Furlough Diary - Day 10

(On a related note: I avoid much of the news surrounding the shutdown. I can't do anything about the situation, apart from write to my representatives, which I did. So I'm letting them handle it while I get on with my life.)

Last week, I focused on creating a set of emails for the neighborhood association's upcoming community meeting. I devised a set of twice-weekly emails, wrote them all, sequenced them, and then set up email reminders for myself. My system will remind me when it's time to post an email to the neighborhood listserv and then I'll take care of it. It took way longer to do that than I thought it would, mainly because I was procrastinating on writing 8-10 emails. But once I got started, I was able to push through and get them done.

Which then left the problem of what to do with acres of unscheduled time. Is that a problem? It doesn't have to be. But I've discovered over the years that if I don't have a project or some structure to my day, I do go to pot pretty quickly.

This would be a golden time to update my LinkedIn profile. I could also call that entrepreneurial non-profit and set up an appointment to talk to them about starting their program. Right now, all my eggs are in one employer's basket; it might be better for me to start my own endeavor that puts me more in control. I've written the email to the non-profit, but I've not sent it yet. I don't know why.

I have a creative project I had set aside so I could focus on the neighborhood project; I'm trying to not chase two rabbits anymore. I've been ramping up the research and writing on that project. I find the mornings are the best time for me to write and edit, or sometimes later in the evening. Afternoons are for housekeeping, laundry, desk cleaning, reading, and, if possible, a 20-minute nap at 2 or 3 pm.

I also charged through a few motivational books by the coach Steve Chandler on my Kindle. I'll probably write them up here sometime. I'm reading a third book of his to see if the same themes recur.

I've also taken the opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances for coffee, without feeling the need to hustle back to the office. Running errands has also been less stressful. I do like to leave the house at least once a day, even if it's just to put gas in the car, otherwise I get cabin fever.

The weather lately has been cool, due to Tropical Storm Karen, so I set up my office on our screened-in back porch. It was lovely. Whenever my eyes or shoulders got tired, I could set the MacBook or Kindle aside and look out at the trees and the bird-feeders and just relax. It's so odd to have so much less thinking going on in my mind. The job takes the best hours of one's day, and the days are filled with a thousand decisions related to problem-solving, writing emails, deciding where to go for lunch, returning phone calls, etc. With less on my plate, with fewer problems to solve, there's subsequently less on my mind and my god is it peaceful.

Tomorrow is my banjo lesson in the morning. I will shop at the grocery after to get the food I'll make for supper tomorrow night. And I'll have time to write, read, have a nap. It's not like floating down the Mississippi on a raft, but for me, it's pretty good.

Movie: "Enough Said"

Warning - Mild spoiler alert. I don't reveal plot points, but if you read this post, you'll be able to put it together. We've had an astonishingly good run of movies this summer, apart from the abysmal -- dare I say Pepto-Bysmal -- "Blue Jasmine."

How rare is it to see a romantic comedy between two middle-aged adults (we'll skip over "Before Midnight," which is a different beast altogether and which I didn't love as much as "Before Sunset")? Although Gandolfini clearly breaks the typical leading-man mold, Louis-Dreyfus as the masseuse Eva is Hollywood-thin and Hollywood-pretty; when Eva complains about being flabby, my eyes rolled out of their sockets and fell into the popcorn. Still, she and Holofcener are not afraid to show the lines and wrinkles. I also thought it was great seeing a middle-class character living in a smallish home and wearing jeans and flip-flops the way most people I see in life do.enough-said-poster

Why do I call it a "small" movie? The story's concerns stay within a rather tight orbit of family and friends, and the stakes at first seem small -- no one is going to lose their house because they can't land the deal, the Empire will not fall if the Nose-ring of Aggraddorr  is not destroyed. But in the end, I was so swept up in the everyday concerns of love, friendship, family, and broken hearts that these characters' attempts to find happiness left an oh so pleasing aftereffect. The movie's pace is casual, the music understated, the costumes and settings unextravagant. It's a recognizable and comfortable world.

I'd even hedge my description of it as a "romantic comedy" as Holofcener strenuously steers the movie away from the standard genre tropes. They don't meet cute; Gandolfini's Albert actually asks for Eva's phone number -- like a grown-up would do! Their dialogue in the movie line and at a restaurant is not the sparkling cut-glass banter of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Instead, their badinage is playful, gentle, funny, tentative -- clever, but in the way that intelligent people can be clever, not Hollywood-clever. And there are no stupid misunderstandings where one starts out not liking the other and then must be swayed to fall in love. These start out liking each other, but then doubts creep in; they're both divorced and the memory of old mistakes starts affecting the new relationship.

It's a movie about relationships -- wrecked ones, strong ones, parent/child, man/woman, older/younger, boss/employee, lovers, ex-lovers, friends. The movie is full of people needing a connection, or losing a connection, or needing to renegotiate a connection; it's a theme that is masterfully played out and subtly done.

But the movie can't escape its genre handcuffs in the way that Eva holds on to information she should clearly divulge yet clings to while stringing along both her boyfriend and her new friend and client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet who lives a kind of beautiful life Eva envies. 

The movie pretty much demands that Eva's deceptions be revealed in the most humiliating way possible and they are. Eva weasels and squirms and tries to evade her responsibility for the situation, but the script doesn't let her off the hook. And while the deception plot seems just like the kind of slapstick setup for Elaine on the old "Seinfeld" show, Louis-Dreyfus doesn't go for laughs. Eva deserves to be put on the spot; she knows she's hurt people she's come to care about and who care about her. It's a devastating moment because life will not be the same afterward for anyone.

I liked how Holofcener did not give Eva an easy out. When she goes to Albert's house to apologize, there's no shouting, no banging on tables, no big scenes -- just honesty and sadness played out in an ordinary kitchen. When Albert's daughter, who has been an obnoxious snob for most of her scenes, gives Eva a gift of unearned and undeserved kindness, there should not be a dry eye in the house. It's one of the most real, and also one of the most touching, moments I've seen in a movie in a long while. (Always be skeptical of a reviewer who really loves something, kids; it means his love for the material is overlooking flaws. But in this case, I care not.)

One of my few complaints about the story is that Keener's character is left high and dry by Eva's betrayal. As I think back on it, it's pretty clear that Eva was awed by the poet and is flattered to be considered her only friend (really? her only friend?) but the liking is only one way, from the poet to Eva. Keener does a good job of conveying her liking for Eva, and she looks devastated at the revelation of Eva's betrayal. But we don't see Eva attempt to apologize or try to set the matter straight with her. It's as if Holofcener is saying that a loving relationship with a man is more important than an affectionate friendship with a woman. That may be an artifact of the genre or it would have unbalanced the story of Albert and Eva, with whom we're more invested by the movie's end. It's one part of Eva's story that really bothered me afterward.

In compensation, though, there are many other lovely moments, one of which is Eva and her ex-husband  saying goodbye to their daughter at the airport, with tears flowing from the women as they check her through security and then see the escalator take her away. Holofcener holds for a time on Eva and her ex-husband as they walk away, clinging to each other tight and reassuring each other -- such a beautifully done moment. Again, a real moment, with respect paid to the emotions these characters are feeling and not chopped short by a wisecrack or witty quip. 

The ending is tentative, reassuring, and the right words are said. No big emotions, no big music, no big Hollywood-anything -- just two people sitting on a porch, trying to get back to each other. So yes, a small movie, and I loved it.

Although Gandolfini doesn't get the set pieces that Louis-Dreyfus does, his presence throughout is solid and grounded and it would be a lesser movie without him. He's a big teddy bear , with a rumbling voice and gentle manner, and enough steel to let Eva know that she's crossed the line. But even then, he treats her with respect.

Update: The reviews that I've scanned also like the movie, and use "bittersweet" to describe its tone, which is a word I wished I'd thought to use. This brief New Yorker review by David Denby says a lot more in a lot less space (I really should learn to write sometime). He also uses a word I should have used to describe Gandolfini's performance: "dignity."

Ebooks—What We Gain, What We Lose

Link: Ebooks—What We Gain, What We Lose | doug toft Writer Doug Toft finished reading a big book on his Kindle, and noted the positives and negatives of ebooks, ending with a pensive quote from David Byrne.

Byrne is right to be concerned about the persistence of ebooks. Ebooks and PDFs will last only as long as there is technology -- hardware and software combined -- to run and display them.

Consider that most of the books and artifacts of written language we have from the ancient world survived by accident, before the age of temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, before the age of professional librarians. We have a great understanding of paper's tolerances and preserving books and paper is not that expensive, overall. Digital objects are, by comparison, more fragile and, as Byrne notes, more ephemeral.

Each of us has a different capacity to give to others without losing ourselves. Some of us can give only a bit, some of us give so much there is nothing of us left. Your real job, not necessarily the one you get paid for, is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.

Look around for where you can make a big difference. It is likely a place that will shake you up.

Dimon keeps track of his bank’s business by scribbling on a sheet of paper in his coat’s breast pocket. The notes are divided into two columns: one for “things I owe people” and the other for “things people owe me,” according to people who’ve worked with Dimon. “He carries it until he’s used every square centimeter and the paper is old and crinkled,” says Michael Welborn, the former head of retail banking at Bank One, which Dimon ran before he merged it into JPMorgan Chase. “He is unbelievable at grasping details and the big picture at the same time.”

On one of my last visits, even as my father was in severe pain, he asked me the same question he always did: What are you reading?

I fluffed my feathers a bit and said: Kierkegaard. “What is he telling you?” asked my dad. I had just been reading a volume of Kierkegaard’s journals on the train, immersed in the poetic ruminations of the great Danish philosopher. So I immediately spouted, verbatim and with the appropriate pauses for world-weary effect, the words I still remember to this day: “No individual can assist or save the age. He can only express that it is lost.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, my dad retorted: “He’s right. But that’s exactly why you must try to assist and save the age.”

In that one moment, my dad put a callow youth gently in his place, out-existentialized the great existentialist and gave me words to conduct a career by.

WordPress or SquareSpace?

And as I thought about how this blog looks, I had to confess I'd also gotten rather tired of the Barthelme theme I've been using since the blog started up in '06 or '07. It's been a great theme, and I chose a minimalist design specifically because I like the aesthetic and I wanted the focus to be on the words. From a tech standpoint, I wanted to fiddle as little as possible with the code driving this theme and so I've done little to tweak its looks or functionality. Getting too deep into the customizing and coding of these free themes can lead to WordPress updates not installing. Also, the Barthelme theme has not been updated for over two years so there is a question of how long this free lunch will last.

In looking at the landscape of WordPress themes, my god, are there lots of them out there. And truthfully, one could get lost playing around with the WP dashboard where the look and behavior of the blog is configured. Add to this, in addition to the yearly cost of my site and domain name, I'd have to buy a framework and child theme if I wanted to be assured of a stronger functional foundation and more flexible design choices. (The framework is the programming scaffolding while the theme controls the colors, fonts, and other styling visuals; the Barthelme theme, and most all free WP themes,  conjoin the two into a single -- sometimes fragile -- entity.)

So instead of wandering through that forest, I wondered if there was maybe an easier route to a new blog look.

Last year, I helped my friend Mike Uhl set up his own blog and web site on SquareSpace. It's a great way for someone new to the web to set up and start their own web site -- the site is hosted on the SS servers, you get a free custom domain name, they offer technical support, their drag and drop interface makes building a site easy, and their template library makes changing the look of the site dead simple. Depending on your needs, you may pay a little more per month than if you hosted a WP site on your own server, but when you add in the cost of a WP framework and child theme, the costs are pretty similar.

The informal comparisons I read of the two systems painted them as Mac (SquareSpace) vs. Windows (WordPress). Either operating system will let you do what you want to do, but you have to decide how much of a hobbyist you want to be. And no matter which you choose, there will be a learning curve.

I spent most of last week reading blog posts and review articles on the merits and demerits of both products, with about an even number of blog posts documenting how and why the writers were switching from WP to SS and vice versa.

WordPress is complicated, not suited for beginners, offers solid performance, is endlessly customizable and easy to mess up because of that, has a ton of eye-catching themes and a few reliable frameworks, the WP plugins let you extend your site's functionality and usability (as long as you don't use too many of them) and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

SquareSpace is easy to use, solid unless you start writing your own CSS, with tech support that's good when they know the answer but poor if they don't, beautiful templates that all kinda look alike (but also work alike and behave reliably), is much easier for the non-techie photographer to set up a portfolio, offers limited widgets and plugins but they work without making the site fall over, and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

It was obvious to me that the differences between these two systems were, as they say, as fine as a frog's hair. So there was no clear winner, in my mind. I must needs therefore gather more information!

I started a 2-week free trial of SS, which is a great deal, as you can't do that with the expensive WP frameworks and themes. And I didn't want to be fooled by the sunk costs fallacy: even though I'd been using the WP blog for years, that did not mean I had to keep using it if there was a better option.

So, I created a couple of pages, a blog, poked around the options, and, honestly, the SS dashboard looked as intimidating and bewildering to me as the WP dashboard. So, for me, the "best" system was not going to be decided based on ease of use.

At this point, after a week of mulling it over, it hit me: this decision was becoming a procrastination distraction. Yes, changing my blog's look was something I wanted to do anyway, but I was letting it take over my attention cycles. And, as my old coach used to say, indecision causes suffering.

What was also happening was that I wasn't doing the writing I wanted to do, because writing is hard. But this tech stuff ... promised an answer. If I got this choice right, everything else would fall into place. But of course it wouldn't and I could see that.

So, the question was not "which system is better," because that is essentially unanswerable. Based on my reading, the real answer is a matter of opinion based on what you value in blogging software.

The question for me instead was "which option will cause me the least disruption?" Either option would turn my world upside down, but which one would get me up and running a little more quickly? For me, the answer to that question was to stick with WP. It's worked reliably for me so far, and buying a reliable framework/theme combo would simply give me more options. I also would not have to export my blog posts, set up redirects, etc. thinking of which always made my stomach hurt.

So, I decided that the best theme for someone like me (technically competent but clueless when it comes to PHP, CSS, and WP internals) seems to be the Genesis framework with the Prose theme. Yes, it looks rather familiar. As the poet says, the end of all our exploring is to arrive where we started.


You can easily go too far with all this talk of meaningfulness: that way lies acres of self-help nonsense about Finding Your Life Purpose and “doing great work”. But Graeber’s analysis suggests a more down-to-earth question for navigating the world of careers: is the job you’re doing, or applying for, one that the world would be perfectly fine without? (Financial necessity might still oblige you to do it, but at least you’ll be acting without illusions.) As life strategies go, this seems a decent one: where possible, move in the direction of non-pointless activities, and away from those that reek of bullshit. Do stuff that people would miss – however slightly – if it never got done at all.

Movie: "Blue Jasmine"

To get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Cate Blanchett clocks an amazing performance as Woody Allen’s Blanche DuBois in this utterly unsurprising and tiresome movie. Oh, and there’s a great soundtrack – I’m definitely buying the soundtrack. As with Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the soundtrack is more entertaining than the wretched movie from which it is hellspawned.

Frame by tooth-grinding frame, “Blue Jasmine” demonstrates nearly every tic of Allen’s that infuriate me:

  • The way his characters talk in exposition: “Of course, since my husband is a high-flying financier and businessman, I simply couldn’t finish my anthropology degree so we adopted his son from a previous marriage and now I’m simply so busy managing our homes in New York and the Hamptons that I barely have time to breathe!” I’m exaggerating, of course, but see how his characters talk in the first 10 minutes or how they introduce themselves later. Real people – and well-drawn characters – don’t talk like this.
  • The way his characters’ lines are so single-entendre; there’s no attempt at layering, no attempt at giving the actors any subtext to play. Every line of dialogue is on-the-nose and has zero replay value (unlike the soundtrack!). Count how many times the rough-talking blue-collar characters tell off Jasmine by summing up everything we already know and saying it in the flattest way possible. And also just what a god-awful homage to “Streetcar Named Desire” this movie is. Where’s the poetry? Where’s the sympathy? Sally Hawkins’ (another good performance in a thankless role – where did her English accent go?) former boyfriend gets his “Stella!” breakdown but it’s the B storyline and – so what, really? Meanwhile, Jasmine retreats to her dreamworld and begins actively making bad decisions that, of course, ensures she’ll end badly.
  • Allen’s lazy approach to writing and research. Jasmine takes a class to learn basic computer skills. Meanwhile, she’s working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office – a dentist’s office, in San Francisco, that does not use computers. I mean – what?? Allen must be remembering how dentist offices worked 30 years ago – has he never noticed how they look and operate today? (OK, the guy who cuts my hair – he still uses a big paper appointment book. But not my dentist!)
  • His ongoing obsession with and romanticized contrast of high and low culture. Jasmine and her husband Hal live in rich, palatial homes and apartments with rooms that are tastefully curated, all parallel and perpendicular lines. When she’s shown her new beau’s empty house, it’s a huge empty room that could field a hockey match and sports an I-want-it view of San Francisco Bay. My first thought was, “House porn.” Allen’s movies dwell on these classier-than-thou settings. (There’s a similar scene in “Match Point,” except that apartment – also with floor-to-ceiling windows – overlooks the Thames.)

    By contrast, Sally Hawkins’ small apartment that she shares with her two sons is small, cramped, cluttered, and plays host to her boyfriend’s crew as they watch boxing. Jasmine is suffocated by the cage-like atmosphere – though, golly, it looks a lot more homey than the places where she used to live. The lower-class men all talk like Andrew Dice Clay (or like bad imitations of Brando’s Stanley). Every character is either refined or tawdry, and their intellectual speeds barely register on the dial – they all seemed to finish at the place where they started.

    Of course, of the upper- and lower-crust characters, who do you think will end up happy?

The folks I saw the movie with were surprised by the downbeat ending. I was surprised that they were surprised. To my eyes, absolutely nothing I saw unfold was unexpected.

Cate Blanchett sells her part with conviction, courage, and desperate energy – her final scene is unglamorous and riveting. But I think she’s the one who sells the ending, rather than the thin, insubstantial, and lazy script. Allen’s movies more and more seem removed from real life, which is OK, if the world you’re creating is involving or the characters you’re creating are interesting people I’ve never seen before. But his movies seem  to be recycling characters and tropes from previous Woody Allen movies, which I think yields little real emotional or artistic value.

I want to tell him to please take off a year or two, spend time with his kids, read some new books, soak up some new experiences, and let his ideas germinate longer before he starts up another production. Please.

The last good movie of Allen’s I enjoyed was “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I think is probably the high-water mark of his dramatic films. The recent documentary on Allen by Robert Wiede is also quite good, especially on his early career, his influences, and his enviable work ethic. And check out Cate Blanchett’s turn – or turns – in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” – it’s a lark, and she has fun sending up her image.

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“Fuckin’ endings, man,” Get Shorty concludes. “They weren’t as easy as they looked.” When Elmore Leonard died this week, the Mozart of profanity, the Cole Porter of the word “motherfucker”, he left the world as easily secure of a lasting reputation as any novelist in history. What makes a novelist last is the music they make – not their social concern, not the importance of their subjects, not the utterances they make. PG Wodehouse has lasted where AJ Cronin faded. Silliness, absurdity and the utmost triviality are no barriers; novels about nothing more than the squire’s daughter marrying the squire’s neighbour last forever, if they sing.