Why I Changed My Mind – Saffron Burrows


Emblazoned in my memory is the image of Saffron Burrows as the kind of vulnerable villainess, who, if memory serves, does redeem herself in the end, in the film Circle of Friends. I haven’t seen the film since its release back in … 1993? 1994? But the image, accurate or not, has remained. Recall if you will that I had misgivings dating back to that film about its starlet, Minnie Driver, as well – and overcame them in a big way. Burrows, as the beautiful temptress, thwarts the whole “inner beauty triumphs” story (at least temporarily) that propels Circle of Friends. And Burrows has been held, in my mind, to that femme-fatale, bad guy standard of the character she played (testament to her performance, though, that it had that kind of staying power) ever since.

My opinion has changed, but it is not like it ever made any dramatic shifts because it is not like I ever hated her or actively avoided her films or multiple recent TV appearances. She has always been sort of low-key, turning up when I was not expecting to see her, and always making an impression. She might fall victim to the misguided idea that beauty of her type could not possibly come with the kind of talent she has. I don’t really know, but seeing her recently in Mozart in the Jungle, I felt oddly moved by her portrayal of Cynthia, a flawed, complicated woman who is seductive and unapologetically in touch with that side of herself but who also gives generously of herself with whatever she can offer. At least that’s how I interpreted her character. Seeing her in this role made me go back and re-evaluate other places I have seen her. There are quite a lot of performances, and none really stand out – but she always brings something different and fresh to her roles.

While I don’t necessarily evaluate actors and other “stars” based on their personal lives, Burrows’ public openness and fluidity about sexuality and relationships has been refreshing. Despite being someone who seems quite private (but also political), she recently revealed that she married her female partner and has long been a voice for equality. Being in the public eye, it’s hard to keep such matters secret, and her love life has been mentioned here and there in the media before (with well-publicized romances with men, such as Alan Cumming, who himself wed his same-sex partner a few years ago. And of course, he was the actual “villain” in Circle of Friends, although villain might be too strong a word!). Burrows exudes a kind of “accepting” vibe – seeming very in control while being open and welcoming. I don’t know her, so this is just imagination. But this is the kind of confidence that her most memorable characters convey (in particular her Mozart character). Worldly but not jaded, a seen-it-all but still loving taking it in attitude.

Considered, reconsidered – I’m really impressed with Burrows. Her work speaks for itself, but by extension, I think her public handling of her relationship and situation is brave in that it can actually be difficult to recognize how and when to “live an honest life” – whatever that means. And sometimes that means not really defining yourself the way people expect you to be defined (that is, putting yourself in one box or another).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Mozart in the Jungle – “Toblerone – it’s my weakness”


Let me start by stating that there is no actor I can think of who is as blessed with a ready, genuine and overwhelming smile as Gael Garcia Bernal. One might look at him and see the other things that make him attractive – the eyes, for example – but it is the smile that disarms completely.

But then if you just catch a quick glimpse of the man from a distance, sporting a beard and a certain haircut, and think, “Add a Members Only jacket”, you get a passing resemblance to Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I know – it’s not very flattering, and it’s not something one would say if she could see the actor up close. It’s a bit funny considering Gael Garcia Bernal’s role in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, playing an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned in Iran during Ahmadinejad’s time in office.

Given the opportunity to see Gael Garcia Bernal lead an ensemble cast as the most eccentric of what are arguably all eccentric characters (all members or patrons of a New York City orchestra). His character comes along to breathe new life into a staid and loss-making institution, and the story follows his peculiarities as much as it follows several others, including Lola Kirke as the young oboe player, Hailey, who is not quite ready for the big time but acts as an assistant at the orchestra, answering to Garcia Bernal’s character (the new conductor, Rodrigo De Souza) who never fails to pronounce her name as “Jai alai”. By the end of the first season, which I binge-watched on Amazon, Hailey knew how to make maté just the way the Maestro likes it. I won’t spoil anything else about it because it’s simply a slightly addictive glimpse inside the crazy world of orchestral players and all their personal quirks.

There are some great characters and performances and a mini Mozart-Salieri style rivalry between the old guard (the orchestra’s former conductor, played by Malcolm McDowell, being put out to pasture – but not without larger-than-life egotistical monstrosities being put on display, much to the delight of the viewing audience) and the new. Saffron Burrows, about whom I used to have doubts, plays a cellist and a complex woman with plenty of her own issues. Her character, Cynthia, serves as a kind of mentor for the aforementioned Hailey. Bernadette Peters is the trustee of the failing orchestra – by the way, does Peters ever age? She’s undoubtedly had some work done, but it has been subtle and well-done enough that she does not look artificial. Not the point really. I just found myself shocked to see that the woman is almost 70.

I highly recommend this series – I breezed through the first series, and while it’s not a masterpiece or groundbreaking, it is quite entertaining – largely down to its superb cast.

Incidentally, the book upon which the show is based, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall, opens the door to a sort of stranger-than-fiction real-life in tabloids kind of story. Tindall, a professional oboist and later journalist and writer, married the famous Bill Nye the Science Guy – and he left the marriage just a few weeks later. It all took an ugly turn when he filed a restraining order against her after she tried to poison his garden (?!). They have had a bunch of legal wranglings ever since. Alas, it is completely off topic except to point out that the source material for the show was clearly rich.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Helix – “Do you know the way to San Jose?”


What does it say that I rolled my eyes and felt real dread when I realized this week that I had forgotten to watch last week’s episode of Helix? Meaning… this week, I would have to watch two episodes to catch up. Um, I can’t explain why I feel I have to keep watching something I have not liked at all from the get-go. But if we understand that this is my nature, and that I persevere, and move beyond it – let’s try to understand what the purpose of this show is.

Nearing the end of its sophomore season, Helix is incomprehensible. I found it hard to follow the first season, and when I try to explain what it’s about to other people, I find that I can’t. I found the characters and premise impenetrable during the first season – I won’t even try to explain what the plot was because I am not totally sure I get it. It’s… a bunch of CDC researchers at a facility in the Arctic investigating an outbreak of some sort. The outbreak seems to turn people into violent zombie-monsters afflicted by something that looks a lot like the bubonic plague. Or maybe that is what this year’s virus makes people look like – last year I think it was something else but either way – viruses are a-flying.

A bunch of mysterious characters come into and out of the scene with hidden motives and agenda. There’s a massive, shady corporation (Ilaria) involved somehow, and eventually it becomes apparent that there have been scientific experiments on local native people and then the emergence of immortal people. It was a confusing mess and did not become clearer with time.

Almost a year ago, I included this muddy first season in a roundup of shows I could not fathom why I was watching and included Helix in this, although Helix was not and still isn’t the worst offender of the bunch (that title is taken by The Following – and no, a year later, I still have not stopped watching). There were reasons why I kept trying with Helix – I thought it was not sure what it was trying to be and might sort itself out. Scifi? Horror? Thriller? Drama? All of the above?

The second season is not a whole lot better, but the change of scenery made it a bit more palatable. The stories that have been unfolding over the course of the season are all starting to come together a with a bit greater clarity, and some of the obnoxious characters from the first season are starting to feel at least more familiar, if not likeable, compared to the cult-follower tribe of island dwellers who became the antagonists in this story in the second season. The cult leader, played by Steven Weber (who has of late shown up almost everywhere), is compellingly egomaniacal – maybe only because it is Weber behind the character. He is an immortal and has some freaky stuff going on on the isolated island he runs.

There is a clear story emerging pitting the immortals against mortals, i.e., the immortals intend to deploy some kind of mechanism that will render mortals as infertile in order to stem population growth. They believe they know best and can reverse this mass infertility once the planet’s resources are restored to sustainable levels. Essentially, they play God and think they are entitled to do so because it is certainly in their best interests as immortals. Somehow amidst all of this, there is another virus on the loose – maybe the same virus or strain of the same virus. I honestly can’t tell you because for one thing there is so much going on at once that I don’t pay attention or watch closely and for another the storytelling does not hold my interest strongly enough.

It is very possible that if I sat down and started watching it all again from the beginning and paid closer attention and had all the episodes to binge on, it would be a more satisfying experience.

On balance, I will keep watching (I’m not a quitter, even though I need to learn when to quit – for real!), but I don’t recommend that anyone else do so.

I will say that the show’s quirks – I assume they are intentional – are what keep me coming back. Rather funny dialogue and a wacked-out and extremely eclectic soundtrack are unusual but effective hooks (for me, anyway). Many shows feature stellar soundtracks to the degree that the music choices are one of the only things I love about them. Helix’s music choices – ranging from the strangely and incomprehensibly poppy theme song to some of the songs woven into the episodes. It makes me wonder how these incongruous choices are made.

Lunchtable TV talk: Steven Weber is everywhere – “What do you think you’re doing here? Waiting for the Village People to make a comeback?”


I make no secret of or apologies for my TV addiction. I find it delightful when I can make connections with other people based on shared love or hate for particular TV shows. I am equally delighted when I watch a handful of very different shows and find a favorite actor popping up frequently. Sometimes these actors are well-known, accessible to memory only by mentioning their name. Sometimes, though, despite how ubiquitous they are, their names alone are not enough. I won’t go so far as to say that such actors are undervalued because they clearly are turning up everywhere – but at the same time, they are next to anonymous.

Steven Weber is one of these actors.

Most recently appearing in Helix, House of Lies, Falling Skies, Murder in the First and Web Therapy (I know there are plenty more in the last two or three years that I did not see) – and in the past in everything from my former go-to love-to-hate Brothers & Sisters and one of my all-time, hands-down favorites, Wings, there is very little that Weber can’t do.

Here’s one of my favorite episodes of Wings. Hilarious blast from the past. And nice to have discovered The Daly Show, featuring Weber with former Wings costar, Tim Daly. “We were in there talking and we decided that we were not born yesterday.”



Dabbling: Master of many, doctor of none


I have long known that I cannot commit. I have one foot in, one foot out. This non-committal stance has applied across the board my entire life. I do everything in my life to the master’s degree level. Relationships, running a business, formal study, career – I am a master, but I can never commit enough, specialize enough, to go doctoral. It’s just too much. Committing to one thing – anything, whether a person, a place, a profession, an industry, a field or discipline – is just such a small sliver of what the world offers. Can I help it that I want to jump into as many things as my longevity affords? And drink heartily of all these things and be master-level committed before eventually moving on?

I think the best illustration of why a PhD will never be for me comes in the form of two doctoral project/posts I saw recently. So specialized and specific that it almost makes my teeth hurt reading the names:

  • Poetry, song and community in the industrial city: Victorian Dundee
  • Vagrancy and poverty in the post-emancipation anglophone Caribbean, 1834-1900


Lunchtable TV Talk: Looking – “Doris, I will definitely go swimming with you even though my legs are painfully white”


Imagine you are an overweight, confused, closeted gay, adolescent boy growing up in the US Midwest. In your 13-year-old imagination, an “out” future could be filled with equally out friends in San Francisco, a mythical mecca for everyone like you. Your imagination would be full of gay gamer conventions and gay gamer proms where you could get a happy prom-night photo with your cute new boyfriend. You’d probably have a cool job and many nights would end in party sequences fueled by loud music and very little, but stilted, dialogue – possibly parties in the woods where anthems from Sister Sledge would form your soundtrack. (Days before the show’s party-in-woods premier featuring “Lost in Music”, Mr Firewall and I planned a Scottish John “Enunciate Excessively” Hannah remix. Whatever else I might criticize about Looking, it’s got a fab and fun soundtrack.)

If the premise of Looking, the recently canceled HBO show about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco, were to dramatize what a 13-year-old gay boy imagined his future would be like, the show would be perfect.

I am not a gay man; I am not in San Francisco; I would therefore never claim any kind of expertise about a gay man’s life, in San Francisco or not. Like most lives, there is no such thing as one, “normal” way to live. I wanted to like this show. The premise had promise – squandered because I don’t think the show resonated with viewers of any demographic.

Believe me, I kept trying to watch – giving up and coming back, hoping it might have been one of those shows that takes time to develop its characters. But it never got any better. Instead the characters mostly became more like caricatures and more petulant with time. I got the occasional glimpse of self-awareness in these characters, but opportunities were frittered away casually. The worst character and my biggest problem with the show was its main character, Patrick. His behavior and manifold diatribes and tantrums were reflective of a teenage kid – all bluster, fluster and inexperience – trying to assert himself. Unfortunately that is the problem with the whole show – it comes back to this unsophisticated and teenage approach to virtually everything, especially in imbuing characters with identities. Maybe viewers could relate to that kind of awkwardness and discomfort. But average adults in their 30s and 40s generally don’t behave like Patrick or his friend, the just-turned-40 Dom, who is struggling with facing the onslaught of age (but not with particular subtlety or realism).

The best characters and only ones I cared about were barely there – Scott Bakula’s recurring guest role as Lynn; a random wheelchair-bound guy at the gamer conference who, in a blink-and-you-missed-it conversation, called Patrick out on his cluelessness/obviousness; Malik, the boyfriend of Dom’s constant friend and roommate, Doris (who never ceased to annoy me), and Richie, Patrick’s ex-boyfriend. Yeah, in fact, if the show were about Richie and his life, I think that might have been a better premise.

TV critics and others who really rooted for the show, at least on a thematic level, have echoed my sentiments with greater eloquence and clarity. For one, it’s a bloody boring show. I kept waiting for something really interesting to happen, for someone to express something close to the depth that all the characters claimed to want. But it never elevated itself above the level of engagement or excitement I find in an ad for pharmaceuticals, nor above the manipulations and presumption of what will interest the viewer also characteristic of pharma ads. This same boredom is echoed in the aforementioned citation.

Many defenses of the show attempt to explain that the show’s ho-hum dullness is where its genius comes from – the world can finally see that gay people are just people like everyone else. This is not a revelation. There are other TV shows about all manner of people, including gay individuals and couples, that show us how normal they are, with daily routines, normal problems and happy families, who are not mind-numbingly boring. And their lives don’t revolve solely around being gay. It’s a big part of the identity as much as sexuality is a part of anyone’s life. But does it define everything? It feels like Looking wanted to find the balance between “look at how dull and normal we are” but still wanted to make the entire existence of this group of guys be about being gay. All of that is perfectly fine – I don’t expect a show to be perfect. I don’t expect this or any show to represent an entire, and varied, community. But I do expect that there will be some entertainment value or some compelling reason to watch.

It’s a tough balance to strike, as a fantastic Gawker article points out:

“And, of course, above all else, a piece of gay pop culture, in these United States, in 2014, has the challenge of arguing that gays are people too—that we’re more than sex maniacs and objects of amusement” and “In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last.”

It would be stellar if, as the same great critique put it, the show didn’t make you feel like watching is akin to “paging through a magazine at the dentist”. Looking felt like work to watch, which was disappointing.

It does give me comfort to know that something like Looking (but good heavens, NOT Looking!) makes its way to TV and is seen as just another part of the TV landscape. Looking makes it all seem farcical, as an article at Huffington Post explains:

“Like those mostly forgotten, cheesy 1990’s “gay” movies that we watched because they put us in a fishbowl and were pretty much all we had as media representation and also had dark sets and muted tones and lots of Erasure songs (seriously, guys, in 2014 Erasure’s the band you pick to give your show its Episode Two finish?), Looking spends all of its time telling us what we already know: We are men, we are gay men, and we like to have sex with other gay men. If the show were about straight guys it would be 60 seconds long and a beer commercial.”

Despite all of this, and my relief at being able to cross this show off my Sunday-night viewing list (yes, I like torturing myself with miserable TV), Looking did find its way into so many of my TV-related conversations. Granted, I was always talking about how much it sucks and how much potential it wasted week after week. But perhaps that is a mark of something the show did right – it certainly did not unify any group of people behind it. Was it designed to spark these debates? Opinions were decidedly mixed – plenty of haters and then plenty of people who felt that its presence on TV was proof that there is not really such a thing as “gay life” – life is just life. Fair enough.

Rest in Peace, poet Tomas Tranströmer


I wrote about Swedish Nobel Prize winner, poet Tomas Tranströmer, before. He wrote many evocative poems, but my favorite – and the one most appropriate now, at his passing – is “Svarta vykort”.

Svarta vykort

Almanackan fullskriven, framtid okänd.
Kabeln nynnar folkvisan utan hemland.
Snöfall i det blystilla havet. Skuggor
brottas på kajen.

Mitt i livet händer att döden kommer
och tar mått på människan. Det besöket
glöms och livet fortsätter. Men kostymen
sys i det tysta.

Rough translation:

The calendar is full but the future is blank.
The wires hum the folk-tune of some forgotten land.
Snow-fall on the lead-still sea. Shadows
scrabble on the pier.

In the middle of life it happens that death comes and takes your measurements.
This visit is forgotten and life goes on.
But the suit is sewn in silence.

Another appropriate poem, however irreverent, is Piet Hein‘s “Noble Funerals Arranged”, hinting the irony or injustice of most Nobel winners receiving their awards so late in life that the monetary reward that comes with the honor won’t do much good in supporting that person’s art (not that the award is meant to do that):

Noble Funerals Arranged (Piet Hein)
The Nobel Prize
needs a candidate.
Of course, by the hopeful crowd
you’re stunned,
but none is sufficiently
well-known or great,
or sufficiently
Remember, it’s not a
scholarship late –
it is
a funeral benefit fund.

Rest in peace, Tomas Tranströmer.

Childless Woman’s Lament


I do not have children. Some lost by chance, some lost by choice. I am middle-aged. Sometimes I am deeply content and relieved to be childless, but I am a cliché in that I started to feel that telltale pang of need and/or desire when I hit 30. I never thought I would feel it.

I find myself getting overly and perhaps inexplicably emotional now from superficial triggers. Sometimes when I see a pregnant woman on the tram, sometimes when I see someone with a baby, sometimes when an email circulates at work about someone’s impending maternity leave. Most frequently, the strangest things set me off – often television plots and characters finding themselves unintentionally pregnant, their expressions of uncertainty, their handling of the private fear and joy that early pregnancy brings on and their handling of the unintentionally hurtful things people say to them while the pregnancy is a secret. And it makes me sad and contemplative.

Fictional Mindy Lahiri’s surprise pregnancy on The Mindy Project, a show I never intended to watch but did, brought tears to my eyes. Even when Uma Thurman’s character in television’s crappiest show, The Slap, faced a surprise pregnancy, and her journey (one of my least favorite words) from shock and doubt to acceptance and joy, I found myself feeling choked up. Oh, and of course every single week on Call the Midwife.

The most profound sadness came when I read and reread (and reread) an article from the late neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi, who recently died at age 37. It would have been a sad story anyway, but his eloquence and the peace with which he expresses himself as he wrote parting words for his baby daughter before he died is heartbreaking.

The ending in particular made me cry more than once. I don’t know why I am reading it repeatedly when the grief it generates is so close to the surface and raw, but its beauty keeps pulling me in to read it again:

Yet one person cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters – but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple. When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

-Paul Kalanithi (RIP)

Five unwanted inches


I woke up to a good five inches of fresh snow. Nothing more frustrating than a snow storm when April is only days away. It happens, but it does little more than make me feel helpless. Everyone else felt helpless, too, if Oslo evidence proves anything. Buses and cars were sent into chaotic disarray, unable to maneuver, as the mostly mild winter had given way to springlike weather and warmth in recent weeks. No one was prepared for this. Happily I had nowhere I needed to go – working at home offers that kind of comfort. Still, looking out the window while snow flurries fly, the accumulation inspires only impotent irritation.

Maybe when I wake up tomorrow it will all have disappeared.

On the bright side, I did discover some poetry from Afanasy Fet that addresses this very matter.

Past is past


In 1987 I met a girl who would be, for many years, my best friend. Like all teen relationships, it could be emotional and rocky. Eventually we grew apart, as people do. Back then, though, even after graduation, I still subscribed to the idea that friends are always friends – not in the sense that you remain active in each other’s lives. No, I felt that the love and care that one felt for one’s friends in youth was particularly important – the intensity of the way we feel about everything when we are young almost demands that the love is residual. Again, it need not be active. This friend and I fell out of touch, even though I did try to stay in contact foolishly. All I wanted all along was to let her know that I loved her unconditionally. I learned after silence set in, after I’d heard some unpleasant tales about things happening in her life, after she had changed her address and my letters were returned to me unopened that she had some fear or perception that I judged her, that I thought she was a “fuck up”.

I have written about all of this before – extensively. For ten years after the silence started, I tried to let go but never really had closure, so she haunted my dreams for years. I occasionally attempted to find out only that she was okay (by writing to her parents, who never replied).

In the last ten years or so, she and it faded away. Life marches on, and I did finally let go. She has no digital or online presence, which does not much matter to me except that virtually all the people with whom we went to school have come online, found me and want to know how she is doing. They assume because we were so close in youth that I might be the only person to know how she is. Little do they know, they have a better chance of running into her and finding out something about her than I do.

All of this is immaterial because it has nothing to do with my current life. Except for whatever reason, I happened to look at her mother’s Facebook page recently – which did not exist many years ago when I last thought of her. I had a look at her page and the pictures there (one of which is a two-year-old picture of my friend; seeing the picture nearly took my breath away somehow – to see this person who had been so central to my existence 20+ years ago but who simply does not exist to me for all intents and purposes. It affected me in ways that no other “absence” of that kind has).

I never assumed that there was any negativity or bad blood between her family and me. I took a chance and sent her mother a Facebook friend request. She apparently rejected it in less than 24 hours. Even though it has been nearly 20 years since I saw or talked to her family or her, I suppose the passive rejection still hurt the 13-year-old me but also definitively shut the door on the idea of resolution or closure… or most importantly, just knowing that my former friend is okay (I suppose the picture her mother posted is the closest I will get). It could be selfish that I am so concerned about knowing. I am sure my friend has her own personal and perfectly legitimate reasons for leaving the past completely behind, and I respect that – now more than ever. At the same time, I wish I could tell her – or that she just knew – how dear she was to me, how much I loved her, how much potential and intelligence and “vision” I saw in her. Hopefully the life she leads is guided by love, potential, intelligence and vision that are inherently hers.