Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: Django Unchained is a Slave's Hero's Journey

While across the hall in another theater Abraham Lincoln and his Team of Rivals debate about the possibility of emancipation and use the legal process and a bloody Civil War to achieve that end, the title character of Quentin Tarantino’s incredible Django Unchained has a different method. Kill slavers. Make it bloody. And make it painful. History and Steven Spielberg tell us that it was Lincoln’s method that eventually got the job done, but I’ll be damned if Django’s way isn’t a lot more cathartic.

It is an interesting fact that Lincoln and Django Unchained were released in the same year, within a matter of weeks, and it isn't wrong to wonder if this is a sign that America is finally willing to tackle the subject of slavery head-on. One can only hope that is the case. Cinematically, it is an equally wonderful thing that we get the chance to see so clearly that Big Issues can be tackled in many, many, big ways. Anyone who dismisses Tarantino’s film as just another pulp fiction revenge film (though if that is all it is, it is enough) is missing the very Big Way he approaches Django's story.

And what a story it is – the film opens with the title character as one of several nameless slaves in chains being forced on a long march on bare feet from one owner to the next in the dead of winter. That the star, Jamie Foxx, is barely recognizable or even noticeable among his company is most likely intentional, just as the de-personalization of slaves was the very intentional method by which a majority of whites managed to sleep at night for hundreds of years as they and their neighbors perpetrated unspeakable horrors on other humans. After an incongruous German in a tooth-festooned buggy shows up to “parlay” with the slave's captors (James Remar and James Russo), killing one and leaving the other to be dealt with by his former “property”, Django gets a horse, a winter coat, and most importantly, a name.

What follows is the most linear of Tarantino’s movies. This time around the director forgoes his usual time-shifts and digressions to focus on Django and his long journey to claim his life, identity, and wife (played by Kerry Washington). Naturally, being a Tarantino revenge movie (his third in a trilogy that began with Kill Bill and continued with the alternative-history Inglourious Basterds), this involves a great deal of violence and language that will certainly offend many people, as it is intended to do.

It is wrong, however, to think that violent catharsis is the only aim or method of Django Unchained. Instead, this is arguably Tarantino’s first attempt at making mythology. The sequence of events in Django are straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. After Django receives his “call to adventure,” shedding his former passivity to go on a quest, his Merlin/Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (played with charisma and humanity by Christoph Waltz) in turn provides him with talismans in the form of guns and a horse. In Django’s hands these guns are supernatural – that a man who would never have been allowed near weaponry (or a horse) of any kind is such an exceptional marksman and natural rider proves this. Django is then able to "cross the threshold" by dispatching his former slave-masters, the Brittle Brothers (Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, and M.C. Gainey), and rather than disappearing back into obscurity, goes on to a greater quest – the rescue of his wife, Broomhilda, from her current captors. Certainly the fact that “Hildy” is (phonetically) named after one of the daughters of Wotan, King of the Gods, is a clear tip-off that she is a princess in distress and the worthy object of any hero’s quest.

Likewise, it should come as no surprise that there are trials along the way. After his initial assistance in claiming the bounty of the Brittle Brothers, Django is taken on as apprentice and partner in bounty hunting by Schultz, and through a series of trials (including the attempted revenge of a group of wannabe Klansmen led by Don Johnson) and the collection of many more bounties, Django eventually learns that the villain he must defeat comes in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCarprio). Candie is not only the guardian of his own protected kingdom (“Candieland”) and damsel Broomhilda, but also the sadistic owner of “mandingo fighters” (slaves forced to fight to the death by their owners for sport), and the lord of his own dragon/Darth Vader in the form of self-proclaimed “house n----r” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Naturally, Django succeeds. I suppose that's a spoiler, but you can’t make a good revenge movie without the hero getting his revenge, and you can’t make a Hero’s Journey without the mentor figure eventually dying, leaving the hero on his own to use the skills he acquired. The rescue of Broomhilda turns out not to be the ultimate goal of the quest – in truth, what both Django and Broomhilda are questing for is their own agency, which comes to them only after a literal trial by fire in the form of the ultimate destruction of Candieland and all of its evil.

Of course, this simple retelling of the plot can not possibly prepare the audience for the levels of gore, violence, and profanity contained within, though familiarity with Tarantino’s other work will probably suffice. It also does no justice to the uniformly excellent performances by the entire cast of actors. As usual, minor roles are filled by a parade of stars and former stars that give the audience the pleasure of saying, “Hey, wasn’t that-“ every few minutes. First there is the aforementioned Don Johnson, naturally called “Big Daddy” and making the most of every moment of his time dressed up like Colonel Sanders. Then there is Jonah Hill as a comically inept Klansman, and Lee Horsley(!) as a corrupt Sheriff, and Tom Wopat(!!) as a Marshall. And Russ Tamblyn! And Michael Parks! And Robert Carradine! And Bruce Dern! And on and on and on. There is even Walton Goggins, who is simultaneously appearing in that other movie about slavery across the way.

Every one of these actors has an absolute ball being as ugly or villainous as necessary, but the two A-List actors who feature as the main villains of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, reach new heights (or depths) in their acting careers playing completely against type. DiCaprio rarely has the opportunity to play an unabashed bad guy, and it is testament to his performance that he makes your skin crawl from the first moment he appears on screen to the time he is finally dispatched. Pay special attention to the scene where, in anger, he crushes a wine glass in his hand. That was unplanned, and the blood is real, but DiCaprio remains committed throughout and never breaks character.

Jackson, on the other hand, finally gets to play something other than his archetypal badass character, and his willingness to deglamorize himself as an evil version of the guy on your box of rice lets him prove that he actually does have more than one note to play. His is a quieter evil, and Jackson manages to portray that evil with nuance and menace even while shuffling along with a cane and white hair.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington as the Hero and his Princess both do an exceptional job of making you feel genuine emotion for them, and Foxx especially shouldn't be overlooked simply because he underplays his stoic-by-design character. It is in the scenes when he is most silent that you can see exactly what is going on behind his eyes as he must ingratiate himself into enemy territory and in some cases stand idly by while others are destroyed in front of him.

Naturally, the very frequent use of the “n word” has made a lot of people very uncomfortable, and it is worthwhile that it be discussed and argued as much as necessary. However, people should feel uncomfortable -- that is, in fact, the point. At no time did I feel it was being used in a way that was historically inaccurate. It’s worth noting that the few occasions we have seen slavery depicted on screen in all its brutality have been on television, where such language is not permitted. Like it or not, the word “nigger” is a fact of history, and if it makes some white audiences squirm then it is as it should be. (I should point out, strictly anecdotally, that the audience I saw Django Unchained with was majority black (I was one of only four white people in the audience, by my count), and though I didn't hear much reaction to the use of that particular word, I did hear quite a lot of cheering every time a white person got blown to bits. Which, again, is as it should be, I think.)

Another facet of the movie that I imagine people will take a great deal of offense to is just how funny it is in places. The scenes with the Klansmen, for example, or Jackson’s shuffling obsequiousness before he reveals how truly evil he is, provoke genuine laughter, as does Django's initial choice in clothing when he is finally allowed to dress himself for the first time. And then they make you uncomfortable for laughing. I am not sure that Tarantino should be condemned for making people feel uncomfortable about this period of history or for knowing how to deftly release the tension whenever it is necessary. At its best, some of his slapstick ranks with Mel Brooks’s work in The Producers and Blazing Saddles, which I imagine would be condemned today by the same people who think that there is no place for humor in Tarantino’s films.

It feels wrong to get through an entire review without going into detail about the excellent camera work, the great editing, the remarkable-as-usual anachronistic soundtrack, or the conscious sense of homage that Tarantino brings to every one of his idiosyncratic scenes. But we know what to expect from him, so there’s no real point in dissecting each camera angle. Needless to say, you can tell this is a Tarantino film, and each choice is deliberate and largely successful.

In conclusion, if you want to see history as it (basically) was, you will be well-served by seeing Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln. If you want to see history as perhaps it ought to have been, you owe it to yourself to see Django Unchained. Frankly, I think each film informs the other wonderfully, and also informs audiences – not just of useful facts, but also of important feelings, including a very justifiable rage and a pain that the country is only just now getting around to confronting. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Film Review: Les Misérables is a Faithful Representation of Its Source- Perhaps Too Faithful

“Les Misérables is soooo faithful.”

“How faithful is it?”

“It’s so faithful that even the Bishop who gave Valjean his silver told it to lighten up.”

As musical adaptations go, Les Misérables does exactly what it intends to do I can’t think of one in recent years (or really, ever) that works so hard to capture every moment of the play that it is based on. Not a scene goes missing nor a lyric unsaid, and the cast and director Tom Hooper deserve a great deal of credit for taking what was once the most spectacular (emphasis on spectacle) of modern musicals and making it just as spectacular on the screen. Unfortunately, without the distance of a proscenium and orchestra pit between the characters and the audience, so much fealty to the material magnifies everything not just the genuinely earned moments of emotion and release provided by the sometimes-thin book and score, but also much of the inherent triteness and cheese that even the most devoted fans have laughed off over the 30 years that Les Mis has been performed on stages around the world.

Despite being based on a doorstop of a novel by Victor Hugo, the Dickens of France, the plot of Les Mis, the musical, is episodic and often sketchy. The prologue of the film introduces us to the 19th Century French convict Jean Valjean (a suitably de-handsomed Hugh Jackman), who in a few moments of recitative explains to the audience and his tormentor, the rigid Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), that he was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry sister and nephew and has now earned his parole by working at hard labor for 19 years. In turn, Javert points out that Valjean will never be free of his torment as long as he has to show the identification papers that brand him a dangerous criminal. 

What follows is a series of falls from grace and moments of redemption for Valjean, who is taught, in succession, the meaning of forgiveness from a Bishop he attempts to rob (Colm Wilkinson, the first Valjean on the West End and Broadway); the meaning of compassion by his former-employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway, who wrings every possible moment of genuine emotion and several more moments of the false kind in her brief time on film); and the meaning of love by Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), whom he adopts after Fantine dies from what one can only assume is musical syphilis. He does this all while running away from Javert and successfully remaking himself as a rich businessman several times. 

At the same time (or rather, about a third of the way through the film), a French revolution not THAT one, which took place years earlier, but another, not particularly successful one – is being fomented by a combination of impoverished citizens, bourgeois students, and plucky waifs. It is due to those political events that a now-teenaged Cosette meets radical Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius then is given his own struggle, namely the reconciliation of his love for Cosette with both the urchin Éponine’s (Samantha Barks) love for him, and his revolutionary ideals, which are embodied by the revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), who appears to be struggling with a bit of a crush on Marius, too. Along the way everyone Valjean meets finds him or herself either illuminated or tortured by his nobility, with the exception of the comic relief reprobates (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who conveniently end up in every town Valjean and Javert do.

Somehow these events manage to simultaneously be light on detail and long on running time. In the stage musical, this is saved by both the spectacle and the score, which has been derided by some as being unsophisticated but which manages on a visceral level to be emotionally stirring. I am happy to say that there are many, many moments where the spectacle and score do the same on screen. 

Visually, Les Misérables is the very definition of “epic.” The sets are convincingly 19th century and French. The actors are carefully covered in grime and sores and are dressed the way people imagine the French to dress. The battles are bloody and well-shot. There are plenty of helicopter shots and crane shots and sweeping panoramas that fully justify seeing this movie on the big screen. Meanwhile, the orchestrations are suitably grand and the music (which never stops the film is almost completely sung-through) works as well as it does on stage, which is to say that if you like Les Misérables’ score (and I do) you will still like it here.


As grand a spectacle as Les Mis is on the stage, it is still very much a stage show. Take away the turntable and the magically-forming barricade and the various lighting effects, and one still is aware that he is sitting in a theater. It is a paradox of musicals that, more often than not, the more “realistic” the show is, the less easy it is to actually believe it. Even the biggest musical theater fans (and I’m certainly among them) recognize the inherent oddness of characters bursting into song when a few casual statements will do. We suspend our disbelief because on stage emotion has the space to be genuinely sentimental and genuinely big. A little brown powder on the face and the occasional red-dyed corn syrup on the shirt are more than enough to convey dirt and blood on the “martyrs of France” on stage. But seeing live rats on stage or genuine sewage would not add verisimilitude in fact, it would take us out of the moment. And that is the issue with this adaptation it is both note-for-note faithful to the show and also faithful to the film concept of “reality.”

On stage, it is very easy to be taken in by the rote-but-meaningful degradation of Fantine, and to genuinely feel for her. When she finally sings the piano-bar staple “I Dreamed a Dream” it is a release, and it is sentimental, and it works. It is quite another thing, however, to witness America’s Sweetheart Anne Hathaway getting her hair sheared off, her teeth pulled, and her body abused in every gory detail. When I saw in high definition every bit of her becoming debased, deranged, and diseased, and then heard “I Dreamed a Dream” – well, it was hard not to find it a little trite. What once created pathos now just creates bathos.

It also has to be mentioned that Les Mis is a long show. In the theater, audiences get the respite of an intermission and the emotional outlet of applauding the curtain close on the Act I ending number, “One Day More.” On film there is no intermission, and “One Day More” simply…ends. Then we’re back into the long slog of battles and cat-and-mouse-chases and endless suffering experienced by the poor of France. After the last decent number, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” we then get to sit through an ending that rivals Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in its number of epilogues. Having seen the musical numerous times I knew what was coming but even I started checking my watch while waiting for the damn kids to get married and Valjean to just die, already. It’s here that it would have been nice for Hooper to start asserting directorial privilege and “adapt” rather than “reproduce.”

Much has been made of Hooper’s controversial decision to record the actors singing live rather than lip-syncing to a soundtrack as has been done in practically every movie musical since the forties (with the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which has stood for years as proof of why live recording should never, ever be attempted). It is a testament to how far film technology has come, as well as the gameness of the actors and the skill of the director, that it isn’t noticeable at all. I am not sure whether it added anything to the film, but it certainly didn’t take anything away from it. 

Unfortunately, as has been the case with movie musicals since Chicago revived the genre a decade ago, the actors seem to have been cast in spite of their voices, rather than because of them. Jackman does a very good job of both acting and singing a demanding part, and he deserves credit for about 50% of what works in the film. Even though he doesn’t really have the type of singing voice I’ve come to expect from stage Valjeans, he at least has a singing voice, and he uses it to good effect here, as one would expect from his musical theater background. Hathaway also proves that she is a decent singer, though her one big song could have used a little less Acting-with-a-capital-A.

Crowe, on the other hand, is simply not a very good singer, and could have benefited from  studio recording. This is a shame, because he is perfectly cast as the imposing and stalwart Javert and would have done very well by the role if it had been in a non-musical film. It was jarring that every time he opened his mouth I expected to hear a menacing baritone and instead heard an Australian whine sung directly through the nose. I suspect this is why he appeared to be  the only actor in the movie who lost a verse of his big number.

I know I’m in the minority when I say that Redmayne is miscast as Marius, and I know a lot of people find him very attractive. He is a good actor. But he is certainly the most Howdy Doodyish-actor I’ve seen in the role (with the exception of constipated-looking Nick Jonas, who appeared in the recent anniversary concert), and his singing voice, while on key, is sung through a constricted throat and a clenched jaw, which makes him sound vaguely like Kermit the Frog doing a Nelson Eddy impersonation. On the other hand, Seyfried as Cosette is fine. She suffers from the fact that the character has always been a weak link in the show -it’s not the first time I’ve found myself wondering why Marius falls for her insipidity instead of the far more interesting and lovable Éponine – but she does what she can with the part, and while her voice isn’t strong it is tuneful.

Speaking of Éponine, she is played by one of the standouts of the movie. Barks is one of the few actors in the film to underplay rather than over-emote, which is especially impressive considering that on stage her role is usually overdone to the point of being annoying. Barks deserves kudos for being the least whiny, most genuinely moving Éponine I’ve ever seen. The other standout is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, who manages to both be convincing in his role and also able to actually sing. I am sure it is not a coincidence that the three best singers in the film (four including Wilkinson, who sounds exactly like he did 25 years ago) are the ones who have actually appeared on stage in musical theater. What is astonishing is that they are also the four actors who seem most aware of the fact that they are not on stage and don’t have to mug for the back row.

I am not forgetting Cohen and Carter as the Thenardiers, though I would like to. Restraint is in neither actor’s repertoire, but their mugging and Cohen’s bizarre accent choices (he sings “Master of the House” as though he’s playing Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau playing an innkeeper) take them to a new level of irritating. Their comic relief characters blend seamlessly with the action in the stage version and are generally a welcome break from all of the portentousness and pretension. In this adaptation, however, they appear to be in an entirely different movie than everyone else. 

The movie that everyone else appears in is a good movie. It is not a “great” movie by any means, but then again it isn’t a “great” show to start with. Is it worth seeing? Of course - but don’t drink a lot of water beforehand, and don’t expect to replace your beloved London Cast Recording with the soundtrack. Ultimately, Les Mis is best in a live theater, with a live cast and an audience you can walk out humming the songs with. Les Misérables, the movie musical, is a great record of a show that for better or for worse has become a cultural phenomenon, but it is still only a (very magnified) copy of the real thing.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

MoCCA, Me, and AIDS Walk 2012

Though I have been a long time supporter/volunteer/walker at the New York AIDS Walk (check out my posts from a few years ago to verify this), this will be the first year I am acting as captain of a team, and so I want to double my efforts to make this a productive year of fundraising (and fun-raising- get it?). I am pleased to announce that The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (another non-profit near and dear to my heart) will be walking as a team in this years Walk in and around Central Park on May 20th. As promoters of the comic book and cartoon arts, MoCCA is well aware of the tremendous toll HIV/AIDS has taken on the artistic community, and feels its support of this annual event is the least MoCCA can do to stand in solidarity with our colleagues and friends who have been personally affected by this ongoing health crisis.

I ask on my personal behalf, on behalf of MoCCA, and on behalf of the GMHC and other organizations that benefit from this annual fundraiser, that you consider making a pledge or joining us a walker this year.

The great thing about walking with MoCCA is that you will not only be eligible for the usual AIDS Walk premiums- you will also receive a free MoCCA T-Shirt to walk in (and keep), and, if you raise $100 or more in pledges you will receive your choice of one of several pre-selected cartoon, comics or graphic novel-related books. If you sign up as a member of the MoCCA Team, any funds you raise will be credited to both yourself and MoCCA. You are not obligated to raise any money, but we would love to have you walk with us under the MoCCA banner! To register as a member of the MoCCA AIDS Walk team, sign up online at the AIDS Walk team page and make sure you sign up as a member of “Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art,” Team 0344. Or, contact me (Christopher Stansfield) at or (646) 385-5464 and ask to be added as a team member. This can be done even if you’ve already signed up individually as a walker.

If you don’t have the time to walk with us or raise money for the MoCCA team, please consider donating to a MoCCA Walker or the Museum directly. All proceeds are distributed to the GMHC and other New York-based health organizations and every contribution goes directly to the prevention and cure of HIV and the support of those already suffering with HIV/AIDS. To contribute, please logon at my personal fund raising page and make a donation. Again, supporters who donate $100 or more in individual contributions will receive a free comics, cartoon, or graphic-novel related book.

If you’ve already contributed to another walker or team,  we hope you will consider forwarding this email to friends and family who might be interested. Feel free to post this information on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or anywhere else people might see it! And, if you’re already walking or a member of another team, please let me know- MoCCA and I would love to walk in solidarity with other organizations who are fighting against HIV/AIDS!

Thank you in advance for your support of AIDS Walk New York 2012 and the MoCCA Team.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Special Announcement: Not “The End” – Just “To Be Continued.”

Tune In Next Week
If you’ve read my essays over the last few days (and apparently someone has, according to the site – thanks, whoever you are), you know that a commitment I made to myself for 2011 was to publish something every day, without worrying whether it’s perfect or making it fit into a self-imposed format.

All well and good, right? But it put me in a bind. As it says on the right hand side of the screen, I had a “plan” for this blog. Out were diary entries, link-fests, cute cat pictures, and three-sentence punditry. In were long-form essays, cultural criticism, and archives of previously-published work. This blog would be a sort of fully-curated virtual portfolio.

Frankly, I still like that plan. The problem is that I haven’t been doing a good job of using the blog at all, let alone “curating” it. Over the years I’ve only published a handful of entries here.  Meanwhile, on Facebook, Twitter, and just about everywhere else, I’ve posted often – maybe too much – but those posts have been brief, and were directed at a (relatively) limited audience, since I don’t “friend” people I’ve never met.

So: How could I keep this blog my “website of record,” while also sharing less “historic” thoughts with the public? Simple: A new blog. More importantly, a different sort of blog.

This week, unknown to all but a few, I’ve been learning how to use Tumblr. Not that I haven’t been satisfied with Blogger – I think it balances versatility, ease, and affordability better,  than WordPress or other blogging platforms. However, Blogger is pretty specifically designed for blogs like this – not too short, not too heavy with graphics or photos, and not worth the effort it takes to post one or two sentences. Tumblr, on the other hand, has a different focus. It can take what I post to other sites – like Twitter, Youtube, and, yes, this one; combine it with stuff I post directly via the web, phone, or email; and then spit it all back out in a feed, or on Facebook, or back on Twitter again. In other words, I can post the same exact kinds of stuff I post on Facebook and bring it to a larger audience – and it will still go to Facebook, anyway.

Let me be clear – this blog isn’t going away. I’ll continue to post long-form pieces, and I hope to start doing what I intended all along and post some of my older stuff, as well. This will still be a “virtual portfolio,” but I will no longer feel the kind of pressure (and guilt) I’ve had about maintaining it. Meanwhile, when I post here, Tumblr will automatically be updated, and when I post on Tumblr the headlines will show up on the right side of this blog.

And, if you’re a Facebook friend, you’ll still be seeing the same links to news stories, videos, and other things I find interesting – but they’ll now be sent via Tumblr.

I hope that, if you find what I post here or on Facebook interesting, you will visit on a regular basis, and perhaps subscribe to the site’s feed or e-mail newsletter. My “official” first post is up now at this permalink

Here’s to keeping resolutions!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year, New Actions- Do, Or Do Not

"Do. Or do not. There is no try."
In talking about the years prior to 2011, and the year still to come, I’ve been focusing on the idea of “resolutions” –  not as agents of guilt, but as agents of change. Simply saying out loud (or writing down) where you are and where you want to be can make those ambitions more real, and therefore, more achievable.  So far I’ve shared my ambitions to be more present; to be more aware of myself in how I look and how I “come across”; and to take more control over my relationships, both platonic and otherwise. That said, even though I‘ve written about how I want to look and how I want to act, but I’ve said very little about what I want to do.

It’s not enough to want something. It’s not even enough to be something. As human beings, it is important to be an “action figure.” And, as one of my favorite action figures once said, “There is no ‘try.’” And yet, I find over the last few years that I haven’t been “doing” what I want to. In 2011 I want that to change.

Something I want #3: I want to stop caring about being great at things, and start caring about just doing them.  Ever since childhood, I was the kid who didn't want to do something unless I was already good at it. That’s deadly thinking, and a good way to avoid doing anything meaningful. This actually leads into two “sub-resolutions”:

I want to sing again. Solo. That’s pretty straightforward, actually. I used to be a pretty good singer, once upon a time. Other people seemed to think so, anyway. As the years have gone by and my range has shrunk, I’ve become more and more reluctant to sing by myself in front of people, and I haven’t pursued it. It’s a vicious cycle –  the less I sing, the less robust my voice gets. The less robust my voice is, the less eager I am to sing. Well, I’m going to sing again this year. By myself. And you’re going to enjoy it or you’re going to stay out of my way.

I want to write. Every day. This is, I think, the hardest resolution for me to keep. I’ve always been someone who likes to “express myself,” but actually sitting down and writing is not something I do easily. Part of it is laziness – there’s always something else I could be doing. But a lot of it is perfectionism. I started this blog in order to have a place where I could display “good” writing. The problem is, “good” writing requires rewriting, too – so, by the time I’ve been happy enough with pieces to call them “good,” they’ve ceased to be particularly relevant or timely. Once again, it’s a self-defeating pattern. If I wait to be good all the time, nothing ever gets published. And so I never get better, and I give no reason for anyone to read what I have to say. I don’t want to stop caring about quality – but I have to become willing to accept when “good enough” is…good enough. For now, I’m going to keep this blog for “good” stuff, but I have decided that I need a place to just write, too, without worrying about it being good. There will be an announcement in this space about that tomorrow.

Ultimately the last three days’ worth of resolutions have shared something in common. They have all, ultimately, been about fear. Fear of doing, fear of how others see me, fear of loving, and fear of trying to be the best I can be because of fear of failure. Ultimately, then, I have just one resolution:  I want to – no, I will – live my life without fear in 2011. And to do that I will work on three-to-five “SMART” goals. Too many? Too few? Who knows. But, at least they’re goals. Next time you see  me, put me on the spot and ask me if I’ve been working on them, and maybe tell me some of yours. But not when I’ve been drinking, please – I’m saving that one for 2012. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Year, New Relationships- All You Need is Love

All You Need is Love
Yesterday, I talked about the conclusion I came to this year, that there is no shame in wanting to look better. It doesn't make you a narcissist to simply want to send the message that you care about your appearance. My second resolution is also about shame.

Something I want #2: I want to stop being embarrassed about the love I have to offer. I know there are some people who think I have no sense of embarrassment at all, but I’m not talking about my ability to make bad jokes or get very drunk and say inappropriate things. I’m talking about the embarrassment I have had for a long time about “putting myself out there.” In the past, when I have reached out to friends and potential friends, I have been shot down enough that I adopted an attitude of “let them come to me.” It seemed sensible at the time, especially since I have been told directly that there are people I’ve reached out to who actually don’t like me very much. So, even though I don’t hesitate to make the occasional wry comment or political argument or curmudgeonly quip, I have avoided letting people know just how much I like them and want to be friends with them. It can look desperate.

Well, so what – I’m desperate, then. If you don’t want to hang out with me or talk with me or be around me, that’s up to you. It’s not going to stop me from asking.
This is true both for friends and for potential romantic relationships, by the way. This past New Year’s Eve was better than a lot I’ve experienced, but I noticed something. There were at least four people in the room who, now or previously, I had enough of a “crush” on that I could see myself dating them. They were all kissing other people. What a bloody waste – it’s possible each of them would have rejected me if I’d asked them out. But it’s also possible they wouldn’t. I think I’m now less worried about rejection than I am about uncertainty.

There is, of course, another side to the coin, however, and that means knowing who deserves that love. Eventually, you have to know when to give up. This may sound mercenary, but the truth is that we only have a limited amount of time and resources for people. Those resources should ultimately go to people who care as much about you as you do for them. Do people deserve second chances? Sure. They even deserve third ones. But it is time to stop worrying about whether people like me, or why they don't like me, or if they like me as much as they like other people. If people are not going to give back what you give out, then start giving it out to someone who will.

This year, I am going to be less afraid of reaching out to people – and less guilty about walking away.

Next: The last part of the series. Why Yoda was right.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Year, New Goals- Want Something

So, to recap, celebrating a new year got me in the mood to look back over the old one –and I ended up getting two for the price of one. 2009 was dreadful. 2010 was an improvement in every way. But why, then, do I sometimes feel so crappy? I have a job. I can pay my bills. I even have a social life. And yet, the same words keep coming up when I want to describe the down times. Lonely. Unattractive. Unfulfilled. Treading water. Do those feelings ever go away, totally? I don't know – probably not. But I think it's time to try to do something about them, or at least mitigate them.

Which brings me back to 2011 and, inevitably, resolutions. I’ve tended to be one of those people who think New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time, and so I rarely make them. And yet, after the year I’ve just had, I’m finally beginning to see the point. It doesn’t matter if the promises you make to yourself are impossible to keep. It doesn’t matter that they are inevitably broken. It doesn’t matter that you end up making yourself guilty over not accomplishing them once the New Year comes around again. What matters is that you have some kind of goal in the first place. To borrow – okay, steal – from a forty-year-old Broadway musical, when you blow out the candles on another year you should “want something. Want something.” So, keeping in mind my current employer’s insistence that goals should be “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound,” here is what I want in 2011.

Something I Want #1 – I want to care about my appearance. I’m not saying I want to become narcissistic or shallow. I’m just saying that a person needs to look like he gives a damn.

2009 was depressing. Not clinically – I’ve experienced enough clinical depression to know it when I see it – I’m talking about perfectly legitimate and justifiable misery. When you don’t have somewhere to go every day, you stop dressing to go out, and you stop doing anything that requires that you look in a mirror. When nobody wants to see you, why worry about how you’re seen?

As I said, 2010 was better. I found a job, and I ended up with a boss who doesn’t really care what I look like. That's to his credit – I’ll never know if any employers passed on me because of my weight or my thrifty suits or my thinning hair, but I know enough about the world we live in that I wouldn’t be surprised that they did. So, that's one big thing from 2010 to be thankful for – but between the inertia carried over from 2009 and the fact that my office is less-than-strict about appearance, I can’t say I’ve made a whole lot of effort to look my best.

Well, in 2011 I want to start caring again. What does that mean? Sure, it means losing weight like everyone else on Earth wants to do, and I’ve already gotten a jump on that by walking every day and rejoining the gym. But it also means putting in my contact lenses more often. It means shaving every other day instead of whenever I feel like it. It means getting a monthly haircut, and trying Rogaine, and putting my Toppik on even when I’m reasonably sure everyone I’ll be seeing has already seen my bald spot. It means saving up to get my teeth whitened. And it means dressing up occasionally, even if I don’t have to. I have some great ties- why should I only wear them when I’m forced to? I don’t need to look like everybody else does, but I want to start looking like I actually looked in a mirror before walking out the door.

If you don't look like you care about yourself, why would other people think you could care about them?

Next: Being unafraid to love, and being wise enough to let go.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Year, New Me (New Version)- Good Bye, 2010*

2011 is here – it has been for two weeks, actually – and I'm not sure it's much different from 2010 or 2009. After all, the economy is still depressing, if not officially depressed; we have at least two more years of elected officials who believe they were elected to keep government from accomplishing anything; Americans are still in multiple countries fighting nebulous threats and dying for a living, whether we call them “wars” or not; and I’m still losing my hair.

However, the point of New Year's, arbitrary though it is, is how it forces us to do a little bit of looking backward and a lot of looking forward. So, that’s what I’m going to do over the next few days, whether I like it or not – and if some of what I see is relevant to other people, that's just gravy.

Personally, I have a great deal to be thankful for about 2010, but it also somehow makes me feel a bit guilty. While 2010 was not by any means all I wanted it to be, the fact of the matter is that my year was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other people’s, and it was also a hell of a lot better than my personal 2009 was. After all, I spent 2009 the way many Americans did: in perpetual anxiety. There was no period of more than a week during which I could be sure of a living income. I took advantage of unemployment insurance for the first time, but the money I received didn’t cover my rent, let alone all my other expenses, even when combined with the money I got from the occasional temp work I was offered and the editorial and pet-sitting services I advertised (to very little effect) on Craigslist and social networks. In 2009 I dropped the gym first, then cable television, then high-speed Internet, then Netflix, then almost all social contact, and I was still broke. I spent hours a day looking for work and only hours a month performing it.

I'd become a temp in the first place because it was difficult finding permanent employment – what was I supposed to do now that even temporary employment was unavailable? I wouldn't wish my 2009 on anyone, but the truth is I don't have to. No doubt, thousands of people were going through the exact same thing. Now, when I hear politicians talk of how unemployment benefits make people “lazy” and take away their incentive to look for a job, I’m tempted to punch in my computer screen – except on dial-up their speeches take so long to load that I’ve usually gone somewhere else before I hear what they have to say.

So, at the beginning of 2010, I was unemployed; broke; single; heavier than I’d been in several years; very lonely; facing the likelihood that my time in New York was coming to an end as well as the possibility I’d begin my middle-age years as a tenant of my parents. On the other hand, as of January 2011, I have been employed for eleven months; I have a tiny-but-existent financial “cushion”; I am (slowly) losing weight; I socialize again; and I still live in the same crappy apartment I’ve been living in for a decade-plus – though I’m still single and I still don’t have cable.

Am I still lonely? Sure. Do I look the way I want to look? No. Is my apartment open-house ready? Not on your life. But when I think of where I am in my life compared to where so many other people are in theirs, I can’t help feeling grateful, even though my life is not exactly what I want it to be. And that's the key, I think. Even if your 2010 was like my 2009, you can probably find something that went right. And all you need is one thing to build on.

Up Next: Improving 2011 By Improving Me

*If this post seems familiar to you, it means you've been reading - thanks! However, more than one person has told me that my post yesterday was too damn long and too damn self-centered. It was suggested that I might have more luck if I re-wrote it in serial form. If you already made it through the long version, feel free to skip over these. But stay tuned - after I'm done with this series, I'll be making an announcement related to the future of this blog and my future as a writer.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Who doesn't want smaller government? Is it you?

Today, the new Republican leadership announced from their newly-regained bully pulpit that a new day is dawning. They will work hard to ensure we enter a new era of smaller government -- one that is less involved in our lives and less expensive.

This is a great thing- Who isn’t in favor of less intrusive government? Who wouldn’t prefer that the government spend less? Wouldn’t you?

Well, wouldn’t you?

Are you sure? Are you sure you’re not some Commie European? Answer these questions and find out!

1. Did you think what happened in New Orleans a few years ago when there was bad weather was peachy?

2. What about what happened a few years later in the Gulf of Mexico?

3. When the banking system completely collapsed under the weight of its own greed, was that cool with you?

4. Are you a fan of Enron? How about Goldman Sachs? Bernie Madoff?

5. Do you think the democratic system works better when corporations are allowed to spend unlimited money on political races? Is your favorite expression, “What I don’t know can’t hurt me?

6. Do you think when our wars are fought by contractors it’s better than when they’re fought by our armed forces?

7. Do you think unemployment benefits are too generous? Social security makes us less secure? That Grandma should just suck it up and prioritize whether she wants to eat dinner or to take her pills?

8. Has the infant mortality rate gotten too low for your taste?

9. When we find out beef is tainted do you just switch to eggs? When the eggs turn out to be diseased do you switch to dog food? When the dog food turns out to be bad are you okay with just eating your dog?

10. When Mom loses her insurance for stupidly actually getting sick, do you tell her she should have just worn a scarf?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve passed! You like smaller government! Give yourself a gold star and keep voting Republican!

Of course, if you think smaller, less intrusive, less expensive government has anything to do with staying out of a couple’s wedding plans (no matter their gender); letting women control their own reproductive organs; letting people who wish to serve their country become soldiers even when they're not attracted to the opposite sex; letting people smoke what they want to in the privacy of their own homes; avoiding multi-trillion-dollar "pre-emptive" wars; or letting people live their lives free of the fear that the government can read their email, listen to their phone conversations, and lock them up any time it wants to – well, you’re clearly an idiot who has no idea what small government is all about.