Friday, May 30, 2008

Dream: Rocky Mountain high

I was on a journey and, as part of it, got off the train in Littleton so I could say I had set foot in Colorado. It was a surreal place, where the sand-colored high-rises were covered with flat, featureless windows like the set of a 1920s expressionist science fiction movie. It was ugly, terrifying, and compelling.

I wanted to get away from the station, but the ground was unstable. In the half-light of pre-dawn, people would take a tentative step forward into invisible holes in the grass. Most navigated these safely, but I was afraid. Others left across a divide in the earth that widened to the east of the station and that was higher on the far side than on the station side. With my purse and shoulder bag, I was afraid to cross it. I began to wonder if I had had a suitcase on the train that had departed. I had to go to the bathroom, but I felt like I might be trapped forever.

The word "navish" or something like it occurred to me as though it were important. For a long time I resisted looking it up; when I did, I discovered that means "military landscaper." Perhaps I blamed the rent in the earth that frightened me so on a "navish."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dream: At university with Todd Rundgren

True to a recurring theme, I was at university. Someone asked me why, so I told her that I worked for a quarter and studied for a quarter, although I did not undertake a full load. She asked me rhetorically if I had graduated, and I said I had. Although I did not know her, I recognized her as a former classmate and wondered why there were other classmates there years later.

In my room I found my former roommate and one of her friends. They struck a deal with me in which they could have the room to themselves for study in the morning while I planned to be at the bookstore and at classes that I couldn't remember or find.

The room was long, as though two people might share each end of it, with a fireplace for each person. I wanted to get a fire started but didn't know how to put one out. Water seemed inadequate, and I had a vision of it fueling the flames. I noticed then that my desk in front of the fireplace appeared to be on fire, but it didn't feel hot, and there was no fire when I opened the drawer. I wondered about putting it out, too, this fire that I couldn't see or feel.

When I looked out the window, to my horror I saw a little blond boy crash through the trapdoor of a fireplace in the room above. Even then this struck me as odd because the second-floor room would have had to extend beyond mine for me to see the fireplace and trapdoor. Perhaps it was a balcony. To my relief, the boy appeared to be fine.

Some girls tried to connect me with a paraplegic or obese Todd Rundgren (I was never sure which he was). They wanted to watch, and I was ambivalent about both him as a partner and about performing in public, so to speak.

At times I would be very hot; at others, I would be appalled by it all. I described the Todd Rundgren of the dream as 6'1" and weighing a little over 200 pounds, realizing that that didn't sound obese. He wore dark glasses. We were left alone, and I was confused by all the changes and contradictions.

An engineer's guide to cats

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reflections at sunset on Memorial Day

Memorial Day

When anyone says, "Happy Memorial Day," I cringe inwardly. Like many other holidays in the United States, Memorial Day has become a day off from work, an opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry. Because it occurs in late May, when those of us in northerly latitudes are starting to feel comfortable that there will be no more snow and freezing winds, Memorial Day has become synonymous with the unofficial start of summer, with Labor Day marking its close (summer solstice and autumnal equinox notwithstanding).

Some people, like elders and the residents of small towns in which a single cemetery may house all the dead and where a parade features people you know. remember that Memorial Day commemorates the dead. Service organizations place American flags on the graves of veterans like my father, aunt, and uncle. Widows and widowers update their spouses on life in the past year. Unfortunate parents think of what their baby might have grown to be. Sons and daughters lay flowers reverently on stones or plant shrubs nearby to bring life to the dead. If you have lived long enough, you may pay tribute not only to parents, spouse, siblings, and comrades, but perhaps even a child or two.

Memorial Day does not have to be a sad occasion, and a picnic with all the fixings may be just the thing to put the winter blahs to rest. Before you head out to the backyard, park, pool, or beach, give Memorial Day its due and think about someone you loved and why you you loved them. Then never forget.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Today I was sitting at a table in the garden at The Flamingo, intent on writing, when something poked me hard in the back. I yelled, "Oh!" and jumped a foot. My heart stopped.

When i came out of shock, I wondered what or who had poked me. The only people who know me are the staff, who usually call me by name rather than assaulting my person.

I turned around slowly.

The unsmiling culprit was a boy between 18 and 24 months old. He lives here with his mother.

He didn't seem that happy or triumphant, so I decided to ignore him. I turned my back on him and went back to writing.

A few moments later, carefully timed so that I should have returned to complacency, the finger jabbed me again.

I turned around.

He still wasn't smiling. He was, however, drooling.

I have that effect on males.

Review: Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France

Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France by Peter Mayle. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000. 240 pages.

For an unexplained reason, Peter Mayle and his unnamed wife (presumably the "Jennie" of the dedication) left paradise in Provence for Long Island. In Encore Provence, he returns to the south of France, where the food, wine, and slow pace of life again absorb his attention.

Even less structured than Toujours Provence, Encore Provence covers familiar territory from new angles. "The Unsolved Murder of the Handsome Butcher" and "Recipe for a Village" address both the insularity and charms of village life ("Recipe" much less successfully), while "How to Be a Nose," "Discovering Oil," and "Friday Morning in Carpentras" provide insights into the perfume, olive oil, and truffle industries, respectively. In one of the best chapters, "Restaurant Critic Makes Astonishing Discovery," Mayle effectively and humorously discredits Ruth Reichl's flippant dismissal of Provence. How could a serious critic, after only a month's visit, write, "I had been dreaming of a Provence that never existed"? To help the reader find ripe tomatoes—which Reichl could not manage to do—and other products of Provence, Mayle provides the names and places for markets, vineyards, restaurants, bakeries, and producers of goods like olive oil and honey. It becomes clear that Reichl could not find Provence because she actively avoided it; perhaps she thought that deflating the expectations that Mayle helped to create was a better story than simply reinforcing them.

Several chapters, like "Curious Reasons for Liking Provence" and "Eight Ways to Spend a Summer's Afternoon," reveal one of the problems with Encore Provence—the lack of significant new material. More filler than substance, they are more like random personal essays than integral parts of a cohesive work, as though Mayle could not think of a better way to frame his random observations. These chapters are forced, splintered, and almost unnecessary.

Surprisingly, there is less of a sense of place. In the previous Provence books, Mayle's stone house, with its location abutting public forest, its isolation from traffic, its drawn-out renovations, its pool that attracts thirsty sangliers, and its quirky neighbors like Faustin and Massot, gives the reader a strong sense of a place with personality. The house is at the heart of A Year in Provence. In Encore Provence, it is not clear that Mayle and his wife return to the same house or what their neighbors are like. Even the dogs are mostly absent. Without structure and intimacy, Encore Provence is nothing more than a series of disconnected travelogue stories. Perhaps weary of intrusions into his privacy, or perhaps unclear about the reasons for the first book's success, Mayle distances himself from his reader.

There may not be much left for Mayle to say about Provence. He writes that, due to building restrictions, not much has changed. Yet he notes that "the garage and the geese are gone, and the farmhouse has sprouted wings and annexes . . . the vines have been groomed" and "the refugees' urge for rapid [gardening] results has spawned an industry: instant gardens, shipped in and set up with astonishing speed." These are only a couple of small changes, to be sure, but in time there will be more, and Provence will alter slowly and subtly. Mayle should know that that is the nature of change in the countryside and that, with enough demand, pressure, and money, change can accelerate, transforming a village into a resort town or farmland into suburbia.

Even if you cannot visit Provence, much of the lifestyle that Mayle describes—with food and drink of varying type and quality—is still available in many places outside France. The slow pace, the fatalistic viewpoint, the elderly gossips and moralists, the close-knit relationships, the helpfulness, and the beauty and quirks of the countryside are found in many regions. If you are as observant and open as Mayle, you may be able to find your version of Provence closer to home.

Sunday, 25 May 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dream: Blood and madness

I had had lunch in a multistory mall and was in the bathroom when I remembered that I had a job interview coming up afterward. I couldn’t find my bag, so I didn’t know where. I looked in the mirror and saw that my ruffled white silk blouse was spotted with numerous dilute bloodstains. I worried less about whether I was injured or where the blood had come from than about missing the interview.

Even if I could find my bag, which surely would have been stolen by now, I didn’t know where the interview was being held without the papers in the bag. I began to wonder about myself because normally I research the company and its Web site for any interview.

Finally, I gave up on the interview. I couldn’t even call to apologize. I also thought that perhaps it was not such a loss, that no job like it would be my dream job. I tried to remember what was in my bag and wondered whether I should be desperate to get it back.

I ran into my brother, who offered to help. The mall was a strange place, dark and full of odd corners and tiny spaces, more like a fun house than a shopping center. It was a disturbing place, and I thought again about the bloodstains, although I was sure, I thought, that it was my own blood.

I found a childhood friend of my brother, who also agreed to look for the bag. Then we came upon a clerestory overlooking a lower level, where a woman was modeling lingerie. I thought he might know her and was about to turn to him to ask when I heard the unmistakable sound of his engagement in a particular activity. I sensed that he was completely absorbed and unaware of me now. I wanted to escape this awful place, even without the bag, but did not know how. I was trapped with blood and madness.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dream: Pudge and the dead people

I was in one of the infinite, mystical houses that appear in my dreams. The front door had been opened carelessly, and I was afraid that Pudge had escaped. I might have reassured myself by searching the house and finding her, but it seemed too overwhelming a task. When I thought about looking for her outside, I would open the door and see a landscape blasted by hurricane-strength winds and rain that I couldn’t face. It broke my heart to think of my poor tortoiseshell baby out there. It would occur to me that perhaps she had escaped just then, each time I opened the door to look. It was an ironic cycle of indecision and fear.

I don’t know if this was in the same house, but I found a room in which various people, perhaps a large family, stood against a wall, each with his or her head cocked oddly sideways onto a frame projecting from the wall. It was a horrible sight. They appeared to have been murdered, with their bodies on display in this macabre way.

Then I saw one of them move slightly, and that was even more terrible and horrifying than had they remained still and clearly dead.

Holiday weekend: Cream the egg

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Backyard birdwatching

I wanted to spend most of this past weekend outdoors, but the weather forecasters did an about-face Saturday afternoon with a prediction of rain. It never warmed up by the lake, but clouds covered the sky by late afternoon. In the evening the rains came.

After performing triage housework, I spent a little time in the Flamingo garden. The first time I went out I spotted a tiny grayish bird with a light breast, which made wish I knew my passerines better. I can't swear to an eye ring, but it may have been a blue-gray gnatcatcher—it reminded me of a wren.

While I was out, a male northern cardinal landed on one of the black lawn chairs, which set off his red beautifully. While northern cardinals are common here and I hear males calling frequently, I rarely see the whole bird out in the open in all his glory.

What startled me most was a male American redstart in the shrubbery in front of me. Although I've seen redstarts among the trees on Wooded Isle, I didn't expect to see one so close and so clearly on a bit of ground off 55th Street.

When I came out later, a male northern cardinal chased a female right in front of me. Ah, love. Then I spotted a gorgeous male common yellowthroat flitting around in the shrubs. When they came closer, I saw that the little figures bobbing for insects in the grass were female yellowthroats.

I must work harder to obtain a DSLR camera.

The glimpse of the mystery bird (blue-gray gnatcatcher?) and my observations of the redstart and the yellowthroats reminded me that even a micro-habitat as small as The Flamingo's garden is still a habitat. Combined with Burnham Park across the street and Jackson Park with its Wooded Isle, it offers both migrants and residents a rich source of protein and a place to perch and rest. And a place for me to stay a little connected to the natural world, even when I don't feel very well.

At about 10:30 Saturday night, a single, blinding flash of lightning was followed by a single, terrifying clap of thunder. Somehow it seemed the perfect end to the day—a reminder that nature has not yet been vanquished.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dream: Tripping the light fantastic

I found myself on stage and wearing a long hoop skirt. The play I was in may have been about Cinderella. I didn't know anything about it, nor did I know my part or blocking. I sensed that my role was minor but important. I don't know how I got through it, or if I did. Others may have spoken in my place.

For the ovation, the minor players were supposed to run on stage through a side tunnel and the principals through a main, forward-facing tunnel. I didn't know where or when to go, and everyone was too preoccupied with lining up or talking (backstage?) to tell me. It was almost like I wasn't there or was invisible.

Finally, I got the impression that I was to come down the main tunnel ahead of the principals. I was so happy that I planned to throw up my hands and blow a kiss to the world, which is far more demonstrative than I usually am. I may have realized that I was bidding farewell to something, perhaps high school.

There was still confusion everywhere, so I came out behind the principals. By that time, the house lights were up, and almost the entire audience had cleared out. The few lingerers, those who had been trapped in the front didn't notice me. I was crushed with disappointment, all my joy instantly evaporated.

A friend found me. To get off the stage, we had to climb down through store racks of clothing. She chattered about a hockey game loss that didn't interest me. I felt like I had been abruptly plunged back into the mundane world without exulting in any of the glory of the spotlight. She didn't understand my tears or growing depression. I would never appear again on stage. I'd experienced the anticlimax of my life before it had even begun.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dream: The castle, the lion, and the moat

I was staying with my cousin, who was living in a castle or chateau. It was like nothing I'd seen.

The family pet was a 300-pound Asiatic lion, which at first did not appear strange. He seemed very devoted to me, following me and sleeping with me like a house cat. One day he tried to crawl on top of me. Trapped, I remembered being told that he had mauled and seriously injured a man. I was afraid to move.

The castle had an underground yet open moat. For fun, the family picnicked and floated on it on a barge. This seemed intriguing to me, given its underground but exposed location and look, but I couldn't or wasn't allowed to go with them. I may have tried to get into the water, but usually I was left with the lion. The less I trusted him, the more untrustworthy he was. He seemed to suspect my suspicions.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review: The Best of Slate

The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology edited by David Plotz, introduction by Jacob Weisberg, foreword by Michael Kinsley. New York: Atlas Books, 2006. 304 pages.

First, I should note that I have no idea why I bought The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology. I didn't know what Slate was, although I recently discovered that I joined the site in January 2008. I suspect I acquired the book because I'm fond of anthologies—usually collections of good or sometimes great stories built around a theme, a one-stop shop. In short,without knowing what Slate is, I wanted to read the best of its first decade.

As I learned from Michael Kinsley's foreword, Slate began at Microsoft as an online magazine (currently owned by the Washington Post). I had in my hands a print tribute to an online publication—a way to package and sell tangible copies of electronically published words. More simply put, The Best of Slate is an opportunity to cash in on the site's popularity, to sell books, and to get book buyers to the site.

Long-time fans of Slate may appreciate seeing articles they remember in print and having a piece of a favorite Web site in their hands. As a relative newcomer, though, I am disappointed if the articles selected by editor David Plotz truly are the best work Slate has produced in 10 years.

The first article, "Airline English" by Cullen Murphy, enlightens the reader with the obvious; airline terms such as "craft," "crew," "captain," "first officer," "deck," "cabin," "bulkhead," and "hold" are derived from long-established shipping industry lingo (oddly, "pilot" didn't make the list). If there is anyone left who hasn't realized this, I'd be amazed. "Watching Couples Go By," in which we discover that men like women for physical comfort and conversation and to fill his need to be needed is another space filler, but was undoubtedly included in the collection to honor its author Herbert Stein, who passed away.

I found some common ground if not insight in Seth Stevenson's "Extroverted Like Me"; at least I recognized the emotionally numbing effects of antidepressants and the disturbing manifestations of withdrawal. Another personal essay, "Daddy Gets His Brain Back" by Michael Lewis, humorously recounts the disorientation the author feels after a head injury ("I remember that if I don't hand in my book in six weeks, I'm [expletive]"), but ends on a flat note. "The Breakfast Table" features biting repartee between husband Timothy Noah and wife Marjorie Williams about the trivial (the posterior of Jennifer Lopez) and serious (the circumvention of Clinton's attorney-client privilege and the social taboos around discussing racism, which is also addressed in "Racist Like Me" by Debra Dickerson).

A handful of articles provide useful background, such as "The Pledge of Allegiance" by David Greenberg, and relevant (if not original) commentary ("Fifty/Fifty Forever" by Mickey Kaus). From "What Did Bush Know?" (Fred Kaplan), we learn how 93 pages of intelligence information, caveats, and footnotes were distilled into only one page for the president's benefit, while "The Misunderestimated Man" (Jacob Weisberg) hints at the president's personal flaws that made this shortcut necessary. In "Unfairenheit 9/11," Christopher Hitchens rants about Michael Moore rather than his movie, disingenuously using the same dodgy tactics of which he accuses Moore.

As a whole, The Best of Slate is disappointing. For example, the introduction to 2001 notes that, "Slate produced some of its smartest, and most moving, work in the days and months after the Sept. 11 attacks." Yet the only piece about the attacks, "An Unlikely Hero" by Rebecca Liss, appears (toward the end of the 2002 chapter), and it is neither smart nor particularly moving despite the subject. Liss turns what could have been a compelling account of a painstaking rescue into a flat, spare story short on details or interest and focused more on why the media missed out on hero Dave Karnes (Liss reasons that, because Karnes wasn't a police officer or firefighter, those organizations didn't "make room" for him). When the subjects are solid, the writing is too often pedestrian.

If articles like the self-serving "Full Disclosure" by Henry Blodgett or "Not Dead at All" by Harriet McBride Johnson, who believes that liquid replacement of most of a functioning brain indicates a mere "disability," represent The Best of Slate, I'd be afraid to see its worst. It's like much of what appears on the Internet—it's adequate as a time waster during, say, lunch, but not worth keeping or remembering.

Sunday, 18 May 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


I've been getting lots of phone calls from (212) 448-5501 (caller ID says, "New York Call"), including four today. From looking around online, I gather that this is a shady reputable survey organization,, that has been calling countless people countless times at odd hours, hanging up without leaving messages, and being otherwise weird. For me, this week's countless calls, including the four today, border on harassment. Whoever you are, every time you call me I'm contacting the DNC Registry. Keep it up, and I'll up the ante.

Dream: Planes and trains

These are bits from several dreams.

I found out that our community in Maryland has a plane and had a vision, similar to one I've had before, of flying in sunshine over acres of green. I saw one of the flight attendants interviewed. She seemed to love the job, and I envied her. A voice reminded me that the plane was flown only a couple of times a week and that the attendants were hourly employees. Suddenly the significance of this sank in, and I could see vividly that no work meant no money and no control. Still I could not get the feeling of soaring, somehow silently, over the green woods and fields and hills out of my head.

I was holding an improbable-looking lion cub, all head and mane (?) and very little body. Although its teeth were sharp and its jaws strong, its bites didn't do much harm. I was training it not to bite at all so that it wouldn't as an adult. It had a preternatural intelligence and understanding, and continued to nip.

I saw a small white alligator below. Two large, broad, red-and-black lizards approached it, and I thought that it might attack them.

The next thing I knew the alligator was dead, with its right rear leg cleanly cut off. Then I realized it was dead because its head had been cut off, too. I missed what had happened, but I said to the lion cub, "This must be the first time that anyone has seen lizards engage in tool use!" I realized immediately how insane that sounded.

Meanwhile, the alligator lay there, bloodless, the cross section of its stumps looking white and solid like a mutilated monster in a movie I'd once seen.

I was waiting for a train to arrive from the UK. Five or six tracks ended in the grass, with no stops. I knew that I was responsible for keeping the waiting people from standing near the tracks. I saw a friend sitting on a concrete bench next to the tracks, which now appeared to be in a station. I didn't want to tell her to move.

We didn't know which track the train would arrive on, but when the next train came in the old-fashioned steam engine separated and flew off a dock into water.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dream: Hamster eyes

I don't know if this was one dream or several, or if I am placing the events in the correct order.

I was with my parents at a diner when I noticed water lapping under the door. Even if the diner were on the shore, I sensed that we should leave immediately. I was frightened by what it seemed to mean. No one else reacted.

My dad was driving a van, and I was sitting all the way in the back. I noticed that I could see lights ahead, but little of the road, and that my dad was driving on the left (wrong) side. Thinking that the lights were headlights, he had turned on the van's headlights. I looked out the back window and saw the largest, blackest storm imaginable filling the sky. With a sense of apocalypse, I realized the lights weren't headlights, but something more dreadful. I turned back to tell Dad to move to the correct side of the road, but his head had fallen back and was lolling helplessly. My mother was senseless, and I didn't think I could crawl to the front of the van in time to apply the brakes.

I was walking a hamster on a leash. A couple of boys admired it and said, "It would be a shame if it got away—you'd never get it back." On cue, the hamster escaped, and I was distraught because a hamster wouldn't have the intelligence to find its way home and would be just another rodent on the streets. It would run off and never look back.

When I returned home, I saw an enormous cage located off one room. I wondered why I hadn't used that space to keep a large, charismatic animal, like the horses I could see across the way. The cage was littered with things like aluminum recyclables. It didn't seem to be a good home for a hamster.

I filled a basin with water and suddenly felt a sense that the hamster was in it, under the water. I couldn't feel anything, but when I emptied the basin the hamster was somehow on the bottom, lying on its stomach, all four feet splayed out, shivering. Its eyes were looking up at me reproachfully. Relieved, yet frightened that it could still die, I started stroking it dry and saying rhetorically, "Are you all right?" It looked at me sadly, huge eyes fixed on mine, and said, "I'm so cold and so tired." I kept stroking it and praying that it wouldn't die.

I was sitting somewhere in Cincinnati when I felt movement, as though I were on a train. I looked down and found I was flying over the city with nothing supporting me that I could see. A little girl ran out in front of me; I was shocked to see nothing under her feet. She was running on air just as I was sitting on it, even as we flew forward. Around and underneath us, planes, balloons, and weird flying vehicles rolled over and seemed to taunt us.

The mother told the little girl not to go too far, but she must have run off the invisible edge of the invisible flying train because she fell. I was horrified and thought irrationally that I should go after her, but I saw her land safely on a huge, colorful mattress below.

I got off when I saw a tram, like those at amusement parks and zoos. It was decorated with a jungle theme. I was about to get into the first care when a stern man in safari kit scowled at me from the second car. I understood that he was the driver and that all the trams, including his, were full (despite the empty first car). I worried about how I would get back and how the mother would find the little girl.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dream: Murder at the infirmary

Together with a lot of other people, I was stacked in a pile at an infirmary to wait for an operation that I needed badly. The need was holding me there; I wasn't sure I could move.

A large woman got up stealthily, pulled out what appeared to be a penknife, and stabbed a man in the neck. There was no sound, but I was certain that he was dead.

The woman came toward me on her way out, so I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. My conscience, however, wasn't happy, and, afraid as I was of her, I tripped or stopped her and woke everyone up with a modern hue and cry.

She did not seem fazed. Without words, I understood that those people on her side were going to challenge those on mine. This puts the odds with me, I thought, because most people will choose right over such an obvious wrong. Yet nearly everyone in the infirmary gravitated to the murderess. The only person I remember clearly on my side was a co-worker from IT. I felt set up for failure and a growing sense of terror.

My co-worker stepped forward. He proved to be proficient at some martial art, although his blows somehow never connected. I wondered why the masses didn't get rid of us offhand, or if they meant to drag out the agony one by one. I could see that my co-worker was only exhausting himself and that we were being toyed with.

Then I saw that some of the men were dressed as cowboys and were quietly trading guns. I thought, "Why don't they just shoot us then?" I wondered, too, if the cowboys were secretly on the side of justice after all.

The suspense continued.

Boys will be boys

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pregnant and president

One early morning in my sleep it came to me that our next group of presidential candidates should include a pregnant or nursing woman. When I first woke up, this seemed brilliant for reasons that I now have to make up.

First, I should note that this concept is in no way self serving. At nearly 47, I am well past my reproductive peak. The odds are that pregnancy is not in my future, so I am not the candidate that my dream life is proposing (your loss). My nieces are too young for the presidency, so I'm not looking out for their interests, either. My dream life can't even come up with an idea that would benefit me or mine.

Let's assume our pregnant/nursing candidate is over 35 and under 40, which seems reasonable if we assume a non-assisted pregnancy. Some would say that, while technically qualified, our under-40 mother-to-be is too young. On the other hand, the minimum age of 35 is purely arbitrary (perhaps even set partly because at one time many people would have completed their families by then), and there are people in their 50s and 60s who will never be mature no matter how long they live.

Some feminists will undoubtedly object on the principle that the president of the United States shouldn't be such a blatant brood mare, symbolic of male oppression and stereotypical gender roles (or perhaps they would come up with a more original, sophisticated argument full of portent and devoid of meaning). I could argue that a pregnant president symbolizes fertility and the rich potential of the future, and that it's progress not to sacrifice such symbols.

(Or she could simply be a woman who happens to run for office during pregnancy.)

Some might say that the last thing the nation or the world needs is a hormonal woman with power. Nonsense. All of us are prone to hormonal fluctuations, and we've had at least a few presidents whose hormones overcame their common sense (if they had any). On the other hand, few people are as motivated to build a better world than mothers, especially new mothers. A woman with a baby suddenly realizes, if she hasn't already, that it does matter that food is safe, that workers are treated fairly, and that polar bears continue to be available to grace the cover of National Geographic. The next generation shouldn't suffer for the excesses of their parents and grandparents.

There's the issue of lying in; for a few days the president will be physically but not mentally incapacitated. That's no different than when our past middle-aged male presidents have been hospitalized for various procedures from which they duly recovered. A woman can serve as president from a bed as well as a man. In fact, with planning, she need not leave the White House at all. She could give birth right at home, next to the red phone if necessary.

As a nursing mother, our president is going to be busy and tired—some might say too busy and too tired to run a nation. I would point out that, while Hillary Clinton claims that she will be fully suited and ready for when The Call comes at 3:00 a.m. (as though she is hoping for The Call, although why at that time who can say?), our presidential mother doesn't need to claim anything of the kind. As any parent knows, mothers are on the alert for when the call comes—the call of hunger, damp diapers, crankiness, or loneliness. New mothers are naturally wired for the needs and crises that arise in the wee hours.

What about matters of state? With all the responsibilities of motherhood, how could our president attend to tricky trade, military, and other important negotiations? If George Bush can interrupt a diplomatic dinner with vomiting, why can't our president take a little time off now and then to nurse? I'm not suggesting that the presidential offspring be brought to the table and that our leader nonchalantly whip out a breast, but perhaps these occasional short breaks will serve to easy any building tensions and to remind all the parties of what is really important—our shared future.

Of course, in time the presidential infant would become a toddler. How cute would the White House holiday card be if it could star not only the presidential pets but a winsome toddler, too? In the meantime, the media would not be distracted by critical issues such as the partying, drinking, and drug habits of presidential adult children, or his or her sexual proclivities. The worst that the press would be able to report is that the president's toddler knocked little Susie over in day-care or piddled on the Oval Office carpet, for which we'll find it easy to forgive him or her. By the time he or she is seven or eight years old, our president, assuming she had earned a second term, will be leaving office, at which point we might be ready for another First Baby.

I didn't eat or drink anything out of the ordinary the night before, so I don't know what inspired this wonderful idea. I'm sure it has some flaws, although I don't see what they could be.

Maybe I didn't get enough sleep.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Indies: Visually speaking

On May 1, J. and I attended a private screening of an independent movie filmed in Chicago and written and directed by a student. This is the second or third independent film I've seen in the past few years (Morvern Callar was another), and, with such little evidence, I'm trying not to see commonalities—and failing.

Both are dark, violent, and at times gory. In this movie are prostitution, HIV, abortion, beatings, obsession, infidelity, at least two murders, and four rapes (including a revenge rape of a man performed by a man who is hired by a female victim). Except for one short moment of slight levity, when the audience allowed itself to laugh hesitantly, the griminess of the film is unrelenting. Even the relatively upbeat ending doesn't quite move the viewer away from the ledge. If you had entered the theater as the most cheerful person in the world, you would exit with an emergency need for Prozac or Zoloft. Five minutes of beauty doesn't redeem two hours of pain.

I would guess that, depending on the source of their funding, independent filmmakers have more freedom to explore the human animal's dark side. They don't have to worry about the spinelessness of studio executives, the profit concerns of shareholders, or protests from mainstream American, which sometimes seems to find Hollywood's output shocking enough. Evil is more compelling than bland good, and some independent films strive to test the limits for the attention.

To be remembered, you have to do or make something memorable. A conventional story with conventional types and levels of sex and violence isn't going to bring you the attention you need to establish your name, reputation, and potential as a film auteur. The adroit portrayal of beatings, rapes, and murders is more likely to capture the attention of even the most jaded audience and critics. Not much new can be said about goodness. There is much that remains to be understood about evil, its causes, and its effects. This movie, and Morvern Callar, tries to hit you in the gut.

Even more so than with Morvern Callar, the visuals were rich, if clichéd. Fades and blurs were overused, along with other techniques that disorient the viewer while indicating transitions. Mostly, they draw attention to themselves, declaring, "Isn't this arty?" The same subject blurs and fades at the beginning and end to tell us that, after all that has happened, the world has come almost full circle, the city is still beautiful, and life goes on.

Film is, of course, a visual medium, and the directors of this movie and Morvern Callar become so focused on the visual art that they forget that, ideally, the visuals should support some kind of story. We get artistically contrived glimpses into the past lives of the three main characters, but they are so fragmented, disjointed, and out of context that it's hard to follow what happened, which makes it nearly impossible to figure out what is happening now. An online synopsis gave me a few clues, but even now I could not describe to you more than the most basic elements of the back stories. Without understanding those, the present is garbled and without the impact it might have had.

At various points the characters' lives intersect, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes not. Unable to pay her cab fare, one of the three female leads gives the taxi driver, also a main character, her phone number (try that in Chicago). As J. pointed out, the act seems significant, but nothing comes of it—it is a narrative dead end that leaves the moviegoer trying to figure out why. I also note that only in a movie would a woman who is between a man she knows to be a sociopath and an exit door move toward the man rather than attempting to flee.

Visually, the Chicago of this is a fairy-tale place, brightly lit and colorful, with downtown's glass and steel lovingly showcased. Except for some scenes on Lower Wacker Drive and of the taxi driver's spare, decaying room, the city looks like a dream, making the events of the story lines even more nightmarish. Missing from the mix here are the homeless, the insane homeless, the pretend homeless, and the other denizens of the street that even bedroom suburbanites encounter every day. It's Chicago but not quite Chicago—a Chicago where the surface grit is missing, and the ugliness is underground (literally) and underneath what appear to be normal lives.

All this ends on what appears to be an uplifting note; despite all that has happened to the three characters, they are optimistic and determined—even the woman with a death sentence hanging over her.

I couldn't share the optimism. After all, as the movie hints, life is threaded. Somewhere, a family must be mourning the murder of a good man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are an innocent wife and child whose husband/father has proven to be an obsessive mental case. Then there's the specter of HIV, which, when we think about it, affects far more than the one person we see. There's a lot on the consciences of two of the characters—or should be. As in Morvern Callar, there's little evidence of it. The film ends in a feel-good way that can't negate the grimness that has been and will be.

In their efforts to create art that stands out, these independent filmmakers try too hard, choosing style over craft and shock over substance, forgetting to let their audiences in on the story and motivations. Both Morvern Callar and this movie are visually full, emotionally empty experiences. A little ambiguity can be thought provoking; too much is only frustrating. A good film, I think, needs to engage people, not alienate them with its self-conscious artiness, coyness, and moral distance.