shot in the back-shot in the arm

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Not quite an Alpine vista, the world of rural western Sweden in mid-March was this time mostly sun-filled, a shot in the arm for getting things done. Pleasurable things. Okay, maybe hauling recyclables to the recycle station doesn’t count. Must be done, and there is some pleasure to be found in accomplishing the must-do stuff, too.

Conversation (so much laughing). Walking. Writing. Films, thanks to MUBI (Fogo – what a weird accent these islanders have, such breathtaking scenery; I’m All Yours – an unusual French film that had the makings of a really good story but was not sure what it wanted to be and suffered from trying to clumsily weave too many narrative threads into it; Catch Me Daddy – quite a grim and disturbing picture, mostly filmed in West Yorkshire with a bunch of foul-mouthed Scots in the mix). Music (mostly Elena Frolova – various things from her, inspired by digging out my CD of Frolova setting Marina Tsvetaeva poetry to music, but also Nippon Girls volumes 1 and 2).

Reading (First, I quickly devoured a basic and silly book on developing ‘psychic abilities’. Not because I think it will work or because I want to develop clairvoyance. I thought it might give more insight into developing deeper intuition.

The rest of my reading time was devoured – and I mean devoured; time is devoured by the book, not the other way around – by David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest. I’m still only halfway through. For a month I sat at about 2% completion, according to my Kindle, but in the last two days, I managed to chip away at it to reach the halfway mark. (It is, after all, well over 1,000 pages.) I don’t necessarily like it, but I marvel at it. I really like select parts of it, and others I can take or leave. I suppose this is symptomatic of the ‘bigger is better’ credo that seems to have propelled the book forward, which  Michiko Kakutani referred to in her original review:

“Perfect, however, “Infinite Jest” is not: this 1,079-page novel is a “loose baggy monster,” to use Henry James’s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind.”

“The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.”

Sometimes that “encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind” is fascinating; sometimes it’s pages of mind-numbing, sleep-inducing quicksand. As a whole, the concept is fascinating but digging into the details isn’t always.

The language – both its volume and particular use – can be overwhelming – the breadth, depth, randomness – lack of narrative or plot-driven clarity while still somehow offering some other kind of clarity – is not something I can really explain or describe or review. It is exactly what it is unapologetically, with its sudden, pages-long description of the terror of suddenly moving from aural telephone to videophony or little statements like, “Son, you’re ten, and this is hard news for somebody ten, even if you’re almost five-eleven, a possible pituitary freak.” Haha. You never know whether to laugh, cry, be puzzled. Less story or narrative than a radical transformation of language and form that feels that it inadvertently (though this is quite deliberate) ends up telling many stories anyway.

It’s just so much, so complex, so full of digressions, but the kind you can get engrossed in, not distracted by. Random but not.

Long passages about addiction and AA “sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works…” “The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you’ve got the Disease like he’s got the Disease…”.

Relatable, but at the same time so far out there, it’s not. You have to sit and wonder about the writer with the kind of mind who produced this tome much more than the content of the final product itself in some ways (and he was clearly tortured enough to take his own life).)

Fullest

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An excerpt:

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real,
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” – Mary Oliver

One of life’s greatest missteps and misfortunes is to not really live. To question what might have been, to let opportunities and people go who might have helped us grow, explore and see things in new ways – to question because we did not choose to experience those things for one reason or another. Our practical lives and minds steer us toward clear and safe paths: keep the miserable job because it is stable. Stay in unhappy relationships because you won’t find someone better suited or because you can’t bear to be alone. Don’t spontaneously travel to a far-flung land because it is dangerous – or because you just can’t see yourself being that spontaneous. Stop listening to music because it’s… I don’t know, what young people do? (As the lovely, old Australian film Strictly Ballroom reminds us: “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”)

Without really living – embracing, learning, loving, doing – haven’t you only visited this world?

The abuser
I had a job for many years that, in no uncertain terms, was bad. I liked the actual work and subject matter (I did learn a lot) and loved many of my colleagues. But the organizational culture and company – totally delusional. And they played the role of abuser. Most people there were zombified automatons, brainwashed to think they were making a difference, to think they could do no better elsewhere, that every place is the same or would be worse or – god forbid – that the way this place operated was normal. But my nomadic nature taught me better – I had changed roles and companies frequently and was doing other work in parallel that showed me just how miserable that place was.

Almost everyone with whom I worked closely has left and all of them express to me this feeling of having left an abusive partner – having been told repeatedly, “You will never find something better. You aren’t good enough for something else. Nothing else will be better than this anyway.” As soon as they left, a giant weight lifted from their shoulders, and they realized, “Wow, I can actually do things. I am actually effective and smart.” And the toxic nature of the relationship and culture of the previous company becomes clearer than ever.

But while there are the few who have been “liberated” there are still the herds and hordes who haven’t and probably never will be. Mostly “lifers” who have nothing to compare it to and would not have the skills or sense to make it anywhere else.

I wonder when I think of these people whether they are truly living. In some cases, I would say, no, they are not living according to my definition of living – but then they don’t have to. They can define it for themselves. Some people there are just going for the paycheck, camaraderie and flexibility on holidays and their external/non-work lives are full of living. Some like the exceedingly family-friendly nature of the company and stay for more than a decade while having a family. These things make sense. But the die-hard, drank-the-Kool-Aid types don’t make much sense, and I can’t compare what they are doing to living. (At least I would ask in the end of my life “if I have made of my life something particular, and real…” –and the answer would be no.)

The seeker
What would life be without music? It’s something about which I am passionate – even if I have never been one to make music (which I kind of regret – but at the same time, it’s not such a deep regret or loss that I will ponder it at the end of my life wondering why I didn’t do something about it).

But no, I am on a constant journey of discovering new music – and sharing it (like it or not). I’ve written about this before, and about the supposed drop-off in music discovery at age 27 (or something similarly strange. Oh no, 33. As if that is so much better). I will never understand this.

The other day I told a friend I might be in Gothenburg for a concert; she asked me what show, knowing full well she would have no idea who it was because she is just not into following music. It defies all logic for her – and for many of my friends – that I can put together a mix of music several times a year with so many things they have never heard of.

But for me I can’t say I think I would be living without constantly seeking out new music. To fully live life, it needs a soundtrack.

The lover
I do not love easily or often. When I do, on these rarest of occasions, I know it. I know I love and there are no questions or doubts about the feeling or what it is or what it means. (Does it mean there is no fear? Of course not. But there is no doubt whatsoever about what the feeling is.) When I love truly and deeply, pulled by an undeniable force that I can’t control, I would go to the ends of the earth. Despite my infamous insular, self-driven and independent nature, I am, by love, transformed to become expansive in my inclusion of the person I love, inviting them to also inhabit the world we create together – a person for whom I would go anywhere, do almost anything and defend, support and love through dark and light, bad and good. This all-encompassing approach should make it clear why I don’t and can’t feel this way about just anyone (as much as I simultaneously revile and admire people who think they fall in love with every person they meet – the whole thing must be very easy for them. Not to be dismissive, of course).

It happens that this infernal New Age book I recently read (yes, I keep referring back to it) described well how I might describe it. In addition I would say that love is… or, maybe no, not love, but lovingactive loving – is fundamentally a conversation. A conversation that goes on, lingers, does not end, that continues even in silence.

“…the value and process of soulful romance rests in what he calls radical conversation, in which one intends, continuously, to discover more and ever more about oneself and the other. Through such an exchange between two mysteries, one draws nearer to the central mystery of life.

Loving the otherness of the partner is a transcendent event, for one enters the true mystery of relationship in which one is taken to the third place – not you plus me, but we who are more than ourselves with each other.”

“Radical conversation has emotional, imaginal, sexual and spiritual dimensions as well as verbal ones. And the conversation is approached not only with skill and intent but also with innocence and wonder. Neither the other nor the self is a fixed thing. The bottom is never reached. One hopes to be forever surprised.

But of course it’s not all delight and ease. Far from it. We are constantly discovering how we project our shadow – both its light and dark aspects – onto each other. The dance of soulful romance always includes owning back those projections and transferences. Our relationship will expose all the places we are emotionally blocked, blinded, wounded, caged, protected, or otherwise limited.” -Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft

Does this mean no doubts ever creep in? No. But they don’t negate, erase, eliminate or diminish the underlying feeling or its strength.

Doubt’s a constant stream of questions (these don’t all apply to me; just a generic list): Am I rebounding? Am I clear-headed enough to embark on something significant? Am I repeating the exact same pattern that got me into a long and one-sided love affair from years ago? Am I ready for this? Or, for example, as one friend pointed out about people ending long relationships and possibly heading into new ones, have they really grappled with the question, “Who am I outside the old/long relationship?”

Yes, questions and doubts because that is what it is to interact and be with those with whom we are in love: to shut out the noise of too many superfluous questions and practicalities, all of which do not matter at the core of it all, and to find a place together (emotionally more than physically) that is both centered and calm at the same time as setting you alight and keeping you deeply rooted in the moment, wanting more but being content all at once.

At the core of it all, I will still live fully. I am fully alive. And I love. And I know I love.

Photo (c) – the late, great Paul Costanich

Why I Changed My Mind: Julie Delpy

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Julie Delpy is, for lack of a better term, a real woman. A woman of many talents, not afraid to be herself, not afraid to be quirky. And not even afraid to be a bitch. When she was younger, it was hard to see things like Europa Europa, her guest arc on the TV hit ER or Trois Couleurs: Blanc and see her as anything but bitchy – her roles were sort of icy or manipulative in ways that made it hard to see her in any other light. And things like Before Sunrise with the generally overrated Ethan Hawke did not lend any charm – a favorite “romance” flick for Gen Xers, Before Sunrise, never appealed to me (like most Gen X pop-culture goalposts and anthems, such as Reality Bites – also with Hawke or Singles, which still does not make sense to me).

The subsequent nine-year intervals between sequels to Before Sunrise, though, have made the films Before Sunset and Before Midnight quite compelling – and I think this is all down to Delpy. Since I don’t get and have never gotten the Ethan Hawke thing (somehow he was the one in Dead Poet’s Society who was singled out for attention, when it was Robert Sean Leonard‘s passionate and tragic turn as Neil that got my attention. Or the passionate, do-anything-for-the-girl classic guy-with-crush performance of Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet. What did Ethan Hawke do in that movie that was so remarkable except defy authority and be the first to jump up on a desk at the end? Yet Ethan Hawke has been the movie star and these others have been “television actors” in popular and well-respected shows, such as House and The Good Wife (and no, I don’t mean that in the snide way Warden Gentles did in Arrested Development), I can only imagine that the load is carried in large part by Delpy.

After the aforementioned “cold” roles in her early career, followed by some missteps like Killing Zoe and An American Werewolf in Paris, I think I could be forgiven my rush to harsh judgment. None of this is to say that her talents went unrecognized – I never watched these films and believed she lacked talent or was just playing variations of herself. I just wondered how it was that she always played this aloof or sometimes misguided character (thinking here of her “Leni” in Europa Europa – she was passionate all right, but the passion was wholly devoted to producing children for Hitler’s “pure Germany”. Perhaps in hindsight I can applaud Delpy’s believability because that role had to have been hard to pull off).

My re-evaluation of Delpy began when I saw Before Sunset. Yeah, I know – I hated Before Sunrise but still had enough curiosity to see where Jesse and Celine (the characters) ended up. I like to torture myself this way, watching things I don’t like, listening to music I don’t like – perhaps just to remind me that there are other, much more beautiful things to watch and hear in the world. But Before Sunset surprised me. Later I saw Delpy in other roles but really decided I liked her after seeing Two Days in Paris (and later, the even funnier Two Days in New York). (I also enjoyed the on-screen keying of cars that Delpy’s father engages in – dismissing it as “normal French behavior” – exactly what I have been trying to tell everyone who isn’t French!) Her performances were subdued and grounded in reality – and that transformed the way I saw her and interpreted her roles.

The change in my opinion also came about because I liked learning that Delpy is so active behind the camera as a writer and director – I love the idea that someone creates the stories they want to see, or they want to appear in. I have read a few interviews where Delpy has kind of downplayed the uniqueness of being a female director, particularly because France actually has quite a number of well-respected, well-known women directors. But this is rather an anomaly in the cinematic world. Not every country has a Claire Denis, an Agnès Jaoui, a Catherine Breillat, a Josiane Balasko, a Mia Hansen-Løve and the countless other women who direct films in France. Delpy can, I hope, forgive the rest of the cinema-loving world for admiring the rarity of her multitasking, multitalented jack-of-all-trades approach to her artistic career.

My feelings should not be overly influenced by what I read or the person Delpy is or appears to be – but the truth is, reading about her own feelings of insecurity or feeling like “a cow” after her child was born – and seeing how she actually looks like a real woman – a stunningly beautiful and stunningly natural woman – imbues her performances with a kind of earthy reality that is not easily found, felt or seen elsewhere. I don’t often have commentary on how actors and actresses look. They are resoundingly “perfect” and put together most of the time, and the especially beautiful and polished are slathered in accolades if they do anything that might make them seem anything less than perfect. It’s like becoming a regular or slightly unattractive person makes a beautiful person an automatic consideration for acting awards. Is that really the measure of how well someone acts? How much vanity they are willing to give up – temporarily, note – to alter their appearance?

Not the point. The point is that Delpy actually looks and sounds the part (“the part” being a woman in her 30s/early 40s). Contributing to the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the conversation – content and pace – throughout feels almost dull at times but in a refreshing and good way. Why? Because that’s how real conversation is. Sometimes it digs into emotion, sometimes it digs into feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, sometimes it is witty, sometimes it is just the kind of petty shit that people hurl at each other in moments of weakness, despair, anger. It’s not perfect – but in that way, it’s perfect. A perfect reflection of everyday life. In Before Midnight, Delpy especially – but really the whole cast (which is mostly Delpy and Hawke) – captures, with almost no action – the up-and-down nature of a relationship. Before Sunrise was lauded for supposedly capturing this, but it’s easy to have two young, idealistic adults meet and talk all night and have it be the most romantic night of their lives. Before Midnight, though, is entirely another level of “romantic” because it had to capture two people who had actually idealized each other when they were young – it showed the reality of what happens if someone pursues the “what might have been” or “the one who got away”. It isn’t going to be ideal. If anything, the dialogue and performances convey perfectly the fragility of relationships. All the things unsaid, the resentment, the misinterpretations – and the question of whether love is ever really enough.