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Kicking At The Darkness

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Not about movies today.

Politics has been very much on everyone’s mind; here at Chez Wadswords as well.  Even though I have been mostly writing about movies.  In fact, movies have become a sort of go-to respite for me – I never know what else to say about zero-tolerance policies against families seeking asylum or trade-war tariffs that may affect my family (we have a small niche farm that may be affected) or an ongoing investigation of foreign election collusion or….or, or, or any one of a host of things that haven’t already been said by other people in other places with more knowledge.  Forget knowing what to say – I don’t even know what to think, or what to do, without curling into a howling ball of despair.

Still – I’m not exactly a stranger to trying to go about your life when it feels like the world is about to topple over a precipice.  I had the luxury of being a teenager before; you don’t expect a 15-year-old to be dwelling on geopolitics anyway.  The fact that I was aware of the comparative arsenals for the US and one of its rivals at that age was arguably really weird.  But even then, that’s not all I thought about – I also thought about more typical teenage woes like acne and crushes and chemistry tests and losing the lead in the school play (I’d accidentally done something weird in the audition, but still felt like I was robbed, dangit).  But being a teenager also gave me the freedom to check out and seek solace in more frivolous things, like movies – and books and music and silly gossip and in-jokes with friends.  I wept a lot as a teenager, I woke up nights from nightmares where I thought the world would end – but I also made up alternate lyrics to Phil Collins songs and giggled over Star Trek episodes and talked about boys and sex in made-up code words and…

….And turned my face towards life.

The musician Bruce Cockburn is someone I’ve really only become aware of recently, but two of his songs would have easily made it onto my mix tapes as a teenager; he sounds like he was equally as aware of the dangers of nuclear war as I, and was equally as terrified.  One of his songs in particular was about exactly this kind of life-despite-terrorCockburn had a couple of daughters about my age in the 1980s, and was struck by how they were still going through the same kind of early crushes and pursuing the same kind of young-love romances that teenagers always have, even though they also knew that the world was in a dangerous state.  They were no dummies – they knew, like I knew, that we could have blown up a thousand times over, overnight.  And they were still nevertheless chasing after life and love in the face of it.  He thought that urge was incredibly poignant, but also incredibly hopeful; and for them, he wrote the song “Lovers In a Dangerous Time.”   (Linking you here to the Barenaked Ladies cover from the 1990s, which I slightly prefer.)

Of course, time went on, the Cold War ended and his daughters grew up.  But the song is still just as relevant – in later interviews, Cockburn has noted that people struggling with the AIDS crisis or economic uncertainty or terrorism or any one of a thousand challenges have turned to it for comfort.  And in 1990, when asked to comment on it for a collected songbook, he admitted “Lovers In a Dangerous Time” is pretty timeless – “Aren’t we all,” he wrote, “and isn’t it always?”

It’s not all simply a pretty love song, though. For most of the song the lyrics are about finding love in another, chasing it despite the threat of annihilation and terror – “Spirits open to thrusts of grace, Never a breath you can afford to waste…” but at the very end, the words are a call to action:

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight,
You’ve got to kick at the darkness ‘till it bleeds daylight.”

And that is what seeking solace in life does.  Spending time with the things and the people you love to rest and regroup, and remind yourself of the reason you’re fighting.  And then – when you’re ready, get up and move forward again.

Because love always wins.

Remember that. 

Love. Always. Wins.

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Fragile Threads

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I’m stepping away from the Movie Crash Course a moment, if I may, to talk about two other movies: one I watched, and one I wrote.

My senior year of high school, a friend was enrolled in my school’s TV production class (I’ll call her “Kathy”) and persuaded her teacher to let her do an “independent study” in the TV room during her study hall.  Kathy told him she needed me and one other friend to “work with her” as a ruse to rescue us from our own study halls as well.  After a week of the three of us watching videos of M*A*S*H reruns in the editing bay, we all admitted that “y’know, we’re probably going to have to produce something…”  About a week later Kathy approached me with the story idea, we spent a weekend hammering out the plot, and I wrote the script over the course of a few weeks.

We cast a handful of our classmates, the crew was made up of some of the same classmates when they weren’t on camera, and we filmed in a corner of the cafeteria after school and on weekends.  At some point we lost half our footage when someone stole a bunch of tapes out of the TV classroom, and held a marathon all-day shoot one weekend to replace it; one of our leads had started growing out his hair for the school play by then, and you can amusingly see his hairstyle grow and shrink in circumference throughout the finished film.  I was also in it, and gave my character a moment where I recited the “To Be Or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet; a move which I came to regret (there’s probably a tape somewhere with about 20 takes of me saying “To be or not to be, that is the question….whether t’is nobler in the mind to…to suffer the slings and arrows of for-no, of outrageous fortune, or…to…crap, what’s the line?”).  My only other indulgence was stealing a lyric from a Sting song for the title; his album Nothing Like The Sun had just been released when I started writing, and it provided the soundtrack to all my writing sessions.

Our film absolutely won’t win any Oscars, but given the circumstances it wasn’t half bad.  The film’s premiere was at a party Kathy threw at her house, where we also laughed through the blooper reel she’d assembled (charitably, she left out my Hamlet fluffs).  There were a couple other screenings – one at a church, and one in one social studies class – before it was permanently enshrined in the school library.  We also gave a screening for the entertainment editor of my hometown’s local newspaper, as somehow he was persuaded to give it a review.  He was encouraging, but fair – pointing out some of the obvious flaws (my script was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayy too talky) but praising the sophisticated message that was being raised by a bunch of high school students.  And while there are indeed moments from the script and my own performance that make me cringe, there are also moments here and there that make me think “y’know, the writing’s pretty good there.”

You will note that I haven’t yet mentioned what this film was about.

The title, nicked from Sting’s “Fragile”, was “How Fragile We Are”.  The idea Kathy brought me dealt with something we were both concerned about – nuclear war. The characters our friends played were a bunch of kids, strangers to each other, who had been safely brought to a bomb shelter right at the outbreak of a full-on war, where they were told that if they left they would face certain death – but were still offered the choice to leave if they wished.  The talkiness came from the characters each deciding what they’d do (and some chose to leave).  The reason I had my character recite from Hamlet is that that was how she explained her reason for staying alive.

So, no, this was no fun rom-com we were making.  We were sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who were frightened for our very lives, and desperate for someone, anyone, to listen and do something.  I actually see a lot of us in the Parkland Students, and their desperate message that “we are the kids, you are the adults – do something to save us.” 

We were up against a bigger force than the NRA, however. And we were well aware of it.

For all the laughing we did while filming – and we did a lot – I learned later that there was a fair amount of private crying going on.  In a few cases, kids went from hoping that nuclear war wouldn’t break out to accepting that it would, and it was just a question of when. I hit that point about midway through writing; while working on the script, I’d remind myself of the world of the play with a litany of destruction: “okay, it’s War. Stuff is gone. There is no more Hartford, no more New York, no more Los Angeles. Cape Cod is gone. England is gone. Ireland is gone…”

Once, as I was writing, listening to Sting and going through my Arya-Stark litany, the album reached my favorite part of another song.  And it hit me – in the world I was writing, my characters were never going to be able to hear that song again. It wasn’t just England and France and San Francisco that were going to be gone, but also chocolate, and puppies, and Sting albums, and violets, and my cousins’ Christmas stockings, and fresh peaches, and bikes, and my uncle’s model trains, and old library books, and, and, and…

I sat there stunned a moment, the totality of loss sinking in. Then I put down the pen, moved to a spot on the floor right in front of my turntable, and put the needle back to the beginning of the song, huddling the speakers around me as it started up again.  I spent the next several minutes curled up on the floor between the speakers, listening to the song and weeping bitterly over the death of the world.

I was seventeen.

The other movie I’m thinking of had an unusual effect on Kathy at one point. While we were still writing, sometimes those of us in the TV study hall watched anti-nuke films as “research” – we tracked down copies of The Day After, and Dr. Strangelove, and Testament.  We made note of how each one dealt with the science, the geopolitics, and how they wove that in with the characters’ stories.

….then we watched a film called Threads. Much like The Day After, Threads was more what you’d call a “TV event” than a proper movie; it was produced by the BBC in 1984, and like The Day After on American TV, it was meant to show how a full-on nuclear war and its aftermath would affect the lives of a handful of characters in a mid-size city.  But Threads didn’t have to pull any punches, the way that The Day After did for American broadcast standards.  So what they show is far more accurate – and thus, far more violent, far more graphic, and far, far bleaker.

We were fine through the opening scenes, and fine – if a bit grim – during the scenes depicting runup to the war.  When the bomb actually hit, the three of us watching sat there, slackjawed, staring at the screen.  After a moment, Kathy suddenly stood up and walked into the next room, sat down in a chair and stared at the wall, not saying a word. I watched her a couple seconds, then followed her out. “y’alright?” She shook her head. “Wanna talk about it?” Another head shake. “…Want me to leave you alone?” A nod. I think I patted her shoulder or something, then went back into the editing bay; she came back in a moment later.  We never said any more about it.

Blessedly, just two years after our film, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down. Gorbachev and Reagan started talking about cutting back on their nuke stockpiles.  Boris Yeltsin did even more.  Obama did yet more after that.  And all of us in our film did what all us Gen-X Cold-War 80s babies did – we grew up, got jobs (where we could) and went on with our lives.  Many of us had been having vivid nightmares about nuclear war in the late 80s and early 90s; over time, those nightmares started fading, and stopped altogether in a few years.  We went on.

The nightmares started again for me last year. It’s just been one so far; all I remember of it now is me and one of my old roommates desperately trying to shore up a basement room for our safety, building a wall of sandbags along one inner wall before the bomb hit, trying to stack them tall enough to block out the one tiny window.  But suddenly a huge burst of light came through that window and my old roommate threw himself on top of me, knocking me to the ground and shielding me from the obvious blast.  “It’ll be okay,” he kept telling me over and over, just before I woke up and out of the dream.  “It’ll be okay, we’ll be okay….”

My nightmares about war were always that specific, always had that element of the everyday.  I would be standing around in my yard at home with friends and we’d suddenly look up to see bombers overhead or missile trails arcing over us.  We would be rehearsing for the school play and suddenly we would all be herded into a fallout shelter in the basement of the school that we hadn’t ever known about.  In one dream, all that happened was that I was watching TV and Jane Pauley interrupted the show to announce an attack – and paused mid-sentence at one point to blink away tears.  In all cases, I’d wake up from these dreams with heart pounding, and sit alone in the dark for well over an hour after, literally too afraid to go back to sleep.

The specificity and the imagery of my dreams, I think, came from Threads.  Not that it was giving me new information – I had already been aware of how destructive a nuclear attack might be.  What Threads showed me was not “what could happen”, but “what this thing you are afraid of might look like.”  It is the small details in Threads that linger – the staff of a museum carefully packing away their Rembrandts and Picassos into crates for protective storage.  A dazed woman holding the charred corpse of an infant after the bombs, staring blankly.  A panicked boy hides crying in his brother’s aviary just before the bomb.  Threads also chronicles events for several years after the bomb – we see one of the leads fighting with others to claim handfuls of spilt grain drifting in the wind.  Someone gives birth alone in an abandoned barn, using her own teeth to cut the umbilical cord.  A group of orphans sit in workroom patiently unweaving the threads from old cloth so it can be reused.  Surgery and amputation is done in makeshift open-air hospitals, with patients biting on rags instead of receiving anesthetic.  Starving people eat the corpses of sheep killed by radiation poisoning.

I am not the only one whose nuclear nightmares have returned.  A couple of us from How Fragile We Are have admitted the same.  I’m assuming the same is true of that roommate I recently dreamed about – although, he now lives in Hawaii, and had the far-worse living nightmare of a nuclear attack false alarm.  At the same time – perhaps fortunately – Threads also seems to be making its own comeback.  The film was released on Blu-Ray just last month, and I’ve been seeing more and more pop-culture web sites and newspaper columns talking about the film and how frightening it was.

It’s a fair argument that one reason we’re talking about Threads so much again now is in response to current geopolitics.  We have a hawkish, trigger-happy president, one who reportedly once asked his cabinet why we didn’t use nuclear weapons.  He regularly taunts the North Korean president, who is busy conducting his own nuclear tests.  Our news reports lately have been showing maps displaying the range of North Korea’s various missiles, pointing out the ones that can reach as far as the continental US.  Those maps look very like the ones I regularly saw when I was sixteen.  Back in January, the Pentagon suggested that we use nukes as a counter-attack to cybercrime. And now, John Bolton has been appointed as the country’s latest National Security Advisor to the President – a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations who publicly stated that the only purpose of the United Nations was to serve the United States’ own interests.  A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal also posted an opinion column by Bolton, in which he declared that the United States should engage in a preliminary strike against North Korea.

I’ve been here before.  Those of us who made our movie, we’ve been here.  So have countless other former students who either feared the nukes or accepted our own early deaths, then rejoiced when we were saved, then began to forget.  We had to try to forget to go on – but I’m thinking it’s time to remember.  It’s said that for everyone who saw Threads, their attitudes towards nuclear war were profoundly changed; their politics changed as a result.  There is even a rumor that Ronald Reagan’s own policy towards the Soviet Union changed after a screening of Threads in the White House.

If you haven’t seen Threads, watch it.  If you have seen it, watch again if you can bear it (no shame at all if you can’t).  We need to remember what we are up against, we need to be frightened into action again, and we need to do whatever we can– be it make our own movies (or write our own blog posts), stage our own demonstrations, start our own letter campaigns, run for office, anything it is we can do to bring the world back from the brink.

Political Commentary From The Projectionists’ Booth

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made in the course of this Crash Course in movies was Les Vampires, a freewheeling French crime thriller serial.  It’s one of my favorites so far, largely because of how it throws a bumper crop of oddball plot twists and details into the pot and still manages to all hang together.

And by far, one of my favorite bits is an assassin whose weapon of choice is a cannon.  His technique – which is demonstrated at least once in the film, if not twice – is to scout out the nearest hotel to his target, and then book a suitably-located room.  He then arrives, in disguise, with an unusually large number of trunks and bags, and a couple manservants to help portage everything.  Inside all the luggage, of course, is the disassembled cannon, which he and his men put together once they’re in the room.  Then, at just the right moment, they load the cannon, one of his accomplices opens the window, he aims at his target – and fires.  Then, he and his men take apart the cannon, pack everything away again, and check out.  It is completely and utterly ridiculous, and that is why I loved it.

….I just watched a clip of Trevor Noah’s reaction to the events in Las Vegas.  And something he said jumped out at me – that apparently, after the shooting, there is a growing call for an increased stringency in hotel security.  Pundits point to the sheer number of guns Stephen Paddock had in his hotel room – and the question they are asking is, how did he carry them all in?  Didn’t anyone notice anything?

Well, you know something…you could ask the same question of the cannon assassin in Les Vampires.  He also carried an unusually large number of bags into a hotel room, with the intent to commit murder.  And, in the unlikely event someone actually did try to pull off such a stunt, it would be equally as deadly.

However – the other thing that would happen is that we wouldn’t be asking how he got the cannon into the hotel.  We would be instead focused on how he was able to obtain a cannon in the first place, and bending over backwards to stop other people from getting their own.

…A movie about ninja jewel thieves should not be making more sense than real life, y’all.

Movie Crash Course: The Phantom Carriage

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Okay, this wasn’t perfect. But – it was strangely affecting.

This Swedish film from 1921 was a sort of combo of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Instead of a Christmas setting, the story takes place on New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town.  A young social worker, Sister Edit, is dying of consumption and begs her colleagues to seek out a man named David Holm – she insists she needs to talk to him before she dies.  David Holm, meanwhile, is hanging out in the graveyard, splitting a bottle of hooch with a pair of buddies; he tells them a “ghost story” he heard from a friend, Georges, about how the person who dies at the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive a spectral carriage for the following year, collecting the souls of the newly-dead and bringing them to their final destination.

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One of Edit’s colleagues finds the group shortly thereafter, and tries to persuade David to come with him.  Nothing doing – David angrly chases him off.  His friends are shocked at his reluctance and try to persuade him to visit Sister Edit after all – she’s on her deathbed, they insist, he has to – but David still refuses.  They argue, eventually coming to blows – and one of the other men finally takes a swing at David with a log, hitting him in the head and killing him, just as the clock strikes midnight. They run off – but soon along comes the ghostly carriage, ready to put David to work.  And who else should be driving – but Georges.

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It’s especially fitting, Georges says, that David should replace him – since Georges blames himself for leading David into a drunkard’s life to begin with. David – still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s, well, dead – doesn’t follow. So Georges leads David, and us, on an extended flashback into David’s past.

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David was once happily married, and had a younger brother who was doting uncle to David’s two little girls. But Georges lead the brothers into drink, and both ended up in prison – David for public lewdness, and his brother for manslaughter.  When David got out of prison, he found an empty house – his wife Anna had taken the two girls and split.  Vowing revenge, David hit the road – and kept hitting the bottle.

Georges reminds David that one year prior, David had stumbled into a flophouse – which just so happened to be run by Sister Edit. Moved by pity, she stayed up all night mending his coat, uttering a prayer at the stroke of midnight that David have a happy year.  When David woke and saw the mended coat, he asked to meet the person who fixed it – and then with Sister Edit looking on, he ripped off all the patches, just to mess with her, before leaving.

But Sister Edit just became more determined to save him, and began making surprise visits to the saloon to talk sense into him. She even manages to track down David’s wife, and talks her into taking him back. But David – by now also sick with consumption – does nothing to reform his ways, and his wife is soon sick as well.

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Georges wraps up his flashback with a recommendation that they visit Sister Edit after all, since she was looking for him.  When they reach her beside, Sister Edit is near enough to death to see Georges – but begs him to spare her for a few minutes, so she can talk to David. But David is floored when he hears her say that it’s because she wants to apologize. She thinks that bringing David and Anna together again only made things worse for them both. Touched by her kindness, David regretfully reveals himself and kisses her hand; Edit, touched by his forgiveness, finally dies.  Georges ushers David out when she does, though, telling him with a glance up that “others will come for her for where she’s going”.

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Instead, David is surprised to see that they’re headed towards his own house – where he sees Anna mournfully studying the two sleeping girls.  She then fetches a vial of poison out of her handbag, and starts brewing some tea, desparingly planning to kill them all in a murder-suicide.  David begs Georges to do something; he can’t, he says, but realizes that maybe David is now in a place to be able to.  “Spirit, return to your prison,” he intones – sending David’s ghost back into his body, just in time for him to wake up, run home, and prevent Anna from carrying through her plan. He tearfully makes her an apology, promising to reform, and intones the prayer George has taught him earlier in the film – “May my soul not be reaped until it has reached full maturity.”

The structure of the flashback was actually a little clumsy at first – instead of opening with David, we spend a lengthy time in Sister Edit’s sickroom, setting things up there, so it was a little jarring to change gear and realize David was the star of the show.  But once Georges’ ghost shows up in the carriage I’d gotten things sorted out well enough.  There’s also a couple of extended sequences of the Phantom Carriage collecting various souls which were probably put in just for color; they looked cool, especially the one with the carriage riding over the ocean to collect a drowning victim, but didn’t really add to the story.

From a cinematic history perspective, though, I think this may have been the first instance of the trope where you show “soul leaving a body” with a double-exposure of the “body” lying still on the ground, and a see-through “soul” getting up and moving away from it. This was actually the most complicated bit for the filmmakers – they used hand-cranked cameras, so when they filmed each sequence, the cameramen had to try to match the speeds exactly so both exposures would be even.

The Phantom Carriage is said to be one of Ingmar Bergen’s favorites; he first saw it at the age of 15 and made a habit of seeing it once a year ever after.  His own depiction of Death in The Seventh Seal also owed something to Georges’ cloak and scythe in the film.

Feeding Others

On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”.  My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!”  Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else.  But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.

My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.

I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.

My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips.  Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.

I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.

And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth.  Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda.  Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.

I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there.  There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well.  I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.

I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking.  After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.

When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.

 

 

The Least We Can Do

We’ve all heard, by now, of the rash of racist or sexist or Islamophobic incidents that broke out across the country the day after the election. To my dismay, I learned that there were two that happened where I went to college; someone wrote “TRUMP!’ in huge letters on the door to the prayer room at the engineering college, and later that day, a student taunted three high-school-age girls in an elevator by repeatedly using the n-word and saying “I can say whatever I want now because Trump won”.

I heard about it through a friend’s Facebook post, and initially shook my head. Then had the urge to write a letter.  Then realized – I know a lot of other alums through Facebook. And they know other alums.  What if we all signed that letter?  I announced my intent on Facebook, tagged all the alums I knew, and urged them to tell me if they wanted to sign it too.  And sure enough, a bunch of them “liked” my post, and one even tagged a whole bunch of other people right away.

But…that was it, for most of them. I only got eight other people to join me, out of about twenty who learned about it.  And I’m grateful to those who joined me, but…it’s still not what I was hoping.

We have all gotten used to an automated way to participate in community now. We’re on Facebook instead of catching up over coffee or on the phone. We “share this picture of the Vietnam Memorial” to support veterans rather than actually pitching in at the VFW. We sign online petitions rather than paper ones.

There are those who would say that the Internet makes it easy to participate in the civic discussion – but that’s the thing, it’s made it too easy. Or rather, too easy to feel like we did something.  It’s too easy to change your avatar to a picture of a cartoon character or the Eiffel Tower, or to say “Je Suis Charlie”, or share the photo meme that scolds you that “I bet only 2% of the people who see this will share this photo of a German Shepard because no one cares!” And so most of us click share and maybe type something, and then go on with our day – without expending even the few extra seconds of second thought to realize that sharing a photo of a German Shepard on the internet has absolutely no currency in the real world.

And right now, that kind of slacktivism isn’t going to cut it. Real world impact is going to take real world action. Especially now.

The good news, though – it won’t necessarily require that much impact. Most of us opt for this kind of Facebook activism because the problems seem so big and outside the reach of an individual person. But according to a former Congressional staffer, who went online with advice on Twitter a few days ago, all it takes is phone calls.  And you don’t even have to pay long distance to call Washington – the district office is not only just fine, it may be even better.  And really, this is what you sent them to office to do – represent you. And the way they figure out how to represent you is if you tell them.

While I was still waiting for incoming signatures, I got into a text exchange with a friend (I’ll spare her name). We briefly talked about going to the Womens’ March on Washington the day after Election Day, but a couple of bad experiences at marches had me a little uneasy, and she confessed she was only thinking of it out of a need to do something.  It was early in the morning, and we both had work to get to, so we left it at that.

Then a couple hours later she texted me again. She announced she was about to make a phone call to her state legislature about an issue that was affecting her business.  Then five minutes later, another text – they’d told her it was a federal issue.  So she was going to make more calls.  She called her representative, both her Senators, and a couple other places.  And then most likely hyperventilated and had some wine because she hates using the phone, almost as much as she hates drawing attention to herself (I was in her wedding party, and before the processional I was trying to get her to sing “Chantilly Lace” with me to stave off a panic attack).

This was an enormous act of courage, and I told her so. It was also a constituent exercising her right with the most effective means possible and demanding her right to be represented by the people in power. But – it was also just three phone calls.  That was all.

It is time to raise the bar on “the least we can do” and get back to real activism.