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.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Corrections on HBO

Several weeks ago, news broke that HBO is currently developing a television adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” with Franzen and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) working on the screenplay, and production set to begin in January. Casting news soon followed. Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest signed on to play Alfred and Enid Lambert, the aging couple at the novel’s center who are desperate to get their family back together for one final Christmas. Then, it was released that Ewan McGregor had also signed on for the role of Chip, the Lambert’s wayward son who, in the novel, has a quite memorable scene with a side of smoked salmon. (It is still unclear if this will be a series or a mini-series, such as the great Mildred Pierce.) Needless to say, the literary blogosphere swooned at the news; the movie rights for the acclaimed novel have long been sitting unused, and many of the actors originally mentioned for the roles back when the novel was released in 2001 are no longer eligible to play the parts. If this project were to ever materialize, this seems like the perfect way for it to happen. HBO is known for risk-taking and quality productions, and gives artists the creative freedom necessary for tough choices. Cooper, Weist, and McGregor are dream actors for the roles, especially Wiest, who seems born to play the neurotic and perpetually worried Enid. And with Franzen and Baumbach penning the script, a perfect project seems all but guaranteed.

So why am I worried?

“The Corrections” is hands down my favorite book. I vividly remember reading it on those frightening days immediately following 9/11, devouring the family tale instead of focusing on the horrors that presented themselves on every television, newspaper, and person I came into contact with. It was a dark, jittery time for everyone. I was finishing my undergraduate degree in film and television production, and every class I attended seemed pointless compared to the feeling of terror and desperation our nation was experiencing. People were jumping to their deaths instead of going down with a collapsing skyscraper. Why should I bother learning acute lighting and camera placement? So I read instead. I lost myself in “The Corrections.” I dropped out of life for a few days and buried myself in a book, stopping only to eat and sleep. (One day, I actually went to school and read on campus, just outside of the classroom where I was supposed to be, to ease the guilt of skipping class.) Franzen’s writing was so clear, so powerful, and his characters so vivid. “The Corrections” was the perfect book for those days, a narrative both familiar and original, and somehow it made the world seem a little better place. This sounds dramatic, but the times were dramatic, and meaning in any shape was at a premium. But the power of the novel, what sets it apart from simple escapism or entertainment, is that I would have probably dropped out of life to read the novel even if the world were not blazing down around me. “The Corrections” is the novel of the 2000’s, Oprah be damned, and a work that captured our life with such distinction that no disaster could diminish its power.

For me, it resides in perfect form on the pages in my imagination, a marvelous synthesis between author and reader. A movie, no matter how good, could never take that experience away from me, but what it could do is change it around the edges. My Enid is not Dianne Wiest, and I don’t want her to be. I want her to be the Enid I loved and despised while reading the book, the one I saw in my head. To me, that is the real Enid and always will be. But to even think of the actors involved in the roles slightly changes what I know, and this is what I don’t want to have happen. Even imagining it on television even alters my perception of the novel. I worry that something that meant to be read should stay that way, even at the risk of sounding elitist. Do we need to adapt everything?

So, will I watch “The Corrections” when it eventually airs? Absolutely. In fact, I am excited to see it. I might even have people over for it. But I will reread the novel first to keep fresh and reinforced in my mind. Some things are too perfect to lose, even to Diane Wiest.

What novels have you read that you don’t want to see adapted to the screen?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Submission, Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman’s The Submission is the most exciting piece of fiction I have read in some time. It is engrossing, thought-provoking, and is as finely written as it is intricately plotted. By asking what would happen if a Muslim was anomalously picked to design a Ground Zero-type of memorial (the novel is vague in its reference of the attacks of 9/11) and then exploring the hysterical fallout of that decision, Waldman is able to delicately balance social satire with a tragic, almost poetic eloquence.

Waldman begins her novel in the Governor’s mansion, as a selected group of historians, artists, and political aides debate the merits of two memorials, narrowed down from the thousands that have been submitted. The group is narrowly divided over two selections: One is a dark sculpture named the Void, which breaks out of the ground, reminding the viewer of the horror of the day by creating a “great gash against the sky.” The other is a walled garden, symmetrical in its design, and lined with metal trees, each of which are made from the ruins of the site. Both memorials have their supporters. The group, however, selects the garden, based largely on the urgings of Claire Harwell, a widow whose husband was killed in the attacks. Claire’s passionate defense of the garden, which begins as a yearning for peace from the horrific grief of her loss, starts out unwavering, even in the face of strong opposition. She soon begins to question her own decision and personal convictions, however, when it is revealed that a man with the name of “Mohammad” submitted the chosen design.

“Jesus Fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!” is the cry from one juror upon hearing the name.

The ripples of this decision animate the novel. Waldman sets up nearly a dozen separate characters and follows them as they grapple, debate, fight and question their beliefs over the memorials selection. Some of those, such as Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother in the attack, vehemently oppose the memorial. Sean uses the opportunity to publically express his outrage, going as far as pulling a headscarf off of a Muslim woman in protest, setting off a disturbing wave of bigoted violence across the nation. The memorial’s supporters, such Asma, another widow whose religious beliefs (she is a Muslim) and illegal status (she if from Bangladesh) keeps her silent surrounding over the memorial, question how to fight the discrimination the design provokes.

Amongst all of the yelling, fighting, and violence over the project, it is the memorial’s designer, Mohammad Kahn, whose narrative becomes the most potent. Khan refuses to disclose his inspiration for the design in an effort to keep the focus on his art, as well as in defiance over his unfair treatment. That the reader is able to understand both his stubborn anger and his bitterness over the controversy is a testament to Waldman’s great talent at characterization. It is easy to sympathize for Khan, even as he grows increasingly unlikable to all the characters in the book.

Reading The Submission, it is impossible to not to be reminded of the uproar over the recently proposed “Ground Zero Mosque,” a scandal that flooded the news and divided much of the country last fall. The novel, written well before that fracas began, is eerily prescient, if not entirely unsurprising, in foretelling the uproar that took over the country. Perhaps because of this, The Submission is a novel that needs be read now: Not just because its theme of the destructive nature of widespread and mass Islamophobia is so important that it needs immediate attention, but because timeliness of the novel’s subject matter might soon become unrecognizable. Even though this feels like a flaw to the novel’s ability to stand the test of time, it should not deter readers from picking it up. Now needs to be examined as much as yesterday or tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blog Bet

My dear friend Petya, who runs the stunning "The Migrant Book Club," recently posed a bet to me, inspired by the Nanowrimo contest: Starting November 1, we must blog each blog once a day for a full month. The loser, that is the one who ends up with the least posts at the end of the month, owes the winner a nice bottle of red. The winner not only gets the satisfaction of the win, but pushes their blogging talent into the stratosphere. I was excited about the challenge, and ready to get this little blog off the ground and make it something worthwhile. Reading is one of my great passions, and to be able to connect with others about the books I love and why I love them is true bliss to me. On November 1st, after publishing my first entry in the contest, I knew was going to beat her (much more) successful blog, not only in amount of posts, but in sheer awesomeness. This was going to be my chance to make it real. And then came November 2nd, and November 3rd, and a double at school and the restaurant; and then came the promises to myself that I would make up the missed entries with daily double posts that would showcase not only my talent, but my brilliance and follow through. Needless to say, I have not done that. Petya, dear reader, I give you the crown, and you can expect your bottle after Thanksgiving. I don't think I have a daily entry in me. (Hold the jokes please.) I was starting to think about blogging about any old thing that came to my mind, and really, who wants to read about my dogs? But what I do have is something a little less intense. I am going to make it my goal, starting with this entry and lasting until Jan. 1, to post twice a week. I will try to make them meaningful, substantial, and give it my best. Hold me to my word. Tell a friend if you like what I have. Join me on Jan. 9 to chat about "The Marriage Plot." And let me know what you are reading.