Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Personal Cinematic History: the not-very-good movies division.

I believe that we saw The Addams Family Values in a little theater in Kearns, Utah, that is no longer standing. We saw it for one of the kids' birthday, so it was in the winter time. It must have been a dollar theater, because it was all of us, seven of us, and that was a lot of people to see a movie and maybe also get popcorn. It was, as it turns out, twenty years ago almost exactly.

I remember thinking, This is hilarious! with some surprise. The first Addams Family was no big deal, in my view. We were at the second because it was nominally a family-ish film (okay, PG-13, go ahead, judge me.), and because it was a dollar, and because we were celebrating a birthday. But I was laughing. We all were.

The rhythm of the film is kind of static. The jokes had set ups, and the actors stood still to deliver them, for the most part. It's stagy. But somehow this works. Somehow, it is funnier than maybe it has a right to be. For all its static staging, it zips along, too, and all the good parts keep coming and coming. You're not counting the minutes between laughs.  

One of my favorite things about any film--excellent to risible--are the little bits. Last night, we watched a swath of A Few Good Men--we generally do if we happen across it on television. By now, I have seen it so many times that I have specific bits I look forward to. I said to the historian tonight at dinner, "I just can't get enough of Tom Cruise mugging his way through those courtroom scenes. That smug expression on his face." He laughed, and cited the Jack Nicholson character calling him something derisive. And there are superb bits of dialogue that I relish when they roll by--like when Kevin Pollak's lawyer character asks Demi Moore's lawyer character why she likes the two guys they're defending, when he's just called them bullies, and she says (I like to stand up with excellent posture when I say it with her), "Because they stand on a wall, and say nothing's going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch." Brilliant and kitschy and Demi has never looked more beautiful than she does in that uniform. I live for that stuff.

I love the Addamses because they are weird and because, in this movie, they wonder (as we all do) if perhaps they should try to fit in a little more. Hence summer camp for Wednesday and Pugsley. Hence the nanny, and the ever-superb Joan Cusack playing her. There are so many delights that it is impossible to name them all, but I propose the following as one of my favorite of all monologues in movies. The misfits play the Indians to the WASPy Pilgrims in the summer camp play, written and staged by the camp director (played by Peter MacNicol):


"Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadside; you will play golf and enjoy hot hors d'oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation; your people will have stick-shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, "Do not trust the Pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller." And for all these reasons, I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground."

I hope you, the people, have a happy Thanksgiving. As for me and my people, tomorrow we will wear cardigans (no highballs) and eat hot hors d'oeuvres, though I do hope our village doesn't get burned to the ground. Yours, either.

(As researched (!) this post, I found a couple of things I recommend--this delightful article from The Guardian, and this weird and interesting feature about the making of the film from the points of view of cast and crew.) (<< value-added feature of The Megastore*.)

(*but there will be no shopping on Thanksgiving, or on the day after Thanksgiving either. We do have standards around here. Some standards.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Notes from my personal cinematic history.

I wanted to be her.
1. Nanny.
2. Neglected children.
3. Nun.

The three N's, the people, which lead us inexorably to The Sound of Music, where, indeed, the hills were alive with the sound of

4. Nazis,

(and also music, of course).

Were there neglected children in this story? Indeed there were--their mother had died. Did they need a governess, aka nanny? Indeed they did! And who better to be this nanny, aka governess, than a nun, or novice, or Julie Andrews with the hairdo of a boy five weeks past his haircut appointment? No one, that's who.

The Sound of Music, too, was in the heavy rotation of the Saturday chore-doing music of my growing up years. So it goes without saying that I knew all the words and could sing all the parts to each and every one of the songs. I don't know if anyone ever actually caught me singing all the parts of "So Long, Farewell," but I certainly could, whilst cleaning the mirror tiles on our entryway wall. And it is also true that I mustered a superb Mother Superior voice for "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," like a champ, epic and heartfelt, with the heavy vibrato that she pulled from the depths of her wise, epic soul.

But the secret "N" of The Sound of Music is nuptial, as in that spectacular wedding scene:

I wanted my wedding to have that much veil in it.
Holy amazing veil! and stately music that reiterates an earlier theme about how she was kind of a troublemaker but still lovable! And all those adorable Von Trapp children fluffing her trappings prior to the processional! Well, that's a wedding, is all I can say. Also this was pretty good:

Not too long ago, I went with friends to the sing-along Sound of Music at The Tower. It could not have been more wonderful. There I was, singing the second and third verses with rawther perfect recall, but softly, because most people had dropped out after the first verse. (That was probably good sing-along etiquette on their part, if you want to know the truth.)

But Christopher Plummer, the people! His faintly--and not-so-faintly--disdainful air. His patrician bearing and his way with a guitar. His courtly and--it must be said--sexy way with the choreographed Ländler:

Hell yes.
Good heavens. I'd forgotten that, but there it was: hot Captain Von Trapp, dancing his way into a confusing but very gratifying declaration of love to Maria. She runs away, the Mother S. tells her to quit her mousing around and meet her destiny. Awesome veil, cathedral wedding, Nazis, and a daring escape.

I guess Christopher Plummer didn't much like the movie when he was working on it. "The Sound of Mucus," he acknowledges now having said at the time. But that hauteur actually worked for the role, I think. And those songs are undeniably splendid, and Julie A. never looked more lovely, even working marionettes or wearing a dress made out of draperies, or glowing next to the super-refined but unlucky-in-love Baroness. Julie the Nun was the star, even wearing an unlovely dress.

"You brought music back into the house. I had forgotten," the Captain said to her. Yes: his heart beat and sighed with it, the hills alive with it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What is praying?

I am asking myself. I feel I have never been particularly good at it, at least not in the form that I think of as prayer.

I was talking about it this week with one of my sons, then another. A friend of the family, my son's friend particularly, is in the hospital, in a coma. We are all thinking of him and waiting for news, hoping that the news will be good.

Does it comfort you to think that maybe just keeping him in your heart and your thoughts is a kind of prayer?  I asked my son.

Does it comfort me to think this?

I am trying to keep an image of David, our friend, in my thoughts. An image of him happy. A lively image.

Is this prayer? Is it important that it be prayer?

I remember when I was in Vermont at the artists' colony. The founders of the colony practiced Buddhism. At the time, I felt skeptical of this, and thought of it as an appropriation of a religious tradition from an entire other culture.

One of my new friends at the colony, a poet, said, The idea is that the person meditating thinks of the suffering of the world and holds it in her kind Buddhist heart.

Appropriation or not, how could this be wrong?

In the spiritual tradition of my people, there is a scripture that calls upon the believer to cry to the Lord when ye are in your fields and over all your household, morning and mid-day and evening. Other places, too--the volume and breadth of the locations of this cry to God seemed to me, always, to suggest that a person could keep a prayer--a cry, a thought, a gesture--always with her. Often, at least.

I am remembering the times he was in my house, when he ate something I made, when he and my son were talking.

I am thinking about my sons and my daughters.

I am hoping soon to hear that David is awake and alive. I am hoping. In my heart, he is awake and alive.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Personal cinematic history.

The first movie I loved was Mary Poppins.

(The second movie I loved was The Sound of Music. I think we can see a theme here, a Julie Andrews related theme. O! Julie Andrews! what a wonderful set of pipes you had! What a range! And such impeccable diction!)

What Mary Poppins was about, firstly, was the children, the poor neglected children, who just wanted a nanny who did not
my first cinematic fixation.

  • smell of barley water
and who would
  • love them as a son or daughter,
and a few other sundry qualifications such as
  • no warts,
  • rosy cheeks,
  • witty
  • very sweet
  • fairly pretty.
And also, and for good measure,
  • play games, all sorts
  • sing songs
  • bring sweets
  • never cross
  • nor cruel
  • never feed them castor oil or gruel 
(Jane and Michael Banks had mad flow and rhyming skillz.)

It goes without saying, of course, that they wanted no
  • scolding nor dominating.
I loved this song so much that I rehearsed it so I could sing it at parties. Even though I was never actually invited to sing it at a party. My performance may not have been as delightful as I imagined.

I could have watched that movie all day, every day, for a protracted period in the 1st to 2nd grade era of my life. I have no actual memory of seeing it in a theater, although I'm sure that I did. I do remember, however, watching it with avid attention on The Wonderful World of Disney.  I am pretty sure that I also had Mary Poppins paper dolls, although I might be making that up, since I also remember with great vividness a cloisonnĂ© ring, white with a tiny pink rose, that I apparently had when I was, like, five, but my best friend stole it from me. Or maybe I dreamed it. 

I am, however, pretty sure that I listened to the music from the movie every Saturday of my young life, because, starting fairly early each Saturday morning, my father always played a reel-to-reel tape with all sorts of music for our enjoyment while we did our chores. I believe it was Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The Singing Nun, and Camelot.  Why The Singing Nun? "Dominique," that's why. 

I also liked to let my voice and spirits soar with the Bird Woman of St. Paul's. Who didn't? If you ever go to St. Paul's, which I highly recommend--definitely go up to the Whispering Gallery--I defy you not to hear this song in some ancient chamber of your mind, where the old movies are playing on a continuous loop, and you are still trying to appeal to the perfect nanny to come to you, bringing sweets and carrying a carpet bag with all manner of mysteries inside.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Megastore recommends.

I would like a patch for the
weather eye. Wouldn't you?
1. Keeping a weather eye open. I am, perhaps, in the minority here, but I do love a storm, and I do love a bout of weather descending upon us. I like the dark descending and I like it to descend decisively. This, however, is not what I am about to recommend. In fact, I'm starting to feel a little sheepish about my all snow or nothing at all! mentality.

What I'm recommending instead is the historian's weather eye, which is focused on the warm afternoon and the opportunity for a bike ride.

"I don't know if you're interested, but I thought I'd take Bruiser over the playground and let him romp around," he said to me, peering into my cave/study. Where I was huddled over my laptop, grading.

"Give me five minutes," I said, thinking, I can just finish this discussion.

Which I did, almost, and then put my shoes on.

"If you wanted to, you could ride your bike over," he said. "Or otherwise, we could take your car."

That's because the back of his car is filled with his bike. In case beautiful weather breaks out and he can take a spontaneous ride.

"No, I'll ride my bike." And, reader, that bike was a good reminder that on a golden afternoon, regardless of whether it happens to be in the first part of November when by golly it oughta be cold, you should bust out your bike for a spin if you can. And for heaven's sake, wear your helmet.

I personally like to don a pinafore
for my Friday morning writing.
2. Writing. This past Friday was my writing group. I kept thinking there might be a poem about to happen. I had been hauling around a lovely image for a week and a half, and then I came across another image and I thought I could get the two images together and they might copulate, as it were, and a bouncing new poem might be in the offing.

Alas, no. Even so, I did get the two images together and I thought some more about the slightly disappointing Michaelmas daisies that are in my front yard (they are a slightly wan color, where many Michaelmas daisies are a lovely more intense lilac), and so I looked up Michaelmas, which gave me plenty more material and I am BAM on my way to a poem, maybe. Feels good. I recommend it.

My quiet afternoons would totally
look just like this, if I were in Tuscany.
3. A quiet afternoon. Oh how I love a quiet afternoon. I sometimes fight with myself about the overflow of joys I have in my life (the fact that I fight with myself about them is absurd and yet ongoing). But when a quiet afternoon happens--unspoken for, without claim--I love it, and when I seize it with all my energy and powers, it makes me feel restored and capable, like I am living my life and it is not living me. You can grade, read the paper, and eat a sandwich, take a break. You can make a list and check things off the list one two three. Quiet afternoons are so choice! Should you have the means, I highly recommend that you pick one up.

Did you know that naps had science?
They do! This graph is science!
4. Nap Saturday. I don't want all my Saturdays to be nap-centric. But sometimes after a very busy week, when you haven't slept all that well and you have run hither and yon and you are perhaps behind in your work, a nap will be just the thing. A nap will make you lie down and stop running hither and yon. A nap will slow you down. A nap will let your cells unclench their cellular fists. A nap will make your limbic eyelids stop twitching. A nap will put you in your comfortable clothes and make you soak in the sunlight pouring in the window. A nap, in short, will save your life, if not forever then for today, and today is something worth saving, now, isn't it?

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Graphic credit: Carl Richards via The New York Times
We have a lot of it.

That is not all.

We have made the monumental decision to improve the basement of our house by getting sheetrock and better ceilings and a couple of power outlets in the hall and new carpet in the bedrooms and some other shenanigans I don't know what all.

This necessitated removing stuff from the rooms that are to be improved.

So. Much. Stuff.

The untidiness!

The Gatorade bottles, empty, under certain people's beds!

"We have got to get rid of some of this furniture," I said, emphatically, to the historian, while sitting on some of the furniture that we might have to get rid of.

"I promise," said the historian.

Tomorrow, the wrecking ball.

I mean the contractors.

As God is my witness, we will get rid of some of that stuff.

And that IS

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The dark.

Darlings! I am officially at that moment of the year when it is 6:43 p.m. and I feel like, what, is it bedtime yet? So dark. Also: cold. And I feel a tad sniffly, like maybe there's a cold about to happen, because my sleep, she is all mixed up.

But never mind. Today, I added yet another item to my permanent collection of long cardigans (cozy division), and have spent time burrowing into the cinematic (not really) archives of my screencasts, only to come to the inescapable conclusion that

  • although the screencaster seeks to make a durable instructional artifact,
  • time and tide do transform the landscape of, well, everything, and lo the screencasts of yesteryear do in the cold light(-ish) of day seem veritably old-timey and unbearably dated, and thus
  • the screencaster feels called to make a new one. Yes,
  • a new screencast, on an old topic, but with new examples and less static slides.
  • woe.
But never mind. Today for lunch I made a sandwich on a pretzel roll which, whoa, they are good. What was on my sandwich, you ask? Well! 
  • since we're working in bullet points, it was
  • melted gruyere and
  • avocado and
  • lots of little cut-up cherry tomatoes and
  • Maldon salt (infinitely better than regular salt, I swear it!), and
  • pepper, obvs, and
  • arugula.
I made it
  • open-faced
so that I could prolong the pleasure. And lo it was very good.

Also, I made a new screencast, and captioned it. And I made a
  • list of the other tasks I have to do,
  • none of which I have actually "accomplished."
So: good day.

Recently, my friend Ann, whose writing I have been reading for more than 30 years, true story!, asked me to answer these questions, called The Blog Tour. (you can read her answers here.)

1. What are you working on right now?

Right now, I'm revising a manuscript of poems. I'm writing new poems from time to time as well.

2. How does it differ form other works in its genre?

Hey, Blog Tour questions, when I read this question yesterday, it sent me into an existential crisis! How the hell should I know how it differs from other works in the genre? I can barely wrap my mind around these two facts:

  • (a) I am a poet. And
  • (2) WHY.
Welllll, it's a manuscript of poems. It still has some religion in it, which maybe is out of style these days? Or not. It is lyric. It feels urgent to me, and also late (maybe this is because I am getting older?). But in that it is lyric and deals with the usual lyric questions (beauty, joy/melancholy, death and loss, the persistence of song), I guess it is kind of of a piece with lyric poetry, that ancient art.

3. Why do you write what you do?

My answer to this may sound flippant, but it's true: because I can. Because I can, I do.

4. How does your writing process work?

I am currently not in much of a writing groove. But when I am, I more or less regularly write stuff down that I mentally tag "poem-ish" or "possibly poem-ish" or "smells like teen poetry." I have a document called "Daily Writing" that I write in semi-annually, which is where I record the poem-ish material. Sometimes--lucky times--a poem will come to me almost whole, or at least the whole gesture, or nearly the whole gesture. In that case I write it down, if I'm smart. I'm not always smart.

If I don't get the whole poem or the whole gesture, then periodically I go back through my notes and see what seems interesting. Sometimes, I take the interesting bits and create a new document to see if I can make something happen. Sometimes the "Daily Writing" document will give me an idea and I let that idea stew for a while, and then I see if I can make something out of that stewing.

I remember reading Stanley Kunitz, who said that when he was young he wrote all the time; as he got older, poems came to him less frequently. Philip Levine said that John Berryman told him, "When you are young, write everything that occurs to you." I did that, when I was younger. Right now, not so much is happening. But it will. I actually, now, kind of have faith in poetry. Right now, I am revising and shaping that manuscript. That is part of my process as well.

I am supposed to tag some of you, so watch out! I WILL TAG YOU.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

To bake a pumpkin pie.

First, you must have purchased a pie pumpkin. These are generally round and compact and not of jack-o'-lantern proportions, rather smallish, modest, without aspirations for Cinderella transport or anything of the sort.

A Google Images reenactment
of my pumpkin pie/tart.
Next, you must assess your time and space availability. Because you will need to make a crust. You will need to roast the pumpkin. You should allow for the possible difficulties, crust-wise, and you must assess your butter stores. This is important. Without enough butter, your pie crust will be tricky, and you will not be happy.

You must develop a Plan A and a Plan B and possibly a Plan C. Plan A is the one where you make the pie dough the night before, so that it can "rest" and be at peace with itself. Plan A is the one where you come home from the movie on Friday night, get out your butter--ample and sufficient--and cut it into tiny cubes and rub it with your fingers into the flour, &c. &c. until the dough "gathers" into a "ball," and you press it into a flat round and put it in the refrigerator.

Plan B is where you decide you can do all of that the next day, the day the pie is to be taken to a party. And why not? In Plan B, you remind yourself of all the pies you've recently made, very successfully, you remind yourself, and also why be so ahead of yourself, when you're tired, heaven knows you are? And you still have to walk the dog?

Fourthly, at 4 p.m. the day of the party, you must reckon with the fact that you may have left yourself only barely enough time to make this damn pie.

Fifthly, you must reckon with the fact that you have only barely enough butter. Maybe not even quite that much.

Sixthly, you will forge ahead and make a pie dough that perhaps exhibits the symptoms of the not-quite-enough-butter factor, and thus the mark of a smallish bit of over handling. Alas.

HOWEVER: The fact that you have engaged with pie dough with great success and quite recently to boot will mean that the pie dough does not quite get the best of you. Almost but not quite. It will be crack-y and difficult, it will not quite cohere, it will show the seams. It will, in fact, deconstruct itself.


When you whip up the roasted pumpkin with half and half and eggs and spices, &c. & c., when you dice up candied ginger and strew it in the bottom of your tart pan, when you in fact use a tart pan, which elevates your difficult crust into something slightly more suave, something slightly more European, when you bake the pie/tart, and an ineffable aroma disseminates and insinuates itself into the kitchen and then into the byways of the house:

THEN your pie will have arrived and fulfilled its destiny, and you will have nothing to apologize for. You will take it to the party and serve it up in tiny slices, and you will be glad yet again not just for this pie, or the arrival of pumpkin season, but for the category of pie itself.

And that will be that.


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