Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Lion, the Witch, and the Blockbuster

Netflix delivered Narnia just in time for the Easter weekend. I went to see it on my own on the big screen (since I missed my chance to see Goblet of Fire) but Janet hasn't seen it yet.

A friend of mine from the SKS wrote to me recently and asked, "Are you psyched about that C.S. Lewis movie coming out?" I laughed and wrote back: "Marcus, you and I are probably the only people on the planet who think of it as a C.S.Lewis movie . . . the rest of the world just sees Narnia."

I am a huge fan of the books, because it was for me a more compelling myth of death, resurrection, and redemption than the Christian tradition it is meant to allegorize. C.S. Lewis single-handedly held me in the Christian faith through my turbulent teens; he seemed to be the only believer who could talk sense, using reason without being a slave to it, honoring religious truth while still thinking really, really hard about it.

Sadly, I don't have much more to say than what most of the critics did. Everyone thought it was faithful to the book in content and in vision: even I kept catching myself thinking, "Gosh, that's exactly what I thought X would look like." And, of course, everyone had to say, "It ain't Lord of the Rings," but then again everyone knew that it wouldn't be . . . it's hardly fair to compare a children's story to an epic novel, no matter how many faithful fans follow after it.

A few things that did strike me (warning: spoilers ahead):
  • The initial setup for the movie was so perfect I was awestruck. None of the background about wartime England, and all the awful tensions that lurked in the background, are really laid out in the book -- they didn't need be, because that was the time in which Lewis lived and wrote. But the movie was so perfect at showing the entire context in such a short space . . . the complex relationships between all the children was set up in a mere ten minutes, and all of it done without much guidance from the book.
  • I especially liked the one scene with Edmund dashing back into the house to save the picture of his father, and Peter rushing in after him. It struck something in me, something archtypal . . . I had tears in my eyes, for reasons I didn't fully understand.
  • There was a little bit of patchiness in the extras . . . some of the satyrs looked like they had been done by the folks who did make-up for the original Star Trek. I suppose they poured all their effects budget into making Aslan so perfect. Which was probably an acceptable trade-off, because Aslan had to be perfect.
  • As far as the Animals went . . . they tried hard to give the Beavers the star billing, but the Fox came out on top in my book. Why is it that the minor characters (even the CGI ones) are turning in better performances than the stars? (I mean, I thought the kids did OK, but still . . .)
  • Was it just me, or did it seem suggestive of Western air power superiority when all the gryphons show up to bombard the forces of evil? And didn't you just feel a little thrill of excitement to see it anyway?
  • Susan had her token arrow-shot at the end of the battle -- one of the few details that wasn't really true to the book. I think the writers decided that they had to get at least one shot in there (along with the target practice earlier) just so the gift of the bow would seem less superfluous. Or maybe because Susan needed to be redeemed more as a character, since she was basically a prig and a pain in the ass in every other scene. (Which actually was true to the book -- Susan was the only one of the four children who eventually foresakes her Narnian memories in favor of the "real world.")
  • I loved that Rhino and Centaur making their final (and ultimately futile) charge to take out the White Witch. I especially liked that it was the two of them, together, making that last mad dash: you get a sense of that camraderie, that battlefield-bond between soldiers, and shared love for the Cause, that makes a battle more than mere repetative violence. If anything, the two of them upstaged Peter in his final showdown with the Witch.
  • The exchange between Edmund and his horse Phillip at the end of the movie was nice. It was a quiet, subtle way to show you how much Edmund had grown and developed . . . not in some showy display, but quietly, almost as an aside. I love it when a movie is brave enough to have a light touch.

Overall: quite good. It should have a solid franchise for the rest of the series.


When the children come . . .

My twin brother had his first child yesterday -- a girl. This was a remarkable occasion, since this was the first girl to be born in my extended family for a couple generations in any direction. It also got me to thinking -- gosh, it's hard enough to be parenting at my age, but how is it going to be when he's just getting started at 36? There are many people whose children are leaving home for boarding school by the time they're 36 . . . my own mother comes to mind.

So the question comes up, naturally . . . are you better to start early with the kids, or start late? On the early side, your kids are grown up before you even hit middle age, and you have time to try other things with your life. You also have a lot more vital time with your grandkids, which may not seem like much now but will be more important later. (My kids are really enjoying their grandma, at precisely the time her capacity to enjoy them is starting to fade.)

Pros for the late side: you get to have a lot more time with your spouse before you get into the kids, which is good for settling into the relationship before the biggest stressor comes into play. You also get a lot more time to get your career moving, which can make for a much easier time when it comes to financial stresses on your life. (I'm sure it's a lot easier to have a happy home when there is enough money for everything . . . of course, that too is a state of mind, and I know lots of families with more money than us who still act like they don't have enough.) And I suppose there's something to be said for being emotionally and spiritually mature for your kids . . . I wasn't nearly as developed in those areas in my twenties.

And the winner is . . . ? I'll let the commenters decide.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The case for universal (non)coverage

Massachussetts recently rolled out a new plan to mandate health insurance coverage for everyone in the state. Health care coverage is a topic I've mulled over repeatedly because I think our system is very, very broken.

Let me start by stating the obvious: health care costs are rising because we don't pay the bill. We don't even pay the premiums, really: we look to the employers to do that. So when we get a bill for a ridiculous amount for a trivial procedure, we don't get upset; we just shell out the co-pay and forget about it. Inefficient just doesn't seem like a strong enough word. Stupid. Stupid comes close to covering. Insane might be going to far . . . but not by much.

Of course, I learned this lesson because -- guess what -- I pay for my health care out of pocket. I have a Health Savings Account, in which I set aside money tax-free to cover health care expenses. I went this route because I ran the numbers and concluded that one of us would have to either have a baby or cut off an arm to come even remotely close to having enough medical expenses to justify the premiums.

Now that we pay the bill ourselves, we ask a lot more questions that we never dreamed of asking before. Questions that, in retrospect, seem obvious, like: "What's this going to cost?" or "Is there something cheaper?" or, most astoundingly, "Is this really necessary?" To think: we never asked these questions before. And people wonder why health care costs are rising? They keep rising because there is nobody standing there to say, "That's too much."

And, not surprisingly, the cornerstone of the Massachussetts plan is high-deductible, low-premium insurance plans, in which most treatments are paid for out-of-pocket. Ironically, everyone gets the coverage they need when they start paying for healthcare themselves.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

First 100 Days

Somewhere back there I surpassed the 100-post mark. Since everybody makes a big deal about the "first hundred days in office," I thought it would be a good chance to reflect . . .

Well, actually I'm wishing it was a good excuse to cut myself some slack and not post anything, because it's twenty to midnight and I just came back from an SKS meeting and I'm dog tired. But I know that the post-every-day rule is absolutely vital to this whole thing working.

How do I know this is true? The miracle of self-knowledge. If I had a choice about whether I was going to write today or not, I wouldn't write today. I would write . . . later. Sometime. Soon. Really. Let me just finish this really important thing . . .

It literally took me about, gee, a thousand days of trying to write "when I got the time" before I finally got wise and realized that it was going to have to be every day or not at all. Ironically, it's amazing what you can do when you finally realize that you have no choice.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

References provided when hell freezes over

I had a large corporate client ask for my resume today. Which I suppose wouldn't be too silly, except for the fact that it was client I had been working for for the last three years, and the particular project in question was already 90% complete. Evidently a project manager needs to cover his posterior, to make sure no one can blame him if something goes wrong and they later decide I was unqualified for the job.

I have a bristly relationship with my resume. It's been at least ten years since anyone asked me for a resume and had a good reason to do so. A resume should get you your first job in a field, but if you need a resume to get any job after that, you either don't know enough people or you haven't accumulated enough of a portfolio to demonstrate what you're capable of. So it always feels mildly insulting when someone asks for it. Does anyone ask Dr. Phil for his CV?

I have been working in the software business for the last nine years, and interestingly, almost nobody asks me about my credentials. I can usually convince people in about ten minutes that I know what I'm doing, just by the questions I ask them. But what's more interesting is the credentials that they assume I have. Everyone assumes that I must have a degree in computer science, and that I must have several certifications of some kind. It's very rare that someone guesses the truth: I'm a ex-scientist and completely self-taught hack. I never took a computer class in my entire life, unless you count a Pascal class in high school, and that was long before I got in touch with my inner geek.

Hence, the intense superiority-inferiority complex about my resume. Even though I'm very good at what I do, I have to worry that some bureaucrat who doesn't know his ASP from a hole in the ground is going to look at my CV and think that I'm somehow deficient because I don't have "the proper education." Why don't I have my MCSE, you ask? I never needed it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Nice kitty

I was on the phone the other day, talking with my boss, when I looked out the window and I saw a large-dog-sized animal walking along on the other side of the fenced yard. My brain was still engaged in the conversation on the phone, so only a tiny portion of my mind was whispering, "Huh, I wonder whose dog that could be." But then I saw that tail curl and snake and flip to one side, and alarm bells went off in my head: "That's no dog."

I stared out the window. It was gone, vanished behind some fallen trees. Even while I was still talking on the phone, I was staring hard at the spot, waiting for it to reappear, but it never did. I wanted to end the conversation quickly, but somehow it seemed too much like a sci-fi horror flick to say, "Um, I just saw something outside . . . aw, it's probably nothing." But when I finally hung up, I walked outside. I didn't say anything to kids, because I didn't want them coming along and making a ruckus.

I walked over to the side of the fence, still staring at the spot. Nothing.

Now, there's a scene at the beginning of Deliverance, when the team of outdoorsmen tell some local yokel that they're going to canoe down the Monogehela, and the local spits and says, "Boy, what you wanna go fuckin' with that river for?"

And, in exactly the same spirit, there is a voice in my head saying, "Do you really, REALLY want to run into what's on the other side of this fence?"

"Aw, you're dreamin' is all," I think. "You'll go over the fence, and there will be nothing, maybe some scat if you're lucky, just to prove that it wasn't a trick of the light." So I jump over the fence and start walking over to the spot. I'm almost there, maybe twenty feet away, when on the bank above it I see an explosion of leaves, and in a blur I see the unmistakeable fuzzy bottom and big feet running away, and half a second later it's gone.

I came back inside. "There's a bobcat on the mountain," I announce.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Broken Flowers

I watched Broken Flowers last night. Now, I had never been a huge fan of Bill Murray in his early years-- I mean, I enjoyed Stripes and Caddyshack for what they were, but I could never fully identify with the charming asshole that he always played. But I was completely won over by Groundhog Day, which was such a powerful spiritual allegory that I continue to use it to this day in SKS meetings. And I was won over all over again when I saw Lost In Translation, which had all the same kinds of wisdom but translated it into a very realistic story. It was the first time that Bill Murray seemed deep to me -- not because he was playing a deep character, but because he was doing such a wonderful job of playing a shallow man coming up against the existential limits of being shallow.

So, when I saw that Bill Murray had another quirky, small movie that was being favorably compared to Lost In Translation, I had to bite. Some thoughts (warning: spoilers ahead):
  • If you thought Bill Murray was restrained in Lost in Translation, you will find him bordering on catatonic in Broken Flowers. It's as if the actor and/or the director decided to push his powers of deadpan delivery to their absolute limits. There are many shots that go on for two minutes or more, just lingering on him sitting on a couch, or staring out a hotel window. It's a tribute to him as an actor that he manages, mostly, to pull it off.
  • I thought the progression of ex-girlfriends that Don Johnston goes to see was interesting . . . the reception he receives gets progressively worse with each one. He starts with a widow who happily takes him back to her bed . . . and then to a confused but awkward reception from a childless housewife . . . and then a brisk and brief interview with an "animal communicator" . . . and finally getting his lights punched out by some swamp Ophelia's biker boyfriend. But the best part was that the fifth and final ex was dead -- the coldest reception of all. And yet that seemed the best encounter of all; for the first time, Don was there just for someone else, not even to fulfill his own selfish mission. As he sits under a tree, tears in his eyes for the first time, you sense that something has changed in him.
  • The real point of the movie, if there is a point to be had from such an determinedly inconclusive movie, is that Don starts to look at the world a little differently. Rather than seeing each woman as a conquest, he starts to look at her as the possible mother of his only lost son. And every young man he looks at suddenly becomes, possibly, his son. It's like Christ's injunction to "if you do so unto any, then you will have done so unto me." The mystery of not knowing has drawn Don out of his selfish existence and into a state of unexpected compassion for those he meets. That's why, of course, he cannot discover the truth of the mystery during the movie -- the whole point of the movie is draw us in with him, looking at each new face and wondering, wondering . . . and in the process, looking at people with more compassion and sensitivity than we expected.
  • I have started formulate a new standard for the highest quality in TV or movie scripts. The height of character development is when none of the characters is completely admirable, and yet every one of them wins your heart in some way. Six Feet Under did it, and probably was the first to set the standard. Dead Like Me did it, too. Buffy and Angel were capable of it, at their best moments. And Broken Flowers is . . . close. The premise of the story, and Bill Murray's understated performance, makes it hard to feel really strongly about any of the characters. But in a bemused, detached sort of way, you find yourself feeling that way about Don and all his exes. None of them, despite of their relative wealth or poverty, seems very happy. It's a road trip out of hell and into the foothills of purgatory.