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Happiness In Grief

I have been struggling through the death of my sister, who just turned 29 this August and died two months later.  Her death hit close to home for everyone around her, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family and her friends to cope with this situation.  What has been so difficult is finding the right soundtrack for my misery.  I love music and I download it constantly and listen to it whenever I get the chance.  I’m a teacher and you can find me jamming away in the morning before school starts when I should be making connections with students, on my prep periods, and at cafés after school grading.  I listen to music on my commute, when I run, when I read, when I write, when I blog.  It is always there in the background.  What I didn’t realize until a few months ago was…

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Lovely little piece.

Happiness In Grief

To recap if you’re stumbling across this site for the first time: my sister, Alex, died two months ago.  I’m trying to get over it.  I’m having trouble.  This is a blog of my attempts to find happiness in the world through my grief.  There.  Now you have it, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  Sorry for all those who have faithfully read the first few blog posts and didn’t need those first four sentences at all.  It’s over. Now:

This all started two nights ago.  Friday.  I’d gone to a cafe around five o’clock to get some grading done before Friday night, the night when I do nothing significantly different from any other night, began.  There’s always the promise of some dastardly deed, some collegiate-style obscenity that might happen, some high school level prank.  Sadly, the life of a teacher often kills all desire to commit such acts while…

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Happiness In Grief

Warning/Admission of Guilt: I have never read Eat, Pray, Love. I have not seen the movie “Eat, Pray, Love.” I have had many questions about whether or not to underline versus quotation mark movies, and I have landed on the side of putting them in quotation marks, if only because Roger Ebert did it…and if anyone should have known, it would have been Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert wrote, “‘Eat Pray Love’ is shameless wish-fulfillment, a Harlequin novel crossed with a mystic travelogue, and it mercifully reverses the life chronology of many people, which is Love Pray Eat.”  Even though I was told I should read “Eat, Pray, Love” before my trip to Bali, I didn’t.  I took my sister’s advice. My sister said, “I hated that book. The movie was worse.”

The Love portion of “Eat, Pray, Love” took place in Bali, where my sister was…

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Happiness In Grief

I’m one of those jerks who talks about death.  Writes about death.  I never, never,never, talk about death.  That would be wrong.  I just sit in the lunch room and stew over my mess of nerves, and my regular compulsion to cry and I think to myself, “I want to talk about death with someone. I should have a frank discussion about the mind-numbing feeling of grief that disengages me from the most basic of humans facts…like that one time I forgot I was in the bathroom…on the toilet…doing my business…started crying…and completely forgot why I was there.”  I want to tell someone at work this, but then I’d be the guy who may not have remembered he was in the bathroom.  Side note: I always remember when I’m in the bathroom at work.  It’s a great place to hide and get away from people. I have admitted…

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Happiness In Grief

If I could photograph the ghost on my shoulder, I would.  Polaroid, Instagram, iPhone, I wouldn’t care.  I just want the proof so I can go around and shove the picture in people’s faces and make them believe that my misery is not my own creation, but cause by something else.  All I want is to pretend that I am not the victim of my own feelings.  That my sister is causing them, and she is still some being that is at fault.  I only want to be blameless.  I only want to be happy.  I can be neither.

It has been embarrassing.  I have become the victim of mourning, and I have never been a victim.  I have been struck by another car, a driver has thrown their door open into the bike lane as I have ridden by shoving me head first into traffic, with my helmeted head…

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Happiness In Grief

I was wrapping Christmas presents this afternoon.  There was father: book.  Mother: iPad accessory.  Friend: book.  Friend: game.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Unroll the paper, measure the gift, pull, cut, trim, tape, trim, tape, trim, tape, tape, tape, ribbon, bow, next gift. After the fifth present it became a mechanical process, almost boring.  Almost…work.  How terrible, no? Terrible to think that emotions of giving, kindness, secrets and surprises would become dread, bother, monotony.

I’ve mentioned before that my dead sister took the job of wrapping gifts very seriously.  She was the one that always made Christmas an all caps, exclamation points, jazz hands affair: CHRISTMAS!!! She would wear the Santa hat, spend hours wrapping gifts, decorate the tree, decorate cookies my mom would make.  She wasn’t much for cooking, but she was all about the decoration.  Cooking was work.  Somehow all the other work she did decorating the…

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Author: Michael Smith

Reviewer: Brendan

Rating:  8/10

                An Unsung Hero, by Michael Smith is a non-fiction account of Antarctic exploration.  Set in the early 1900’s, the book catalogs the history behind man’s pursuit of the South Pole, a mysterious and daunting place that was referred to at the time as the ‘last undiscovered frontier’.  Primarily, the book focuses on the wily and glory-seeking men who try to conquer the Pole by becoming the first to reach it, but its real substance lies in its descriptions of the destructive and disastrous nature of trying to go places, where quite frankly, man has no business going.  The sub-zero Antarctic temperatures and its moving glaciers often prove too much for even the strongest of men.

                This book provided keen insight into the limits of the human body. As I sat in my warm bedroom, with the book in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other, I read about these men sledging through the Arctic snow for months at a time, while enduring temperatures that often dropped to 100 degrees below zero.  I often found myself in a state of awe.  “How is this possible?” I thought.  “These men are crazy!”  I couldn’t help but consider myself ‘soft’ in comparison to them.  On the same token, I deemed myself considerably more ‘intelligent’ than they were, for whom in their right mind would ever sign up to endure something like this?  It was both captivating and entertaining to contemplate these things.  Less exciting, however, was the books lack of description in regards to internal conflict.  The book was written from a third person viewpoint, by a narrator who had no specific ties to any of the experiences.  He was simply a researcher with an affinity for the subject.  This, I believe, limited his ability to get inside the minds of the men who went on the expeditions.  We rarely knew what they were thinking as they endured hardship.  Were some of them on the verge of losing their minds? Did they cry themselves to sleep at night?  Did they pray that they would survive?  These are all things that I would have liked to know.

                Overall, the book provided a compelling read.  It had enough substance and excitement to generate interesting discussion with friends and family who wanted to know what I was reading.  It also provided many opportunities for me to put my book down and surf the Internet for more information on Antarctic travel.  I found myself wanting to know more about the subject.  I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking a non-fiction book that is manly, adventurous, and informational.

I’ve been reading almost all day today.  This is the first time I’ve done that in over a year.  I remember the list time I was reading all day was last summer–reading through some of the more appealing Pulitzer Prize winners.  I haven’t kept up that habit this summer, opting for the easier task of watching movies and going to weddings. And then there was the beach house, at this point a holy ground of my life.  I think if I ever thought I was going crazy that place would cure me.

While I was reading, I took a chance to smell my left hand’s fingertips.  They smelled like the handsoap in my bathroom–lavender, I think.  Something flowery like that, at least.  And for a moment I wish they smelled like cigarette or cigar smoke.  I wouldn’t take hookah.  Too sweet.  I could do without sweet right now.  I could do with bitter and dingy.   There was always something about cigarette smoke on the tips of my fingers.  I’d always smell for it in a shower, scrubbing all over my body but using my fingers as the litmus test.

When I smelled the right hand, it smelled clean like baby powder, I slap it on the back of my neck on warm days, and pretend it does anything for the sweat.  I used an spray can air freshener this year in my classroom, something called Powder Fresh.  It smelled exactly like baby powder.  I used to spray it at the floor around the kid who had just farted, and that always eased my worries–but that smell always smells like tabula rasa, indelibly blank and unbelievably clean, simple, and pure.

I wanted to smell used, and thought for a moment I’d go buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke one or three on the porch to ease my worries.  Then I’d take a shower and make sure my finger only barely smelled like impending cancer.

This is a strange thought because I’ve only ever smoked about a pack of cigarettes in my lifetime, and only a few more cigars.  And lately, I haven’t smoked anything but hookah and even that hasn’t been for months. That was my bargain with myself–just hookah, and I’d feel healthy.  Unfortunately, I did feel healthier.

So I thought about drinking, but I only have a bottle of nice wine, and all my other liquor is either sealed in my old bedroom in Tallahassee, sitting in a closed store in Philadelphia, or corked up and staying that way here in my month-old apartment.

Drinking alone and smoking.  Those are my ritualized habits of self-destruction and vice–the activities that will rot my brain and blacken my soul and one day probably send me straight to Lucifer himself for a one-on-one.  If only life would be so cruel to make those a little more popular, I think I’d be a happy man.  But drinking alone sounds a little alcoholic, so I’ve only had one drink this summer, outside the aforementioned weddings.  And a smoker has become such a pariah that even the places that promote public drinking have banned it.

So I was reading in bed, and have been all day, but that felt far too normal and banal and abominable.  I twitch my hands instead and think about ways to help my brain buzz into unfocused splendor.

I’m waiting for the school year to start, to start teaching again, but all I can really think about is the inevitable vice that stress will bring.  I guess I’m preparing my to-be-tarnished soul.  I would watch Jeopardy, or Wheel of Fortune, but I’ve decided to forgo cable this year, and don’t really miss it.  But the ritualized gambling of game shows would, by proxy, take a load off the feeling I have to do something unhealthy.

In waiting for the school year to begin, I’ve been making worksheets and copying out pages of workbooks for the students, to be on top of my game for the upcoming onslaught of inevitable stresses on my time management, patience, and professionalism.  I don’t know, but something about a 16-year-old high school freshman shouting obscenities at me or another adult seems to stretch my civility before 8 AM.  Instead, I wrote six quizzes, a three day project, and a homework sheet this morning before noon.  I hardly didn’t know what to do with myself.

So it goes–the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my reading.  Thanks Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean, sure.  There are those wonderful themes about racism in To Kill a Mockingbird–but “to kill a mockingbird” doesn’t really sound right in any situation and doesn’t roll off the tongue so neatly as “so it goes.”  It’s become a motto of me, not in the original literary sense of accepting death, but in the sense that teenagers are always going to be teenagers, and teenagers do stupid things and they won’t be happy about the punishments of it.

But I won’t be happy about having to always be around the suck of it, and I won’t always be happy about doling out consequences, and I won’t be happy hearing the troubles of children who think so infantilely for having had such adult experiences, but most days they aren’t mollifying so I find myself stuck in another year that promises to be just as interesting as all the rest.

With students coming, I seem to be smelling my fingertips and wondering why they don’t smell like smoke, and I check up on my stock of liquor, and I think about Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and the $100,000 Pyramid and even Match Game–for no good reason other than that seems to be the show I watched most when I was home in high school and had the time to flip the channel to the Game Show Network.

All the while I try to imagine nothing.

So it goes.

A lot of people consider The Usual Suspects to be a great movie.  I don’t even consider it good.  Here’s why:

Imagine you were watching a movie (not hard to imagine), and in the vein of Citizen Kane, there is a question that keeps getting asked over and over and over again (E.g. What is rosebud?  Why Rosebud?).  That one’s a little more difficult.  Better yet, think about it in terms of a mystery–Who is the serial stalker?–and people keep asking “Who did it?” over and over and over again.  You expect that from some movies.  In the case of mystery movies, it really drives the plot, it’s the essential question that motivates why the story movies along and what goal the investigator has.

In a more complicated (not that most mystery movies aren’t complicated), movie like Citizen Kane where you have a guy at the beginning of the movie calling out “Rosebud!  Rosebud!” and people wonder what it is, the essential question works  a little differently.  In Citizen Kane, it was a starter to the almost epic biography of a man, his life, and what he most valued, which it turns out is Rosebud–this isn’t answered until the end of the movie, as a big reveal to explain what he really valued in life even though he couldn’t have it.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

Then there’s The Usual Suspects, which operates like a high class caper film.  It’s like a mystery, a mystery with the driving question: “Who is Kaiser Soze?”  (And, if you’re familiar with the restaurant Moe’s, which I love, then you’ll know the movie was popular enough for them to make a ‘Who is Kaiser Salsa’ salsa flavor after the movie.  That’s some pretty big stuff.  You know a movie has real popular weight when it’s satirized in restaurant food names.)  And, if you know the tricks of mystery capers, the solution will be one of three.

  1. Kaiser Soze will be a character we know, possibly the character we know the best in the film. (E.g. Fight Club)
  2. Kaizer Soze will be a minor character introduced at the beginning of the film with a small motive that is referenced at the end of the film with a big reveal.
  3. Kaiser Soze will be a character we don’t see until the last scene of the movie, a reveal that gives satisfaction to a something like a real life chase. (E.g. Zodiac)

But we know the answer before we start the film because the film was directed by Bryan Singer.  And Bryan Singer is a film nerd.  He’s actually a nerd in many senses (e.g. comic book) but he’s a film nerd.  He probably knows movie history in and out, has seen all the film noirs like Laura, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon that defined The Usual Suspects.  So he knows which way the pendulum must fall.  The greatest, and most personally pleasing solution for directors like Bryan Singer (please note any movie by M. Night Shayamalan).  The most pleasing solution is to have the answer in front of you the entire time.  He will always choose option one.  No questions asked.

This makes the movie, plotwise, almost boring to watch because we’re only introduced to one main character that plays through the entire movie–Verbal.  So the answer is staring (literally, staring) at us right from the beginning. Also, the plot doesn’t make much sense.  We are told a story from the beginning through Verbal, but I couldn’t not really keep track of the story.  At once we were in California, then New York, and characters saying things that should mean something but meant nothing.  They decided to kill someone.  I knew not who the person was or what their importance was.  I was bored.

Thank goodness Singer is an excellent filmmaker.  Because technically, the movie is quite creative and interesting to watch.  He sets his film shots up very well, does a lot with color, tone, and mood in his scenes, and though unevenly edited, has a good overall flow to his film.  He made a great film noir, in the tradition of The Big Sleep, and for that I can fault him nothing.  The Big Sleep is so twisted with its own plot complications that the movie itself doesn’t actually make sense–this is a pretty well known fact in the film community.

But, let me say this.  I think the movie is pretty good–if only for the knowledge that it does well what a filmi noir is supposed to do.  That being, confuse, confound, confirm the dearth of life, and potentially have an interesting reveal at the end.  But the plot isn’t there, and it should be there.  A movie is in essence a story in pictures first.  And if I like the pictures, but don’t really get the story, why should I care?

At least The Big Sleep flowed.  A movie I consider to be only a step below The Usual Suspects is The Black Dahlia, which is a pretty awful movie in its own right–a film noir like The Usual Suspects, with too much plot for an audience to care.  Usual Suspects is a far cry from the much more carefully laid out, and classier film noir, LA Confidential.   It does not, cannot compete.  So, while The Usual Suspects may have its thousands of die-hard fans, this guy here isn’t, and there’s a reason why: it’s just not interesting enough to be good, let alone great.

You judge for yourself.  6/10.

Sometimes I wish I had been born British.  I have a feeling my sense of humor is more British than anything else.  As I wander through some of the most hilarious movies moments that reel through my brain, they all tend to be British, not American.  I do not find many American (note: many, I did not say all…) comedies funny.  I don’t know why.  It might be an attitude issue.  It might be a preference.  It might be something else.

Regardless, the reason why I bemoan my preference for comedic style is because I went to the movie theater the other night (a rare gift of a mid-week Federal/school holiday) to see the movie “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”  I was excited for the movie.  It has an all-star cast, and a preview that promised a hilarious premise with some very good potential.

The movie begins with Ewan McGregor, a young newspaperman who interviews a supposed werido, and shortly thereafter (no connection in events) is dumped by his girlfriend for a one-armed man.  The fact that the man she is attracted to has only one arm seems to have been a significant focus of the filmmakers.  They obviously though it quite funny.  I didn’t really find it that funny.  Yes, she caressed it, fondled it, held it.  But it just wasn’t funny.  Even by the end of the movie, the camera found its way back to the fake arm, and I kept finding my way back to the idea that this just wasn’t funny.

Back to the plot.  In an attempt to not end up just another nameless, uneventful, laughable death, our newspaperman decides to travel to Iraq, to become a war correspondent, in hopes of leading a better life, and in hopes of wooing his lover back with his tales of daring-do.    This is where he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, pictured above, staring at a goat) who was a part of a secret government cover-up.  Also, a dance instructor.  Currently on a secret mission–which remains a mystery for most of the movie.  While our newspaperman and our suspicious Secret Agent traverse the Iraqi terrain, Cassady recounts his adventures in the army as part of a secret brain trust, those men with special abilities.  He is particularly clairvoyant.

Along the way, Kevin Spacey’s character is introduced.  He is the force of evil in the film–as much as there can be.  He is also somewhat clairvoyant, but not nearly as good as Clooney.  So, he enacts his revenge against the group, in more ways than one.  That is all I’ll give for plot.

And, in my ongoing rant with movies, it’s as though the funniest moments in the movie are because of who is saying something, and not what they are saying.  Like in Anchorman, whenever you hear people quote it, you never hear people just say it.  They say it with the character inflections.  Probably because it wouldn’t be that funny without the particular character actors saying it that way they do.  A friend of mine doesn’t impersonate Will Ferrell, he does a great Ron Burgundy.

But what’s funny about saying un-funny sentences strangely?  If it isn’t funny in its own right, if it’s only funny because of how someone is saying it, why bother with it at all?

The lack of clever lines in this movie is about the only strike I would give it.  The acting is hilarious.  Clooney is a very competent actor.  Jeff Bridges, playing the role he was made for, plays it well.  Kevin Spacey is hilarious.  Ewan MacGregor engages in a very funny conversation about Jedi warriors.  And I’m sure the conversation would not have been as funny if he has not already played a Jedi warrior in the Star Wars films.  Again, funny in the context of who is saying it, but not funny beyond that.  Not funny at all.  Particularly weak as a script, although strong as a concept.

Judge for yourself though.  I am admittedly biased in a negative way.

I would rank it 2.5 out of four stars.

3 out of 5.

6 out of 10. (One of the lower grades I normally give.)

Good.  By no means great.  Somewhat memorable.  Maybe a good Christmas gift for a few.  A decent movie night movie.  Not too much beyond that.

Although the trailer was so good, they probably should have started with that and moved on from there to make the movie.  Alas, if only most movies would take that advice.


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