Monday, June 30, 2014

Children's Film Study 101

It's been a lovely summer so far, full of beaching and bike rides and a backyard campout, but with a few extra rainy days here and there that gave me and the girls empty hours. So in between the enrichment art classes and music lessons, I've started a mini-project to introduce the girls to some classic Hollywood cinema.

By any chance have you ever heard of an actor/director/musician by the name of Charlie Chaplin?

Of course you have. World's most famous silent screen actor, right? But have you SEEN the guy? Not just a Halloween costume imitation, but have you seen this genius move?

Climactic scene of Buster Keaton's The General. This is a real train, on a real trestle by the way.

I always had this snobby preconception that Buster Keaton was the real underrated comic genius of the silent era while Chaplin was the sentimental crowd-pleaser, a sell-out, playing to the crowd. Even after I read his charming autobiography and caught a few scenes of him eating a shoe in film school, I remained immune.

We showed the girls Buster Keaton's The General a while back and of course they were thrilled by the most thrilling of epic chase-adventure-comedies. And since they weren't turned off by the silence and the intertitles, Randy recorded Chaplin's The Kid off Netflix and I watched it with the girls.


Chaplin moves like a dancer on screen, and takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotion. There's plenty of that gooey sentiment that I was so wary of as a irony-worshiping twenty-something, but now as a mother, I've learned to embrace. The little girls next to me yelled with outrage and sympathy as they watched the orphan child being pulled away from his adoptive father, "This is horrible! How can they do that!" and that was good viewer response. These girls don't need a critical eye yet or a lecture about resisting emotional manipulation, right now at nine and eleven years of age, they need to experience the pathos.

There's a jaw-dropping and utterly hilarious moment in The Kid that I find more audacious than anything I've seen from R-rated comedies like This is The End or the Farrelly Brothers or Bridesmaids. Chaplin's Little Tramp finds an abandoned infant and has absurd scene after absurd scene trying to pass the kid on to a nanny, a policeman, anyone who will take the responsibility, without luck. Finally, he sits on the curb with the bundle in his arms and catches sight of a manhole cover in the street beside him. He lifts the cover, looks at the kid in his arms, glances at the audience. It's a riotous moment; you cannot believe what you are seeing. I burst into laughter, gasping to the girls, "That's so terrible! That's so funny!"

We moved on to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window because my girls had been begging to learn about Hitchcock. My little ghouls LOVED it. Probably the most family-friendly of the Hitchcocks (although I may try The 39 Steps with them soon.) Fun and suspense at a volume that kids can handle. The violence is off-screen and much of the talk about the murder is jokey and light.

John Ford's Stagecoach was a tough sell - there are multiple stories going on and there's lots of talk and much of the language is too archaic. The girls could not understand why hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Dallas was being thrown out of town by the uptight little old ladies of the "Law and Order League." I had to explain she "had too many boyfriends" but I think the girls could relate to the themes of bullying, hypocrisy and prejudice. This is a film where every glance is loaded with meaning and much of it probably flew over the girls' heads, but who could resist being sucked in by the heart-pounding race across the desert flats as the little stagecoach eludes the Apaches. Breath-taking stunts and emotional investment in the microcosm of society within the coach, especially John Carradine as the mysterious gambler Hatfield.

While Nora was drumming afternoons at rock camp, Mia and I watched the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to contrast with Stagecoach classicism. Mia called the 1969 film "modern" right away during the credit sequence and although she was slow to warm up to the joys of William Goldman's jokey script, she was enthralled by the end. It's Redford and Newman at their most charismatic moment and both of us felt the loss when they dash from their Bolivian hideout to die in the freeze frame of legend.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Mexico 2014


Happy memories of laughing with friends, exploring with the children, breathing the fresh morning air in the desert between the Sierra Laguna mountains and the endless Pacific ocean.

Three pelicans standing like dignified statues on a steep and hardpacked stretch of sand. Wary eyes on me as I walk by, but their formation holds.

The night we arrived, Brent brought over a warm loaf of his sourdough bread wrapped in a dishtowel. We stood around the kitchen island and cut the break into thick fragrant slices and ate the bread together, moaning because it was so good and laughing because we moaned.

Stories, stories, stories from our friends, making up for years away. Recollections of the days in Wicker Park when we all first met, of old friends who have moved away, friends who are doing well like Paul whose mural decorates the Philly airport terminal, friends who are struggling -- Jerry, who is drinking too much, worrying his wife. We pause with the news. For her to make that concession is huge. We did not know.

Jumbles of child and dog and pillows on a bed made on the floor.

The homemade bocce court raked and groomed out of the sand in Serena's garden. Our two girls and our friends' two boys toss the balls, bicker and negotiate over rules, lose the baseball we've brought on the palm roof, find peace in the mutual enemy of a tiny Dora doll, whose elaborate doom they plan by the hour.

Brent's paintings, joy on canvas.

The sweet voices of children at the Palapa Society that Serena runs, their after-school music lessons in English culminating in this music program we are privileged to hear. "I'm a little teapot." "Don't worry about a thing. Every little thing's gonna be alright."

Brent's homemade pizza and dal and a vegan potato pie with a somehow crispy crust from the coconut milk, oh oh oh.

Fresh limeade, ceviche with jicama and mango, tender whitefish in a champagne buerre blanc at a restaurant with open walls and a palm frond roof, rosemary sorbet and lime ice cream.

Sun on the waves. Horses and dogs on the beach.

Surfers at the La Pastora point break. One hunches over sideways, like Rodin's Adam at rest, gliding over his wave effortlessly and smooth. Beautiful.

Then home. And the awful news that Jerry took his life. Stricken. Shock. Bewilderment. Great grief for our friend, for his wife, for his pain, for hers.

And the days before made even more precious.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sleeping My Way To The Top: Arianna Huffington's Thrive

Today the From Left to Write bookclub is discussing how HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington's new book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being relates to our lives.

I really dig Huffington's advice to enhance our lives through committing to serve, exploring meditation and mindfulness, practicing gratitude and regaining our child-like sense of wonder though art and nature. Her exhortation to view coincidences as meaningful messages with "a kind of magic power?" Not so much.

But one section of the book gave me support for a little self-help secret I've been reluctant to share: I like to sleep more than eight hours a night.

The confession is tough to make. I don't admire the macho one-up-manship of competitive sleep deprivation but still, isn't eight hours adequate? Not for me, apparently.

Huffington compares the benefits of sufficient rest to that of performance-enhancing drugs -- good sleep can improve concentration, increase focus and creativity, lower stress, suppress appetite, enhance mental performance and even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.

Makes sense to me. I know well the difference between the frazzled day I drag myself through after a short night and the pleasure of a vacation day. But Huffington's book inspired me to take a further mindful step, to start actively scheduling my sleep and treating the bedtime hour as if it were an important appointment. Instead of guess-timating how quick I could throw together my fifth-grader's lunch before her bus arrived and subtracting eight hours from that to set my bedtime, I made sure I was in bed by 9:30. Even though the girls had said goodnight only a few minutes before, even though delicious episodes of Mad Men and Cosmos were calling my name, even though it felt indulgent and even indolent, I stuck all last week to my schedule.

And last week was a busy one - I was planning the elementary school's Earth Week activities AND a Brownie overnight while reading Huffington's book in spare moments. But stuff got done. And more stuff. There was a chugging quality to my work: emails, emails, emails; phone calls, phone calls, phone calls; errands, errands, errands, packing, packing, packing. I didn't feel more energetic, but more, well, solid. Less "multi-tasking" (code word: distractions like Facebook) and more accomplishing. And of course, more patience with the girls, even at night when we were all tired.

And the results of all the planning? Sixteen little third-graders had a fun weekend at camp, got fed, learned archery and candle-making, traded handmade SWAPS crafts, made bookbags and bookmarks for Chicago Public Library patrons, rolled down hills, sang songs, Tie-Dyed, played parachute games, ran a scavenger hunt, hiked, jumped, climbed, got fed, and slept a little on Saturday night.

Nobody cried, only one use of the First Aid kit.

S-U-C-C-E-S-S! That's the way we spell SUCCESS!!

And Sunday? I took a three hour afternoon nap, then went to bed at 9:00 p.m.

You can read more responses to Huffington's book on the From Left to Write website. Members of the bookclub received copies of the books with no obligation. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Words for a Melancholy Season

This Dark Branch
by Ann Hudson

It's ten pm; my breath is foggy in the April air.
It takes three long city blocks to find a fallen branch.
I bring it in, and jam the end into the narrow throat
of a lemonade bottle I've rinsed and saved
on the kitchen sill since summer. It's nothing fancy,
but just enough to hang the miniature wooden ornaments on:
painted eggs, bunnies, ducks, butterflies, birds.
My mother cut down flamboyant boughs
of forsythia each year, but this dark branch will have to do.
Tomorrow over breakfast my daughter will laugh
to see it there, and exclaim, We're pretending
the branch is the whole tree! And that's the secret
to these cold spring days that feel like winter still.

You can find more of Ann's poetry at

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sad News: Barry Kimm

Sick. Sick with the awful truth I don't want to accept: Two friends died this week. Good men. Artists. Suicides.

The first news came on Wednesday and then another blow came the very next day. I can't stay standing next to Randy when he is telling me about Jerry Smith. I run out of the room, sit down, rub my forehead over and over.

I walk to the lake but I keep forgetting how to breathe. The air gets caught in my tight chest.

I go to my advisors, John Keats and Peter Mattheissen, for words to help me with mortality, to help me express what I can't comprehend. "My heart aches," writes the boy who died at 26. "Broken-brained and wholly broken-hearted" says the man who died, also this week, at 86.

Jerry. Uh, I can't write about Jerry right now.

I need to tell you about Barry Kimm. What a sweetheart. What a talent. Barry and I were at film school together in Iowa City in the 80's, then we reconnected at a reunion there in 2008. As our group walked the shady streets, looking for and telling stories about our old shabby apartment buildings, Barry told me in his serene way about the films he had made since Iowa, the 3-D IMAX movie about the sun that seemed too astounding a project to be real, but sure enough. I told Barry that Randy's company had just opened up a production department and he should give him a call. Barry did. And he got hired and directed several shoots for Optimus, for which I was inordinately proud to play that tiny part.

The last time I saw him was at Optimus's block party two summers ago. We talked in the cyc set on the fourth floor and once again, I was struck by his warmth, sweetness and calm in a room full of drinking ad people. And that was the last I heard until this week. The rest I have learned from mutual friends: when Barry's wife Susan was diagnosed with cancer, the two took a road trip around the country, taking photographs, their shared talent and love. Susan passed away the first week of April and Barry was not able to live without her.

I cannot judge Barry's choice. It brings so much pain to so many people, but his was worse. 

The memorial service that was planned for Susan will now be for them both, in Minneapolis, where they lived and loved each other.

Here is one of Barry's last projects. You can see see his goodness and wisdom in every frame.

Tattoo Underground from Barry Kimm on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

That's Weird, Grandma Made Me Choke and Cry

We started celebrating our Spring Break a little early this year with super fun in Andersonville!

That's Weird, Grandma! is a riotous song/dance/skit collection from the creative writing of Chicago public schoolkids. The actor-educators of the Barrel of Monkeys company workshop with the kids in the schools and after school programs to bring the students' words to life, then give them a second life on stage at the Neo-Futurist Theater in Andersonville.

When I read "Space Horses in Space" and "Sad Microwave" from the program to Mia and Nora before the show, we were intrigued, but not sure how the Monkeys could make interesting theater from early-reader efforts such as "the dog was dead. He Hit His Head and He come Back to life."

Oh, were we wrong. From the first dancing meatloaf skit to the rapping grannies, we were giggling, grooving, hurting our hands in wild applause and screaming cheers for the gorgeous music and hysterical jokes. When the cast of fourteen emerged in choir robes and rocked the house harmonizing "Abe Lincoln helped the people to see!" while their girlish "Abe" hammed it up and down the aisles, I was choking with laughter and tears.

Such inventive stagecraft -- you must see what the Monkeys do with a pair of bike handlebars and an empty picture frame in Giovanny's "There Was Nothing."

The presence of the show's young writers is palpable. The performers, who are also the writers' teachers, credit them before each song and their admiration for the work is obvious. There's a stream of Montessori child respect here that deepens the pieces and makes me want to see more. Luckily, every That's Weird, Grandma performance showcases different work, so we can return to more fun.

Don't miss the March shows on Sundays at 2:00!

Ticket Hotline:


Theater Address:

Neo-Futurist Theater
5153 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640