Kaizen and the Art of Personal Maintenance

There is a sushi restaurant by my apartment that quickly became a favorite place of mine to frequent. Perhaps it is because I can walk to it, though others say the roll selection is solid. I also love that whenever I walk in they yell “Hey there, Soy Paper,” a nod to my distaste for seaweed in my sushi.

The place is called Kaizen. Little did I know, I loved the name almost as much as I loved my nickname. You see, over this summer, I learned about the Japanese concept of kaizen.

To the best of my understanding, the actual meaning of the word versus how people use it today varies a bit. Commonly when people talk about kaizen today, they are referring to a business concept. It effectively translates to “perpetual improvement.”

Perpetual improvement.

I did not realize it until learning the word, but most of my behavior is dictated by kaizen. In my life, I am driven by a fairly nagging desire to be better than I am. I seek out endless books and movies desperate to be more well-read and more cultured. I try to dress nicer to be more stylish.

This rears its head most shortly after a break up. My subconscious reckons I won’t have to endure heartbreak again if I can simply be a better person and attract a better mate. Making time for hair appointments and the gym. Learning a new hobby. Replacing old furniture. All the while, a little voice in my head endlessly whispers the mantra:

Kaizen.

Which is why there is an element of my fellow writers that always kind of perplexed me. I’m someone who yearns for editing, loves feedback, and constantly wants to know how to get better.

If anything, I appreciated the corrections more than the compliments. They are more honest. If someone is really bothered enough by something to share it, I always at least take the time to consider, even if I may disagree.

In the poker world, not many of us have the luxury of an editor. And trust me, that is a luxury, particularly when live reporting. When I live report, I am usually in such a rush to get back on the floor, I barely have time to glance through my own post for errors, let alone look at what my peers are writing. When you are writing literally thousands of words in a day, typos are inevitable. Turn cards get missed.

So, even when players are a bit snotty about these errors, seemingly unaware that typos are pretty unavoidable given the nature of the gig, I am grateful when these typos get pointed out to me.

Others though are…well, they are a bit more sensitive. Admittedly, the tone in letting us know about these typos leaves a lot to be desired in the respect department. The fundamental truth remains the same though:

Someone is telling you exactly how to make your post better.

I wish I knew exactly what to change in order to make this blog take off enough to be my livelihood. I would probably drown a puppy if it meant someone told me what part of my personality keeps me from finding that person in the world I am supposed to be with forever. In a life filled with constant problems and challenges where it is incumbent on me to figure out a solution, I often wish there was an easier way.

My quest to frequently improve, to always at least try to be better is hard enough. So, when someone actually tells me exactly what I could do to make something better, I am elated.

Keep in mind I may not always agree. I often don’t. I will spend the rest of life telling people there is no poker live reporting title stupider than the lead-burying “John Doe Eliminated in Second Place.” But the first time someone suggested it to me, I was at least ready to listen. I considered it, for at least a few minutes, then concluded that I do not believe it is so important to give the runner-up a moment in the spotlight if it meant compromising the biggest story, which is who won.

I look around social media, and I see that we, on the whole, are really bad at listening when someone makes a suggestion. People get defensive. They immediately decide the more important thing is to stand up for themselves when someone questions them.

Those who know me are well aware I have no issue sticking to my guns. Stubborn is probably a more fair description, honestly. But I would like to at least hope I have a reputation for taking time to consider the other side.

Because honest feedback is hard to come by, I would not be doing a good job with my kaizen to put up the kind of front that suggests to people that I do not want to hear it. By doing my best to be open to it, I learned:

  • I can be wordy
  • My sentences can lack definitiveness
  • I am a recovering emdash addict
  • I probably overshare

Just remember, there will always be baseless criticism. But it is so worth it to wade through the negativity and find the well-intentioned suggestions. They are gifts, you just have to recognize that yourself and be open to them.

Be open to suggestions.

Be open to trying a little harder.

Be open to kaizen.

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Lord Have Mercy

I’m not much of a prayer. Or a pray-er, to be more specific. That is not to say I never pray. I do. Like a typical selfish Millenial, I really only pray when things are really hard.

I rarely ask God to fix it. Instead, I tell him I am struggling. I say things like, “I don’t know how much more I can do this.” I don’t ask for solutions, mostly I just ask for strength.

No one ever really taught me how to pray, but looking at my family, I learned by example. My parents always prayed for guidance or fortitude. My grandparents always prayed for the well being of other people or to let God know they were grateful for the lives they had.

Only rarely did family prayers sound like anything close to a wish you would ask a genie. My aunts prayed for a miracle for my mother, but they seemed to know it would not happen. There was a point with my mom I prayed it would just be over, even though that isn’t really what I wanted.

Lately I have seen a lot of talk about prayer on social media. I try to leave it to those who get more comfort than I do from prayer to explain. Still, it reached a point I felt compelled to interject when it seemed like the goal was not to help people make smart decisions about Hurricane Irma, and instead it felt like an opportunity to tell people how stupid they are in a time when they probably needed help and encouragement.

Because, when it comes to prayers, I have more in common with those facing Irma than those who pray every day. I seek out prayer in these extreme times. Certainly taking care of a terminally ill relative is not as dangerous as a natural disaster. Both are extreme tests of a person’s resilience though.

In my situation, I prayed because I didn’t know who else to talk to given that Mom wasn’t going to talk about what was happening. During those long mornings and late nights when it was just the two of us, I would turn a corner, bite my lip, close my eyes and pray until I got it together enough to go back in her room. Showers were my chance to cry unnoticed. They were also the time where I dropped my guard and told God I didn’t think I could do this anymore.

But turns out I could. It sucked, but I did it, thanks to the kind of supportive, Catholic family no one really believes exists these days. We all prayed, and we all dug down and found energy I wouldn’t have believed I had a few months prior. So every day I asked for strength, and every day I thanked the Lord I had such strong family beside me.

You can tell me God didn’t help us, that we did it ourselves. Frankly, I don’t care because we survived. I needed those moments to do it though. And if someone came up to me during that time and said, “you know that is pointless and stupid,” I probably would have crumpled on the floor and sobbed until someone came to take care of me. It would have sapped my energy. It would have sapped my family’s energy. And it might have been the difference maker in being relatively okay about my mom dying and being in a state where I needed much longer to mentally get over it.

I think of those people in Florida and assume it is a similar feeling. You know what is going to happen. You get that what is coming is really scary. So you do what you can, like fill up the tub and stick your most precious belongings in your dishwasher. But in the time between that and the storm, you just try to get by. There comes a point where it is out of your hands, so you pray. Because there is nothing else to do, and rather than succumb to the fear it may not be enough, you hope to God that it is, and ask him if it isn’t to give you the strength to do more.

To me, that is what prayer looks like. Certainly there are extremes, as there are in any belief system, where people do not take action and assume God will take care of them. They take the idea of “que sera sera” to the potentially fatal extreme. I get why you make fun of them, even if I prefer not to do so myself. This is not the Christianity I know and defend. I do not believe that is how the Lord works.

I also know, myself included, that some of the ritual prayer that comes with being Catholic can draw a lot of judgmental side eye. I am with you, or at least I was.

We said a piece of the Rosary at my mother’s visitation. (Catholic tradition is to say the entire thing, but we didn’t have hours of time on our hands). It felt weird at first, but I quickly realized its appeal.

Oddly enough, it felt like when there’s a crucial play for your sports team. You can feel other fans around you hoping it happens, and even though that is not some magic guarantee it will, that feeling of inclusion in something bigger than just you has its own brand of majesty.

It sounds hokey, I know, but faith is a hokey concept when you really think about it. Hokey or not though, I personally need it in my day to day life.

And those of you who think prayer is akin to wishing on a magic lamp, I leave you with this:

If you can see value in meditation, you can see value in prayer. For most of the Christians I know, prayer is about channeling energy; finding inner strength if the prayers are for you, sending all the positive energy you can out in the world if the prayers are for someone else.

What we do with that energy is largely up to us. There are some that choose not to harness it and take action. Most of us at least try to though. So if you can respect that we are just trying to channel our energy and focus our mindset, it really doesn’t matter if you think the God we believe is behind it exists or not, right? Because hopefully the end result is the strength to take action, which is something I pray anyone facing Irma finds in this scary time.

A Minute By Minute Account Of My Last Try With Tarantino

I am aware this post is not going to be for everybody, just like Quentin Tarantino is an acquired taste. I have not acquired it myself. Jackie Brown is alright, I found Pulp Fiction boring, and Kill Bill 1 was so violent and gross I swore the guy off forever.

That is, until my friend Jesse insisted there is a Tarantino movie that would be different: Inglourious Basterds.

I was hesitant. I told him I know this is exactly the kind of movie I do not like, but he really wanted me to give it a shot. So I did. And rather than try to express my larger issues with Mr. Tarantino and his cultural appropriations or his inability to construct a good narrative, I thought if I was going to dedicate two and a half hours of my life to a movie I was fairly certain was not my cup of tea, I might as well track my thoughts about it to keep me invested in the thing.

So, for those who are curious, here are my thoughts on everything about this movie from the good performances and camera framing to the lethargic opening scene to the extreme violence to the inexplicable fonts. All of it. And maybe those of you who don’t realize how much I read into movies when I watch them will get a glimpse at why I nitpick, how distracted I can be when reminded of other movies in a referential movie like this one, and, most importantly, what an obnoxious snob of a film student I can be. Here it is, feel free to criticize and debate. It is only fair if I take shots at the movie, fans of the movie can take their shots at me:

(Note: In this rare instance, I did not self-spoil the plot before watching, so these are all real time reactions to what I am watching, which explains why I walk back certain criticisms when they get explained later on)

0:00: I do always love a retro studio logo. They do have me there.

0:01: I will also give Tarentino this—though he rips off old movies and calls it homage when it is really just pastiche, I do appreciate anyone with reverence for opening credits. Though, these are a smidge boring compared to Feud on FX, which are the credits of the year imo

0:04: Waiting for these people on bikes to arrive at this French guy’s house is already boring me. Given the running time, I am concerned about this inauspicious start. Where is the suspense? The build? For a filmmaker who I will at least admit is energetic, this is such a muted beginning.

0:06: I am watching a dude drink milk. Send help.

0:08: Is it supposed to be ludicrous that he wants to switch from French to English after using the French word for inadequate? I am hoping this is part of the humor of this film and Tarantino just hasn’t tipped his hand as to tone yet.

0:12: The missing Jewish brother is named Bob? I am racking my brain on whether or not Bob is a common French nickname or not…Mostly because I am bored to tears and having nothing better to do.

0:13: I am also wondering what about the pipe is not a pipe. Is it a signal? Is it a bomb? Is it a mistake this guy made that Christoph Waltz is going to use to destroy him.

0:15: I understand this is supposed to be tense. Thing is, it isn’t. Tension requires me to be invested in the outcome and I don’t know or recognize these characters, so I am not particularly invested in the fact Waltz is inevitably going to catch and kill them. You can zoom in on him writing down that a 10 year old is involved, but the film hasn’t *earned* suspense yet. Sure, it is a kid, it helps, but I find it a little lazy. At least take Hitchcock’s cue and clue the audience in to something the participants don’t know. Thatis how suspense best works.

0:17: The comically large pipe tells me two things: 1. There is a sense of humor to this movie after all 2. The French guys pipe is not more than what it seems, it is an unnecessarily long set up to a cartoon joke.

0:19: Oh the French to English is a façade. That is a relief.

0:20: Um, these Jewish people in the floor don’t speak French, but they aren’t deaf. They can hear three soldiers marching in with boots on.

0:23: While it is not perfect, I applaud you Brad Pitt, for a reasonable Southern accent.

0:24: I can’t with all these monologues. None are particularly memorable so far and I can just feel my time being eaten minute by minute with unnecessary nonsense.

0:27: Oh God, he was not kidding about the scalps. Ew, gross. This is part of Tarantino I can live without, the violence just for violence’s sake. The redneck leader really needs to scalp people? Is it to tie it to the Western genre? Connect it with the heroic and violent for the era John Wayne war movies? Give me a better reason because these are all flimsy at best. He just wants to shock people and takes the easy way out.

0:29: This whole Hugo Blaxpoitation montage is the Tarantino I know and hate. Just derivative and violent because Tarantino thinks it is cool to insert this genre into a WW2 movie. Again, I just find it lazy.

0:30: I just want to go watch The Dirty Dozen instead so very badly right now.

0:35: After watching this poor Nazi get his brain bashed in with a bat, the “ew” count is up to three.

0:36: While Pitt interrogates the last Nazi the excessive panning from person to person to map to person is just one of my pet peeves. What about this camera move is adding anything to the story? It is not additive, it solely distracts.

0:38: Why do these intertitles look so cheap? Is there a reason? Given it is Tarantino I feel like there has to be, but I find it weird they look like I made them myself in Premiere.

0:39: And now Shoshanna’s title card is just a completely different, new font. The font inconsistency is also driving me crazy.

0:40: This shot of Shoshanna fixing the marquee is incredibly well composed though

0:42: These 180-degree rule violations while Shoshanna talks to the German soldiers are killing my soul. I want to believe there is a reason this is happening, but I think given the usual suspect, there is not one.

0:43: Not to sound wholly negative, the Orson Welles-esque low angle shooting is really lovely. The framing of shots in this movie is really nicely done. (See? I can say nice things too!)

0:57: Shoshanna’s reaction to having to wait for the cream to eat her strudel is how I feel about watching this movie. Silently rolling her eyes because she knows the cream won’t save this horrible experience.

1:00: I will also give Waltz and this blonde chick playing Shoshanna that their performances are quite good. I get why he was nominated. Looking at this remarkably weak and unmemorable field, I guess it makes sense he won, though I am Team Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones myself.

1:03: So another pet peeve of mine is inconsistent narration. We have not had voiceover in this movie for half an hour and when Samuel L. Jackson did pop off, it seemed to be part of the joke riff on Shaft, not a recurring thing. Then suddenly he reappears because we as the audience need to be clued in on a plot point and there is no more graceful way to do it? Boo. Boo I say.

1:07: Something I just typed to my boyfriend, who inexplicably wants to see Boss Baby:

“I would rather watch Boss Baby at this point. If I could tap out of the last 90 minutes of this movie and opt in to the Alec Baldwin talking baby cartoon, I would.”

1:09: Please tell me you are going to be around for more than one scene, Mike Myers. I need more of your weird smile.

 1:19: Y’all I have completely zoned out I am so unbelievably bored. Even more characters I have effectively no interest in are playing some sort of guess the celebrity game in a bar. Shoshanna aside, there is not a character in this movie I give even the tiniest crap about and we are at the point where most films are entering their third act.

1:22: I am curious about this director Pabst now that he has come up three times Not a German director I am very familiar with and, looking at his filmography, I have neither seen nor heard of any of his stuff.

1:26: Pretty certain you can remove this entire section and the movie would be much the better for it. It is just a silly excuse for another discussion about pop culture for Tarantino to show off what a film nerd he claims to be. These scenes can be fun, I enjoy Gilmore Girls, but Jesus get on with it already, like nothing has happened in this movie and we still have an hour to go.

1:30: Sorry undercover British guys, that isn’t how Euros count on their fingers. Guessing the jig is up. Thumb first, dude. Thumb first.

1:31: I will admit this is a good plot point as to how he inadvertently tips off the German guy in terms of execution, concept, dialogue etc. I don’t know why we need twenty minutes to get to it, but this moment was well done.

1:36: Say Auf Wiedersehen to your Nazi balls? Ugh. I get that this is fun to people, juxtaposing a 90s action movie scene into a WW2 movie, but I just generally find it stupid. It is a preference thing, I am not right or wrong here, I just personally find it to be the furthest thing from entertaining.

1:42: I did like the delayed explanation of why this undercover op went to hell for those unfamiliar with how some Euro countries count.

1:48: I think there is a fly in my apartment. Or something is buzzing or maybe broken? Is it a fly? Is it a machine? These questions are more interesting than this movie.

1:49: Um, is this Davd Bowie? I am so bad at music sometimes. What is with the sudden introduction of the anachronistic music? Because I guess we are homaging the 80s now because, hell, why not? I know this is supposed to be fun, but the tone of this movie is so baffling to me. It is irreverent, but it is not quite out there enough to justify the random narration and abrupt genre homages. I know this is supposedly his niche, I just think the Cohens handle this screwball, irreverent tone so much better and I wish their deft hands could fix this.

1:55: All these Nazis in the theater have me hankering for one of my favorite movies featuring Hitler, To Be or Not To Be. The Lubitsch original is the real one to watch, but Mel Brooks’ version is really solid too.

1:57: I will give this movie this—I am impressed how many people watched this movie and seemed to like it that would generally be averse to watching foreign films. The majority of this movie is subtitled and he appealed to a base who normally can’t tolerate subtitles, so I guess there is something to be said there.

2:01: Guys, I am so excited. There is only half an hour left.

2:04: AS we seem to be bidding her character farewell, I will remark how stunning Diane Kruger looks in this movie and how obsessed I am with her blue sparkly dress.

2:21: It is moments like these where I think to myself, “Where is narrator Samuel L. Jackson?”

2:24: Sappy music? Not dead German. Girl, he is going to kill you, ru…oh, too late.

2:27: Is Shoshanna speaking in English in this movie within the movie? Why would she be talking in English to a theater full of Germans? I mean, I guess I can assume she is speaking French or German, but given that it is subtitled every other instance of the movie, this is a little weird. And we established in the intro that she does not speak English, so I am even more perplexed.

2:28: And now we are in a Jimmy Cagney movie. Oh what I would give to be able to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy right now.

2:29: This is a section of the movie in which my personal movie tastes really impact how things affect me, especially Tarantino. I do not find this tommy gun bonanza interesting or invigorating. I find excessive violence really unappealing and I just tune out completely, so this climactic moment totally works for most people and I am fully aware the only reason I am bored out of my mind while Eli Roth shoots Hitler for the 100th time is a matter purely of taste.

2:30: This scene in the woods is very Miller’s Crossing. Which again just makes me think about how much better the Cohens are at these kinds of movies and how good Brad Pitt is in Burn After Reading.

2:33: Well, I tried. I do think there are moments and pieces of this worth noting, like the Shoshanna girl, Waltz speaking four languages and stealing the show, and the general mis-en-scene, but so much more is a miss for me. Pacing is a disaster with no sense of urgency at any point throughout the movie, there is minimal character development, I for the life of me can’t really sum up the plot of this movie in any succinct way…I mean, to me these are pretty substantial issues that extend beyond my general distaste for the director’s ultraviolent style.

There is only so much pithy one-liners and a rather absurdist sense of humor can save. For me, cinema is a narrative-driven medium and I have yet to see a Tarantino movie where the narrative has done anything but inhibit the rest of the film. In that sense though, that is also a matter of taste. There are those who love formalism, privilege the visual component of cinema, and I get that, it just for me is not what makes a movie I enjoy. I respect Scorsese, but save for Hugo, I don’t really dig his movies because I cannot get into the story. Is he visually skilled? Sure.

Is Tarantino visually skilled? That I cannot answer so definitively. He is a masterful mimic, which is worth noting, but it is all just pastiche to me, throwing things together not to make a point, but just to make something look cool.

Joy to You and Me

My mom could never get the name right of her favorite song. Its real title was “Joy to the World”, but she just called it “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog”. I would try to correct her and she would ignore me. She had many instances like this where, when confronted with the truth from me, she would balk as if I was the crazy person.

“The boys like those ray-man noodles,” she would say.

“It’s ramen, Mom.”

“Maybe that’s the way they say it out West.”

“No, Mom, this is not tomato and tomahto. This is like me pronouncing it house and you pronouncing it hise. One of us is right and the other one sounds like a well-meaning moron.”

“Stop being so ridiculous.”

Mom and I had outlooks on life that differed far beyond saying it tomato or tomahto. I was her artsy, sensitive daughter. She was my stoic, practical mother. I lived in the creative and symbolic. She acknowledged nothing but the most literal version of everyone.

Which brings me to the time we spent upwards of four hours planning the music for her funeral visitation.

You might not even realize this is a thing, but it is. Beyond just the funeral, there is usually one or two sessions where family and friends can come to the funeral home and pay respects to the dearly departed.

The whole pomp and circumstance generally runs 2-3 hours. During that period, which includes a lot of quiet time, music will play in the background. When my grandpa died a couple of years ago, the songs were strange elevator muzak versions of pop hits. I was so jarred hearing the Kenny G-esque version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I couldn’t even be all that sad he was gone. I was too busy being downright perplexed why my farmer, good ole boy grandpa would have a song about cartoon lions falling in love playing at his wake.

So when we went to the funeral home to plan Mom’s services before she died, I was quick to ask if we could bring our own playlist. Dolores had meticulously pre-planned every aspect of her funeral, but this hadn’t crossed her mind. Rather than be relieved there was one less thing about her own impending death she had to consider, my mom immediately grew concerned.

“Well I think you will need to run them by me first.”

“I know what kind of music you like. It’ll be Elvis and The Carpenters, it isn’t like I am going to pick Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.”

This was not sufficient for Dolores, who never met something she didn’t want to completely control every aspect of, so we came up with a musical selection process more intense than vetting potential freshmen at Ivy League colleges.

Mom’s hearing was not what it used to be thanks to the chemo, so the first step of the process was for me to read aloud the lyrics of a prospective song from beginning to end. When I say all the lyrics, I mean ALL of them.

For example, I had to say all 22 “ooh-oos” in “Ooh Child”. If I tried to say something like “get easier, get brighter, etc etc,” Mom would stop me.

“Ahem. What does it fully say?”

I don’t know if my mother thought I was trying to slip f-bombs in without her noticing, but even if I skipped them in the reading, they came to light during step two, which involved silently listening to the song in its entirety.

When the song was over, she would take anywhere from ten seconds to a couple of days to decide whether or not it was acceptable. The longest battle came when she specifically requested a Beach Boys song and I brought her “God Only Knows“.  She tried to veto it as soon as she realized the song started “I may not always love you,” which she deemed “a terrible sentiment,” but she listened to it and heard my argument that tens of thousands of funerals had previously used this song before she acquiesced a couple of days later.

Other songs were not so lucky. Some she would cut off right away, like “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Mom and Dad both adored John Denver, so one of the first songs I set aside for the playlist was this pretty ditty about the beauty of going home to the country.

We started out successfully enough with “Almost heaven,” but as as soon as I got to “West Virginia”, she abruptly scoffed.

“West Virginia! Jessica, I am not from West Virginia! That does not make any sense. What’s next?”

I tried to rationalize with Dolores that her brothers, sisters, mother, nieces, and nephews would probably not mistakenly believe she is from a state she is not from, but she insisted it was just preposterous to try and make this song fit in at her visitation, so it was axed.

She suggested another Denver tune, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, but I had to advise my mom a song with the sentiment, “If I had a day that I could give you, I’d give to you a day just like today,” was probably not going to be very comforting to her grieving relatives. Mom relented.

My persuasive skills helped convince her the ideal The Carpenters song for the occasion was “We’ve Only Just Begun“.

“I don’t know, Jessica,” she said uncertain after the song finished playing. She loved Karen Carpenter and the mood of the song was appropriate enough, but she had one concern.

“It sounds like it is about newlyweds just getting started.”

Mom believed in heaven. We all did, which helped Dad’s death in 1992 be a little easier. Knowing that and knowing how much what I was about to say was helping me be okay with things, I offered this insight:

“Won’t you just be beginning your eternal life together up their with Daddy though? You’ve waited a long time for it.”

She gave a little nod and what I swore might had been a small grin and it was on the list.

For some artists, like Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton, it fell to me to scour their catalogs even though they were her favorite artists. Parton just did not have many songs about death and Mom did not like the standard Elvis fare.

She decided of all Elvis songs to select “The Wonder of You“, a weirdly bombastic song of love about how great the woman Elvis sings about is. I think she wanted us to be reminded how great we found her while still remaining happy. Many songs made the list both because they were palliative and because they were chipper. In our initial pass, none pleased her more than Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” for she hated the sentiment that things happened for a reason and because you could tap your foot to it. I lobbied for a more somber cover of the song, but she insisted we needed the peppier version.

Dolly Parton was a much more difficult task. I thought I had nailed it with “Coat of Many Colors”, a song about love, family, and the power of sewing. My mom grew up as a relatively poor farmer’s daughter and grew up to be a seamstress acclaimed by everyone who saw her work, so the song seemed a fitting reminder about how family is worth more than money.

Not according to Mom.

“Jessica, this song makes it sound like we were dirt poor. We weren’t dirt poor, this is embarrassing. Lord no.”

At this point, I became selfish. These songs were for me. I wanted to pick them so when I had to stand over her casket and say goodbye I could listen to something that reminded me of the feelings Mom brought to my life. As someone whose mood could be ruined or rescued by a song, I wanted to ensure there was a stream of lifelines playing throughout the night. Mom was more concerned with whether or not these were exact depictions of what her life looked like. I snapped.

“Christ on a cracker, Mom, what is it you think is going to happen at this visitation? You think strangers are just gonna wander in off the street in droves, sit silently in the back nibbling off the free cold sandwich plate you selected assessing who you were as a person based entirely on what music is playing? ‘Oh this is that ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ song that says ‘I don’t hear a word they’re saying’, she must’ve been deaf!”

She paused, then said, “I think we are done for the night.”

I skulked off and cried. Here was something I thought I could give her that she couldn’t give herself. Not being artistic, she lacked the creativity to think of songs that embodied her life and who she was and this was where I was supposed to step in and save the day. Instead we only had eight or nine songs and I would not be able to listen to them that day without thinking about how I had yet another argument with my mom because she is incapable of not taking everything at literal, face value and I couldn’t accept she was never, even in death, going to appreciate a song’s symbolism. Jeremiah was a frog and nothing else.

A few days later, I was running some errands in Mom’s car. The radio was programmed to the oldies station. I found myself bopping my head with the music, not really thinking about what I was listening to when I realized what the words were saying.

“By George, I think we’ve done it,” I yelled to myself, then immediately drove home.

My mom was visiting with my aunt and I interrupted their chat because it was that urgent.

“Mom. I have it. I have a song we are both gonna love. It makes me think of you and it is the most literal song about dying to ever exist.”

I cued up the song, which I am sure you’ve heard countless times before. The opening riffs of it have been used in no less than a dozen movies, usually over a montage of athletes preparing for a big game or soldiers headed into war. Sometimes it is the music of choice for movies about people heading out to ride their Harleys on the open road. I wanted it for my mother’s funeral.

You’ve likely not listened to the words much. They’re pretty simple. It is about a guy who was a good Christian and tight with Jesus during his time on Earth, so now he is off to “the place that’s the best.”

Mom’s face lit up and she smiled as she bobbed her head along.

“It’s perfect,” she told me.

My aunt stared at us, unsure of what was happening and I explained what we were looking for in songs. Expecting we would just pick Christian hymns, she was shocked enough we were using pop songs, let alone this rock gem of the 1970s.

“Well Dolores,” she said. “You sure do have a strange sense of humor.”

It wasn’t about being funny though. Mom wanted songs with concrete purposes. Songs to make us feel better, songs to make us happy about her, and songs like this to remind us that this may have seemed like a sad occasion, but it was ultimately a good thing. She couldn’t leave it up to interpretation, she had to be sure that it very, literally, and completely assured us things were going to be okay.

They weren’t okay. But everyone did comment on how fitting and appropriate the songs were. How much they reminded them of her. In that sense, I got what I wanted too, which was the reassurance I knew how to capture the not so obvious spirit of mom departing for the very tangible sky in her song.

I let out a deep exhale after the last song on the playlist started. Tears started to well knowing this thing, one of the last things about my mom I could look forward to, was almost over. They subsided as the song got to the chorus though.

The experience of making the playlist with my mom was a reminder of how stuck in her ways and stubborn she could be, but this last song reminded me of the side of my mom even her sister was shocked existed. A side only we knew about. One that could by hysterically predictable, but when it did surprise you, it was always best kind of surprise. So when she asked if she needed to include this last song, I was taken aback, but so overjoyed to oblige.

I smiled, then quietly sung along for a second, thinking about my bullfrog and how much I’d miss her.

“I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine. And he always had some mighty fine wine.”

Oscar Outlook: Let’s Talk Best Picture Nominees Part 1

Long time, no blog, I know.

But y’all are in luck, as I am currently stranded in the Detroit airport and I have some thoughts on this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees I need to get off my chest.

First, I must admit I have not been very up on movies this year. It has been a time of transition for me and movies were generally relegated to the back burner. Not being all that excited about many movies did not help the cause.

Some, like La La Land, I rushed to see as soon as I could. Others, like Hell Or High Water, I learned of through distant word of mouth and was late to the party, but at least bothered to show up.

We are currently a little over two weeks away from Oscar night and I have managed to see five of the nine Best Picture nominees. Rather than devote a post to each, I thought I would rank them in order of preference and give some thoughts about each of them in a single post. Some (like my number one) probably won’t surprise you, but some caught me by surprise in a diverse year for filmmaking where a wide range of genres, people, and stories are represented.

  1. Hidden Figures

When I was a kid, there were what felt like several PG-rated movies I saw with my family that weren’t animated kids fare or something featuring a CGI chipmunk.

Dead Poets Society, E.T., Terms of Endearment, White Fang, My Girl, and Apollo 13 are all movies I remember both myself and my parents enjoying together. Nowadays when I take my youngest nephew to the movies, it is without exception to see cartoons. The steady stream of quality Disney live-action movies featuring spunky historical heroes with spunkier pets has run dry.

Hidden Figures gives me hope. Yes, like others, I am moved by its message about equality and pushing mankind to new limits both here on Earth and in space. But there are so many wonderful articles about that aspect of this movie.

What I want to talk about is how I hope the financial success of Hidden Figures and its triumph at the Oscars pushes movie studios to consider a couple of things:

  1. With the success of Hidden Figures and warm Oscar reception to Bridge of Spies last year, there is room in the film economy for old-fashioned movies. Just because they are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they can’t be good. Classical storytelling in the Hollywood mode can be exceptional, as it is here.
  2. A “serious” movie does not need to be rated R in order to be serious. I do not need a strong female character to be raped, beaten, transgender, in the mob, a prostitute, or a foul-mouthed sailor. There is nothing wrong with these things, but you have to think about how great the performances of Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae, and the greatest scene stealer of them all, Octavia Spencer, must be if they can create such nuance and drama out of roles that doesn’t have these Oscar bait elements to it.
  3. Can we all just acknowledge we need an Oscar-caliber space movie every five years? I am not much of a space nerd, but there is not a historical NASA story I don’t thoroughly enjoy because, hell, it is the American way.

2. La La Land

I bet you thought this would be my number one, huh? Yeah, me too.

There are a ton of things to like about this movie. Emma Stone is going to deservedly win an Oscar for her exuberant portrayal of a type of person I encountered so frequently in my time in LA. I was kind of one of those people myself. A dreamer who ignored practicality to embrace a notion of a city I fell in love with through pop culture even though the real version of it bears no resemblance to my romantic idealization.

The pitch-perfect ode to musicals of the 1950s was exactly the kind of fodder old movie fiends like myself gobble up too. The “ballet” sequence at the end of the film where Mia and Sebastian envision an alternative reality of their love was cinematic perfection and might be even better than some of the more famous Gene Kelly ballets of yore.

But in between these spurts of life, the film does drag in spots as the two lovers repeat the same beats and same fights. The fact some of the songbook is not particularly strong (I am looking at you, City of Stars) does not help.

There are other movie musicals with this problem, but after repeated listening to the soundtrack, I find myself able to get over them. In this case, it hasn’t helped, in part because the sound mixing (which was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar) is really sub-par. The opening number “Another Day of Sun” is supposed to be a bombastic show-stopper, but the vocals can barely be heard over the escalating orchestra. It is a problem in several songs where director Damien Chazelle made the decision not to enhance the vocals (which I think is a nice touch) but the sound mixer does not compensate for the lack of a belting vocal by toning down the instrumentals so we can hear the emotion in their voices.

It is a nitpick, yes, but in a movie that is all about homage and art direction, I think the specific criticism is merited. This is a movie designed to appeal to insiders and more than one insider I follow has made the same comment.

2A. Moonlight

I truly can’t tell you the last time I have thought so much about a movie after I’ve seen it as I have since seeing Moonlight. It is wholly and completely different from La La Land, but I can’t really put one ahead of the other because each one approaches its story so differently.

While La La Land embraces classic Hollywood storytelling and genre to make points applicable to modern times, Moonlight rebuffs the cinematic language, opting instead to turn the rules on its head in order to create a fascinating character study.

Told in three chapters, the movie is not so much a linear narrative as variations on a theme. The theme being how we form our identity. In the case of Chiron, the young boy at the center of this movie, in his youth he looks to others to tell him how to be normal. In his teens, he tries to mimick those around him to fake being normal. In his adulthood, he completely rejects who we have come to know as Chiron and chooses an entirely new identity for himself. One that may not be genuine or natural, but one that can protect him after decades of hurt.

I am normally not compelled by character studies. I need plot. I need forward motion and character progression. But this movie very deftly propels Chiron through a gamut of emotions without beating us over the head with how hard it is for him. Because this movie handles the storytelling so subtly, you may think nothing is happening, but then you realize one glance is intended to be read into and there won’t be a musical cue or voice over to let you know that glance is important.

Because Moonlight challenged me so much as a viewer and rewarded with a story about how we determine who we are that feels completely foreign yet weirdly familiar, I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know anything about the experience of being raised by an addict in a bad neighborhood questioning my sexuality, so perhaps the visceral experience of being given a window into that world is what appeals to me?

But I think that answer does not give enough credit to director Barry Jenkins, whose choices in matters like casting (I could write a dissertation on why adult Chiron looks nothing like the young Chirons but exactly like the character player by Mahershela Ali) and cinematography (my one big criticism, too much handheld for my taste) are edgy and risky, but almost all pay off. It all doesn’t give enough credit to Monae, Ali, Naomie Harris, and the trio of actors playing Chiron. Sure, it is a look into a new world, but they all bring the world to life in a way I have not encountered in a movie in a long, long time.

4. Hell or High Water


Don’t worry, I don’t have a novel to write on each of these and this pone is one of the shorter blurbs I have got.

This is not some innovation. It doesn’t redefine cinema.

What it is is an extremely well-executed contemporary Western which uses a lot of the themes that continue to draw my rural working class family to the ouevre of John Wayne and gives them a modern bent.

I’ve talked at length about performances, but I would be remiss to not single out Jeff Bridges. I watched this movie with my sister and at least five times I turned to her and said, “it is like Jeff Bridges grew up with Mom and her siblings.”

Sam Elliot is the only other actor I can think of (h/t Amanda Powers) who comes even close to embodying what it is to be a country person to the core like Jeff Bridges does. The mannerisms, the delivery, the aura are all so quintessentially country that this Western pushes all my John Wayne-loving buttons.

5. Manchester By the Sea

So far, I have only hated one Best Picture nominee. I really did not expect to hate this movie either.

When I heard Manchester By the Sea is a study in grief by the celebrated director Kenneth Lonergan, I was in. When the raves about Casey Affleck deservedly poured in, I got even more excited. I was ready to go and cry my eyes out and have a transformative movie experience to help me cope with my own grief.

Then I saw the movie. My friends were right, it was very sad. Excessively sad, even. But I sat there unmoved and pretty bored.

I think this is an instance where the fault is less with the movie than with me though.

When Requiem for a Dream was released back in the day, the talk about the film centered around how nothing more accurately captured the feelings of being a drug addict. There wasn’t much story or character development, just a shocking look at what life dependent on drugs looks like. People praised it for helping them to better understand and sympathize with addicts. I did not think it was exceptional, but I saw what the hubbub was about.

Think of Manchester By the Sea as the Requiem for a Dream of extreme grief. We are not talking “oh, I am sad a month or two” grief, we are talking the life-changing, I can’t ever be truly happy again kind of grief. The kind of grief you are never going to “get over”, you just learn to live with.

I am not saying my grief is that crippling, but as someone who has lost both of their parents arguably before their time, I know what awful, incurable, lifelong grief looks like and feels like. So, as Affleck delivers a truly incredible performance in which he plays a guy who can’t shake his grief, I just sat there and nodded. “Yeah, it is awful Casey, I know.”

But with no message about grief, no parting thoughts beyond how it is more awful than some people realize, this movie did not give me anything to mull over.

You can argue I like Moonlight because of its Requiem for a Dream depiction of poverty and homosexuality, two things I don’t have much personal experience with. But that movie still has me thinking after I left the theater. This movie had me thinking in the theater…about when this movie would finally be over.

A 25-Year-Old Email From My Father, The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man, and his redhead

The Quiet Man, and his redhead

It’s not a good day. Halloween never is. On a day when you’re sad someone you care about is gone, everyone is running around expressing sentiments like, “You know what I love? Dead people!”

This year is the 24th I’ve been through, but it is the first one without Mom. Throw in a long week filled with stress, sleep deprivation, and the exhaustion that comes with the endless stream of thoughts in my head like perpetual, crippling self-doubt and long hours spent wondering how anyone could like those horrible Fraggles, who let those Doozers work their tails off all day building, only to crassly come by and eat their progress as an afternoon snack (What a terrible existence, Doozers. Like Sysiphus) and I hit the predictably high level of malaise and depression that comes with this festive holiday

This year though, I didn’t have to go it alone. I talked to my dad. One of the benefits of being the daughter of the earliest of early technological adopters is you started using the internet in 1990. Daddy sat me down to explain we could write letters to Grandma and Grandpa over the telephone.

“Why wouldn’t we just call them?”

I had no idea what a gift the idea of the internet was.

Back in the day, early email providers like Prodigy charged based on how many messages you sent per month. In order to keep track of messages and not go over, my dad printed out each message on dot-matrix paper and set them by his desk to keep count. When he died in 1992, my godfather Uncle Randy logged into his email and printed out those final few notes, written in the time spanning between my ninth birthday and his death roughly three weeks later.

I knew these emails existed, but I had avoided them. As a teenager, we found them and I read with a self-centeredness that focused only on emails about me. Some were hard to take. He was tired after my eighth birthday and vented to my grandma about what a handful I could be. I read that one and stopped. My idea of Dad was so fragile, so unshaped with so little time to get to know him that I couldn’t handle the idea of ripping it apart with every comment about his bratty daughter, who, I will be honest, was very bratty.

When I moved in with my family as my mother was dying, I found the emails with Mom’s help. In those late nights by her bed, I would pore over them, filing them in chronological order, reading each message and response dating back to before his diagnosis. I was relieved to find nice stories, like the time I saw my mother’s father give my dad his crucifix, a necklace I had never seen him without. Unaware it was one of many identical ones he owned, I apparently drew Grandpa one and gave it to him before he left town because I didn’t want him to be without it.

Dad was pleasantly surprised. He told his own mother he didn’t think I wanted to talk about what was happening since I didn’t ask many questions, but after seeing this, he realized his little girl was processing more than he realized. His mother wrote back and assured him he was right.

I cried, relieved to know he saw a glimpse of the type of person I was turning into, one always perceiving but often internalizing, but also so distraught that the only other person who really understood how much I didn’t talk about when things bothered me was on her way out the door too.

Mom saw how happy these emails made me. I would come to her with revelations and discoveries and she would nod with a tight-lipped grin. She seemed sad, which I thought was about her own longing to have her husband by her side for the scary process of dying.

One day though, in one of our final lunches out together, she looked at me after my latest email story and said, “I am glad you have those emails. I’m sorry I can’t give you something like that.”

Dad always did the writing. It is generally assumed engineers are typically not great writers, but my dad didn’t just only have much prettier penmanship than my mother, he had a surprising way with words for a math genius and computer whiz.

Dad wrote the cards, especially for occasions of importance like First Communion. He won over my mother with wonderful love letters written from Georgia Tech while she was in Memphis. Letters so personal and open and emotional our mom spent her last mobile days desperately searching the house to find them, not to share them, but to destroy them. She was willing to share pretty much everything our father did with us, but these were her letters and hers alone.

I didn’t understand her unwillingness to share at first, but the more I read from Dad, the more I understood. For two years, he sent nearly daily correspondence to his mother and father as well as to my Uncle Randy, who was not his biological brother, but more than just a brother-in-law. Uncle Randy called him his best friend. My Dad was ill and Uncle Randy was away from his family training to be an anesthetic nurse in Nashville. My dad filled a lot of the loneliness for him, a family man with three children who, in order to follow his dreams and provide them the kind of life he wanted to give them, sacrificed time with them.

I knew he had gone to Nashville. Even as a kid, I understood it was hard, but what I didn’t know was he had something I have spent almost a quarter of a century longing for: advice from Glenn Welman. Sure, plenty of his emails were rundowns of what we had been doing (I swear he documented every single solitary movie he saw via Prodigy mail), but he had a penchant for veering into discussions that felt more like my blog entries than the letters I had seen my mother write her folks, which read like reports rather than thoughtful conversations.

Mom wasn’t expressive. She could listen until the cows came home, but she rarely had much but practical advice. She was melancholy at our lunch because she knew how desperately I had wanted that in my life. Then she saw how much my dad’s words brought her comfort. I think part of her was happy, the way she was always happy for me when I did things far out of her own comfort zone, like a person who can perceive someone is feeling something but can’t understand why, but that was obviously not her prevailing sentiment.

I stopped trying to force these conversations with her and retreated to the seven-inch tall pile of paper with fading ink where my other parent, the one I thought from his discussions of me as a kid he only realized late in the game that I was processing, internalizing, constantly thinking, the one I thought didn’t understand who I was, was there to tell me exactly what I needed to hear.

“He was The Quiet Man,” Uncle Randy said of Dad. “He wouldn’t say a lot at family things..but you can tell he thought a lot!”

I was far from quiet, but I presented a chipper, energetic girl who wanted to talk and entertain. Like Dad, I saved the version of me scared at what was happening and distraught that her life, which had always been dictated by fairness and was now so far from fair, for Dolores Welman. The Quiet Woman who listened plenty, but was mercifully blessed with a disposition that didn’t include the constant racing thoughts of her husband and youngest daughter.

Late last night…early this morning really, I dug up this email from Dad to Uncle Randy. I take it out when I know things are getting tough. I read it and marvel at what a silly optimist he could be, but I also see that though I may never match him in the optimism department, I managed to develop the “survivor’s mentality” he often spoke of and saw in Uncle Randy too. I take a deep breath, sometimes I cry, and I am grateful to have hundreds of Prodigy emails to give me insight into my dad, so he was at last a person, a confidant, a parent and not just the computer prodigy, the genius, the legend.

Mostly though, I cry with a sense of solace that these words from Dad which speak so strongly to me as an adult had to have sunk in to that bratty eight-year-old somehow, even if she kept mum about it. Relieved I didn’t become this way because my dad died. I became this way because he lived long enough to instill them in me.

So, I share with you a letter from my father, dated 8/4/91. Written less than a month after being diagnosed with cancer, my dad instead focuses on fixing my uncle’s jumpy monitor and his new year at school. He encourages, he problem solves, and then he delivers the kind of optimism I thought only existed in PG-rated uplifting movies “based on a true story”:

Dear Randy and family,

Hmmm, that’s a good question as to why Prodigy is jumpy sometimes. How jumpy is it? A little twitch every once in a while or constantly jumping? Of course, once you answer all of the questions, I probably still won’t know what it is! It could be Prodigy is just using a video mode that no other programs use and your monitor is just a little jumpy in that one mode. If there are any controls on your monitor, you may want to try adjusting them. It just depends on how jumpy it is. You also didn’t say which monitor it is.

I bet you are probably really getting excited about school by now. Especially since you are getting ready to move some furniture that way. I know that you will do well. I guess it is my basic nature to treat people with the “you can do it” attitude. We all probably don’t live up to our true capabilities. I’m as guilty as everyone else. Or maybe I have known all along that attitude is everything. Both with your schooling and with life in general. Basically, that is one of the premises in one of the books I mentioned. Attitude makes a world of difference. If you think you can do it, you probably can. If you don’t think you can do it, then you probably can’t. Lucky for me that I have a good attitude. I believe that I can lick this melanoma. The book also talks about dreams and visualization. I had a dream before my surgery. we saw a tornado coming at us and so we found shelter. The tornado missed us. Then afterward, I went outside and my car wasn’t where I left it. So I went looking for it and found that it was OK but in a totally different place. So I interpreted my dream to mean that even though a bad situation was headed my way, I was going to be OK. However, things were going to be different from now on. I know that everything will turn out OK. I hope that I didn’t misinterpret my dream.

We sometimes have to take what life throws at us. But we don’t have to sit by and not do anything about it. Those that can meet life head on are the ones that are the real survivors. Maybe that is why I encourage you so much. I guess I can see some of those same survivor’s qualities in you.

Oh well, so much for all the rambling. I guess I better close this letter down. I really appreciate all of the prayers going out for me. I know that everything will turn out just fine, whatever the outcome is.

We love Y’all and we’ll be praying for you as you get started in your new career Randy. And also for you too, Kathleen, that the job works out for the best.

Love,
Glenn, Dolores, and girls

Oh BOLA! Wrestling with My Opinion on Wrestling

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When I learned I would be attending my first pro wrestling, I was skeptical. We were a house full of girls growing up, so wrestling is more than a little out of my range of interests. My friend Alan insisted the theatrical element of wrestling would appeal to me though, comparing it to So You Think You Can Dance. And we know I love So You Think You Can Dance.

Plus, this wasn’t just any wrestling show. This was Pro Guerrilla Wrestling (PWG), the cream of the indie wrestling crop, and it was Battle of Los Angeles (BOLA), the cream of the PWG crop. Over the past few weeks, I got a bit of a crash course in wrestling from Alan and a to-do list for the big night which included, “wear sneakers”, “stick to basic colors”, and “never take your eyes off the ring, as someone is liable to fly out of it any minute.”

So, last Friday I traveled to Reseda for the big show, unsure of exactly of what was to come. What follows are my impressions of each match. While I learned quite a bit from Alan and the oh-so-patient Shayna Baszler, who sat next to me and enthusiastically filled me in on the matches and who these people were, this is very much the story of a noob who luckboxed her way into the front row of a wrestling event several of my friends would kill puppies to be at in my stead. None of it is intended to offend, I had a great time, but some of my assessments are very much that of someone who doesn’t understand wrestling. So sit back, relax, and revel in my naivety.

This video gives some highlights of each of the matches from Friday when I attended (you can even see me, mouth agape in the front row, from time to time). Let me give you my rundown though:

Marty the Manbun vs. Zero Miedo

Now, I did my best to learn the wrestlers’ names, but let’s be honest: there were a lot and it wasn’t like there was a Playbill to reference, so a lot of them got nicknames. Such was the case with Marty the Manbun, who I guess had a last name, but I couldn’t hear it over the preponderance of man buns at this thing. Marty was the only guy who rocked it in competition though and I assumed based on the hair in tandem with a very Kid Rock-esque floor-length fur coat and an umbrella (which he thankfully did not open inside) that he was supposed to be an unlikable douche. When he removed the faux fur to reveal his Speedo had “Villain” emblazoned across the ass, I knew my read was right.

On the other side of the card was a Mexican wrestler who probably has a real name, but who I called “Zero Miedo” because that is what people chanted when he was out there. It apparently translates to “No Fear”, which was rather charming and, because of years of loving Strongbad and his emails, I am always gonna be partial to dudes in Mexican wrestling masks.

It looked like I was on the right side of things early on, as Zero seemed to have the upper hand, but after a night of watching, I quickly learned the point is to make it seem like one person is winning and then turning the tables, so I was more than a little disappointed to see the Manbun, who was a little unmemorable save for his hairdo and his penchant for snarling like an animal. I mean, I understand wrestling is inherently violent, but I am not sure I can get behind a non-verbal dude with longer hair than me. Apparently in the PWG community, this puts me in the minority, as this Marty fellow seemed to be kinda popular.

Jeff Cobb vs. Ricochet

Call me a homer for loving the guy from Paducah, Kentucky, but I do. Ricochet is amazing. He calls himself the Architect of Aviation, but I thought he was more of a flying squirrel. His smile and mischievous nature were perfect for this match, which pitted him against Olympic wrestler Jeff Cobb. Watching Ricochet scoff at the idea that lil ole him was supposed to wrestle this beast of a man from Guam was entertaining. When he hoisted Cobb over his head, my jaw fell to the floor in shock. The perfect blend of athleticism, theatricality, humor, and surprise, this was the match which made me think wrestling was better than I gave it credit for.

Hennigan vs. Seidel

Okay, I don’t think that is how Seidel spells his name, but it was too amusing to me that a guy named John Hennigan who, no shit, apparently goes by “Mundo” was fighting another guy with a poker name. Really, I am shocked I remembered their names at all. I generally just thought of Seidel as “Guy with the pants that look like they were purchased at a Gadzooks in 1998” vs “Guy whose pants look like the clothing porn version of an Affliction snuff film”. Even Shayna had to wonder how these studded, seemingly polyester pants could possible breathe or move very easily.

We had plenty of time to mull over these fashion questions though, as this match was super boring. There was a lot of low-to-the-ground kicking and even more hairography. For those who may not be familiar with the term, hairography is where excessive tossing and twirling of hair is used in place of substantive material, in this case, wrestling moves.

The Rooster Guy vs. Irish Will

Rooster Guy has a much cooler name, I just can’t remember it and the little fabric situation at the top of his Mexican wrestling has him looking like a rooster. I’m sure it is supposed to be a much more intimidating animal, I am just being honest.

The big talk of this match was the synchronized elements they did, which, while nifty, didn’t impress me as much as they were supposed to I guess. As my friend pointed out, I am literally the only person who didn’t jump out of my seat when it went down. Part of it is I have watched *a lot* of gymnastics, dance, and figure skating in my day, so watching people aerobically be in sync, while nice, isn’t as death-defying as it seemed to others maybe? This is more likely the result of me being unaware of how difficult wrestling is and not their unawareness of how advanced gymnastics have become. Lots of people, Alan included, were big Will fans and I can understand why, but on the whole, this one doesn’t stand out in my memory. It is not them. The issue here is obviously me.

Emo Spats vs. Tommy End

Alan tried to win me over to this guy they call Sabre Jr early on by showing me a short documentary on the up-and-coming Brit. Now here is the part where I am not sure if I am about to say what I am about to say…

We all know wrestling is fake and there are no unscripted results, right? So, yeah, I can play along when people play angry that they lost or play thrilled that they won, but there is a point where the pretending stops making sense for me. If you won a match and were so excited and overwhelmed that you gave what amounted to an Academy Awards speech after your match, it would feel like a little much. So, in this doc, where Sabre gets all emo about this match he lost as if he really truly was crushed this fake horrible thing fake happened to him, I rolled my eyes a little. If I wanted this level of macabre, I’d fire up my Dashboard Confessional albums.

The only thing this Sabre guy had going for him was that his wrestling boots were white, and looked like spats. Other than that, there is not much cause for celebration. He is emo, his face is naturally very serious looking, but then he would be incredibly hammy when hit, acting more cartoonish than a lot of other guys. Throw in the fact that his trademark move appears to be bending people’s fingers awkwardly and you have a recipe for the guy I was most excited to see go away at the end of the night. Unfortunately, he went away victorious, while the talented Tommy End had the crowd on his side, but not the end result.

Chris Hero vs. The Ancient Ligre

Before the matches began, I had the opportunity to meet Chris Hero and marvel at how incredibly nice he was. Then I watched him beat up an old man they call Ligre (I am assuming it is like the Napoleon Dynamite animal, not a name). At least, I think he was old. That is what people tell me, but I can’t say for sure, as he had an elaborate mask on. Judging by his fleet of fans though, people love Ligre and he does seem to be the big deal my friends claim he is.

What was weird was that apparently Chris Hero is pretty beloved and approaching legend status too, so one of these guys had to be the bad guy and Hero seemed pretty intent to take on that role. The folks who go to PWG all the time kept talking about how strange it was to see Hero play what they call a “heel”. I can simply parrot what they said, as I don’t have much insight on the topic. What I can say is I certainly hope in my mid-50s I am half as athletic as a ligre.

Dalton Castle and the Boys vs. Young Bucks & Adam Cole

As a writer, I hate to say “no words” to describe something, but really, no words on this one. From the moment Red Dragon came out masquerading as Dalton Castle’s “fan boys” (fan like Gone With the Wind, not actual fanboys), I was totally sold. Pretending to blow their opponents over with fan and wind power was well-executed and hilarious. Really, that was the theme to this whole match for me. I found my jaw open and smiling the entire time as these guys put together a match that was beyond entertaining, but highly athletic to boot.

My biggest problem was knowing where to look. Like a Cirque du Soleil show, every time I started watching one thing, something else incredible would happen out of the corner of my eye and I was sad I missed it.

I had been told I would love Castle’s campy nature, but I didn’t expect to like Cole and the Young Bucks nearly as much as I did. While their parts weren’t as flashy, they were still fun and impressive, so while the team I wanted to win didn’t, I was still pretty pleased with the end result, which included all of us fanning Dalton back to life like he was Tinker Bell in Peter Pan.

It was an incredible experience, and I am glad to have gone, though the more I write, the more I worry you wrestling fans will be grumpy a noob like myself got to experience BOLA and didn’t even appreciate a synchronized flip off the rope. Rest assured, there is more wrestling in my future, so there is still hope I will get better and smarter, but I can tell you one thing–I am taking the campy and theatrical over the angry and emo every single time.

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A New Project

It has been a couple of years since I challenged my movie viewing with a project. Last time, the obstacle was the list of 400 films nominated on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. This year, I am going even further out of the comfort zone thanks to the recently released list from the BBC of the 100 Greatest Movies of the 21st Century.

Now, either my personal belief that movies are getting continually worse is true or this list is an attempt to troll people with pretension, as it is populated with no comedies, numerous foreign films, and several experimental movies that I refuse to believe people actually like and only say they like to make themselves look smart. Nonetheless, this list of 100 movies only had 39 I had seen before, so how can I really pass too much judgment on it? Sure, of the ones I have seen, several are (IMO) legitimately awful movies, like Moulin Rouge, A.I., and Wolf of Wall Street, but others like Stories We Tell, the works of Wes Anderson, and Amelie are delighful, often overlooked, works. While I am guessing I am going to hate a lot of these, the act of pushing myself to watch something out of my comfort zone is worthwhile in its own right and just might lead to more undiscovered gems in my future. So, the new challenge for the rest of the year is as follows:

Watch as many of the following list as I can. If I find a movie unbearable, I have to give it at least 30 minutes of my undivided attention before turning it off, which I already did with my first attempt on this list, an unbearable film from Jean-Luc Godard (more on that later). I will update my progress here and let you know which are hidden gems and which should just stay hidden.

Here is the list. The ones in bold are the ones I have seen. All the rest, with the exception of one or two that aren’t available have been added to my Netflix queue, Amazon queue, or will be sent via DVD/Netflix.

Take a deep breath and get ready for one haughty list:

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Any insights on where to start? What to avoid? How many you’ve seen? Give a shout in the comments!

Lauren Conrad and the Aspirationally Basic

I was unhealthily preoccupied with The Hills when it debuted in 2006. Weirdly, I did not watch Laguna Beach, but as a girl transitioning out of her early and into her mid-20s, this show about what a typical twentysomething in LA did fascinated me to no end, in part because I actually was a twentysomething in LA for a while. In grad school, in-between seminars, my friend Leah and I would break down the newest episode like film students break down Citizen Kane. I taught pieces of the show in my Introduction to Interpersonal Communication class to discuss how American females perform friendship by having these “big talks” where they talk about who is the better friend, who hurt each other worse, and eventually apologize after crying. Lots of crying.

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I needed more than a single word to describe my fascination with the show’s star, Lauren Conrad, who took the girl-next-door concept to a new level by never being the prettiest, the smartest, the most successful, or the nicest person. Girls seemed to flock to her because she was so accessible because everything about her seemed so plain.

There was another word for it though, I just didn’t know it at the time. Lauren Conrad and her massive sideswept bangs were…

Basic.

Humorously enough, the girl who used to eat Pinkberry on the regular, wore nothing but oversized tunics and leggings for a good two years, and inadvertently starred in 14 Natasha Bedingfield music videos took offense to Allure calling her basic. Eventually though, she realized the very plain, boring, scarf-loving truth: she is the queen bee of basic bitches.

Perhaps that realization helps explain the ten-year Hills reunion, which opted to focus solely on Lauren and not interview Heidi and Spencer, Audrina, Brody, Justin Bobby, and my personal Hills hero, the sassy and hilarious Lo Bosworth. Instead, we got an hour ode to Conrad’s lifestyle brand in a seemingly behind-the-scenes carefully cultivated representation of her life both in the present day and on the show.

About ten minutes in, I realized Conrad has Taylor Swift-levels of brand management happening and that brand is as basic as it comes. Throughout the hour, Conrad discusses how she is not particularly bright (she barely managed a C-average in high school), was so naive she believed she actually earned her internship at Teen Vogue, and had a “problem” of being too candid on camera. The moment of peak hysterical “aw schucks, lil old me?” hijinx came when she earnestly proclaimed New York City “too fancy” for a girl like her. She simply wasn’t trendy enough to keep up. She said this in a limo on her way to a fashion design awards ceremony wearing this absolutely insane lipstick:

Photo property of US Magazine

Photo property of US Magazine

It was then I realized Lauren Conrad isn’t basic and accessible–she is aspirationally basic. For girls who want to believe their plain nature and obsession with Pinterest will pay off, they need look no further than this starlet-turned-fashionista who is now married to former Something Corporate guitarist-turned-lawyer William Tell. If you told me all I had to do was keep my nails pretty, rock some thorough highlights, down 45 pumpkin spice lattes, and sing the praises of inoffensive things like kittens, Harry Potter, pool days, and white wine, I would get to spend my life with a guy partially responsible for Konstantine, I would be all about it. Sign me up!

Conrad realizes this, there is no question, and in this hour, she spins the perfect vision of aiming-for-the-middle, basic success. Her testimonials take place on not one, but two cream-colored couches and, in both, she wears a breezy but crisp outfit with immaculate white pants. In both, she also elects to be barefoot. The message? Look! How relaxed I am in my own skin, even though I’ve been in hair, make-up, and styling for over two hours. Sorry, Lauren, I read my middlebrow fashion mags and I am well-aware of the InStyle-patented casual-designer-clothes-barefoot-on-a-couch photo shoot. Aniston was rocking this basic tableau while Friends was still on the air, convincing women far and wide she was accessible and down to Earth.

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While some of Conrad’s aspirationally basic choices are timeless, others see her adapting as the trends of the basic evolve. Instead of a bare face and all the mascara of her Hills days, she now wears minimal make-up and enough eyeliner to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Look! How relaxed I am with my carefully tended to face, boosted by a 17-step skin regime. This bronzer is practically invisible, which means I can get away with wearing excessively cat-eye eyeliner and claiming I’m “fun” and “fashion forward”.

What remains unclear is whether Conrad believes she is actually pulling the wool over her audience’s eyes at her “accesible” lifestyle or if she understands that the beauty of her baseness is how obviously coiffed and cultivated it is. What may have just been the result of being a boring teenager is now an active choice, styled like a Teen Vogue photo shoot.

An educated guess is Conrad is in on her conspicuous basic consumption. There was a moment in the reunion in which she gushes about her husband and she tells the camera, “The best thing about William is he didn’t know me when I was on the show.”

Time out here for a brief aside. Your husband is a lawyer, who went to USC (Fight On!) and was a part of one of the defining emo bands of a generation and the best thing you can think to say about him is he didn’t know you when you were 22 and awful? Come the eff on!

Moving on, she tells an anecdote of her husband stumbling on an episode of the show where Lauren brags about being at the Roosevelt pool weekly and he abruptly turned it off. She shows a keen self-awareness that everyone should hate the person they were at 22, so she mocks her choices to highlight just how much she’s grown as a person. Look! I used to be accidentally basic because I was too dumb to know better. Now it is a life choice and a life choice that takes up a shit ton of time and most of my bank account.

This active pursuit of Instagram perfection and the easily digestible life that is so plain and inoffensive everyone can relate to it isn’t just aspirational though. It reaffirms the entire worldview of the basic bitch that yes, it is worth spending all this time planning your fake wedding, yes, it is worth browsing for scarves on Etsy for six hours, because in order to ascend to the level of basic beauty that is so perfect no one can ignore it takes work. It takes work to be this pretty yet inoffensive and approachable.

There is no doubt Conrad works hard to maintain her brand–her work and effort to cultivate this perfect sheen is part of the image. For, in order to embrace the newer Minivan Majority (though what is with her bragging about being on the cover of Redbook, my mom’s version of the basic bible?), the basics. Unlike her predecessors, who could win our moms over by simply being real, relatable, and rocking a white t-shirt with jeans from time to time, Conrad has it tougher than Aniston, Julia Roberts, or Reese Witherspoon. She can’t be real because of the very machinations The Hills helped perpetuate. While her image was established around her authenticity on a patently inauthentic reality show, everything she does is still ultimately a performance. It is role play for girls who would never deign to admit they know what D&D is–if given their fashion magazine dream scenario, how would they behave? Like Lauren Conrad. It is a believable fantasy, just accessible enough to keep fans tuned in to her brand for over a decade. We see through the PR of this contemporary Cinderella story though, and part of the fun is peeling back the layers underneath it, so she has to perform real, embrace the basic, and live it like it should be a goal versus the insult it was intended to be.

Wherefor Art Thou Gordon?

We were a Muppet family, but I was never that big on Sesame Street. Mom always wanted me to love Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and the crew. Really though, save for Grover and his The Monster at the End of This Book, I wasn’t down.

Though I wasn’t a massive Sesame Street fan, I didn’t hate the show, so bits and pieces of it stuck with me over the years. Along with Oscar and Snuffy, I also remembered Gordon. He was just as whimsical and magical to me as a Muppet because Gordon was a human who got to live on Sesame Street. I didn’t know much about Gordon, but I knew if you were cool enough to cohabitate with Muppets, you were quite the bad ass, the epitome of cool.

So, I was distressed to read Gordon and other longtime human cast members of Sesame Street were being let go. Apparently in the transition of the show from PBS to HBO and the downsizing from an hour to 30 minutes, the Children’s Theater Workshop and the network decided more Elmo and fewer humans was the key to success. Over the past couple of days, people are rightfully claiming this is a case of ageism, though no one has mentioned species-specific discrimination.

What concerns me isn’t just the belief that young children have no desire to see people their grandparent’s age on TV (which I don’t believe, as so many kids have much stronger ties to their grandparents than I ever did), but that we were severing one of the final ties that connected what I liked to what kids who could ostensibly be my kids like.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear I like old stuff, but I also like long-running stuff that can help bridge generations together. As a kid, I liked Captain Kangaroo on its own and because my aunts and uncles used to watch it as a kid. I liked tapping into Bozo the Clown both because I loved the ping pong balls and buckets game (you want to know how beer pong became popular? Bozo, that’s how), but also because I was tapping into an institution. It is part of the reason we pick the sports teams our families rooted for, because it helps to bring us together.

Now, I realize the Reds have a much different lineup now than in the 80s, so one can argue Gordon and others are past their prime and, like an athlete need to be replaced, but to have a show that is supposed to teach tolerance and inclusion turn its back on cast members that have been involved since the 70s is not the Sesame Street I knew. This is some new Sesame Street, like the team that moved cities yet claims to keep the heritage of their old locale.

With this latest change in the Sesame Street lineup, I look around the TV landscape and see that the long-running shows are also high turnover programs like news broadcasts or Sportscenter. There is no throughline but the name of the show. For someone who has always hated too much change and sought out programming that felt comfortable and familiar, I am nostalgic not just for Gordon, but for all of the connectors between my parents and me…between me and the next generation. Everything continues to become fragmented and insular. While it is great to be able to cultivate such a specific collection of TV and movies thanks to massive streaming libraries, this latest blow to communal viewing still hurts my heart because now the current Sesame Street isn’t an artifact from another era that gives me hope that the classics stay classic and relevant at the same time. To me, it is a zombie Muppet that looks a little like the original, but is lacking in, well, the humanity that Gordon and others brought to the show.