December 24, 2005

Tales from a Suburban Bank: Christmas Special

[The following is a true story. The names have been slightly modified to protect the nonsensical.]

My coworkers decided they wanted to do a Secret Santa gift exchange this year. Not exactly my cup of tea, but never one to rock the boat, I went along with it.

I drew Anna’s name. She’s an alcoholic, so I decided to get her some booze. That was easy enough, but unbeknownst to me, all was not well with my colleagues. You see, David had drawn Britney’s name, and David, I’m sad to say, hates Britney. Hates her with the same fervor held by Yahweh before he incinerated the Sodomites. In fact, he hates her so much that he decided he wasn’t going to get her a gift. Not even a cheap one. He wasn’t going to get her anything at all.

Well, a couple days before we exchanged gifts, Vicky, who is best friends with Britney, learned of David’s plan. She proceeded to read him the Riot Act, telling him how thoughtless he was being, how much he would hurt Britney’s feelings. David just laughed. Maliciously, I might add.

Vicky then came to me and started to read me the Riot Act. Told me pretty much the same thing she told David. Which didn’t make much sense given that I wasn’t Britney’s Secret Santa. Anyway, I finally managed to get a word in and told Vicky that I agreed, that David clearly needed to buy a gift. "Then you need to talk to him," she responded and I, being the good sport that I am, agreed to do so.

So I asked David what he was planning on getting Britney. He laughed. Rather maliciously, I might add. I stressed how hurt Britney would be if he didn’t get her something. Another laugh. Still malicious.

So I went back to Vicky. "Is he getting her something?" she asked. "I think so." "How sure are you?" "Pretty sure." She again stressed the egregious nature of David’s plan, again implied that I was somehow responsible for it. So I told her that I’d swing by Starbucks and pick up a couple gift cards. If David didn’t get Britney anything, then I’d throw the cards in the pile of gifts.

At first, I didn’t think that David would really fail to buy something for Britney. But the more I thought about it, the more unsure I became. So then following day I decided to again talk to David. When he continued to maintain that he wasn’t getting Britney a present, I gave him the gift cards and asked that he just give her the cards and, if he wanted, give me money for them the next day. He nodded. Quite maliciously, I should add. And that was that.

The next day came. We all got to work early to give our gifts. I gave Anna the booze. Various lotions and candles and gaudy t-shirts were exchanged. It was finally David’s turn. Not sure that he was going to give Britney the gift cards, I held my breath. But he came through. He took out the cards, handed them to Britney, and forced himself to wish her Merry Christmas. She took the cards and thanked him, rather snottily, it seemed.

Later in the day, Britney came up to me. "Don," she said, "I just want to say, I know that you got me the gift cards and I wanna say thank you. That really means a lot." "You’re welcome," I said, not sure how she knew. "Y’know," she continued, "David’s just so immature, but I’m not gonna let it ruin my day, y’know?"

Ten minutes later, Britney again came up to me. "Don’t take this the wrong way," she said, handing me the gift cards, "but I want you to have these." "But I don’t even drink coffee." "But I don’t want them! It just makes me so mad that he did that! I just can’t believe someone would stoop so low and not even get someone else a Secret Santa gift!" We went back and forth and I finally made her take back the cards.

A little later, David came up and asked me how Britney knew I bought the gift cards. "I don’t know," I said, "I guess Vicky must’ve told her." "She’s really pissed at me, man. Y'know, it’s kinda making me feel bad about the stuff I got."

A little while after that, I overheard Vicky and David arguing. David’s argument: I was just joking when I said I wasn’t gonna get Britney anything; I was gonna get her something; what’s it matter if I bought her gift from Don? Vicky’s response: You lying bastard!

After their fight had concluded, David came up to me and asked what he should do. I told him that he should go and apologize to Britney. "I didn’t do anything wrong, man." "It doesn’t matter. It's just...well, her feelings are hurt. Just tell her you’re sorry her feelings are hurt." "I’m not apologizing to her. She’s such a bitch, y'know?"

Next thing I knew, David and Britney had locked themselves in the back room, alone. The rest of looked at one another and breathed a sigh of relief, happy that they were finally working through their problems. About twenty minutes passed and they were still back there. Vicky and I then ventured to go up to the door, where we heard Britney yelling, something about David being a jerk and not caring about people’s feelings.

After a while, they came back out. And didn’t say anything to one another for the rest of the day.

December 15, 2005

The Significance of Nature in 'Mean Creek'

Aside from Kill Bill, my favorite film of 2004 is Mean Creek. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek is brilliant on many levels. It’s a realistic exploration into the psyches of six very different teenagers. It’s a visually beautiful work that reminds us of the innocence of childhood and the preciousness of life. And it’s a poignant story that offers great insight into the human heart. So if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. And for those who have (and only for those who have), I offer the following essay on the film.

Mean Creek contains numerous images and sounds of nature. While the kids are on the boat, the camera often stops and focuses on wild animals, as well as plants and the creek itself. And during a couple scenes early in the film, we can’t help but notice the noise of insects buzzing around in the background. Why does the film focus on nature as it does? What’s significant about it?

It seems to me that we can understand the significance of nature in Mean Creek if we view the film as a loss of innocence story, one that parallels the story of the Fall of Man. The film clearly seems to be such a story, as up until the kids agree to cover up George’s death, Sam, Rocky, Clyde, and Millie are innocent, void of moral wrong. We never see them hurt others, but we do see them being hurt. For example, Sam is beat up by George and we learn that Clyde, too, was once belted by George with a baseball bat. We never see Rocky hurt anyone else and Millie comes across as being almost angelic. Even Marty is a victim, as he is bullied by his brother and, aside from taking a few verbal jabs at Clyde, only takes out his frustrations on a glass bottle. When the kids decide to conceal George’s death, however, they lose their innocence. For this is the first evil act they commit; plotting revenge on George seemed harmless enough and even his death was completely accidental.

Viewed in this light, a number of parallels between Mean Creek and the story of the Fall of Man begin to emerge, and the significance of nature in the movie becomes clear.

In the Genesis account, humanity’s relationship with nature changes once Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and, thus, lose their innocence. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve live in peace with nature. Once they sin, however, the very earth becomes cursed and humans, for the first time ever, become meat-eaters. Thus, a relationship of harmony is replaced with one of hostility.

Like Adam and Eve, once the kids in Mean Creek lose their innocence, their relationship with nature is changed. For example, although none of the characters express hostility towards nature before they lose their innocence, Millie angrily kills a snail with a pocketknife when George is being buried. It also seems significant that, while the first part of the film primarily takes place under sunlight, reminding us of nature’s presence, the second half of the film primarily takes place at night, with the only lights being artificial ones. And perhaps most importantly, almost all of the film’s images and sounds of nature occur before the kids lose their innocence. Once George is buried, the camera and mic rarely leaves the kids.

Given how the kids’ relationship with nature changes when they lose their innocence and given the parallels between Mean Creek and Genesis, it follows that the movie’s sights and sounds of nature emphasize the kids' initial oneness with nature. In so doing, the film further likens the kids to pre-fallen humans and, thus, underscores their innocence.

December 13, 2005

“Commencement” Address

by Richard Glumson, guest columnist

[Last May, I was asked by the local school board to give the commencement address at one of our city’s high schools. Always eager to share my insights with the younger generation, I jumped at the opportunity and now present to you the transcript of my speech.]

As I look at you today, at you proud graduating seniors, I see expressions of hope, of pride, of relief.

[At this last remark, a smattering of laughter emerged from the crowd.]

“We’ve made it,” you’re saying to yourselves. “We’ve made it—through eighteen years of putting up with Mom and Dad, through thirteen years of exasperating teachers, through four years of this great circus called high school. Yes, we’ve made it.”

Oh, how deceived you all are.

[At this, I knew I had their attention.]

Today is not a day to celebrate. One does not wish “mazel tov” to a man who’s just been shoved from an airborne plane.

I’m sorry to say this, friends, but it’s all downhill from here. I know you’re all filled with hopes and dreams. Some of you long to be doctors and lawyers, others actors and rock stars. Now perhaps your dreams will come true, perhaps not. Either way, it won’t really matter, for none of you will be happy in the end.

Look around at one another, squeeze the hand of the person sitting next to you if you’d like. For this is the last time you’ll ever have true friends. You’ve all been through so much together. Through pimples and shoplifted Playboys, through wrestling tryouts and calling a girl on the phone for the first time, through bullying stoners and indifferent administrators. You’ve come of age with one another, shared with each other your hopes and fears and darkest thoughts.

Sure, you say you’ll keep in touch. And for the next couple of years, you’ll get together during winter and summer vacations. But before you know it, you’ll be taking jobs in Massachusetts and Costa Rica and even godforsaken places like Montana. You’ll promise to get together a couple times a year, to email whenever you have the chance. But next thing you know, your life will be consumed by some buxom career woman named Diane. A woman whose breasts, you’ll later realize, are her greatest virtues, as she has neither the charm nor inward beauty of your first crush, that ebullient, big-eyed girl you admired from across the room in sophomore biology.

But you keep telling yourself that Diane is the one for you, that you only fight so much because you’re both so busy with work, that if you just got away for a while, got a chance to relax and get reacquainted, that initial spark would reignite. So you head off on some $5,000 cruise to the Virgin Islands, only to spend the bulk of your trip socializing with other couples, as the fact of the matter is that you and Diane and have nothing in common and don’t really like talking to each other.

Things wouldn’t be so bad if the sex was good. But, of course, it’s not. It was never good and you start to miss those glorious days of virginity. At least then you had something to look forward to, believing intercourse would resemble those steamy scenes in Basic Instinct.

You think throwing yourself into your job might dull life’s miseries. So you do that and make lots of money and buy lots of expensive things. But you still feel bored. So you decide to have a kid, hoping that will somehow give meaning to things. But you try and try and, for two years, nothing ever happens. So you finally give in to your wife’s demands and go to see a fertility expert, which isn’t so bad at first. But then one day you learn that she’s told all your friends of your problems and you lock yourself in the bedroom and swear that you’ll never see them again, a threat that you know she’ll never let you carry through with.

Of course, the more you think about it, it doesn’t really matter what these people think. They’re not really your friends; the only thing you have in common are socio-economic backgrounds and wives who you force you to come together for the occasional dinner party. Gone are the friends with whom you could have heart-to-heart talks, share all your secrets, spend hours rolling on the floor in laughter for reasons you can’t even remember. Welcome to the world of lackluster conversations about mortgage rates and time shares.

And that’s when you think about reconnecting with your old friends from high school. But you feel stupid for suddenly sending them an email after ignoring them for so many years and retreat back into your suburban nightmare.

One day you get the idea that you’d be happier if you flew out and saw your parents more. But they don’t really care about you anymore, just annoying little Creighton. Can you believe it, after all you went through to have the kid, your wife makes you name him Creighton? And, sadly, little Creighton hasn’t done much to bolster your own happiness and self esteem. He drools and craps and seems to delight in pissing you off. And, even though the sex was never that great, at least you got some before. Now all you have to look forward to is your anniversary and birthday.

[I surveyed the crowd, saw looks of disbelief, of horror. The principal, a mild-mannered, balding man, looked at me as though I’d just killed and eaten a kitten.]

Ten years from now, [I continued,] some of you will reunite for an excruciatingly painful weekend of remembrance. As the DJ plays “Breakfast at Tiffany’s (dammit, you’ll think to yourself, why don’t they make music like this anymore?), you’ll gaze upon these balding, bloated imitations of your old friends, who are dancing with their spouses, and the injustice of the world will hit you head-on. You’ll find yourself thinking that Jill Carlson should be dancing with Robbie Butler, not that obnoxious insurance salesman. You‘ll lament that Angela Newman and Bret Osborne never got married, that Maggie Richardson didn’t become a world-famous model, that Mike Palmero didn’t go into politics.

And then you’ll realize, even if just for a split second, that I was right. That if life is an orgy, then high school is the orgasm, college the post-coital smoke, and everything after that the cold, anticlimactic shower.

[The principal began walking up to the podium, evidently intent on seizing the microphone. So I decided it would be a good time to end things.]

So, in conclusion, let me encourage you all to go out today and have a great time. Just for one day, don’t worry about the neighbors and turn your radios up full blast. Drink until your little hearts are content. Tell each other how great it’s been, how much fun you’ve had. Make your parting kisses and final confessions of love. In sum, party like you’ve never partied before. For today, quite simply, is the last day of the rest of your lives.

December 1, 2005

10 Significant Things I Learned in 2005

The end of the year is always kind of exciting for me. I always look back at the previous twelve months and think, “Man, that was disappointing! But…well, I guess I learned a lot. And, y’know, maybe next year will be better.” So for the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing ten significant things I learned in 2005. Okay, I’m not sure there are actually ten of them. Around number 6, I’ll probably run out of things to say. But I’m a sucker for round numbers, so I’ll give it a try.

10) It’s right to exempt one’s family from normal standards of human decency. I don’t want to say who, but I’ve spent a good portion of the year being angry with a certain person in my family. (Don’t worry, Uncle Harpo, it’s not you; I’ve completely forgotten about the stolen baseball cards.) Let’s call this person X. And I don’t want to say what they’ve done, but let’s just say X has been rather mean to me. Well, I spent all year debating how I should respond to X.

I thought about standing up for my rights and telling X how I felt. But…I eventually realized that this wouldn’t do any good. X will be X and nothing I say or do will ever change that.

I also thought about avoiding X. (My preferred method for conflict resolution.) And for a while, this seemed like a good idea. But…

There’s a line from the 2003 documentary Stevie that contains a world of truth. Stevie is asked why he accompanies his sister on her trips to the fertility doctor, especially since the two don’t seem to get along very well. And he responds by saying, “Well, she’s the only damn family I got.” I think what he’s saying is basically that you stick by your family simply because they’re your family. You have obligations to them (like it or not) that you don’t have to most of the other people in your life (neighbors, coworkers, classmates).

It’s taken me several years, but I’ve finally come to accept (well, I’ve come to the place where I’m trying to accept) this truth. Though I may not always like being around X and being nice to X, I have no choice in the matter (morally speaking). X is part of my family and this is the only damn family I got.

So I realized that there was really only one option left: stick with X, be kind to X, and forgive X whenever X is being, well, Xish.

9) Bill Murray kinda screwed-up Lost in Translation. Yes, I realize this is a random and completely outdated thing to say, but, hey, I’ve thought about the film a lot over the year.

Perhaps a little history is in order. I loved the movie when I saw it in the theater. I was just swept away in its beauty and truth and could really relate to the characters and their hopelessness. Then I rented it when it came to DVD and still loved. Then I bought the DVD earlier this year and watched it a third time. And it was upon my third viewing that I became a bit troubled by something in it. It took me several months, but I finally realized what it was. Bill Murray’s character is too funny, too Billy Murrayish.

I’m not saying that the character needed to walk around depressed all the time. My problem isn’t even that he joked around too much. My problem is that the character was too good at being funny—remember, he was, not a comedian, but a has-been actor going through a midlife crisis. Murray would have done well to study Albert Brooks’ performance in Taxi Driver. Although Brooks was a comedian in real life, he strived to make his character in the movie funny, but not too funny. In other words, funny like your Uncle Bernie is when he’s had too much Manischewitz, but not as funny as, say, Bill Murray.

I still think Lost in Translation is a great film. Still my favorite of 2003. Just more flawed than I originally thought.

8) comming soon....