Recent movies and books

Photo by Obregonia D. Toretto from Pexels

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity to watch a lot of movies that I normally wouldn’t get the chance. The gf went to California to spend the holiday with her family while I stayed in New Haven with our Dachshund, Herman, to celebrate his 1st birthday.

I had been looking forward to the quiet so I could read and write and just chill for a while. And I had been looking forward to seeing The Irishman. I know quite a bit about movies, and Scorscese has always been near the top of my list of great directors.

However, I absolutely detested The Irishman. Apart from Joe Pesci and Al Pacino’s performances, I thought The Irishman was a bloated, uninteresting, slow, and lumbering elephant of a movie. The acting was stilted, except for Pacino’s, and the choices for shots were uninspired. Slow motion was used but it was for no good effect or reason. Calling DeNiro’s charter kid, while he was driving the truck that breaks down near the beginning of the movie, was laughable – he looked like a pasty-faced 50 year old kid. The de-aging technique was interesting but it didn’t de-age anyone. DeNiro was fine as an actor, but the character never really went anywhere. We didn’t see much motivation other than a willingness to carry out crimes when needed. There was no passion, just a going about business. I was highly disappointed in the film.

But I had an opportunity to watch Frances Ha and Earthquake Bird, both of which I enjoyed tremendously. Greta Gerwig was fantastic in Frances Ha, and seeing Adam Driver in an earlier movie gave me greater appreciation for his acting too. Earthquake Bird was an excellent story and the story didn’t cheat and make her the killer. I wasn’t familiar with Alicia Vikander, Academy Award winner, though I had seen some of Ex-Machina. She was great in Earthquake Bird, and I’m looking forward to seeing The Danish Girl now.

I also had an opportunity to watch the three Mike Birbiglia comedy stand-up performances on Netflix. I was familiar with the name from listening to NPR, but I wasn’t attuned to his work. Hilarious, well done! I started with “The New One,” and then watched the other two in chronological order, starting with “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” and then “Thank God for Jokes.” My favorite was “Thank God for Jokes” though some pieces in “The New One” were brilliant.

This week, the girlfriend and I saw Parasite at the theater. So well done. And we watched Marriage Story on Netflix, equally well done. I get excited and inspired when good movies are released near awards season.

As for reading, I’ve been reading for writing my memoir again. I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, an innovative memoir. While it was extremely well done, I’m hoping that means my own effort will be recognized as the structure of my own memoir, which I started on Oct. 31, 2018, is very similar – and not. I don’t use the same metaphor at all, and chronology be damned. I finished Machado’s book and was perusing Amazon for my next Kindle book.

And then I discovered a collection of essays called Make It Scream Make It Burn by Leslie Jamison. We have much in common in our backgrounds, and her writing is frequently compared to Joan Didion’s, a high compliment.

That’s all for now. I’m gearing up to write more frequently on Medium. See you there!

This Is Me

Photo: Pixabay / Pexels.com

Sometimes I think I’ve lived the life of the main character in Henry James’ story “The Beast in the Jungle.” I’ve been waiting for something significant to happen to me. I know something significant, something special, is waiting for me. And in my head, I have written my entire life, written down story ideas and titles on scraps of paper, enough to have my own ticker tape parade. And here I am, on the downhill slope, a life lived, unwritten.

The start was promising, I’ve always had promise, been promising. But the promise has been elusive. I was a creative writing major at San Diego State, and before I graduated, I had already served on two literary magazines. As a creative writing major and a relatively slow (methodical, deliberate, analytical) reader, I had not read enough by my estimation to be ready for grad school. My score on the Literature in English GRE Subject test was so piss poor that UCLA sent me a half sheet rejection – your GRE scores aren’t good enough. Thus, a plan was born.

At University of New Mexico, I read and read and read some more. I served on two more literary magazines, once as Editor-in-Chief. But it’s teaching where I found my passion. I was mostly shy, until I stood in front of a class where I blossomed into a teacher and a scholar. While my grad school friends did their 2 or 2 1/2 years of study, I spent 4 1/2 years reading, catching up, including a forced 6 months delay in my exams to read the gargantuan 18th century novels I have since come to love. The next time I took the GRE Literature Subject Test, I aced it and could have written the questions.

During grad school, I lived with a girlfriend who I wed less than a month before starting a Ph.D. program at The University of Kansas. We were young and made many mistakes. I made mistakes that compromised my integrity, and she … we ultimately divorced. Before that break, I was on the fast track. I already had teaching experience, and I was tapped by a Dean to serve as his T.A. for a 100 student elective course – the literature of baseball. Dean Carothers and I shared an interest in Faulkner and baseball. The divorce through me off track, and I took a year leave of absence to take care of finances and get in a better place.

During that time, I met a woman online, and within 6 weeks, she moved from Maryland to Kansas, and we moved in together. We started a relationship that would last 15 years, an instant family with a 2nd wife and a step-daughter. But I could not get back on track with my studies and finally closed the book on that chapter. So I thought a second Master’s degree in Linguistics would help, but I didn’t finish that thesis either.

I embarked on a career in educational technology, teaching myself HTML and CSS, teaching teachers how to use technology in their K-12 classrooms, and editing a newspaper feature for kids that appeared in 130 newspaper around the world. But the grant ended (and the male employees were dismissed!!), and I had to retool again. My technology background led to a second act as a web and communications expert at UC San Diego for a science lab.

During this time, my brother was stricken with major depressive disorder. My wife suffered from severe anxiety and later was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis that was hidden from both of us. In a flash, my wife switched affections like flicking a light switch, and divorce came again, unexpectedly. At the same time, the great recession took my job. I was living on a sailboat at the time, but my life became unanchored and rudderless.

Was it all a pattern, or just bad luck? Was I doing something that led to these deadends? And where had that writer’s dream gone? The titles and ideas on scraps of paper kept – keep – piling up.

Back to school – I found work teaching online and as an Adjunct English professor at several community colleges. The daily grind of grading becoming more difficult with every essay read. And of course, another betrayal, a fraudulent online college just cut me from the staff – “you are not suited for the Division of General Studies,” code for you are flunking too many students of whom we are taking their financial aid and offering very little in return. My standards had sunk to please just be able to write a coherent sentence. If not, you cannot pass. There must be some standards. The State of California sued the college for fraud. I’m happy to not be part of that problem anymore. But the financial hit was significant.

It’s difficult to keep books on a boat. There is simply no room (thank goodness for Kindle) but I never stopped reading or learning or studying or writing in my head. Everything I experience is a potential story.

Another unconventional relationship. Another blow out break-up. Broken but still with hope, there was still time to gain my bearings and keep moving forward.

And love entered again, unconventionally, along with many challenges. Teaching (grading) became more difficult. The American Dream collapsed along with any financial security that I had only glimpsed once in my DINKy life. DINKy became SINKy – Single Income No Kids – no way to live on a boat. The winds of change whipped and thrashed through my life.

Finally, with most of the trappings of my conventional life gone, uprooted from my Southern California home, I find myself in the east, in New Haven, a new start, a new hope. All of a sudden, the writing starts overflowing and I start writing.

I’ve been surrounded by mental illness my entire life, and while I haven’t suffered the way others in my life have, I’ve definitely been affected. I’ve been derailed from my own life in trying to be there for others who could not, who would not, be there for me. Categorical rejections, extremes of narcissism, betrayal from family, friends, lovers – and still I stand.

I have stories to tell, of survival in the face of mental illness, in the face of ideals stripped from my life, of goals unachieved, of betrayals unforeseen.

In all, I’ve loved and lost 5 times, seen my family decimated by mental illness and disease, lost 3 family members to suicide, lost family due to petty squabbling over a worthless estate.

The beast in the jungle will not win the day. I’m now free to write. And I still have love to give.

I started as a would-be writer and became a teacher. I started as a husband, and am now single – but with the most sincere and loving partner I’ve ever had.

And now I am again, as I started, a writer.

Why was I spared? How have I survived the onslaught of mental illness that strikes with the jagged force of lightning throughout my family tree?

All of my childhood passions are still intact. Baseball – go Dodgers; movies – with a deep knowledge of the art; sailing – the passion that I thought would take me to the ends of the earth and the end of my life, but now I’m boatless; writing – as teacher and practitioner, and hopeful idealist. It is hope that has kept me whole, hope for understanding, for doing the right thing, for recovering my integrity and keeping it intact in the face of so much adversity. These are the things I write about.

Another suicide – the Professor who inspired me to pursue English as a career killed himself in the parking lot of the Albuquerque Airport. This professor introduced me to The Waste Land literature that would form the metaphorical backdrop of all my studies. I knew of T. S. Eliot years before I studied him, as my sister had named her dog Eliot. I learned of this professor’s death a couple of years after the fact, and a couple of years before my own brother, a reverend to the deaf, committed suicide after a 13-year odyssey of major depression.

And here I am – still standing.

The beast lurks within that jungle, hidden from view, ocassionally rumbling with a low growl. It’s time to tell my stories. If not now, when?