Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I was going through taking files of my laptop the other day, the one I bought right before I quit my job at Goldman and moved to Vermont and eventually moved out of NY. I found a document called "Showscript1" and opened it. To my surpise, it was the map of the cabaret that Erin Neill and I did at the Duplex right before I left NY. It was called "Breaking up with NY", and it tracked our love affair with the city to its conclusion. She was moving to San Diego, I to LA. It brought back memories. It was a fun show. And I'm particularly proud of the EB White quote I found that seemed especially resonant the winter after 9/11 when we did the show. If you don't know the songs, look them up--they're really good.

I happen to Like New York [Erin]

I wanna be a Rockette [Brad]

Finish together.

Erin: Jen Story “fuck you fuckyoufuckyou”

Brad: Speaking of that phrase, the first night I was in NY, on my first cab ride after going out to a club, my cab driver propositioned me. I said, “Look, it’s my stop!”

Erin: Hi! This is Elmo from Sesame Street. Elmo’s glad we’re taking a ride together, but Elmo wants you to be safe. So Buckle Up!

Come Up to My Place [Both]

Brad: I was in love with New York. I do not mean "love" in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city in the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again. -- Joan Didion

What More Can I Say? [Brad]

Erin: On my first day in New York a guy asked me if I knew where Central Park was. When I told him I didn't he said, 'Do you mind if I mug you here?'—Paul Merton

Brad: New York: the only city where people make radio requests like "This is for Tina -- I'm sorry I stabbed you." –Carol Leifer

Ohio [Both]

The main thing I like about New Yorkers is that they understand that their lives are a relentless circus of horrors, ending in death. As New Yorkers, we realize this, we resign ourselves to our fate, and we make sure that everyone else is as miserable as we are.

Erin & Brad: Good town.

Erin: Kyle Baker

Wanting [Both]

Let’s Invite them Over [Both]

Brad: New York's such a wonderful city. Although I was at the library today. The guys are very rude. I said, "I'd like a card." He says, "You have to prove you're a citizen of New York." So I stabbed him. Emo Phillips

Erin: I think my favorite sport in the Olympics is the one in which you make your way through the snow, you stop, you shoot a gun, and then you continue on. In most of the world, it is known as the biathlon, except in New York City, where it is known as winter. Michael Ventre

Times Like This [Erin]

Brad: The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the rivers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of NY now: in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. –

Erin: EB White (1949)

My Dear Companion [Both]

Erin: This great city has fed my imagination. It has allowed me to dream. --Thomas Wolfe

City Lights [We did this as if the song was exhausting and would never end]

Brad: Living in New York is like being at some terrible late night party. You're tired, you've had a headache since you arrived, but you can't leave because then you'd miss the party. --Simon Hoggart.

Give it Back to the Indians

Erin: Someday we'll look back on this moment and plow into a parked car. -- Evan Davis

Thanks for the Memory [This Mildred Bailey is my fave version]

Thanks during Bridge and Chorus and then In Spite of Ourselves

Monday, August 24, 2009

500 Days of Summer

I saw “500 Days of Summer” yesterday. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this, since it’s full of spoilers. If you have, then read away.

I actually liked that it was a mish mash of every rom-com cliché, but in the service of a story that didn’t end as expected (I thought, but more on that later). I enjoyed the back and forth of the narrative in time, and that it made the city I’ve lived in for six years seem unfamiliar to me. Sure, it’s about 4 square blocks downtown where you might be okay walking, but it is a new, hip neighborhood for urban spelunkers. I was even able to forgive the oddly unbelievable company the characters worked for.

I’m really beginning to like Joseph Gordon Leavitt. He’s been doing great work. And this doesn’t disappoint. He’s perfect as the sad-sack romantic who believes the girl he’s dating is “the one”. I like Zooey Deschanel (Summer--of the title--clever) as well, especially for the neat trick of being fascinating only until the last few scenes of the movie, when she suddenly becomes mundane, and someone who is clearly the wrong person for the main character. Her charm goes away. That’s not something that’s easy to pull off. It’s an odd role, and she does it well, without giving too much away. She is, after all, the fantasy of the main character’s projection. She seems to be the indie “it-girl” of that—here, Elf, Yes Man. That’s her thing.

The disappointments for me were the secondary characters, most of whom seemed awfully contrived and not especially well-performed—or, that’s not fair, they just felt act-y. Serviceable, but acty. And as much as I found the portrayal of LA charming, I also found it somewhat unconvincing. Frankly, for the first 45 minutes I was wondering if they were in Philadelphia since the character grew up in New Jersey and his little sister was living close by. When they showed the Eastern building I thought “Oh! They’re in LA!” Also, wasn’t in love with the tough kid character. It was obviously a choice to play with all the romantic comedy clichés and put them in a movie that was trying to celebrate and subvert them at the same time: there were the interviews about love; the tough kid sister; the best friends, one of whom is with a longtime love and the other who’s single; the unattainable object of mystery who remains somewhat unknown; the dead-end job that the main character is doing instead of going after his dream—none of this is particularly new, but it’s all fine. Perhaps I was picking up on a warring impulse to comment on the genre and be an example of it at the same time.

The one mis-step for me in the whole film was the end. Here’s the big spoiler alert. I was with them the whole time, wondering if it would work out, then seeing it wouldn’t. And I was actually loving the idea that she would just be a catalyst to him—the one that didn’t work out but was somehow bittersweet and what he needed to get him to the next place—almost an Annie Hall thing, though as I’ve said the Summer character lost her charm once he was no longer in love with her whereas Dianne Keaton didn’t (how could she, really?). So, you’ve set up this whole thing, about whether the idea of fate is real or not, and if he just had the wrong girl, and I would have loved to have just left it there. This coda (in the Bradbury building of all places—you knew that had to be in there, along with the tunnel) just made me think “oh, it’s a rom-com fantasy now”. It felt tacked on. I wanted him, like the usual female character in these movies, to find his independence—which he did, but why did he need to meet “Autumn”? Srsly? Ah well. If nothing else, as it’s just occurring to me, the whole thing is about the guy. And that’s kind of fun. After all, men can be romantics, too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A moment for the Unicorn

I'm having one of those days--tired. Last night I got rid of my in-window air-conditioner, thinking I was bummed I couldn't open my window and it made the room too cold, then I had an anxiety attack about having an open window last night and couldn't sleep. Ah, the insanity never ceases to amaze me. They come at night.

Anyhow, since I'm tired, I was thinking of what might be restful. And one of my favorite things in NY was the Cloisters, and one of my favorite things at the Cloisters is the Unicorn Tapestries. Or, more accurately, the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.

They're on my mind because the most famous one is hanging in the Gryffindor common room in the latest Harry Potter movie. Even though it's in NY in reality. From what I remember, the whole thing is a Christ allegory as well as a symbol of conquered love, so that last makes it apt to have in the dorm. Perhaps it's actually just pretty and seemed to make sense to the set decorator. For me, it took me out of the movie in some way, as I thought "Huh. Did they make another one? Is this a copy? Can they reproduce art there in Hogwart's? That's one expensive piece of thing to have around teenagers" etc. So many questions.

In the end, it's just on my mind because I've seen it in a few movies (or a reproduction), and it always gives me a kick--somewhat like seeing a relative that you know in a movie--you're tooling along, and suddenly you're like "Oh, my god, it's Aunt Marge" and you're somewhere else.

Either way, they're beautiful, and the cloisters itself is so calming. And today, when I'm tired and kind of going down the rabbit hole of what I'm doing on a larger level, sometimes checking back in with art just puts me in a better mood.

That, and a nap.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Who knew?

Looking for change the other day, at McDonald's (okay, okay, not healthy, but every once in a while I do hit the drive through [or is that thru?]), I came across a 1924 version of the coin above. According to this website about German coins, it's not really worth much. Mine looks like it came over the hard way, to say the least. And then, when it arrived in the US, it was mauled by dogs, run over by a car, and then ended up in my glove compartment underneath a hamsa with the word "mazel" in Hebrew and my keys.

Not only am I fascinated that a German coin from 1924 popped up in my coin box, I am also interested in how much there is to be interested in. There is some German coin expert somewhere. Probably more than one, at this moment finishing up his shift at the video store or investment bank, just waiting to get home and research, fondle, or shine his 1924 aluminum-bronze Weimar 50 Reichspfennig. As aesthetic objects, they are beautiful, some of them--I like the expressionistic wheat ones(the aformentioned 50 Reichspfennig) simultaneously calling forth industry, agriculture and art.

I think our current state quarter designs will stand out in the future for numismatists, though I just learned on wikipedia that numismatism is the study of currency, so coin collectors are just called plain old coin collectors. There is the lesser known exunomia, which is perhaps what a luggage tag collector might be doing. And it seems there are further rabbit holes of notaphily and scripophily, which sound like ringworms.

My point? Just that there are so many things to know things about. It's overwhelming. There's an expert on everything. I had a friend in NY who was a liver pathologist, and he was one of only like 40 in the world. 40 people who specialized in diseases of the liver, even though everyone has one; that's not even one per country. Is there a pathologist in the house? I bet there are more exunomiacs. That's actually kind of sad. Sure, the liver's kind of the catfish of the body, but everybody needs it.

Well, I guess it's time for me to go back to being an interested dilletante, who'll pay a little more attention at Coinstar.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary....

Okay. This is kind of a mash note, but I will just put that out there before I start writing. With some authors, some directors, etc, you just can't expect objectivity from me, and Sherman Alexie is one of them.
So at the end of March, Brian (aka Stinkylulu was out here in LA for a conference, and we went to a bookstore while killing some time before a movie. I left with a book I can't even remember now, and Brian bought two young adult novels, one of them being "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", which had come out in 2007. I didn't even know about it, since it was Young Adult fiction, and I promptly expressed something like sadness, despair, and regret that I had not bought it. Brian, on his way out of town, left the book with me, which was incredibly sweet. I devoured it. And I loved it (more later). So I called him up and asked if he wanted the book back, or if I could loan it to a friend. He said if I wrote about it I could loan it out, but if I didn't I should send it back. So the book has been sitting in my car while I worked out that bargain.

And frankly, the reason I haven't written about it is that I really loved it. And sometimes, even when you really, really like something and want other people to read it, appreciation feels more difficult than constructive criticism of something you didn't like as much. And truly, most of the things I stick with to read fully I love. So I suppose it's a good idea to put down some ideas why.

Sherman Alexie's writing is beautiful. But I have a hard time writing about it. I'm really struggling right now, but since I've made this blog alot about off the top of my head writing (and since I only have about half an hour more until I have to leave), I'll stick to that.

He plays with form, with poetry in his prose, and even in film. I have a copy of his movie "The Business of Fancy Dancing" that I love. I was bowled over at his choice to make a film with a gay protagonist, cast his own stand-in, a writer returning home for the funeral of a friend. Even braver was his choice to mix in poetry, song, and dance to tell his story. And to have an entire crew of women, and try to make the film as a collective.

In "Partly True Diary" his main character, Junior, is a 15 year-old cartoonist. Illustrated by Ellen Forney, the cartoons become another mode of storytelling, another means to get into the thoughts, dreams, and fears, of the young man at the center of the story. Here's the blurb from the website, which tells it better than I can:

In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school. This heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written tale, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, is based on the author’s own experiences and chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he seems destined to live.

It’s just great. What else can I say? Read it. Junior’s mixture of fear and courage as he navigates the world around him feels so true to adolescence. Alexie gets right the clear sense of logic of a teenager confused about why the world is the way it is, and charts his feelings as he comes to terms with love (family, friends and girls), and loss (family and friends). The drawings are great, and give an extra oomph to the story as well as clarify, in the way that a picture can, Junior’s feelings and thoughts. I’m sounding formal here in a way that doesn’t feel like my voice, but sometimes when you like something it’s even harder to pull it off a shelf and tell somebody anything besides, “Read it!” It’s a quick read, since it’s YA, and worth the time. I’d read it again. It’s one of the most emotional books I’ve read in quite a while. Years, actually. I won’t ruin it by telling you why, but parts of it are just heart-breaking.

I guess what I love about Alexie’s writing is that he doesn’t shy away from either humor or pathos. All the emotions feel earned, and I never get the sense of his hand coming in and manipulating. The voice always feels authentic, male or female. I’ve never been a straight Native American teenager, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been a freshman in high school and I’ve been the new kid in school. That, to me, he nails. And he’s writing is just deeply American to me, and I get it (or maybe that’s brash—to say that about anything, maybe I just like reading it)—the frustration and the feelings, the geography and relations. Maybe part of it is being from the West. And writes characters who see a little outside themselves, or have a sense of themselves in the world. Junior is beginning to, to shape that, and it’s a clear, unforced voice.

Why am I trying to justify it? I always do that—bad habit—like my saying it’s great and I like it isn’t good enough. And if it’s not, it’s not like I’m the only one—he’s got more than a few books out. I mean, it won the frigging National Book Award. Obviously, I’m not the only one who likes the book. I’m just a natural cheerleader, I guess. I made mix tapes in high school.

I just love feeling taken care of by a writer—that I’m more than likely going to believe, empathize, and go for the ride. And when I’m reading, the book disappears and I’m wherever he is. More of that, please.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Selected Shorts

I am currently in love with podcasting. My brother gave me an iPod Touch for my birthday. I already have an iPod, and a blackberry, and I am not a phone game player application person, so I was trying to figure out if I should exchange it or what. ? Then my brother and sister in law came to town and asked me if I read the inscription. What inscription? I thought, since I hadn't opened it yet. I was a little scared (not of the inscription, but opening it, since it's such a nice gift). Well, on the back, it's inscribed "Happy Birthday, Brad, Love, Mark". My brother has not really given me very many gifts, and certainly nothing inscribed, so I knew I had to keep it and figure out what to do with it. I had already put my toe in the podcasting waters with the beloved This American Life, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, but that was all. This, though, was my opening. I figured I could use my other ipod for music, and this one for podcasting. Brilliant! In short order I downloaded French & Spanish lessons; some geeky show where an ancient scientists tells you about how science works (more than you ever needed to know); Story Corps, which makes me tear up in 3 minutes pretty much every time; and Selected Shorts. (To be honest, I had actually been to an afternoon of short story reading at Symphony Space, which this is a recording of, once a great while ago. Like 1996. Last century, even. And, philistine-like, I remember dozing on and off. It was a Sunday afternoon. It happens.)

So I thought I'd give it another try. And I'm loving it. Aside from the Edith Wharton episode, which rekindled my somnolence of yore (so sue me--Wharton's challenging to track while you're driving through LA), I've been loving the stories and the performances. I am thankful for the pairing of Amy Bender and Etgar Keret, two writers with whom I was unfamiliar and now want to read more and more of.

Two I had to write about, since they were so wonderful. Yesterday my boss had her annual beach party in Malibu, so I got to listen to two entire programs, each uninterrupted. The first was Joanna Gleason reading "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," by Karen Russell from the Paws and Claws episode, and the second Robert Sean Leonard reading "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," by Luis Alberto Urrea in the Memories That Define Us episode.

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," by Karen Russell, sounds like a mad lib of a story, the outcome of the game we used to play where you'd put together a fake song medley by abutting common words--fly me to the moon river, etc. I even thought, when the story was described, that it would just be a humorous take on a girl's school, spoofing the idea of taking girls raised by Wolves and putting them in a Catholic girls setting. It was funny at times, and helped by Joanna Gleason's expert delivery. But it was also painful, aching, thrilling, and touching. The story concerns a world in which werewolves live in the woods, giving birth to human children, as the condition skips a generation. The girls, pre-adolescent, are taken from their parents, at the parents' behest, to be educated and taught to be human. Russell brilliantly charts the girls' learning of new language, walking upright, interacting with others and the painful process that the girls go through in developing from feral to human, through the eyes of Claudette (name given by the nuns), an 11 or 12 year old she-wolf. Although it's tempting to make the parallel to what any child goes through in learning to live in a larger society (and Russell cleverly spoofs this with excerpts from an imaginary guide/catechism for the wolf girl), this story feels so specific to the world she's created. With what could have been a gimmick, Russell creates an entire world--where to fail as human means being unable to live in either world. It's just a beautiful story. I was struck again and again by the imagination, clarity, humor, and emotion--over and over I was laughing and then immediately brought through to deep feeling and compassion. The first dance that the girls must endure, to meet with boys who used to be their brothers, is hilarious, painful, sad. I loved, love this story.

"Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," by Luis Alberto Urrea is a completely different affair. A study of grief, in which a man goes back to the South Dakota reservation to bury his young wife, Joanie Her Many Horses, who drank and possibly killed herself in a car crash, this story is spare, with prose that matches the solemnity of its subjects and the geography. The action of the story is the man remembering how he met his wife, and in the process tells us about the racial tension of the culture they both came from--he's white and she's native--and how much he loved her. I'm from Nebraska and New Mexico, and have spent some time in South Dakota. The prose of this story matches the geography; the ways of relating, what's said and what's not said, places the story even further into where it's set. I think I'm describing it clumsily, but the prose is a perfect evocation of place. Not only of place, but the people there, and how they deal with love and grief. At it's climax, this story is an acknowledgment that whatever backgrounds people have, love and grief are deeply felt, and transcend any human boundaries. I don't think that's a lesson that this story at all purports to put forth, but it's one that's deeply felt within it. It's heart-wrenching. His descriptions of the land, his ache for it, is gorgeous. And the way he lets his characters feel what they feel as they feel it, coming to it as they do, is expert. Just beautiful.

I love good writing. It's so hard to do, but when you read it, or hear it, it's breathtaking, beautiful and fragile, like watching a string of spun honey. These two stories, matched with their tellers, did that for me.

So, run right out and read them. Or, better yet, download the podcasts, get into your car, and take a long drive.

Or, if you're worried about fossil fuels, download them and go sit by a river, or your favorite spot in nature, and listen.