Goodbyes: Irish and Serbian

This is something I used to do more in my 20s but never knew there was a name for: the "Irish goodbye," said of someone who leaves a party without saying their farewells to the host, the other guests, etc. Also referred to, says the Slate article, as "ghosting." A young woman in our office, who married a Serbian gent and visits the country regularly, contrasts this with what she calls the "Serbian goodbye." In this instance, you have to say goodbye to everyone at the party before you can leave. She says it can take an hour and half to leave a party.

Movie: "Wild"

I've not read Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, on which the movie is based. And I've seen only a few Reese Witherspoon movies (I liked "Election" the best). So most everything here was new to me. "Wild" tells two stories simultaneously: Cheryl's punishing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at the Mexican border and finishing hundreds of miles later at the Oregon-Washington border, and the circumstances that drove her there.

Poster for the movie "Wild"

I liked "Wild," though I am perhaps a little weird in that I like movies without much plot. Some of my favorite movies are "Russian Ark," "Before Sunset," "My Dinner with Andre" -- movies that are somewhat talky, have a dreamy temperament, and where the journey is the destination.

But if I had to summarize -- "Wild" is a movie about getting lost and finding one's way out. The estimable Nick Hornby fashioned the packed screenplay from Strayed's incident-filled story, while director Jean-Marc Vallée stages and paces the trek and the flashbacks.

From the start, Cheryl is clearly inexperienced, overpacked, and overburdened, not only by her burgeoning backpack and supplies, but by her memories: her years of  heroin abuse, her years of cheating on her husband and the inevitable wreckage of their marriage, and, most of all, the overwhelming grief and void left by her mother's death that is as big and seemingly incomprehensible as the landscape she crosses.

I liked the movie's stew of trail adventures, memories, snatches of dialogue and song, and disconnected images that finally resolve into a finished portrait. I liked not having the whole story and then piecing it together myself, a necessity since the hike itself is more episodic than dramatic.

That said, the movie does rather fall in love with its storytelling style and Vallée overeggs the pudding with one appearance too many of a wild (magical?) fox that shadows Cheryl on the trail. I did sometimes want to shake the movie and tell it to please sit still and settle down so we can get on with it.

As for Cheryl's backstory, I agree with the Saturday Review  panelists who found those bits the least compelling.  As truthful and real as those incidents were -- and apparently, pretty much everything the movie presents to us about her descent into self-destruction happened -- they are for whatever reason simply less interesting than seeing Cheryl meet the trail-based problems head-on: what does she do when her water runs out on the edge of a scrub desert? How will she get herself and her hyuuge backpack (that is as tall as her and probably half her body weight) up and through this narrow mountain crevice? How is she going to walk through the woods after one shoe slides off a mountain and she throws the other one after it in frustration? (And that's after she loses her toenails from wearing too-tight shoes -- yikes!).

Seeing her persevere and overcome these problems was fascinating to watch. But I also hear the voice of my playwright friend Karyn, who would say that without the family story, without that pain in her past, you can't have the story we see in the present.

I agree, but ... I think Strayed hit on the essential difference in one of her interviews. The story of her spiral into self-destruction is a story of her running away and refusing to face her troubles. On the trail, however, that choice doesn't exist -- she either gets her ass over the snow-covered mountains or she doesn't. She either goes forward or she goes back -- and despite the temptations to drop out and leave the trail early, she never does. The will and stamina that enabled her body to survive years of self-inflicted abuse is the same toughness that helps her push on, survive, and heal.  So that when she finally emerges from her dark wood at the end, the moment is both everything she's wanted and the quietest triumph in the world.

One of the movie's thrumming themes is of vulnerability and violence -- both physical and emotional. The most obvious vulnerability is the physical threat of violence, as a woman hiking alone. While Cheryl meets friendly male hikers along the trail who provide needed companionship and advice, she also must predict and deflect the attentions of predatory men, who echo the violence her mother suffered at the hands of her father.

She bears marks of violence, to be sure -- the scars and abrasions she collects on her body by the heavy backpack rubbing against her skin, falling, climbing, scraping against trees and brush. But the trail isn't doing her violence. The trail is just there, the way it's always been there, and always will be there. This is just part of the hike. She's earning these scars, just as she and her husband marked themselves with his-and-her tattoos as "parting gifts" to each other on their divorce.

More tender are the movie's moments of emotional vulnerability. There is a key scene where Cheryl's beloved mother tries to teach her -- through words and deeds -- how to stay open to life and to love. It's a lesson the young Cheryl is not ready to accept.

And that moment comes home in a poignant scene when Cheryl talks with a woman and her grandson in a pouring rain along the trail. The boy hints that he has suffered a tragedy and sings for Cheryl a song his music-teacher mother taught him: that melancholy old ballad "Red River Valley." My God, but even now, as I think on how that song hangs over that scene, as time slows down and I see Cheryl's heart break as this unafraid little boy sings verse after verse of this haunting song ... well, my heart rises in my throat and I am as overcome as Cheryl. It's the quietest, most touching, most devastating moment for me in the entire movie.

If you're interested in behind the scenes stuff, see this History vs Hollywood page that provides loads of details on where the movie and reality agree and diverge.

For now, I’ve limited my storage to a 16GB SD card. The small amount of space forces me to dump photos onto the hard drive once a week or so. I never learned this simple rule till now, but “keep the best and trash the rest” is an organization life saver. After harvesting the good stuff, I compile the truly precious photos into a desktop folder, which I’ll eventually have printed into a book.

A woman in Sri Lanka once told me a story. She said that the rate of malaria among the British in Sri Lanka during the 19th century was much higher than in the local population. It was the vases of flowers, she told me. In the British households, they found it absolutely necessary to keep beautiful bunches of cut flowers in vases. These vases of standing water happened also to be perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. The British were killing themselves with a stubborn sense of aesthetics.

I think the only reason I’ve had the career life that I’ve had is that someone told me some secrets early on about living. You can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is or what your job is, the more relaxed you are the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did it. And I thought, that’s a job I could be proud of. It’s changed my life learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do.

In Impro, Keith Johnstone writes that when improvisers try to be original, they fail. “Don’t be original; be obvious.” When you state the obvious, you actually seem original. Paradoxical, eh? Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear. The trick is, what’s completely obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else. Many people can tell exactly the same story about exactly the same event, but if each speaks from their authentic point of view, each story will seem “original.”

“Maybe the human condition is best summarized as the constant and spectacular battle to veto one’s own programming.” - Winston Rowntree

The whole process of getting old—it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters—they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

I’ve always thought most book reviews are too long,” he says, explaining his truncated reviews. “People read the review as a substitute for reading the book, whereas the review should get you to read the book, ideally. The best for that would be very short book reviews; some are just three or four words long. A long one might be 10 words, but you try to make the book sound intriguing.

Nostalgia, from friends or from enemies or enemies pretending to be new friends is ever what will drag you back into old lifestyles and repeating old mistakes. “You used to be …” or “What happened to you, man?” or “For old time’s sake …” have been the preludes to a lot of regressive moves. We all know somebody we’re probably better off leaving in the past, lest we get ourselves into trouble.

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austinkleon:

Jeffrey Tambor’s acting workshop at SXSW 2010 and 2012

My friend @MattThomas tweeted from Jeffrey Tambor’s talk in Iowa last night:

Tambor’s morning routine: - wakes up and drinks a cold cup of coffee that’s next to the bed from the night before - reads for a half hour

Tambor: “You wanna have a good life? Work, love, and thrive with people who get you.”

Tambor: “If you’re any good, you’re going to be fired.”

Tambor talking about how he used to, in his darker moments, destroy his projects with worry.

His notes reminded me how much I liked Tambor’s speaking and that I never scanned my notes from SXSW 2012.

How Valuable Were Your Last 40 Minutes? : The Art of Non-Conformity

Regarding my personal time management, I also try to live by the philosophy that focuses on: ‘What did I do that was productive and beneficial in the last 40 minutes?’ I literally sit at my desk completing a task and ask myself if I am actually being valuable. If I have not done anything constructive or useful in the last 40 minutes, I am not managing my time well and need to adjust what I am doing to execute more effectively.


How Valuable Were Your Last 40 Minutes? : The Art of Non-Conformity

We hear “do what you love” so often from those few people who it did work for, for whom the stars aligned, and from them it sounds like good advice. They’re successful, aren’t they? If we follow their advice, we’ll be successful, too! […] We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it. Professional gamblers, stuntmen, washed up cartoonists like myself: we don’t give speeches at corporate events. We aren’t paid to go to the World Domination Summit and make people feel bad. We don’t land book deals or speak on Good Morning America.