Archive for February 2010

Citizens of The World

February 21, 2010
I don’t really watch the news anymore. I know I should be updated on current events, but between work and running a household, by the time ten p.m. rolls around, I’m too tired to focus. I get the majority of my news from the radio on my drive in to work, or occasionally reading a news magazine on the weekend. So, when Haiti was hit by an earthquake on January 12th, it was no more than a news snippet to me. Perhaps there’s so much global tragedy that over time I’ve become a little desensitized to it.

I’m friends on Facebook with a full time counselor and pastor that I know. He asked his Facebook friends for donations to send an E.R. doc down to Haiti to help in the aftermath of the earthquake. In return, he would post daily updates on the funds received and how they were being used. I’m going to be honest here, I ignored that request for a few days. It was a good idea in theory, but did my donation or lack of it really matter in the long run? Didn’t one of the news snippets I heard on the radio mention that the country was turning help away because they couldn’t even get the aid planes to land? This is how I rationalized my lack of immediate response.

And then, the Facebook updates started to talk about the 300 patients this one doctor was in charge of, and how many surgeries were done without anesthesia because there wasn’t enough for everyone and life altering decisions had to be made. The doctor said there were bodies piled up higher than he was tall. He witnessed a teenager executed in the airport as he was landing. He mentioned that not only did he need physical strength, but emotional stamina as well just to endure the horrors and try to help those he could. Suddenly, I was no longer desensitized.

I sent a donation. It might not save a life – that small donation by itself, but together with donations from twenty or a hundred or a thousand other people, it will make a difference. Someone will live that might not have been able to otherwise. Someone will have shelter or food or just hope in the midst of despair. That’s worth my time. That’s worth staying up past ten p.m. so I can watch and learn a little more and make better decisions tomorrow. My corner of the world is made up of my children and work and my friends. But I’m also a citizen of the world, and I need to maintain that perspective and respond in kind when there’s a need.

Oh my God, they killed Hanzel!”

February 21, 2010

(Written by my son, Andrew)

I feel like the Nazi party is sort of an overused gimmick in action movies. Yes, they were an unequivocally evil group and important to the unfolding of European and world history, but do movie writers really care about that? More often than not, Nazis are portrayed as generic bad guys with silly accents who could just as easily have been replaced with terrorists, space aliens, or particularly belligerent fast food employees with no detriment to the plot. James Bond did this, as did Indiana Jones, so forgive me if the trailer for Inglourious Basterds (misspelled to sound extra American and heroic, I’m sure) set off an invisible cynicism alarm in my head.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie that requires a clear dichotomy of good and evil, all the better to turn it on its head. This gem of a film is brought to us by Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill fame, and if those movies are any reference, you could anticipate a non-linear plot, lengthy flowing dialogue, and a cast of characters who, on average, commit three murders before attempting the morning crossword (or Sudoku, those American swine). And you would be right. The plot of Basterds unfolds in five chapters, centering around an elite band of Nazi-killing Jews and the German officer who is trying to stop them. The setting hops around 1940’s France and Germany, so be prepared for plenty of subtitles.

            Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the titular Basterds. This is a man who approaches killing Nazis with the passion and creativity of an artist. He kills them with guns, kills them with bats, kills them with bombs, and watching him lean over a Nazi holding a Bowie knife looks eerily similar to the castration scene from Fight Club, making him resemble a scarier, more Southern Tyler Durden (who Pitt also portrayed, so perhaps Tarantino is throwing us an Easter egg). Don’t let the high body count make you believe this movie wants to be taken too seriously, though. A few characters are introduced with rock music and neon-yellow letters, fulfilling my dream of integrating Nazi war films with Pop-Up Video. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to a couple irrelevant narrations to heighten the VH1 feel, and historical accuracy is shown the door by the end of chapter five. The “did that just happen?” ending is a feat in itself; it forces us to admit that up to this point we had accepted these strange characters with their strange accents and their odd, breezy manner of speaking.

            And oh, does Christoph Waltz shine here. This actor’s portrayal of Hans Landa, a sinister, gentlemanly “Jew hunter” has already landed him an award at Cannes, and it won’t be long before he’s on the Oscar circuit. Here is a villain that doesn’t need a badge or weapons to come off as intimidating; he accomplishes this by being devilishly, menacingly polite. On three separate occasions, when interrogating people on the whereabouts of missing Jews or enemy soldiers, he never once has to raise his voice or use an accusatory tone. Because he knows. And they know he knows. And he knows they know he knows. He just sits, making curt insinuations while smoking a pipe or enjoying some strudel. These encounters were resolved before they even started, and all that’s left is to watch his opponents fold like cards. Waltz works in just enough irony and self-awareness to make this monster of a character very amusing and likeable. As likeable as a Nazi can be, anyway.

            If this movie doesn’t humanize Nazis, it brings everyone else down to their level. There is not one major character who doesn’t commit genocide. We’ll not bother counting all the treason, property damage, and improper restaurant etiquette (I was raised to tip my waitresses even after shooting them dead). And yet, watching a young German officer hit on the lovely French theatre owner is very cute. When Hitler himself complements a film director’s newest release, he is almost brought to tears. Is it wrong that I find this touching? We know who the Basterds are, the movie poster tells us as much. But who are the actual bastards? Claim, defend, and rebuttal all you want, because Tarantino knows what any of his characters would say: they’re the men in the other uniforms.

The Soloist

February 21, 2010

I like movies.  I like the commonality of the audience – we as one want to be entertained, or frightened, or have our funny bones tickled.  I like all kinds of movies, and it’s something my daughter and I do together almost every weekend.  A good movie will empty my head of the week, make me relax, and show me a good time.  But, to be honest, most of the time I’ve forgotten about the movie I saw on Friday night by Monday morning.  If someone asks me how it was, I’ll give it a “B” to be fair, unless it’s really awful.

And then there are the other kinds of movies.  Those movies that challenge me, provoke me, transform me so completely into it’s story that I can almost feel the characters sitting next to me and teaching me something about myself or the world that I didn’t realize before.  Movies that fit that category for me are few and far between.  “Schindler’s List”, “Rain Man”, and “Awakenings” are a few that inhabit that very exclusive and personal list for me.  And now I have a new edition to that list – “The Soloist”.

My youngest son and I went to see “The Soloist” together last Friday night.  He’s nearly 16, and altogether too cool to hang out in public with his mom, but he knew the movie was going to be about music, and philanthropy, and those are two things that are important to him – so we went together.  At one point he laid his hand over my arm.  Neither of us could tear our gaze from the screen, but it was that one point that we had to share together.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but if you’ve seen the previews or watched the news program that interviewed the two main characters, you’ll know the basics.  A columnist for the Los Angeles Times (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and the homeless man that he encounters (played by Jamie Foxx) and eventually befriends are the central characters of the movie.  The homeless man is at first a means to an end for the columnist – just another way to fill another byline.  The story doesn’t have a happy, pat ending – there’s no miracle cure for mental illness or homelessness, really.  It’s the journey of these two characters together that’s so transforming.

The moment where my son grabbed my arm – this scene where the homeless man is first given a cello from a reader sent through the reporter.  He’s in a tunnel under the streets of Los Angeles, cars are whizzing by, there’s filth and noise and the moment seems innocuous at first.  And then Jamie Foxx lifts that cello out of the box, sits on a milk crate and plays.  He closes his eyes to either shield himself from his life for a moment or to keep the emotion from pouring down his face, I couldn’t tell.  He didn’t need his eyes open to convey his despair and joy and wonder.  Robert Downey Jr. was equally mesmerizing as he wordlessly stopped being a reporter looking for a great hook and was instead honored to be reminded of where passion lives.  The only sounds filling the movie theatre besides the cello’s symphony were the light swishing of the pigeons wings as they flew out of the tunnel and rose to the sky in accordant applause.

I would highly recommend this movie.  I hope that it also teaches you something about preconceived notions and good intentions in the face of such complex problems as homelessness and mental illness and defining hope for each person – one person at a time.

The Land Of The Free

February 21, 2010

Sometimes Americans get an undeserved rep.  We’ve been told that we’re the “ugly Americans” when we are abroad, that we believe the world is our playground, that we have no sense of history or propriety or respect for ideas that are different than our own.  There are a little over 306 million of us, according to the US census bureau.  I think trying to characterize our experiences or our world view in one sweeping statement would be impossible.  I can only offer my sentiments and my experience.

Perhaps we’re a little taken aback by the history or the traditions of other countries, because we live in a country that’s only a toddler in the world perspective – we’re only a little over 200 years old.  We don’t have a tower that’s been protecting the city since the 13th century.  We don’t have a great wall constructed by our citizens that started over two thousand years ago.  It’s not disrespect that makes us loud as much as it’s our giddy wonder to discover something so different than our own experience.  We’re a loud bunch of people – us Americans.  We express our loyalty or our opposition very vocally at any sports stadium or neighborhood bar across our land.  We’re not shy to give you our opinion on anything from Rachel Ray to the Dodgers. 

It all comes down to freedom.  For most of us, we’ve never known anything but freedom.  We believe it’s our right to go as we please, to disagree with our spouses or protest our elected officials or write scathing commentary on any subject that heats us up.  Our ability to choose is so embedded in our personal and national identity that we put it on like a cloak over our jogging suit or sports blazer or cocktail dress.  

That freedom has a price, however.  I’ve stood in the middle of a national cemetery and looked at the rows of white tombstones and I’ve counted the cost.  I’ve been to my sister-in-law’s house and watched her hug her son one last time before he reported for duty overseas. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a few places outside the United States.  No matter where I’ve been or at what stage in my life I’ve traveled, it’s always that first moment when I’m back on native soil that I feel like I can breathe again.  It’s “home” to me, and 306 million other men and women.  May we never take it for granted.

My Favorite Place On Earth

February 21, 2010

I’ve heard people say that they use a technique where they visualize they are somewhere else while they are going through something unpleasant.  This technique is very useful, so I’ve heard, when you’re at the dentist’s office or trying to fall asleep in a strange city.  I’ve been told to “image my favorite place on earth”.   I haven’t really given that a lot of thought until now.  Where would my favorite place on earth be?

When I was young, my favorite place was simply at the end of the block.  My friends and I would walk down the street to the little forest preserve with a paper bag full of bologna sandwiches and a jar for catching bugs.  My only requirement for my favorite place is that I could share it with my friends, and that there was both a sense of the familiar and an element of surprise entwined in the destination.

By the time I was in college, with all the demands that entailed, my favorite place was this little window seat at the top stairwell of Blanchard Hall.  The sun would always warm the corner in the late afternoon, and I could put my feet up with a book or simply watch the passerby four stories below and daydream a little.  My favorite place became more about relaxation and less about adventure.

I have a favorite place on earth that I carry myself to in my imagination when I’m stressed or restless or apprehensive now.  It’s not an actual place, I’ve never been there.  There’s a big house on a beach with a wrap around porch and battered white rocking chairs.  There’s a breeze that’s soft on the porch but more demanding out on the water, creating that constant melody of the sea hitting the rocks as it laps against the shore.  I can hear birds in the distance and the soft, faraway sound of children laughing.  Sometimes I have a book, but mostly I’m simply immersed in thought.  But always there’s someone I love next to me, and the squeaking of the chair as it rocks against the porch is a wordless comfort.

Smelling the Roses and Other Small Pleasures

February 21, 2010

As I write this, I can look out the window and see the sun.  Two of my windows are propped open, because today is one of those days when we realize that winter won’t last forever and spring is coming.  We will be able to put those wool coats in the basement again, see flowers blooming at street corners and around parks in the neighborhood, and go to the zoo without facing the arctic wind.

I wonder if we can’t apply that to other areas of our lives as well.  How many of us have been through a “winter”, a time when anxiety or grief or uncertainty has surrounded us because of our circumstances?  We hear more bad news daily about the economy, we turn on the radio and hear about illness or joblessness or foreclosure.  It used to always happen to the “other guy”, didn’t it?  But sometimes those people are us.

And while I am certainly not minimizing the hard times, or saying that a pat on the head and a shove in the right direction will magically get us through it, I am wondering about that sun.  You know, the one day when you’re actually smiling again and someone makes you laugh and that feeling in the pit of your stomach is actually anticipation.

I took the day off today to prepare for a dinner party at my house tonight.  Seven women that are dear to me will be sitting around my table, sharing stories and (hopefully) eating a decent meal.  I’ve thought of little else all week.  I’ve planned and shopped and made lists and my kids are even now rolling their eyes behind my back.

But you know what?  It’s not about the food or how clean my house is or whether I bought enough bottles of wine.  It’s about people that have stood with me during my own tough times, and this is a small way to say thanks.  And yes, in some way today, I can see that there will be sunshine in my life again.

Here’s To The Girlfriends

February 21, 2010

Do you remember the time when you’re friends were simply vital to your existence?  You rushed out every summer morning to meet them, the day shimmering with possibilities.  My girlfriends and I would dance in our bedrooms with window sheer hair dressings and ice cream scoop microphones to the steady beat of “Philadelphia Freedom” blaring on my record player.  We would grab flashlights and play “Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard” in the empty lot across the street, giddy with the freedom of being out after dark.  We would break up over hopscotch and make up over a PB and J later in the afternoon.  Our Barbies fell in love with Ken or G.I. Joe, or became Miss America, or lost their little high heels while riding in the pink wicker baskets on the front of our Schwinns. 

Then we grew up.  The girlfriends took second place to the boyfriends, then the husbands and kids and jobs and in-laws and sitters.  Our biggest connection to another woman was chatting up the goalie’s mom on the sidelines while we waited for the next soccer game to finally end.  We still had friends, of course, but generally we would shoot of a quick e-mail or steal a few minutes on the phone while chauffeuring our kids to their next event.

Late last week I was working at my desk when two of my friends came around the corner to drag me away for lunch.  We pulled up a menu online and chattered like magpies discussing the cons of calories versus the big pro of a chocolate banana shake.  (The shake won.)  I walked down the hallway after lunch and it suddenly occurred to me – I had discovered the value of girlfriends all over again.

They are our secret keepers, our obsession sharers, our strongest allies and our goofiest partners in crime.  If you find a good one, she knows the companionship of silence and the distraction of chatter, and she’ll know which one is needed at that moment.  She’ll applaud your purse choices, “ooh” and “aahh” over your new pair of sandals, and look at every single picture you snapped of your five year old’s birthday party.  She’ll take your keys when you’ve had one too many, find the nearest chick flick and make a date with you, and teach you how to make up a new poker game on the spot.

So, here’s to the girlfriends.  I once thought it was nonsense that psychologists said women are the more social of the sexes.  I understand that now.  Whether you’re ten or you’re eighty, you need the balance of a few good girlfriends in your life.  Ask the soccer mom standing next to you or the new lady one cube over out to lunch one day.  It might just be the start of a great friendship.