Thursday, March 25, 2010

Warning: Hazardous Nerd Disclosure

Once I recovered from my Elton John fetish in the late '70s, I was trained as a classical pianist. I still loved an eclectic range of musical styles, but I became highly sensitized to the effects that certain sounds had on my psyche. Not very skilled at coping with stress, I found myself consistently seeking out music that was calming, soothing and uplifting. In any genre.

One sound that I found particularly grating was the electric guitar. The distortion, the shrieking, the wailing...made me positively homicidal. At one point I would go to such lengths as to read the list of instruments on the back of a jazz album, and if it listed electric guitar, I wouldn't buy it. (I know — extreme. But you need to know this background in order to understand what happened next. )

Our oldest son, Josh, learned to play piano, then trumpet, then percussion, and finally asked for a guitar. We gave him Jeff's old acoustic one. And I really enjoyed hearing him pick out familiar chord structures like "Horse With No Name" and other mellow stuff. He had quite an ear for it and would download chord progressions for songs he liked, and teach himself how to play them.

Eventually he asked for the inevitable electric guitar. I winced at what that could do to the decibel level in our home — let alone the spirit. But we also feel it's important for kids to pursue their own passions. So one Christmas we sucked it up and made a screaming deal at a pawn shop on an electric guitar.

We signed him up for lessons. And I only had to resort to the circuit-breaker a time or two for noise control. (!) A birthday or two later we traded up and bought him a really nice Ibanez. He'd get together and jam with friends, and every once in awhile he'd invite me into his room to hear him play along with a song he was listening to. I'd nod, smile. It sounded pretty good. But what did I know?

Yesterday we went up to hear him play with a band at his high school. I knew they'd been working hard. I knew he had some talent. I was eager to be supportive. But, I realized, I had never actually heard him perform.

And I was completely blown away. Our kid was amazing! There he was, literally the leader of the band—giving cues, keeping everybody together, jamming with the other musicians, wailing on improv solos...even wowing us with a couple of numbers behind the trap set. Who knew?

So now, an even less likely fan than the football mom here, I find myself clapping and cheering from the stands, watching him like a total groupie. His entire school is seated on the bleachers, watching this concert, and we hear throngs of kids shouting “Josh! Josh! Josh!” They’re loving him. And I’m loving every minute of this.

For the past two years we had front-row seats as we watched this same kid in a state of total apathy, ignoring potential we knew he had, literally throwing his life away. I cannot begin to describe the kind of pain that caused. But now, we see Josh discovering his own potential, working hard, reaching goals, thriving. And I find it hard to describe the joy.

Note: I wrote this while I was officially Not Blogging in order to write my novel for NaNoWriMo, but I couldn't resist posting this after the fact. Josh is home with us for spring break this week, and of course he brought his guitar. The good news? is we're figuring out how to jam together, and working on a little classical fusion piece. Could be a metaphor for good things to come.

Monday, March 15, 2010

In-N-Out Healthcare Reform

I had the powerfully annoying and mind-dulling experience of dealing with three separate government institutions over the past couple of weeks (feel free to send sympathy cards): The Driver License division of the DMV, the County Court system (umm, yes, because I had the extraordinary good luck of getting pulled over ON MY WAY to the DMV to get my license renewed!), and the U.S. Postal Service (The word Service being a euphemism for massive inconvenience.) —Mind you, I’m not talking about the post office window at our little grocery, where friendly faces know us by name and skillfully take our packages. I’m talking about the big, scary government headquarters where you have to go to deal with bigger issues (Like how the mailman refuses to deliver any mail on your street because the neighbor's dog was out. Or how I went in to pick up a package of prescription meds, but they had already sent it back to the pharmacy...on the same day I tried to pick it up.) THAT post office.

In dealing with all three departments I encountered a similar experience: Big, depressing, dusty, gray buildings. Unnecessarily long and plodding lines, understaffed counters manned by incompetent people with sour dispositions (except for one pleasant man at the post office--at the end of the other line) and endless forms to be filled out. Each entity seemed to have a secret agenda to impede progress at all costs. Each was its own brand of purgatory.

Despite my somewhat liberal leanings, I couldn’t help but ask myself what healthcare might literally be like if the government were allowed to run it. And the thought horrified me...

Big, depressing, dusty, gray buildings. Long, slow-moving lines to see overbooked primary care physicians. Not enough medical personnel employed in order to meet the needs of all the people in line. Grumpy nurses, cantankerous doctors, control-freak secretaries, all performing their tasks perfunctorily while carefully watching the clock. an obsession with Policy. And of course endless forms, endless paperwork, endless red tape, resulting in surgeries and other necessary-but-costly treatments being endlessly stalled. (If they're lucky we'll die first, in order to cut costs!)

Fortunately, I also went to In-N-Out Burger. Twice. In as many weeks. And it was the complete opposite experience: Bright, clean, well-lit and well-designed spaces. Short, fast-moving lines. Plenty of cheerful, helpful, efficient people who are well-trained and eager to serve. Everything sparkling clean, well organized. An emphasis on Quality. Not a single form to fill out, and they take your order information in record time. The whole place fairly beams with freshness, vitality, and progress-in-the-making. The palm trees in their branding even smack of paradise.

So? It’s obvious. I hereby make a move (and a plea to President Obama) to put In-N-Out Burgers in charge of healthcare reform.

Double-double, anyone?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Colorman (a gift from Luisa Perkins)

Dear Luisa,

I’ll agree with you at the outset that this book, The Colorman, is not perfect.
Yet, much like when I opened your cookbook, Comfortably Yum, for the first time and found a soul-food-mate, I read this and thought, How did she know?

...about my passion for color? That the mere mention of a hue like alizarin, ultramarine, raw umber, burnt sienna...sends me a clear, precise image. That I can see these colors so clearly in my head I can almost taste them and touch them. That those passages about the mixing, using, and forming of color would suck me in, envelop me, squeeze out my own passion like dabs on a palette, and make me want to swim in puddles of pure color?

...that I, too, recently received a new box of paints and immediately squeezed them out onto a clean palette, creating daring new mixes, watching the colors flow together? That once I closed the book I would go immediately to the Natural Pigments website to see what they have to offer my palette? That reading this made me want to PAINT.

...that I dream of living in just such a place as the Hudson River Valley, and that I’d love walking the trails, touring the paint company, driving along the river, exploring the shops, picturing the entire place as if I were there? (How did you know that I would take secret delight at the mention of Dar Williams in the acknowledgments, wanting to think of her as my neighbor and friend too.)

...that this story (while admittedly taking a back-seat to the poetic color descriptions) about a painter finding her voice, looking at taking her work to the next level, plunging head-first into the art world of galleries, critics, and also my next step? I’m a little too familiar with the fears, the insecurities, the politics, the passion...and it was good for me to see this artist both fail and succeed.

And how could anyone possibly have known that this story about a woman in search of her mother would be so deeply resonant for me, that I (often subconsciously) both mourn and seek my own mother in my music, in my writing, and in my artwork? It stirred something so deep in me to read about another woman’s loss, search, discovery, and healing.

It’s a rare friend that can find and give not the perfect book, but a book that will provide a deeply satisfying experience and suit the reader, dare I say? Perfectly.

Thank you.

Friday, March 5, 2010

If only Oscar® had a category for Under-the-Radar...

These would get my vote.

Given my husband’s profession, friends often ask us for movie recommendations. Some of our very favorite films are small, independent pictures that few people see, but contain nevertheless great filmmaking, resonant stories, and important themes. (The emergence of Netflix makes them all the more accessible these days.--I only WISH they were paying me to say that!) So just in time for the Oscars, here are a handful of our lesser-known but long-time favorite movie picks (minus the obvious classics):

Double Indemnity (This was probably a blockbuster at the time, but hardly anyone our age has seen it.) Squeaky-clean Disney star Fred MacMurray (and yes, I actually did some design projects for his lovely wife, June!) plays against type as he plans the perfect murder in this excellent 1944 thriller.

Men Don’t Leave (Netflix, I’m told, doesn’t even have this one. I don’t even think it’s available on DVD. What a loss! But feel free to borrow our decades-old VHS copy!)
We saw this back when we were first married, and we’re still quoting lines from it. One of our favorites: “Your night thing’s on wrong.” (Watch it, and you’ll see why we love it). What this film says about family relationships, love, loss, and the role of men in our lives is poignant and timeless. Jessica Lange gives a great performance, and Joan Cusack’s quirkiness never fails to crack me up!

Truly, Madly, Deeply
A little like Ghost, only ten times better. A romantic comedy set in England, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, that defies conventions, and is understated, unpredictable, honest and (yes) haunting.

Lars and the Real Girl
Such a sweet, honest portrayal of a bizarre yet innocent relationship, and what it takes to move on. I was especially moved by the family and church community’s compassionate response to this unusual circumstance.

Lorenzo’s Oil
Susan Sarandon completely redeems herself after that horrible Bull Durham movie with this indie gem, where she plays a mother obsessed with finding a miracle cure for her son’s rare illness. I can still hear her cooing, “Fly away to the Baby Jesus!

Safe Passage
More Susan Sarandon. A great story about a family with a son who’s a soldier in the middle east. They find out the village where he’s stationed was bombed, and spend a long weekend together waiting to hear word of his survival. What this has to say about family, healing and hope is powerful. I found the garage-cleaning scene particularly moving and mememorable, as it becomes a metaphor for making progress in our lives.

Dead Again
It doesn’t get much better than Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. Especially back when they were still married. This is a suspenseful thriller involving a past life, and it is unforgettable.

Strangers On A Train
Oh my, the ultimate innocent-conversation-turned-creepy! As per the title, two strangers on a train muse about the plausibility of committing a crime with no attachment. But then it turns out one of them was serious. Yikes!

Children of Heaven
Shoes! A pair of siblings in Iraq try to SHARE a pair of shoes, taking turns racing to school, handing off the shoes as if in a relay, in an effort to prevent one from being punished for losing his. A deeply moving story of siblings and sacrifice, which takes place in abject poverty...and yet the colors are rich!

Waking Ned Divine
That one scene of the old man riding naked on his bike is totally worth the price of admission. But I am also intrigued with the premise.... A man in a small Irish town holds the winning lottery ticket...and dies before he can claim his prize. The rest of the townspeople attempt to secure (and share) the winnings. What a story! What a wild ride!

Two little British boys stumble across an accident...where a freight train showers them with money...millions! Of course they are hiding it from the adults in their lives, and of course they are being stalked by criminals.

Second-hand Lions
Essentially cast off for the summer, Haley Joel Osment is sent to live with a pair of eccentric uncles. The boy is guileless and unassuming, and the uncles are hilarious! Watching them shoot at traveling salesmen, firing off their shotguns from the front porch, is awesome. --And that’s just the beginning!

Marvin’s Room
We saw this first as a stage play, in a small-but-crowded theater in L.A. Mary Steenburgen was amazing as a woman who holds her family together while caring for her ailing father. Diane Keaton plays that role in the film version, opposite a selfish and estranged Meryl Streep, who is mother to a disturbed young Leonardo DiCaprio. I especially love the lines about the way the light refracts through the panes of glass Bessie hangs in Marvin’s room. Such simple pleasures. This film is surprisingly not depressing, as the tagline states perfectly: “A story about the years that keep us apart...And the moments that bring us together.”

Six Degrees of Separation
An amazing story about deception, and being deceived. Donald Sutherland plays an art critic. Will Smith plays...well, you’ll see. And maybe see a bit too much. (Brief, shocking nudity). What stays with me is the response to the deception, the way they tell and retell the experience until they reduce the entire thing to a cocktail-party anecdote. And I use this line in my art classes all the time: Donald S. tells his son’s second grade teacher, “They all paint like Matisse. How do you do it? Let me study with you.” And the teacher replies simply, “I know when to take their paintings away.” Brilliant!

Captain Abu Raed
An airport janitor finds a pilot’s cap in the trash can and wears it home. The neighborhood kids are convinced he’s a real pilot, and he enchants them with stories of his imagined world travels, ultimately having a life-changing role in some of their lives. We saw this at Sundance a couple of years ago and could not believe our good fortune. We don’t always love what we see there. (Sometimes we don’t even remotely LIKE what we see there.) But this one captivated everyone in attendance, and ultimately won the audience choice award. I have been waiting and watching for it to come out on DVD and it finally was released last month. So now you can find it on Amazon. (yay!)