Category Archives: life

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.


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

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

The Philisophical Life of a Toy Poodle

I’m not sure why we decided to start putting the dog on the kitchen counter, but I think it had something to do with wine.

Shirley ponders the nature of reality.

Shirley ponders the nature of reality.

But it turns out that an exercise in bored self-amusement once again reminded me of the superior spiritual life of my pup (or again, maybe this was the wine).

For Shirley, I think being hoisted up to the counter is like being one of Plato’s newly unshackled cave-dwellers; she’s suddenly faced with the origins of the reality she’s always assumed existed ad infinitum (by this I mean the crumb-laden floor, and the realization that there are cookie jars and bags of flour that create these crumbs).

Watching her sniff the surface and examine this new territory with a bold curiosity–not fear–I felt moved. And because I harbor a strangely deep admiration for my dog, I started to think, as I often do, how can I be more like her?

DSCN3055Shirley is an adaptive creature who knows when to let her guard down. She enters new experiences with a strange bow-legged hesitation, skittering backwards and forwards like a spider, and when her gut gives her the all-clear sign, she relaxes into the present like it’s the only thing that has ever existed. She lets go of grudges–when I step on her foot during our morning walk, she squawks and forgives me. In fact, she’s already forgotten about it five paces later.

Me, on the other hand–it’s like I’ve got molasses goop all over my heart and my hands, and this goop connects me to all the times that anyone has hurt me and loved me and all the places I’ve ever been. And when I step on my dog’s foot and hear her mousey little squeak, let’s just say I don’t immediately rush into self-forgiveness mode.

When we moved into our new house this month, I felt waves of what the internet tells me is very typical transitional anxiety: trouble sleeping, little appetite, a gnawing fear that the spontaneity and spice of life was gone and replaced by the red brick of permanence, of settling. Also, where in the heck were my trusted routines? My toilet that never flushed right, the reliable way I made awkward small-talk with my neuroscientist neighbor as we waited for the bus?

Our first night in the new place, Shirley gave the house a good sniffing and then went to bed and slept the transcendent sleep of a worry-free poodle. She accepted the change by creating new routines, like waking up at 6:15 and playing with her tennis ball instead of sleeping all day.

We even took her back to the old apartment after a week to see if she harbored any old nostalgia for the place, but she took a lap and came back into the living room, like Guys? I am so over this place already.

To which I was like, You, dog, are so unbelievably cool, I can’t even believe you’re my friend.

DSCN3047(Right now she is sleeping on the couch beside me, the tuft of curly hair on her head so overgrown that I can see it vibrating slightly in time with her tiny heartbeat.)

In the end, yeah, I’m probably anthropomorphizing to a degree. It’s hard not to when this animal communicates so effectively and whose love bears such striking resemblance to the love humans share. And I’m probably also overestimating her adaptivity–the impressive splash of diarrhea I found in the backyard snow serves as evidence that Shirley’s body, too, felt the strange groundlessness of transition, at least for an evening.

Or, could have been the wine.


ImageImageThe more I think about it, the less it makes sense to believe in any kind of permanent anything.


The Rapidly Ageing Young Adult Celebrates New Year’s Eve

I’m moving into a new phase in which the most mundane details of life excite me terribly. Homeowners’ insurance, self-employment taxes, upholstery, eyeglass prescriptions, fabric store coupons. The clean way you can slice the stem off Swiss chard by making a v-shape with your knife.

The author at age 32.

Computer simulation allows us to view what the author will look like at age 32.

In fact, this is the first New Year’s Eve that I plan to enjoy from the comfort of my own couch: sweatpants, electric blanket, $2.99 streamed movie from Amazon. And I’m excited about it.  This is normal for thirty, right? I mean, I was delighted to be called “mature” by my second-grade teacher over two decades ago, but that word takes on a new meaning as the years pass, and now it has vague ties to gray hair and a growling disposition.

Anyway. It’s exhausting to be so old & wise.

Minnesota is cold again, so cold that the dog sleeps for 14 hours a day, buried in her pop-up tent, and the draft our landlord promised to fix 2 years ago winds merrily around the living room, knocking Christmas cards off the refrigerator.

That’s cool, though, because we bought a freaking house and are moving soon. No big deal.

Life has been very good to us.


Read: Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

Reading: Alice Munro’s Dear Life

Watched: Anna Karenina

Hoping to get Lovie to agree to watch: The Hobbit

Post-election Thoughts (and Feeeeeeeelings)

Another four years of this man? Thank you, don’t mind if I do.


But here’s the truth, the real, raw honesty of it: election night was one of the most anxious nights of my life, and I spent it huddled under a blanket on the couch, shrieking at Lovie to TURN THE CHANNEL BACK TO SCOTT PELLEY any time a commercial break came on during our recorded episode of 30 Rock (because Lovie, being the smart one in the family, thought it would be more relaxing to spend the evening with Tina Fey than Karl Rove).

After Ohio’s results began to reveal Obama’s lead, I did relax a little. I opened a beer, checked Facebook and Twitter and CNN and the Huffington Post, and suddenly I was hit with such a wave of sadness that the first beer magically disappeared and I had to open a second.

Divided Minnesota (image found on Google)

Here’s what bums me out: seeing the graphics and numbers on the screen, I realized that being divided is the only way our country knows how to exist. It’s our modus operandi: the country is neatly split in ideological halves. So is each state, and each city and county. The marriage amendment in Minnesota was knocked down only by the slimmest of margins (thanks to the tremendous efforts of a hard-working, compassionate group of people who tirelessly fought for my civil rights these past few months), which means that 48% of the voters in my own state turned up at their polling places Tuesday morning and filled in a circle indicating their preference that I never marry. Forty-eight percent!

This divide keeps going, so that if you reduce our country to its most basic form, you get this: two people who hate each other.

No, I think it goes even further than that, actually. It’s one person, having an argument in her head with another imaginary person and feeling helpless and oppressed by this fictional interaction (this just happened to me an hour ago as I was toweling off from the shower). Every problem in our country and in our world is already a problem in our own minds.

Shirley asks that you please be kind to one another.

When the post-victory buzz wore off and I was solemnly eating toast and watching my Facebook friend count drop Wednesday morning (apparently not everyone is a fan of picture of Obama without his shirt on), I realized that the only way to begin moving in the direction of unity is for every person to begin with himself. Stop that nasty chatter in your mind about the miserable day you had yesterday, and what you could have said to that Republican Evangelical from your home town who claimed that Obamacare requires all Christians to have microchips implanted in their bodies, and stop hating on Donald Trump, and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and that other Evangelical on Facebook who said the country’s in the toilet because Obama prays to Allah every day.*

Because that half of the country is just like the restless half of your mind that refuses to stop ruminating and worrying and being anxious: it needs love, and the gentlest touch of kindness.

Sometimes I feel like getting really worked up with anger is the best thing that could happen to me, because it gives me the chance to take a good, clear look at my own reactive patterns. It gets violent up in there, in my mind, so it’s no wonder that our country, which is simply a telescoped version of our inner lives, is so messed up. Since the only thing I have control over is how I choose to react to all the crap that I encounter, I may as well spend my time practicing how to manage that control. And watching 30 Rock.

*Just kidding. It was the same Evangelical.

Thinking about thinking: also, a poodle and her tennis ball

I’m a bad blogger, it’s true. I don’t have a good excuse. I’m just busy with life being very good–a topic for another entry, another day.

So I finally listened to the Radiolab podcast episode called “Voices in Your Head.” I’ve been carrying this around on my iPod for awhile now, afraid to listen because I thought this might be the episode that confirms I’m completely nuts, but I finally got up the courage (sunny morning, hot cup of tea) to hit play on the bus ride to work yesterday.

So meta: Lev Vygotsky, thinking about thinking about thoughts.

They discuss a concept first introduced by a psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, a man who may only be 88% consonants but is ALL Russian. Vygotky posited that perhaps the reason we “hear” voices in our surface-level, narrative thoughts is because we’ve absorbed the dialogues we had with our parents when we were just diaper-wearing kiddos, arguing with Mom about how it’s none of her business why our hand is in our pants again. In essence, then, none of our thoughts are intrinsically ours.

This episode was a nice complement to the incredible weekend I just spent at a retreat with Dr. Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard (Google them!–they’re the scientist and the monk behind the new neuroplasticity*/science of meditation craze), where Matthieu spoke at some length about the Buddhist concept of emptiness. (There is no nutshell, but in a nutshell, nothing exists inherently on its own; everything is dependent on the causes and conditions of other things).

Davidson & Ricard

Made me think that if he were still alive, Lev Vygotky might have been an interesting third party to the excellent team that Dr. Davidson and Matthieu comprise. I know he would have loved all the gadgets they’ve got up in the lab.

Also, I got Pema Chodron’s new book and, as usual, she’s fresh and fly and full of the choicest wisdom. If you order it from Shambhala Publications, you get a free gift with it, too–The Pocket Pema Chodron, which is good to consult when you’re having trouble practicing loving-kindness because your poodle keeps pushing the tennis ball under the couch and won’t stop crying until you get flat on your belly and stick your arm into the dust-bunny circus beneath to retrieve it. Over and over and over and over again.

*When Microsoft Word stops putting a red line under the word “neuroplasticity,” then we’ll know it’s real.

Breaking Bad(ass)

Life is so delicate in those first days and weeks of watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. You have to be careful at all times, diligent at every turn, to avoid encountering spoilers IRL. This means: slamming the laptop shut when Brian Cranston’s picture slides up in your Facebook feed; covering your eyes and singing loud, tone-deaf melodies of your own creation whenever clips of the current season are played on the Emmys; and, of course, getting into a cold shower whenever the urge to look at Aaron Paul’s Wikipedia page arises in your chest. (Of course, you simply want to know if he has a girlfriend, where he grew up, when his birthday is so you can send him a card–but you must accept the fact that while you are still living in Season 3, the rest of the world is far, far ahead of you, and Wikipedia has no doubt been infiltrated by these future-dwellers.) The internet is now my enemy.

This image brought to you by the most perilous of Google searches.

And for some reason, we’re having a hard time getting through this show quickly. Don’t get me wrong–we freaking love it, like the rest of the human race–but it’s not like Mad Men, the first five seasons of which we were able to watch, with only a modicum of shame, in less than a month.

But you can’t really do the binge-watching thing with Breaking Bad, or at least I can’t. It’s way too grim. The suspense is so masterful that I feel very near the brink of an anxiety attack when Vince Gilligan’s name come s up at the end–I have to pad the time between episodes with meditation, herbal tea, spontaneous weeping. My dear lovie was actually unable to sleep at night for awhile when we were watching the show before bedtime, so we had to shift our schedule around so that BB consumption only occurs before 4:00 p.m.

Which is hard, now that we’re both gainfully employed–the whole process of moving through the series has slowed down so considerably that I wonder if I’ll ever reach that golden Wikipedia page. Will I ever know the true Aaron Paul [as depicted by fans and internet users]? Or will he forever be shrouded in mystery, our destinies never touching because I am terrified of the spoilers that might lie in wait at every dark turn of The Google?

Yeah, this one I just had saved on my desktop.

A Sunday

1. The dog and I just played a vigorous game of reverse-fetch, in which she dropped her orange rubber ball off the third-floor deck, watched it bounce neatly off the wood slats of the second-floor deck and onto the roof of my car, and then skittered down the stairs to press her face against the staircase window just in time to watch me run through traffic and fetch the still-rolling ball from a neighbor’s yard. According to Facebook, everyone else in the world is watching football like normal human beings.

2. I recently found my way out of a Phillip Roth Time Vortex (six weeks of slogging through The Human Stain, ten pages at a time, refusing to a) abandon the book or b) stop complaining about the book) and to cleanse my reading palate I very quickly and methodically read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending this afternoon, and now I feel like my literary karma has been righted once again. What a book!

3. I liked this quote best from Bill Clinton’s long, sweaty, and passionate DNC speech last week, especially after I found out it was off-script:

Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. And every one of us — every one of us and every one of them, we’re compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we’re never going to be right all the time and hoping we’re right more than twice a day.