Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In Praise of a Plot

My latest addiction:  The Hour, by the BBC.  Witty, clever, intriguing, sexy, stylish -- and thank God, it has a plot.  As in a mystery plot, as in save us from the unending navel gazing that seems to be running rife these days.  I read an article a while aback in the Times that dealt with adults' interest in YA literature.  The love of a yarn -- a full-bodied plot -- was stated as one of the main reasons that a forty year old would crack a book primarily geared for teens.  The Hour has plot to spare.  Each character is fully-formed with his/her angels and demons at the ready.  It has the look of Mad Men and the heart of John le Carre. 

It stars Dominic West (whom I still think is faking his actual accent after watching him for so many years on the superb, The Wire) and Romola Garai (whose 2009 portral of Emma is stellar).  My favorite character is Freddy (who is supposed to be less attractive -- as only Hollywood could dictate).  He has the most evocative face -- all angles and shadows -- and his unrequited love often makes it way to the surface through e.e. cummings poetry.  Check it out -- and stay with it; it unfolds slowly but very well.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to All

"Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end."

"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"

The bell struck twelve.


"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

May you have a joyful Christmas and New Year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

'Tis the Season. No, not that one.

For those of us who live in San Francisco, the season is upon us. Not for singing carols and baking cookies but for completing those $%**^@ high school applications.

A quick primer for non-natives. The city has many public high schools. Some good, some not so good. You put down your top choices (there are a few exceptions based on merit or auditions) then off your application goes into a lottery. You are notified in March. There are no guarantees.

Last year I watched as a dear friend went through this very process. I did not understand why she fretted about where to apply. Should she consider any parochial or private schools? Would her daughter have the perfect grades to make it into the city's merit-based public high school, and if not, what would her back up plan be?

Back up plan? It all started to sound a lot like college, and as I got a load of the price tags of the non-public schools, a whole lot more expensive. Other parents told me about the essays required on the private and parochial applications as though they were describing the sixth ring of hell. Questions like: describe your child's biggest challenge, what should we know about him/her, if your child was an animal, what would he/she be and why?

Wait, I said. I have to write essays? I thought this was all on my son? Oh no. (Insert evil laughter here.)

Okay. I could do this. Maybe not the animal question, but let's see:

My child's biggest challenge? The twisted part of me wanted to write, "He no longer beats his sister. He makes parole. He no longer stands by our bed at night holding a pairing knife."

What should we know about him? Was I the only person who felt like there was no small level of trepidation in that question? As if there remains anything bizarre the admissions department hasn't seen from a fourteen-year-old boy in all the years of reading these essays?

That got me thinking, how long does it take the poor people who read these missives before they start eyeing the scotch bottle? Can you imagine? The typical mother and father I see dropping off their middle schooler in the morning --- why, they can barely use a directional signal before they try to plow into my car, much less write a biography of their progeny. Not to be elitist (well, maybe a little bit) but I doubt most of them can string a coherent thought together much less sum up the driving force of a teenager who is driving them crazy.

Second thought, neither can I.

What I want to read are the essays that were never written. The ones that would cause the admissions team to stop drinking (or maybe pour a double). "Listen, I know he looks bad on paper: the horrible grades, the disciplinary problems and the restraining order. But you've got to take him off my hands or I'm going to kill him." Or worse, doing away with the faint praise and cut right to the chase. "I'm willing to shell out $30k a year, plus make school donations, plus run the auction, plus sleep with the principal. Do we have an understanding here?" I may actually use that...

On top of all of this is the desire to put yourself in this equation. Reliving your youth is part and parcel of the process. The English class I sat in during one open house made me want to apply to the school myself. Screw my kid. Yet who in their right mind would want to relive High School? Really.

So here I am. My son is looking to me for guidance, even if he won't admit it. He wants independence but the change is daunting. Yet he's changing so fast, how can I capture that in under 250 words? 25,000?

Next question?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sixty-one years. Where to start?

In January, my parents will be moving out of their home of sixty-one years to a retirement community located near my sister. Their home, my home, is filled with sixty-one years of memories and junk, both of which are hard to seperate. My father was a machinist, so the basement alone is lined with tools, drills, lathes, you name it. My mother has suggested lighting a match and using a broom to sweep up the remains. I informed her that metal is difficult to burn...

Countless people have seen their parents through this process, so why do I feel like I'm Lewis and Clark, venturing into a foreign land?

My sister and I went back to NJ last month with the idea of cleaning out the eaves and attic and to check up on our parents. Two things reared their ugly heads pretty quickly. One, a single dumpster wouldn't be enough, and two, my parents could no longer deal with maintaining a house. There is something that grabs your guts at those words. Parents, especially mine, are supposed to be eternally strong and able. They can answer all the questions and do the heavy lifting tied to captaining a tiny human through childhood and beyond. They possess secret powers of helping with science projects and creating baking goods that should come with an addiction warning label. Now they are daunted by a body that is not obeying, and a mind that may wander (although that could just be the deafness -- don't get me started -- how loud can one TV set get? Have you ever had to listen to Judge Judy till your eardrums bleed?)

So we're parenting our parents. That's okay. Circle of life, part of love, I get that. Then why am I waking at night from dreams of a house where I can no longer tresspass? The plants of the garden grab at my heart the most. They marked the passing of the years; they were part and parcel of my childhood. And that perhaps is it. My parent's house is my home, my childhood, and even though in the light of day I can see this move as a tremendously positive event for both the safety and health of my parents, I find myself tearing up as I did when I was pregnant. When a TV commercial would send me into wails. Christmas songs are brutal --- "I'll be Home for Christmas," just kill me now.

But a house is not a home that old song said. At 86 years of age, my parents may still have a few good years left. God knows, my mother deserves a break from the endless years of cooking and cleaning. Snow on the front steps is a disaster in the making for my dad's hip. Rationally, this move is the right thing to do, and my parents are showing incredible strength to move to MN, and move away from their few remaining friends. They seem enthusiastic. Let's not get into moving to MN in January -- the apartment came up, it's fantastic, you get it.

It's me who's the chicken.

So, dear readers, for the next month you're my free therapy. In the next few weeks I have to prepare and celebrate Christmas, help my son finish his HS applications (including of video biography, ai carumba), have minor surgery, arrange the plethora of workers needed to clean and and prepare my parent's house for sale, and oh, the book is being published in February. Book? Oh, it's fantastic, it's escapism, you'll love it, but I'll deal with it on it's own.

All of that is doable. I can handle that. What I'm not sure I can handle is driving my parents and sister to the airport. You see, I'm remaining behind a few days to oversee the contractors. Pulling away from the house with my parents in tow as they stare at their memories. Then returning to the house, oh hell... Then locking the door and smelling the essence of home for the last time. Alone. That's the hard part.

Yet humor is the balm of the soul. So you will hear of all the insanity of this process, trust me. If we can laugh together, we can get through this. Yes? Sure.

And if anyone wants a cute, 4 bedroom on 1/2 acre... I'm here.