Friday, June 1, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Perry. 
True crime is often marked by the way a series of random events betray regular, unsuspecting people.  Girl goes to the store and never returns, girl goes on a date and is never heard from again. It is also marked by the luridness of the details once they are eventually uncovered. Girl is found desecrated in a ditch by an obsessive store clerk, girl is found stuffed in an air-vent by a jealous boyfriend.  Whether it is on television news, online journalism, or in long works of non-fiction, such as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the public’s fascination for these stories is endless.  We tirelessly obsess and dissect these stories not just because of the grim nature of their details, but because of the hidden morality they appear to offer us. We focus on the alcohol and spring break madness that led Natalie Holloway to walk alone on the beach with a strange man, the decision of the McCann family to leave their infant child unattended in a hotel room while they ate dinner with friends.  In these moments, we can feel safe in the presumed knowledge that we know better, that we would not make those decisions. 
            The disappearance of Lucie Blackman, as told in Richard Lloyd Perry’s stellar “The People Who Eat Darkness,” appears on the surface to fit this mold in almost textbook fashion.  Lucie, a former airline stewardess in her twenties, left the comfort of her life in Great Britain for a vague job as a “hostess” in Tokyo in hopes of quickly paying off her debts. She never returned, or as the book jacket says, was “swallowed whole.”  Her disappearance, which caused a media sensation (even then-Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke publically about the case), the eventual discovery of her body, and the trial of the man accused of her murder, all point to the ways in which our lives are quickly and irreversibly defined by actions in which we cannot possibly see the consequences, but could have easily done much better. 
            But what sets Perry’s lengthy investigation apart from most true crime works is how once the details of this sadly common “narrative” arc are held up to the light, they become even more complex, bizarre, and ultimately frightening.  Perry, an investigative journalist who reported on the case for years, wisely uses the true crime structure to frame his story.  But freed from the word-limit deadline of news journalism, the small details, which could have been easily glossed over, become luminous.  Perry is an expert in explaining the differences between Japanese and British cultures.  In Japan, Lucie worked as a “hostess.” Women who work as hostesses are paid a salary to spend evenings in bars talking with Japanese businessmen.  Hostesses are encouraged to go on further “dates” with these men, outside of the bar, for which they are paid extra, by both the client and the club.  Each meeting is kept on record with the club.  Hostesses who have a large list of outside clients are paid extra, while those that do not are eventually let go.  But as Perry clearly explains, the expectation was not entirely for sex, although it could occur.  The meetings were erotic, yet not always explicit.  In the hands of a less observant journalist, a job like this could easily be labeled as prostitution, and in fact was by many in the media. It is understandings such as this that makes "People" such an exceptional read.  The facts of Lucie’s death could easily be told in a 48 minutes “Dateline” episode, but as with any life, the story of Lucie Blackman requires more than headlines.   

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean

I grew up watching “Lassie” reruns as a child. The show ran on the Nickelodeon in the early mornings and late afternoons, long before the network found a fortune with original programming featuring animated sponges and teen singing sensations. I can vividly recall not only the show’s opening narration (“With, June Lockhart, Jon Provost as Timmy, and of course, Lassie”), but also the whole plots from episodes that really shouldn’t be remembered. After watching the show, I would beg my parents for a dog, promising to take great care of it, and praying I could have a friend just like Lassie. When I actually got a dog, it took some time before I accepted that the lovely mutt I had would never save me from an escaped convict or an escaped circus elephant. My dog would not measure up.

Susan Orlean also grew up longing for a canine creature that she could not have. Near the beginning of her fascinating and thoughtful new book, Rin Tin Tin, Orlean describes her fascination with a certain canine that she loved but could not have as a child. Her grandfather’s office contained toys that he would allow his grandchildren to play with on occasion, but one in particular was off limits: a Rin Tin Tin figurine. “I didn’t understand why this was the one treasure we could never touch; it wasn’t more delicate than the other toys, and it didn’t have any finicky mechanism. There was no explanation; it was simply not ours to have.” The memory of this forbidden toy sparked an obsession with the film and television star, an obsession that resulted in her sprawling meditation on the dog and its lasting legacy, as well as the quest for permanence in our daily lives.

To say that Rin Tin Tin was one of the biggest stars on the planet is an understatement. The dog star, which could have easily faded into obscurity, became one of the earliest stars of silent Hollywood, and had the miraculous ability not only to survive the change from silent film to sound, but also from film to television. Rinty, as he was to be known, was found on a WWI battlefield in France by an American soldier, Lee Duncan. Duncan, who grew up fatherless, and was sent to an orphanage by his mother as a child, instantly recognized the dog as a kindred, and managed to bring the dog home with him after the war’s end. German Shepherds were a new type of dog at the time, having been breed in 1899 by German Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz for their sharpness, pointed ears, and alert demeanor, in hopes of becoming a nation dog. Duncan was fiercely protective of his new friend, choosing to spend most of his time with Rin Tin Tin, instead of the humans around him. (In fact, his former wife would claim in her divorce papers that Duncan was more interested in the dog than in her.) Duncan worked tirelessly with the dog, training Rinty, and making the most out of the dog’s mental sharpness. Duncan’s attention to the dog paid off when Rinty was cast in his first film, Where the North Begins, which was an instant silent film success, and launched the dog’s stardom. A television series would follow nearly twenty years later, cementing the Rin Tin Tin’s place in history.

Orlean details Duncan and Rinty’s continual rise and fall in breathless, almost conversation prose, but with a journalist’s acuity, and a fan’s admiration. Her writing is so deceptively simple that it is impossible not be swept away with the many directions her story takes. The reader follows her through not only the history of the dog, but through histories upon histories. Her journalist’s eye takes the reader on tours of early Hollywood, television, animal husbandry, and war; alongside the surprising use of canines in every major war this country has fought; and through obsessions and devotions, both obtainable and not. Her quest to understand Rin Tin Tin is almost spiritual: “What lasts? What lingers?” she asks. “Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all the we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten?” These are the questions that haunt and propel all of Orlean’s work. For one man it might be an elusive orchid (as in Orlean’s previous work, The Orchid Thief). For another it might be a dog. Reading Rin Tin Tin, one cannot help but search for their own answers. A lasting legacy indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

To Marlinee

In 2003, Michael and I made one of the most important decisions of our lives: after several years of living in an apartment that was quickly decaying before our eyes, we decided it was time to buy a house. It did not take us long to settle on a cute, WWII-era house in a quiet neighborhood that was almost in Midtown. The house was perfect for us, just what we needed for the right price, and almost immediately it felt like home. Over the years, our house on West Edwin Circle has been the site of many of the happiest moments of my life. From dinner parties, to birthday celebrations, to our beautiful wedding in October, the makings of a full and meaningful life have been formed and kept here. But perhaps the most rewarding consequence of home ownership has been the extraordinary friendship that we found with our (one-time) neighbor, Marlinee Iverson.

My fist real awareness of Marlinee began with the color of her hair. “I think our neighbor dyed her hair blue,” I told Michael one afternoon, after seeing Marlinee through the bedroom window as she was getting out of her minivan, baby carriage in hand. “What does she do for a living?”

“I think she is a lawyer.”
“With blue hair?”

“Who knows? You are so nosey.”

“Should I dye my hair blue?”

“Fool, quit spying on our neighbors.”

The hair was my first indication that the quiet Asian lady next door with two kids and a UT-loving husband was not quite what I thought.

“I think she is my new best friend.”

“I thought the woman at the grocery store was your new best friend?”

“Not anymore, evidently.”

Several months later, the blue hair was gone, and so was the husband, whom I also watched through the bedroom window as he packed stacks of books into his minivan and drove away. Marlinee began showing up at the restaurant where I worked on late Sunday afternoons, a time when the restaurant was all but empty. She would order smoked salmon, sip on a glass or two of wine, and sort through paperwork for her new job. Our conversations were polite but reserved, careful in that way one is when they are trying to figure another person out. Occasionally, however, glimpses of ourselves would pop out, a laugh here, a snide comment there, enough to allow us to let our guards down, even if for just a moment.

And then one day Marlinee busted through my front door. Michael was out of town for some reason, so I slept late and decided to spend the day at the movies. Michael became worried because I wasn’t answering the phone, so he called Marlinee to go over and check on me. I had just returned from seeing “The Constant Gardner” when Marlinee walked straight into the house without knocking, ear to the phone, and calling my name. I can only imagine Michael told her I was dead, because the look of dread on her face when she saw me was quite disturbing.

“What’s going on? That dude’s calling me from St. Louis and saying I need to come check on you,” she said.

“I’m fine, I just went to the movies.”

“He is pissed.”

We both kind of stood there for a moment, unsure how to proceed. It was an uncomfortable situation. We could still hear Michael raising hell over the phone in Mar’s , hand. And then, in perfect Marlinee timing, it all changed. She glanced down at her phone, widened her eyes in a smile, and started laughing.

“You need to deal with him and then we should go have dinner,” she said.

“Give me 20 minutes,” I said as I watched her walk out of the house, still laughing.

The laughter continued over dinner, where we got stares from the other patrons for being too loud. It continued in the driveway of her new boyfriend, a man named Max, whom I met after throwing a rock through his window to get his attention. (Marlinee dropped her phone in the toilet at dinner so we couldn’t call him, and Max lived on the second floor. Throwing rocks seemed the only sensible thing to do.) It reached a fevered pitch in my backyard, where we drank a pitcher of Sangria and screamed Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” as loud as possible. We were the neighbors, so there was no one to complain about the noise.

I woke the next day with a smile on my face. I had made a friend.

The friendship formed that night has resulted in the most powerful, meaningful, and joyous one I have ever known. Hardly a day goes by without some form of communication; the phone company did not imagine us when they introduced unlimited texting. Over the years, I have watched as her beautiful children have grown, and seen her marry a most perfect gentleman (or perfect bastard, depending on the day); I have celebrated birthdays with her, run races by her side I never thought I could complete, and even, on one glorious occasion, helped “speak for the trees” by, well, somethings are better left unsaid. And to this day, I have never stopped laughing.

Marline, I love you so damn much. You are the funniest and most amazing woman I know, a friend like I have never had, and a true joy in our already very full lives. As Joni said, I could drink a case of you. I am honored to be a part of your life, to have you as a part of mine, and most of all, to be your Best Buddy.

Happy 40th!



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Strange Beauty of "Enlightened"

I have a shameful confession to make. I read self-help. Tons of it. On a pretty regular basis. I love the daily affirmations, the journaling, the gooey “you go girl”-ness of it. In the course of my life, I have found the power of now, had the seat of my soul awakened, returned to love, and gotten in touch with the boyfriend within. I have attended workshops, followed gurus online, and meditated in the park with strangers. Don’t even get me started on Oprah. I can honestly say that many of the books I have read have moved my life into a better direction. I am aware of myself, take care of the things I know are important, and feel more and more comfortable each day being me, a major accomplishment if you knew the “me” years ago. That being said, I also realize the incredibly amount of bullshit that comes along with the genre. Composing letters that will never be sent to those who supposedly wronged you in the past does nothing but make you look crazy. Writing “I am all the love that I need” 50 times with your non-dominant hand only leaves you with carpal tunnel. Visualizing cashing a million dollar check when you cannot even pay the minimum on your credit cards is flat out delusional.

Because of (or in spite of) this self-help mania, I have fallen in love with a new series on HBO, “Enlightened,” starring Laura Dern. Dern, who developed the show along with “Freaks and Geeks” writer Mike White, plays Amy Jellicoe, a “Health and Beauty” executive who, after getting demoted following an epic, anger-fueled office-place meltdown, ships herself off to an island rehabilitation center and discovers that “Change is possible.” She returns to her old life with a new, self-help centered focus, determined to act upon the self she found in her awakening. For anyone who has tried to change any aspect of their lives, it is easy to see that some changes don’t take as easy as others. In Amy’s case, her new self is not only hard to maintain, it is also uncomfortable to watch. Watching characters painfully stumble through awkward situations and uncomfortable moments is a staple of today’s television. Successful shows such as “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have made their mark based solely on this premise. We seem to take pleasure in watching the painful foibles of others, laughing at them to fight off our uncomfortable connection with our own lives. Amy is no exception to this category. We cringe as she tries to win back her old job with grand ideas of corporate change and responsibility, only to be hidden away in the basement as a soul-crushing data-entry processor. We turn our heads from the screen as she reads a letter to her mom, knowing the promises held in that letter not only reveal her soul but will go unheard by a (seemingly) vacant woman. And with each of these moments, Amy looks to be the spiritual kin of Valerie Cherish, another HBO character who tried to return to glory through the one-season run of “The Comeback.”

And yet Amy’s journey, in a pleasing surprise, is quite different. Amy is not a one-note annoyance, hell bent on reveling in our ugliest flaws. Instead, Amy has become one of the most likable of the “unlikable” characters we see on the small screen. In fact, I would even go as far as to say Amy, and “Enlightened” as a whole, has grown into one of the most soulfully honest series on television right now. Amy has become a character we not only scorn but root for, a rarity for a show pegged as a comedy. Take the series 6th episode, “Sandy.” In the episode, Any receives an unexpected visit from one of her closest friends, Sandy, played lovingly by Robin Wright. Amy adores Sandy, believes she can tell her anything, recover from any problem that might arise in their friendship, be the person she is and not the character she pretends to be around others. A surprise visit from Sandy sends Amy into fits of happiness we haven’t yet seen from her. Someone finally understands her. We are shown all of this within the first five minutes of the show, which in television mean “things will go wrong from here.” The viewer fully expects Amy to ruin her friendship with Sandy through her sheer Amyness. Instead of becoming uncomfortable, however, what unfold becomes infinitely sad. I don’t want to reveal too much about the episode other than to say that by the end, it had me in tears, reflecting on failed friendships of my past. “Sandy” could have been a painful excursion into a characters inability to connect with others, but turns out to be a subtle and even moving meditation on our own fears of not being enough for those we love. As beautifully directed by Jonathan Demme, the episode is easily one of the best to air on television this year.

“Enlightened” is not easy to describe, which probably accounts for its low viewership. It is not quite a comedy, not quite a drama. What it is is wholly original. It is unlike almost anything on television now. It is a show that has grown over time, becoming something powerful and wrought with feeling. Eckhart Tolle would be proud.