Category Archives: Life

The Family Stone

The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus of The Family Stone is that “This family holiday dramedy features fine performances but awkward shifts of tone.” Which, yeah. That’s why it’s so good.

I didn’t come away loving it when I saw it in the theater. Too mercurial, I thought. And that excruciating dinner scene… But upon further viewings, I’ve come to realize it’s one of the greater Christmas movies, precisely because of its mood swings. Perhaps your family was different, but “awkward shifts of tone” should be one of the definitions of family.

Not only does the film capture a particular kind of cozy, Hallmark-approved Christmastime—and one that’s distinctly New England—but it also captures what it’s like to go through any kind of Christmas with the people you love but who are also most adept at driving you crazy.

An immediate familiarity sets in as we’re dropped into this year’s Stone Family Christmas, which feels like it could be any of the many Christmases they have shared together. The family members gradually arrive at the Stone home and start chatting as if continuing an ongoing conversation. There’s hardly any backstory, no “remember last year when…” or other expository filler that can weigh down family dramas. As we meet each Stone, we can deduce at once their role in the family, though not yet what role they will play in the unfolding story.

Little things stuck out during my most recent Christmastime viewing. Like the random assemblage of characters piled into a car to go get pizzas, a reminder to me of how driving to places around the holidays with the people you don’t usually drive to places with feels a bit more special. Or Amy and Sybil pestering Everett about taking his tie off, which at once told us that was something Amy and Sybil cared enough about and that Everett was the kind of person to wear a tie at a family get-together.

Everyone starts out on a certain trajectory, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a great job of steering the key characters into unexpected directions. These trajectories are just as varied as the film’s tone. Sybil’s terminal breast cancer is alluded to but never exploited, and is the impetus for the brief but powerful moments of reconciliation she experiences with her adult children before the end of the movie. Amy’s prickliness, which bleeds into outright hostility at times, gives way to brief moments of vulnerability. And though the partner swap revealed in the one-year-later epilogue is borderline preposterous—Meredith’s totally cool with her sister dating her former fiancé? really?—the circumstances that led to each character’s moment of clarity were sold well.

I’ve found my opinion of The Family Stone is in the minority, but there are others out there who see what I see in it. I absolutely understand the counterpoints as well, but ultimately I don’t care whether you like it or not!

Helen Huhta: A Life

“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.

After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.

It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.

“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather). To the end,

Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:

I love you too.

’16 Going On ’17

Here at the end of all things 2016, let’s look back on the resolutions I made last year at this time, shall we?

Podcast less. I started the year with 21 podcasts in my feed, and currently have… 32. In my defense, I was much quicker to delete episodes this year, many of the podcasts publish infrequently, and some of them I’m on a trial run with. I also have been listening to more audiobooks. But the spirit of the goal was to have more time when I’m not listening to anything. So this one’s a work in progress, and probably a goal for 2017.

Reflect more. Though I have the free time to continue to plow through books and movies, I think I’ve done a better job writing about the ones that spark thoughts in me and allowing myself to not read or watch something.

Write more. My goal was to write 52 posts for the year, one for each week. Though I didn’t have at least one a week, I ended 2016 with 67 posts. I probably could have done more, but as this is a strictly At Whim enterprise, I’m not too concerned about quotas.

Overall I think I actually did pretty good! Keeping the goals simple, attainable, and somewhat measurable certainly helped.

2017 Goals

Complete a woodworking project. This is something I’ve been pondering for a while. I’ve yet to find the plans for something I want to make, but this is a big one for this year: to put my hands to use on a tangible and practical project. We need a new bookshelf, so I was thinking about that. Any suggestions?

Run a race. Like woodworking, running in an official race is something I’ve thought would be a nice thing to do but have never pulled the trigger. But I’ve come to realize if I ever plan on completing things, I need concrete deadlines to make them happen. A specific race of a specific length will help me in this, I hope.

Improve my Spanish. I’ve had a decent grasp of it at various points in my life—in high school when I was in classes, during a summer stay in Guatemala, during a post-college stay in Colombia—but I’ve never gotten close to fluent. Short of an immersion program or living in a Latin American country, don’t know if I’ll ever be, but I’d like to get closer. And since it’ll only get harder as I get older, there’s no day but today.

10 Years

Yesterday was my tenth anniversary of blogging. I started the second month into my freshman year of college, which also would have been right after I joined Facebook. Away from home and beginning to learn new and exciting things, I think like most writers I desired an outlet that felt at once private and public: somewhere I could express ideas into the anonymous void of the internet, but also allowed for others to respond.

I’ve used a few blogging services over the years: first it was Blogspot, then WordPress, then temporary stints at Squarespace and Tumblr before becoming self-hosted with my own domain name. As I learned HTML and CSS I created a few simple designs along the way, but the constant fiddling got tiresome, so I just start using pre-made templates.

In honor of my ten years blogging, I went through my entire archive and picked out two posts from each year I thought were representative of my interests or writing style at the time. It was fun to see trends emerge and decline over the years: lots of Oscar-related umbrage early on, current events commentary in the middle period, and many more book and movie reviews in the last few years. I suppose that’s the fun/terror of keeping a blog or diary: it’s a living archive of where you’ve been, how you’ve changed, and what you’ve thought about at any given time. And it can’t lie.

These aren’t necessarily my best posts — just some choice memories, meditations, and meaningful mutterings from a decade of writing on the ‘net.

(I decided to exclude the posts that were originally published in my college newspaper; you can see those here.)

2006

you’re coming alive to me — Just some freshman year philosophizing.

The Prestige — The first of many reviews I put online.

2007

Soundtrack of the moment, part II — One of three “soundtrack of the moment” posts that provide a great snapshot of the music I was into and getting into at that time.

he’s very good — On my encounter with Henry Winkler.

2008

Kristen Wiig = Hilarious — An appreciation of an exceptional SNL cast member.

Introverts: A Misunderstood Bunch — Still the blog’s most-read post.

2009

Breaking News: Jesus Christ Registers As A Republican — My attempt at Onion-style satire. Definitely not as funny as The Onion.

The Ten Commandments Of Watching LOST In A Group — This was a thing at the time.

2010

Sarah Palin is Not a Serious Person — She was a thing at the time.

On the River — A short essay on a kayak trip. If you detect a hint of Hemingway, it’s because I was reading a lot of him at the time, as overly introspective young men are wont to do.

2011

7 Beautiful Movie Music Moments — Man, they all still get me.

Love And Illusion In Midnight In Paris And Me And Orson Welles — I’ve done a few comparative analyses of two films, but this one’s my favorite.

2012

Bringing Old Orthodoxies to a Boil — A review of Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan and its modern implications.

Best For The Best: Nights of The Animal Years — Why I love one of my favorite albums.

2013

Rutherford B. Hazy — In my ongoing quest to reading a biography of every U.S. president, Hayes has been my biggest surprise.

Silence is Beholden — Walking on silence in Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

2014

Encountering Robin — On meeting Robin Williams and the burden of celebrity.

This Is Martin Bonner — A meditation masquerading as a movie review.

2015

Wherein I Missed Third-Grade Field Day and Encountered Cosmic Futility — Exorcising some old demons as I walked through my grade school for the first time since leaving it.

No Quarter — I pillaged my U.S. state quarters collection for laundry fare, which my grandma would have found amusing.

2016

The Shepherd’s Life — Some reflections on one of my favorite books of 2015.

How to Win My Vote — Still relevant on the eve of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad election.

Mugs Shot

2016-08-13 11.50.29

We didn’t get to choose which ones survived.

Ten mugs hang safely on the mug tree that sits next to our coffee maker on the small Ikea table by the kitchen window. Every few weeks I rotate which mugs get to be on the tree for coffee duty. I didn’t know when I put those eight there that they would end up survivors, the silent witnesses of their brethren sitting dutifully in the middle cupboard before on a Friday afternoon tumbling out of the cupboard after the plastic pegs holding up their shelf gave way.

Had I known, I would have been much more selective, would have made the impossible decisions about which darlings to save and which to let die. The process would have been anguishing—more than it ought to be, realistically, but we are Mug People, so we are not realistic about our mugs.

But I didn’t know. Mugs that were filled with meaning—inside jokes, souvenirs from faraway places and unforgettable experiences—that were for some unknown reason not the Chosen Ones cascaded to early deaths in a flash, and there was nothing we could do about it. It didn’t happen like Jenga, after placing one too many atop each other and seeing the tenuous heap collapse before my eyes. Then I would have, might have, been able to avert an avalanche and save a few more mugs from shattering on the floor. But it happened during the day, while we were at work and none the wiser.

I got the pictures from my wife: shards of ceramic and glass littering the counter and kitchen floor. I could make out some of the designs and logos and familiar features of our reliable morning friends in the larger fragments that stood out amidst the particulates. Didn’t matter. They were dead and gone, and the remainders were accidents.

We don’t get to choose. We can just say goodbye after it’s too late.

The world doesn’t need more thinkpieces about Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but I’ll just say her advice about thanking the things you give away for the meaning they provided in their time of service… it’s good advice. Especially for Mug People who lost most of their mugs against their will.

Stuff is stuff is stuff, except when it isn’t.

Looking for a Mind at Housework

The other day I cleaned the bathroom, swept the porch, kitchen, and living room, washed and dried my clothes, and washed the dishes. There was plenty more I could have done. But I knew I’d be doing those chores again eventually, some sooner and some later, and would have to do others at some point as well.

What else in life is equally as satisfying and frustrating as doing chores? The gratification that comes from emptying the sink of its dirty dishes evaporates with the realization that more dishes are coming soon. Hanging the last clean shirt in the closet reminds me I’ll have to put whatever I’m wearing now in the hamper and begin the process again. The two feelings are inextricably linked, like they share an orbit that never ends, just keeps spinning.

I was thinking about this even before reading Gracy Olmstead’s post at The American Conservative on the value of housework, which is itself a meditation on Mary Townsend’s essay in The Hedgehog Review. “The work of maintaining a home,” Olmstead writes, “is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful.”

Those ideas and mores are the key to not going crazy while undertaking the repetitive, unsexy labor that often feels more Sisyphean than sacred. As Olmstead writes, it’s work well suited not to gaining esteem, but for “cultivating virtue”:

It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day.

Pondering what any chore or responsibility does for us along with what it requires of us is a clarifying experiment. Cleaning the same square footage over and over again, Olmstead writes, “requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home.” It also requires forgiveness: towards yourself, for being frustrated about having to do the chore yet again; towards your home’s other inhabitants, for making the same mess yet again, and towards whatever you’re cleaning, for being so needy and unable to stay clean.

Like running, I tend to treat chores as things to endure, to get over with, so I usually fill them with a podcast, audiobook, or music to help distract myself from the pain and make it go by faster. But that distraction and noise can also undermine this cultivation process. Enduring the time in silence, my hands and body occupied by mindless labor, allows my mind to remain open to imagination and creativity. And as this process repeats over and over, a liturgy forms. Suddenly what’s usually an annoyance can become “a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.”

Achieving “greater happiness” through thankless labor seems antithetical to the ethos of the cult of productivity, which promises greater happiness through the latest app or relaxation technique. But thankless labor has been around a lot longer than Getting Things Done, and isn’t trademarked. It’s also abundant, self-replenishing, and always waiting for us, even when we don’t want it. I’d better get to it.

(For the record, my top five most satisfying chores: vacuuming, lawn mowing, washing dishes, mopping, and shoveling. Least satisfying: dusting, grocery shopping, raking, weeding, and laundry.)

The Preservation of Tangibility

What started with a web search for Wendell Berry’s mailing address led me to this article by Sandra McCracken about her pilgrimage to visit the Sage of Port Royal—thus combining two of my favorite artists into one webpage. A passage from McCracken’s reflections stood out:

One of my favorite moments was when Wendell said that he is a member of two organizations: 1) The Slow Communication Movement and 2) The Preservation of Tangibility. He noted that anyone can join these and added with a grin, “Actually, I think I founded them.”

I think about tangibility a lot. How the images we look at on a computer screen or smartphone don’t exist, not really, and how if a megavirus wiped out the internet and everything on our computers a huge percentage of our lives—probably too big—would cease to exist. Kinda makes me want to take up woodworking or something.

I’m not so silly to suggest life would be better without intangible technologies. I’m grateful to live in a time when I can choose tangible things like writing by hand or strumming the guitar or dropping the needle on a vinyl as a means of escape—rather than these things simply being the default mode of interacting with the world.

But damned if I wouldn’t take more of those things over staring at the same rectangle of pixels all day, every day, forever.

How Tweet It Is

At the beginning of December I had my wife change my Twitter password so I couldn’t access it. I’ve learned that I’m a cold turkey guy. Maybe I have some elements of an addictive personality, because for things like social media that act as mini dopamine triggers, I can’t use them moderately. I’m either on them every day, usually several times, or I deactivate the account and pretend they don’t exist for a time in order to unclog my mental plumping.

I really like Twitter. It’s nice to communicate occasionally with people I admire, get the latest on the things I enjoy, and above all share the things I’m proud of or interested in. I don’t have to deal with the spam and garbage trolls that celebrities and well-known figures endure, so it’s generally a pleasant experience.

I just sought it out too much. This sabbatical forces me to live without it for a time—to rewire my brain to not think in tweets, seek validation in retweets and likes, and be proud of how clever I am.

It feels good. I’m not rushing back.

One Less, Two More

I’m getting these new year’s resolutions in writing so that next year’s self-shaming will be based on documentation instead of vague recollections.  

Podcast less

Currently I’m at about 21 podcasts in my iTunes feed, having just unsubscribed from three I realized I rarely listened to despite being interested generally in their subject matter. I started listening to a handful of podcasts regularly in early 2011 (as I documented) and have steadily added more since then. But last year I hit a saturation point and actually took a month-long sabbatical just to dry out from the constant deluge of episodes I would otherwise listen to during every commute, workout, or household chore. It was a open-and-shut case of FOMO that I had to get over. Since then I’ve achieved a nice equipoise of listening to what I anticipate will be enriching or interesting in a substantial way and just deleting the rest and never looking back.

Reflect more

As with podcasts, there will always be way too many podcasts, books, movies, and other cultural commodities I want to consume but never will. That doesn’t stop me from trying to extend my logbook ever longer by gobbling up as many bits of popular culture as I can. But when I’m on my deathbed, will my one regret be that I watched one less movie than I could have? Of course not. (At least I sure as hell hope not—cue Forever Alone Guy) I want to spend more time reflecting on what I read, see, hear, and experience rather than bouncing from one to the next. Which coincidentally leads to the next resolution:

Write more

I tend to be feast or fallow with writing here on the blog, as it’s an entirely whim-based enterprise with no deadlines and no oversight. I write about what I want, when I want. Which is great, except when The Voice in My Head tells me quite convincingly that not writing would be just as good. I wrote 48 posts last year and 47 the year before, so once a week sounds like a decent goal. Once a week, no matter what. You heard it here first.

 

Closing the Almanac

Marty_almanac-1955

On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future

The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over [1]. There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:

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