Friday, August 08, 2014

My Brother is Leaving

My brother is leaving LA and moving (back) to Chicago. I'm happy for him, because it feel like a change, and it feels he's been looking for a change, but I'm also sad because he will be gone.  Although we are certainly different in many ways, in other ways, of my siblings, we have the most in common in terms of sensibility, and so in some ways he is the closest person I have to myself.

If they are not sudden, partings have a a rhythm in their chronology.  The parting is known but it is far away. You will see the person a dozen more times: the thrumming drum of the parting is muffled by all the times that stand between any of those times and the last time. A dozen times becomes several times, several times become a couple of times... and finally it is the last time--the time after which the person will get in a car or on a plane, or some metaphorical boat to the underworld and go someplace different and far away.

And the last time, the awareness of it being the last time floats and lands, floats and lands through your time together. You think "this is the last time," and then for a few moments you forget it is the last time, and then you remember and thing, "this is the last time."

In thinking of this and being sad, I am also being over-dramatic, because Chicago is hardly the ends of the earth, and as family, we will certainly see each other a few times a year.  It's not like saying goodbye to our friends in Australia almost a decade ago, or like saying goodbye to my father the last time before he died. But I think maybe all the big goodbyes in my life have sensitized me to the smaller ones as well, stubbing the toe that was broken.  If I let myself remember, the small goodbyes are just rehearsals for the biggest goodbyes. In every case, with no exceptions, the big goodbye is out there, a gong echoing and reverberating through the years of  padding between then and now, saying "I am here."

Yeah--that's  weird metaphor juxtaposed with other questionable metaphor, but hey, I'm writing sad--because I'll see my brother on Sunday, and it will be the last time I see my brother before he moves away.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Let's Go for Three

Got a call from my doctor / surgeon yesterday.  "Surgeon" is perhaps not the right word for him, because we do a pretty good job of not using the word "surgery" for the minor procedures I've had this year.  Instead we call them "procedures." A "surgery" is defined by Merriam Webster as medical treatment in which a doctor cuts into someone's body in order to repair or remove damaged or diseased parts. So I guess it depends on your definition of "cutting into."  Does that refer only to cutting through one's outer epidermis?  Or does it also apply if another mode of entry to the body and organs is used, and then the doctor cuts and burns things away?  Unsure.

But earlier this year I went in for a colonoscopy and the doctor cut and removed "damaged or diseased parts." Unfortunately there was one area that was too complex for that procedure, so we had to schedule another procedure with another procedurist shortly thereafter.  The call yesterday was that procedurist explaining that although the procedure was largely successful, there was a tiny bit of the bad tissue "in the margin," so it would be necessary to go in and "clean that up," in a few months. Three procedures in less than a year is a new record for me.

With my history, of course the most important words are--and the doctor used them many times--"not cancer."  It's not cancer.  It's just tissue that might become cancer, except that we won't let it.

So, happy dance for that--always.

And yet.

There is always an emotional fallout from such phone calls.  News like this has a tendency to come just at those moments where I am thinking about making changes in my life. When I'm feeling "normal."  Literally, for the past week I have been making plans (and even taking actions) for "moving forward," telling myself that I am not trapped in any of the circumstances of my life, that I have a diverse skill set and I can find lots of interesting things to with it, I don't have to be stuck by pre-conceptions, I don't need to be tethered by any reality that is not of my own construction. These were the pep-talks I was having with myself.

The reminder of how parts of my body, while "not cancer" seem intent on becoming cancer is a reminder of how dependent I am on our health-care system.  That is a  reality that does not seem to be  of my own making.

Thus I am tethered.

I am tethered. If I feel there is injustice or ingratitude in a situation, I cannot escape it so easily.  I can't just fly away whenever I want and look over the landscape for something better.  I can make moves, but they will be constricted and complicated because tethered.  I can take the time to dig up the post and I can carry it with me. I can carry the post and I can walk. But I can't fly. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chemists Are Awesome

Paul and I took a long-weekend road-trip this past weekend.  We spent one day exploring Berkeley, CA, one day in San Francisco, and two days of driving.  Paul and I get along well on drives, so the whole thing was pretty fun.  We stayed in Berkeley with a retired faculty member from my job who recently retired and moved there. He and his wife were lovely hosts, taking us to Berkeley Pier, Aquatic Park, the Berkeley campus and down around Telegraph Avenue where Paul scored a Nutella crepe.

This was the first time I'd met the wife of our acquaintance. She had some good stories. She was born in Hungary but her parents had to emigrate because of World War II. She lived in Venezuela and Canada before the United States.

When she was young, and her family was trying to get out of the country (more worried about the Russians than the Germans at that point) her father, who was a chemist, had the idea to make long matches, which apparently were hard to come by--because he was able to use these to bribe passage for his family of four on a river-barge that carried them up the Danube all the way to Munich.

In Munich they spent several months in an ex-enemy camp, where her father built a still and made alcohol, which he could then trade for food to feed the camp.

Basically, her dad was like Walter White, but a good guy.

She also told another story about the camp that wasn't about her dad.  Somehow, the people in the camp had managed to get a live pig, which they expected to be delicious, but for some reason, the officials wanted to confiscate the pig (maybe they thought it would be delicious too).  The crafty people of the camp dress their pig up in a woman's clothes and sat him on a toilet in the outhouse.  The guards made only a cursory check into the outhouse, and did not recognize the pig. After they left, there was celebration, and, I assume that not long after bacon was had by all.


Just in case you ever need to know how--here's how to make a match.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Road Trip!

Yesterday, Paul and I embarked on a little road trip up to Berkeley and San Francisco. It officially started here:

 This is the restaurant's owner:

I thought his name might be Jack or Joe, but it was Mark. He explained that Jack was for "flap jacks" and Joe was like "cup of Joe". He was excited for our trip.

When I got to the car, Paul told me that he and his wife had started the place after their daughter died to have a place to put their energies. He'd read that on the internet! I was struck by how people are struck by misfortune and then keep living...and by how the discombobulating the internet is, making the whole world seem like a small town where you know things about people.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After Life

Someone I know from my place of work died recently.  He'd had an interesting life: He'd served in the military then done well in academia. He married four times and had a number of children. As the person who processed his expense reports, I can say that in very recent years he spent months at a time in England and Italy, and that he ate well--like I imagine Henry the 8th would have dined if he'd had a per diem. His receipts reported spirits with every meal, and things like Shepherds Pie and quail.
For almost a year, the gentleman was ill and seldom visited our offices. The few times he came in, he seemed mostly peeved at his condition, which was revealing itself to be one with finite outcome. Upon his death, it has been his second wife, with the help of two various sons who has emerged to handle his large library, items in his office and the number of bills that he received to his work mailbox. When the mail began to transition and be address to "Executor of the Estate," I called to confirm that this was she. This was when she revealed to me that there was, as of yet, no formal executor--because there was no will!
I found this both surprising, and I guess, not.  On one hand, he had fair warning.  On the other, maybe he figured that after he was gone, it didn't really matter.  Maybe he'd had conversations and things were pretty much worked out in ways one can't see from a distance.
But as the person opening doors, filing paperwork and procuring boxes for family members trying to work their way through the rooms full of books, papers, thoughts and ongoing business that one man accrues in a life, I could only be struck by how little anyone seemed to be prepared for this eventuality. And really, the choice not to make a will, even given a good six month lead time, seems somewhat self-involved and presuming--qualities some might have discerned in him even before his death.
My father had a will, but it has still taken my mother years to go through the myriad of things left behind. She continues to go through things, purging and storing and making decisions largely, I think, so that we--their children--won't have to. Although it is hopefully decade away still, she is putting thought into things so that her possession and affairs will be as easily dealt with as possible.  Basically she is the opposite of presuming when it comes to such matters.
But the other night as I was thinking about this, I thought: What about my end of the bargain? An obituary seems the very least one could do in such a situation, and I realized I wasn't sure what my mother's parents' names were, or even where she was born! Since I was using a Southwest voucher and making an impromptu trip to Indiana, I decided it was time to do for real something I have been promising to do for a couple of years--try to ask the questions that in the future I will wish that I had asked.  And this time, instead of assuming that I could come up with some good questions, I consulted the internet, something like "How to Interview a Family Member," and of course, because it's the internet, found several articles on taking a Family History, here and here and here.  A lot of the questions are similar. I ended up with a double space list of three pages, and after dinner this evening, turned on the recorder, and we had Part I of a very interesting conversation!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Effort Certification

This is the a computer screen that I use at work.  It's kind of small, but maybe you can see that each of the items on all these lists are links to things you can do.  Some people might use a lot of these links. I generally use about two.kuali 1


For instance, I noticed the other day that I have never clicked on this link: "Effort Certification."  What is it? Is there a form I can fill out that certifies I have made an effort?kuali 2


I maybe never know, because it turns out I am not authorized to open it.
kuali 3

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When Nouns Become Verbs

I sometimes like it.

Probably not always. Most of the examples that I can think of off the top of my head have to do with emerging technologies. "Facebook me."  "I'll Google it."  These are okay--short and also specific, which I respect.  Though I'm not a fan of saying "google" for "search" if Google is not the search engine, as that is kind of misleading instead of specific.

What I really like--and what has me writing on this topic to begin with-- is when the language is used more playfully and willfully, so that it has poetry as well as efficiency.  I recently read Karen Russell's Sleep Donation and jotted down two examples:

"We moth along toward the lights."

"Moth along." Kind of great, right?  She's describing human beings at a night market.  It evokes a different visual image and / or sense of intent from "walking", or "traveling" or "moving"--this is more haphazard.  And there's mood too--a sense of danger, of bad judgement in action.  For a short phrase it does a lot of work.

Here's another: "She has to houdini out of her restraints."

Not just struggle or wiggle--though certainly we feel wiggling is part of it. But we feel that "she" has a willfulness, and intent to escape her restraints such that she is doing something a little outside the possible.  Like Houdini.
Do you salad or sandwich? The verbing of English

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hollywood and Highland, Friday Night

The short Hispanic woman selling blinking plastic light-sticks from a shopping cart offers a collegial fist bump to the guy in the wheel chair selling bunches of roses from his lap, then continues down the block.

A black man, so thin he swims in his all black shirt and trousers, break dances next to an oversize speaker. Popping, locking, giving it his all, beads of sweat on his bald head when he takes off his top hat with sequined, Shamrock-green band.

At the end of the song, no one puts money in his jar. No one buys roses, or light-sticks--not that I see.
But perhaps the night is still young. Maybe at a later hour, there are buyers on Hollywood Boulevard to complement the sellers.

This all takes place on the sidewalk in front of the America Eagle, with its clean glass storefront underneath the sign that exhort in block letters: LIVE YOUR LIFE.

Next to these words, a ten-foot photo of two women, elegant and gaunt, sylphs haunting a cool green forest. Their shoulder blades jut under loose, summer linen, hinting at wings.

The wheelchair guy moves to try a different spot. The black dancer searches his playlist for a better song.

The 217 bus comes and takes me away.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thinking About the Weather

Los Angeles current temperature: 93. Wednesday's high: 99. Thursday's high: 99. Friday's high: 95.
For some reason "Like the Weather" from 10 Thousand Maniacs popped into my head.  An old favorite back in the day.  I had a tape, but never watched the music video of the song. Would it have occurred to to me how incongruous the performance is with the subject of the song? Maybe she (they) figured no one wants to watch you sit around and be mopey.  Or maybe the exuberance of youth was just too strong to be squelched.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YelgLoQMLE?rel=0&w=420&h=315]
I lift my head from the pillow and then fall again
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I might cry
And by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my voice as I cry
"What a cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?"
I hear the sound of a noon bell chime, well I'm far behind
you put in 'bout half a day while here I lie
With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I may cry
What a cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?
Do I need someone here to scold me?
Or do I need someone who'll grab and pull me out of?
Four poster, dull torpor pulling downward
For it's such a long time since my better days
I say my prayers nightly, this will pass away
The color of the sky is gray as I can see through the blinds
Lift my head from the pillow and then I fall again
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I may cry
A cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?
A cold and rainy day
I shiver, quiver, and try to wake

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Movie Update: Belle, Palo Alto, The Devil Came on Horseback

I'm behind on recording movies. I know I've seen a couple that I've forgotten about..Maybe it doesn't matter, because maybe hearing someone recite movies they've watched is about as interesting as someone telling you their dreams. But here's the last three anyway:Belle_poster
Last weekend Paul offered me a date night--since game night got cancelled-- and I picked the movie. Belle.   You should go see it.  It was really good. And it was directed by a woman.  I can't name a single other mainstream theatrical release directed by a woman this year. It's May. That's a pathetic state of affairs, just by the way, but should make it easy to support films by women because you only need to do it a couple of times a year. Here's a review from the Washington Post.


Last night I watched a documentary about Darfur called The Devil Came on Horseback. Also really good. Was I saying something in my last post about counting blessings? Darfur was a tragedy of such proportions there is nothing in my life to compare to it. There are people to whom fate has only been brutal. The thing with the Nigerian girls being kidnapped by the Boko Haram also falls into a similar category, and is really on my mind of late. It's made me curious about Nigeria.  I didn't see any documentaries about Nigeria at the library, however, so pulled some about other parts of Africa.
Tonight I went to a screening of Palo Alto, a film directed by Gia Coppola based on short stories by James Franco.  I almost skipped it, disheartened by a third generations of Coppola making a movie in my lifetime when it seems unlikely I'll ever make one (or have my collection of short stories published after I'm already an international film star). But then I decided not to be a hater--and it was free, so I went, and it was sweet. I'll attach some reviews below.

Lately

Lately I've been writing quite a lot, along with my co-writer.  In the last three weeks we finished a full draft of a screenplay, which is faster than I've ever written a first draft--but it wasn't pretty, and honestly neither is the draft.  Which is not to disparage it--you don't disparage a big lump of clay that vaguely resembles an elephant--it's not bad, it's too early for it to be good or bad.  Unless, of course, you put it on display with other people's more finished elephants, and say it should look like an elephant--which is (of course) what we have done, submitting applications to the Film Independent and Sundance Labs.  Whatever.  The deadlines were helpful in softening the clay and doing the initial elephant, so maybe that is the reward in itself.

The first deadline was May 1st, and the second was May 5th.  Even if you have drafted some of the materials, like artistic statements, synopses, and cover letters, the last days before these deadlines always involve a five and six hours sessions of revising and polishing, so by the evening of the fifth I was pretty fried--getting home a little late to start the prep for my annual round of "medical screenings" on the 6th.  Yes--those screenings.

I arrived at the hospital in my normal state--cleaned out and dehydrated--and realized we were doing an upper endoscopy as well as the colonoscopy, and discovered that since I apparently gagged a little on the tube the last go round, I was getting a deeper general anesthesia this time. They found a  few things in both stomach and colon to remove--which everyone seems to take in stride, but it's not my favorite--it makes me feel like there's some failure in the system.  Either I've been laxer in my diet, or my body is just getting old and deteriorating--my telomeres are getting shorter or whatever. I know  it's  both, though I only have control over one: I've been going with the flow, eating meat  just to be agreeable, giving in to my sugar cravings, and not juicing and eating a ton of cabbage.  The thought of re-establishing all sorts of discipline makes me tired, especially when my whole body is bloated from being inflated with air, and sore from being snipped at. I stayed home from work yesterday and went today.  This afternoon at my desk I was thinking, in words, that I feel like my life force is being sucked out of me. A few minutes later the doctor called  to say they needed to cut something out that they couldn't cut out on Tuesday, so I'll need to do it all again in a month. The thing they are cutting is "not cancer" which means I'm at the high-class problem end of the spectrum for being part of a demographic that is highly susceptible to cancer, but I'm throwing myself a very tiny pity party anyway.  In two weeks I'm also having and MRI and an x-ray to make sure that the back pain I'm having is also of the "not cancer" variety.  Let's all pray that I don't look back and wish for tonight's problems.  Count your blessings and be grateful for them, otherwise, when there's less, you have to look back and feel like an asshole.

Friday, April 25, 2014

When Nothing Seems Fair, How We Cope

In my last post I mentioned my friend who is having issues with his health and posted on Facebook the status, "nothing seems fair anymore."  His post got an overwhelming response, because he has so many friends who love him, and also, i think because they are words that hit a cord with all of us.  Because we all suffer, and we all cannot help but notice that some of us seem to suffer more than others.  And what is that all about?  How can we reconcile that we want things, but we don't get the things that we want--other people get them.  And the things we have, other people want:  Jobs, respect, human rights, health, economic security, freedom from fear and pain.

Last night I attended this mindfullness group I sometimes go to on campus after work.  We had a guest speaker who was talking about--well, various things--but one of them was neuroplasticity, and how we can form new neural pathways and change our temperments and the way we think and feel about events and circumstances. Apparently, we (humans) through evolution, have developed a negative bias when we look at the world, because back in the day it wasn't as important to remember all the nights that you ducked into a empty cave and had a nice nap or campfire with roasted elk-meat as it was  to remember the one time you ducked into a cave and found a bear inside. While running like hell from the bear and sleeping shivering in the cold behind a rock was an unpleasant experience, you needed to remember that in order to avoid the bear cave in the future, and to stay vigilant for signs of bear when entering a new cave.

Nowadays, the "negative bias" doesn't always serve us so well. If twenty people compliment your outfit but one person makes a snide remark--focusing on the negative thing might be unnecessary for survival, and just plain bad for your mood. All else being equal, why not think about the nice things that people said, and be happier, and maybe because you're happier, you'll be nicer, and maybe that will lead to better relationships...etc.

The logic goes (according to this guest speaker's summary of several books I haven't read myself) that in order to think about the good things, you have to consciously practice, until, with enough practice, your brain starts doing it naturally. (It all sounded related (or the same as) cultivating gratitude, which I've been a fan of since being introduced to it  a few years ago.)

The speaker  gave an example of an exercise where you find something pleasant but overlooked to meditate upon, like "how nice it is to breathe, to have enough air."  When she said this, I thought, "that's right! It is pretty awesome to breathe."  But then she kept talking--and this was not so much the teaching as just a thought from her life I think-- she said, "I have a friend who has cancer, and when we talked the other day, he told me he was having trouble breathing, that he couldn't get enough air anymore."

I think this was supposed to just shine a little light on how air is something to appreciate, but it kind of spiraled for me.  As my niece once told me at age seven, "we don't compare, because it doesn't make anyone feel good."  When depositing monthly paychecks for people at work that equals my annual pay, I've found it isn't happy-making to dwell.  On the flip side, thinking of starving children in Africa has never helped my appetite either.  This is not to say that one should live one's whole life with blinders, or ignore injustices and societal ills because we don't like to think about them. But in some cases, there is nothing you can do.  I can't help her friend breathe better. I can only feel deep sympathy for her friend--not a bad thing--there are other exercises designed just to help us be more compassionate -- but I'm not sure that it sets up a strictly "positive" neural pathway.

Instead, it reinforces a neural pathway that I think I've pretty much worn smooth with use--the awareness of suffering--my own and that of others. Having survived cancer twice, I've experienced some pain, I am frequently--habitually--grateful for the absence of pain, for every test result that doesn't predict the necessity for more pain.  I'm thankful for my everyday life.  And at the same time. I'm acutely aware that my state of blessedness is both temporary and has a random quality to it.  Aware that while my pain went away, and I healed, there are people--some that I know--who deal with chronic pain, who are suffering even as I am not suffering.  And whatever I choose to be grateful for today can be taken away from me at any moment.* Toward the end of his life, my father complained about not being able to breathe. It's not a big leap for me to imagine a day when I might not be able to breathe.

It makes me sad.  I hope that with practice, by the time that day comes, I'll think, "but look at the sun outside the window--isn't it great to be able to see the light?" and genuinely feel grateful for that. Gratitude coexists with suffering. We suffer because we've been given the gift of being alive.
Still, it doesn't always seem fair.

*As an example--I 've often expressed gratitude for the fact that I am a great sleeper, and thought it would be awful to be one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep. I am writing this now because I woke up at 2:30 AM, and I haven't been able to go back to sleep. So far, it's not as bad as I feared--but then, I haven't yet had to get through the day tomorrow.
Scroll back up and click on that "Neuroplasticity" link. It's a 2-minute video that's interesting.
The book being discussed by our speaker was called Hardwiring Happiness. (I haven't read it)
The author did a TED talk. (I haven't watched it because I don't want to wake up my husband)
You might be interested in this cliff's Notes Version (actually About.com) of the Buddha's views on suffering.

Here's an article suggested by this widget that's attached to my blog:
M I N D F U L N E S S

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Weekend Exceprts

SATURDAY:  My mother-in-law, in town for the weekend, holds my arm as we stand at the L-shaped buffet at her friend's new Thai noodle shop.  She wears jeans, a floppy tee-shirt and tinted glasses with white rims studded with Swarovski crystals. Her friend, on the other side of the sneeze-guarded trays of food, has on a floor length skirt, and lots of purple.

The food in trays are aren't the familiar dishes listed on the English menu of the restaurant my husband and I usually go to next door. She suggested for me lumpy squares of pumpkin sauteed in spices and I agree.  I point to a curry with basil, chicken and bamboo shoots, and when she looks hesitant, assure her I will like it.

We travel to the short side of the L,  where in one tray balls and cubes of unidentified meats  float in a brown broth, next to another tray of potato-sized slices of  a starchy root that isn't a potato soak in a bright orange bath. What's that? I ask, intrigued, but she doesn't answer, either because she hasn't heard me, or, more likely, because she can't figure out a way to translate it.

"Or that?" I point to cut green stems drifting in what could be a familiar combination of coconut milk and red curry powder. Her friend on the other side of the counter comes over to check on us. "Is it morning glory? "Is it bok choy?"

"Not bok-choy," says the friend.

My mother-in-law, looks seriously at the whole section of offerings and says, "Not for you, I think. These not for you," and steers us toward the register.

SUNDAY: On Sunday mornings I try to counterbalance a week's worth of muscle-stiffening sitting at desks by going to a yoga class that meets at 9:45.  I leave the house at 9:43 and arrive at my class at 9:55--a serious breach of etiquette at some yoga studios, but this is a gym, so nobody cares. When the class lets out at 10:45, if I see my friend Gina, we go the the little snack stand inside the gym and order two fresh juices made of mixed veggies, and drink them at one of the little cafe tables along the wall with a partial view of child care area where toddlers play with colored balls, push wheeled objects, and occasionally shove into each other so that one falls and cries.

When my friend has not come to class, I go straight to my car, usually run some errand, like buying gas for the car or stopping at the grocery store.  At 11:AM the radio announcer introduces the Moth Radio Hour, a collection of real people tell five-to-ten minute stories from their own lives.  This morning I emerge from the Vons in time to hear a woman with a Sarah Silverman voice tell about the birth of her youngest sibling when she was twelve, and being told they did not share a father. "My father always took us to get ice cream to tell us bad news. If you don't want to find out that your grandpa's been diagnosed with cancer, or that your dog has been put to sleep, don't go to Cold Stone Creamery with my dad."

Arriving home with my groceries  I park, but  turn the key in the ignition only enough to kill the engine but not the power, so I can hear the rest of someone's story before I go upstairs to fold laundry and write stories of my own.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Does This Seem Right? The Closing of a Graduate Program.

When Steve Kay, Dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, took leadership of the school in October of 2012, he said, “As a biologist, I have often focused on “nature versus nurture” to help me understand how we form ourselves and become who we are,” but, he said, he had come to realize that “only focusing on nature and nurture denies something critical: narrative. For it is through narrative that we learn to express our experiences, and place them in the context of what really makes us human.” This phrase, strictly parsed, strikes me as not quite accurate—but suffice to say, he voiced his admiration of narrative.

One year later, he called a meeting with the chair of the Master of Professional Writing Program—the 43-year old program dedicated to the study of narrative—and without any warning informed her he was closing the program down, with enrollment to cease immediately, and all students required to complete their studies by spring of 2016.

The shuttering of an institution is always a shock to those invested in it. But in this case, as the shock has subsided, what remains--with me, and with others I've talked to--is a sense of betrayal about the way the closure has been conducted. First, Dean Kay declined to give any reasons for the action beyond stating that it was “a business decision,” despite  a solid enrollment (just under 90 students), and no budget issues. Second, Kay seemed to discourage any official communication about the decision. There was no formal announcement of the closure by the Dornsife administration. Most faculty and staff of other departments learned of the move through the media, well after the fact. It's difficult to imagine that this choice to  close the doors with no announcements could be anything but a strategy to reduce the risk of any protest—by the time a critical mass of people figured it out it had happened, it would be too late.

The one group they could not avoid telling were the current students. The administration now needed them—including many who had chosen the program because they could complete it part time while remaining in the work force—to take enough credits each term to matriculate by 2016. A student-instigated letter writing campaign elicited boiler plate responses from the dean’s office re-iterating the vague  “business decision” . When the same letter writing campaign garnered media attention from a major newspaper, a token meeting was granted with Vice Dean Steve Lamy, who elaborated on the business decision by citing fiscal difficulties that couldn't be shown on paper, but that were partly related to declining enrollment—a confusing statement to those who had heard the program had been asked to be more selective in its admissions process and been given no sign that feelings on this had changed.

A common narrative device--we learn about these things in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC-- is called subtext. On TV, when the hot girl tells the disguised-but-still-hot super-hero, “You’re a jerk, I never want to see you again,” what she really means is, “I love you.” That's the subtext.

In real life, when the dean of a big college says “business decision,” the subtext is "I don’t have to give you real reasons, and I’m not going to.” Which is smart, since real reasons might elicit real discussion, and real discussion might make the decision an issue in people’s minds. Instead of closing the program, he seemed to prefer to disappear it.

As taxpayers and American citizens we have the right to demand a certain degree of transparency from our government officials. As customers, we are entitled to ask for accountability from the heads of other institutions--like the banks where we invest our money. Transparency and accountability don't always happen in these arenas, but there is at least the pretense that they should, and when someone gets called out for circumventing these requirements, other people who get riled up and form investigatory committees.

What weirds me out in this case is how no one has even bothering to pretend. And, publicly at least, how few folks seem riled up. Most MPW alumni have invested both time and in excess of $40,000 for degree that is being declared defunct. They are lifelong members of the “Trojan Family,” who will receive fundraising calls until they die, and probably for a few months afterward. Do they have a right to an explanation? Do they have the right to be satisfied that the leadership of their alma mater has acted in their best interests—if not as individuals, than at least in the interests of university that asked them to feel like one of its own? Do they have the right to informed at all? To date, program alumni have received no university notification that the degree they earned at USC is has been discontinued.

Programs close, companies get downsized, people get fired—and business decisions get made.   I’m not writing this to change the turning of the world. I am writing it to make a record, because I believe that just because we have to accept people’s decisions, doesn’t mean we should obediently accept their version of the narrative.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Read Scripts. Watch Movies. Write Pages.

But maybe not in that order.

Sometimes I like to read Scott Meyer's Go Into the Story blog, that is all about screenwriting, and also contains a million (yes, hyperbole) links to other blogs and resources about screenwriting.  He adds content more frequently than I can keep up with, so I miss a lot, but I check in occasionally and recently I happened upon this post, where he recommends a formula of reading 1 script a week, watching 2 movies a week, writing 7 pages a week (one a day) and devoting 14 hours a week to story prep.  A  I think his numbers are pretty good for maintaining a steady practice and learning curve, but faced with hard deadlines, one has to prioritize a little differently. In my own case, I have to devote my highest hour count to pages of screenplays I'm actively writing (and rewriting!) but this article was a nice little wake-up call to the fact that I tend to let my script reading, and even my movie watching, fall to the wayside in my desire to finish pages.

It's a delicate balance--because to a certain extent, it's helpful to put on blinders and just keep running.  But when I make myself read a script, watch a film--I almost always pick up something useful for one of my projects. Last night, while folding laundry I watched Mississippi Masala, a Mira Nair film with a very young Denzel Washington. As  public service announcement, I'll note that you can watch the entire film on YouTube here. Tonight I started reading Monster's University, because what better than a Pixar film for reinforcing all the basics--perfect structure, characters with strong wants with obstacles, story beats that hit right where they're supposed to.  Too tired to finish tonight, but something to look forward to when I wake up in the morning.

I was interested that Meyers recommended more time spent on story prep than writing (assuming that most people can write a page in an hour or less). Also, I wondered what he  regarded as story prep. From context, it seems like he's referring to ideation, as opposed to extensive notes and research for a single project, but maybe not--or maybe he's deliberately loose in his definition. While I haven't been keeping a notebook of late, I give myself credit for the fact that I'm writing a short story to a prompt every week for the fiction class I'm taking, and I think that has been keeping the creative taps open. I've also done drafts of two longer stories that I'm pretty happy with for first drafts.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Review: Bill of the Century

A couple of weeks ago, I finished a short course in book reviewing. We discussed  things like the changing culture of reviewing with the advent of social media and decline in traditional publishing, and the recent debate regarding the pros and cons of printing a negative reviews. We also made a couple of stabs at review writing. I doubt I will embark on a career as a reviewer anytime soon, but it was a good exercise to have to generate a perspective on a book as I read it, and then present that perspective in some coherent fashion. Here's a little sample of my efforts:
BilloftheCentury Bookcover
Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act
According to Clay Risen, we tend to credit the achievement of the Civil Rights Act to Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. largely because theirs are the names and stories with which we are familiar. Risen is kind enough to include himself in the “we” but I suspect he doesn’t actually belong there. I, however, do. In a word association game, I would complete “Emancipation Proclamation” with “Abraham Lincoln” and the “The New Deal” with “FDR,” because those are the only names I know. If there were more in my high school A.P. history study guide, I don’t remember them.

Unfortunately, Risen notes, our tendency to assign credit in such a simplified manner is both unfair and inaccurate. “The idea that either King or Johnson was the dominant figure behind the Civil Rights Act,” he writes,  “distorts not only the history of the act but the process of American legislative policymaking in general.”

In The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Risen sets out to correct that distortion by presenting us with the literary equivalent to a “making of,” documentary, beginning in early 1963, a point during John F. Kennedy’s term at which civil rights legislation was at low ebb, and tracing the gradual rise of tide leading to the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.
A work that sets out to reframe historical events can’t help but shine a light on the fact that any view of history is a result of framing. Maybe this is why I found myself drawn to the moments in the book that revealed how players strove to frame events even as they were happening. While some examples of this—like a gala White House reception where Langston Hughes and Sammy Davis Junior rub elbows with Democrats for the cameras in a ploy to distract from John F. Kennedy’s meager progress on civil rights—felt par for the political course, other instances gave me pause.

Here’s one: In 1963, confronted by the knowledge that his movement was in danger of fading away due to a distracted public and a federal government refusing to intervene on states’ Jim Crow rulings, Martin Luther King Junior approved the plans for the Birmingham “children’s crusade.” On May 2, 1963, hundreds of children poured onto a plaza. At the end of two days, many were jailed and “photographers had snapped hundreds of pictures of German shepherds, their teeth sinking into young boys and girls.”

Just to recap: MLK, the “I have a dream” guy, sent kids to battle with angry policemen and big dogs. (Risen, by the way, does not react to this with the surprise I felt, probably because he is the author of an entire book related to King, and knows many things about him that aren’t inspirational quotes posted to Facebook.)

In the wake of the incident, Attorney General Burke Marshall publicly denounced the move, saying, “An injured, maimed or dead child is a price that none of us can afford.” Other politicians, however, turned their criticism toward the Birmingham police. The story and images from the event galvanized the civil rights movement, caused demonstrations to spark around the country and led key players, including Marshall, to realize that federal legislation was needed. Whether or not the means justified the ends, they were successful in achieving them
Here’s another item that I didn’t learn in A.P. history: The historic showdown between George Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach at the University of Alabama was rigged. “Wallace, [Katzenbach] realized... might believe his racist convictions, but acted on them mostly to appease voters.  Katzenbach would go to Tuscaloosa himself... let Wallace have his show, then insist on escorting the students to register.  Wallace, through a back channel,... told Kennedy he would comply.”

The first third of the Bill of the Century—which runs some 290 pages including 40 pages of citations—depicts events leading up to the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill in June 1963. The final two-thirds details the tactics and maneuvers required to push the bill through —in back rooms, on the streets and on the Senate and House floors. Although no summary could be sufficient, Risen’s recounting of a memo written by Katzenbach to Robert Kennedy during the early life of the bill might give a sense of what was involved:
“If the goal was to get the bill intact through the Senate, then a filibuster was inevitable—which meant they needed 67 votes to stop debate and bring the bill to a vote.... The only way to do that.... was to get [Senate Minority Leader Everett] Dirksen on board.... Because Katzenbach could then take Dirksen’s support of the bill to the House Republicans, who were open to civil rights but wary of siding with legislation that might get pared back in the Senate.  Dirksen, of course, did not support Title II, but Katzenbach hoped that his support on everything else could give momentum to the bill in the House, and that by the time it reached the Senate, Dirksen would have to choose between agreeing to the entire bill or standing in the way of historic legislation.”
If it sounds complex and confusing, it is. Risen, an accomplished journalist and author of A Nation on Fire, America in the Wake of the King Assassination, admirably manages to introduce and contextualize dozens of individuals—senators, congressmen, and myriad civilian activists—as well as organizations and political factions, but the density of information he is delivering can make for strenuous reading. I’ve no doubt been spoiled by textbooks and George R.R. Martin novels, but by page 150 I would have been grateful for a fold-out timeline, a tree graph showing all the characters and their affiliations, and maybe a cheat-sheet with acronyms and their translations.

Despite this, I recommend The Bill of the Century. “The story of the civil rights bill,” says Risen “is about the interplay between elected officials, government officials, lobbyists, and countless thousands of activists around the country, pushing and pulling each other toward their common goal.” That story, with all its details, dramas and complexities, is what Risen delivers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Movie Report: Tempations, 20 Feet From Stardom, The Lego Movie

I'm getting behind on my movie-tracking already.
I had an interesting job nibble a couple of weeks ago, tangentially related to a singing group from a past era.  No idea if it will manifest, but just in case, I Temptations coverwatched a couple of movies that I figured might inform either the structure or the subject matter of a hypothetical script. These were:
The Temptations: This was originally a two-mini series based on a book by founding member, Otis Williams.20 feet from stardom
Twenty Feet from Stardom: I got the screener for this documentary through the voting process for the Independent Spirit Awards. Much of it is devoted to the back-up singers of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
And finally, Paul and I actually went to a movie theater (!), and saw the Lego Movie. Many of our friends (and our niece and nephew) really loved this movie.  I thought it was okay. It would take a disproportionate amount of energy to make coherent argument of all the reasons why, but this hr_The_LEGO_Movie_10woman's review poses some interesting questions.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Lovely and Amazing, Singles

I forgot, when writing my first "movies of 2014" post, that I had also watched Lovely and Amazing,  which is the second movie by writer-director Nicole Holocener, made in 2001 (her latest effort, is buzzing during this current awards season). The story (of Lovely and Amazing) revolves around a mother and her three daughters,  two adult, and one younger and adopted.  They are each kind of insecure and fucked up in different ways.  Each daughter has acquired some different aspect of the mother's insecurity and fucked-upness  integrated it into her own personality and functioning.  But everyone is likeable and you hope they can pull it together. It's a comedy.  Of sorts.
Lovely and Amazing is one of my friend Nikki's very favorite movies, and I had been trying to see it for a while, and while you'd think that since we have expensive cable, iTunes, Netflix-streaming, Hulu-Plus, and five library cards, it would not be difficult to do so.  In the end though, with a heavy heart, I added the lowest level of DVD rentals back onto my Netflix account.  Grrrrr.
But this is also how I also obtained another movie on my list:
Singles. This was a 1992 film by written and directed by Cameron Crowe about a group of 20-somethings and their quest for identity and love.  Most of them live in the same apartment complex in Seattle.  The movie was actually finished in early '91, but the studio didn't know how to market it until some of the  Seattle grunge bands featured in the film  became very popular nationally,  thus it was released in late '92. Some credit the film with kicking off a number of Generation X films soon after.  (All this information comes from the same Wikipedia page that I have linked to...I'm learning along with you!) You might know some of Cameron Crowe's other work, especially if you are close to my age--Say Anything with John Cusack in 1989,  Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and most recently, We Bought A Zoo, which I haven't seen.
The original title for this post was "2 movies, 2 books, 2 evenings." But I'm only a third of the way through, and it's time to leave for yoga. So look forward to an upcoming post about two books.  I might or might not get to the evenings.

Friday, January 31, 2014

2013 Year End Letter

Each December I am caught up by the kind of energy that prevails as academic  semesters end: the euphoric sense that final exams will soon be taken then suddenly I will be floating on an expanse of free time called “winter break.” My plans for this winter break included finishing a script, installing and learning a budgeting program, cleaning the house, watching every movie missed over the course of the year, and writing a year-end letter for family and friends.
It is usually a day or so after Christmas that it dawns on me—as if I didn’t have the same realization the year before—that my actual vacation time is five days, two of which are filled with holiday activities, and that I have yet again overestimated the amount that can be achieved in that time.
Paul and B Happy 2014But one thing I have been happy to learn from experience is that most things that can’t be done on time can be done late, so, in that spirit, here’s the Seetachitt year-end recap:

If 2012 was a roller coaster, then 2013 was...not. In 2012 the Elantra got totaled, in 2013 the Camry slowly and undramatically diminished in capacity until it was sold on Craigslist. 2012 contained a bout with cancer. 2013 brought merely a benign trickle of late billing and insurance paperwork.  In 2012 Paul’s first feature, Rock Jocks debuted. In 2013 it ran its small theatrical run, showed up on iTunes, then Netflix with little fanfare. My part-time job at USC continued. My script “in development” is still in development.

2013 might be seen as anticlimactic, as a profound relief, or both. It depends on how you feel about that coming to that slow glide at the end of a ride, finally stopping being released from behind the metal safety bar that never feels that safe.

Another thing experience has taught me is that at an amusement park, it’s the time on the ground that ultimately sets the tone for the day—the time hanging out and talking to friends, people watching, taking silly pictures and deciding which snakelike line to stand in next, half anticipating, half dreading that next climb up a daunting-size hill strapped onto a piece of plastic that will hurtle through space at high speeds.

My final judgment is that 2013 was an awesome year. I went camping for the first time in a decade (to the Grand Canyon) and went to my high school reunion back in Indiana. Paul and I visited friends in Denver, and more friends and family in New York. We ate Sunday dinners with family and witnessed our niece and nephew growing bigger and more entertaining by the day. And there was writing--on trips, on the train commuting to work, during lunch breaks and in bed in the mornings and even once in a while at my desk in my office. Creatively, it was a year for a few small projects completed and some bigger ones continuing and started, for meeting people and entering into new working relationships that I am excited to see continue in this year ahead.

Ultimately, it was a year of taking notice and taking breaths, for profound moments of gratitude shaken awake by people, landscapes, food, books, movies, rain, sun, electric blankets, holiday cards—and sometimes by nothing at all.

Paul and I wish you all the best for the upcoming year.
Barrington

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 Movies, Part I

or, Get Out While You Can...

I've noticed, and am gratified, that a few of my readers (hi Mom!) have this blog sent to their in-boxes.  That can be really good for following a blogger who is sporadic and not too prolific in her output, which generally does describe me.  But I feel I should warn you that I am having some "thoughts." Thoughts like, I should keep a record of all the movies I see this year. And maybe all the books I read this year. I could do that on my blog!  And maybe, when I have some interesting notes from a class, or little writing exercises..."
There is the possibility, of course, that everything I post will be FASCINATING. And just as distinct a possibility that I will get busy and that little of this will really come to pass, but just in case the first thing doesn't happen and the second thing does, you should know that when you start to cringe when checking your inbox, it's okay to UNSUBSCRIBE  I'm not actually sure how to do that, but I'll figure it out and write the directions in a post. I just wanted to let you know it might come to that, and say that I won't be offended...
That being said, I am off to a late start on this movie thing, I think I've probably already forgotten a film or two since the first of the year, but the ones I remember are:
HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE: Enjoyable.  Paul asked an interesting question after, which is, could it stand alone as a film if you hadn't seen (or read) the first installment?  (Screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote (among other things) SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, and Michael Arndt, who wrote (among other things) LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.)
HER: Awesome. Really lovely. Written by Spike Jonze, who also directed. This is the first screenplay he's written that I love, but it feels in kinship with two Charlie Kaufman written movies that he directed and that I really like: ADAPTATION and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.
In the Mood for Love
In the Mood for Love
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE: Beautiful. Written and directed by Wong Kar Wai, whose work I hear referenced, but don't really know.
FALLEN ANGELS: Also Wong Kar Wai.  I'm only half way through it.
GLORIA: Just saw this yesterday as part of the Film Independent screening series for their Spirit Awards. From Chile, about an older woman who is a mother and a grandmother, who has been divorced for a decade, who works during the day and at night goes dancing at clubs and occasionally picks up a man.  She meets an older gentleman who seems to have potential, but then doesn't.  She does some other stuff too. It's a little meander-y by conventional movie standards, but I liked it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

When Most of Your Life is a Festival

Know where I am not this weekend? At Sundance. Whenever I open Wordpress to write a post like this one,  I am immediately confronted by a conveyer belt of newsfeeds, many of which are from "trades," like Variety and The Hollywood reporter. I'm drawn to the reviews and descriptions of the movies that are opening at Sundance. Reading them, I have mixed feelings. I went once, a few years ago, and there is something about seeing a film at a festival. There is something about seeing a film at a festival, being in the audience for a film that hasn't been seen anywhere else the moment before a film begins--a feeling of closeness, camaraderie, excitement and hope. A collective feeling of hope that the experience will be good, that the film will be good, that you will discover something together.

But there are lots of other moments too--moments in line, realizing you won't get in.  Moments of being really cold, walking up long hills because the people who booked the shared condominiums refused to tell you how really far away from the festival they were. Feeling isolated and pretty worked over from the "networking" on buses, in theater lobbies and at parties, the where people look past you for more interesting prospects, the knowledge that I was sometimes looking over someone's shoulder too. Not because I have the savvy to recognize anyone important, but because the neediness of the person in front of you can feel like an undertow, and when that happens, you look in every direction for shore.

So, overall, mixed feelings about not being at Sundance this year. Sad to miss it, and NOT sad to be missing it.

The librarian of the Philosophy library upstairs from where I work loves the opera and ballet, and music and movies.  When I ask about his weekend he'll often say, in a still-thick Chicago twang (despite the fact he has lived in Southern California since before I was born), "Barrington, I'll tell ya', I saw a great movie!" Or, "Barrington, I'll tell ya', that orchestra was spectacular!"  When I ask about his upcoming weekend, he usually seems happy with his plans, and equally happy without plans.  This weekend  after Friday night, "I don't have anything going on! I've got two days to just read, and listen to some music.  It's gonna be great!"

And really, what is greater than that? In high school and college, a new CD or two in your hands or a friend's was entertainment for an evening at least.  In my 20s, a movie night with rented videos was a fully-formed activity.
A package of a dozen screeners for the Independent Spirit Awards showed up my mailbox this week, and I have the option to attend nine different screening this weekend. This is in addition to our Netflix, Hulu and cable package.  We have a hundred CDs and iTunes and Spotify...
...and somehow all this feels incidental and interstitial. Everything is a thing that one crams in between other things...

This weekend however, I'm working to pare down the things, and appreciate each one as I'm doing it. Today I cleared the calendar for the afternoon and spent several consecutive hours reading.  Reading is a luxurious experience in itself, one I have enjoyed since I was six.  Granted it's because I need to finish a three-hundred page book of historical non-fiction in time to write a thousand-word book review for Tuesday, but still--

Related post: Review of movie I would be interested in seeing: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/i-origins-sundance-review-672274