Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Lady Bird (inspired by Films to be buried with)

4 Mar

Lady Bird, more than any recent movie, felt very much like watching my own teenage years play out onscreen. There are details, of course, that I don’t have in common with main character Lady Bird (real name Christine), like her required school uniform, losing her virginity to Timothee Chalamet, and her best friendship with Beanie Feldstein. But more broadly, the contours of Lady Bird’s coming of age mirror my own. I also was a precocious, independent, headstrong, creative teenage girl, so some of the things that Christine does, like dye her hair pink and date inappropriate boys, ring very true for me. And there is a scene where she and her mother, played so well by Laurie Metcalf, have a prolonged interaction in a clothing store that starts with a fiery argument and ends in mindless chit chat. It feels very close to mall outings I have had with my own mother that can go from 0-60 in no time, then back to 0.

Lady Bird applies to colleges on the East Coast, even though her grades aren’t stellar, and even though she can’t really afford it, because she has big dreams for herself and aches to move away from her hometown, for which she only develops some affection after she leaves (like writer/director Greta Gerwig). I also attended a Catholic high school, and although we didn’t have to wear uniforms, I’m aware of the restrictions (and joys) of life on a small Catholic school campus. This was another aspect of the story that rang true for me.

Saoirse Ronan plays this role so well, and Greta Gerwig does such a lovely job bringing Sacramento to life on the big screen, a city that rarely gets a chance to shine on the big screen. “Lady Bird” very accurately portrays me as a teenager, just a few years later and a few miles north.

The Birdcage (inspired by Films to be buried with)

3 Mar

I don’t know if “The Birdcage” qualifies as the best movie ever made by Hollywood, or by critics, or by audiences, but in my book it’s perfect. What are the many ways in which it is perfect? Let’s see:

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Elaine May

Starring Robin Williams, Dianne Wiest, and a very memorable, heavily accented Hank Azaria.

“The Birdcage” ably straddles the line between slapstick, silly humor (“Madonna! Madonna! But you keep it all inside”), intelligent, turn-for-a-second-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue (“Mary, it’s porno, not pronto), and adept social commentary. I often think of what a favorite college professor of mine said, and it applies here: Steven Soderbergh could have written a million op-eds decrying the war on drugs. Instead he made Traffic. Which I always interpreted to mean: a well-crafted, two hour movie can say as much as a host of polemics on a timely subject- and can often say it better, and in a more entertaining way. The moral of every Disney movie is ‘Be yourself’. The moral of “The Birdcage” could be summed up in the same way, while also critiquing the mind-numbing hypocrisy of 1990’s political life (the holier than thou family values crew in Washington and their very unsavory private lives). This movie is so quotable, I don’t know where to start (“Lady, not for a million bucks”, “May I take your purse as usual or….for the first time”), but it’s incisive and hilarious at the same time, a real rarity.

The Joy Luck Club (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

Crying because of something you see in a movie is a disorienting experience. It’s cathartic, so at times it’s an experience to seek out, and yet at other times it’s an experience to avoid. Because you know how you’ll react. For a while now, my Dad has been reminding me that “The Joy Luck Club” is newly recorded on our TV, and yet I hesitate to watch it. Maybe some evening when I’m all alone, and need a good cry. Or when I miss my Mom.

I don’t think it usually pops up on lists of movies that make audiences cry- it’s no “Dead Poets Society”- but it’s about the relationships between a set of mothers and daughters- specifically, immigrant mothers. Naturally, the comparison to my family is apt, since my Mom was born in Mexico, the only one of her friends to not be born in the U.S. Yet there are aspects of her life in the old country, and her striving for a better life in America, that resonate in the movie. One obvious theme that comes through is the idea that mothers will do anything at all for their children. I recall a scene where an exhausted woman leaves her howling twin babies by the side of the road, as she continues on her journey with one older child. Then, towards the end of the film, this grown baby, now an adult, travels to China to meet the twin sisters she never knew. The durable ties of family. Cue the tears.

The one scene, besides that one, that always gets my tears flowing is the one where this same daughter, played by Ming-Na Wen, argues to her mother that she is nothing like her peers because she isn’t as smart, or beautiful, or successful. Her mother stops her and says, “You have perfect quality heart. I see you”. I can barely type the sentence without tearing up now! What a resolution to a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Maybe I relate to the young woman who always compares herself unfavorably to her peers, and just wants that familial (motherly) recognition. I see you. It’s so simple, and so moving.

Requiem for a Dream (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

No movie has produced such a visceral reaction in me than “Requiem for a dream”. By the end of it, I was ugly crying, sobbing, in the living room. Why did it shake me to my core? And how on Earth did this start with the movie “White Chicks?”

I went to see the movie White Chicks in the theaters with my Mom, and on the way home she casually mentioned that Marlon Wayans had done a dramatic role once- and I should check it out, because he was really good in it. For whatever reason, we found “Requiem for a dream” on TV and watched it right away (was it a Saturday? Was it the summer? Why did we have all the time in the world?). I was horrified by the lengths that the characters in the movie- played alternately by Marlon Wayans, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn- went to to get their next drug high. In two hours, addiction takes over their lives, and we see as they lose their selfhood in the pursuit of the next hit. I see Marlon Wayans working on a chain gang in the South, the lower half of his arm missing (I don’t remember why. Wasted away with too much heroin use?). I see Jennifer Connolly getting dollar bills thrown in her face as men yell “Ass to Ass!”, and she furiously pumps away. And the saddest scene of all, the friends of Ellen Burstyn’s character, embracing each other on a bench, consoling each other as they sob, mourning the loss of their friend, still alive but ravaged by too many electroshock treatments.

And in between it all, the hiss and gurgle of blue water trickling and the drug (heroin?) hissing as it cooks on a spoon. This is all what lingers from “Requiem for a Dream”. There are no ghosts or corpses, but it is still the scariest movie I can think. I haven’t watched it more than once, and I don’t think I could.

January and February and everything after

2 Jan

Luckily, 2020 is already receding quickly from memory, and living with my parents becomes just another fact of life for me. But a year ago I was attending a New Year’s Day fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp, taking a Lyft from my apartment to get to the Castro district location, then walking back to 17th and Castro, where I waited for a 24 Divisadero bus to take me over the hill towards home. Well, first I probably stopped and had lunch at Dara Indian, because stopping in there after a workout and stuffing my face with vegetable curry and rice and chai is what I liked to do. It was part of that nice little city life routine I had worked out for myself. It wasn’t grand, but it was part of the rhythm of my days. It broke about two months into 2020, and it now feels like a very distant memory. Walking down Castro Street to pick up coffee in the Castro, or walking in the other direction to stroll 24th Street in my neighborhood, Noe Valley. I guess one thing these recollections have in common is independence. Freedom. The freedom to encounter familiar face, neighbors, the occasional tourist with a map and a camera. In February, I bought Girl Scout cookies from a young girl towing her cookies in a red wagon in front of the Castro Theater. I took Muni to Cole Valley to meet girlfriends at Padrecito for margaritas and Mexican food on the night of the California primary election. On our way out, I stopped to excitedly tell a couple at a table near us that I had also voted for Elizabeth Warren (one or both of them were wearing Warren caps, the memory fades for me a bit, but I remember at least one khaki baseball cap). I waited in the cold with my friends until we all got Lyfts and Ubers home. And that cold, February night was the last night any of us would see each other for a long time. I haven’t seen them since.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of positive reflections of people feeling gratitude for the lessons taught by 2020. I feel enormously grateful for making it through my summer of physical rehab, which also feels like a distant dream, like something that will just be a bit of trivia in no time. Yes, we should thank the year that’s passed for teaching us what’s important, what we value. What we miss. For me, that’s other people. It’s the friends and coworkers who made up my days, but also the hundreds of people who make up daily life- the commuters packed into a morning Muni car, the people jammed into cafés in the morning, packed restaurants at lunch, crowded bars at Happy Hour where I’d gather with coworkers to talk about anything and everything non-work related. The common thread was people- everywhere, at all times. Sometimes loud, sometimes annoying, but always there. It’s the crowds and strangers I miss, the ones I’ll be happiest to see when life comes crawling back. People. They’re what I won’t take for granted in 2021.

The year I stopped reading

30 Dec

I can’t entirely blame the loss of my reading habit on the pandemic, because I stopped reading in February. As I recall, I became engrossed in “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu in January, and then…nothing. There were two books I picked up and abandoned in February: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell, which I found excruciating. I always did my reading during my commute, pulling my current novel out of my bag and reading it on the J-Church, between Church and 20th and Montgomery stations in the morning, and then Montgomery to Church and 24th in the afternoons. As the cars ambled by Dolores Park, the doors blocked by strollers and nannies, I pulled out my book again and got through a few more pages. For whatever reason, I found that I could only read during that in-between place that was not work and not home. The ferry, the bus, the trolley car. Occasionally, a café, like the big, comfy chair at the Philz in the Castro, where I would often sit and read for an hour or so. Once I stopped commuting and I stayed home all day, my fiction-reading ceased.

But not for lack of trying. In addition to the two books above, I tried reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward and “Circe” by Madeleine Miller. And maybe under different circumstances I would have finished them both, but I only got about a third of the way through the first, and barely into the second, without getting any further. Is it because I’ve lost my physical space for reading? Or have I lost my desire, my mental space?

I’ve tried picking up new books during this time. I’ve tried reading, because I don’t know who I am if I’m not a reader. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had my nose in a book. It feels like an important part of who I am. Susan the reader, that’s how I’ve always been described. Social media is great for keeping up with friends and jokes and keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. But to get absorbed in a well-told story, in a world of the author’s own making, all in my head, populated by an ever-changing cast made up of the people I see every day- that’s an experience that I cherish, and that seems to be fading from me with each abandoned book.

I hope to leave this weird aversion to novel-reading behind with the rest of 2020. I hope to finish my current book, the second book in the “Three-Body Problem” trilogy, and resume my residence in the worlds of novels. I miss it there.

Top TV Shows of 2020

24 Dec

I wish I could say I spent the hours indoors these last few months training for the Iron Man triathlon, but I actually spent time in front of a TV screen when I wasn’t in front of my work screen. But when there was this much good TV, and so much ugliness going on in the world outside, television was even more of a refuge than usual. The shows below brought some

The Crown: I’ve enjoyed every season of The Crown, and even muddled through when some early episodes were slow-paced and seemed to offer little narrative reward, due to the stellar acting, writing and visuals (this is still Buckingham Palace, after all). But Season 4 had no dull moments, most likely because of the introduction of two new characters- Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Season 4 had a voyeuristic quality, seeing the sad origins of the Prince Charles and Princess Diana story we all knew would end in tragedy, and seeing characters we knew were rotten, notably Camilla. One of the family members this season notes that new members of the family either bend or break. I thought about that as it relates to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. One bent, and one nearly broke.

Fauda: It came out years ago, but I discovered this Israeli series this spring, and quickly binged all two seasons. It was an action-packed take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and though believability was stretched in some places- I wondered how the main Israeli agent could speak such good Arabic as he went undercover in the West Bank- I thought the pacing was so well-done, first in the West Bank in season one and then in the Gaza Strip in season two. I enjoyed hearing some Arabic here and there (habibi tells me that romance is being discussed). I’m eagerly awaiting season three on Netflix.

Ted Lasso: So well-written and so winningly lead by Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is the optimistic show we all need. How do you explain a Division II football coach being asked to coach an English Premier League soccer team? As the show explains it, he was hired by the team’s new owner, who hired him to sabotage the team, which she got from her boorish ex-husband in a divorce, and which she hopes to drive into the ground. So how does Ted Lasso earn the respect of the team and its English fans? With his winning attitude and endless supply of folksy expressions, of course (his tangent on the fabulousness of Alfonso Ribeiro is a highlight). I just may rewatch it. It’s that delightful.

The Last Dance: Another relic of the springtime quarantine, The Last Dance was something to look forward to for four weeks in a row. Did it take 20 years to put this documentary together? Who knows, but it was just what we needed at the time. The show that launched a thousand Jordan memes, this look at stardom and solitude in the person of one Michael Jordan was revealing about the man, but also the times, when If you had visions of basketball stardom in the 90’s, you had to step aside, because it was Jordan’s show, for better or for worse. The structure of the documentary was compelling, interspersing footage from Jordan’s final season with his early years in North Carolina. All in all, it was so entertaining and meticulously done.

Top 5 Movies of 2020

22 Dec

The movie-viewing experience was different this year- no bucket of popcorn, no trailers, no sitting in hushed silence with a crowd of strangers. I’ve missed going to the movies, which for me means the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco, where I saw my last in-theater movie, “Little Women”, in February. Little Women didn’t make the cut, but a few other gems I saw on streaming made it. My top movies of 2010 are here, as well as 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

What the Constitution Means to Me: To not address what it means to be an American in 2020 is to have a huge blind spot as an artist. It is to ignore, as John Mulaney memorably said, that there is a horse loose in the hospital. Broadway actress Heidi Schreck took audiences through a two hour meditation on the Constitution- living, breathing document that serves current and future generations, or a stale idea that has kept countless Americans captive? Is it the reason we’re so exceptional? Are we even that exceptinal, after all? Schreck takes audiences from the stale VFW hall in her hometown to a current day look at real-life competitors in constitution debates around New York City. What was surely a thrilling night of theater became a thrilling movie.

The Old Guard: This movie was an unexpected treat: a perfectly-made action thriller, where the action consisted of more martial arts and hand-to-hand fighting than gunslinging, there were clear lines between good and evil, and the classic trope of the, well, old guard initiating the newbie. Charlize Theron has proved to be a great action star after “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde”, and she ably leads this movie too.

A Hidden Life: This movie is for Terrence Malick fans only. I saw it in the early days of January and still vividly remember the music, the imagery, but mostly the urgent moral message at its core. What a way Malick has found of addressing the Trump era: the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian who saw the fascism creeping in around him in the guise of Hitler and National Socialism, but also in the neighbors in his village, who we see ostracize his family as he is imprisoned for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army. We see how choosing fascism must have been deceptively easy, and choosing to stay true to one’s beliefs must have been extraordinarily difficult. The fog rising over the hills surrounding this Alpine village, the laughter of Franz’s children at play- Malick captures moments of beauty in this otherwise hard morality tale. It’ll haunt you.

Hamilton: What to say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said? All I can say is that when it ws released on Disney Plus on July 4th, I was beyond excited. I had seen it on stage the previous fall, so I had some idea what to expect. But to see the original Broadway cast, expertly filmed, and to capture the raw energy of a live show, was something else. It’s also a time capsule of a time when black and brown Americans proudly wrote themselves into the story of America, which in the Trump era felt like an act of rebellion, and a relic of a long bygone time.

American Utopia: I’m not sure if this is best referred to as a concert film, or a Broadway musical, since it’s alternately both and neither. But it’s electrifying. I’m not necessarily a big fan of Talking Heads or David Byrne, but I love the way that he expertly mixes story, history and theatrics with his greatest hits in this show. The lighting and gray suits all lend it a signature look, and Spike Lee directs it with the oomph it must have had in the original performances. Thank God it was filmed. Lightning in a bottle was captured here. In a year when we couldn’t go to concerts, this was the next best thing.

July 2020, a month to remember

29 Jul

As this unusual July closes, I wonder where to even begin? I feel that I have to write something to commemorate this season of chaos. I was in the hospital. I convalesced at home. And I went from someone who used to fear MRIs to someone who had 4 in about a month. While the memory of this time is (more or less) fresh in my mind, here’s roughly what happened:

During one weekend in mid-June, I began holding onto the walls of the hallway outside my bedroom. I started running into everything- my arms would bang into doorways, my feet would bump into doors. It’s the kind of thing you write off at first, but as it continues you know something weird is happening. I decided to take Monday off work, but the odd behavior continued, so that Tuesday morning I went to the local hospital. I recall my Mom physically helping me walk to the entry of the ER, so my condition must have really degraded at that point.

That week in the hospital is mostly a blur, and thank God. I’m grateful for not remembering some things, and I regret that some things- like a disturbing memory of my having a seizure as I entered a cat scan machine- are still vivid. I remember going in for an MRI, and fearing the narrow confines of the machine. No, what makes the experience nightmarish is not the inherent claustrophobia, but the sounds, the constant screeching of photos being taken of the brain. I told myself, this is like that long flight from Seoul to San Francisco. It’s long, it’s awful, but you need to endure it to get through to the other side. You want answers to your condition, this is what that entails.

And I got answers. My brain did, in fact, bleed. Doctors told me I experienced a “shower” or small burst of many little strokes. I was relieved to have an answer. I remember yelling out, in my half-conscious state, “I’m not crazy! I knew something happened to me!”

You’re in an unflattering hospital gown, there is a needle in your arm at all times for the constant delivery of medicine, and your blood pressure is taken on a very regular basis. I’ve never liked having my blood pressure taken- I don’t like the constricting feeling. But what can you do? I remember feeling unclean. For that whole week, I couldn’t brush my teeth or wash my face. I didn’t shower. In between medical tests, I was mostly bored and restless. I wanted to go home and clean up.

Once I was discharged at the end of the week, my at-home recovery began. I saw at-home health therapists twice a week and practiced balance and coordination exercises in the evenings. Once that concluded, I moved onto hospital outpatient physical therapy at a different location. I made a full recovery from the stroke, but a new physical condition emerged: crippling back pain. To this day, 6-7 weeks after the hospital stay when it started, I still feel it, though it has mostly improved.

All in all, I feel older. Having pills in a day-of-the-week pill box. Being cognizant of which activities cause me physical distress and which ones don’t. Most of all, being aware of my own mortality, on top of the current pandemic, which still rages. I’ve been very lucky. I don’t appear to have gotten COVID-19. Is my stroke related to the pandemic, or a freak occurrence? I believe the former, but my doctors are leaning towards the latter. We shall see.

I’m 39 and otherwise very healthy. I’m glad to be alive, and to be well. I still hope to not go to the hospital any time soon, so I’m still wearing a mask AT ALL TIMES. I’m also enormously grateful for the care of the staff at my local hospital, who made me feel like a person and not just a number. Shortly after my discharge, there was a surge in hospitalizations there, and I think often of those kind hospital employees. I hope they stay safe.

I don’t know how to end this except to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me during this time, and to those who cared for me throughout, especially my close family members. Please continue to be well.



A most unusual year

30 Dec

I have no illusions that the changing of a calendar year represents anything more than the changing of months, from December to January. It’s like waking up on your birthday expecting to instantly feel a year older. However, I look forward to shedding this last year and beginning 2020 without the burden of 2019 hanging over me. 2019 was a long, strange year.

Most of this last year has been spent applying for jobs. To try and try to do something, and consistently fail, is what made this year difficult. In hindsight, some of my mistakes are very clear to me- resumes that were amateurish, interviews I was not very prepared for, jobs I was simply underqualified for. And I was in an unusual position for six months, of being technically employed but virtually unemployed. I’ll rewind and elaborate.

During the month of January, I showed up to work every day eager to learn if there was a new project for me to work on, and every day I learned that there was nothing. I asked members of my team if I could lend a hand, and they simply had nothing for me. It seemed suspicious to me. Then, in early February, I learned why: my team was moving from one division of the company to another. And with this move, the team would no longer need a writer: me. In one fell swoop, I lost my role. Redundant. But I wasn’t laid off. So I continued going to work every day, collecting a paycheck, and cheerily letting my colleagues know I was available if they needed someone to help out on anything. But mostly, I kept going into the office every day for the routine. To see my work friends. To ride Muni in the morning with all the other people who had places to go. To maintain the illusion of usefulness.

One way I occupied my time was by taking long lunches. It was quite a luxury- taking an hour and a half to eat at Indian buffets, Thai restaurants, dim sum palaces, and pizzerias. Reader, I got fat.  And in the meantime, I was applying for jobs. My employer was all but telling me: leave. We have nothing for you here. An ideal time to leave. But I had to lie through all of these interviews when asked about what I was working on, why I was leaving my current position, etc. It’s hard to interview well when your confidence has been shaken. Remarkably, I sailed through a lengthy interview process in February for a job in my previous industry, digital marketing. I was given an offer. But the salary was a significant decrease from what I was making, so I turned it down. Was that wise? I think so. I sailed through the interview process because the job turned out to be fairly entry level, which was reflected in the salary. Too qualified for entry-level jobs, underqualified for senior-level jobs in my current industry. I slogged along. I became absorbed in user testing research and analysis, though that project was temporary.

Luckily, in late July/early August, after a former colleague left the company, I was told I’d be assuming his old projects. Finally, I wouldn’t feel like a fraud for accepting a paycheck for nothing. I had to learn this new role, which was very different from my old one, but I was glad to have work. That first month, I was tossed into the deep end while still being trained- it felt like that dream where you show up to school and find out there’s a test you aren’t prepared for. After a few weeks, I got the hang of the new role. But I kept looking. I was happy to have work to do, but still felt there was a different job at another company for which I was better suited. I was determined to continue my career elsewhere. And that hasn’t changed.

I’m not the superstitious type, and I tend to think coincidences are just coincidences. But after trying and failing to find a new job- and watching so many of my colleagues leave for plum jobs at other companies- I’m convinced that it’s a sign. Look for a different type of job, make a shift in your career. It’s tough, to be nearly forty and still pondering what you want to be when you grow up. Wondering how to best apply your talents. But I haven’t lived in Spain and France and Mexico by being rigid. I’m remarkably adaptable, and resilient. The last year felt like a hamster wheel I couldn’t get off. Well, this year I’d like to jump off and get on a new track. A new job, perhaps representing a shift in my career. Maybe here in San Francisco, or in a new city. And while I know that December 31st becomes January 1st and it’s just another page on the calendar, I wanted to set down these thoughts before the New Year begins. Maybe I believe in New Year magic more than I’d like to admit. Only another two days until I can turn the page on this long, strange year.