“Beginnings are hard. Endings are harder. And middles are a pain in the ass, too.” – Andre Dubus III
My writer friends and I always talk about writing as a long con, the kind that takes years and years and layer upon layer of deception and lies. At the heart of it, though, is an elemental and essential truth: the writing. Doing the writing, sitting in the chair and grinding it out—whatever ‘it’ might be—is the thing that you have to be honest about no matter how many tricks you try to pull.
I just got back to New York from a month in Florida, the truest home in my vagabond life. The last week of that month I was in St. Petersburg at the Writers In Paradise Writing Conference at Eckerd College, where I was so grateful to have received one of the Sterling Watson MFA Fellowships. Eckerd, to paraphrase Shakespeare, might be a small liberal arts college, but it has a fierce literary tradition.
My workshop piece at Eckerd was a project that, for me, was the equivalent of that run down bungalow at the end of the block—it had good bones, but was it worth saving? Would putting in dozens of hours of effort make any difference? Would it still be the dumpiest house on the street? It was my literary Love It or List It moment.
(For fans of HGTV’s formulaic import from Canada, you don’t have to wait until have the final commercial break; I’ll spill the beans right now. I decided to love it. Be Advised: This love will involve lots of swearing, gnashing of teeth, and staring at the screen wondering who on earth could ever think that was good writing.)
Campbell McGrath, my new favorite poet, had this to say during one of his lectures: “You don’t know you can do it until you fail.” Dennis Lehane said, “When you’re beating yourself up, try to remember that this is an exceptionally hard thing to do.”
The best piece of wisdom on this topic came from my teacher, the amazing Les Standiford: “When you’re learning to swim, you get water up your nose.”
So I’m back at my computer. I’m reading as much as I can and writing as much as I can and reading and writing and listening to the feedback from my peers and hearing the echoes of great writers in my head.
I’m all in with this long con.
And I’ve got a lot of water up my nose.
Traditional family vacations weren’t really a thing for my family growing up. My dad worked in various jobs that involved second or third shifts and then, later on, he travelled a lot. Mom worked, too, as a bookkeeper. We didn’t have a lot of time or money for the elaborate, week-long affairs that some of my friends took every summer.
That meant a lot of the time I was out of school I spent at friend’s houses, or reading in a corner of my mom’s office. It also meant that our ‘vacations’ involved mom and I tagging along on one of dad’s business trips. So for us it was spring break in Menominee, Michigan, about an hour north of Green Bay, WI or a summer trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas, just east of the Mississippi River. Since we weren’t in traditional vacation spots and often my dad had to get to meetings or jump on conferences call or check in on clients or locations, my mom and I would try and find whatever sightseeing was to be had in these out of the way locations. I was obsessive about the color brochures in the wooden rack in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Before the internet or Yelp! or Google those brochures were a Technicolor lifeline with directions to all of the local wonders.
We had a routine. When we arrived at the motel, Mom would get settled in the room. Dad and I would “check the place out.” Pool? Check. Ice Machine? Check.
“Did you get all of your literature?” my dad would ask, meaning the stack of brochures.
I would always have more brochures than our time allotted would allow. There would be ads for outlet malls, which were a new thing when I was a kid. There were state parks or, if we were lucky, national parks. There were museums of all shapes and sizes. Waterparks or small local amusement parks always had enticing pictures. We saw lots of World’s Largest (Fill in the Blanks) and long forgotten historical sites, like presidential birthplaces or family homes. One particular favorite was the courtroom of Isaac Parker, “The Hanging Judge,” in Fort Smith. He was the original purveyor of frontier justice when Oklahoma was the frontier.
The unspoken point was that it didn’t matter where we were on our vacation. We might not have been in Orlando or Gatlinburg or at the beach like other families, but we were together. We could swim in the motel pool. We could eat at Howard Johnsons or a local hamburger joint. I could use my dad’s change to buy things from those vending machines that had nail clippers and toothpaste and a magic ink notepad. We didn’t make it to most of the places in the brochures, but it never mattered.
When the original Vacation movie came out, it felt like it had been made just for my family. To this day, my dad and I will stop and watch anytime we find it on television. My mom, not known for her movie trivia, will never forget Aunt Edna being strapped to the top of the family truckster. The most encouraging thing you can say to someone in my family, before a job interview or a tough work challenge or just anytime you need a pick-me-up, is “Remember, you’re a Griswold!” For us, it is about remembering that you’re different, you’re strong, and don’t let anybody get you down, even if you show up at Wally World and the park is closed.
The new Vacation, with Ed Helms and Christy Applegate, may or may not be as good as the original (let’s be honest, probably not,) but I don’t really care. Just spending more time in the Griswold universe with Rusty and Clark is enough for me. As Helms’ Rusty says in the movie, “My trip to Wally World when I was a kid was the best trip I ever had.” My parents and I won’t get to see the movie together, but, in typical style, we won’t let that get in our way. We can have a conference call debrief after. Maybe for old time’s sake we could even do the call from the car in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn.
The conversation with my friend went something like this:
Me: Have you seen the Taylor Swift Bad Blood video?
Friend: (Disdainful sigh) No.
Me: OMG! Trust me on this. You have to see it. It’s amazing.
Friend: No. No, I don’t. Nope, you are wrong.
A few things to know about my friend: She is kind and generous and supportive of (almost) all of my craziness and pop culture obsessions. She also has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and bands from around the world. Every December she posts a list of her favorite songs from the prior year and I generally have only heard of (maybe) one of them and only know how to pronounce (maybe) half of the list. She is also strong, smart, and super kick-ass in almost everything she does.
This is all to say that she doesn’t shoot me down very often, especially when it comes to pop songs. She indulges my ridiculousness in the way that only a true friend will but which makes her Swift rejection all the more frustrating, even if it isn’t unique. I haven’t been able to get any of my friends to watch Bad Blood, much less let me explain to them why they should.
Two words: Cindy Crawford.
Crawford was a force of nature in the 1990s. Remember the first time you saw the George Michael Freedom 90! video? She and her fellow supermodels—who are all still around and still looking fierce—virtually stepped from that iconic Herb Ritts photo into MTV. Like Lauren Bacall, Lena Horne, and Sophia Loren before her, Crawford possessed, of course, a not-of-this-earth beauty, but it was grounded in wisdom and strength. Her origin story (all good super heroes have them) is one of legend: brainiac decides against career in chemical engineering to become the highest paid supermodel in a world that only just learned what the term supermodel even means.
For young women of the 90s, Crawford was also another kind of model. She was a role model to those of us struggling to find our identity and embrace our own uniqueness. Much was made of her mole (today it would have its own Twitter account), the imperfection that wasn’t. Compared to Christie Brinkley and Farrah Fawcett, she was so much more normal-seeming, even if that kind of normal really wasn’t at all. She seemed like a girl you could find working at the food court at the mall or sitting next to you in English class. She never bothered to play dumb or ever pretended that she wasn’t beautiful. She worked it all—her career, her fame—like the boss she was. Since then she has continued to demonstrate poise, grace, and independence, even when selling sofas or skin cream.
Her daughter Kaia has decided to step in front of the camera. Crawford told Yahoo! Celebrity it was important for her daughter to, “Be on time, be prepared, listen. For me, that’s so much of the reason I’ve had such a long career. People knew I was going to show up and give 100 percent. It’s not glamorous, but that quality, in a fickle industry, was essential.”
I was never going to look like Crawford, or Bacall or Horne or Loren, for that matter, but I could stand on my own two feet and own my life. I could show up, work hard, and be smart about it. I could get married and have kids and have a career or all of the above. Or I could do none of the above. In the post-ERA era after Gloria Steinem and Helen Gurley-Brown, Crawford was an unlikely icon in the most unlikely of professions.
Next year Cindy Crawford will turn 50. Taylor Swift is 25. I love the fact that Swift cast Crawford as the “Headmistress” to her kick-ass all-girl gang in Bad Blood. It feels important, even if that ‘important’ is only with a lower-case ‘i.’ Women and girls could do worse than learn a thing or two from Crawford.
Now if I could just get someone to watch it with me.
It took zero effort or promotion on the part of Netflix or Bloodline’s producers to get me to watch this show. South Florida and the Keys, including a scene in the pilot of one of my favorite places on Earth, Alabama Jack’s? Just ask Burn Notice how much I love that.
Kyle Chandler, beloved Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights? Clear eyes. Full hearts. All that.
Sold. 100%. I’m in.
At first I didn’t even understand it. There are time jumps which are, at best, confusing and, at worst, indecipherable. There are flashbacks and dreams and hallucinations. People are there who aren’t there. Drownings. Fires. Drugs. Adultery. Murder.
Watching Bloodline is sort of like being on a small fishing boat. Leave the calm, protected waters of the Keys and you can go just far enough offshore enough to get caught in the waves of a summer storm rolling in. A moderate chop, that’s what the weather people call it, not rough enough to send you back in but bad enough to churn up that queasy, sick feeling in your gut and make you instantly regret the gas station fried chicken you bought when you stopped to get ice for the cooler. You eventually get your sea legs, but you still don’t feel right. The world fades into fuzzy focus. Shards of light splinter off the waves, flashing like strobes. The air is heavy with dread and portent and the smell of dead fish.
The episodes release information slowly and deliberately. Mostly, you know enough, but you never know it all. Each moment, each visual, elicits a specific mood. We move from inside a character’s head, experiencing visions and flashbacks directly through his point of view, shot with extreme close-ups, to present day action seen through far away long shots that have the look and feel of surveillance footage. It feels like we are eavesdropping on conversations. Many of the intimate moments are shot through windows and doors. We are pulled from being uncomfortably close to uncomfortably distant, sometime within in the same scene.
People are exactly who you’d expect them to be. Then they aren’t. Danny—the ne’er–do-well brother—looks like a Key rat from a mile away but he’s strangely charming and sympathetic. John is the boy scout sheriff but wears his guilt like a Kevlar vest in the Florida sun. Kevin and Meg are their own brands of ‘effed up. Even Mom and Dad Rayburn find surprising ways to let everyone down. In short, everyone is always kind of the worst—the nasty wreck you can’t turn away from.
The show isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is too slow. Sometimes it is too obvious. But. But. But…
Uncomfortable. Enigmatic. Mesmerizing.
Bloodline is all about the slow burn. The moderate chop. Just enough discomfort to make you unsteady but not so bad that you leave for calmer waters. The sort of trip that stays with you even after you’re back on dry land.
I was at the movie theater early yesterday. Early enough that they were just finishing the first batches of popcorn. I could smell it walking in from the parking lot. Other benefits of going to the 10:30 AM showing of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are that you get to feel like a real youngster compared to some of the other movie goers and you get to see trailers for movies you’ve never even heard of before. I am soooo not complaining about things like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Furious 7. I love those. I just like to mix it up sometimes with something like the new Cameron Crowe movie, Aloha.
The first The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is sort of like The Breakfast Club with English pensioners instead of Chicago teenagers. Instead of taking place in the 80s, some of the characters are actually in their 80s. It has the same existential angst of the Hughes classic but instead of a jackass assistant principal, there is an over energetic and inexperienced hotelier. The movie is heart-warming and heart-breaking all at once. The easy jokes about oversexed and altogether over-it retirees are balanced by Judi Dench’s search for meaning and Tom Wilkinson’s struggle with his identity. The movie is saturated by the colors of India and the authentic emotional conflicts of each of its characters.
So, is The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel any good? I’ll get to that, but, for me, it was kind of beside the point. When I sunk down into my seat with my ginormous Diet Coke I didn’t really care if the movie was great. I didn’t even need it to be good. It’s been a long winter and spending two hours bathing in the sun of the sub-continent was good thing. I like marking time with Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith. Dev Patel’s Sonny is exuberant and enthusiastic and who doesn’t need more of that in your life?
Turns out, though, it is good. It’s better than good. Okay, so maybe it lives up to its name as the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (those italics all mine) when you compare it to the first. Some of the emotional tension is gone and is replaced with a secret-shopper sub-plot and Richard Gere. But anyone who knows me knows that I like a good hey-gang-let’s-pull-together-and-put-on-a-show show like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney did in White Christmas. (This is part of why I unabashedly love the CW show Hart of Dixie but we will save my regard for Bluebell, Alabama for another day.) Maggie Smith will break your heart again in all of the best ways. Bill Nighy’s seemingly effortless charm barely masks a winsome loneliness. Throughout it all, though, there is pop music and wedding dancing and painted elephants and marigolds. Lots and lots of marigolds.
If the first movie was like your favorite spicy curry, the second is like naan fresh from the oven or a warm cup of Chai. Both go surprisingly well with the mini-churros and a ginormous Diet Coke from the concession stand.
I don’t have super powers. I just own more sweaters.
That’s what my friend Marc said one day at lunch. We were all living in Southern California at the time. Our view at lunch was the Pacific Ocean and the Malibu Pier. Occasionally, pods of dolphins would swim by. Another one of our friends, a native Californian had asked Mark how he survived the winters in his native Minnesota. To the Californian, Marc might has well have grown up with Superman in his Fortress of Solitude or riding a Tauntaun with Luke Skywalker on the Ice Planet Hoth.
I just own more sweaters.
Today I shoveled my driveway for the second time in two days and the I’ve-lost-count time since January. Yesterday’s snow/ice mix was like a Slush Puppy without the whimsy. Today’s snow was light and fluffy but there was a lot more of it. I would like to say I’ve gotten Zen about the shoveling, the physical labor a spiritual activity like the monks who dig holes only to fill them up again. I would like to say it, but it would be a lie.
But this isn’t a rant about the weather or climate change or how hearing a snow blower across the street while you struggle with last year’s snow shovel can induce white-hot rage. Nope. I may not use clearing the driveway as a mindfulness exercise, but it does give you time to think. Tonight, it was quiet outside as the sun went down. Schools were closed today so the after work traffic was light. The weight of the snow muffled what noise there was and the sun set softly, without fanfare, into the cold night.
I thought of Marc and his sweaters. South Florida is where I call home, even though I’ve lived in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, and now New York. I get the opposite question from Marc. “How can you stand the humidity? It’s so humid in Florida.” I always remind everyone that it is humid and gets a lot hotter in the summer in Philadelphia and New York than it does in Miami and it never does snow. Not ever.
The truth is you just own more flip flops. Or rain coats if you live in Seattle. Or sun hats if you live in Palm Springs. Or sweaters if you live in Minnesota. The ability to adapt and find your place no matter where you are is something I learned early from my mom. We moved a lot and she always made the best of it. She always made sure I had what I needed, whether it was flip flops or sweaters. She was fond of the saying “Bloom Where You’re Planted.” Sure, it’s corny. But I’ve thought of it over and over again during lonely, tear-stained nights.
New York is not an easy place to live, snow or no snow. Today while I watched the news coverage of multi-car pile-ups and a plane that skidded off the icy runway at LaGuardia, my parents were at a golf tournament. I ask myself, a lot, why I don’t move back to Miami. But this is where I’m supposed to be. At least I think it is. So, for now, I just own more sweatshirts.
In case you’re wondering, Marc didn’t go back to Minnesota after we graduated. He stayed in California. I don’t know how many sweaters he owns now.