Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cherry blossoms

It's been amazing to drive around the last few days and see streets and neighborhoods dotted with cherry blossoms and apple blossoms in full bloom amid the other, still-barren, trees. Gorgeous.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I grew up with virtually no reference to Lent, let alone a practice of keeping it. It wasn't until college that I discovered that many Protestants kept Lent, too, although their practices didn't always have to do with literally fasting or about giving up meat; it was more about an individual choosing to fast from some aspect of life that gets in the way of time with God or attention toward God. Since getting in on the practice, I have had mixed experiences. One year I gave up complaining. I have hazy recollections of giving up TV one year, and all meat one year, and I believe sweets another. Last year I gave up my endless browsing of news and information sites. These fasts have had varying degrees of success in pointing me in the right direction during the 40 days preceding Easter, and I have had varying degrees of connection to the idea of Easter Sunday being the ultimate feast day, when everything within me is allowed to breathe again, and celebrate and exclaim in utter joy — when life returns. (Returning to complaining, for instance, isn't exactly in the spirit of Easter.)

I am sometimes not sure why I observe Lent at all then, if it is so tricky to participate fully and intentionally in. Some years I simply have not bothered. But mostly what keeps me in the game is the social expectation of it. Not in a bad way, like bowing to peer pressure, but in a good way, in that it's one time of the year in which it's socially acceptable in my church to ask one another how we're doing at connecting to God. You just don't go around asking on Sunday morning: How are your devotions going? Are you reading the Bible daily? What's your prayer life like? (We do ask these questions on weeknights in my small group, though, because I think they're desperately important questions.) But for the most part they're awkward questions to bring up, even within the church where the only reason we're there is because we're hungry for God. Lent is the one time of the year where I feel like I can be publicly hungry for God, openly hungry, and in communion with other people who are openly admitting hunger for God. It's the camaraderie of it that's somehow only visible and tangible to me during Lent.

In the spirit of camaraderie, then, I've decided for the first time to adopt someone else's goal for myself during Lent. Rachel was kind enough to post on her blog her own wrestlings with what to do for Lent, and I like where she ended up: taking time to listen to an album of music each day. (I am particularly enamored by the idea of not just doing denial, but going right to implementing a method of deeper connection to God. After all, the denial is supposed to just be the means of getting one's attention and making real your limitations outside of God's provision, with the result an increased fervency of prayer and awareness and cognizance of God in our lives. Lent needn't be a season of careful eggshell-stepping but of richness and vitality.)

The idea of listening to music intentionally dovetails nicely with the spiritual goal that I'm working on right now in small group: to listen more fully. My goal is more along the lines of conversational listening, but it makes sense that music could help me with the discipline as well. Music usually requires the kind of between-the-lines perception I want to practice, which is to say: not just taking in the information, but the hearing the tonal message, the emotional component, everything that is hidden. There is suffering, and joy, and confusion, and anger, and love just beyond the words in both music and in everyday conversation. Artists shade their meanings and human being conceal their fullness out of politeness, and I am struggling to devote enough of my attention in the moment to notice these hiddennesses.

When I shared my Lenten goal tonight at small group, one person lent (ha!) me a CD to listen to. I like that idea of hearing new music these six weeks. I will probably take one day to listen to the playlist on Courtney's blog, since she so kindly posts one, and I haven't listened to the new list post-Christmas. If you, dear readers, have suggestions or possibilities to share, leave them in the comments. I have a lot of neglected favorites I want to reacquaint myself with over the next month and a half, but I also welcome the chance to learn to listen by listening to music that others love.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I've been told that last night, as Amanda was trying to put Corin to bed, he heard me blowing my nose downstairs and said angrily, "No, stop, Apa! No noise, too loud!"

Which of course reminds me of my own father, whose sneezes were legendary in our household. I remember even penning a rap back when I was in maybe junior high school (this was the '80s, and every kid rapped) for Father's Day that ended "and when dad sneezes, we all take cover!"

Good to know I've inherited it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two favorites of 2009: "Away We Go" and "Where the Wild Things Are"

Think for a moment of your favorite movies about love. Pick four or five that jump to mind the most easily. Now, how many of them are about the beginnings of a relationship, the process of falling in love? Chances are, most if not all of them — right? That's what love stories are so often about, the initial moments of connection and the working out of how two people might fit together. So rarely does a love story start with the couple already together, already fitting well, and explore the growth of love upon that solid foundation. That's exactly what we have on our hands with "Away We Go."

Verona and Burt (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) are an established couple in their early thirties, living a more or less oddball life, working in unconventional freelance jobs and enjoying one another's company more than a pursuit of stability and nice things. They've developed a repartee I haven't seen often on screen, something that feels less like comedy playing to the audience and more like comedy playing to one another — it's a glimpse at their inside jokes, and feels more like real life and real relationship. The movie begins with the discovery that the couple is pregnant, and follows their transition from two into three, most specifically asking the questions: How do we be a family? How do we make a home?

The degree to which Verona and Burt's relationship feels real and unforced is matched by the degree to which all of their family, friends, and acquaintances are outlandish caricatures. As they seek a home and a permanent place in the world, bouncing from city to city and family to family testing the waters, we see them exposed to every stereotype out there — this disinterested parents, the earth-mother parents, the bitter and spiteful parents, the adoptive p
arents, the split parents. At first this bothered me. When you get big stars to come in a do a cameo of a broad stereotype, you end up with something intensely funny but not exactly ... real. It seemed to me like it was spoiling the movie I wanted. But by the end, I felt like it could be no other way. What we are seeing are Verona and Burt's perception of other people's parenting styles and life choices. Anything that doesn't feel right to them, that doesn't seem like the life they want, has a tinge of repulsiveness to it. This feels completely right to me, completely real. For me at least, once I've made a decision as to where I want to live, what I want to read and watch, where or how I want to worship, how I want to be a husband and father, every other choice out there just feels weird somehow. (Until, of course, I change my mind.) I don't hold different choices against people, and neither do Verona and Burt, but the process of finding yourself is a lot of trial and error, a lot of pushing away and stripping away alternate options by process of one's gut reactions. Their journey is one of these gut reactions.

What's great and unusual about this movie
is about how much Verona and Burt are on each other's side. So often a love story is about two romantic leads playing opposite one another, with the relationship between each other at stake. This is movie about two romantic leads united in opposition to a world that threatens to make them conform to something they don't want. I can't stress enough how refreshing and beautiful this is to see. I often thought that if I were ever to become a marriage counselor, my piece of advice to everyone would be this: Find something that you both agree on and believe in and then fight for it together. Be on each other's side. Believe that the roots of your life's troubles go deeper than the failures of your spouse and fight the bigger enemy, not one another. (But since that's literally the only piece of advice I have on marriage, it would be a pretty short session.) This is a movie about two people in each other's corner, and what's more — even many of the outrageous caricatures are couples who are completely on each other's side. As off-putting as they may be to Verona and Burt, they make sense to each other. We should each have an anchor, a confidante, a compatriot like that.

I discovered during the end credits that "Away We Go" was written by Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, which surprised me considering that my other favorite movie of 2009 (so far ... I'm about halfway through the list of films I want to watch) was the Eggers-co-penned "Where the Wild Things Are." I'd heard Eggers' named mentioned with reverence before this, but had never read any of his work, so I didn't realize that we apparently think on the same wavelength. "Where the Wild Things Are" is an transposition of the Maurice Sendak children's book, which is slight and simple, into a fully fleshed out and yet faithful movie. It shares with "Away We Go" the same honesty and reality about life and relationships, in this case giving us a look at childhood that feels like nothing I've ever
seen on screen before.

The premise isn't exactly new: stories from "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Wizard of Oz" to "Spirited Away" have a child transition from a life of mundane events into a fantastical world filled with strange creatures and no parents around to guide the child with advice. And yet what's unusual here is that "Where the Wild Things Are" isn't a coming of age tale. Max does not exit through the other side, having made his first adult decisions, as more of a man. Rather, it's a coming-to-grips-with-his-age tale. Max doesn't really grow as much as he does try to grow and find himself facing his failures. He learns humility. He learns of his own limitations.

Every kid (actually, every adult probably, too) thinks that if only he or she were put in charge of the world, everything would be done better. It's only the pesky parents (or pesky authorities, or politicians, or church leadership, or familial expectations, or the rich, or the masses) that stand in the way of making things the way they ought to be. When Max comes into the mystical land of the Wild Things, he declares himself to be the king and the creatures agree to live by his rule. But Max, like all of us, is flawed. Max, like all of us (but especially as a child who is still struggling with his raw emotion), doesn't know how to make everything all right. He learns that being in charge is not the life of satisfaction and peace. From this, Max is able to place himself in his mother's shoes for the first time, the mother who he expects to make everything all right but who is simply doing the best she can. I suppose he sees her as a person for the first time, and she, to her credit, views him as more than an unruly burden, but also as a full person in his own right. We see a mutual love born of mutual humility.

This movie capture so viscerally and tangibly the sense of powerlessness that it is to be a child. This isn't a children's movie in an escapist sense, where the kids are smart and cool and talented and in control, the kind of kids we wish we could all be in our dreams, going on adventure after adventure. It is rather a children's movie in the sense of a great, resonant song of longing, one that puts into words everything that you actually feel and experience — the kind of song that makes you feel that you are not alone in the world. I don't personally know any children at the age of the film's protagonist to know if this is something that that can be appreciated as a child, but it certainly takes me back. It puts me in a frame of mind of what my much younger son surely experiences, having to be dragged from store to home to school to church at our convenience rather than his. Is there a way to honor and acknowledge that frustration in him rather than simply thinking of it as my right as the parent to make the schedule? How can I learn to see his outbursts not as an attack on or commentary about me but as his experiencing these raw emotions about his own lack of being in charge? I suppose "Where the Wild Things Are" is as much a parents' film as it is a children's film. It very well might have invented its own genre.

How daring of Eggers to present both of these visions of parents, children, families, and spouses in ways that defy the shorthand stereotypes of what the movies usually present. He didn't exactly get much in the way of reward, whether through the box office or through industry awards, to acknowledge his work. I certainly hope that doesn't deter him or temper him in the future from bringing forth such unique, rich, and satisfying screenplays, and hope that visionary directors like Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze will continue to fight to make his films untampered by studio execs. I find myself shrugging my shoulders in response to so many of the films I see these days, almost numb to their effects; Eggers' first two movies are exactly the sort of antidote I crave.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Classical music, part two

Last week I quoted at length from the book "A Perfect Mess" about learning the true difficulties of performing classical music (which requires constant re-tuning on the fly by instruments to keep from sounding discordant as the temperatures and other ambient factors change). This week, I'd like to add one additional piece of information about classical music, at least of the eighteenth century variety, that fundamentally changes its conception in my mind:
"The opportunity — the imperative, really — for improvisation was explicitly written into baroque compositions and in more than one way. Bach and other composers of the time rarely spelled out parts for cello, bassoon, harpsichord, and organ note-for-note, instead providing the players of these and other low-range instruments suggested chords on which they were expected to riff. Concertos contained cadenzas that challenged the soloist to cut loose from the confines of the sheet music, and the resulting long, furious improvisations were often the highlights of performances. ...

"[Bach] would embellish at length at the organ, even in the middle of church services, apparently sometimes dismaying the officiators, choirs, congregations, and others who were simply trying to get through the liturgy. In other performances, he would take musical themes tossed at him from the audience and immediately improvise around them, much in the style of a contemporary nightclub comedian. ...

"Bach and his colleagues could not have predicted that by the middle of the twentieth century the improvisational elements of their competitions, and of all classical music, would have been gradually and thoroughly excised. Composers had later filled in the bass lines and cadenzas with note-for-note versions, so that today musicians play only what's on the page, and every performance is melodically identical to every other. ... It has been a centuries-long organizing project that almost certainly would have appalled some of the very composers we most ardently lionize. ...

"Throughout this book we've seen some of the ways in which mess and disorder, in their various forms, can be a great deal less harmful than they are usually made out to be. ... Let's add one more claim: mess and disorder can be beautiful."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tea break

This one is for Courtney, our favorite tea-drinker: 12 unusual tea-bag concept designs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


The boy pees standing up now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Growing up so fast

In addition to yesterday's post about a leap forward in Corin's thinking, I've noticed a few other things in the past couple days that are new:

First, in the bathtub he was squirting a tub toy and I was trying to block the spray from going over the side of the tub, and after giggling uproariously at my vain efforts, he proceeded to explain in great detail why it was so fun, that the water was going into the tub toy, and that he was squeezing it, and that I was putting my hand in front of it. Not all the words were there — there filler there especially for the verbs, just a 'duh-ba-lub-a-duh' gibberish standing in for any words he didn't know, but he usually only talks about one idea at a time rather than linking three.

Second, he was watching a new VeggieTales video about Saint Nicholas, and when they were talking about his parents dying, Corin got rather upset. I'm still not entirely sure he understood what was going on (he had been rather tired as a result of waking up several times during the night with a cough and sniffle), and it might just have been a coincidental breakdown, but I think he might have been feeling empathy for the sad characters.

And third, he's getting more comfortable being on his own. This is not necessarily a good thing, as I've probably come to rely on his shyness and his needing the comfort of a nearby parent too much. Back before we had kids I thought that I'd definitely need one of those leash harnesses they make to keep children from running off, but so far in reality it hasn't been a problem. Today, though, we were at the library and I was doing the self-checkout (which he usually 'helps out' with), but instead of staying with me he was off toward the exit, then back in the entrance, then into and through the librarian area, and into the holds area and saying "Apa? Apa?" before I could even finish. (Fortunately I was able to look up and track him in between steps.) The other day in Red Robin he was running all over the restaurant, too, going back and forth between our table, and the video games, which were out of our eyeline. Usually if he wants to go somewhere where he can't keep an eye on us he has to drag us with him, but he was off like a shot and I had to locate him and make sure he was still in the restaurant. It's probably a really good step for him, to take a step out of the nest, but it's hard for me to adjust to because I have been reliant on his clinginess so far to keep him safe and looked after. It's a whole new ballgame.