Thursday, December 15, 2005

Some Biographical Notes

I am in love with movies. I won’t try to write the definitive “Why I Love Movies” entry because I can’t do justice to that. I’ll just jot down random bits about it right now... I have two foundational movie moments that stand out—no, three. Well no, probably more but I want to mention these. It’s very hard for me to pick things, list things, rank things. Especially when it comes to stuff I love as much as movies and music.

ONE--Watching E.T. when it came out in the 80s, with my grandfather. My grandfather is a very dignified macho man, a man’s man, when I was little I thought of him as a living legend really. My grandfather was a bit Steve McQueen, a bit Gene Kelley, a bit Humphrey Bogart—he was Clark Gable saying “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. He smokes Marlboro Reds and drinks scotch and his favorite food is steak. We’ll go out to a Thai restaurant and he will inquire about the steak frittes. We’ll go out to a Martini bar and he’ll order the scotch. Ice and Perrier water. Well, one day, in 1982 (83?), I was there to watch him lose his shit as they say, just weep like a child, when E.T. had to go home. And then he whispered Don’t tell anybody to me further emblazing this moment in my memory as a Foundational Moment. And the magic of the movies was thus manifest to me. To this day when some movie snob wants to go on and on about what a lesser being I am for loving Spielberg, I think back to that day and tell them “you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Growing up, I was obsessed with movies. I would collect these movie cards that came with each issue of “Premiere” magazine, when I was 7 or 8. And I would basically learn the basic facts about each movie (director, writer, main actors, synopsis), so that though I was not old enough to see most of them, I would still know what they were about. This was especially handy come awards season. The Cesars were bigger to me than the Oscars then because I was in Belgium. At the time and in my early years there was not a real understanding of what a director did, or what it meant to edit. I just knew those things were part of the movie “thing”, and typical for a smart kid, I could declare what the job entailed (a director directs the movie) without real comprehension of it. That changed with movie moment 2.

TWO--Watching Do The Right Thing many years later, when I first moved to the States. Spike is my first. The first director that made directing something I could understand. When I watched that movie I had this weird feeling all along of a third presence, something extra from what I was used to engage with: beyond the actors’s performances and the plot and whatever emotional trip the story was putting me on. There was the filmmaker: an intelligence and sensibility was directing this thing, the way it moved, the way the thing was shot, the way it was lit, there was a commander of the vibe. And just like that, it was like a whole language I loved to hear my whole life but could never understand was suddenly decoded for me--translated. It was my first “film is art” moment. It sent me back to voraciously go back and watch all my favorites, all my classics, with this “new” code that I had broken—that would make me (could this be possible?) love them even more.

Another set of foundational moments involves the trauma of watching things that rocked my world. Third grade was the year of watching grown-up movies. I wanted to talk about them in class. Gandhi. And then A Passage to India. My teacher was profoundly concerned about my well being at that point. I didn’t care, I wanted to talk about Gandhi and the scene where Gandhi leads the protest where they burn their ID cards in South Africa. However number of minutes it was it was a complete political education, skipped the mind, went into the heart. And I was not traumatized by watching these things that I was supposedly too young to see. As a parent now I don’t think it was a good idea, but then I saw it the way you see the truth: eyes open and knowingly. My best friend Hatem’s father worked in the movie theater and he helped us sneak in. His initial intention was to help us sneak into cartoons and age-appropriate fair without paying. I took it a step further and through some circumstances I can’t explain right now, would use his methods to sneak into age-inappropriate movies. This is how I saw Gandhi and A Passage To India. I had a similar method for doing this at home, which involved hanging upside down so that my eyes could glimpse at the TV in the living room through the spaces between the steps of the spiral staircase. It’s hard to put in words and I don’t have any memory of why I went to such great lengths. This is how I saw that horrific russian roulette scene in Deer Hunter at the wrong age. This is also how I became obsessed with Jesus watching the Franco Zefirelli mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. If a better Jesus flick has been made since that one (Jesus Christ Superstar notwithstanding, of course--different genre!), I do not know of it.

Netlfix is thus heaven for me. I’ve been doing my own personal film festivals. I’ve had a really good run of Scorsese films and then right after I went into my Spike Lee festival which is still underway. To spend a couple of days watching the work of the same person, in whatever arrangement you wantis amazingly rewarding. It gives you a sense of things. I whole heartedly wrote Spike Lee a sincere, effusive “Dear Mr. Lee” fan letter on the night I saw Crooklyn followed by 25th Hour, and cried so much. I just think he is so profoundly true and emotionally intelligent in his films, and so tough too, Spike has such balls; when all the credits stop rolling and the 40 Acres and a Mule stamp shows up on the screen you stand up and cheer like your team won. And I really don’t mean that because I’m black: I mean the team of those who are alive in a complicated world that starves us of meaning (and meaning-seeking and revelation), that team. And you know of course there would be no Spike without Scorsese--if you watch Raging Bull and Mean Streets, it’s all there. Evoked. Connected. Code is revealed.

I’m sure I don’t speak as intelligently about movies as true aficionados, but it’s not about that for me, in a way. Well it is: I tried to be cool in film class, to no avail (as is now fully apparent from this treatise I’m writing right now, I didn’t let that stop me). But most important it’s about the love. I’m talking about a love and love is really full of trap doors into cliché and idiocy… My son really fell in love with Singin’ In The Rain, which to me felt as if I was Michael Jordan and my young son turned out to be a basketball phenom. I have these movies I show him and they are my own way of checking how much made of my flesh and blood he is—not that he’s not, but you know what I mean? It’s also a very special, personal gift I give him. I watch him watch these movies and hold my breath and when he loves them I feel like I did a good thing for him, forever. Recently that gift was a Star Wars Film Festival, Episodes One Through Six. Back to Singin in the Rain: we now have our own inside singin in the rain jokes we make. We're building a repertoire together. This is important: the memories that I cherish most are the ones someone took time to make with me. This film now makes him a kind of happy that I know so well, a kind of happy that will blow up the corners of his life all the time, time and time again.

I wish I felt as closely connected to other art too and though I love it, it’s not the same. I know I’m not a film expert but I “get” film for my own purposes; it resonates. I don’t get opera the same way or certain kinds of music or some plastic arts, but I'm working on it because I know why I should. I know from loving my movies. It’s taken me a long time to stop feeling a bit stupid for being a popular art person in a way, because you’re taught to think it’s a handicap. In fact, it’s not—the media or the content changes but the point is not media or content. The essence of it is the place you are vis a vis the art in your life, whatever it is: if it’s central, if you dialogue with it, if it gets under your skin and tears it up for good or for bad, and mostly if it stretches what your life is at a particular moment, that’s the essence. And whether it’s ballet or Madonna’s latest video (don’t get me started!!!), you are your most alive in that moment.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sesame Chicken Crack

I have not yet come to terms with the idea of this blog. I am pondering its purpose. Part of me thought this would be a diary but a diary is private. There is some privacy inherent in being anonymous I suppose but that doesn’t take care of the question of why do I want some random person to read this? And quickly following the footsteps of that first question is this one: and if I’m thinking of someone else reading, what should I be writing? Initially the idea of a diary was to use the writing I would do anyway—assuming I would journal anyway, and put it here. Now having slept on that idea, and wished 50 times that I had unpublished rather than published, I’m second guessing myself. I guess it’s not a mystery why though I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I have had a memory, I have never tried to become one. Well I did, a long time ago—back when I had the balls to do it. The best thing would be to just let it go and be honest. All of the above is an attempt at honesty--although it sort of reads like a bullshit disclaimer. My instinct is that my musings about the lack of a unifying theme to my content and the lack of a unifying justification for my content can end up being--you guessed it!, my content too. That's either lazy or really stupid or.. honest.

Yesterday I realized that being in my broken family moment is like being a crackhead in a crackhouse. I was sitting there at the favorite family chinese restaurant with him and the son. This was the first time in six weeks we could actually do this. It took us a while to start speaking again and then after just speaking we were able to slowly progress being able to make a joke. Then there was the time we dared move from a random joke (say a pleasantry or something related to the news of the day) to a joke with context, you know an inside joke: that was a big step because it evoked we once shared an inside and that was going to hurt. But we went for it. And we made inside jokes. At that point I started to panic a little because in the past, when I’ve tried to walk away, this process of the quick return of the familiar—usually brought upon by this superhuman need to laugh together again has been my undoing. One moment I’m laughing with him, the next moment I’m telling him it’s okay to come back to my couch. Panic but not capitulation, I said, and kept moving. I told myself this is good that we’re talking and laughing, it’s healthy. It’s probably not healthy—it’s not healthy that we both feel compelled to absolve one another and forget all the bad. But I told myself it’s healthy. And so we’ve progressed to this moment of being in the favorite family chinese restaurant. We have the conversation we always have there where he talks about how much he loves the family that runs the restaurant. They have known our son since he was one. The girls have all grown up into these cute, hip, Chinese uptown girls. They are precocious bilingual entrepreneurs all of them—full of work ethic and charm, having grown up running a restaurant with their mom and dad. And my Ex always gets misty eye about it. And talks about how great that would be for our son to grow up around his own business. “And really learn it from me.” And just like that, it’s like we bought a ticket and jumped on this train, rushing down the tracks of his dream trip—as usual, as always. In my mind there is old familiar panic but also a new reticence: I know I'm not supposed to be going down memory train with him anymore... In my head there is a big battle going on, while he speaks, about the subtle ways in which the familiar tries to seduce and take over. And I look at my son and he is delighted. He has not been delighted in so long, he has been weary and annoyed and mad at life. He has been mean to me and missing his father and finding ways to tangle up all his emotions and my exasperation into this manic little repertoire of tantrums. But none of it is t here right now. Right now in the favorite chinese restaurant he is fully completed and reconstituted as his own true fantastically happy self. He is himself again, because we are there, all three of us. It's a three person ritual of profound significance: we order Sesame Chicken, a large one, with house special rice. We talk about the Chinese zodiac on the place mats and whether it means my son and I were born in the place Dragons come from--and no, we laugh, it doesn't mean that. We let our son pretend to read off all the fortune cookies; according to him they are usually self-serving and complimentary, “I am a wonderful child because I ate all my chicken and now I will get to watch Star Wars.” The owner plays with him, we play with his girls, ask them about school, tell them how tall they’ve gotten. My son goes up to the counter to pick out his own drink in the fridge. Everyone calls him by his nickname. He feels special because customers can't go into the fridge themselves and we smile from knowing exactly how his face changes when he feels special. We mention once again how the building across the street is really the one we always wanted to live in but never could afford—because it’s so well situated in terms of the park and the train and the nice grocery store. And I have to pretend that I really understand that this separation is for the best. Fake it til you make it, I tell myself. Remember all the bad. And I do. But this scene, this unit that is not broken, this conversation that has been going on for seven years, this way my kid looks up at us when we're both there, it pulls so hard on me. I feel like the crackhead in the crackhouse.

Friday, December 09, 2005

My Outdated Halloween Post

This is outdated but hey, I didn't have a blog on Halloweeen. It must still enter the record. So here it goes.

Being Not Even American, I decided to sacrificially humor my five-year old child and get a Halloween costume this year. If you are from a country that celebrates Carnaval spelled with THREE A's in February like me, then you really understand how much I "don't get" Halloween: it's in the wrong month, it's not full of bright colors and sequins and debauched happiness and there's no sexual tension in the streets. But whatever, my son is Americano and he loves it and my job in life is to make him happy. So I went online to find a costume.

Everything I was finding had the following size options:

"Extra Small",
"Itty Bitty",
"Skinny Bitches Only",
"Super Skinny Midget Bitches Only" and
"I know your fat ass didn't just try to wear a Wonder Woman Costume!".

I mean, I do not want necessarily to take you into the dark recesses of my inner, Oprah-tinged inadequacies but let's call a spade a spade: there is a bit of the "will this make me look fat?" paranoia that consumes most of my existence. I am not proud of it and yes, I plan to have eradicated it by my 30th birthday*, but right now it's there. We all have our struggles.

(*when I say “it” do I mean the fat or the paranoia?)

Anyway, so when I finally came upon the Halle Berry Movie inspired Catwoman suit and found it had real life size options, I attributed that happy occasion to Halle's being black. I ordered a “large”, hoping that by large they really meant large, and that they were not like every sales associate in my Alto Manhattan neighborhood where large really means mediano, and a seven is considered a big shoe size.

Cut to me opening the package when it finally arrived. I was very anxious because I just knew that this suit was, of course, not going to fit me and was, of course, going to make me feel like shit. Prepared for the worse, I opened my package... only to find that it contained the biggest Catwoman suit I had ever seen!!! I put it on and it did not fit except for the mask and claws. The look I was going for had been a kind of tongue-in-cheek-sexy-mom thing, and what I got instead was more like

Tony the Tiger. "Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat, fuck me," I thought.

To add insult to injury, I was most depressed on Halloween day (it was a Monday and I am always, always very depressed on Mondays) and left with the use of just the mask and the claws, my whole vibe was less "Feline Thunder" and more, I don't know, "Defeat, wearing fake leather head piece.” My son was disappointed at first that I did not have full regalia, but then, at some point during our trick-or-treating adventure, he said to me, "Catwoman: you're a star!".

I learned three important things:

1. When depressed, it is really helpful to walk around with half your face covered by a mask, and never take it off, even when you are washing down onion rings with Coronas in a diner, to the dismay of Upper West Side Ladies who look upon your child--who is not even drinking Coronas!--with a most preoccupied look...

2. Halloween is just not my thing

3. When depressed, the company of your child makes you no longer depressed.

Reversal of Fortunes

I woke up at 4 AM unable to sleep, riddled with hangover guilt, and turned to pondering a most diversified portfolio of self-loathing investment ideas. A civilized person should keep a two drink maximum for work functions and I didn't do that. Further, having failed to come home on time or sober, I had made it so my son would now have to miss school today and spend a day with Sleeping Ugly (aka his father, my ex).

This soon spiraled, given the darkness of my empty shithole apartment, into a full on crying spree. Perplexed though I was, it got worse, when the little voice inside my head that sounds like a drunken fifty year old washed up whore starting to monologue, or rather, slur:

"I have to stop drinking if I can't stop before being drunk. Drunk is so unclassy. It's one of the most unclassy looks on a woman period, let alone at a fancy job function. What is wrong with me? I'm going to stop drinking today. Yes, before the holidays. Saying I'll do it after the holidays is not even serious. Ok, maybe not stop but stick to a two-glasses-of-red wine-and-no-mixing-of-liquor rule. My poor son. I disrupted his week. What is wrong with me. This is so pathetic. I am so pathetic..."

[At this point my mind turns to a sped up slide show of drunk me at the office party; I see faces of the various dignitaries who I have drunk conversations with; cut to close up of my mother's face looking at me with victorious disdain; cut to scene of my son watching TV at 4 AM sitting 3 inches from the screen, while his father snores next to him.]

"...Like I was saying, I'm so pathetic, loser is a compliment. Look at me, all alone, can't sleep, hungover and feeling sorry for myself. Did someone say all alone? Shit, I'm all alone. My son is not even here. Nobody is here. I'm all by myself, now and forever. Washed up and drunk and divorcee to be. Me: I never had a ring, I never had a wedding ceremony, but hey, guess what? I get to have a real divorce in the end. There really are not even enough tears for this shit."

This goes on for a couple of hours and before the snot starts coming out and I start to look like Forrest Whitaker in all of his movies, I say let me take a hot shower. Hot showers help wake me up, they cleanse the body while metaphorically suggesting a cleansing of the soul. They also are a cinematic cliché, and I tend to favor those as good life skills. Whatever scrap of dignity I do have left prevents me from crouching under the shower in the most classic of cinematic clichés, and opt instead to just stand there. Yes, hot water, wash my sins away. Maybe I should pray? What is this strange feeling inside? Am I really feeling that devastated? Or is this... me needing to take a shit? Fuck. I have to urgently go take a shit. So much for cleansing. Sitting on the toilet, no fully dry, it's fucking cold and I have to take a shit. The drunk lady in my head goes for a drunk french accent:

"My life is sheet, oui? Ma vie, c’est la merde.”

I exit the bathroom and my mind is in such a soiled state at that point, I just crawl back into bed. At this point I just assume I will be the tackiest drunk employee ever and actually NOT show up to work after a drunk stunt at the office party. I am sheet, indeed.

AND THEN, the wondrous sound is heard faintly through the rambling of the drunken voice inside my head. Keys in the door! This means my son is coming! My Son is Coming! And just like that, I stand at attention, no tears, no hangover, no problem (well no, actually there was a major problem because when I jumped up that fast to stand by the door, I got really dizzy and fell slightly back and to avoid falling all the way, snapped my back, but anyway): he is here!!! He comes in and not only is he in one piece, he is happy and awake and en route to school. He is in fact coming through so I can wash him, dress him freshly and say hello before school. He had not taken a change of clothes to his father’s since I was supposed to pick him up!!! Really, it takes a lot for me not to bow down to Baby Father in appreciation of this blessing. "I was so miserable without him this morning, thank you so much for bringing him by!!!" "Yeah" says he, dry and mighty, "I know the feeling." Ouch, merde alors, alright already—no need to be mean…

Off they go to school, my son washed, dressed, bundled up, fed, with his freshly made lunch that I made and includes a treat, and life is good again. I can even make it to work on time. Off I go to get dressed to the sound of Steve Harvey’s Radio Show, my morning ritual resumed.

Steve Harvey Interlude 1:

Strawberry Letter Dear Steve, "I am sick of having to go to my relative's house for the holidays because she can't cook. Her food tastes like wood..."

Steve's Advice:

"Well, you should come in there already drunk, ripped outta yo mind where you can't taste anything! If not that, then you should just sit there and --spray the food with Pledge spray. They'll go Are you crazy, what are you doin? You go, well spraying Pledge on this food: it taste like wood. Or you can --take a chain saw and start cutting the roast beef with it. They'll go what are you doin?

Cuttin' this food: it taste like wood.

--bring some woodpeckers to the table. What is wrong with you, what are these birds doing here? They pecking... cause yo food taste like wood.

--bring a bag of termites, see how quick that food is gone..."

I'm cracking up. I'm dancing. My morning is good. Reversal Of Fortune is the title I am envisioning for the diary entry I am going to write today, I think. And just like that, a thought turns into a jinx, and it happens again, another reversal of fortune. If you missed count this is how it happened so far:

1. Me: Pit of Hell, Self-Hate and Self-Pity (reversal to)

2. My Son Comes: All is Well That Ends Well (reversal to)

3. Second reversal: from well to Well!

And what do I mean "Well!"? I mean that I notice that my fat pants fit me perfectly. I recently had lofty goals of throwing out these fat pants because "having them just allows you to fat your way back into them", I said, tough-lovin’ myself. But I didn't throw them out: I said, continuing to tough love myself, “Hell, I am too broke, I may need them.” This very well may be a chicken and egg kind of situation: did I get fat cause I knew the Fat Pants would be there for me? Doesn't matter now. What matters is my ass is nicely tucked into the fat pants. And that is lucky since it means by extension that my ass don't fit into the not so fat pants. Since the human mind suffers from morbid curiosity, I now am standing in the mirror pondering my fitting into the fat pants. Assessing the whole situation if you know what I mean—giving myself the old 360 degrees. Of course it gets worse when you do that, because you discover new things. Things like…My bra is not fitting right. My bra is not fitting right? What the? Fuck that shit. I am not buying a D cup. I'm just not. I don't care if boobies are coming off my bra on either side like an armpit muffin top, I'm not buying a D cup. I already wish I was a B. Fuck that. That would be like not learning the Fat Pants lesson and going to get a Fat Bra. I’m not doing that shit. It's inevitable that I look at the face now, but I already know what I shall find:

"Facial Breaking News-we report the disappearance of The Cheekbones. Police Name Number One Suspect: Repeat Offender Fat Pants, also known as Chub Nasty."

Steve Harvey Interlude 2 (Jacque Reid, the cute lady who does BET News is Steve's co-anchor on the radio):

-Jacque, this is a new thing?

-Yeah, wheat tins and low fat tuna, for a snack.

-Girl you already small, what are you doing?! Why do you think you gotta lose twenty lbs?

-I need to be a size 4

-But you're great the way you are, you're only a size 6.

-Well all my clothes are tight and in my work, you know red carpets-they give you sample dresses and -I need to be able to fit in them. I mean people can be whatever size they want but I want to be a little -smaller, I want to be a 4.

“Jacque Reid needs to lose twenty lbs. Ponder that inside your Fat Pants”, I say, tough-lovin’ myself for real this time. “Now go to work cause really, the only thing that will kill this hangover is a cab ride to work that you can't afford, followed by a bacon-egg-and-cheddar on a toasted roll from the deli.”