness that I would love to see more of between two men on screen.

There are a few really predictable aspects of the film, the most noteworthy being that Andrew very predictably sabotages his personal relationships for the sake of his success.

There are a few uncharacteristic scenes as well. The character Andrew is a strong combination of deeply insecure, appearing to second guess himself at every turn, coupled with brief explosions of self-assuredness that are usually at the expense of this peers.

There is an amusing scene where Andrew is having dinner with his father and extended family. It is clear that the family does not really understand or value what Andrew is doing, and Andrew broods silently before schooling them all. It’s amusing, but isn’t really indicative of the character throughout the rest of the film.

Overall, I think the film might’ve been more powerful if Andrew was more aggressive, funny, fast-talking, and confident throughout the film, and only the teacher, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, was able to destroy that confidence. Anyway, it would’ve given Fletcher’s character more convincing power throughout.

Despite all that, I enjoyed the film, the music, watching the process. The whole thing inspired me to practice piano. Maybe that’s all.

Silver Linings Playbook by David O. Russell

I know I’m a few years behind with this one, but Silver Linings Playbook is on Netflix, so I finally watched it. All stars are brilliant in the film, but Jennifer Lawrence was a bad casting choice. She is still too young to bring the necessary complexity to this character. She needed to be world-weary, but soft, broken. With her husky voice and masculine (beautiful!) characteristics, I had a hard time believing her in this role. The topper is that we are supposed to believe that, in her spare time, this woman enjoys somewhat serious, competitive dancing. Dear Jennifer Lawrence provides a one-two punch of beauty and real acting ability, but she is not graceful by any stretch of the imagination. Based on what I’ve read of her in interviews, she embraces a boyish sense of humor and boyish way of moving through the world. I think even she would agree that being cast as a dancer is a bit of a stretch.

First, the beginning: what’s really innovative about this film is the role of bipolar disorder and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of that mental illness as it evolves throughout the film. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that other characters, the father, the long-suffering mother, the leading lady, and even the best friend, are all really struggling with their own, very real, mental distress. The main character, Pat, has a troubled relationship with his father, which is increasingly revealed as very controlling and made a significant contribution to the main character’s distress.

***spoiler alert***Ok, here’s where the real spoilers begin because I’m going to talk about the ending. In the end, Pat (Bradley Cooper) ends up falling in love with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and I’m not sure what to make of it. On one hand, it is a “happily ever after” ending that does not do justice to the complexity that is established earlier in the movie. It also comes as somewhat of a surprise. While it is clear that Pat is beginning to lust after Tiffany (as does the audience), a more substantive connection between the two is less clear. Still, okay, they fell in love, Pat and Tiffany live happily ever after while mom continues to make snacks for the big game and dad continues to recklessly gamble away the family’s financial security on football. Somehow, these two mentally ill people manage to heal each other and all is well and saved forever the end.

The second reading is much darker, it’s my own, and I highly doubt it was the intended interpretation. It is that Pat is a vulnerable person, still suffering deeply from a bipolar breakdown. Because of long-term manipulation and mental illness from his own father, Pat is used to unhealthy intimate relationships. When Tiffany comes along and lies and manipulates her way into his life, he recognizes it as the dysfunction to which he is accustomed, and he is unhealthy enough to get caught up in the troubled relationship. Tiffany will continue to exploit the relationship to its inevitably volatile end, and Pat will repeat his bipolar breakdown cycle because no evidence of new learning, growth, or healing ever really occurred. If you ask me, it’s a dark, messed-up film ending indeed.

compulsory new year message and ruminations on entertainment

In the past few days, I’ve had some pretty dire thoughts about human existence, which is just that it is a pointless string of entertainment, that is horrifically toxic to all living things, and then you die, having killed countless other living things along the way.

pointlessness of existence

pointlessness of existence

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been caring for my nephew quite a lot. Now, understand that he is the cutest and best kid. I’m not used to being around children, but this one is wonderful. He is kind and friendly and curious and smart and just generally a wonderful blessing to be around. As wonderful as he is, caring for a young person has me thinking some deeper, more existential and nihilistic thoughts about the pointlessness of existence.

A friend once told me that 10% of the population is creator and 90% of the population is consumer. I am not a huge consumer of entertainment. In part, that’s because I grew up in the backwoods of Eastern Oregon, where “entertainment” was not readily available. As a result, I’ve always been a builder and a creator. Even if just in small ways. Even if it is just with these blog posts. I’d rather spend my time creating than being entertained.

In caring for a young child, I am struck by how everything is geared toward entertaining the child. There are the movies that play on repeat, of course, and the toys. I even find myself planning crafts and cooking activities. And, while they do provide an avenue for artistic creation and even some usefulness, I find that lately I’ve been thinking about them as entertainment as well—some way to pass the time between nap and bedtime. How profoundly pointless.

In the past year, I have created. I wrote a poem. I wrote some scholarship. I had some meaningful conversations with people from whom I had something to learn. I wrote articles. I wrote these. But more so than ever before, I entertained myself as a coping mechanism to deal with some heartache and some loneliness and some general and newfound directionlessness. To fill the void, I’ve entertained myself with pointless distractions that are not really in accord with building and creating, even if only in small ways.

Last night, for New Year’s Eve, I fully intended to stay in (subzero temperatures also made this appealing). I wanted to take some time to read, write, and reflect on 2014 and see if there were any insights to gain based on my actions. Unexpectedly, I was invited to join a small soiree of my mom’s new work colleagues. I had to drag myself out of the house (as usual), but I am so glad I went. These people lived in a home they had built on a mountainside many decades earlier. The walls were covered with paintings, macramé, brocades, and batistes that had been carefully gathered from around the world. Guitars, a harmonica, and books were lying throughout the home, and cozy couches and chairs circled an open fireplace. It was a space conducive to wine and intimate conversation. It was a home I might aspire to create for myself one day.

The people were a generation or two older than me, old hippies, academics, retired doctors, all passionately interested in ideas. One retired doctor, in an old shirt so awesome it had come back in style, pulled me aside for an impassioned conversation about memory. “I am my memory, but memory is undeniably fallible. So, then, what am I?” I love this man, I thought. This is what Z will be like when he is old, I thought. In the end, on New Year’s Eve, I was surrounded by my people. I was not entertained. I was engaged in conversation. I was staying focused. I was learning. I was enriched. I spoke with several women, with beautiful white hair and wrinkled faces, who told me about how they’d done things a little differently, and how it had all been for the best and that I could do things a little differently too. I felt encouraged. I have to remember that.

It was a beautiful, life-affirming evening, and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come in 2015.

Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu

I watched Birdman over the break, and it’s a spectacular film worth seeing, especially if you haven’t already watch Aronofky’s The Wrestler or Black Swan—all portrayals of big celebrity personalities who have lost touch, or are losing touch, with reality. While Aronofsky is probably wondering how Alejandro González Iñárritu got ahold of his script, viewers are growing weary of the possibility of seeing suicide and self-harm, as emotionally unstable characters linger closer and closer to dangerous edges.

Michael Keaton is wonderful and nuanced and vulnerable, as are Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan. Emma Stone, who I love in over-the-top comedic and big blockbuster performances, seemed less capable of a performance en par with the work of her colleagues. It can’t be fun to be the novice among acting giants.

In part, the movie provides a delightful and smashing critique of…well, critique. And so, I am aware of the complexity of my own participation in the writing of a critique of the film. Bottom line, it was a pretty good film, with great actors, who did their best to bring new light to material and subject matter that has already been done to perfection by Darren Aronofsky.

we haven’t winterkilled yet

Tonight my grandfather asked if Z was with us for Christmas. After a weekend of cold, when a piece of metal bound the auger in the pellet stove, and then an emotional phone conversation where it was decided that no, not right now, not Portland, and then my dear mother, and then a windstorm that banged against the walls and woke us before 4am and knocked out the power, and the resulting cold and dark day, we concluded that it had indeed been the worst weekend.

The company couldn’t’ve been better, though. There were lots of hugs and kisses with my nephew, as much to keep warm as for assurance (the only child I can hold like this because he is mine), and violin/piano duets, while Mom and I pick away at our favorite (easiest?) Christmas carols. There are also mice, who usually have the courtesy to die quietly in traps. But one made contact, chewing on something in my bedroom until I awoke, flipped on the light, and saw it on the floor making aggressive eye contact.

The next night it lost a small amount of blood as it died instantly in a snap trap. This is the country, and we haven’t winterkilled yet. We don’t plan to start now.

cold sky

evening sky

on holiday shopping-inspired humiliations

I like to do my Christmas shopping before heading home for the holidays. The selection is pretty limited where I’m from, so I try to get things that are a little different than whatever the local Wal-Mart might have. I also really like to have everything wrapped and ready to go because I love seeing the excitement on my nephew’s face as we unload the presents and put them under the tree. I hope it’s at least a fraction of the thrill I felt each year when Grandma brought out her presents.

This year, I’m not decorating my own home for Christmas. I might just eat some of those Hershey’s candy cane kisses and call it a day. In general, I’m not much of a homemaker. I think that’s mostly because I’ve never had much of a home. In the past two years, I found that I really loved putting up Christmas lights, threading popcorn on a string, and decorating a little tree, but that was because I was sharing it with someone. As it turns out, ritual is better when you have someone to share it with.

Which brings me to my point, which is that for me, sharing rituals is the most intimate and humiliating part of relationships. Nothing feels better than reaching a point where participating in ritual with someone feels safe. But later, when the relationship is over, I always feel deep humiliation about the whole thing.

I think it’s because my rituals are sacred to me. My family home, and returning there throughout the year, is sacred to me. There is land and space and wonderful people who listen when you talk. There is peace and quiet to read books and have long conversations that last all morning. It’s a privilege to be able to spend time there, and it’s something I hold sacred and private. And, it’s all very humiliating when someone sees the ritual and experiences it for a little while, and then chooses something else. Oh, God. Nothing’s worse.

one year ago

one year ago

i do rush home

I rush home to play the piano. (Well, keyboard.) I listen to songs on the radio and try to figure them out while driving. I fill out all of the exercises in my lesson book just for the joy of it.

My mom’s pretty competent at the piano, but has always wanted to play the violin. She started taking lessons this summer and absolutely loved it. I, on the other hand, have always wanted to play the piano. I took lessons when I was very young, but they were short-lived.

This summer, my mom inspired me with her violin lessons. She kept saying things like, “I just love it,” and “It’s so great.” It’s probably the English major in me, but I’m always prompting her to explain what she means. “What’s great about it?” She couldn’t quite explain. Now, neither can I.

I found a teacher who lives nearby and signed up for lessons this fall. I immediately loved it and, like my mom, find myself sort of inarticulate about it: “It’s the best thing ever,” and “It’s just so great.” At first I really loved the forced meditation. Music requires your entire brain, and when I’m concentrating, there is no room for chatter. There is no room for anything else, and it is divine.

One of the things I miss from my last relationship is music. I miss singing (though I am shy!) and I miss hearing the new song and the song that’s dedicated to me. So, I’ve tried to create that for myself. I’ve been surprised by how quickly I’ve been able to move through the lesson book and how satisfying it is to play.

I’ve always felt drawn the to piano. I have always wanted to be able to play. I love the sound of the piano. I’m also really fast at typing (and I think that actually helps.)

I don’t know what else to say. See how rambling and incoherent I am about it? Other than just “YES! I am doing it! And it is so great!”

morning scene

morning scene

good cheer

I know someone who is always smiling and so, so cheerful–in a way that makes you know she suffers deeply. When the dance class barges in, throws on the blinding florescent lights, and breaks up savasana after my yoga class each week, I wear the same friendly perma-grin at them.

If my writing in the last year has seemed sort of hopeful/melancholy/eerily sober it’s because I’m trying. 2014 has probably been the worst year of my life, which is really great because I’m alive! and physically healthy! and I’m totally fine! Still, there are days when I’m still “keeping it together,” and “putting one foot in front of another,” and “monitoring the situation.” I write about love and gratitude because, truthfully, they’ve required more effort this year.

2012 was one of the best years of my life. I was falling in love again, and by the end of the year I was in deep. I earned my highest degree and got a piece of paper to prove it. I went on the job market and found a great job in a great place. I moved to a new city and in with my new love and spent my time rushing home from work to be with him. Life was good then. Undeniably richer, smarter, funnier.

This semester I’ve started to work later and later. I was there until after 10pm one night working on a big project. Previously, that would have never happened. While it is now bittersweet to find myself working late, and then staying a little later to miss the rush hour, in no real hurry to get home, I am grateful for that beautiful time when I was in love and my priority was, every day, being near him. It was a really lovely way to be in the world.

This is a lovely way to be in the world too.

fall flower

fall flower