24 September 2010

Flotsam and jetsam

Wednesday night on Letterman: Joaquin Phoenix and Tom Jones. First Joaquin - beautiful, brilliantly talented, very vulnerable, with his frequent "and um..." and hesitancy in answering direct questions. Then Mr. Jones - still hot and bothersome at 74 and counting. (And in case you're wondering, Joaquin Phoenix was born exactly nine months ahead of my daughter.)

I wonder how many other women of my generation have been taken with such a maternal possessiveness toward the Phoenix boys. River broke my heart more than once, but the last time almost did me in; after his death, I couldn't watch my favorite movie of all time (Stand By Me) for three or four years. (I taught my youngest child to dance with that movie playing on the VCR.)

I think what hurt the most was that in his very evasion of public life, River pulled off a major lie. We moms truly believed he was the beautiful, calm, stable boy he made himself out to be - the serious actor, the one with a gift, the Big Brother of the other young Phoenixes. And as the eldest of four, I'd cast him in the role of Guiding Light: the one who set the example, just as I was expected to do; the one who played it safe because the little ones would follow; the one who was cautious in taking risks, so the little ones wouldn't follow... And then, dramatically, suddenly, right there on a street corner in LA, in front of God and everybody, he up and died - OD'd. And one of the little ones - Joaquin - had to be the one to call 911.

Damned if that's not a comeuppance to mark you for life.

Joaquin isn't as pretty as River was. He's much the middle child, the odd duck, the one who pulls goofy publicity stunts that may or may not be research for a new role. Every time I see him, with that "birthmark" on his face, the first thought in my head is that if plastic surgeons have a real calling, it's to fix harelips as well as his has been fixed. I mean, really... But there's something about him. Maybe it's the intensity, or maybe it's just the goofy approach to being serious.

Or maybe it's just - as Billie Holliday sang so perfectly, 'way before MY time, let alone his - "them there eyes."

Then Mr. Jones - white-haired, bearded, solid - even stocky. No tight pants and shirt open to THERE, no shimmying pelvis - no real drama, even. The old image of Tom Jones is out the window. But...

The directness - the no-nonsense, lay-it-on-the-line honesty - of the delivery constituted one of the sexiest performances I've ever seen on TV. I mean, be honest: live is always better. It's all relative. If I'd been in the studio audience, I'd very possibly have felt it genuinely necessary to throw some intimately personal object onto the stage.

The song was a bluesy, not-quite-gospel thing about "I don't know what's gonna happen when I die and it scares the living crap out of me..." The chorus repeats, building in intensity: "Maybe there ain't no Heaven, maybe there ain't no Hell. Maybe there ain't no Heaven, no burning Hell..." The lyrics are plain, flat: there it is, deal with it. And the blunt delivery sends chills down my arms.

Because that's the question. What if?

Believe all you want, but remember this: "Faith" requires accepting not just what you can't see, but what you realistically can't even believe. Anyone who tells you they KNOW the truth is either (a) lying in their teeth, or (b) lying to themselves in their teeth. Believe all you want - I do. But don't tell me you know.

A kid the age of Joaquin Phoenix - or my daughter - can't deliver those cold chills as plainly and simply. For all "that age" is officially "adult," a Western 35-year-old these days isn't a "grown-up." Hard knocks have nothing to do with it; Joaquin Phoenix watched his brother die, and Bri dealt with traumas of her own. (And yes, they were real traumas, not adolescent "mountains out of molehills.") But in spite of the hard knocks, the lost siblings, lost friends, fear and alienation, and the outright tragedy it took them to grow up, these kids mostly haven't yet woken up at 2 a.m. wondering if they're really going to see their Granddaddy and their Aunt Murial when they die, or if the "crossing over" BS is complete and total BS.

Whereas Mr. Jones senses reality: the truth of the matter is something we can't know. And he lays it out there on the line in his performance, hard and uncompromising: I don't know. I don't have a clue. I will pray, I will try, I will hold onto as much belief as I can - even if it's the belief that if I approach the church altar right now, with as little faith as I have in my heart, a bolt of lightning will find me.


It's very late, and I'm very tired, but there is a point here. It's not so much that it escapes me at the moment as that my heart - my gut, my kishkes - knows the point, but that point totally refuses to travel to the logical, verbal side of my brain from where I can throw it out there.

But I think it's this:

The world is a bizarre place. A lot of what happens is a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time. Can you imagine, if either of these performers had taken one different turn? True, it wouldn't be as dramatic as "the end of the world as we know it" - because that would simply be the way it is.

But I'm convinced that art, creativity, music, drama, and even just flinging oneself out into the world - into life - is what keeps the world turning. It's us, at whatever level we are, wherever we are in our personal development, grabbing hold of that "love energy" that Glenn Henson defines as "God" and flinging it back into the universe, where it can build on itself and grow willy-nilly and attach to other beings and turn, again, into art, creativy, music, drama - beauty.

Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, irresistible, undeniable, unflappable, indefinable beauty. The flotsam and jetsam that come together in an implosion of "love energy" and make us truly alive.

18 September 2010


There's the disappointment of not getting a job you know you're qualified for. On a lesser scale, there's the disappointment of going to the fridge with your mouth set for a pimento cheese sandwich, to find someone else finished off all but half a teaspoon of the pimento cheese.

And there's the disappointment of making plans for a new life, spending weekends looking at houses, spending evenings planning a wedding, and then having the rug jerked out from under you.

As often happens, it's not my story to tell. But my beautiful daughter is heartbroken, her erstwhile fiance is oblivious to the harm he's done, and we all feel betrayed. After four and a half years, you start to think you can trust a person. And then he decides he can't commit.

Two weekends ago, she and I sat in the shade of the patio of a pub on Bardstown Road, talking about music and houses and the possibility of having the rehearsal dinner at my house - or even at hers. This weekend, she's reeling, and I can't do a thing to help.

We all want things for our children. Even us old "anti-establishment" lefty types, who raised them to question authority and taught them well that there are more important things in life than amassing a fortune. As kids go, I think I did well. I have three young adults with strong principles, who won't give up those principles for convenience or profit. They're all compassionate, literate, articulate, and committed to what they believe is right. They share a strong - even intense - work ethic. They want to do work that will improve the world; if it pays well, that's just gravy. They are people of faith. Theirs may not in all cases be mainstream, establishment-approved faith, but it is theirs, and they are better people for it. And they're people of action; they don't sit and wait for good things to come to them. They roll up their sleeves and get busy making good things happen.

I think it's a positive thing that my daughter places a higher value on service, social justice, and the environment than she does on a big fat paycheck. Sure, the fat paycheck would be nice, especially since she graduated just in time for the recession (thank you, Dubya) with five digits' worth of school loans. So far, she's still looking for a job that will pay enough to live on AND make payments to the Student Loan People. But she's not sitting and moping - she's working two jobs, and in her vast quantities of spare time, she's applying for jobs that will cover both life and loans.

Other people raised their children differently. There's not anything inherently wrong about that - one of the hard facts of being a card-carrying liberal is that you have to grant people the right to do things in ways you wouldn't. But I do think there's something tragic about a family that rejects its children if they choose love over a higher income. It's a fate that's actually come about with one of the erstwhile fiance's cousins; he's apparently persona non grata these days, after giving up a high-paying job to move closer to the woman he loves. My guess is that the EF could see it happening to him, if he actually followed through with marrying a woman with high ideals and a big balance in the school loan department. And who refused to file bankruptcy to get out of paying the loans.

In the long run, it's for the best. Go ahead and get the heartbreak out of the way while there's no community property and no children involved. Deal with the disappointment while you can still move on.

But the disappointment is very real, and it hurts. My daughter hurts from the rejection, from being told, in essence, that she's inadequate. I hurt for my daughter. And I hurt for myself and the rest of my family, because we fell for it, too. We trusted him to love our girl enough to bend for her, as she bent at times for him. And he betrayed our trust.

I am deeply disappointed in both the EF and his family. They seemed so nice. I'm furiously angry to find they place more importance on financial worth than on commitment, love, and hard work.

Right now, she says she'd rather be single for the rest of her life than to get hurt like this again. I'm hoping there's someone not far off who won't betray her - who shares her ideals and her sense of commitment, and who wants what she wants and is willing to bend to meet her. And that when she encounters that person, she'll be able to believe him.

Because we need to have faith that there is love, and it can conquer all, if you let it.

Otherwise, the disappointment of living would eat us alive.

14 September 2010

Movie reviews

Every once in a while, I take a notion to have a movie weekend. Sometimes there's a reason - research for a project, or I'm feeling a little hesitant in my Spanish comprehension - but for the most part, it's just time for a movie weekend.

This week, I was looking for a melody - one that hovers in the back of my memory and tries to ooch forward occasionally, but will never quite surface. This week, I needed that melody. It's sweet and elegant, childlike and stately, one of a kind.

So Bri and I hit Wild and Woolly Video on Bardstown Road last Saturday afternoon and came out with an armload. And what an armload!

One of her picks was a French rendition of Bluebeard, the scary morality tale of the young woman whose blue-bearded husband warns her never to unlock the room with the little gold key. If you ever heard a fairy tale, you know how this one comes out. But this production is brilliant and eerie - directed by Catherine Breillat, it links make-believe with the recent past of my childhood and quite successfully builds suspense in spite of the obvious. This one goes in one of my "fantasy classes" on Cinema as Literature.

My picks included Coco Before Chanel, which I guess qualifies as fictionalized history, if not historical fiction. Having read the Wikipedia bio, I expect they got the basic facts about as straight as one can, without sworn testimony. But without a fly on the wall, it's anybody's guess how accurate the details are. Nevertheless, it's an admirable effort, a fun movie, and Audrey Tatou is (duh...) perfect. (Like she could be anything else.)

The Unknown Quantity - totally - was Avenue Montaigne. The synopsis sounded amusing: Jeune femme from le stiques comes to Paree, finds a job as a wait-person at a cafe' (where they don't hire women, merci' very beaucoups) next door to the theatre, and proceeds, via her engenuite', to solve the problems of all the overwrought soap stars and nouveau riche art collectors within range, not to mention a tormented concert pianist and a jackass cafe' manager. AND she makes her Grandmama happy.

Bottom line: If you love Cinderella, heroines with grit, happy coincidences, and happier endings, rent this movie. You will love it! Definitely goes on MY Favorites List.

The icing on the cake I saved for this evening, two days past due. (Yep. This is me. The Queen of Overdue Fines. Wild and Woolly lets me pay on the installment plan. Seriously.)

The icing on the cake was Babe.

This is the movie I went looking for. The Saint-Saƫns melody that repeats throughout this sweet, lovely film simply haunts me. For several years, I struggled to write a hymn lyric to the tune. Watching the movie tonight, and hearing - maybe for the first time, for all I've watched Babe half a dozen times or more - Farmer Hoggett singing softly to the little pig, "If I had the words to make a day for you..." I realized my efforts were superfluous. The song is one of complete, unconditional, uncomplicated, WYSIWYG love, and there is none greater. I don't think I'll forget the melody again; it's imprinted now in my head.

And the take-away is this: the half-grown pig, nudging gently at his bereft adoptive mother, Fly, who's seen her litter of pups farmed out and lost her mate, Rex, to his own ill temper and jealousy, and saying, "Mom? Mom? Are you alright, Mom?" And the farmer, the man of few words, willing a sad little pig to live, and softly singing to him from some unidentified place deep in his own heart's memory.

No species-defined lines. No assumptions. No prejudgment. Just love. Wide-open, accepting - willing to be hurt, if that's what it takes (although not out actively looking for pain) - but mostly just knowing that it's in giving that we receive.

I finished the evening with a phone call from my sister. She's beautiful, and I love her. Life isn't easy right now - but that's just life. The good part is us. We have each other to lean on.

05 September 2010

Hunting Houses

My daughter and her fiance have decided it's time. They need their own place. Unfortunately, they both work such hours that it's difficult for them to look for houses together - which is why I've spent the last two Saturdays wandering around town looking at "fixers" with Bri.

Last week was with the realtor who helped us buy this house. She's also a friend, and she was willing to go out with us once for "window-shopping." Five houses, four of them "shotgun" style (originally three rooms, lined up front-to-back, so you could stand in the front door, fire a shotgun, and have the shot go straight out the back), although three of them had been added to. The remaining house was a two-story; we never left the ground floor.

Houses #1 and #2 were in acceptable structural shape but needed some updating. #3 was a tragedy: a beautiful, 100+ year old house with original, detailed, beautiful woodwork around the doors and windows, a front door that needed some gentle repairs to be restored to its original gloriously embellished state - and a ton of black mold, growing out of the mud room walls in huge tufts. Up to that point, we'd noted the floors needed refinishing, the fireplaces needed some work, the walls would have to be redone - but when we stepped into the kitchen and looked out the back door, we were horrified. And I was sick for four days after breathing mold spores for 10 minutes while we were there.

Bri was practically in tears. I could see why. Here is a lovely house, once a sweet home - one that could be again. But it's toxic. There's no way. They'd have to live in haz-mat masks for weeks, until they could get the back entry demolished and cleaned out. And if it was that bad on the surface, what's inside the walls? What's under the floor? What's living in the cellar?

We're all about "green." A big part of "green" is reusing, repurposing, and recycling. But I'm not sure that house is still in any condition to be repurposed or recycled. It may be too far gone for that. It's damn near criminal - a huge waste of resources and beauty.

The fourth house was the two-story. It took us a couple minutes to figure out it had been the scene of a rather nasty kitchen fire. It's going to take someone twice the mortgage amount to bring it back to a healthy standard of living.

The fifth was a charmer. Completely renovated, new kitchen, second bathroom, finished attic adding two bedrooms. Loads of natural light. All was well until after Judy, the realtor, had left. Bri and I were unloading my B-cycle (work bike-pool vehicle) from the rack so I could ride it back to the building to turn it in. We'd worked our way close to downtown, and in spite of the heat, I wanted to get a couple miles in. And up the street came a gentleman (I use the term loosely) with a brown paper sack grasped firmly in his waving right hand, shouting at the top of his lungs about what we could do to his hmm-hmm. And on and on. And on.

He never came more than about 20 yards from where we were, just stood in the middle of the street and bellowed obscenities and angry, drunken epithets, except for the seconds when he stopped for another gulp from the paper sack. But that was close enough. Our smittenness evaporated as I circled the bike around and took off up the street, with Bri in the car on my back fender.

She learned later from a friend who works for a mortgage finance company that there's a halfway house for recently released sex offenders a block up from the address. Um... no. Thank you.

This week was somewhat stressful. I was struggling to get a handle on an essential - but complex and very alien - process at work, I was sick for much of the week with evil allergy-related symptoms, and the young lovers were having some communication issues. (They're learning quite quickly to navigate those rough waters - it's one of the major advantages to waiting until you're old enough to know your own priorities before you commit to sharing a life with someone else!) We didn't have anything we needed to go back out with Judy, so instead, we girls struck out on our own this afternoon.

We viewed six houses from the outside. We found two keepers. One is another shotgun, in the Highlands - one of those charming neighborhoods made up of Victorian- to Arts & Crafts-period houses in a wide range of states of repair (or not). It's on a narrow side street, clean and bright, with sidewalks and beggar cats on the walk. It's blue, it has good windows and a cute fireplace (we could see it through the front windows), and a postage stamp yard. It backs up to an alley; there's room to park behind.

The other is a few blocks away from where I sit right now. It's one of those 1960s cookie-cutter ranches, and it's sad. The shrubs are overgrown, the flagpole is bent, the fence is falling in huge chunks of unfinished lumber. It's painted gray.Or putty. A non-color. But it has three beautiful trees in the front yard. The floors are bare plywood, some of the storm windows have come loose from their frames. The rail on the front porch is inexpertly constructed; it needs to be taken apart and rebuilt.

It has half again the floor space of the house in the Highlands. It has a garage - closed in now (apparently, someone had ideas of turning it into a family room) but easily opened back up. It has three bedrooms, two full bathrooms. It needs work, but they all do, in the price range of young lovers with excellent carpentry skills.

Mainly, that house needs love to break through its depressive state and bring it back to life. By the time we got home, Bri was thinking bright white exterior, red shutters, a cheery, welcoming blue front door; I was thinking a swing in the tree out front. Rocking chairs on the porch, azaleas in the yard, tomatoes and herbs by the kitchen door. I'd already made a list of the essential basic repairs - in priority order.

It's about green. It's about recycling and reusing. It's about giving new life to things someone else thought were worn out.

Both these houses have a lot of potential. I'm looking forward to next weekend.