Sunday Scene

On Sunday the neighbor across the street was taken away in an ambulance. Don’t worry. It didn’t seem to be a serious emergency, because the EMS guy had time to saunter around the yard, kicking at snow, and to pause and sigh before he started up the engine. As if to say, “This weather, man, am I right?”

Not thirty minutes later a Burger King delivery car pulls up to the house and the driver brings a white bag of food up the walk.

The door opens; a hand emerges; the bag is gone.

BK Driver saunters, sighs, etc. etc. this weather. Drives off.

(Our front window is the better than any television channel.)

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Why I Don’t Write

I don’t write because it’s -12 degrees on a warm day, and the cold has sunk into my bones and made me tired.

I don’t write because the television just distracted me with pictures of a 600-pound woman undergoing surgery.

I don’t write because after a long day at work, and then the bustling evening activities that include exercise and food, I only have an hour before sleep, and I want to spend that hour with my wife, plucking fallen eyelashes off her face and talking about all the things that happened to us that day.

Also, is it just me, or does the internet seem a little crowded these days? Like, so full of opinions that there isn’t room for any more? Every day I see something I want to blog about (Girls has gone off the deep end! When did it stop being cool to be a figure skater? I have urgent opinions about the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts!), I turn on the computer and see that someone else has already made my point, and 546 people have already left nasty comments in response, and then a counter-essay was written, and I get so exhausted I just close the computer.

Dear Reader, you’re too kind to stick with me.

Hermit Day / The Neighborhood Looks Up

Yesterday, aka “Hermit Day” because the high temperature was still below zero, we were lazing about, reading books and working on a puzzle, when there was a knock at the door. A blonde realtor stood on the steps, rubbing her hands together in the cold.

We could hardly contain our excitement when we recognized her–Come in! Holy crap, it’s freezing out there!–because we know this woman may be the key to turning our neighborhood back around.

It’s December, and our block is still reeling from the chaos swept in last summer by Occupy Homes Minnesota, a grassroots organization that claims to fight for homeowner rights but really–from what we can tell, being right next door?–just squats in vacant homes and tries to sell kittens in the front yard.

Occupy volunteers had been staying in our neighbor’s foreclosed home for six months when they disappeared a few weeks ago, apparently moving on to another cause, a halogen lamp left burning in the front room the only evidence of their presence. They never did get our neighbor back into his home, but they did tear down his fence, break his basement windows, dump trash in the backyard, and throw loud parties amplified by rented PA systems. Streams of people swung through the door every day, never introducing themselves, so we never knew who was staying there and who was just passing through. Underneath the thick blanket of snow coating our neighbor’s lawn is a matted layer of autumn leaves, never raked, and under that, more cigarette butts and trash.

So the biggest problem with Occupy Homes is that they’ve dried up the empathy in our neighborhood. They’re fighting for a worthy cause, but they’ve gone about it in such a radically disrespectful way that it’s hard to believe their primary motivation is the preservation of our community. They’re hazy on financial specifics and dishonest with the media, and rather than actually helping the homeowners by giving them money or rallying neighborhood support, they prefer to block downtown traffic and hold grandiose, camera-ready sit-ins at City Hall.

So all of us neighbors–good-hearted people at our core, supporters of and participants in the working class–now have chips on our shoulders. I saw a foreclosure sign on another house while driving and immediately my heart shut down instead of opening; I thought, Great, here come the squatters instead of recognizing the pain and groundlessness the former owners must be going through. Not good for my lovingkindness practice. Not good for anyone, really.

(Also, nobody bought the kittens. We watched a few days later as Animal Control pulled up and retrieved a box pushed through the door by an anonymous arm. This too made me enormously sad.)

So yeah, we were pretty excited to see the blonde on our front steps. She gave us her card and promised to come back. We watched her get into her car and drive off slowly, her neck craning back to look at the abandoned house. Imagining its promise: a couple, maybe, or a family, hanging clocks and Swiffering the floor.

We miss her already.

Houston, I Apparently Have a Huge Problem

Being the only person on the planet who didn’t like Gravity feels kind of like being suspended alone out in space.

gravity movie

**Spoilers ahead, and grumpiness**

First let me practice some sloppy equanimity and point out the things I did like about this movie:

  1. The visual effects are exquisite and create a real sense of boundlessness, especially in the first scene, which goes an impressive twenty minutes or so without a single cut.
  2. A movie set in zero gravity is perfect for 3D, and there’s a great scene where Sandra Bullock’s tears leave her eyes and fly up into the air.
  3. She was pretty awesome as always, and at the end, when she laughs after experiencing gravity for the first time, I got chills.

But overall the film felt to me like a satire of Hollywood’s love affair with cliché, like the movies Jerry and the gang would go see on Seinfeld.

Or this:tumblr_lxqpz8wO571qey5y8

Does that make sense? Do you still care? Anyway, here are my problems, which I also explained to the bathroom mirror this morning, after the dog stopped listening:

The Writing

To me, when you take visually stunning cinematography and pair it with bad screenwriting, it’s like seeing a gorgeous woman put on too much makeup.

I'm still not over this.

I’m still not over this.

And hearing Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock say, “Welp, I’m either going to die up here or get home safe—either way it’s gonna be a hell of a ride!” is like seeing Heidi Montag the first time after her 19 plastic surgeries.

It’s like—why did you have to go and mess up something so perfect and beautiful?

The Characters

If I see one more “courageous cowboy” character I’m going to burn down the internet. George Clooney, I’m talking to you here. The only reason this guy is even in the movie is to ask Sandra Bullock expository questions before he floats away, all cool with dying and whatever, totally untransformed by the experience of suffocating in space.

And in an attempt to give Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan, some insta-depth, they toss in the ol’ “I used to have a daughter…until she died!” line. ASTRONAUT PLEASE. For me, a tragic loss only works in a character’s backstory if it unlocks something now in the protagonist, but even though Ryan has ample opportunity to reflect upon the afterlife and annihilation while she’s floating around aimlessly in space, she doesn’t, leading me to suspect The Dead Daughter is just another lazy Screenwriting 101 trick to induce sympathy. (I have a heart of cold steel.)

The Tension

It’s a cheap move to prey upon an audience’s sympathetic nervous system response and call it narrative tension. I mean, yeah, I was squeezing my wife’s hand pretty hard. Because it’s anxiety-provoking to watch flames come close to human skin, and see an oxygen meter drop to 1%, and listen to a beloved actress gasp for air. Not because the character’s predicament was uncertain, or the storytelling was compelling. I mean, by half an hour into the movie, Sandra Bullock is the only character left alive. Did I ever for a second think she was not going to escape the drama she was in? Of course not—I still had a freaking hour left.

***

The Good Wife

The Good Wife

My wife loved the movie, because she’s the kind of smart and empathic viewer who is able to both be critical of works of art but also appreciate them for what they are. (She’s like a generous Midwestern Buddha whose good qualities go on so long they will need to be the subject of another blog, another time.)

“But it was just an action movie,” I whined as we left the theater (catching the glares of a LOT of George Clooney fans).

“And why did you think this was not going to be an action movie?” she asked me quite gently.

And that’s when I realized it’s all about expectation. Something about the trailer seemed to promise the existential chill of Melancholia, and I was so disappointed that Gravity didn’t deliver that I didn’t just appreciate the movie for what it was. I mean, typically I really like those kinds of blockbusters. But I spent the whole time complaining instead of just recognizing that I should have just stayed home and watched Melancholia again if that was what I really wanted.

Time for me to digress. Thank you Dog, and Wife, and Internet, for listening. I needed to get that off my chest.

P.S. Watch Melancholia.

Twenty-year-olds Are Sweet, Sweet Idiots

I never realized how sad that Miley Cyrus song is until she sang an acoustic version on Saturday Night Live. (Yeah, I stay home on Saturday nights. What?)

Even though the recorded version of the song hits a lot of minor notes and the tempo is kind of slow, the video (concept: sexy rave-party with giant teddy bears) gives it a fun, sparkly feeling, like you’re a fresh 20-year-old who just jumped into a pool of Fresca.

But strip the song of its slick production and auto-tuned vocals, and plop that 20-year-old on a stool with her hair combed down, and we can’t stop turns from a fun lyric to admission of a problem; we won’t stop from a cry of rebellion to a mournful prediction of the future.

Miley Cyrus on SNL

“Holy [super freaking bad word],” I said as we watched. “This song is depressing.”

“Yeah,” my wife said. “I told you.”*

As we watched the performance unfold, I realized how unlucky Miley Cyrus is. Because when I was twenty? I think I also had some idea in my head that I was going to live forever and always have that kind of ripple-less, creamy skin that, now that I’m older, I realize I did not spend enough time admiring in the mirror. But at the same time, I also had lots of adults telling me “No, you’re not invincible. You’re just twenty. And twenty-year-olds are idiots.”

"La di da la di, we like to par-tee"

“La di da la di, we like to par-tee”

I suspect Miley Cyrus doesn’t have the benefit of these types of adults in her circle. The wild grin on her face during her performance was the saddest part—she’s still clueless, has no idea what the song means to everyone else. She thinks it’s a party anthem, not a howling testament of the despondency and restlessness of American youth.

“I don’t think Miley has any [really freaking bad word] idea how depressing that was,” I said as we watched her high-five her guitarist and stick her tongue out triumphantly to the applauding audience.

“No,” said my wife wisely. “But Pharrell does.”

That’s when it hit me—this song works because it can go either way, which to me is the best kind of art. (Just like Animal Farm can be read as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, or a fun book about talking animals. Either way, it’s awesome.) So it’s okay for Miley to have fun up there, just as it’s okay for her producers to wink at the rest of us through the lyrics.

(Bear in mind that the witness I bring to this performance is in her thirties, wearing pajamas, and has one eye on the clock because it’s really late.)

But Miley? If you’re listening? You’re an idiot, sweetie. The very best kind.

*This is true. She figures things out before I do, including math problems, Trivial Pursuit answers, and other people’s genders.

Neighbors

Tonight after dinner I dashed out in the rain to move my car from in front of my house to the garage. At the same time, my neighbor from across the street—to whom I have never spoken, not for malicious reasons but because we’ve never run into each other like this before—ran out to her car, and there was a brief moment where we both paused by our cars, fobs in hand, rain splattering on the street.

“Hi there,” I said.

She didn’t say anything. Just got in her car and slammed the door, started the engine. Then I saw her burst into tears and careen off, sobbing.

I know a few things about this neighbor: one, she and her live-in partner have a complicated, loud relationship that often ends with her pushing him out the door and screaming that she NEVER wants to SEE him AGAIN.

Two, sometimes she makes the partner sleep out in the car for days as punishment, until one day her neighbor across the way (yeah, that’s me) gets paranoid that he’s dead in the car and calls the police, and the officers wait patiently while he knocks on the bedroom window and begs to be let back in.

Three, she has a pretty cute kid who plays with a rusty watering can in a slow, mournful way in the front yard.

A couple of days ago I was working from home when my dog alerted me to the exciting presence of an ambulance and police car in front of their house, and together we watched as the neighbor talked to paramedics and officers in the front yard before getting her purse and climbing into the ambulance. As they drove off, her partner stood on the porch pacing and doing that thing where he jerks the cigarette out of his mouth after each puff, like it’s the most disgusting thing he’s ever tasted.

I have it in my head that I want to be friendly with this woman, whether she wants it or not. I want to find out what her name is and when I see her outside I want to say, “Oh, hello Susan, nice day, right?” or “Julie, you left your car window down,” or “Hey, Michelle, I heard you crying last night, is everything okay?”

And then she’ll come over to my house and we’ll sit and have some wine by the big front window together and she’ll look across the street at her house and cock her head and say, “Huh. It looks different from over here.”

But one of the things I’ve learned about living in this neighborhood is that most neighbors’ reaction to that kind of idealism is HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

So. For now we just sit and watch from the window, waiting for a knock.

On Ownership

It’s been a long, blog-less time. Since my last post, I had a birthday, bought a new couch, did a lot of yoga, loaded up on freelance work, found four bunnies in the backyard, watched the snow melt, got married, and found a confused German Shepard in the backyard, too, and shooed him gently away, out the gate.

The German Shephard incident was just this week, and my own dog watched this whole interaction happen from the bedroom window, howling at the injustice of it all.

I’m realizing that when you own a house, your sense of personal space gets much larger. What I see as mine is not just my body and my clothing anymore, but extends across the yard, over the vegetable garden, all throughout the garage and along just this side of my fence. This sense of ownership has quietly morphed into a territorialism that keeps me just a little anxious about everything I see on my property—what’s that squirrel burying by my begonias? Whose child is that biking through my alleyway? Why do the freaking neighbors always have to park their car DIRECLTY in front of my house?

(Insert feelings of shame, attachment, ego-fullness, more-bourgeois-than-I-ever-intended, etc. etc.)

And then to put it all in perspective (or perhaps just tilt it so it catches the light at another angle), my next-door neighbor was evicted and moved into an apartment.

Now a camp of activists are living in his foreclosed home. They don’t own the house, so they aren’t burdened by a homeowner’s paranoid sense of responsibility about the property. Examples: they flick lit cigarettes into the back yard, which sprouts grass a foot high each month before getting mowed (Andrea=minor panic attack). They ignore the trees growing from the gutters and let the busted-in windows carry the sound of their music out into the street (Andrea=moderate panic attack). They hold loud rallies in the front lawn and ask us to please quiet our anxious dog so they can “concentrate” (Andrea=major panic attack).

The neighbor.This week, 75 of them launched a protest against the 30 sheriffs who came to take the door off its hinges and kick them out. (The protesters returned shortly after the sheriffs left and began occupying the house again.)

Their idea is that they will stall the entire eviction process long enough that Chase Bank will grant my neighbor a mortgage modification and allow him to stay in the home. The odds of this working out are looking ever more doubtful, and we’ve been warned to expect many more protests and probably more arrests.

In my eyes, the good these activists are trying to do—help a family fight a giant corporation for the mortgage modification they requested some time ago and believe they were promised—is diluted by their total lack of respect for the property itself. They’ve forgotten that this building is not simply a prop or symbol of injustice, but a home, where someone once watched television and flossed his teeth and sent his 10-year-old son over to the lesbians’ house next door for a late-night cup of sugar and looked through the kitchen window at the moon falling over the yard and the fence and the deflated basketball and thought, “This is all mine.”

Maybe my neighbor will get to move back into his home and his son will come back over to play bags with us in our backyard. Maybe he won’t, and the last of the protesters will stay until winter moves in through the broken windows. Maybe a slick developer will buy the house, flip it, and by fall we’ll be living next door to some other, boring, young married couple. Maybe some tragedy will befall us before any of that happens, and we’ll be the ones begging for help from an unsympathetic bank, realizing we never actually owned those begonias to begin with.

Oh, the things of life.