Sunday, April 29, 2012

Disney Sing-Alongs: Rain Edition

It's cool outside and there's a steady rain grazing my window. It leaves behind little dots of reflective water. A touch of translucent coloring is all I need to feel content after a long day.

Such is the life of a college student - to find small pleasures that make the larger pains more bearable. On occasion, just the sound of the droplets hitting my window is enough to keep me intoxicated with the thought of the cold outside and the warmth under my covers. Other times, I'm just not able to sit in the relative silence of a room where the only sound to be heard is the light tap-tap of water.

So I turn, like most people who are uniquely silly and infantile, to Disney music. It removes all sense of quiet from a room, even when it's played at the softest decibel.

One of the best experiences in the world is walking around in the rain with an umbrella and an iPod playlist specifically for a dark cloudy day. I have songs that fit every mood or occasion, but the ones I most enjoy are those on my rain playlist.

Today I'll share with you the Disney music off my rain playlist. And since, in Chicago at least, the forecast has us expecting at least a few days of rain this week, maybe it's time that everyone makes their own rainlist, Disney or not.

"The Second Star to the Right" from Peter Pan

There's something about the music from Peter Pan. It may not be all that interesting musically - I don't go around singing "Following the Leader" very often - but it has a lot of heart and spirit to it. It also reminds me of London. When I'm walking around on a foggy afternoon, the song from the opening credits of this film transports me to another place where the world is engulfed by stars and we're floating among them rather than staring up at them from the ground. It's a beautiful, romantic melody that I love.

"Fathoms Below / Opening Titles" from The Little Mermaid

Disregarding the part of the film in which Eric's ship gets caught in a thunderstorm and our lovely prince ends up being knocked out and having to be saved and brought to shore by Ariel the mermaid, this is an idyllic set of pieces that put me in the mood to not only stand out in pouring rain, but go under water too. The Little Mermaid has such an organic, misty feeling to it - if that makes any sense. The "Opening Titles" sequence especially is something unbelievably soothing.

"Heaven's Light" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

If you stop the CD before "Hellfire" comes on, then the feeling of listening to this wonderful tune will never be lost. It bothers me a bit that the two are linked together. I understand the dichotomy, but "Heaven's Light" as a stand-alone song is one of the best Disney melodies of all time. It's heartbreaking and beautiful and like the image the movie gives you, it makes you feel like you're surrounded by blueness. Literal blueness. The scene is blue and inside you are blue. If that doesn't make sense, then pardon me because I can think of no better way to describe the emotions this song conjures up.

"When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2

I don't know that this is exactly a rain song in the common understanding of the phrase. But luckily there is no real common sense in the phrase since I just came up with it a few minutes ago. "When She Loved Me" has the melancholy sadness of a ballad with the yearning hopefulness of a "wishing song" (as I like to call it). On a gloomy day, the feeling of uplift isn't exactly pertinent. Try listening to the Beach Boys and you can't help but shake the feeling that something is wrong. But depressing yourself isn't a goal either. A song like "When She Loved Me" is somewhere in the middle - creating feelings of warmth and love, but stealing them away like the rain. It's a gorgeous sentiment.

"Ma Belle Evangeline" from The Princess and the Frog

I realize now that many of my song choices for this sing-along involve nighttime. I guess when I re-examine the idea of rain for me, it really goes hand in hand with evening. The feeling of night is one of mystery and cool comfort. Nighttime is when you get to enjoy the company of your friends and loved ones. It's when people go out on dates. It's when you can watch fireworks at Disneyland. It's when the streetlamps turn on and suddenly the world is filled with a warm glow.

"Ma Belle Evangeline" is a song that makes you feel the warmth of love and the coolness of night. It's such a heartfelt song, and a beautifully constructed scene in the film. Nothing more needs to be said, really.

I love walking down the street and listening to music as the rain coats my shoes with droplets and leaves my feet feeling slightly damp. It doesn't sound like the best experience, but in a way it is. To characterize it in music is a way to preserve the physical feeling even when it's not there.

So as it rains today, maybe tomorrow, maybe later this week, I'm going to enjoy the sound of my songs in my mind (or on my iPod) and the rain on my feet. In some fashion the feeling and the music are inextricably linked.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

They're going to live forever

Tonight I could write about things that come in groups of 101. Dalmatians, perhaps? Or...yeah, pretty much dalmatians.

But instead I'm going to make a convoluted and esoteric argument about how different aspects of life seem to come together to send you messages. In some cases, like today, these are self-reflective messages about how the concept of living is such a paradoxical concept.

I've been discussing the movies Vertigo and La Jetée to death for the past couple of weeks in one of my classes. We've gone through the films, psychoanalyzing the characters and trying to understand the filmmakers' reasons for pursuing certain thematic elements.

One of the thematic elements we've touched on relatively frequently is the fear of mortality. This, in conjunction with an overarching argument about fear of castration (yes, you read that right) is the basis of our study of the film Vertigo, and why I've had to suppress my unconscious mind assuming every tall image in a movie is a phallic symbol.

Getting back on the topic of mortality, though, I realized how often the subject comes up in my own life - especially today. This morning, I watched the movie The Descendants with my dad over breakfast. We sat down in the mid-morning, assuming we'd be able to catch at least 30 minutes of the movie and then head out to run some errands.

Once we were just over half an hour in, we could no longer fathom leaving this movie to a later viewing. Both of us avoided the subject of the time, presumably just so we could continue absorbing this film and all of its pure genius.

The Descendants tells the story of a father and his two daughters facing the impending death of their respective wife and mother who has been in a coma since getting into a motorboating accident. They must face her mortality squarely when it is stated in her will that she should be taken off life support if there is no hope for a recovery.

The story has many other discoveries and plot turns that I won't divulge (Warning: I do share one major plot point later in this blog) because I really do believe in the value of mystery in bringing power to a film, but I will say that the concept of death in the film really made me look inward more than I'd like to.

Later in the day, after my dad left for his flight back to California, I decided to watch Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This movie is based on my favorite book of all time, Jonathan Safran Foer's novel of the same title. In the book and the film, narrator/protagonist Oskar Schell loses his father in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It's an incredibly touching book and unbelievably pertinent for someone who has lost a parent.

The Descendants left the question of coping with death slightly unaddressed. Since the characters were dealing very much with the present circumstances, from the mother's coma to unaddressed secrets to a plot of land that needed to be sold, there wasn't that much reflection on the condition of death itself. That being said, it was one of the most amazing films I've seen in my life and I loved it for what it was.

But Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, despite being an inferior attempt at translating a novel to the screen, possessed a beautiful underlying message about the need for answers in the event of an untimely death of a loved one.

I've had to struggle a lot myself with that feeling. Though I never had a physical means with which to search for answers - Oskar had a key that he found in a vase in his father's closet - I've always tried to find ways to look back into history and find little pockets of memories that I can associate with my mother.

Which brings me back to Vertigo and La Jetée. Bear with me for a second while I explain myself.

In both of these films there is a scene where a character - in Vertigo it's the femme fatale and in La Jetée it's the male narrator - points to a mounted tree stump that has labels on it, commenting on their place in the universe. When Kim Novak does this in Vertigo, she is explaining how the span of her life only spans a few rings of the giant tree. For La Jetée's narrator, it's a science fiction-y look at the vortex of time as represented by rings in a tree trunk. He points outside the tree, into empty space, and says that he is from there (since he's traveling from the future his being outside concrete time is true in a literal and figurative sense).

Today, I showed my dad around campus a bit. I walked him into one of my old lecture halls, where I had class two times a week in fall quarter. We walked in and I asked him what it felt like to be there when he wasn't a student.

For a while we talked about being in a place that isn't really your own. I thought about when I had visited my mom's alma mater, UCLA, and she showed me around to the large lecture halls to give me a feel of what life was like for her when she went to college. But for me as a kid, it was an experience not of placement of myself in the scene, but of seeing ghosts of the past and future. I walked into the UCLA stadium-seating lecture rooms and imagined to myself not only that the place had existed years before me and would continue to exist years after me (I would only be a few rings in its tree), but that I also stood in a place that represented my future collegiate life, where I floated outside the rings of the figurative tree.

Thinking about my mother walking me around UCLA back then and me walking my father around my school now, I started to reflect on my relationships with them, the ephemeral and the everlasting.

In one respect, the experiences you have with the people you love are on their own very tangible timelines. As someone lives, they remain part of your life, case and point. When they pass away, they are gone. The relationship is no more.

But, taking a page from Vonnegut perhaps, I also believe that there are infinite ideas to explore in your relationship with someone, even when that relationship doesn't necessarily exist in our 3-dimensional world. Considering a fourth dimension - à la Slaughterhouse-Five - there is also this underlying notion that whatever we've lost still exists in some capacity. Even if they've passed on, we can still meet our loved ones half way if we try and connect with them.

This isn't a spiritual argument as much it is one based science, fact, human nature and psychology. When we've lost someone, we're quick to start searching for ways to bring them back. With Oskar this was through the key he found in his father's closet after his death. With the characters in The Descendants, this came in the form of answers about (Attn: Spoiler Alert!) the alleged infidelity of the comatose mother.

I found my mom in the physical sense that day when she showed me her college classroom. We were together quite literally exploring the campus. But I also found her in an everlasting sense. By just experiencing that with her, I was getting to learn a piece of her life that placed me elsewhere on her timeline - even if it was colored by my own thoughtful interpretation. For just a moment I was back in college with her - and the mental image I created that day is one I'll always carry with me.

Every experience we have with others puts us on infinite timelines. While our space on Earth may seem static, like two separate rings on a tree, by the very fact that we've existed outside of the bubbles of our own inner consciousness, we've extended ourselves into timelines that far outlive our own.

I like to say that this quells all my sadness about losing my mother at such a young age...but it doesn't. Still, the fact that I've been able to essentially perform my own version of a search for a lock that matches my key through internal and external research into my mom's life, makes me understand the dichotomy that exists in life itself. And it gives me hope that I can bring my father into my life, too, by just allowing him to look at a lecture hall and imagine me sitting in class twice a week.

We only live so long, but in this universe there is always a way to transcend your own time - to live forever. If only by sharing and searching.

A Fountains of Wayne concert is worth 100 blogs

A crappy camera phone photo of Fountains of Wayne.
I have two X's on my hands. I'm in a car and my shoes are caked with muddy sand. My dad is sitting next to me, fresh off an airplane and we're both dead tired, but floating on air.

This is what life should be like every day - and how appropriate that I get to write about feeling this way on the 100th blog post of The Songs of Spring.

I don't go to concerts quite enough. Granted, that isn't for lack of interest, it's for lack of options. Of the probably 50 shows I've been to in my life, the factor that they've all shared has been that I've been completely enamored with every musical act I've seen. And though I sometimes feel gypped at not getting the opportunity to go to cramped venues and sway with a bunch of drunken teenagers, when I think about the situation again I remember how lucky I've been to go to any concerts at all.

Today was one of those nights.

We got to Wicker Park in the evening. My dad, having flown into Chicago this afternoon, drove to my school to pick me up, from which we set off immediately into the city to get to the show on time. Managing to arrive in the area near the venue in record time (an hour and a half before doors opened), we ate at a vegan restaurant and browsed around a record store.

The lead up was perfect. A not-so-crowded record store with "Up the Junction" by Squeeze heard over the speakers, a bunch of hipsters laughing as I purchased an LP of Little Shop of Horrors - how appropriate since I just wrote a 7-page paper on the film musical - and a dinner of organic vegetables and nutty protein.

Usually I don't like to spew about my day, but after a mediocre morning at my work study job and a dull afternoon in a discussion section during which I developed nausea and a migraine headache, there wasn't much hope for the rest of the day.

Had I chosen not to mention the 21 and up Fountains of Wayne concert to my dad a few months ago, maybe my day would have ended as boringly as it began. But instead, I had one of the most memorable nights of my life.

It's not like anything particularly spectacular happened. I didn't even meet the band after the show - the younger me would scold me if she could.

For the first time in my life, the concert itself was enough reason to feel unfathomable happiness. Entering the theater was an adventure as everyone pulled out their drivers' licenses and displayed them to the ticket takers. We had been informed earlier that we needed a copy of my birth certificate to prove that a parent would be supervising me during the show.

Anticipating that we would be shown to the back of the venue to watch the show from a separate section, we prepared for the worst. I even hid my birth certificate, hoping they might assume I was 21 and not ask for it. But they were carding everyone, and they forced me into the theater with two black X's (like scarlet letters, but slightly more hardcore) drawn on my hands in Sharpie ink. There was no mistaking I was not of drinking age.

We were taken to the side of the stage at the very front of the theater. Only two other people, a mother and daughter, ended up sitting next to us and the location was even better than standing on the floor, considering we were given stools to sit on and we weren't crowded by anyone (here I will admit I don't actually enjoy the swaying with drunk people thing, in fact I hate it).

The show was beautiful. Beautiful is not the right word actually. Wonderful. Enlivening. Mesmerizing. Incomparable. If you could choose a better set for any band - well you couldn't. For those who only know Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom," it's time to get your heads back into the early '90s and '00s music game and try listening to this band who has since created some of the best pop/rock anthems of the last few decades.

The best moment of the concert was when the band invited a couple of audience members onto the stage to play percussion. Maracas sounded and soon they were playing the best song of their repertoire (in my opinion), "Hey Julie."

If you've seen J.D. rock out to it in Scrubs or if you know anything about Fountains of Wayne, you know "Hey Julie." As Chris Collingwood began singing the song, everyone in the crowd started chanting along. For a relatively calm gathering, it was an amazing moment of kinship where we all joined together to jovially lip sync to what was becoming - and now is most definitely - my favorite song of all time.

Later in the show, there was a great moment during "A Road Song" (another one of my favorite FOW numbers), where the line "today was Green Bay and tomorrow's Chicago" drew an ecstatic scream from the audience.

I've spent the better part of a few months fielding questions like "Who are Fountains of Wayne?" and "Do they sing anything other than 'Stacy's Mom'?" every time I've brought up the fact that I was going to the concert tonight. But when I was there, I realized I'm not alone in my admiration of this band. The show ended up being sold out, and for good reason - it was so perfect.

Maybe I just haven't been to any concerts in so long that I have no proper gauge of what makes one objectively fantastic. But regardless, Fountains of Wayne, however simple their production is, however small their venues are, however unknown their songs are by the general public, made for one of the best shows I've ever seen.

Aside from that, getting the chance to have my dad visit so we could both enjoy the music of one of our mutual favorite bands was something I wish I could experience again and again. At one point in the show, during "Mexican Wine," I looked over at him, nudged him and we started singing along to the song together. Later during "I-95," we sang together again. For those who haven't gone to a concert with their parents before, it's worth it just for the chance to lip sync with them and realize that the gene coding for musical obsession is one you share.

I had a wonderful day to cap off 100 days of blogging. I may be tired and I may not have any homework done for the weekend yet, but I have a life event to scrawl across my calendar, my blog and my dorm room wall - with a setlist from the stage (woot) - and that's infinitely more exciting.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quality and quantity

One of the best things about living in this century - and believe me when I say I have to actively remind myself why I shouldn't build a time machine and go back to some other decade or era - is the prevalence of online media. The cult culture of internet communities is something I've been a part of personally and on the periphery of constantly, and I've always loved the interconnectedness of it.

In my early years of fandom I was no stranger to message boards. The Jonas Brothers - whom I was very fond of for a time (and let's face it, I still am) - had a street team which functioned via an online forum. On the website I met hundreds of other fans who shared my enthusiasm and common knowledge. I ended up meeting a bunch of them going to concerts and events that were "jB"-related.

The message board was unfortunately shut down after a couple of years and all of us mourned the loss, attempting to start a new community on our own where we could continue to enjoy each other's virtual company.

Over time, the friendships I had on those websites dissipated and I got more caught up in real life acquaintances. But I've still continued to love the feeling of knowing people I never would otherwise meet and getting to speak with them in a capacity as noncommittal as an online forum.

Enter in YouTube. The website isn't exactly a message board or a traditional online community, and granted I've never actually vlogged or attempted to enter the YouTube community like so many others do. But somehow, despite not being actively involved, I feel as though I'm part of something by being an avid viewer of the vlogbrothers, nerimon, charlieissocoollike and similar YouTubers.

Last summer I went to VidCon, a YouTube conference where a lot of popular YouTubers come together in Los Angeles (this summer it will be in Anaheim, but I'm not planning on attending) to talk about their work and hang out amongst each other and with fans.

Though I was there with my dad and thus stayed distant from the rest of the VidCon attendees, I became interested in the idea of people coming together to celebrate productivity in a new way - a non-traditional form of expression and a "career" for some of them.

Charlie McDonnell in one of his YouTube Mid-Life Crisis videos.
I'd probably classify Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike) as my favorite YouTuber. I am not alone in this assessment, considering he now has almost 1.5 million subscribers and over 230 million video views on YouTube. At VidCon, he was utterly unreachable as he was ushered out of every meeting room by supervisors and kept from interacting with any non-VIP attendees.

But Charlie, besides showing that there is potential for success in personal creation - as evidenced by his videos - has always reminded his viewers that good work is better than plentiful work.

The mantra "quality over quantity" is one that this vlogger takes relatively seriously, sending only a couple of videos onto the internet every month or so. It becomes frustrating as a fan to almost never see new material from him, but the commitment to creating videos that are consistently interesting is something I admire.

This past week, Charlie posted a video a day on his channel in which he talked about his YouTube Mid-Life Crisis. Videos from the week involved him talking to a camera about his video planning, his YouTube rules and a special trip from England to America to top off the crisis.

In yesterday's video (watch it below), Charlie talked about his constant adherence to the "quality over quantity" mantra, and how after a week of making videos every day he's learned that perhaps it's not a necessary rule to ensure success.
 "Crisis Averted" - Charlieissocoollike

"You can have both quality and quantity," he said.

Over the past few months, I've struggled with this issue myself quite a bit. Writing a blog every day is often met with a plethora of challenges.

Firstly, it can be difficult to balance a busy schedule and also factor in at least 30 minutes to an hour to write a blog. Because there is no outlining or much planning ahead of time, the length of time I devote to any particular entry can't be determined until I sit down and try to crank out some paragraphs.

Secondly, I worry that I'm becoming redundant in trying to come up with topics to discuss. The problem is not that I worry I might bore readers - to be honest, my goal here is to provide myself with an outlet for my thoughts, not to give others insight - but that I don't want to bore myself. Half the joy of writing a blog is the pleasure of looking back at your own musings at a later date. It's why we write diaries and go back to read them three years after the fact. When time has passed we lose a sense of who we were before and having a traceable look into your past psyche is something really interesting. But why would I want to read my blog in the future if I'm writing about the same things every day?

Thirdly and finally, my primary goal is to write personal and interesting narratives. And sometimes, hard as I try, it's utterly impossible to be creative. Often, before I think of what to write, I'll take a shower and let my day run through my head in a series of images. I pick out the most significant events, run them through my mind again to pick out themes and then try and connect that to something broader that I can write about. But there are days when all I do is write up a homework assignment. There are days when I just go to class and come back and watch a movie. There are days when I just sleep in, eat and then come back to stare at my computer for five hours. And no one wants to hear about that, not even me.

The "quality over quantity" mantra has come to hound me since I started writing this blog. But one of the greatest accomplishments for me has been my ability to conquer it at every stage. Not once have I put up a blog that I didn't feel was at least of some quality. And as for quantity, a blog a day is a pretty steady number.

Charlie ended his video talking about how there is a need for both quality and quantity to stir our creativity. While not everyone can function like me and come up with an idea every night to spew onto a blank screen, sometimes it's important to just let the spirit guide us and allow us to write even when it seems superfluous. Quantity is not the enemy, stagnancy is. Quality is just a side product that we can only hope will occur on its own.

Over my years of internet community fandom I've taken away so many pieces of wisdom. I've learned about friendships, organization, creativity and devotion. But first and foremost, I've learned that it's important to be true to yourself and your values. For me, that means writing a blog every night to remind myself that I can be intelligent and creative every day. For others that might mean doing a video blog every day or writing in a journal, maybe even just carving out an hour to Skype with a friend or call home.

It's all open to interpretation, but the important thing to remember is to allow yourself to do what you need to feel productive and happy. As Charlie says, you can have both quality and quantity. The important thing is not being true to a regimen or to expectations, but to yourself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A European Tour

When I was in high school, I made plans with my best friend Tori to go on a European adventure after college. As that time draws nearer, I've begun to realize that the idea of going to Europe after graduating - at a time when I should be looking for a job and hopefully eliminating all free time I could potentially have with a full-time career - is probably not as feasible as it is wonderful.

Next fall, I'll be going to London to study for a few months. For the first time in my life, I will be living in a foreign country for longer than a two-week period, and I've had the luck of being placed in the middle of a city that I love more than any other.

But I also recognize that there are so many other places outside of the metropolitan, not-so-foreign confines of Londinium that I have never explored. And for the first time I'll be a train ride rather than a plane, train and cab ride away.

A few years ago when I was planning my world exploration with Tori, we decided to compile a list. With my new computer missing all the files from my past, I couldn't even begin to recite off the exact locations, but I still have some idea of where it is I want to go. And so I'm going to tell you my top three, here, in a spot where I can easily refer back and remind myself that this fall I will not be allowed to forget my dreams of being a European traveler.

1. Copenhagen

It started sometime around my 50 billionth viewing of The Little Mermaid. I purchased the Disney Platinum Edition, featuring a lengthy making of presentation on the film. In the process of watching the presentation, I learned about the Disney Animation big wigs of the 1990s, the talent behind the voices in the film, the composer and lyricist who "gave a mermaid her voice" and one other little guy, Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen wrote the original fairytale The Little Mermaid, tragic ending and all. You see, in the original story, Ariel (the little mermaid doesn't have a name in the fairytale, but I'll still call her Ariel) does not get the handsome Prince for her own. Instead, she turns to sea foam per her bargain with the evil sea witch and floats away as Prince Eric rides a wedding cruise with his intended.

Horribly depressing as this version is, I've always had a deep connection with the story - perhaps because my knowledge of it coincided with my love for The Little Mermaid. My grandma bought me a copy of the Andersen version of the story when I was a wee little one. It was in Japanese, but she and my mom would read the story to me in English.

In time, I discovered that Andersen hailed from Copenhagen, and immediately I became enamored by Danish culture. After seeing The Prince and Me (I should not admit to having seen that movie), the idea of Denmark became all the more appealing.

This doesn't mean I'll necessarily get a chance to go out there - despite a friend of mine studying in the city this fall - but a girl can dream, can't she? As long as she doesn't give away her voice to get what she wants.

2. Rome

One of my favorite anecdotes about Italy is one that I am not particularly involved in. My sister, after dating her then-boyfriend for over a decade, was proposed to in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. In advance of the proposal, I had been informed by my father with whom Matt had asked permission. If Emily reads this, then surprise - I knew you were getting married before you did (I don't think you knew that I knew)!

A few years before, I'd gone to The Lizzie McGuire Movie premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. When I finally saw the movie myself a few weeks later, I wanted nothing more than to get to go to Italy myself. Even now, sometimes I listen to the song "On an Evening in Roma" sung by Dean Martin and pretend I'm on the bus with Lizzie, riding past the Coliseum and Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti (the Spanish Steps), as the yellow lights of the city illuminate the cobblestone streets and attractive Italian men on vespas (sigh).

Fast forward a few years and I'm sitting in a theater with my dad watching Bright Star, a film about my favorite poet John Keats. Keats went to Rome soon after he became ill with tuberculosis, his friends assuming that the warmth of the sun might cure his ailment. He ended up dying in an apartment close by the Spanish Steps and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.

If for no other reason than to visit Keats' grave, I feel utterly implored to go to Rome. The city itself seems such a beacon to art and culture, to beauty and, need I even remind you, food. Of anywhere in Europe, this is one of the most important to me to visit for its personal and broader significance.

3. Bruges

Those who have seen the dark crime comedy In Bruges will no doubt understand why I put this on my list. Those who read the synopsis, on the other hand, might give me a quizzical brow.

Bruges is a city in Belgium. It's one of the most picturesque towns in the world in my humble opinion. Even in a film filled with blood and gore, the city gleams like a glorified fairytale village. The quaint streets and adorable canals speak of another century, preserved in the town squares and itty bitty store fronts.

After watching this movie, I couldn't have wanted to go anywhere more.

So many times I've toyed with going to Bruges or Brussels with my father, but after putting it off time and time again, it's finally the right moment to go. After all, I've used my terrible French in Paris and alienated virtually all French people I've encountered, so who better to try out my horrendous attempts at speaking Francais than on the Belgians?

There are so many beautiful places to go all throughout Europe, and I have the luxury of having each place at my fingertips in just a few months. It's time to find that old list of cities that I'd hoped to visit with Tori, because maybe, just maybe, I'll get a chance to visit them even if the post-college European tour doesn't pan out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The simple joys of sisterhood

Big sister, little sister.
I grew up in two very distinct mentalities. In one, I was an only child. In the other, I was a much younger sister. The two intersected slightly, but for all intents and purposes I functioned as two separate people depending on which household I was in during my youth. At my mom's house I was the center of attention, the only other living body (besides my cat). I had full access to all the amenities of my home, from the TV to the computer to the couch which I sprawled out on every weekend afternoon.

But when I went over to my dad's house I was a baby sister, subject to all the trials of little sibling-hood. My sister's room was virtually off-limits, and I would often vie for the computer but have my access cut off, forcing me to transfer over to the giant Dell PC that was about to fall apart.

We had our troubles, but in time I learned what a blessing having an older sister is, however disguised that blessing is at times. When you're battling over what CD to play in the car it doesn't seem much fun, but in retrospect it's one of those relationships you just can't help but think on with fondness.

The moral to the story is what I've told you already, but now I'm going to share with you some of my favorite anecdotal memories involving my big sister, Emily:

1. Clarissa Explains it All

For some reason this has become one of my favorite stories to tell not only about Emily, but about life in general. It's about the paradox of language and the silliness of childhood - which is what I focus on in a lot of my blogs now that I think about it.

It started out simply - I was sitting with my sister watching television. Ever the willing spectator, she had deigned to turn on Nickelodeon and sit through an episode of the TV show Clarissa Explains it All. I don't know if I was being a smart aleck at the time - though I doubt it - but once the show started (after the credits had already aired, I presume) I inquired, "What is this show called?"

My sister was frank and said to me without context, "Clarissa Explains it All." I was confused. I asked her again, "No, what is the show called?" She repeated, telling me Clarissa explained it all. "I don't want to wait for Clarissa to explain it, what is the show called?!" the little me asked.

I don't remember how this situation was resolved, though I imagine we went through a few more verses in the "Who's on First?" dialogue. I ended up eventually discovering that the show was in fact called Clarissa Explains it All and that was that.

2. "I don't like it, she does!"

Around the same time as the Clarissa debacle, I was going through a childhood crisis. The word "baby" had become an institution at school, representing all of the things that we, as seven or eight year olds, were not allowed to watch or do anymore.

Barney? He's for babies. Storybooks? They're for babies. Blue's Clues? It's for babies.

I protest now. But at the time I did not. To the little girl in my second grade class who proclaimed all of the media I enjoyed as infantile, I said this: "I only like them because my older sister does."

Throughout the rest of the year I continued under the pretense that I was far superior to my childish classmates. The only reason I liked Blue's Clues was because my older sister, who I was painting as a 19-year old with a penchant for watching Nick, Jr. (hello, that's me right now), watched it. If she didn't watch it, I certainly wouldn't.

12 years down the road, I watch Blue's Clues, Yo Gabba Gabba and other great kids' television with my sister just like I did when I was seven going on eight. But now I have the excuse of a baby niece. Not that I need excuses anymore, clearly.

3. Teach me how to draw - and then give me candy

In third grade, my sister surprised me by becoming the art docent of my and my best friend, Ashley's, classrooms. Every session she would come in and teach us something about visual art.

Though the experience of third grade was one of the worst of my life, having my older sister come in and teach the class was a highlight despite the otherwise inherent awfulness. Regular days in Ms. Labarber's class were spent ducking under my desk as the rest of the students in the class went crazy. My teacher would frequently leave the room, allowing some kids - like Shawn, the boy I incidentally had a crush on - to stand on their desks and rally the whole class into a terrible tizzy.

But when my sister came by, it was a different story altogether. Maybe it was the Jolly Rancher lollipops she handed out, or maybe it was just the fact that my sister is the coolest, but those moments in third grade were made all the better just by having her around.

4. Deep respect

One of my closest friendships in elementary school was with a girl named Ashley (if she reads this, then "hello!"). We often had sleepovers at my house and more often than not we were up to absolutely no good. We'd play the same repetitive games over and over, we'd bother my dad to take us out to buy junk food and we'd force my sister and her boyfriend (my now brother-in-law) to partake in our childish stupidity.

During one sleepover, I remember being in the dining room playing truth or dare with Ashley. Emily and Matt walked in and Ashley very politely (haha, sarcasm) dared them to kiss. After Ashley became downright insistent that they do what she suggested, my sister and her boyfriend pecked each other lightly.

And that's when I discovered how much respect I had for the two of them and their relationship.

Being older now, I realize that kisses aren't really like the one they had that evening. It was like something out of a 1950s sitcom, adorable and quaint, but not particularly romantic. And looking back at my childhood (and afterwards), I realize I never saw my sister and her now-husband do anything other than kiss just like that.

It's a silly thing to be happy about, but I feel like I've been able to maintain respect for both of them and their relationship because of their never being incredibly forward about it. I'm sure most people have at one point seen their sibling, should they be in a long-term relationship, being less appropriate than PG with their significant other. But I've never had that. And it's something that has colored my relationship with both Matt and Emily for the better.

5. I know nothing about fashion

When my sister got married, I was only 13 years old. I had braces, I wore glasses, I didn't wear make-up. Let's face it, I was a mess.

But one day, she invited me to come along with her to help her try on wedding dresses. At the store, she hopped into the dressing room, handing me her camera as I waited and wandered around the store. When she came out, she looked beautiful. I still remember seeing my sister in a wedding dress and thinking how very amazing it was to get to experience even just a small bit of her preparation when I was still so young.

When she asked me my opinion on the dress, though, I had little to offer. At the time, I was still shopping for T-shirts and wearing wrongly sized Levi's jeans. I didn't look good in my clothing, I didn't know anything about clothing and I certainly couldn't offer any constructive criticism on a wedding dress.

In the end, she snagged a great dress, a wonderful ceremony, a terrific husband and - a few years down the road - an adorable baby to wrap the whole thing up in a nice, neat, absolutely perfect package.

I may have loved going home to my mom's house at night as a child and getting to experience the loveliness of single childhood. Even now, when I go home to my dad on breaks from school I get to experience what it's like to have virtually unalienable privacy.

Yet I wouldn't trade my experiences as a younger sister for anything. Growing up alone has its perks, but having a sibling is irreplaceable. My mom always told me how jealous she was of me for having a sister. She had grown up an only child and had to shoulder the burdens of a tumultuous separation and divorce of her parents. Well, I had my troubles too, but I've always had my sister to fall back on. In the face of sadness, in conjunction with hope, in moments of happiness and anger, she's been there to help me through.

There is so much more I could share, and maybe another time I will, but for now I think it's better to just leave with an "I love you, big sister."

Monday, April 23, 2012

When all else fails

"If you don't feel free enough to fail, you can't passably succeed."

I love moments that I can quote. I love the feeling of sitting in a room listening to a lecture or watching a play or a movie and silently reaching into my purse to pull out my notebook so I can write down a phrase like the quote above from stage director and theater awesome-everything-man Frank Galati. Just the feeling of putting the words down in my notebook is like etching them into my heart. Every time I look back at the pages I'm reminded of a little piece of wisdom that I would have otherwise forgotten.

This particular piece of advice had me feeling very inspired, not because it was necessarily uplifting in any way, but because it knocked me on the side of the head just a bit.

The reason that I felt so wonderful after hearing these words was that in general, and today specifically, I've been constantly met with moments of failure, of being dejected, of wanting to cry rather than put myself in harm's way again.

I woke up this morning as I would any other morning, half asleep and staring at the clock on my phone to remind myself that I had to get up within the next half hour. Through the lethargy, I decided to scroll through my emails on my phone. It's not a daily routine, but it's one method of waking myself up when I can barely open my eyes otherwise.

A message from my TA saying there are no office hours. An email I'd labeled "unread" so I could look at it again in the morning. Then a response to an email I'd sent to a professor to check on a quote he'd made which would be used in a news article I was fact-checking. I could see a little bit of this message next to the subject line and it didn't seem friendly. Uh-oh.

To my first email asking him if his quote was accurate, he'd tried to alter it. "What about this instead?" I sat on the suggestion for a little while, but finally wrote back explaining that we couldn't change quotes, that we were only responsible for making sure whether or not they were accurate.

When I opened my email this morning, I had received a response saying "I am not comfortable with your tone. lets forget the whole thing" [sic]. I re-read my email to him, shocked that I could have offended someone in such a way with what I thought was a respectful request of confirmation. I was not changed in my opinion of my note.

With a few assessments by friends and family, I came to the conclusion that the issue wasn't on my part. The professor who had omitted capitalization and an apostrophe in "let's" was inexplicably angered about the concept of being correctly quoted in an article.

But it was terrible how badly the feeling of failure affected me. When I received the email, my first thought was not that he was being rude to me as I attempted to do my job, it was that I had somehow done something horribly wrong and needed to repent.

After I read the email, I started to write a response. Phrases like "so very sorry" and "never meant to offend" were thrown around. Then I came to the end of the message, and I realized I couldn't think of what to say to fix the situation. There really was no fix. My original intention was honorable and good and a sycophantic apology wasn't going to solve anything.

There are moments like this, when you encounter someone who takes what you say out of context and makes you feel badly about their misunderstanding, that failure becomes a cop-out for something much greater.

But when you start assuming that you need to fix what has happened according to someone else's over-sensitivity and wrongful analysis of your words, that's not at all a way of bettering yourself. It's a way of weakening yourself.

A lot of Galati's talk was about the strength of being a theater director, of being able to set forth your ideas and lead a crowd. But he also talked about being willing to accept defeat and being humbled by the mistakes you've made, allowing them to make you into a better person.

The key to this argument is figuring out how to separate what you've done wrong and when you've been wronged. Just because you've been accused of an egregious error doesn't imply that it was actually your fault. If you start dwelling on those things, your failure won't allow you to succeed in the future, it will just bog you down.

I sat in an auditorium today listening to three incredibly successful theater artists speak about their profession. When they spoke their words of wisdom, I thought about its own applicability to my life.

The truth is that I am open to failure. I recognize that not all situations are mine to win, and I gear myself up early for defeat. But sometimes the follow-through isn't always perfect. Sometimes I get shrouded in the feeling of shielding myself that I lose sight of what actually is right or wrong.

That's what happened with the professor. In the face of embarrassment and failure, I immediately retreated and was ready to sell my soul to him in exchange for his forgiveness. But this wasn't the kind of failure that Galati was referring to.

The failure worth having is the kind that enlightens you for the future. If I had taken the gut advice after I had been met with complaints, I would have dug myself into another hole of forcing myself into an inferior position through apology.

It's important to learn to accept when you've made a mistake, but the condition is that you accept on the basis of its truth. If I had written a rude message requesting a confirmation of a quote, I would have deserved an angry response. That is when a profuse apology would be warranted.

If I had unintentionally insulted or provoked the professor, my failure in my dealings with him would have allowed me to be enlightened, to learn better ways to handle that same situation in the future. But in reality I didn't fail, and this little nugget of wisdom a few hours later in the day was the necessary reminder to keep me feeling like I ever needed to shoot myself in my own foot.

To mix aphorisms, I might say "when all else fails, try and try again." But that would be wrong. The truth is, when all else fails, re-examine the situation and decide if the failure was your fault at all. If it was, fix it. If it wasn't, don't take responsibility. If anything will help you succeed, it's that.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My funny fear of telephones

Being a journalist sets forth so many obstacles. In an average reporting assignment, I will be pushed out of my comfort zone no less than four to six times as I attempt to contact sources for quotes and commentary on any given topic.

On the rare occasion that I'm interested in a subject, I don't dread interviews. But more often than not I do.

There's something terribly frightening about going up to someone and being forced to carry a conversation with them without reciprocal interest. I've had this problem in daily life as well as professional life. When I sit down at a meal with people I'm not well-acquainted with and I have to make conversation, I tend to curl up into a ball and listen to my own inner musings rather than try and figure out how to engage them with questions.

But I'm training for a profession where I have to ask all the questions. So I've learned to cope.

Somehow, though, I still have a terrible, unconquerable fear of one stupid little device: the telephone.

The telephone was made to facilitate conversation and interaction across distances. It was not made as a torture method. Little did Alexander Graham Bell know that when he yelled to Watson to "come here," he was yelling to millions of others "run for your lives!"

Maybe he was just yelling it to me - and all my fellow journalism students.

There's something very frightening about a phone conversation. Maybe it's the constant threat of the unknown answer. Who is going to pick up? Will the connection be good enough that I can hear them? Will they even be willing to speak with me? What if the number is disconnected?

But chief among all concerns is the stupidest of all: Will I make a fool of myself?

Like in-person interviews, there is always the fear of flat-lining. Even starting off on a good note doesn't suggest an interview will go by without a hitch. In fact, it most often goes by with as many hitches as successes. I rarely get the answers I'm looking for and more often than not I forget what my questions were and end up riffing on some weird topic that has nothing to do with what I need for my story.

It's ridiculous, but it's how the process works. If it's an ideal situation, I'm able to consult my notes without incurring a 20-second long moment of awkwardness when the subject of my interview is staring at the top of my head as you pick out the next question to ask them. But no awkwardness is a rare pleasure.

Maybe it's irrational to fear the telephone. I mean, at least it offers the luxury of not having the obstacle of staring into someone's eyes as they talk. In fact, you're free to have your notes right in front of you and stare at them, or even type up responses and new questions along the way if you have access to a computer. So why am I complaining?

I think there's less liability with in-person conversations. You know that you have the person's undivided attention and there is a certain level of interaction that makes the situation seem more comfortable than when trying to pull someone's words out of a telephone.

One of my first interviews when I got to college was with the frontman of a band called OK Go. You've probably heard of them, but if you have not, just know that they're pretty (understatement) popular. I had wracked nerves to rival an Olympic competitor that day, not because my task was very difficult and defeat was a possibility, but because I believed that I wasn't good enough.

When I did conduct the interview, I had my interviewee on speaker phone, but the connection between us was so fuzzy that I could barely understand what he said. That, coupled with my nervousness, made the conversation one of the worst interviews of my life. His words were so garbled that I could barely understand enough of what he said to ask him further questions.

The night after the interview, I went back to my audio recording to transcribe. I had to type up the whole conversation for a Q&A that would be published online. The voice on the other side of the phone sounded like a teacher character from Peanuts. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. No intelligible vocabulary.

I managed to squeeze a few interesting quotes out of the thing, enough to fill the Q&A and be true to his character without extrapolating what the stranger "wa-wa"s actually translated to. In the end it was all fine and I came out unscathed by the telephone.

But I still hate using it. And I think that's a testament to the very primitive nature of phone conversations. It's been many years since the telephone was invented, but phone conversations are still ridiculously unclear. Regardless of how many phone companies advertise as having crystal clear connections, there is little truth to the statement.

So aside from being an experience in which the lack of face-to-face interaction creates anxiety, telephones are an inconvenient way to record a whole conversation.

That being said, I still enjoy the fact that I talk to my dad at least twice a day via my phone. I love that I can contact someone at the drop of a hat should I need to find some quick information. And there's no doubt the telephone has done wonders for the restaurant take-out business.

Yet I still stand by the notion that using a phone to interact with someone is one of the least satisfying experiences as a journalist and as a human being. Something gets lost over the telephone and it's the most important thing: the feeling of being next to someone.

It's not the romance of closeness or the tension of closeness or anything like that, but simply the idea that when you are in conversation with someone you are experiencing their presence in a way that no other medium can provide - not Skype and definitely not a phone.

I hate phones, and as terrifying as interviewing is (or can be), it's better when you throw yourself completely into the game, rather than sit in your room staring at a computer while you hide behind your recorder and type away on your laptop. Give me in-person interaction any day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Humor me, Pops

There's no doubt about it, and I've said it before: I have the coolest dad.

I've cited his love for musical theater, his emotional sensibilities, his intelligence and his silliness among my reasons for this superlative statement. But a few days ago in conversation with a couple of friends about my dad, I was reminded of yet another thing that genuinely sets him apart from anyone else.

My dad has always permitted (and sometimes encouraged) me to be ridiculous.

Complete Savages, no longer airing on ABC on Friday nights.
I was 12 and I loved to watch the ABC TGIF line-up. One night, after my favorite show 8 Simple Rules there was a new show airing called Complete Savages. I decided to stay up an extra 30 minutes to try the show out. There were several cute boys in it, so I thought 'why not?'

Why not, indeed.

Within a few viewings, Complete Savages had become my favorite show of the moment. I taped the last half of the 19 episodes that aired. I used to re-watch the episodes over and over. I developed a crush on the youngest character, T.J., who ended up becoming a relatively famous child/teen celebrity (His name is Jason Dolley and he's now on Disney Channel's Good Luck Charlie).

Around winter 2004, I went to Universal Studios to meet the cast of Complete Savages. I wore a terrible outfit and my hair was a mess. I was a sight that no one should ever (or will ever) see. Those pictures are very carefully guarded.

But it isn't the pictures that interest me about this event. It's the fact that, though I'd only been a fan for a short time (maybe less than a month), my dad was already willing to drive me for an hour to get to Universal City in the early morning and meet a bunch of no-names from an ABC Friday night sitcom. Granted, Erik von Detten played the scummy Josh Bryant in The Princess Diaries, one of my favorite childhood films, so they weren't all no-names to me, but the condition still stands.

A few months later, I'd continued with my fandom to the extent of joining a message board (you remember those, don't you?) that was a part of Jason Dolley's official website. He and his mother both had accounts on the site and acted as participants and moderators. I became friendly with his mother (I have no recollection of how that happened) and snagged an invitation to a taping of Complete Savages.

I had already been to one taping. At the time I was only 12, as I've mentioned, but the age requirement to see the show was 16. Clearly they didn't enforce these restrictions, but I had already conspired with my dad to make a fake high school I.D. in the event that they did ask me to prove I was the proper age to attend.

This second taping was infinitely more awesome than the first for the little starstruck me. We arranged with my new celebrity crush's mom to meet Jason in the Universal Studios backlot. My dad and I arrived early, then walked around where we'd ridden before on a theme park tram (one of my favorite rides at any theme park is the studio tour - it goes through the Back to the Future town set!). We met the youngest boy from Complete Savages. I couldn't say a word out of sheer nervousness, but before I knew it I was rushed away from Jason and to the soundstage where my dad and I listened to a warm-up comic, ate free pizza and watched my new favorite show being performed live right in front of us.

It was an amazing experience in my life and it's all thanks to my father.

I guess I could credit Jason Dolley's mother for the experience as well, but that would be a tremendous oversight of the man who has constantly stood by me from weird obsession to weird obsession, happy enough to sit in a studio audience for three hours to watch a performance of a sitcom of which he was only moderately fond.

But here's where my dad goes from great to "the coolest."

Within a few months of my seeing a taping of Complete Savages, the show was already being pulled from the air. The last four episodes aired four months after the first 15, and by then the show was already on a permanent hiatus.

Even with Betty White as a guest star, this sitcom couldn't hold its weight. But I was determined to keep it afloat and my dad was right there next to me ready to offer any help he could.

I signed petitions. I wrote on message boards. I called phone numbers.

I wrote a script for the next season.

This is where my dad comes in. One day while re-watching an episode of Complete Savages for the umpteenth time, I decided to try and write out the script word for word. I guess it was for entertainment's sake, though I don't understand now how that could have been any fun at all.

I watched the entire episode with a remote next to my enormous Gateway PC, pressing pause and play every few seconds to type out another couple of lines.

Then I started ruminating on the idea of scripts and television writing. I've watched these episodes over and over, I know the plot points backwards and forwards, I understand the way the jokes are constructed, etc. Why can't I write my own episode?

So I did. I enlisted my dad's help, and within a couple of days we'd constructed a full TV sitcom script. It was a sample of a potential opener for a second season of Complete Savages. I'm not sure where the draft has gone to - it probably died along with the Gateway - but I do remember that it involved the youngest brother - as I've mentioned, T.J. - entering high school and being tutored by his older brother Sam (the brainiac brother).

My dad taught me a ton about script writing during that experience. He showed me how to explain setting and direction within a script. He described what a teaser and a tag were. I didn't know my dad was such a virtuoso in screenwriting. I mean, I knew very well he was a genius (call me naive, but I still think so to this day), but I had no idea he could write for TV.

That's when I learned that my dad had a life before me. Whereas he has lived all of my life and many years before I was conceived as a piano teacher, several decades ago he tried his hand at being a screenwriter. Along with a friend of his, my dad managed to get the attention of a Hollywood agent and sent out scripts like mad.

When I heard about my dad's entertainment industry exploits, I couldn't help but want to slap him across the face for not pursuing them further. He has such a great life as it is: a great job that he loves with relative stability. But he's such an intelligent person and he has such potential for comedic greatness that the world has lost one of its best talents by not ever seeing his work come to life on the screen.

My dad ended up giving up the dream of being a Hollywood writer. His friend was unreliable and eventually the relationship with his agent petered out.

Decades down the road, though, he was giving me a little taste of the hope of burgeoning writing talent. Throughout the process of becoming obsessed with Complete Savages, I could tell my dad was taking pleasure in seeing the industry work firsthand just as much as I was. During this time we used to talk about the origins of the show - including crew members like Mel Gibson (cringe) and Mike Scully who is probably best known for his work on The Simpsons.

My dad and I commiserated on the fate of television, the high barriers of entry to the industry. And he let me take over where he left off by showing me how to write my own script. We became a comedy writing team, all our ideas co-meditated and co-written.

I can't imagine how life might have played out differently had my dad not encouraged me to be insane when I was 12. What if he hadn't let me go to those TV show tapings? What if he had laughed and told me I was silly for typing up a whole television script? What if he scoffed when I asked him to help me write a script? Would I not have grown to love television and other media like I do? Would I have chosen not to be a writer?

The luckiest part of my life is that I've never had to ask those questions - because they have never been an issue. Nothing ridiculous is an issue with my dad.

Nothing is ridiculous at all with my dad, actually. Sometimes he just humors me, and that makes him the coolest.

I believe in the subjectivity of faith

The college campus where I live and work and study and occasionally sleep has been rife with much conflict over religious conversation. Because I like to maintain some level of anonymity, I won't name any names or campaigns or any such specifics, but I will say that it's impossible to get away from the question of belief.

My faith is up in the air. I don't not believe in God. I don't not believe in spirits. I don't not believe in an afterlife.

All I know is I don't really believe in religion - as far as devoting myself to one and excusing all the others as misguided. In fact, if anything I'm completely opposed to that conviction above all others.

Final shuttle launch. Photo from
I went to see comedian John Oliver (of The Daily Show correspondent fame) on campus tonight. At one point during his set, he started talking about being present at NASA's final shuttle launch last year. He quipped about how many people find themselves spiritually moved by experiences like that, but for him it was the opposite. As he saw a shuttle rise, defying gravity with a trail of fire at its end as it made its way out of our atmosphere and into space, he thought about how it was entirely going against nature. A space shuttle launch was not signifying the strength of a higher power, but the power of human beings in creating something that could thwart even the most substantiated claims - like the fact that we are inevitably bound to this Earth no matter how badly we wish we could fly around freely.

While he was giving his routine, I kept going back to this question in my mind: why do some people feel such a spiritual awakening when they see something like a shuttle launch and someone like John Oliver looks at it with worship toward science and realism rather than religion?

It's not an easy question to answer, just as the question of faith is not one with much clarity. But what I do know is that I have the capacity for both belief and non-belief.

I think what differentiates me from most people is that I feel in a slightly different way. Because I'm an emotional person, I can get easily carried away by sadness, anger, sometimes happiness too. It's when I feel extreme emotions that I start to believe in something more than myself.

Today I was walking to the library for work and listening to a love song on my iPod that I've been avoiding hearing for a few weeks. I knew that listening to the music would make me break up a little inside, so I hesitated to allow it to play.

My finger hovered over the play button, and finally I pressed it and listened to the song hum through my ears. I was feeling vulnerable to emotional instability as the song played out when I looked down at my feet and saw a butterfly, wings caked in mud, struggling against the wind and the water to stay alive in the gloomy and rainy morning. I started sobbing.

I was walking into work so I had no intention of allowing myself to break down because of the death of a butterfly, but I was still overcome not only by my own tension and feeling, but by the symbolism of the butterfly.

In the film Bright Star which is about John Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne prior to his passing at age 25, Fanny begins collecting butterflies after reading Keats' letter to her saying "I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than 50 common years could ever contain."

At one point in the film, there is a shot of dead butterflies being swept up. Where the butterflies signified the burgeoning relationship of these two star-crossed lovers, their deaths came like the eventual demise of many romantic relationships.

When I looked down at the dying butterfly, I felt spiritually moved. But I hadn't found God in that moment. I'd found John Keats.

My spirituality, if that's what you'd like to call it, is something different from most. I don't latch onto religious figures who represent transcendent life. Instead, I look to those who have significance in my own life and recognize their presence in my day-to-day experiences.

Of the moments I've felt spiritually open, I've never quite known the presence of an all-powerful being. I have, on the other hand, learned to recognize the feeling of my mother and of a less distinguishable natural spirit.

This is not to say that I'm professing - like many people I've encountered recently - the truth of a religion of introspection and finding your own spirits. I couldn't do that simply because I don't believe that what I feel is necessarily true either.

In recent years I've identified as a sort of agnostic. Easy as it would be to accept infallibility in the church, once I lost my mother I had trouble feeling that certainty. I wanted very much to find comfort in religion.

But it all felt unreal to me. What did feel real was literally what I felt. I don't think that seeing is believing, but I do think that feeling is believing.

Many people feel their religions. They go to services and believe because they have a transcendent experience there. I can't help that I don't. But when I do feel something unique in this world, I latch onto it like my own personal form of faith.

I don't believe that anyone should ask others to find solace in their God. No one God exists, not even between those who share a faith. The mind's interpretations alter the perception of all spiritual existence - should there be any at all - and therefore what we believe isn't necessarily what the person next to us believes, no matter how definitive a religion claims their gospel is.

The science of feeling is where I base all of my assessments of truth in the supernatural or the spiritual. If I had seen a shuttle launch, maybe I would not have thought about how it went against nature. But I also doubt I would have praised God for allowing us the chance to explore other worlds from our own.

What I would have felt, I believe, is a feeling of unity with nature that despite its plots against us, provides us with allowances. We may not be able to jump into the air and stay there forever, but with human ingenuity, our world allows us the chance to leave behind the world as we know it.

It becomes very difficult to take evangelicalism seriously when you're like me. If you feel that belief is a function of the senses and not of blind faith, you tend to scoff at those who think they can share a phrase or a perspective and change someone's mind.

Belief is subjective. Religion is not. I've always found truth in subjectivity, even if it offers less certainty.

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Movie To-Watch List

I rarely have enough time to do what I want. When I think I have an hour, suddenly that hour turns into a few minutes, then it's just a few seconds. Even time that feels neverending is foiled by an eternal struggle between want-to-dos and have-to-dos.

The problem is that I want to do so much. When I don't have responsibilities I spend my time arguing with myself over how best to spend my time. Then out of frustration I resort to doing something that wastes the time instead of uses it efficiently.

My dorm's small screening room when it was cool.
So I watch movies. A lot of them.

On a personal level I don't believe watching movies is a bad use of my time. Maybe it is not the most cerebral art form, but the enjoyment I get out of film makes the experience worth the lost seconds, minutes and hours.

Which is why I've decided to compile a list of what I need to see. It is by no means comprehensive, nor is it entirely specific, but it outlines one of the great troubles in my life: the omnipresence of all my life goals - swatting and poking at my brain until I feel like bursting from the pressure - and the desire to always be escaping responsibility with media.

In a way, film has become a goal in itself. I set standards for myself - what I want to watch (like I'm doing here) - and then pursue those goals like I would any other. But in fact I don't pursue them like I would any other, because I put even more of my soul into them.

So with all that said, let's take a look at some of the required viewing that I will add to my To-Watch list:

1. The lost Disney films

So there aren't really any lost Disney films, except perhaps those which have been put in The Vault (the saddest invention of all time in my opinion), but there are plenty of films made by Walt and his production company that I just have not seen. Growing up near Disneyland and watching The Little Mermaid at least four dozen times in my youth makes this an inexcusable fault.

Why haven't I seen The Sword in the Stone all the way through? Or The Rescuers? Wherefore have I not watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or The Love Bug? Though I claim to love all things Disney, I've never made a sincere effort to know all there is to know about Disney. This must be rectified.

Goal Films: The Rescuers, The Sword in the Stone, The Black Cauldron, Brother Bear, Home on the Range

2. Coen brothers failings

First let me say that the title of this section is not a reflection on the Coen brothers. I love the Coen brothers. True Grit was an amazing movie. I loved A Serious Man and Burn After Reading. But for some reason I've never seen most of the Coen brothers' most famous films - including Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. So what kind of fan am I?

Theirs is a style that I really enjoy - a kind of black comedy that treats you to laughs, but also makes you re-examine life a bit after watching. So it's high time I start learning more about these two filmmakers who I purport to be among my favorites in the entire industry.

Goal Films: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men

3. Gangster oversights

Again, the title is misleading. Gangster films have not been notoriously overseen for anything. They are popular movies, usually rated highly by critics and by general audiences. But for me, this just hasn't been a genre to explore. I watched The Departed because at the time I was going through a Leonardo DiCaprio kick, but to this day I have never seen any of The Godfather films, nor have I watched Goodfellas.

Most of my Marty Scorsese knowledge consists of his colorful comedies (or is After Hours his only true comedy?) and historical dramas. Of his films I've seen After Hours (which I loved), Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Hugo. But somehow during this process, I've overlooked quite a few of his most lauded films. I will fix this. And I will probably turn down the sound on my computer while I do so because gunshot sounds freak me out.

Goal Films: Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Scarface (1932)

4. Those trilogy and "however-many" films

I tried a few times to sit down and watch The Lord of the Rings. By about 15 minutes into each viewing I was having some of the best naps of my life. I never continued with The Fellowship of the Ring and I spent most of the other films staring blankly at the screen with no brain function.

One of my problems with trilogies is getting started with them at all. I feel as though once I've seen one I will feel obligated to see them all. It happened with Star Wars once I started watching the initial three films (I have still not seen Episode VI, though, so maybe I'm just paranoid). Another thing that keeps me away are the stereotypes of trilogy or series films. They're usually action/adventure or fantasy. Other than Harry Potter (and I guess Twilight back when I cared), these genres have never appealed to me much. But I know there is merit to them - or at least that's what my Introduction to Film professor thought when he showed us plentiful clips from The Matrix.

Goal Films: The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, The Bourne Trilogy, The Godfather (one film series, two categories!), maybe the last Back to the Future film (I've seen the other two)

5. I'm sorry, Mr. Hughes

For a long time I refused to believe that Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a John Hughes film. I despised The Breakfast Club and didn't enjoy Pretty in Pink as much as I thought I would, so I was unable to accept that my favorite film was made by this director of cheesy teen films from the 1980's. It must have been someone else, I told myself.

But it was John Hughes and for that I must apologize to the man and pray that he will grant me forgiveness from his director's chair in heaven. I misjudged Hughes and his films. Pretty in Pink, upon a few rewatches, is a good film. Home Alone (which he produced) is one of the best children's movies of all time. Even Sixteen Candles and Weird Science have great reputations.

Even some of the best directors have stinkers, but John Hughes had the potential for some amazing cinematic creations. I finally see that now.

Goal Films: Sixteen Candles, Weird Science and Planes, Trains and Automobiles

A lot of my oversights in film come from my constant need to distract myself not with new entertainment, but with what I already trust will keep me preoccupied and distracted from work. It's why I've seen movies like Pride & Prejudice (2005) at least 100 times and why I didn't see Citizen Kane until last year.

Sometimes I feel silly knowing certain scripts word for word and not knowing a thing about the plot of an Orson Welles movie. But I excuse myself because during the few moments that I do get a chance to do what I want - I usually want to just enjoy the mindless entertainment of a film I've already seen.

But I forget that most films are an escape for me, not just ones that I've seen dozens of times. So it really is time to branch out, and it'll happen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

So like your mother

Sometimes when I look in the mirror I think how much I physically resemble my mother. She had a very round face. I have a round face. She had a wide set nose with a rounded tip. I have a wide set nose with a rounded tip. She wore glasses. Sometimes I wear glasses. She was beautiful. Occasionally I think I'm pretty too.

Tonight I watched Cabaret with Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in my 50 Years of Film Musicals class. The film was amazing. Though I've seen Michael York in some roles that were less than inspired (the antichrist of sorts in Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 - don't ask why I've seen it), I was in love with his performance. And obviously Joel Grey was wonderful as the Master of Ceremonies, as was Liza.

But what I noticed beyond the greatness of the casting, the story and the music in Cabaret was that every time the camera closed in on Liza's face, specifically her eyes, I couldn't help but think "woah, it's Judy."

I've written too much about my love of The Wizard of Oz. Though I guess I have not devoted an entire blog to it, I've definitely mentioned my stints as a Dorothy impersonator, complete with stuffed Toto toy, red glittering slippers and a checkerboard dress. So you can deduce that I am a loyal fan of Judy Garland.

Until watching Cabaret, the only real insight I'd had into the Minnelli family was Judy's work in Hollywood as well as some of her husband Vincent Minnelli's films. My knowledge of Liza was limited to her part as Lucille 2 in Arrested Development. So I never really got to know her, or realize what a clone she is of her mother.

Granted, Cabaret is unlike anything I've seen with Judy Garland. The performances are risque and the film as a whole deals with subjects that are not even barely breached in movies like The Wizard of Oz or Meet Me in St. Louis. Yet the emotion that Liza Minnelli had in every scene, her beautiful drooping eyes that glistened with tears and lit up with elation were so moving to me - not only because they were so emotionally powerful, but because they were exactly like Judy Garland's.

When I look in the mirror and see myself and little bits of my mom reflected back at me, it makes me feel even more emotionally stunned than seeing Judy's eyes reflected in Liza's.

So much of me is of indeterminate origin. I'm tan, which I guess could be an inheritance from my grandfather, but is not a trait present in either of my parents. I have dark eyes like my mother's, but they're not the shape of Asian eyes (they're closer to my father's, I guess). I'm so much a weird conglomeration of features that I tend to lose sight of where any of me actually comes from.

When I can latch onto those singular traits that I share with my mother - my own version of the Judy-Liza eyes - it makes me feel a connection with her in more ways than just physical.

Liza and Judy both sang and danced and acted. They were both performing pros. They were both beautiful and emotive and intriguing. They shared so much, even though they were from different generations and Liza really only spent a short part of her life with her mother.

In this way, I find a mirror between my life and Liza's. We were both the daughters of extraordinary women - though Judy obviously received more recognition for this than my mother - and we both ended up following in their footsteps in some fashion.

For me it was somewhat unconscious. After my mom passed away I learned about our mutual love for history and our similar fascination with British culture specifically. When I was young she had told me a story about when she went to the Tower of London. She found a loose stone in a wall there and decided to take it home with her. I never found a similar piece from the Tower, but it was this kind of anecdote that reminded me that even though we were years apart, sometimes we were in exactly the same place - quite literally.

Several decades after Judy Garland made her incredibly famous musicals, her daughter was following in her footsteps starring in films of her own. Her talent was shining in a different way, but there were constant bits of proof that she was in fact Judy's daughter.

I like to think that my mother and I had a relationship that has played out and will continue to be like theirs. My mother passed away, but she left me with a memory of her that I find myself mirroring (sometimes when I don't even realize it). When I'm sitting in the library relaxing and looking at books, I remember a time when my mom walked me past study carrels at a library of UCLA. She told me about how she'd spend nights there drinking coffee and doing homework.

When I was little this seemed like a lovely picture - the college stereotype of spending all hours in the library. And where Liza followed Judy onto the stage and screen, I followed my mother into a college - not the same college, no, but along the path she walked - turned slightly in my own direction.

I look in the mirror and think I see my mom sometimes. But when I do, I immediately blink and realize that with the similarities come a world of difference as well - we combine and we separate. In the end it all makes sense.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Conscious streaming

Closest I found to a photo of my writing: a postcard to Santa.
As you know from reading my blog, or maybe from talking with me or eavesdropping on my conversations with others (I see you), my style of rhetoric is normally characterized by stream of consciousness and a lot of personal history and reflection.

Most of my best conversations and writings start off with the same sentence: "When I was little..."

I've noticed this and as a result have tried to cut back. But at the same time, I've come to understand how great it is to have a store of applicable anecdotes in my back pocket that I can pull out at a moment's notice either to entertain or bring interest to a situation.

When I was little (oh, here I go again), I used to read very little. I liked picking up the occasional storybook, but when it came to chapter books I was a slow starter and a never-finisher. I picked up book after book, never completing one. Once I began a new novel, I'd quickly grow tired of it and find another one to read the first chapter of and then forget about.

But early on I realized that I had a favorite style of book - the mock diary entry.

One of the first books I read all the way through was a children's novel about a little girl who desperately wanted a ferret. The story was told in online blog format, all from the perspective of the girl in her unending journey toward convincing her parents to let her care for a pet.

It was a ridiculous book - so ridiculous in fact, that I don't remember any more details about it than what I've listed - but it was a style that was digestible for me. I enjoyed the quick and snappy tone that the journal-esque writing afforded the main character. Instead of being saddled with lots of observation and excess material, each word contributed directly to the story.

I've never been one for reading long, gratuitous prose that creates a vibrant scene. Though in some books I love getting to experience a place through writing, for me reading has always been made more interesting if it is an exploration of the psyche or of history. I love learning about people.

Just like the professors in photojournalism who tell their students to take pictures of human subjects rather than signs or bland locations, I firmly stand by writing that paints a picture of the human condition. A good book, by my standards, is one that can give you a sense of place, but doesn't put too much thought into that. It's real goal is to give you a sense of personal meaning.

My favorite books are like this. Jane Austen, while she does depict a lovely countryside and enormous grand estates, makes all of her novels primarily about the characters and their interactions. So much of her books are filled with dialogue that you at times feel like you're reading a script rather than a novel when you pick up one of her six.

Dialogue is the best component of literature for someone like me. It has the dynamic element of being spoken, and therefore establishing something concrete in the scene, and it also incredibly human - exclusively human. People do not talk about the weather or the lovely rolling hills of the countryside in their conversations in novels or in real life, which means moments of dialogue are for one purpose and one purpose only: advancing your understanding of the plot and the characters in some way.

As often as I try to find this style of writing in my literary choices, I try to also incorporate it into my own writing. If you catch me creating fiction - which isn't as often as I'd like, but it does happen - you will never find me glossing over events by adding in details about architecture, what people are wearing or other extraneous details. I think it comes from somewhere inside my own mind that assumes that all people have the imagination to create those images themselves.

While I have my own very established view of what events looked like, I know that even if I try to recreate that image in my writing, it will never be translated quite perfectly. In fact, it is 99.999 percent more likely to be transformed into something completely unlike what I'd envisioned.

For those writers who like to create lands and fantastical places in their pieces, it is a great exercise in trying to share their imagination with others. But I am a believer in the idea of fostering others imaginations instead of translating mine.

I could tell you that right now I'm seated in my room atop a grey comforter with white polka dots on it. There's a blue floral tote bag leaning against my bed and in front of me is my closet, all in disarray with bags and pillows and clothes thrown all over the place.

I've painted you a picture, can you see my room now? Unless you've seen in it, I don't think you can.

No matter how detailed I am in my descriptions, anyone who reads it is going to come up with their own interpretation of what I'm describing. Even I, in future readings, will remember my room differently than it actually is. It is impossible to go into enough detail to paint the exact picture of a setting.

So why should I try?

In my writing, though I've definitely included details that I feel add to the tangibility of the story like descriptors of small details such as clothing or hair or architecture or lighting, I've never striven to make this an important part of my story. It comes naturally to me to be descriptive, but it comes even more naturally to me - and to everyone, I believe - to just speak from the heart.

Good writing, in my opinion, is the kind that flows out of you like water from a sink, like music from your vocal cords, or the equivalent simile. As John Keats put it, "If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all." I think that message is true for any type of art.

For real expression, we need to let our consciousness spill out, revealing itself naturally and fully. I exercise this in my poetry, my drawing, my writing, my singing, my painting, even my reading. Because true organic creation connects you with yourself and with others better than any type of pre-meditated or over-thought work.

When I share with you - on here or however else - my purpose is to let you see and read and feel me for who I am. Unlike a lot of authors and writers, I don't plan ahead. I just let the words leak from my fingers.

When I was little I liked the mock diary entry novel. When I got older, I learned to appreciate similar-minded prose that was slightly less simplistic. When I got even more older, I discovered I could use my own love of stream of consciousness to make writings of my own that shared rather than told.

And that's what happened. And that's what you're reading. And that's what I hope you love too.