I almost didn’t post this reflection, feeling like it was too small, but when I saw this ad in the Los Angeles Times today, I couldn’t photo (1)help myself. If I can save just one of you from sharing my misadventure in movie choice, it will be worth the risk of coming across as completely uncool. I cringe already as I think of my hippest friends, musicians, artists and filmmakers, alike saying,

“You didn’t like the latest Coen brother’s film? What’s wrong with you?”

On the night after Christmas, Tim and I had a rare opportunity to go on a date night with my sister and her husband. A movie was on the docket after our dinner at Eat Chow and three contenders were up: American Hustle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers won, but ultimately, we lost: $20 and two hours of precious time.

I would offer a spoiler alert, but there is nothing to spoil. Nothing happens.

Let me rephrase that. Nothing happens that we care about.

Sure, Llewyn has a life. It’s just not a life you’d pay to watch. I’d pay to listen to him on stage. The music is phenomenal, but the character and the film is crap. He gets women pregnant, pays for abortions, sleeps on couches, drinks too much, takes advantage of friends and then blows up at them. He is smug and scornful of everyone surrounding him. None of those things necessarily preclude him from being a character I root for. The problem is that he doesn’t learn from any of it. He deliberately misses opportunities to do the right thing, or make a decent choice. Even when he tries to do right, it usually turns out all wrong. Basically he’s a prick, who doesn’t have the ability, or desire to be anything different. We all know guys like that, but we certainly don’t pay to watch them in action.

Tim and I needed to cleanse our palate, so we snuck away on Saturday morning and saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.imgres-1 This time, we were thrilled, perhaps overcompensating a bit for the debacle of Llewyn’s life. Walter is a man with a small life, trading it in for big daydreams. He “zones out,” content to imagine whom he might be. But when life amps up its inevitable challenges and Llewyn is content to stew in his inadequacies, Walter finally is not. He will step outside of himself, get on a plane, stand up to the bully, speak to the girl. Standard Hollywood fare perhaps, but well-done, beautifully shot, clever and compared to the Coens’ work, a relief.

Don’t get me wrong. I love art house films. I don’t need happy endings, or easy answers. Not every death needs to be followed by a resurrection, but offering viewers some way to connect, or empathize with the protagonist or villain is almost a requisite for a film to be worth watching (in my mind) and the Coen brothers didn’t provide it this time around.

Ironically, we chose the Coens’ film because of the critical reviews. Raves all around, but as I walked out of the theater, all I could think was that the emperor had no clothes. 93% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes told audiences to go, but I can’t believe 93% of the critics who watched this film and thought it was worth watching. I imagine at least half of them walked out as dumbstruck and disappointed as we were, but were also too afraid to admit it.

So be it. At the risk of coming across as naïve and uncultured, don’t go see Inside Llewyn Davis. Save yourself some time and money; if you like folk music, buy the soundtrack instead.

Dear Readers:

This month, my husband Tim is trying to support me in my endeavor to be more still, more present, more aware and more in love.

To that end, he offered to write a blog post for me. He’s offered in the past, in a half-joking way, but this time I actually took him up on it, much to his surprise and immediate consternation. However, he did it and I think he did it pretty darn well. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the musing of my better half.

First Time/ This Time

I am not a very cultured person. I spend far too much time watching sports and Seinfeld re-runs, and far too little time reading good books or poetry. There is not a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from NBA games or from Jerry, George, Elaine, & Kramer. So I’ll take it where I can get it, and I seem to get most of it from song lyrics and movies.

Which brings me to U2. Bono’s song lyrics are about as close as I get to reading poetry. I’m not sure where he’d rank amongst the all-time greats, like Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings , or any of the other famous poets that I’ve heard of but have never read, but it seems to me like he’s knows what he’s doing.

One of my favorite lines is from a song called “Vertigo.”

         a feeling so much

         stronger than a thought

Often, Bono’s words have a way of pulling me out of myself and opening me up, allowing something to sneak in through the side door and change my perspective.

Recently I was feeling like I was in a bit of a funk. I have been in one of those “glass half empty” modes for the past couple weeks, months, years, decades (who are we kidding?). I have recently come to accept that, unfortunately, this is my default setting. And although I am aware of my blessings (my wife, my kids, my health, my friends & extended family, my business… the list could go on & on) I spend much more time and energy focused on the things that aren’t quite “right” (the recession, finances, my kid’s behavior, my favorite team’s ineptitude, Homeland Season 3…). The list could go on & on.

I know I am blessed, but I don’t really feel it. And as Bono reminds me, a feeling is stronger than a thought.

This is my ongoing struggle: feeling what I know to be true. Because when I feel it, everything changes. Everything is… better.

“Vertigo’s” lyrics were ricocheting around inside my head when I was trying to find something to watch on TV the other night. As chance would have it (or maybe it’s a combination of divine intervention + the rapidly approaching holiday season), an oldie but a goodie was just starting: Love, Actually (a semi-cheesy, romantic comedy from the 90’s starring Hugh Grant and a bunch of other English people). I’d seen this movie when it came out, and a couple of times since, and always thought it was pretty decent: funny, clever, and sweet, with good looking actors and witty writing. What’s not to like?

The movie opens with montage of reunion scenes at Heathrow Airport, with a voice-over from Hugh Grant, one of the main characters:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.”

Now I don’t want to mix metaphors here (or whatever you call it when you reference a different movie in the middle of your story which happens to be about another movie. Cue final scene of Jerry McGuire) but Hugh Grant had me at: “love, actually, is all around.”

With his opening line, he had me. “Love is all around,” I thought. “It’s everywhere.”

For the next couple hours, I re-watched this movie and found myself in tears for most of it. I’m not exactly sure why, as the movie isn’t particularly sad. I think it’s because I was opened up and I was seeing it from a different vantage point.

Sometimes, I think, the major themes in stories elude me the first time through, probably because I am too wrapped up in the plot and how things are resolved. But this time through, I think I finally picked up what the filmmakers were laying down. This time through, I noticed things I had never noticed before.

The first time I saw this movie, I noticed all of the “typical” love stories that were about romantic love. This time, I noticed all of the other kinds of love that were happening between all sorts of different humans.

There is love between siblings: Sarah, played by Laura Linney, chooses to love her brother, who lives in a mental institution, even though it costs her opportunities to pair up with the good looking dude from her office, and will undoubtedly cost her similar opportunities down the road. But she is committed to him and she prioritizes her decision to love him over her own desires. Ali and I often tell our kids there’s difference between love, the verb, and love, the emotion. The emotion fades in and out, and sometimes love is hard. And in those times when it’s hard, you have to choose it. Sarah chooses it, again and again and again.

  • The first time through, I noticed Sarah’s love for the hot dude from her office. This time through, I noticed her love for her brother.

There is love between a father and his step son: the father (Liam Neeson), whose wife has recently died, notices that his step son is acting strange, so he pulls himself out of his own sadness to try to help the boy. When it turns out that the boy claims to be in love with a girl at school, rather than laughing it off or telling the boy that love will only leave you heartbroken, he decides to help him get the girl. He participates in the love story of the boy, and won’t let him give up.

Near the end of the movie, when the girl is about to get on a plane back to America, he gives him one last push:

“Sam, you’ve got nothin’ to lose, and you’ll always regret it if you don’t! I never told your mom enough. I should have told her every day because she was perfect every day. You’ve seen the films, kiddo. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

The boy replies, with the most flawless line in the entire movie:

“Okay, Dad. Let’s do it. Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.”

  • The first time through, I noticed the cute story about the boy’s puppy love. This time through, I noticed the father’s love.

There is love between friends: the creepy old singer realizes at the end of the movie that “the love of his life” turns out to be his chubby manager.

“And I realized that, as dire chance and… and… and fateful cockup would have it, here I am, mid-50s, and without knowing it I’ve gone and spent most of my adult life with a… with a chubby employee. And… and much as it grieves me to say it, it… it might be that the people I love is, in fact… you.”

He wasn’t coming out of the closet, he simply realized that it was Christmas, and it occurred to him that you are supposed to be with the people you love on Christmas, and the person he loved most in the world was his manager.

  • The first time through, I noticed the creepy old dude’s love for himself and his career comeback attempt. This time through, I noticed a sweet, older person having a life-altering epiphany.

Of course, there is also romantic love. Between the prime minister and his secretary. Between the sweet young couple that works on the adult movie set. Between the young, single English dude and the Midwestern American girls he meets on vacation. But my favorite love story in the movie is between the writer and the housekeeper.

The writer, played by Colin Firth, is English. When he goes to France to work on his book, he meets a Portuguese housekeeper who comes to clean his cottage every day. They do not speak the same language, and have a tough time communicating. But they slowly begin to fall in love.

It’s easy to see the story on the surface and jump to logical conclusions: boy meets her, girl is young & beautiful, girl is in maid’s costume, girl can’t nag boy because she doesn’t speak English…  therefore boy falls in love with girl.

On the flipside: girl meets boy, girl makes minimum wage as a housekeeper and comes from low-income background, boy is an awkward, lanky nerd, but is also very rich and seems like a nice guy…  therefore girl falls in love with boy.

But underneath the surface, I saw two people who couldn’t rely on words to communicate, so they had to find different ways. So they communicated with eye contact, and with gestures, and with kindnesses, and with their reactions to things that happened (like when the wind blows his entire manuscript into the lake and she jumps in to try to gather up all of the wet, ruined pages).

It occurred to me that their true selves were falling in love with each other, and that if they had been able to speak, the words would have only gotten in the way. Words have a tendency to do that sometimes.

  • The first time through, I noticed a typical “falling-in-love story,” the most typical of them all, where physical attraction kicks in and people are powerless to stop it. This time through, I noticed a pure love story, where two people’s souls were able to fall in love because words weren’t available to screw it up.

By the time the credits started to roll at the end of the movie, I felt different. I was in love. In love with my wife. In love with my kids. In love with my friends, and my family, I was in love with pretty much everybody. And I was feeling it, not just thinking it. And I think I remember hearing somewhere that feelings are stronger than thoughts.

How long will this feeling last? I don’t know, but I assume it will fade, and my default setting will be restored. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy this feeling, enjoy that my glass is, not only half full, but overflowing.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m not very cultured. My life lessons are delivered via pop music and cheesy rom-coms. I should have also mentioned that I’m not very smart. I had to see this movie four or five times before the light bulb went on. But at least it finally went on. Love is, actually, all around us. All we have to do is notice it, choose it, participate in it, and be changed by it.

Thank you, Bono. I love you, man!


Thomas Merton famously describes a mystical experience he had on a street corner in Louisville, KY on a normal weekday afternoon. Seemingly out of nowhere, he suddenly felt his absolute connection to every human being around him. He writes,

 In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” …They are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.

In other words, his heart broke open and what poured out was Love. There were no separation between himself and The Other. They were all one and it was the closest he had come to experiencing the face of God.

As many of you know through previous blogs (Remember “Working Out My Heart”?), I tend to keep my heart under lock and key. I am not prone to Merton-esque revelations. My conscious mind is a far safer vantage point from which to view life’s experiences, so when Tim invited me to go see the newly-released Fruitvale Station last night, I thought that was the perspective from which I would see it: my logical mind, my heart under wraps. It was about a subject with which I have no experience and only vaguely remembered from the papers a few years back.  I thought it would be a perfect film for my head to be educated while my heart remained safe. I was wrong.

Fruitvale Station broke my heart open.

It found the key and threw the doors open wide. What poured out was not guilt, or shame, or anger. What poured out was Love and so I had to remain in the darkened movie theater long after the movie ended, the credits rolled and the lights came up. I had to remain until I could walk out and not fall down and worship someone.

I don’t write movie reviews and I won’t try to describe how, or why it affected me so deeply. It would sound foolish and give you all sorts of unreasonable expectations about the film, but I will ask you to go. Go for your mind; go for your heart. Learn what happened to Oscar Grant III, a young man with a good heart and a bad temper, that fateful New Year’s Day, 2009.

In my writing classes, my students’ first assignment is a personal narrative. They often roll their eyes, thinking of it as juvenile work, something they did in 3rd grade, but this is what I tell them. You can’t write what you don’t know well and what most of us know well is our own lives. But more importantly, I tell them, is this: we are a storytelling people. From the beginning of time, it is how we, as human beings, have made sense of our lives and our world.  We may tell other people our stories, but the stories we tell ourselves are the ones that really matter. They are the ones that tend to separate us, that make us right and others wrong, that prop up our prejudices and beliefs and reinforce our own worldview. When exposed to a new set of circumstances, or facts, we can either reject them outright, or adapt the stories we tell ourselves to account for the new information.

The only way our stories change is through experience and since we can’t experience everything, we have to rely on other people to help us along. Telling a story, I remind my students, is a privilege, because it is an opportunity to change how someone else tells their own. A good story changes the protagonist, but a great one changes everyone.

Help me along, I ask them.

Tell me something true.

Tell me something that matters.

Change me.

Fruitvale Station does just that.

It gets an A in my book.


 Let me begin my first post of 2013 by saying that I hate New Year’s Resolutions.  I never make them and I get uncomfortable when people begin to talk about them. It’s like talking to someone with a booger hanging out of his nose; it’s awkward and embarrassing for both of you. Personally, I can never find time over the holiday season to reflect on what truly needs to change in my life and how I am going to do it effectively and for the long-term. Who can think straight with eggnog, peanut M & Ms and sugar cookies at your fingertips? Companies don’t hold major strategy sessions in December. They hold parties and give bonuses! I try to be as kind to myself as I am to my employees, or would be if I had any.

 In that spirit, I am tabling any discussion of “resolutions” for a later date. Until then, let’s talk television.

One of my favorite shows of 2012 was “Homeland” on Showtime. If you haven’t seen it, let me summarize it briefly for you: Carrie Mathison, played by the fearsome Claire Danes, is a CIA agent, whose mission in life is to catch terrorists who want to attack her beloved USA. Carrie is tough, talented, insightful and excellent at her job. Carrie is also bi-polar, spotty about taking her medicine, and has recently undergone electro-shock therapy. I know it sounds crazy so far, but the writers make it work. The audience believes in Carrie, her insights and methods, because she is never wrong. When every Chief Knucklehead at the CIA doubts her decisions, or refuses to follow up on one of her leads, we all shake our heads in collective disbelief. Apart from willful obstinacy, why would you doubt someone who is always right?

Eric Deggens, a TV critic from Florida, named this phenomenon PDS: Persistent Disbelief Syndrome. He called it a cheap trick that good writers shouldn’t rely on. Its use isn’t limited to “Homeland” either. PDS is a mainstay of CBS’s “Elementary,” and USA’s “Psych,” among others. According to Deggens, there is no reason for characters who are so consistently right to be so consistently doubted. He concludes, “In the era of excellent series like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Homeland,’ why do producers turn, time and again, to the simple crutch of Persistent Disbelief Syndrome?”

I think I know why and I don’t think it’s a cheap trick.

PDS isn’t just a storyteller’s gimmick. PDS lies at the core of human nature. We doubt what we can’t see for ourselves, what we don’t understand, what we didn’t discover on our own. There may be exceptions to the rule, but they are primarily limited to scientific principles.

No matter how many times I am right about directions, my husband still doubts my ability to get us there. No matter how many times Tim predicts trouble when our kids start to wrestle, I let it happen anyway, only to have clean up the wreckage shortly thereafter. No matter how many times we urge our kids to put on shoes before they go outside to play, they ignore us, only to frequently hobble back inside a few minutes later with a stubbed toe, or a bee sting in their heel.

Nowhere is Persistent Disbelief Syndrome more prevalent than in our relationship with God. The Hebrew Scriptures are rife with stories of the Israelites forgetting who Yahweh is and what Yahweh has done for them. From freeing them from slavery to sending them manna from heaven and water from a rock, the Israelites continued to doubt that God will care for them. The New Testament shows that the followers of Jesus do no better. Though Peter witnessed miracles, healings and conversions, and even the transfiguration, he still jumped ship the moment Jesus’ story took a dangerous turn. The Apostle “Doubting” Thomas could be the patron saint of PDS (though we might call it Perpetual Doubt Syndrome in his case).

Over and over again, the scriptures ask us to “Be not afraid,” but that is easier said than done. Fear dissipates only where trust prevails and sometimes, it is really, really hard to trust God. How many loved ones have we lost before their time? How many once-cherished beliefs have been stripped away? How many hopes and dreams have been unmet, leaving us disappointed and lost? Those are ripe conditions for PDS to flourish. When someone consistently disappoints our expectations, credibility becomes an issue, even if he, or she is never wrong about the one thing

To avoid chronic PDS, I have to remind myself frequently that I can trust God about the one thing. I have not yet faced a situation I could not deal with, an obstacle I could not surmount, a hardship I could not grow and learn from when I have trusted in and aligned myself with the power of Love. But it is still hard.

“Love never fails,” a wise man once wrote; what fails is our ability to trust in that Love. And when we doubt, like Carrie’s coworkers on “Homeland,” all hell breaks loose. We go after the wrong target; we leave dangerous people in trusted positions; we make poor decisions based on our own limited perspective. Relying on our own imagination to decide what’s possible, what’s good and just in every situation, we are bound to screw up. But if we can get past our PDS and trust the Love that always seems to get it right, we’ve got a shot at saving our hearts, our lives, and maybe even our very homeland.

Recently, the Lad and I watched the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We hadn’t planned on it being just the two of us, but one by one other family members dropped out, citing work, sleep, or just something more generally FUN. In hindsight, I don’t blame them, but Finn and I were compelled – me because I loved the book. Him because, well, I don’t really know.

It was a strange movie to watch with my son, because it is so much about the power of a good father-son relationship. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, sends his quirky son on elaborate adventures, designed to teach Oskar how to be brave and to experience more of the world than he would have chosen for himself. With patience and creativity, Thomas Schell embraces his son for who he is: intelligent and curious, but also compulsive and fearful.

That dynamic alone made it an interesting movie for me to watch with my son. I kept sneaking peeks at him to see what he thought. My husband Tim only has fuzzy memories of his own father, who died when he was 10. I know that a large part of Tim’s “fathering” is a result of the absence, not the presence of, a loving and involved father. While Thomas and Oskar interacted on screen, I would look at Finn and wonder, “How will he remember his dad? Is Tim making him brave? Is he making him kind? What kinds of things is Finn learning, beyond a killer ping pong serve and a sweet jump shot?” Deep down, I know the answers to those questions. Tim and Finn interact very much like Thomas and Oskar. They are cut from the same cloth, from broad shoulders to tender hearts and a wicked sense of humor.

But while I got lost in my reverie, the movie was passing me by. When I tuned back in, it was 9/11 and Thomas Schell is in the World Trade Center and then he is gone and it is Oskar and his mother who are left to pick up the pieces. In the beginning of the story, the mother is the observer in the family who admires and appreciates the connection between father and son, without needing to be a part of it. She knew her husband had Oskar, in all his weirdness, covered.

And then he doesn’t.

And although she does her best, it is nowhere near good enough for Oskar, who in his grief and anger and guilt screams, “I wish it were you that day,” to which she sadly replies, “I know. I do too, buddy.”

She knows her husband would have done it better. She knows she is failing Oskar in some crucial way and yet in that moment, in her own grief, it is beyond her ability to do better.

Again, I had to look at my son, who made sure he never looked at me during that scene.

What would he say, I wondered, if he had to choose? I know it’s a morbid question, but I am glad that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me who he prefers. I don’t actually know what any of our children would say.

I am the caretaker. Of that, there is no doubt. They love my cooking and the way clean clothes land miraculously on their bed every few days. They count on me to help them with their homework and projects and I am the only one who can rub their backs just right before they go to bed at night.

Tim is the player of all sports and card games, the Dairy Queen-on-a-school-night kind of parent. Grades don’t matter much to him; it’s all about whether they learned something, or not. He may feed them cereal every night when I am gone, but at least they get fed.

Between the two of us, we make a home and though it is unimaginable that we could do it alone, this movie gives me hope.

I don’t want to give away too many details here, but ultimately, the mother moves past her own grief and discovers a way to help Oskar heal. When he recognizes the sacrifices his mother has made for him, the love she has shown, he says through cathartic tears, “I thought only Dad could think like me.” (Which for a head person like Oskar – and myself – is the ultimate compliment.)

Linda Schell had thought so too, until she actually tried. Her willingness to embrace Oskar for who he is allowed him to reframe his story – the one he’d been telling himself his whole life, and especially since his father’s death – that his dad was the only one who loved him, the only who could love him. It turns out, that wasn’t true at all.

I immediately thought, Look, Finn, Love Wins.

It isn’t easy. It’s bound to be messy. It certainly requires more of us than we think we’re capable of, and frequently more than we want to give. But if we don’t give up, if we open our hearts, if we keep doing what Love asks of us, even when it seems impossible, then we can change our lives. We can change the lives of those we love. Heck, we just might be able to change the world. In the midst of tragedy, Linda Schell did it, and although she is a fictional character, there are thousands of people like her in real life that do it all the time.

And as the film ended and Linda held her son close, I gathered my own little man, who is growing quite big, in my arms as well. I kissed his forehead and rubbed the top of his ¼” crew cut and hoped I could remember forever how his freckled face looked as it turned towards my own. He is 13-years-old and before I know it, he may not be compelled for any reason to watch movies with his mom on a Saturday morning. Very soon, the Lad may have other plans, thank you very much.

But until that day, I will savor these moments. I will cherish each and every time I get to curl up on a couch with him, share a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. I will stand watch as he processes the vagaries of life on the silver screen, the pages of a novel, the columns of the morning sports page, and especially in his daily routine. And I will remind him every chance I get that Love Wins if we have the courage to choose it.