Thursday, July 19, 2012

Love and Happiness Recipe

This short piece was published on the website on 7/17/12

Love and Happiness Recipe

My wife and I celebrated our thirty-first anniversary on July 18th. Recently, our oldest son, our daughter-in-law and our one and only granddaughter visited from Boston. The whole family gathered for four joyous days. If there is a recipe for love and happiness, from July 7th to July 11th it looked like this:
Take one beautiful wife and add three handsome, healthy loving sons. Stir in one beautiful daughter-in-law, one beautiful fiancĂ© and one beautiful girlfriend. Season with one beautiful, heart-melting granddaughter and two loyal, affectionate grandogs. Add one proud and grateful husband-father-grandfather. Blend all together for a long weekend of food, friends and fun at the beach. Serves nine to your heart’s delight.
Feeling love and seeing it in action is a grand feast of heart and soul. The recipe isn’t the same for everyone, but it tastes so good when you get it right.
Bon appetit! 

Movie Review: Your Sister's Sister and Safety Not Guaranteed

I'm reviewing both of these films at the same time because they have a lot in common. First of all, they are both set in and around Seattle, which means they look the same: green, woodsy, wet, three layers cold and like living inside a cotton ball. Apparently the sun only shines in those parts for dramatic sunsets. Second, one of the actors in the films, Mark Duplass, appears in both of them, and in both he has a distinctly green, woodsy and wet appearance, favoring jeans, hooded sweatshirts under denim jackets, moppy brown hair and a slightly dumpy face and body, although more dumpy in "Your Sister's Sister." Third, all of the major characters, including two charmingly attractive women, Audrey Plaza (Safety) and Emily Blunt (Sister), suffer from melancholy, depression, mild hysteria or outright delusion based on some kind of real or perceived loss: a spouse, a lover, a sibling, a parent,  the image of a perfect girl-friend, or youth. In an article I read recently, I encountered the word "adultesence," defined as the modern phenomenon of having adolescence stretch beyond college and into adulthood. To one degree or another, most of the adults in these two films fit that description. Finally, both of these indie style comedies reach similar conclusions in different ways. In "Safety," the world is disappointing and screwed up and the only way it can be fixed is by intense and eccentric dedication to a screwball idea, like time travel, or to the delusional but charismatic person who believes in it. In "Sister," the world is disappointing and screwed up and it takes three damaged people (and one big surprise), to figure out how to live in it. Both of these films were enjoyable, but if I only had enough money to buy one ticket, I'd choose "Safety Not Guaranteed." It takes more risks,  has a better script, is less predictable and more eccentrically funny, and Audrey Plaza is terrific. You have to love a character who says about her view of the world, "I expect the worst and then I try not to get my hopes up."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: The English Major by Jim Harrison

Cliff is a sixty-year-old farmer and former high school English teacher from upper Michigan. His wife of thirty-eight years is divorcing him, he's had to auction off the farm, which belonged to his wife's father, and his beloved dog, Lola, has died. What's a man to do? Why, go on a road trip of course.

Cliff's humorous, self-deprecating first person narrative, woven with country wisdom, quotes from his favorite poets, and R rated advice from his friend AD (alcoholic doctor), takes the reader west to Washington, south to Arizona and New Mexico, back north through the Rockies and home again to Michigan. Along the way Cliff reconnects with a former favorite student, Marybelle, now forty-three, frisky and, it turns out, delusional; his successful gay son living in San Francisco; on old friend harboring a recovering female meth addict on a snake farm in New Mexico; a stunning teenage waitress in Bozeman; and numerous other characters of the American west.

Cliff fishes, hikes, takes pictures of cattle, passes judgement on roadside cafe cuisine and free associates about life, time passing, loss and the remaining prospects for a man in later middle age, already consigned by younger women to "the biological dumpster." I laughed out loud often enough for my wife to say "Cut that out" because I was breaking her concentration when we were laying in bed reading at night. I wouldn't necessarily say that "The English Major" is a man's novel, but my guess is that women might not find it as humorous or charmingly elegaic, especially if they've spent the bulk of their lives living with someone who loosely fits Cliff's personality and behavior. I loved the book as did seven of the eight men in my book club. But then again, I'm a sixty-three-year-old former high school English teacher! Take a chance on Cliff. High reward, low risk.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

The Kids Get It Right

In Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," two twelve-year-olds run away, enjoy an innocent romance, get caught, and in the process transform the lives of the repressive, or absent, adults who have abandoned them emotionally up until this point in their lives. You may be thinking, "I think I'm familiar with this plot line," but trust me, you've never seen it as inventively, beautifully,  whimsically, or intelligently portrayed as in this wonderful fantasy, all of it shot on an island off the coast of New England, like Prospero's enchanted island in "The Tempest." Many fine actors do good work, including Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as the lawyer parents of Suzy, Bruce Willis as the island police chief, Edward Norton as a cigarette smoking Khaki Scout leader, Tilda Swinton as Social Services (her name, not her title), and Bob Balaban, a narrator dressed inexplicably like a gnome. There's one more surprise, almost inexplicable appearance, which I won't spoil. But the real stars are Jared Gilman as Sam and Karen Hayward as Suzy. They are an unlikely couple, with Sam in his big owl-like glasses and Suzy in her 1965 era Carnaby street dress and blue eyeshadow, but think back, remember your first love, and be assured that Sam and Suzy convince the audience that they're meant to be together, like Romeo and Juliet in Zefferelli's version. The cinematography is clever but not tricky, and the music is perfect. Don't miss this terrific film by one of America's best directors. And stay until the end of the credits for a lovely musical surprise!

Freedom Fighters

This story was published on the website on July 3, 2012

Freedom Fighters

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

-       From “The Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

On April 19, 1775, 500 militia and minutemen defeated 700 regular British troops at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Forty-nine Americans and seventy-three British soldiers died, and the Americans harassed the British along the Battle Road all the way back to Charlestown. So began the American Revolution and the eventual establishment of one of the world’s greatest democracies.

On May 17th of this year, during a trip to Boston to visit my son, my daughter-in-law, and our three-month-old granddaughter, my wife and I walked part of the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord and spent over an hour at the area around North Bridge in Minuteman Park.  Although I grew up in Philadelphia and visited its historic sites, including Valley Forge, many times, never before did I feel the powerful spirit of the Revolution that I felt on the battlefield of Concord. Never before did I fully understand the great gift those brave men gave us on that unforgettable day two-hundred-and-thirty-seven years ago.

Maybe it was because my granddaughter was with me, or maybe because it was a pristinely beautiful spring day, but I was completely alive to the heroics that took place on that field, able almost to see the troops, hear the shouts and musket fire, and smell the smoke rising from the hollow along the Concord River.  It seemed miraculous to me that the farmers who took up arms to defend their freedom were willing to sacrifice their lives for it, as if they somehow knew the historic importance of what they were doing.

America is not right now experiencing one of its greatest eras, and it is easy to become cynical and pessimistic about the future. But on this 4th of July, 2012, I am going to remember the feeling I had at Concord, the pride I felt in being an American, and the debt of gratitude I owe to the nameless heroes who fought for the freedom my family enjoys today.