Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Linklater's BOYHOOD: A Collection of Moments


Maybe you’ve heard some of the hype for Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood. Critics are unanimous in their praise; several news sources are already predicting a Best Picture Oscar for next year. I’m a fervent fan of Linklater’s Before trilogy (I wrote about Before Midnight here), and I fully expected to like this movie, which is described in one sentence at the IMDb database: “The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18.” And like it I did, immensely, but it also struck a particular nerve because I think this film comes closest to any kind of artistic aesthetic or technique I may strive for myself.
A remarkable and much-discussed aspect of the film is that it was filmed over a period of eleven+ years, so you have the strange experience of watching the boy, actor Ellar Coltrane, age from childhood to adulthood. But this parlor trick of sorts never overtakes the story; it is never announced or celebrated. This is a quiet, time-capsule of a film. One scene blends into the next, as years do. It's a realistic drama about relatable events, a story with the overarching characteristic that there isn't, really, a story. It’s just what happened to Mason, during the time when he was a boy. And it’s riveting and touching and at times, nostalgic. We watch as technology evolves from early video games to iPhones, we note Mason’s experimentation with haircuts, drugs and girls, and we see his parents’ failed marriage and their ensuing relationships through his eyes. There’s a day when Mason’s father, played wonderfully by Ethan Hawke as a Peter Pan character, a dreamer and drifter who, nevertheless, becomes a pretty great father, takes Mason and his sister to a park, then a baseball game. That’s it. No dramatic occurrences, no pronouncements or arguments, and yet, it rings so true because it’s exactly the sort of day that you might remember from childhood.

We’re conditioned to look for big events, for cataclysmic and catastrophic plot twists, for obvious character change and development. But this isn't often how real life is. Sometimes nothing huge happens; sometimes, people don’t change much. What is life, if not a series of moments, the memories we return to for sustenance or pain? As a writer, I like to present a collection of moments and let the reader decide what they mean, if anything. There is much space for contemplation in Linklater’s film. We are free to think of it what we will, to draw our own conclusions about Mason’s life and by extension, our own. It’s a beautiful portrayal of people and their complicated relationships and it’s different from any movie you’ve seen. This is a coming-of-age story that will stay with you for a long, long time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 18: A Short Story


Tomorrow our family will commemorate the wonderful moment we doubled from three to six members, and we'll celebrate the three unique souls we've been getting to know for twelve years. This is a short piece I wrote about the experience. You can also find a truncated version at Labor Day, where, if you're so inclined, you can share your own birth story.

July 18

            Dr. Yamada stands up from the stool positioned between my legs and removes his rubber glove.  “You’re six centimeters dilated,” he says.
            My husband Jason looks at me in surprise, but there is no pain, just the same, slight agitation, a strange churning.  Everything about this pregnancy has been different from my first.  That time, everything was waiting, waiting.  I’d scour my pregnancy books, watching for symptoms, searching for signs.  And when our son was born at nine months and one day, I pushed him out for three exhausting hours.
            This time, everything happened quickly.  Instead of sharp blows from elbows and feet there were large rolling movements and blunt edges.  An unsettledness.  There was no time to contemplate, only the sensation of a great rolling along, a necessary growing.
            “How many weeks?” Dr. Yamada asks.
            “Thirty-four tomorrow,” I say.  I try to push myself up.
            “Stay, stay,” Dr. Yamada scolds.  At every appointment, he reminds me to stay off my feet.  No extended walking.  No lifting over ten pounds.  I can never reassure him that in my own way, I am taking it easy.  But I do lift our two-year-old.  It’s something I can’t give up. 
           “This is a good outcome,” Dr. Yamada admits.  Despite everything still before me, I feel relief.  I have so often felt like a vessel, nothing within my control.  Scrutinized with biweekly ultrasounds, my body expanded, amoeba-like.  My appetites were foreign.
           Jason shifts next to me.  “So maybe later tonight, or tomorrow?” he asks.  He remembers the first time, waiting for hours at home, then all night at the hospital.  Fragmented sleep on a stiff armchair. 
            Dr. Yamada chuckles, looking back and forth between us.  “No.  I mean that you are going now.  If there’s enough staff, within the hour.”
            Everything picks up speed.  A nurse appears with a wheelchair.  At the hospital building next door, a team of three nurses work on me from all sides, taking vital signs, changing me into a gown, giving us forms.  Then, something I hadn’t expected:  pain.  I lie on my side, wishing for the epidural.
            Forty-five minutes later, I am blissfully numb in a large operating room.  All around me is activity.  There are three doctors, many nurses, much equipment.  Jason is there in his green surgical suit, video camera in hand. 
            There is murmuring between the doctors.  “We’re going to begin,” Dr. Yamada says.
            My only view is the blue curtain positioned so that I have no view of anything.  Once again, I am strangely disconnected from the events of my body, a blind spectator, waiting to be told my part.  I feel pulling, the way your stomach drops on a rollercoaster.  And just like that, a small cry.
            “Here he is,” a nurse says.  “A boy.”
            I watch as they wipe his face.  They bring him to a wheeled bassinet near my head and prop him up.  He has Jason’s deep-set eyes, his dark hair.  They wheel him towards the door.
            “Across the hall and down a ways,” the nurse says to Jason.  “The NICU.  You can follow us or wait.”
            “I’ll wait.”
            More activity below.  Quickly, much too quickly to process, someone says:   “Another boy.”  Two more nurses appear.  One is holding a fair-skinned baby.  The hair escaping in thin wisps from the cap is pale blonde.  Another surprise. 
            She brings him to me for a kiss.  Soft skin, pink lips.  “He’s not doing much deep breathing,” she tells Jason.  “We’ll give him some stimulation.”  As if being yanked mid-nap from his mother’s uterus wasn’t stimulating.
            More pushing and pulling.  A slight, palpable change in the room’s mood.  Later, Jason says the scene was like a “construction site,” with doctors pulling things out of me, pushing them back in.
            Then a doctor announces my daughter.  My only girl.  Another first in a day of firsts.  I strain for a look at her, but there are many bodies in the way.  She struggles with her breathing the most, after having been relegated for weeks to a small space beneath my ribcage by her sprawling brothers.  They take her away before I see her.
            Then the waiting begins.  Waiting while they put me together again, waiting while they get me a bed, waiting for my first meal and first trip to the bathroom.  I am anxious.  Everyone has seen the babies except me.  Around midnight, I finally go to the NICU.
            The babies are comfortably sleeping in their isolettes.  The boys are next to each other, their names written in cheerful lettering on cards attached to the front.  They spread out, almost naked, under the lights.  The nurses assure us how warm it is.  Our daughter is a few isolettes down, next to a pair of twins I find out later have been there for three months.
            We know that we are lucky, but the next two weeks are difficult.  I am discharged after two days but the babies stay at the hospital for ten, eleven and thirteen days.  Our lives are fully taken over by eating schedules and visiting hours.  We cheer when they take in more milliliters of breast milk.  We learn how to use the breathing monitors they will bring home.  We hold them as much as we can.  Amazing that we’re suddenly incomplete without them.
            When I finally set them, side by side, in the crib in our family room, the “command center” where we also have a changing table, baby supplies and a bed, I look at their tiny, wrapped bodies and fully exhale for the first time in weeks.  I realize then what I’ve been doing, through the strange churning and the unpredictable whirlwind days, through the humbling and helplessness, the times of uncertainty, the times of profound purpose.  Finally, everyone is here.  And I realize what I have been witnessing, what we were, all this time, stumbling along to become: a family. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

What I've Been Reading


I haven’t been blogging very much lately. There was, of course, the launch of a certain novel to get through, along with the usual end-of-the-school-year craziness and a little trip to run through Utah. Yet despite all I had to do over the past weeks, I somehow managed to read several books. It’s my version of avoidance, I think—when I probably should be doing something else or can’t manage the concentration to write something of my own—I get to work on my to-read pile. And I’ve had great luck so far this year. Some great novels, a couple stellar collections of stories, fabulous essays. Here are my most-recent reads, all of which I’d recommend.

Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger

I discovered this book because it was recommended by author Christina Baker Kline, who knows a thing or two about good reads, but I was also drawn to the description:
Thirty years ago, on the date in June known as Midsummer's Day, a young girl is mysteriously orphaned. Now, after a life of bizarre and troubling circumstances, she becomes obsessed with the idea that she too will die on Midsummer's Day . . . until she meets the one man who may be able to save her.

Azalea Lewis was found at an English fairground at the age of three. She spends her life feeling as though her fate hinges on a series of coincidences and to that end, she seeks the advice of Thomas Post, a scholar whose work attempts to debunk the notion of coincidence. What follows is part love story, part mystery, and the examination of ideas that will keep you contemplating long after you turn the final page. A multi-layered, entertaining and fascinating puzzle of a story.


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A choice made by my book club. Conor is a thirteen-year-old boy beleaguered by the tree-shaped monster that appears nightly at his window. This is an illustrated novel, a collaboration between the author, the artist, and the woman who provided the spark for the story before her premature death. These aspects combine to a near-perfect piece of art. I loved this book to distraction, but I will warn that most members of my book club were in tears discussing it, and I had a rare, long and ugly cry when I read it. You must read it and cry too.


Restoration by Olaf Olafsson

Alice is a lonely woman living on a Tuscan hilltop with her older husband. The marriage is strained, both by the death of their young son and by Alice's brief affair with a childhood sweetheart. Outside the villa, WWII is ramping up, and Alice is blackmailed into keeping a valuable piece of art hidden from enemy forces. A refugee shows up, a woman who knows something about the restoration of the painting, and both women work through the secrets and silences of their pasts. A contemplative and setting-rich story, an examination of ill-advised relationships and the power balance often lurking below the surface.


Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

I devoured Davis’s newest collection of stories in just over a day. Reading her work is like sitting in a comfortable room amidst old friends. Every observance she makes is recognizable, every description seems right. She represents the rise and fall of the everyday like no other writer I know. The worst I can say about her, I guess, is that once in a while, a story may approach tedium with its close attention to thought processes. But even this rings true, when I think about my own mental gymnastics and the restlessness you can sometimes feel in the company of another. A remarkable writer, another must read.


Mistress of Fortune by Holly West

Lady Wilde is a woman of independent means living in late-17th-century London. She maintains a secret identity as the fortune-teller Mistress Ruby and looks after her lascivious brother, the last remaining member of her family. She’s fiery and stubborn, an unapologetic mistress of King Charles and the type of woman who may have had something to do with the death of her abusive husband. When a magistrate disappears after consulting Mistress Ruby about his fears for his own life and a possible papist plot against the king, she takes it upon herself to investigate.

The historical setting of the novel is fascinating and the plot moves along with intrigue and pace, but for me, the main strength was the character of Lady Wilde. She is sort of a modern woman in an ancient time, maintaining her business and autonomy, and conducting her private life by her own rules. She’s refreshing and interesting, and I’d be very happy to follow her to the sequel, Mistress of Lies, which is coming this September. A perfect, transportive summer read and for me, an ideal warm-up for Wolf Hall, which is next on my list of poolside reading!
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka