Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where Movies Meet Reality. Or, Zero Dark Thirty at Noon

I don't want to get into the habit of making my weekly blog post about movies I've recently seen; that feels a bit like cheating and I don't have that much interesting to say about movies anyway. I probably shouldn't worry about it becoming habit since I'm averaging about five movies a year these days. But I wanted to write about this one in particular because of a certain juxtaposition with events that happened directly after seeing it.

Yesterday I had some free time and I hadn't seen my brother in about a month so I talked him into going to see a movie. I've really wanted to see Zero Dark Thirty and it looked too intense for Robyn so it  was a good choice for us. To keep my critique to a minimum, let me just say the movie was superb. What you need to know is that the movie is about The War on Terrorism. It spans both the Bush and Obama administrations and is told mainly from the point of view of the CIA. It culminates with the now famous Bin Laden raid. The movie takes place across the globe but spends most of its time lingering over real events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After our noon viewing of the movie I drove my brother back to his house. He lives on Moffett Field, which is technically a NASA installation but it welcomes military families from all branches of the service in their small housing area. It's a mixed bag there, they have army and marines for sure and I think some air force and navy families as well, but it's a very small community. There are perhaps fifty buildings that home a few hundred families. Four or five streets run north to south and the same number crisscross them east to west. Once you enter the housing area, driving to my brothers house takes about two minutes and requires that you pass just about every other house before arriving at his. If you hate the monotony that some suburban housing developments have made famous, then the stark sameness of military housing might drive you mad.

We turned down one of these streets lined with houses of muted browns and grays; here we immediately saw two things. In the foreground a group of kids congregated around a small makeshift lemonade-stand, and in the background four or five cop cars were parked outside one of the homes. It seemed apparent that the kids were using the lemonade-stand as an excuse to stand around and gawk at the happenings further down the street. Between the parked cars and the sparse trees it wasn't obvious what the police were doing but my brother said, "Oh no, not again. This guy has had it rough."

At this point I wish I were a painter or photographer rather than a writer. As we drew closer we saw what is in my mind perhaps the most iconic image I've ever witnessed. I hesitate to even explain, as I'm certain I won't do it justice. On the door frame of the house hung a single red flag with the small yellowish symbols that are peculiar to the U.S. Marines. Below the flag sat a man in shorts and a tank-top. His chest and arms had a few tattoos that further marked him as a military man. But his most obvious badges of service were his missing legs and the wheelchair he sat in. His eyes and face--they haunt me already--stared blankly ahead. He looked not at the cops nor at the children a little ways off, instead he stared at the empty space between the two groups. At one point we were in his line of sight but I'm certain he looked right through us, into some other world. At his side sat a full grown black Labrador. One hand rested on the dog's head, the other in his lap.

The police officers formed a misshapen semicircle around him. No one appeared to be in charge. They all looked uncomfortable in their uniforms. Their body language hinted at a resistance to the task at hand, their shoulders drooped with regret and their knees bent with sadness, or maybe respect. The cops stood around and the man and his dog sat still, all waited for something to happen. But all that happened was two brothers drove by in a car none of them will likely remember. We rounded the next corner and they were gone from our sight.

My brother explained that the man had lost his legs in Iraq, which seemed obvious, but he also lost his hearing and large parts of his cognitive abilities. He can't speak. He has a wife and a baby that was merely months old when he was wounded. We saw neither as we passed by. Who knows how much pain we've collectively created here in just one house, much less across the country and across the world.

Later I went skateboarding with my nephew through the neighborhood and out around the base. We looked at the machines of war that are littered across the base. It being a NASA installation they only have a few such machines and most of them are out of service. We passed below the blimp hanger that is under repair. They've stripped it of its paneling and have just started putting new ones up. We marveled at the things man can build and fix, like a skeleton getting its skin reapplied.

My nephew stopped at the housing office to look for candy (I've been sworn to secrecy on whether or not he found any). While he scavenged I skated ahead a little ways and then took a seat on the curb to wait for him. Without being aware of it I'd sat down ten or fifteen feet from where the man sat an hour earlier. Everyone had cleared out, the kids, the cops, the man, the dog. I tried for a moment to imagine how he experienced the world. What it might be like to sit in that chair. To be surrounded by silence and confusion. And I failed. All I saw was grass and houses and trees, heard the freeway in the distance. I've likely been more successful sitting on a plane trying to imagine what a bird might think as it flies. I looked up at his flag still blowing in the breeze and wondered to myself how it is we can fix that blimp hanger out there with ease while it seems like there is so little we can do for a broken man.

Ten years from now I might not remember too much about what happened in that theater. But the images from the day will probably play through my mind like a movie for the rest of my life.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unexpected Life Milestone

If you had asked me a few months ago to create a list of important life milestones that have either already passed or that are still to come, that list likely wouldn't look all that different had you asked me to do the same task ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago: graduate high school, graduate college, move into own apartment/home, get married, have some kids, get a job, get a better job, retire, watch kids go through all those same events, grandchildren.

However, as is common for the younger generations, I've forgotten to look back at how my parent's life still affects mine. Very soon my parents will retire (for good, hopefully). My dad retired from the military a while ago, but all that meant was he stopped working for the military and started working for the post office. This retirement, however, is real, and both parents are doing it. This milestone affects me in two ways.

The first is the more obvious physical changes. I'm excited to see them more often. I'm excited for Berkeley, especially, to see them more. In addition, it makes me happy to think about them enjoying the freedom that comes with leaving 8-plus hour work days behind.

The second thing was unexpected. I've spent my adult life feeling incredibly child-like. Checking off all those milestones on my list--surprisingly, even having a child--didn't change the fact that I still fail to feel grown up. I feel an imposter in the adult word. I'm sure it's not a unique feeling; I imagine many of my friends feel the same way. I do wonder if it's a generational thing, I've never heard anyone my parent's age or older admit to these types of feelings. Whether or not it is common, I still feel out of place when mingling with people my own age. I feel like I have more in common with the kids at Berkeley's preschool than the adults, some of who are probably even younger than I am. They seem like real grown up people. It's like being a member of an audience who inexplicably finds himself on the stage mingling with the actors.

And now my parents are retiring and suddenly I realize I'm 34 years old, my body is already on the decline, I have a child in preschool, I've been married for ten years, my parents are RETIRED, and we're all one step closer to the inevitable end. What does it feel like? It's weighty. I don't know how else to explain it. And yet, not much has really changed here. The sun still sets in the west. I still get up and do the same job. Berkeley is a day older. Robyn is as pretty as ever. And I might blow the entire underpinnings of the post by logging onto World of Warcraft after I hit "Publish." But dammit, today I feel like an adult.

Enjoy your retirement, mom and dad!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Writing Well

That title sure does sound presumptuous. But you're reading it all wrong. And I likely said it all wrong. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to be a better writer. It's actually been a resolution of mine going on five or six years now, but I never quite verbalized it before.

How does one become a better writer? I actually do have some insight here.

When I was in high school I loved math. I was really good at it, but that wasn't why I loved it. I loved it because it was easy, which is quite different than deriving pleasure from something due to mastery. And it's a shame I loved it for the wrong reason; I could have been really good at it had a applied some energy to it. And it's funny how similar mastery and ease can feel. How close, yet how far apart, hard work and laziness are. On the other hand, I hated writing. I hated writing because it was hard. My grammar was poor, my spelling was horrible, and I felt I had nothing to say, much less any way to say it. To write well, or even passably, I'd have to work hard at it. And hard work was the last thing I wanted to do as a teenager (this hasn't actually changed too much, even into my 30s.)

When I went to college one of the top three reasons I picked computer science as a major was because I was almost certain I could get away with writing a very minimal number of papers while acquiring my degree. And I was right! After four years of college I had exactly three classes that made me write papers, two were required English classes that couldn't have been avoided, and the last was an elective that I took pass/no-pass partially to insure that my lack of enthusiasm for writing wouldn't hurt my GPA.

But here I am now saying things like, "My New Year's Resolution is to write better." Alas! What has become of me? It's a good question. The short answer is, "The Internet happened to me." And the long answer?

I got a job after college. It was a sweet job for a kid fresh out of college. One thing I had to do at this job was communicate with people via email. I quickly became embarrassed by my inability to communicate effectively with my coworkers. It wasn't that I couldn't put an idea together; it was just that I was clueless about where commas and semi-colons should go. I never capitalized words. Paragraphs were a foreign concept. If one could puke words onto paper that would be a very close representation of my process of composing an email. One day I decided to take writing emails very seriously. No more throwing thoughts down. No more writing and hitting the send button. Everything was read at least twice if not more, even the shortest responses. It took longer but it was worth the effort.

Then things became more complicated. Then I stumbled across a website (affectionately called SWAB) where people shared their thoughts and ideas. I loved it. And I wanted to share my thoughts and ideas, but I was still horrible at it. That didn't stop me from writing. No, I dove in and wrote paragraph upon paragraph of ideas. I crafted long and likely odious posts about any topic that was remotely interesting to me. I wrote literally thousands of these posts, over eight thousand of them. These posts didn't help my form too much, but they gave me a passion for writing, and they gave me a voice and style that slowly emerged. Also, not to be under appreciated, the site exposed me to many other writers who not only could put together a sentence but who could do it in beautiful ways.

In the early days most of my posts were either about philosophy or politics. But one day I sat down and decided I would do something artistic on SWAB. I decided that I was ready to brandish my pen as not just a simple tool of communication but as something akin to a paint brush. I was about to put love into my writing.  I can still see this post in my head, it's something I'm still proud of, even in its imperfections (which it had no lack of). It was well received and a great feeling came over me. It was the feeling that comes with accomplishing something because of hard work. I'd sort of unintentionally worked really hard and reached a level of mastery at something I'd avoided for so long. Sometimes I kick myself for the late start, for all that avoiding I did. Where could I be, I wonder, had I tried harder when I was younger, when my mind was more agile?

But more importantly, I'd found a voice! From that day forward my writings on SWAB slowly changed. The shift can most accurately be described as a change from concrete to abstract. I was putting feeling where before only lived words. And I was loving writing. I still sucked at aspects of it. I'd still never gone back and given grammar the proper respect it deserves. Recognizing this deficiency I found my way to Strunk & White (of course) and read it twice. If you've read this far, you're likely aware that reading the book twice hasn't exactly made me a grammar expert, but knowing I've read it twice in great earnest might at least let you imagine how poor I was at it previously. I've read a handful of other grammar books by now and an assortment of books on other aspects of writing and story telling. I've come a long way.

So how does one become a better writer? By writing. There are other methods I'm sure, and I'll likely partake of some of them as well. I believe reading is equally important in honing your writing craft, but I've been easily and gladly devouring books for years. The consumption of books and other's writings is the easy part for me. It's the math. The writing is the hard part. It's the part that still scares me. It's the part that I still doubt I'm good at. It's the part that brings me the greatest joy when someone praises it. It's the part I love. It's the part I hope to improve. And to do so, I must write more. There are a couple specific things I'll be doing this year to improve my writing. First, I plan on finishing a set of short stories. In my head the idea of these short stories, and the few I've started, will result in something good enough to be published by someone other than myself (this is very lofty, I know). And secondly, I plan on writing here more. I see people often taking the 52 books a year challenge; I instead will be partaking of the 52 posts a year challenge. I hope during that time I write a thing or two you enjoy. That I move your soul. That we are drawn closer together. And that I take a few more willful steps toward my goal of writing well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Les Miserables, Defending Russell Crowe

I probably shouldn't do this.

I'm here to put up a very small defense of Russell Crowe as Javert.

Why shouldn't I do this? Because my ear isn't refined. I've seen a single musical; I've performed in zero. And generally Russell Crowe isn't one of my favorite actors. People much smarter than I about music seem to hate his performance.

First, I wholeheartedly believe those who say he can't sing. I, even with my limited listening skills, recognize that he was the least skilled singer in the cast.

That being said, without Russel Crowe's part in "One More Day" in the preview I probably wouldn't have been excited to hear the movie--I still would have been excited to see the movie because I love the themes it works with, but musicals are somewhere near the bottom of entertainment events I want to see. And his voice continued to please me throughout the movie, especially when sung in concert with other characters. His solo I could have passed on but there was something I greatly appropriated about the way his voice weaved amongst the other character's.

This defense, again, requires that I openly admit to a lack of skill of mine: the ability to appreciate fine singing voices. With that stated twice, I'll now get to the crux of my appreciation. Most of the other voices sounded so similar to me. They feel like they're sung in a higher scale, that seemed unnatural for the singers to me, (and the women especially sounded all the same to me). They all lacked a certain amount of character to me. In contrast, Crowe's voice is distinct, not just in quality, but in timber. 

This distinction not only added to my enjoyment of the music but made sense in another way Javert is a unique character within the story (let us forget about the characters whose main purpose is comedic relief and storytelling foil). The other characters are all on the verge of becoming saints--they're at risk of being translated to heaven before they even have a chance to teach us of their great moral compasses--while Javert sits in stark contrast to all their perfections. And as his demeanor is different so too should be his voice.

In addition to this I think he did the best acting in the movie. So many others depended upon their voices and their closeups of anguished faces to move the audience. But Crowe runs a gamut of emotions with his face (at a reasonable distance) where his voice isn't up to the task. And although Javert is written as an archetype as much as any other character in the story, he feels the most human to me, which is to say he feels the most real, which I credit to Crowe's acting.

Now, let the beasts loose. Let them destroy my words. Let them scorn and scoff at my lack of refined tastes. Or, grant my weaknesses a mercy worthy of Jean Valjean.