The 400 Blows

the400blowsThe theme of children continues with Francois Truffaut’s 1959 French new wave classic The 400 Blows. It tells the story of an incorrigible adolescent skipping school and getting into trouble on the streets of 1950s Paris. It’s interesting reading the lofty praise excerpted at Rotten Tomatoes – I wonder to what extent the credit this film receives has to do with time and place. But that’s not to say I didn’t like the film.

It was the ending that did it the most for me. A perfect finale to the constant need to break free from the strict confines of adolescence. And that look he gives us, telling each one of us of his struggle. I also liked how the film vacillated between brief tastes of joy (the carnival ride and the happy trip to the movies with his normally stressed out and worn down parents) and the pressure and drag of being a kid (the oppressive classroom and a mostly unhappy home life). Finally, that long and simple take of the 1950s children of Parisian as they watched a riveting (to a child) puppet show was everything that I love about movies. It captured pure truth for a brief moment in time. Beautiful.


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Salaam Bombay

salaam bombayAs part of this month’s theme of children, I watched David’s recommendation: the 1988 debut feature from Indian director Mira Nair. It tells the mostly sad story of street children in Bombay. A boy is intentionally abandoned while working for a circus, and spends the rest of the film getting caught up in Bombay street life while trying to save money to return home.

There were moments of redemption for both the film and the characters, but mostly I found it a grueling viewing experience. The pain and suffering wasn’t gratuitous, nor were the shots of Bombay street life. But, it was still a bit hard to watch, and oddly, not as moving as I’d expected. It just felt a little flat throughout, to me.

I did appreciate the ending – loneliness in a sea of humanity. It felt like Krishna’s story, in a country of a billion, is nothing extraordinary. I found myself thinking coldly, God, India needs to get its shit together. I wondered if my lack of empathy was more an indictment of me, or was it that the film had missed opportunities to strike the right emotional notes.

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The Life of Oharu

thelifeofoharuDirector Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 film The Life of Oharu follows a woman’s life, as she finds herself in various of society’s roles – concubine, courtesan, wife, prostitute, nun – each shift greeting her with new tragedy. It examines the place and experience of women under feudal patriarchal rule, and finally questions the Buddhist doctrine of life as suffering. While Oharu is constantly punished at just about every turn for her very existence, Mizoguchi seems to be pointing the finger at society.

For me, there were two scenes that spoke to me. In only two instances does she have a chance to view the child she bore as a concubine to a wealthy lord, and in both cases she barely catches a glimpse. In fact, the audience too, only gets to see what she sees, which is hardly satisfying. In both shots, as is characteristic of the filmmaker, he takes a wide-angle and highly choreographed approach. This is not only interesting, but also includes all of Japan in the tragedy.

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This Boy’s Life

thisboyslifeThis Boy’s Life was Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakout role in 1993. I watched it as part of this month’s film club theme of children. It is the autobiographical coming-of-age story of writer Tobias Wolff, set in 1950s rural Washington. The story centers teen Jack (Tobias/DiCaprio), his single mom (Ellen Barkin) and her new husband (Robert DeNiro) who turns out to be a loose cannon.

I’m not sure if this film would have much of an impression on me if it weren’t for the compelling lead performances. There was all the promise you would expect to see in young DiCaprio, and DeNiro is skilled as a man who’s charming one moment and unhinged the next. He also takes on an odd, almost overdone Canadian redneck accent. The second reason this movie worked for me is that I saw it right after another coming-of-age-with-a-challenging-father-figure-set-in-the-1950s-film (Tree of Life). So, it was interesting to consider the role men played in households in the 1950s, and how women and children were in many ways powerless against it. (Thanks women’s lib!) I related to the closeness between mother and son, and also how the mother preferred to leave problems behind rather than solve them (I feel like permanently abandoning a broken car is something I would do). On the other hand, I didn’t relate to her never “refereeing” in the abuse between her husband and son, especially when she never loved her husband in the first place. I thought their first matrimonial sex scene said something pretty awful about the lot in life of many women at the time. Final takeaway was how terrible the effect adults can have on children – seems the problem is timeless.

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The Tree of Life

malickI took a small break from daily writing because of a busy work week and my mother visiting. During that week David and I finally did what we’d been talking about doing for years – had a first official “film club” gathering. At that gathering, we made a unique and inspiring new friend. He writes film reviews professionally, but even more impressive than that is that this practice started when, at 9 years old, while driving home from a movie with his dad and glowing about how much he loved it, his dad suggested he write down why. He’s written a film review of every single movie he’s watched since then.

Yesterday I revisited this new friend’s favorite film, Tree of Life. I have loved others of director Terrence Malick’s poetic, sweeping works, but don’t clearly remember my first impression of the film that many consider his masterpiece. Tree of Life came out in 2011 and Roger Ebert compares its “boldness of vision” to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I don’t want to go to far over my 10 minute writing rule, so I will keep my second impressions brief.

What a wonderful film to choose when dusting off a long-neglected film habit. No other film easily comes to mind that considers such huge themes – existence, life, love, grace, God/the immortal, childhood – in such a generous, beautiful, and simple way. It’s classic Malick – beautiful shots that seem almost effortless and meditative, much of nature. Sparse dialogue. Poetic snippets of narration. But the overall effect is extremely evocative to the patient and sensitive viewer.

What is our place in this vast universe? Why are we here? How should we live? The viewer has a beautiful backdrop to consider these questions, and they are answered only as satisfactorily as life answers them for any of us, through any of our lives.

The film feels like a gentle and considered autobiography, set in 1950s middle America. We catch glimpses of grown-up and societal strife as children do, crashing into moments with immediacy yet preserving their mystery. Mother and Father are two yin and yang forces of nature as real and true as the signature shots of nature Malick imbues all of his films with. And their qualities wrestle within their children in a way our parents wrestle within all of us.

Beautiful, powerful, poetic, sweep, deeply personal yet generous enough to be universal. The final scenes with the ethereal Jessica Chastain had me in tears, though it took a second viewing and open mind to appreciate the abstract final shots. Final personal takeaways: The way to happiness is love. And also the path to the eternal is through grace.

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What No One is Saying About the Melania/Michelle SpeechGate

melaniamichelleOf all the controversial statements and moves in Trump’s campaign so far, I am the most personally offended by yesterday’s. It was just such a trolling of epic proportions on the American public. Full disclosure: I’m a 10th grade Writing teacher who spends a significant amount of my life teaching how to summarize ethically and cite sources, and the importance of academic honesty and originality. I still remember the first time I called a parent to discuss her son’s plagiarism and she hysterically shouted, “Well, if my son plagiarized it’s only because you don’t teach him not to!” Fortunately, we had just finished a summarizing and plagiarism unit that very day.

I’ve read some ridiculous defenses of the integrity of Melania’s speech, but every single one would not hold water in a 10th grade English class. (Yes, it’s still plagiarism if 93% of the speech is not plagiarized. No, just because it reflects how you think doesn’t mean it’s not plagiarized. No, there are not only “so many combinations of words in the English language.” And every other excuse would get an F on any high school writing assignment as well.) I am not only offended as an English teacher, but as a mother, as this is yet another case of not only setting a terrible example for our children, but then not taking a single ounce of ownership for such a huge fucking lapse in judgment. I know Selma Blair’s airplane meltdown of a couple weeks ago wasn’t as high profile or high stakes as this, but that’s how you own up to your shit and make amends.

Beyond the shrugging off plagiarism from a potential first lady, I’ve come across several infuriating deflection tactics. Conspiracy theorists claiming speech writers were bribed. Bizarrely, even before Hillary Clinton addressed the scandal (to my knowledge as of this writing, she still has not), the Trump campaign, in another fit of staggering misogyny blamed Clinton for the backlash. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager stated to CNN, “This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down.”

Honestly, I just can’t.

Just…. how the fuck are we here?

Then there are people taking the Melania criticism even beyond the plagiarism itself. Pointing out there was nothing actually personal or compelling in the speech. It was nothing but hollow platitudes. There are cries of poor Melania, she never asked for any of this. English is not her first language. Fair enough and I don’t disagree, but I also can’t help but notice how easy it is to sympathize with an attractive person.

But the criticism that seems to be lacking in all this is that once again Trump’s bumbling ineptitude is on dazzling display. And once again there are some impressive mental gymnastics happening to explain or condone it. There is a difference between a Washington outsider with a fresh perspective and someone who just doesn’t know what the fuck they are doing on seemingly every level and blithely going for it anyway. Michelle Obama didn’t write her 2008 speech entirely on her own. No one, including myself, would’ve faulted Melania for using all the help she can. Regardless of who actually thought it was not going to escape us or upset us to use two plagiarized paragraphs from a speech of the same exact purpose eight years ago, there is simply no excuse that it passed through all the filters. To people who think this is a small matter, we’re making a mountain out of a molehill, there are bigger problems in the world, I say: this matter is everything. Anyone who would defend or in any way attempt to minimize or deflect from this is saying that this is an acceptable example of integrity for our children and an acceptable level of quality management (on a fairly simple and straightforward task) from the person proposing to hold our highest executive office – seriously, he could’ve hired any 2016 high school valedictorian for a few hundred bucks!

Before I sign off, I also have to point out that it’s pretty rich that the lifted passages speak of integrity and values.

Finally, your panties may be all twisted up your ass crack right now, thinking, But Hillary’s a crooked liar who deserves to rot in prison!! That is not what we are talking about right now, and not an appropriate or compelling argument to the topic at hand.  That is a separate topic for a separate conversation, and by bringing it up, you are trying to deflect from a conversation that you apparently have no legitimate argument against.

If Clinton had done the exact same thing, the only difference in my response would be that I’d be more surprised.

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A Week of Quitting All My Bad Habits

I’ve been edgy and easily annoyed recently, and one of my main annoyances is myself. I’ve been engaging in too many things that leave me feeling badly about myself: gossiping, getting sucked into social media and media in general, getting short-tempered with my boundary-pushing toddler, eating poorly… Basically, I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of this blogging, because it’s just more of me. So, I thought this week I’d try something different: cut out the things that have been bringing me down. Since there are a lot of them, I’d be setting myself up to fail to try to quit everything cold turkey. So, instead I’ll try a different strategy: Quit one bad habit each day of the week. Here we go!

Day 1: No Negative Thinking/Complaining

complainThis is a good mission to start with. It will focus my thoughts in a healthy place as a jumping off point for the rest of the week’s challenges.

Proactive Strategies:

  • Avoid Facebook, the news, and really any input that has the potential to pull my mindset down.
  • Keep busy.

Reactive Strategies:

  • Notice when my thoughts get negative or I start to complain.
  • Redirect my thoughts and words.

The proactive strategies worked well. It ‘s Micah’s daycare day, so I went to the beach with just Nico. We had a blissful half hour with a perfect turquoise blue sea all to ourselves. Tackled groceries without drama. Worked out. Read a novel. It wasn’t until evening that I needed to bust out the reactive strategies. I started to complain about a product. Noticed. Stopped. Then David gave me the update on a local murder trial that’s underway. Noticed myself feeling angry. Changed subject.

In the middle of the night while nursing, I scrolled through Facebook. I scrolled faster than usual, racing through names that tend to get political or controversial. I gathered that another infuriating police shooting happened in my home metro area of St. Paul, but I allowed myself to sit this one out, for now. I know it’s a responsibility to be informed. It’s part of the job of participating, of having a voice in our world. But today I didn’t and I felt calmer and perfectly whole.

Day 2: Refined carbohydrates

chocchipSkipping all processed sugar and all refined/white carbs today. Fuck, this is gonna be hard. Especially since there’s a batch of chocolate chip cookies around that we baked yesterday. That was poor planning. Okay, one meal at a time.

Breakfast: Slice of Dave’s Killer Bread toasted with almond butter.
Smoothie: frozen mixed berries, lychees, banana, spinach, almond milk, coconut milk, carrot juice, coconut oil
Coffee, black
(My morning breakfast routine didn’t need alteration, besides holding the processed creamer from my coffee.)

Lunch: chicken salad on one slice Dave’s bread.

Snack: protein shake (workout recovery drink)
I can’t tell if there are processed carbs in this based on the label… It’s mostly whey protein, but has carbs. I’ve managed to stay away from the chocolate chip cookies, so I’m calling it a win.

Dinner: Well shit. The no carb day has to fall on my every-other Thursday night hangout with friends. I’m pretty sure booze has carbs. Thankfully I have great and knowledgeable friends who assure me there are no carbs in liquid. So: whole grain crackers and cheese, lots and lots of blueberries, and two beers. And by two I mean three. Unsweetened Greek yogurt before bed.

Day 3: Judging/Gossiping

complain2The good news is the no judging/gossiping day falls on the day AFTER getting together with a few of my closest friends. The bad news is I made the mistake of checking Facebook first thing in the morning (after eating a chocolate chip cookie). So I’ve made a bunch of subtle judgments, both good and bad, about people’s reactions to the most recent horrifying events on the mainland. Maybe I should avoid Facebook and the news for another day…

Later: No judging/no gossiping went fine. The only grown-up around to talk with (not until evening) was my husband who’s really not fascinated with all the sordid details in the personal lives of others. He’s self-assured enough to not even be on Facebook.

I did, however, make the mistake of going back to Facebook, including a Mommy forum – a quite useful and supportive group – but not without the occasional amusing paranoia, infuriating sanctimony, and hot mess grammar. I don’t think anyone can think without making judgments on some level. Isn’t judging just evaluating information? Everyone views the world through their own unique filter based on their life experiences and lessons. I tried to be generous and charitable in my judgments today, but I know I wasn’t faultless.

Day 4: No Coffee, No Wine

coffeeandwineCoffee and wine have become synonymous with mommy culture. I mean I get it. When you’re jolted awake at 5:12am by a little body jumping on your face and have no snooze button option, you need some help to get going. And then when you’re so tightly wound after hours of whining, tantrums, and incessant cleaning up (often occurring while some other nearby corner is simultaneously being destroyed), you need some help unwinding.

But at what point are your trusty life coaches not that cute? When your three year-old calls all alcohol “wine”, even Daddy’s beer because Daddy doesn’t drink nearly as frequently? Or when he finds a long-lost sippy cup under the bed, sips, and exclaims in disgust that the fermented orange juice is wine? Or should I wait until he brings home one of these adorable drawings from preschool?


Fortunately, today’s challenge – no coffee or wine (or any alcohol) – shouldn’t be too hard (though it does fall on a Saturday!) I’m not quite a daily drinker or a heavy drinker. But I do wonder to what extent I’m a little overly dependent on my two very familiar pick-me-up and wind-me-down drinks, and I do worry that my habits could grow worse over time.

No coffee. Not too bad. It’s Saturday and David made a huge pot, even when I told him I wouldn’t be having any. I considered tea, but no, gross. Anyway, I’m not missing the coffee. The wine though. Actually, we haven’t had white wine around – my preferred drink – for a couple weeks. I wanted to see what would happen to my near nightly drinking habit if it was replaced with beer. Not as disappointing a replacement as tea, but a close second. Sure enough, my drinking has been cut down a lot. These days I’ll split one beer with David, and often forget that it’s around. I really do miss my refreshing glass of pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, though.

The day was thrown an extra challenge when a good friend asked if she could drop off her 3 year-old while she got a hair cut and she’d bring over a pizza for dinner afterwards. An extra three year-old and a favorite drinking buddy? On my no-wine day. What was I thinking? David was like, just switch days. Don’t drink tomorrow instead. And both he and my friend made it clear they’d love me either way. But no. I need to be true to this challenge. I can’t change the rules when it gets hard. (Besides the no carbs in beer thing, because, come on, I’m not a saint.) And it’s not about me forever ridding myself of these “bad habits,” but about being mindful of how dependent I am on them, knowing when and how they arise and how hard it is to change the behavior. So, I abstained.

And actually, it wasn’t too bad. Even with an extra kiddo, I didn’t feel myself on edge. Not one little bit. I hate to admit it, but the addition of more playmates often helps things! And once my friend returned and we could have more grown-up time, I enjoyed myself just fine without a drink. In fact, the only moment I missed it was when they were cracking open their first drinks. Yeah, it looked nice, but it only took a moment before I wasn’t really thinking about it.

So, for now, I am comfortable with my current relationship with wine, welcoming it back in on some evenings with moderation.

Day 5: Yelling/Snapping/Nagging/Rushing

yellingI have the least confidence in myself on this day: no yelling, snapping, nagging or rushing. This applies to my kids, but when telling friends, one asked, “And not David too?” I like to think I’ve got this in check much better with him than my three-year old, but okay, I guess I’m not an angel with him either.

At three and a half years old, Micah has been on fire with acting out/tantrums/mischief/disobeying/whining/demanding things, etc. Judge all you want, but I haven’t yet met a three year-old who doesn’t do these things. We are challenged every day at least at some point, and sometimes it feels like the struggles keep coming, one after another much of the day. I really need to devote an entire post to the challenges of three year-olds.

So, proactive strategies:

1. Keep him fed (with HEALTHY foods) and rested.

2. Give him a heads up about the plan. First, we’re going to do this, then this, etc. Don’t change activities without a thorough heads up.

3. Keep him busy/engage with him as much as possible. Get outside.

Reactive strategies:

1. When he starts freaking out, keep calm.

2. Empathize, let him explain his frustrations. (There’s almost always a benign rationale for whatever he’s doing/wanting, and he just needs to feel understood rather than just blindly shut down – AMAZING, they’re just like adults in this regard!) After listening, stay firm in enforcing boundaries, explaining why, ensuring I still love and understand him, etc. Remain calm if he’s still freaking out. And repeat.

3. HUGS.

4. Alcohol. (For me, not him.)

Side note: for everyone reading this thinking, kids don’t respect adults like they used to because parents today are too soft, he needs a good spanking, etc., etc., please stay tuned for a lengthier post on why old school strategies such as spanking and yelling are neither developmentally appropriate nor the most effective in raising well-bahved and well-adjusted adults!

WOW. That was… I was honestly expecting this would be the day that I would be truly humbled and all my goals would be shot to hell. I guess, I was humbled but in a different way.

Being calm and nice worked. Pretty much all day. It was fortunate I woke up in a good mood. That set the tone. I generally wake up fairly cheerful, but often my good mood is gradually chipped away over the course of the day with each whine/demand/meltdown, until by 5pm, I just can not be fucked anymore. David usually gets the pleasure of returning home from work when I’ve more or less stopped caring for the day.

But on this day playing the part of a never-ruffled Disney princess freaking WORKED. And it’s not that I gave into every demand. If I’m being honest, I probably did acquiesce to desires maybe 10% more than my normal-self would have. But because I was a generally more agreeable mama, it felt like he wasn’t as much of a tyrant as usual. The day was uncharacteristically mostly peaceful from start to end.

It must be noted that the day happened to fall on a Sunday – so with the exception of Dave’s morning basketball, I had an extra pair of hands.

Day’s humbling lesson: cheery, empathetic, sweet mom = more well-behaved children. Also, I didn’t find myself stifling frustration. It was like once I made the choice to always react with love and empathy, it came more easily. Now, I’m not sure how long being superhuman is sustainable, but it does seem simply making the choice acts as a reset button of sorts at least temporarily.

Having David home also acted as a way for me to passively observe how a stricter/more emotional strategy plays out. While I was in the parenting driver’s seat for much of the day, he was too at times. He set up the inflatable pool in the afternoon, and they played great for awhile, but eventually our three year-old started doing things David didn’t want him to do: dump water in the garage, climb over the edge dangerously. I observed how David’s admonishing tone turned immediately exasperated/frustrated. (I get it – that’s me too most days.) But our son’s behavior immediately escalated – continuing to do what he now knows he’s not supposed to, and this was the kicker – mimicking David’s frustrated tone, pointing and yelling in the same way. He’s just reacting the way we react! Whereas, on this day, when I caught him doing something “wrong” I first calmly and warmly got to the bottom of WHY he was doing it (if necessary stopping anything dangerous). Situation is immediately deescalated, and he’s open to changing behavior. Amazing.

For example, just before bedtime he was happily wearing a winter jacket. I told him he wouldn’t be able to wear it to bed and immediately comes the beginning of a freak out. I acknowledged his overwhelming desire to wear the jacket, and then suggested if he really wanted to wear the jacket to sleep, he could sleep outside on the lanai (explaining that the jacket made too much noise when he moved, so he couldn’t wear it inside or he’d wake us all up). He looked at me with surprise that his desire was being validated however absurdly, and allowed himself to be carried to the chair on the lanai (physical contact further deescalating things). After a couple seconds on the cold hard chair in the dark, he decided he’d rather wear his regular pajamas and sleep in the house. Problem resolved on both our terms.

Now, I know there may be readers out there – readers who have never had kids, or have selective memory about their toddlers, or were blessed with a freakishly docile toddler – who are reading this with judgment about how that went down. Just force the damn jacket off and put him in bed, you might be thinking. And what I can assure you is that you will then have a wildly hysterical kid on your hands. He’ll be hurt, confused, frustrated, and so will you. You may be thinking, No, my kid would respect me, because I would never let him call the shots. Hmmm, a three year-old, maybe yes, maybe no. Developmentally, they’re working a lot of things out, and they’re not wired to calmly accept the parent working every single thing out for them. But I suppose it’s very possible for fear to override their natural drive to explore and test. I don’t want our kids to fear us, nor do I believe that fearful kids turn into well-adjusted adults.

It should also be noted that I busted out my drink of choice – white wine – for the first time in a few weeks. Totally hit the spot and in the evening hours, where I tend to be wearing thin, I was feeling great.

Day 6: Facebook/Internet

I figured today wouldn’t be so bad since I’ve already avoided Facebook this week.

I cheated this morning to wish someone Happy Birthday. Then I technically cheated this afternoon when I checked the Wikipedia page of the author whose book I’m currently reading. (And discovered she’s the speaker of one my favorite TED talks!) But I figured that didn’t really break the spirit of my rule, which was just to avoid the time-suck and potential negativity of too much time on the Internet, particularly social media.

In the evening we watched BBC news at my father-in-law’s house. What an efficient way to become informed!

Day 7: Quit Em All At Once

Seriously? Did I really have to do this to myself? I feel like the only reason I abstained from some of these habits on certain days was because I had the help of other habits.

I pretty much failed them all on some level (except coffee and alcohol!) One at a time was enough. I feel like the week was successful in that it brought me better in tune with WHY I do some of the things I do and what it takes to stop/reduce. Now, onward to a week of trying new vices!

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