Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite

When I was a kid I wanted to be a journalist. Journalists were, to my mind, the closest thing we had to living superheros. To live in a democracy it is your choice to be informed about the world but it is also your obligation, your duty. Journalists were the front line forces of this obligation. They told the truth, sometimes at great cost. They shone light in dark corners. They held a mirror up to humanity to say look, here, this is what we are: our beauty and our ugliness, the profound and the profane. Our founding fathers thought a free press was so important they enshrined it in the Constitution, a radical enough idea that even they sometimes had trouble sticking to that ideal.

By the time I made it to college, journalism was already undergoing changes which left me disillusioned enough that I changed my mind about majoring in it. J schools were now paired with advertising departments which seemed to be calling the shots. Writing classes were giving way to How to Present Yourself on Camera and in the background one could not help but hear the strains of Dirty Laundry wafting through the air (Kick 'em when they're up...Kick em when they're down...)

I give presentations now on the First Amendment in Libraries, and in those presentations I say that I chose Librarianship over Journalism because Librarianship better represents the living ideal of the First Amendment. Although I believe this is true, it's also not an entirely accurate reflection of my life's path. I lost my love, my desire and my dream of becoming a journalist several years before I discovered librarianship, and the intervening years were spent wandering in a desert trying to find my lost passion.

Throughout my formative years Walter Cronkite was the face of my inspiration. He represents something I'm sad to say has become the Old School of journalism; when journalists strove to discover and report The Truth. The Truth might be complicated. The Truth might be buried. The Truth may take a long time to work out. The Truth might be hard to hear. But there was only one Truth, and to tell it to the world was the goal. One wouldn't think that journalists reporting the truth was something that needed to be improved upon, but alas today we live in a world where the Truth has lost favor. The Truth has been replaced with being "Fair & Balanced".

As someone who loves the idea of journalism and reportage what possible problem could I have with the idea of being Fair and Balanced? It is actually a concept that has always been taught to reporters, otherwise known as "being thorough" and "getting the whole story". But in its current incarnation I fear that Fair & Balanced has become a Trojan Horse slipped into our national consciousness. Good reportage looks at all sides of a story, but Fair and Balanced means giving equal weight and time to all sides of the story, which is not the same thing.

If 9 out of 10 dentists agree that swishing with syrup is bad for your teeth, interviewing the 10th dentist might be interesting, but hiring him as your Alternative Dental Care expert and forcing the head of the American Dental Society to have a serious debate with him about the merits of syrup swishing is not fair or balanced. In fact it's mighty close to a lie.

And while we can all chuckle about syrup swishing, there's nothing funny about say, for example, Holocaust denial, or news organizations insisting that interviews with Elie Wiesel must give equal time to the American Nazi Party, or the idea of generations of children growing up to believe, because of what they see on the Fair & Balanced news, that the notion that the Holocaust never happened is a legitimate argument.

Perhaps I am becoming a Grandpa Simpson on this topic, cranky about some imaginary lost past. The world is more complicated now (is it really?). There's no such thing as "The Truth", and we couldn't handle it in it's raw form if there were. The idea of journalism as a historically perfect ideal that has recently run aground? Well, even I'm not that silly. I was a History major. We didn't invent the phrase Yellow Journalism in my lifetime. But even so, when I called a friend of mine to commiserate over Walter Cronkite's passing, a friend who was also a History major, and more of a news junkie than I am, he said "Now the only real voice of truth out there left is...Jon Stewart. What the fuck does that say?" And I think he's right.

Instead of being sad about the failings of modern journalism perhaps what I should really say here is that I am glad, so very glad, and grateful, that I had a chance to witness some of the great men and woman of journalism in my lifetime, and Walter Cronkite was a god among them. Although he's gone, great journalism hasn't died with him, and neither has the truth. Although they may be harder to find, thanks to his example, we know what both look like.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven

I had an expectation of what I was in for when I picked up Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. Gilman is a clever and witty writer, author of Kiss My Tiara, a frothy rumination on feminism and grrl-power, and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, an anecdote filled memoir about growing up in the 70s.

Gilman has an eye for the ridiculous, and an ear for the clever turn of phrase, but like many humorists, she can overreach for the big laugh, rather than settling for the quieter but more powerful chuckle. Both of these books are fun reads, and I enjoyed them, but they slipped from my mind almost as soon as the covers were closed. I assumed Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which details Gilman's post-college backpack-through-the-world trip, would be Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress goes on holiday: amusing anecdotes about trying to buy tampons in China (briefly touched on in Kiss My Tiara) or the lack of privacy in youth hostels. A little heartbreak. A little shopping.

The impression of a fluffy travelogue is only reinforced by the cover art of a naked co-ed wearing only a backpack, but to my pleasant surprise, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is made of much weightier stuff. Under-served by its titillating cover art and Gilman's previous works, this book is a lightweight travelogue like Spaulding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia is a lightweight examination of the film industry. Undress Me has charming travel anecdotes a plenty but at its core, it is something much more profound: a gripping rumination on culture, friendship, and mental illness which kept me reading late into the night.

In 1986 the author, known in the book as Susie, and her college friend Claire impulsively decide that they will forgo the post-graduation panic of job hunting and future finding and set out instead to explore the world. Inspired by a place mat from the International House of Pancakes, they sketch out a plan to visit the globe of their fantasies: Kathmandu, Paris, Bali, Thailand, Greece. Susie spends her post-grad summer working two jobs to save her pennies and then she and Claire set out, beginning their journey in the most exotic, mysterious location imaginable: the People's Republic of China which in 1986 had been open to foreign tourists for "roughly ten minutes".

They set out, over-packed and under-prepared for everything in store. Susie has her 900 page copy of Linda Goodman's Love Signs and Claire the complete works of Nietzsche, but neither remember to bring Kleenex. The girls are full of romantic notions, a longing to embrace the world full on with no fancy hotels or eating at American style restaurants. It's native or nothing! Their images of exotic foreign lands with bamboo bungalows and trees full of low hanging fruit explode instantly upon landing in the urban melee of Hong Kong. Their resolve is immediately tested by roach infested tourist hostels, cold and colder running water and food which alternates between nervously unrecognizable and frighteningly obvious (chicken beak anyone?).

As much as people travel to learn about other cultures, it's their own selves that they usually end up finding the most about. There's nothing better at teaching a person what they are really made of when they're hungry and exhausted and confronted with a weeping mentally ill man wearing a diaper and masturbating on the doorstep of the tourist hovel the Lonely Planet guide book has led them to. How do you like your bourgeois Hilton now my friends?

Adventure finds the girls quickly, and Gilman is skilled and funny at showing the romance-annihilating powers of reality. The girls sign up for what they believe will be an exotic sea journey on a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to the main land, only to discover they're voyaging on a modern cruise liner upon which the 5 or 6 Western passengers have the entire run of the "luxury" upper decks while the several hundred Chinese passengers are sequestered below decks. They befriend a local Chinese man who invites them to join him on a visit to his home, a remote village not found on any maps. When they arrive they discover that this "village" of 800,000 doesn't appear on any maps because it is a strategic military location which has never had any Western visitors, and the local police aren't excited to start now. Both the girls get violently ill on various occasions leading at one point to a terrifying trip to a local hospital which strongly impresses upon both girls that Chinese hospitals are excellent places to go die, but to be avoided at all costs if you want to get better.

Gilman insightfully points out that travel, particularly when you don't speak the language, can be incredibly infantilizing. "Drop any of us, anywhere, in an alien environment and you'll see our IQ plummet. IS THIS THE BUS STOP? we'll holler at strangers while dementedly pointing to the bus stop....There's nothing like feeling helpless to turn you into a world class control freak, to make you forget your manners and throw a tantrum when your room isn't ready and there's no ice in your drink. In a strange environment you feel like a baby, and you're often treated like a baby, and so you act like one." The girls find themselves having to rely on strangers for help and consolation, strangers who often have agendas of their own. For Susie, measuring out trust is a daily struggle, particularly for a New York girl who grew up street smart and wary of the kindness of strangers.

Despite the fact that Susie and Claire were friendly in college, they were not necessarily close when they started out on their journey, never having roomed together or done more than meet once or twice a month for coffee. While they have that illusory sense of soul-mated-ness that can only come from having both survived Freshman English at Brown together, travel begins to emphasize their differences. Gilman is a spunky wise ass who grew up poor and went to Brown on financial aid. Claire is a wealthy Connecticut princess whose brother roomed with JFK Jr in college. Fractures begin to appear in their friendship. Susie finds herself becoming increasingly frustrated with Claire's fastidious quirks, like refusing to eat fish or to use pit toilets which, in China, will leave you hungry and in danger of pooping your pants pretty fast.

Wrestling with her own expectations and fears, Susie easily dismisses Claire's increasingly strange and erratic behavior as either forgivable cultural adjustment or unforgivable spoiled Connecticut princess bratty-ness. When Claire tells Susie about a fling she had over the summer with an Israeli boat hand at the country club who was, Claire is certain, a member of the Mossad, Susie doesn't think twice. What college girl hasn't exaggerated the qualities of some shlub to justify why she made out with them? When Claire freaks out over a Beijing map which shows a building labeled "PLO", Susie understands that it's not actually a consulate for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but dismisses Claire's hysteria as something caused by sheltered US college kid syndrome combined with foreign travel exhaustion. When Claire announces mysteriously that she must go off on her own to make "contacts" for a graduate level "global curriculum" she is writing, A+ Brown student Susie is only jealous that she hadn't thought of doing such a thing first, and hurt that her friend wont include her.

While it becomes increasingly clear to the reader, and the older wiser author, that Claire is heading for a full blown pschizophrenic breakdown, it also very clear why the obvious is not at all evident to the young Susie. Disassociated and discombobulated herself, her friend's behavior just seems part and parcel of what it means to hurl yourself into the great unknown. When Claire angrily insists that the two leave Shanghai immediately in order to follow their Chinese friend to his village down the coast, Susie thinks Claire is jealous of the cute Australian sailor Susie picked up at the hostel. When Claire complains about the noise, the crowds and all the voices that surround them, it never occurs to Susie that Claire doesn't mean the inescapable millions of people in China, but is in fact talking about the voices in her head. Fresh from college, itself a world full of high hysteria and low melodrama and where erratic behavior is the norm, it's a long time, too long, before Susie realizes that her friend is dissolving right in front of her eyes.

It's safe to say that communist China tops the list of lousy places to have a mental breakdown, falling somewhere between Victorian England and Inquisitorial Spain on the list of Really Shitty Places to be Crazy. If the breakdown in question involves lots of muttering about CIA and Mossad assassination attempts the stakes are even higher, and the losing hand ends up disappeared in a Chinese prison, or worse. The transition the book makes from droll to harrowing is gradual but powerful. Clearly this is a story that Susan Jane Gilman has wanted to tell for a long time, and she writes the hell out of it. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven begins as a travelogue of youthful indiscretion but it ends as a white knuckle thriller, in which the most terrifying enemies are not the Chinese secret police but the myopia of youth and the terrifying specters of the mind.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Watchmen

We weren't allowed to read comic books growing up. Our parents who were otherwise indulgent when it came to our reading material, assuming if we were curious enough to pick a book up we could handle whatever we encountered between the pages, drew a fierce and absolute line at comic books. I'm talking about Archie and Richie Richie comic books here which, living in rural North Carolina, were about as edgy a comic book as one could easily come across. Comic books are garbage which rot the mind was the standard reason given for the ban and for heaven's sake, if you want to read something, read a book.

In this respect my parents would appear to be a winning success story for Estes Kefauver and the Comic Book Hearings of 1954. Whatever else the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency may have accomplished it seems to have convinced my grandparents, raising the children that would become my parents, that comic books were garbage that rot the mind. (The thing about standard lines is they don't vary very much.) Add in some gentle snobbery about the importance of being highly educated, something you don't become reading comic books thankyouverymuch, and you get my parents, two people who otherwise didn't agree on a whole lot, but certainly agreed that comic books are garbage that rot the mind.

This should be the beginning of a tale about how, due to this ban, I used to sneak out and collect cans to raise money to secretly buy comics which I hid underneath the woodpile, but honestly, I didn't really feel the lack of comics growing up. Because of the aforementioned rural locale of my upbringing, the only comics I ever saw were frankly not that exciting to me. When my stepmother came into the picture she brought with her Kool Aid, chewing gum and permission to read Archie comics, but I outgrew them soon enough and honestly had limited understanding that the world of comics was bigger than Archie, Richie Rich and the Incredible Hulk.

I was well into my adulthood before I became aware that there was a rich and varied world of comic books out there which, oddly enough, I was not too old to appreciate. This world was so rich and varied that in fact, they would actually collect several issues into a book like form, the hard cover protecting the reader from the garbage-y mind rotting qualities of the content within. I can't remember when I first picked up The Watchmen, probably in college on the advice of some guy I hoped to impress, but I'll be honest, I couldn't get into it. The characters were dark and unpleasant and what do you mean, Richard Nixon is still president? I put it down without getting very far.

Many years later, however, I'd transformed into full on comic book/graphic novel fan thanks in a large part to Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I discovered that an entire world of Buffy-ventures was taking place in comic book form, I'd found my gateway drug. While reading through the Whedon-verse, I happened upon Whiteout and Queen and Country by Greg Rucka, two other series featuring tough as nails women beating their way through the world. Whedon was my gateway, but Greg Rucka got me well and truly hooked. Hollywood kept me busy too, releasing films based on graphic novels like 300 and V for Vendetta which, being a dutiful librarian required me to go back and read their source materials.

Around this time I also discovered that people I knew, people who were friends of mine, also read these documents we call comics. Recognizing a burgeoning kindred spirit one these friends recommended a series called Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Oeming. She even loaned me her collection of the graphic novels, parceling them out in threes like precious gold. And they were.

Powers blew my mind. Powers takes the superhero fantasy and turns it on its head. There are superheros in this world, and there are also the regular joe cops whose job it is to clean up whither these superheros go. Powers follows two of these cops, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgram, who are assigned to the Powers unit, a superhero SVU unit as it were, whose job it is to investigate crimes done by or to those with super powers. Superheros are people with exceptional powers but also very human flaws. They're treated like superstars, for good or ill, swarmed by paparazzi and pilloried on Nancy Grace-style TV shows. The series blends superhero fantasy with hard boiled crime noir and the result is, for me anyway, irresistibly tasty.

Once I started reading graphic novels on a regular basis I discovered that it is impossible to escape The Watchmen. Author after author that I read cited The Watchmen as a the work that inspired them to become a comic book writer/artist. Eventually I realized that to go forward in my growing appreciation for the genre, I was going to have to go back and read The Watchmen. Maybe it was other graphic novels I'd since absorbed or life itself, but I was better prepared for the complex and challenging tale of a world where superheroes are just people who put on costumes to fight crime, or the Vietnamese, or wherever the government sends them, until society decides they're not comfortable with vigilantes in spandex and outlaws them.

Reading The Watchmen I quickly realized I was reading the codex, the source of Nile, the foundation document for all of the 90s graphic novels I loved so well. Heroes may do heroic things, but then what awaits them at home except for some aging Chinese leftovers and the evening news? The ability to kick a person through a wall, while occasionally practical, doesn't easily translate into the ability to form meaningful relationships with other people. And, seriously, what kind of weird anti-social personality disorder inspires dressing up in a leotard to chase purse snatchers down the street?

Reading The Watchmen shifted my understanding of the graphic novels I loved, making me see that this came first and laid the ground so they could follow. It expanded my notion of what a graphic novel could communicate and it impressed me as a narrative work of art. But here's my confession, a confession which may consign me to the lobby of graphic novel fandom forever, I didn't love it. I appreciated it, but it didn't touch my heart the way the works of Rucka and Bendis had.

I struggled with the undertones of Freudian psychology, the same way I struggle with some of Hitchcock's heavily Freudian films. It's like looking at a document from the days when witch burning was believed to be a great idea. It's hard to relate other than to say Thank God for progress.

All of the characters are hard to love, which is the point really, but, trying hard not to be a knee jerk feminist here, I struggled a lot with the female characters in The Watchmen. I'm not offended by women running around in spandex, seriously, and if a woman wants to use her abnormally large tits to fight crime, fight on sister is what I say! But there is something old-fashioned, and I don't mean that in a good way, about how women fit into The Watchmen story. Women are human and flawed and do good and lousy things in equal measure, but the ways that women in The Watchmen are flawed feel more like a man's notion of female motivation, a man who doesn't like them very much, than anything that resonated with me.

One of the driving plot points is that the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation, two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock, as Russia and the US tire of each other's bullshit and just want to push the button already. The challenge with reading the story now is a challenge that decidedly did not exist when the novel first landed. As a planet, we've moved on from those happy-go-lucky days and created new ways to terrorize each other. The threat that a nuke will go off somewhere, and it will be awful, is just as high as is ever was, but the threat that 100,000 nukes will go off at the same time seems less of a pressing concern than whether or not your neighbor has one in their basement.

When I heard that they were making a film version of The Watchmen I was intrigued, impressed and wary in equal measure. It takes nards to take this story on. It's complicated and multi-layered. It relies on flashbacks to unspool the story. The central heroes include a man who willingly if not gleefully murdered on behalf of the US government; a business tycoon who has transformed his glory days as a hero into a multi-billion dollar industry; a bitter sociopath who hates humanity in general almost as much as he hates the bad guys he tries to stop; a tired washed up recluse who enshrines his glory days in his basement and a woman who has been forced into superheroing as a means to relive her mother's glory days. The story is decidedly adult-in-theme and the only way to tell it well would be to force a studio out of its comfort zone of PG/PG13 superhero flicks. I hoped that the crazy people who were taking this on would get it right and I think I also wondered if perhaps, on film, I could connect to the story in a way I wasn't able to connect to the graphic novel.

For those who worried that the movie would water down or deviate wildly from the original text, rest assured that the film religiously adheres to the source material. Some of the story points are gone or shorthanded so as not to create a six hour movie, but the story that's left clocks in at almost three hours. It's well done, well written, well acted. The special effects are flawless and the details are perfect. Regrettably, after the opening (a striking montage of diorama-like images walking you through the history of the Watchmen so far) the movie also begins to feel every minute of its length, at times approaching the devastating pace of "plodding". One begins to imagine you can hear the whisper of pages being turned reverently in the background.

As in the novel, the most sympathetic character is also the least human. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan, a being who was once a man until a terrible accident transformed him into something else. He knows everything there is to know, he can see the future and the past, he can create and destroy matter with a wave of his hand and the longer he stays on Earth the less he understands, or cares, about the human race. He appreciates that there are human conventions which he dutifully follows but these are actions, not instincts. He wears clothes during public appearances because humans are more comfortable when he does. He loves a woman because she loves him back, and because he suspects loving her gives him a connection to the human race that he's quickly losing. When the woman tires of being loved as a surrogate for mankind rather than for herself she leaves, taking with her Manhattan's only reason for staying on Earth as a meta-human shield.

Although there's a conundrum in the least human character being the most emotionally compelling, Dr. Manhattan's struggle gets right to the heart of The Watchmen's themes. Should human beings get the heroes they need, or the ones they deserve? What drives people to create idols only to turn around and demolish them? Why should anyone work so hard to save a race so bent on destroying itself? Happy, happy times all around.

Like the novel upon which it is based, I admired The Watchmen. I was impressed by The Watchmen. I was challenged by The Watchmen. But I didn't love The Watchmen. Perhaps, like the novel, that is ultimately the point.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Truth About Me

About three weeks ago I went to see my doctor for a minor issue. My ears had been bothering me, like they might be infected but maybe not, but it had lasted long enough I thought an expert should shine a flashlight into them. It turned out to be benign, allergies doing something funky, but during the visit it was noticed that my blood pressure, which I had brought under control during my year of walking, had jacked up again.

So the doctor prescribed me the meds I should have been taking but kind of sort of forgot to and pointedly didn't lecture me in a way that felt worse than if he had. He asked that I go get my pressure checked a few times over the next few weeks and make an appointment to come back. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said "You can't take your migraine medication any more, until we get this under control". I responded in a totally matter of fact way, Oh, ok no problem, which completely belied my internal state, which was freaking out. I asked him if it was ok for me to still take Excedrin, the migraine sufferer's over-the-counter best friend, and he said yeah sure.

I knew better than to argue with him, or even to ignore him. When I first started having problems with high blood pressure he explained to me, in his direct straightforward manner, that high blood pressure plus migraine medication equals playground for stroke. Ignoring him seemed like a risky and rather stupid proposition. So I left the office clinging to the hope that my migraines seemed to have been more or less under control lately, kind of, and it would probably be just fine.

I've suffered from migraines for as long as I can remember, at least as far back as high school. In college any promise I had as a burgeoning alcoholic was discouraged by the fact that drinking led to headaches that were hell's own punishment. I became an Excedrin addict instead, its magical combination of aspirin, acetaminophen and 800 milligrams of caffeine the only thing that could touch the pain once it had moved in.

Over the years I doggedly compiled my mental list of migraine dangers. Drinking, especially wine; birth control pills; my period; not eating; peanuts; sometimes but not always walnuts; strong floral scents, especially roses; maybe Indian food; some kinds of cheese and dairy some of the time; middle of the afternoon naps; and, as I cruelly learned after back surgery a few years ago, Vicodin, are all on my trigger list.

Growing up my mother had always had bad headaches, dealing with them by cloistering herself in a dark room with a cold compress. I dealt with them similarly, along with a healthy abuse of Excedrin and any number of alternative therapies. I had moderate success with accupuncture. I can still see the weird freckles that developed on my hands, in the fleshy area between thumb and forefinger, which is the magic spot for headache treatment. I tried positive visualization, lying in the dark and imagining a little broom sweeping the vast pain into a tidy pile and throwing it away. Lots of things worked once or twice, as if the pain was startled by the approach (Mother of God! It's an Imaginary Broom!) but eventually the effectiveness would wane (Oh it's just the imaginary broom again. Ignore it and it will go away).

A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, told me she'd had great success healing her daughter's headaches with prayer and laying on of hands, an idea which is only risible to those who have never had a week long migraine. I greatfully allowed her to try her hand, and prayers, on my painful head but when she tried she said that although she could tell that I was in pain, she couldn't get a handle on it, couldn't visualize it well enough to focus her prayers on it.

I was suprised at how well her description of what she sensed matched what I felt inside my head. My pain is like a thunderstorm, roiling around with no focal point. My pain is like a lava lamp, bubbling through my brain. My pain is like an oil slick floating on the water; like a hydra; like mercury. I can focus on a point which seems the most painful, only to have it slip away and erupt somewhere else. If you add color and a soundrack, it would be a cutting edge 60s light installation. If it weren't for the pain, it would be facinating.

My migraines have evolved over the years, adding different nuances to the repertoire. A recent development has been nausea and car sickness, even and especially if I'm driving. If the migraine lasts long enough, the nausea gives way to ravenous hunger, as if the wildfire raging in my head were actually consuming calories (one could only hope). Sometimes I get a weird kind of euphoria, a surpluss of endorphins which have no effect on the pain in my head, but make me feel oddly serene and detached, as if the pain were taking place in a different room of the house.

It wasn't until I hit my 30s that it occurred to me to mention these headaches to a doctor. Eventually though, it got to a point where it was negatively impacting my job, mostly by eating through my limited sick time and irritating my boss. The doc prescribed me Immitrex, which was indeed a miracle drug as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately I quickly built up a tolerance for it and was soon running through a month's supply in a matter of weeks or less. Among other things, migraine meds are expensive, and while I'm sure it's for concern over health safety and not at all a cost control measure, insurance companies take that month supply designation seriously. If I ran through those nine precious pills in ten days, it was a long 20 days before I was allowed my refill.

The doc sent me to a neurologist, and we spent months trying different combinations of meds, mostly anti-seizure medications, that might stop my migraines before they started. Maybe nothing worked, or maybe I didn't have the patience to let them work, but we never found the magic combination of daily medication that stopped the migraines. We did, however, probably unintentionally on the part of the neurologist, come up with a solution which worked fine for me. In addition to the Immitrex, which works quickly to stop a migraine, but has an unfortunate tendency to cause "rebound" headaches which arrive within 24 hours, he also prescribed something called Amerge. Amerge works much more slowly, hours instead of minutes, but its effects are lasting.

The combination of the two drugs worked fine for me. If I felt the vague niggling of a headache, the tell-tale pinching behind my right eye, I'd take an Amerge, sometimes with an Excedrin chaser. If one came on quickly, or I awoke with one full blown, I'd take an Immitrex. The important thing, from my perspective, is that between the two prescriptions I had enough migraine drugs to get me through a month. And thus it has been for two or three years now. Although I would still get migraines, they weren't running my life any more. I no longer feared activities or vacations would be spoiled by a headache. I drank wine. I started sneaking dairy back into my diet. Once I even ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, immediately following it with an Immitrex to stop the migraine that would certainly follow. It was a foolish challenge to fate, but I felt liberated.

Until three weeks ago. I've been doing ok since then, kinda, sorta. I only missed a partial day at work because of a migraine. Most of them seemed controllable with Excedrin. Maybe, I thought, this wouldn't be so bad. Then I woke up Saturday morning with a migraine.

When migraines approach you during the day, you can see them coming, the pinch behind the eye, a tenderness of the sinuses. Suddenly you can smell everything at 200 times its normal potency. Sometimes you get funny auras and a weird, disconnected trippy feeling which would almost be entertaining if you didn't know what was coming next. These are the signs to break out your drugs and often, if you swallow them in time, you get to skip the visitation from the migraine terrorists altogether.

But waking up to a migraine is one of the most miserable things in life. Before you've even opened your eyes, you know that your day has been hijacked. Coming awake yesterday I knew my plans for the day were shot. I staggered out of bed and swallowed some Excedrin and an Aleve for good measure, even though I knew with a sinking heart that it was already too late. I heated up my flaxseed and lavender eye pillow in the microwave and staggered back to bed. Sometimes heat works well to mute the pain, sometimes ice. Sometimes I use both, one temperature extreme on my forehead, the other on the back of my neck, hoping that some combination might startle the pain into remission.

I laid in bed defiantly, for as long as I could stand, but eventually the daylight seeping through the curtains became too hard to ignore. I also knew I had to get up and run at least one vital errand that couldn't be avoided. I was out of cat food and migraine or no, hungry cats will not be ignored. I rummaged through my drawers and found one the dozen sticks of Head On which I applied liberally to the forehead as directed. After limping out and back from Target, I staggered upstairs and stuck my head under an ice cold shower. In those moments that I could stand the icy needles of water the pain receded, only to return full force when I couldn't stand it anymore and had to pull my head out.

Once I overheard someone speaking disparaginly of Head On as a "placebo" which doesn't do anything for headaches and I had to bite my tongue to keep from calling out this total stranger. A placebo, to my mind, is something that has no actual effect and its benefits are completely imagined. It's true that Head On doesn't usually cure my headaches, but it delivers a weird chemical cold sensation, like coating your head in Icy/Hot. Sometimes this is enough to distract you from the pain, allowing you to focus on the task at hand. Like repeatedly slamming your hand in a car door, or putting a bullet in your brain, two things I've never done but contemplated plenty, sometimes all you want is a distraction. Head On and ice cold showers seem a preferable option to other forms of self injury.

A friend of mine at work who suffered from migraines for many years told me that menopause has cured them completely. I've heard this from other sources too, a reassurance of something to look forward to. I'm as emotional and conflicted about menopause as any woman in her late 30s who somehow forgot to have children would be, but when my lady parts doctor told me it appeared I was entering peri-menopause, my first thought was the migraines. Sainted heaven's above, could this be the beginning of the end of them?

A few years ago a book was published called All In My Head, about the author's 15 year struggle with a headache that would not go away. It's supposed to be a well written funny book, but I can't bring myself to read it. It feels too real and raw, like a rape victim reading about somebody else's horrible experience. One of the things about suffering from migraines, or any other chronic illness, is how totally helpless they make you feel. It infuriates me, that feeling. It enrages me. How dare these monsters steal my life away, bit by bit, Saturday by Saturday? Would I feel better about things if I owned them? Hello I'm Kati and I am a migraineur. Should I thank them for the booze they saved me from drinking, the dull parties they saved me from attending?

I've become used to not thinking of myself that way. I still got migraines, one or two a month, but the meds kept them reasonable, limiting their theft to hours instead of days. I don't know how long this moratorium on the drugs will last, but I'm taking my high blood pressure meds every day like a dutiful patient. I don't know what I can stand anymore, certainly not too many more days like yesterday. Do I cheat and go back to taking the Immitrex and Amerge, stroke risk be damned? Do I call my doctor and tell him, nuh uh, I can't do it. Give me something. Give me anything. The truth is, I don't know. Maybe I'm in denial still. Maybe I just don't want any of this to be the truth about me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Finally Photos from the Inauguration

I'm still figuring out how all this fancy pants technology works, but I think I've actually managed to post my pictures to the web.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inauguration

Venturing down into DC for the Inauguration required careful tactical planning.  There was no driving in.  Metro was running extra trains and buses, but there was no way of knowing how many people would be showing up to catch those extra trains and buses.  

I greeted the day armed with maps, snacks, cameras, pre-paid Metro card and, yes, a paperback book, just in case.  I woke up around 5 am and proceeded, for the next hour, to pester my Mom like a 5 year old at Christmas.  "Mom, the Post is reporting that tens of thousands of people spent the night on the mall....Mom, do you have any Advil...Mom...Mom..."

We left the house around 6:30 and swung by to pick up my Mom's friend who was also braving the insanity to go down.  My Mom chose the wiser course of valor and opted out of joining us.  

A key question on any one's mind who was venturing down was where to get off of the Metro once it got down into DC.  The challenge, for those of you unfamiliar with DC geography was this.  The National Mall runs east/west about 2 miles from the steps of the Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial.  If you wanted to see the swearing in, this is where you needed to be.  

Most of the Metro stations in DC are located north of the Mall, with a scant few (two, to be exact) located to the south.  The catch is that the Inaugural Parade, which starts in the afternoon after the swearing in, runs from the Capital Building to the White House along Pennsylvania avenue, a major thoroughfare which runs parallel/diagonally (I don't know if it's possible to be both parallel and diagonal to a straight line but whatever) north of the National Mall.  

Essentially giving up on trying secure any but the locations closest to the Capital Building along the mall, police and security forces focused their efforts on securing the parade route.  Anyone who wanted to stand along the parade route had to go through security, and the secure corridor was set up in the days before the inauguration.  Pennsylvania Ave was completely shut down.  You could not cross it in a car.  You could not cross it on your feet.  You could not cross it on a Segue.  You could not cross Pennsylvania Avenue, Sam I Am.  

So, if you wanted to see the Inauguration on the Mall, you had to make darn sure that you didn't get off at a Metro station (most of them) which would require you to cross Pennsylvania.  

Adding to the excitement, they also had rolling street closures in effect.  So, even though I had a map which ostensively showed what streets were open and closed, in fact, when I got down there, Constitution, a major thoroughfare connecting to the Mall, was also completely cordoned off, along with lots of other random places.  

The mood on the train was pretty upbeat, except for the poor girl sitting near me who had apparently already had trauma catching the Metro and now, stuck on the Metro, desperately had to pee.  Initially, I had thought I would try to get off at L'Enfant Plaza, the major Metro station south of the Mall, but as we made our way into DC, the waits in the tunnels got longer and longer, and we began to get reports that some Metro stations were spontaneously closing because there were too many people in them.  

I really didn't want to risk spending the day in Maryland because the train wasn't allowed to stop, so I got off at Federal Triangle which is magically located north of the Mall, but south of Pennsylvania Ave.  This ended up being the ideal choice.  It let me out right at the middle of the Mall area with easy walking distance to the Washington Monument, which is where I decided to make my final stand.  I found out later that the streets around L'Enfant Plaza were so crowded and congested, many people found themselves trapped on side streets and unable to access the Mall at all.  

How can I explain the mood and the experience of being in that crowd?  It was joyous.  It was also a little bit scary.  Everyone was happy and kind and there was certainly a lot of excessive politeness, a distinct awareness that we were all in this together and there was no sense pushing or scrambling.  But I think it's human nature to be completely freaked out to be standing amongst 1.2 million people.  One's flight or fight mechanism fights to kick in, and one must soothe it, gently reminding it that it's ok.  We've chosen to be here. 

Nearby there was a man wearing an elaborate costume that involved tree branches on his head.  I never did figure out why.  Several feet away in front of me, the parent of a baby decided to settle him down by lifting him up and down over their head.  Seeing the baby flying up and down, the crowd began making sound effects: Whooooosh....Whooosh...Whooosh, and the baby became so excited it hardly knew what to do.  Every time his parent lifted him in the air, he could see a sea of a thousand faces smiling at him and going: Whooooosh!  I think his parents may have a hard time settling him down from now on.  

The Event itself began and I was so glad that I had decided to do this nutty thing.  The crowd definitely had a mood: cheering like crazy when the Obama girls and Michelle appeared (I LOVE YOU MICHELLE!!! was hollered out by more than one young gentleman.)  There was subdued booing when Dick and George made their appearances, some snickering at Cheney in his wheelchair, but mostly it was polite applause.  There was lots of cheering for Jimmy Carter, and cheers and befuddlement at the tottering old man who was, yes, George Bush senior.  Wow, is he really that old?  Bill and Hillary got cheers although it too seemed reserved, as if the crowd was unsure...are we happy to see them?

Rick Warren was also met with a kind of subdued applause, a far cry from the enthusiastic cheer I heard at the concert for Gene Robinson.  In the midst of his Invocation, a voice from behind me rang out "Gay Rights Now!", which was met with applause.  I listened to what he said, and thought it was ok.  I found myself wondering how closely he listens to his own words, and how much guidance he might take from them.  Faith means believing that people can always change, evolve and grow.  One thing I did know for certain, standing in that crowd of every creed, color, nation and gender, is that our country is evolving, and growing, and those who don't keep up will be left behind.  

The moment itself?  The Swearing In?  The Inaugural Address?  It was wonderful and overwhelming.  It was beautiful, and I cried.  I'm tearing up now.  It was worth it.  It was worth going down, and it was worth what came after trying to get the Hell out of DC.  We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, gathered in the cold, gathered around tv sets, gathered in the streets, gathered together, across the nation and said Yes We Can.  Yes We Did.  Yes We Will.  

Leaving DC was when the rolling street closures and Pennsylvania security corridor really began to take their toll.  I actually had an idea of trying to catch a bus, instead of trying to venture into a Metro station, the idea of which frankly scared me with that many people trying to pack in underground.  The bus stop I needed though, was located in a nice tight little triangle surrounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution.  I didn't know how to get there without going across the latter.  

My Mom's friend called me to say that she and her friend had managed to score a table in the food court at the Air and Space Museum.  Since I could see the Smithsonian from where I was standing, I thought what the hell.  I'll go sit inside in the warm for a few hours and let this jumble sort itself out.  The shock came when I tried to get down Independence Avenue, along with many thousands of other people.  It took me an hour to go three blocks.  Although the crowd remained peaceful and civil, by this time the cold, and the fatigue was wearing on everyone.  Some people were collapsing, and ambulances fought to drive through the crowds.  

Rumors would tear through the crowds like wildfire...they've blocked the intersection up there...somebody's dead up there...there's a lost child...all the Metro stations are closed.  Most of the rumors were completely untrue, but they added to a general feeling of Holy Shit.  

I gave up the heated indoor lunch plan, and, now having walked 2 miles in the wrong direction, decided to resume my original plan.  As I walked now in the opposite direction, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get to that bus stop, I stopped to ask a volunteer guide, standing patiently and kindly on the mall with a stack of tear away maps.  Looking at the map I could see a metro station, Arlington, which is located in Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge from DC.  I asked the guide if he thought it would be easier for me to go there and he said most definitely yes.  Those streets between me and the bus stop that aren't cordoned off, he told me, are completely mobbed with people.  

So a day that began amongst a mad throng of people ended with a long, quiet walk: past the World War II monument, along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial.  Although I thought I'd run into barricades at the Memorial, a friendly park ranger told me to follow the fence to the end, where I could make a right turn not immediately visible from where I was standing.  I walked by the Korean War Memorial, possibly the most powerful war memorial in DC.  Statues of soldiers stand in a field, weighed down with their packs, their images reflected in a shiny black marble wall, engraved with still more images of our fallen soldiers.  

Walking across the bridge I felt almost alone.  There were maybe a dozen people, instead of thousands, wandering in the same direction.  A troop of soldiers were stationed along the bridge in order to, occasionally, run out and move the traffic barricades to let in the Marine Corps Band buses, or let out a dignitary.  The ice on the Potomac looked like broken green bottle glass, dangerous and beautiful.  It was so quiet.  

It felt like the perfect end to my day for as I took this walk, truly, how could I not be "mindful of the sacrifices born by our ancestors"?  With every fiber of my being, I felt Obama's words around me:

"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations." 

Ok I am! Sunday Concert Report

I had this dream that I would live blog my Inauguration adventures via Twitter and then race back home and write everything up, immediately, if not sooner!  But I've learned some things over the last few days.  First, it's a bitch to text anything with gloves on.  Second, when you're actually standing there in the midst of crazy wonderful throngs of people, it's hard to think of anything to say except: Whoa!  Wheee!  Wow!  Yippie Skippy!  Zowie! 

Second, I learned that it's freakin exhausting to fight crowds in order to walk miles in order to stand in the cold for hours in order to fight more crowds to walk even more miles to public transportation to take one home.  I was officially zombified by the end of Tuesday, and then Wednesday I had to drag my ass up in order to drive back to NYC.  

So I'm back in NYC at my bro's abode and my flight doesn't leave until 8 pm, and I have officially nothing on the agenda for today.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me!  

So, where do I begin?  Let's start with the concert on Sunday.  When I first arrived in downtown DC, the signs of impending massive doings were already evident.  There was a strong military presence which might have been unnerving except that all of the soldiers looked so cheerful.  I followed the stream of people towards the Washington Monument, wondering where the massive crowds might be.  

When I got over the hill and could see the Mall, the crowds became evident, massed in front of the security tent.  A combination of friendly volunteers and very serious security forces were ordering people to "openyourcoatsremoveanythingaroundyournecktakeoutallelectronicdevices andTURNTHEMONc'monpeoplemovemovemove!"  It was crazier than airport security, but I will say the line moved very quickly.  

The Mall in winter has a bleak, frigid beauty to it, like walking through a Weyeth painting.  In the Northwest winter means different shades of green than the summer shades of green, but the Mall is a hundred different shades of brown and grey.  Ducks congregate on the ice, taking turns paddling in the unfrozen spots of ponds.  For some reason, every third person, and every child, walking by the icy ponds felt compelled to step a foot out on to the ice, to prove that it was indeed frozen.  

Despite dire warnings of bathroom related doom, there were porta potties everywhere.  There were more porta potties than I saw during the Breast Cancer 3 Day walk, which believe me is saying something.  Over the next few days, I became quite a conniseur of porta potties.  You learn to take your coat off before you enter (not enough room to take it off once inside without dragging it through something biological).  You learn to double check for TP.  I soon gave up trying to find ones with "clean" seats (there were none), relying instead on my yoga chair position to hover above the hole.  I even learned to prefer the honey buckets with the sliding lock, as opposed to the ones that flip around in a circle, as the flippy ones come open too easily.

My experience at the concert was the usual sort of outdoor concert experience, made more interesting by the fact that it was freezing cold, and in fact got colder as the day wore on.  I spent about an hour in line to buy a hotdog and some chips.  I joined the mad throng mobbing the hot chocolate vendor.  

I have mixed feelings about the concert itself.  I think that it was very "made for tv", and I understand a lot of people who watched it on tv thought it was awesome.  The pacing of the show (music, someone famous talking, music, politician talking, music, more famous people talking) was definately better suited for teevee than for the enjoyment of the thousands of people there in the cold.    

Having been to plenty of lalapalooza/bumbershoot type things, I recognize that it takes a certain pace and organization to keep a large crowd engaged.  You need to have music playing the whole time...before the show you play recordings of whatever gets people's moods up: Beatles or Snoop Dog or whatever.  At the "Presidential Committee Official Welcoming Event", they did show videos on the jumbo trons, very message oriented, hitting on the "We Are One" theme of the event, but they didn't show them continuously, leaving the crowd long periods of time of just milling about in the freezing, a mood killer if ever there was one.    

When the event started, with the invocation by Gene Robinson, the speakers didn't fully kick in, leaving those of us near the back aware that something was going on, but unable to fully hear.  

There were some high points, I will not argue that.  Watching the official United States of America helicopters zoom over head, knowing they contained Obama and Biden, was electrifying, especially when one (for the sake of me telling the story, it was Obama's) actually buzzed the crowd, circling the mall and flying straight over the reflecting pool.  

Knowing I was in the same square mile radius as Denzel Washington, whee!  I've been within the same square mile radius as Obama, U2 and Bruce Springsteen before, but now I can add Denzel AND Tom Hanks to the list.  Springsteen's The Rising was an amazing opening to the concert.  Despite it having been almost overplayed for a while there, it is a beautiful and poignant song and it brought home to me (oh, ok, I'll get cheesy) the resiliancy of our country, and how awesome, in the true meaning of the word, it is to be able to turn this page in our history.  

The best performer, aside from Bruce, was, suprising to me, Garth Brooks.  He sang a medley of American Pie and Shout which really got the crowd moving and jumping and singing along.  Whether it was the fact that the artists themselves were overawed by the experience they were having, or the tightly controlled pacing of the show, Brooks was the only one who really just reached out and rocked the crowd.  Even U2 was very somber and staid in their performance.  I understand their choice of 2nd song, after Pride they played City of Blinding Lights, was a request by the President Elect.  Lord knows, if Obama asks for it, play it, but boy the crowd sure would have liked a Beautiful Day or I Will Follow or something that rocked and which everyone knows the words!  (I actually love the song City of Blinding Lights, but for this occasion, it didn't feel right.)  

Getting home after the concert was an adventure, which I should have taken as a pre-lesson for Tuesday.  The Metro stations were mobbed.  I walked to the closest one and found a long line just to enter, so I decided to walk to one further down the line, only to find that one literally mobbed.  It was the first time of the day that I actually had an "oh Jesus I can't handle this" moment, so  I ended up walking back to the first station.  By that time the line had cleared some, and I only had to wait for 3 trains before I could get on to get back to Virginia.  

KMTT has posted some of my video from the concert that day, which you can find here    .  Check out the very last video, that's the Garth Brooks portion of the concert.  

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soapbox du jour

My Mom and I have just spent an hour or so planning logistics for the next few crazy days ahead, which brings me to my soapbox of the day.

Most of the official agencies who have any level of responsibility of organizing this loopy do have, from the very beginning, taken a pretty gloom and doom stance about what to expect Tuesday. 
The city has adopted a seige mentality.  All the bridges from Virginia into DC will be closed on Tuesday, period.  There's no such thing as driving your personal vehicle into the city that day if you live in Virginia.  Metro will be closing the two stations most conveniently located to the Mall. The website for Metro all but says, flat out, for God sake people, just stay home.  What do you think we are: a MASS TRANSIT system?  This is a challenge not only for attendees of the Inauguration, but for the many thousands of people who actually, oh, you know, have jobs in DC, and don't have the day off.   

If the powers that be had had this level of security during the War of 1812, the British never would have been able to burn down the White House.   They would have to have been satisfied with starting bonfires at the Army/Navy Country Club, which was probably something else back then.   

I don't actually have a problem with the level of security and control that various official agencies are attempting, although I'm bothered by the negative tone.  From a pure CYA perspective it's pretty clear they're trying to lower expectations to the degree that anything better than mass pandamonium and death in the streets will be lauded as a success.

While I'll give the public service and gubment agencies a pass on this one, I'm more irked with some who should actually pretend to know better, like the Washington Post.  The Post should be a resource for people who are planning to attend and need to know things like, can I bring my camera?  Where will the security check points be?  When should I arrive?  The basics.

The Post's Inauguration Central is sporadically usefull.  It does have some practical information and maps available, if you dig.  But it is also infused with a tone, a "if you're stupid enough to try and come, or if you can't get out of it, you might want to know this" tone.  It also has far more information of a practical nature available for those personages who have tickets and/or those needing to know how to dress for their fancy ball.  

Although it extensively outlines the security check points of entry for those attending the Swearing In Ceremony who have tickets, the only line of instruction I found for those without, buried in small print at the bottom of a page, was they should "enter from the south end of the Mall".  Since the Mall runs East-West, and most of the public transit options into the city drop you off on the north side, as provided this is a shockingly useless, yet clearly potentially important piece of information.  

Frankly, based on conversations I've had with lots of people who are confused when I tell them I don't have tickets, I think the media has done a lousy job of making it clear that You Don't Have to Have A Ticket.  In fact, most of the area set aside for viewing the swearing in is open to the general public.  There are no seats.  It's standing room only.  It will be crowded and cold, but all are, and should be, welcome. 

I think the worm finally turned for me when I was looking through the Post's Weekender, trying to get some information on the concert at the Lincoln memorial tomorrow, so I could formulate my plan of attack.  Maybe you've heard about this concert which will feature some vaguely known, in some small circles, artists such as Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and U2, and will be broadcast around the world on HBO and probably every other channel?

The Post did feature a multi-page spread detailing the inaugurations of all the past Presidents, complete with an introduction which the word "pretentious" doesn't begin to cover: "Streams of people will flood the city of Washington to honor the man becoming the next president. And with every step, they will tread in the shadows of greatness.  Consciously or not, they will trace paths blazed long ago by Jefferson, Jackson and Adams..."  The article did not go on to say "and those ignorant, dirty tourists will trample our roses and spit gum on our streets", but it is clearly implied.  

It also has a nice review of a new Burmese restuarant, but info on the concert I could find no trace.  Disbelieving, I looked again, scanning the brief listing of events calendar.  I missed it the first time but eventually found it, squeezed in amongst infinite lists for expensive inaugural balls, a tiny wee entry under the heading "Presidential Inaugural Committee Official Welcoming Event," from which I was able to glean what I already knew.  It starts at 2:30.

The Post does seem to pride itself on its insider, too cool for school attitude, but it might behoove them to recollect, particularly in these uncertain times for newspapers, that on large scale national events like the one we are seeing unfold over the next few days, they are the national paper of record.  They ought to be providing information not just for themselves, but for, yes, the great unwashed masses who have taken time out of their lives and traveled many miles to be part of a once in a lifetime experience.  

Day 1- NY to DC

I spent 5 whole hours in NYC before I faced my first delightfully energizing crisis of the trip.  I took my glasses off to clean them and they just fell apart in my hands.  My brother was standing by me when it happened and said, wow, they didn't even make any kind of snapping sound.  The molecules simply gave up the ghost and disbanded, right accross the nose bridge.  

Now, this is officially the THIRD time in my life that I have had a glasses destruction crisis while on vacation.  The first time was in college druing a road trip when my specs found themselves underneath a friend's foot.  On that occasion, I learned that it's a challenge to find an optomotrist in Durango who is open on a Sunday.  The second time I was in LA being stupid, and the Pacific ocean punished me, by knocking me over, stealing my glasses and giving me a wedgie.  You would think that these experiences should have been at least 1 if not 2 more than I need to learn that, when one travels, one should really carry a backup pair of specs, or contacts or something. Ha!  How funny, to think I would learn from my experience.  

So after figuring out that neither tape, nor super glue, nor my brother attempting to melt the plastic and restick the pieces together, I had a minor freakout.  I should say here that I'm blind.  I'm blind as a deaf bat.  Well, ok, that's an exaggeration.  I can make out light and dark and colors and shapes.  I can tell the difference between a tree and a building at 10 paces (although at 20, all bets are off).  In days of yore, I would have had a career choice of saber tooth tiger lunch or blind oracle.  

After I stopped hyperventilating, I remembered that my perscription is with Pearl vision, which is a chain, and lo and behold NYC has a Pearl vision.  I called them to explain my trauma drama and they said, yeah sure, come on down.  You're in the system, and we have a pair of contacts in your Rx.  "Just please get here before 4:00", the lady tells me, in this tone suggesting that I would just be doing her the world's biggest favor if I would do them that kindness.  Of course, they closed at 4, so the kindness was all theirs really.  

They gave me the lenses, solution and a carring case...FOR FREE.  Just GAVE them to me.  I'm not usually one for plugging super national chains, but hey, Pearl Vision...customer for life here.

So I was able to continue with my plan to drive down to DC in my brother & sister-in-law's new Honda Fit.  I could tell they were pretty stressed about parting with it, especially when my brother spent 10 minutes showing me how to adjust the seat.  But eventually, and with the distraction of a neighbor walking by with a new puppy, I was able to scoot off.  

Since apparently I'm plugging products hither and yon in this episode, I'll throw in one more: I heart GPS navigation devices.  For the first time in my life I did not get lost trying to get to my Mom's abode in Northern Virginia.  I didn't spend hours wandering around Bethesda, MD.  I didn't accidentally get on the Dulles access road which forces you to drive 20 miles to the airport before letting you turn around.  At no point did I find myself accidentally driving by the White House which, though always lovely, is not on the route to my Mom's house.  Thank you giant satellite in the sky!  You're my hero.  

The Adventure Begins...

Wow!  After that maudlin intro down there I be you're just itching to check in on my Inaugural Travel Fantasia over the next few days.  It's going to be deep, man.  

Caught the red eye out and actually slept some on the plane!  I was next to a woman traveling to NYC w/ her son who had an audition at Julliard.  He plays the bassoon.  I used to play the bassoon, so we had ooodles to discuss.  

She was nice, except for her desire to discuss airline catastrophes during takeoff and landing.  She went for the obvious Hudson River plane ditch during takeoff, but during the landing at JFK, she actually went for the full 9/11 discussion.  I'm not particularly superstitious when it comes to flying, but I did worry about being overheard by a sensitive air marshall and being dragged off for questioning.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Populucious Goes to Washington

What have I been up to lately?  And why haven't I been blogging about it?  

These are questions all five or six of my loyal followers have been asking lately, and there's no short answer.  In September I walked in the Susan Koman Breast Cancer 3 Day.  I should follow that up by saying that it was an overwhelming, life changing experience which made me believe I could do anything, including fly!  

The truth is what I learned most about myself during the experience was 2 things:  First, I know some amazing, powerful, driven accomplished women who make me proud to know them.  Second, I hate walking.  Hate it.  Don't like it.  I walked about half of the expected 60 miles.  We wont call that a failure, because half of 60 is 30, and when was the last time you walked 30 miles over a weekend? 

My experience was complicated by the fact that the week before the walk, my dear stepfather Bill passed away.  He had been sick quite a while and the doctors had long given up on him, but he and my mother never stopped believing, and they never stopped fighting. 

There are people in this world who have an amazing life force.  They know how to live, why they live, and they do that to the fullest, every day.  Bill was one of those people.  So was my Uncle Tim, another incredibly special person who we lost last summer.  

It's very clear to anyone who knew either of these men that there were very valuable things to be learned from having them in our lives.  Live each day to the fullest.  Live each day as if it were your last.  Be kind to people. Be true to yourself.  Have faith in your inner compass.  Roll with the punches.  Suffer fools politely, but don't ever let them make you doubt what you know to be true, and right, and good. 

The example shown to me by these great good men seems so clear, in theory.  But to put it into practice, day after day.  Well, it's hard.  It certainly doesn't come naturally to me.  Especially when it leads me to do things like commit to a bazillion mile charity walk on the grounds that it will help me finally uncover my inner athelete only discover that I do not actually have an inner athelete, at all.  Never did have.  Not looking good for getting one any time soon.   

So Populucious has been struggling a bit over the last few months.  She signed up for a class, called Passion Search, which she hoped would provide some lightening bolts of guidance about what she ought to do when she grows up (any day now). Perhaps there'd be tests, and she take one, and they would tell her, WOW, you should so obviously become a certified accountant, and she would go out and do that thing.  The class has been cool, no question, but no life altering lightening bolts, and no test certified commands for the future.  

Meanwhile Populucious hasn't been going to see many movies, and those she does see, well, she hasn't always felt like she had much to say about them.  She's also been watching plenty of teevee, but again, not much to say.  Is it the movies, and the teevee, which are uninspiring?  Or is it something else?  Like so many things, Populucious just doesn't know.  

There has been one thing that's been getting this gal really excited lately.  Well, for quite some time, actually, and that is politics.  I suppose there's nothing particulaly unique about that. Doesn't matter what side you were on, that was one heck of an exciting election. 

Populucious discovered something in the last year of electoral madness, something she didn't realize she still had in her:  Faith in the political process.  An awe for this crazy, loopy country we call home.  Belief that people, plain ordinary people, can change things for the better.  

For a chick that has always prided herself on her pragmatic, cynical point of view, this year has been something of a mind fuck, to be honest.  My own life's a bit of a mess right now, but as far as this country goes?  I have (yeah, I'll say it) hope.  I am cautiously optimistic about our future. 

And so Populucious is going to Washington.  DC, that is.  Frozen puddles and nervous Metro drivers.  I'm going to the Inauguration.  I'm going to fight the crowds, and stand in the cold, and worry about the location of the nearest Porta Potty.  I have no tickets for bleachers, or passes to balls.  I will be standing on the Mall, likely so far away from the action that even my camera zoom lens wont be able to make out what's going on.  

But I'm going, because I want to be a part of this crazy, loopy madness.  I want to witness history.  I want to embrace this lovely, hopeful, cautiously optimistic person I've found inside me and reward her for her perserverence.  

So tune in for Inaugural coverage from Populucious next week!  I'll be Tweeting and blogging and whatever else I can come up with.

And thanks, my five or six loyal followers.  You're awesome.  


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Quantum of Solace

I didn't write a review of Quantum of Solace when it first came out, because I didn't get around to seeing it for a while and by the time I got to it, I thought the world might be a bit saturated with Quantum reviews.  But then stuff happened.  First, I went to see the film again over Christmas with my James Bond loving brother and enjoyed it, again.  Second, I read that Quantum of Solace topped Peter Traver's list of most disappointing films of 2008.  Now, finally, after re-watching Casino Royale last night on Showtime, I find I cannot keep silent anymore.  Quantum of Solace is a great movie.  Apologies to Travers and Roger Ebert who both gave Solace poor reviews, but you guys are dead wrong. 

Anyone who knows me knows I love James Bond, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize a bad movie when I see it.  There are many installments of the Bond oeuvre which aren't great and a few that flat out suck.  Most of them fall into the category of "fun".  A few of them actually qualify as "memorable" (as in, having a plot remarkable enough to distinguish them from the 22 others), including On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceThe Living Daylights and Die Another Day (I'm sorry but I really couldn't think of a memorable Roger Moore one, and I've seen them all, many times.  I think we could easily replace all of the Roger Moore episodes with a copy of Disney's The Incredibles and be as entertained, if not more.)  A select few are truly great films, in or out of the James Bond series, including Dr. NoGoldfinger and, I would argue, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  

When the Broccoli family decided to do a reboot of the franchise after Die Another Day, they were taking a big risk.  Pierce Brosnan was a fine Bond, combining at least some of the sex appeal of Sean Connery along with the comedy chops of Roger Moore and absolutely nothing of Timothy Dalton.  Die Another Day was high note.  It was a turn towards a more serious Bond, with an actual plot with stakes that felt higher than usual (After being imprisoned and tortured by the Koreans, Bond escapes to find he's been sold out and his creds revoked).  Brosnan wasn't interested in retiring, and the Bond machine easily could have churned out several more episodes of "insert villain Slot A, gadget Tab B with a dash of women with dirty sounding names and shake well" with no one complaining. 

The problem, which the Broccolis recognized even if doubters (including myself) did not, was that the landscape for James Bond had radically changed.  Bond's signature had always been to combine action (which tended to schizo between cold war hi-jinks and science fiction), hot chicks, high tech gizmos and humor based on bad puns.  When the James Bond franchise began, Victoria's Secret models were not readily available on every tv station but, by 2005, the average teenage boy did not need to buy a movie ticket to see a really hot chick in a bikini.  The nifty gizmos that Bond hid in every shoe were now pretty much available to anyone with access to a Radio Shack.  

Elsewhere Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne were busily defining what it meant to be a lone wolf secret agent man in a post Cold War/9-11 century.  Most significantly, the biggest problem facing the Broccolis in the new millennium was the wild success of the Austin Powers franchise.  Double entendres about Christmas coming only once a year wilted in comparison to single entendres about flying penises.  The Bond films were in danger of becoming a pale imitation of themselves and completely irrelevant to new generations of potential fans. 

Casino Royale, which earned universally high acclaim, stripped the franchise down to its gears and rebuilt something familiar but also refreshingly new.  The one liners were gone, replaced with still present but very dry, lightly administered humor.  The action was dirty and raw.  When Daniel Craig chased bad guys through the jungle he actually sweat.  When Craig fought with villains, one got the impression that effort was being expended.  When he was hit, he bled.  The plot was set firmly in reality.  (Note to any of my mothers who are reading this: When I say "reality", rather than suggest that a high stakes poker game the funds from which, if not successfully intercepted, will go to fund terrorism is actually "likely", I mean to say it is plausible within the physical laws of time and space, as opposed to, say, a device which if not stopped will DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD, MWA HA HA HA!).  Bond had something approaching an adult romance with Vesper Lind, a woman whose name is not a double (or single) entendre for a part of her anatomy (and who does not once appear in a bikini), and he gets his heart, an organ which had made possibly one other appearance in the 20 previous episodes, completely trashed.

Quantum of Solace proves that the Broccolis were serious when they started this renovation of the Bond series.  It is, in many respects, even more stripped down than Casino Royale, which had a glitzy casino backdrop and running gags about martinis to lighten the blow for those overly attached to Bondian kitch.  It's true that Solace is essentially Casino Royale, Part 2.  If you haven't seen Casino Royale, you're missing necessary pieces of information to fully appreciate Quantum of Solace.  This is a huge departure from traditional Bond episodes which always existed completely detached from each other, for better or worse.  

Except for a nifty computer interface back at the office, which probably actually exists somewhere, Solace features no wacky space age bachelor pad technology.  We get cell phones, head sets, maybe some RFID readers while I wasn't paying attention.  Bond's Astin Martin, which is quickly disposed of in smashing fashion, features no rocket launching exhaust pipe.  Bond's pen, which he still might use to kill you, is just a pen.  These developments seem to upset some people.  Myself, I found them really entertaining. 

A lot of the negative reviews of Quantum of Solace seem to focus on the ways in which the film departs from traditional Bond boiler plate.  It's too serious.  It somehow is both boring and/or has too much action.  Bond doesn't wear a tux enough.  There are no bad puns.  There are no gadgets.  These quibbles, however, are confusing what have become some of the signatures of James Bond movies with the actual reason we find Bond so compelling in the first place.  The hook of Bond has never been the puns or the gadgets.  It's the duality of the character's nature.  He's the man who can mix with high society effortlessly, excuse himself to kill a villain, then return to the baccarat table none the worse for wear.  It is this improbable combination that makes him interesting, and separates him from the likes of a Jason Bourne or a Jack Bauer, neither of whom could crash an opera opening in Austria as effortlessly as Bond does in Quantum of Solace.       

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are nothing less than the origin tale of James Bond, just as Batman Begins/Dark Knight have been the origin tale of Batman.  No one minded that Christian Bale didn't wear a bat suit in the first half of Batman Begins, because we all knew a bat suit was coming.  What mattered was not the suit, but how he got to it.  Royale/Solace show us just how this dual natured devil, the suave gentleman and the killer, came into existence.  We see Bond transform as an agent from a loose cannon to an effective and loyal agent.  As a man, we see him transform from a callow Jack-the-lad, all too aware of his charm and good looks, to a man who recognizes the cost both he and the people around him pay when he relies on his magnetism rather than his sense.  By the end of Solace, Bond is the cool, calm and collected agent we have always known, but now we also know the cost of getting him there.  

There are clearly schools of thought that feel making James Bond experience character development is excessive and unnecessary, like putting lipstick on a pig, or making Superman wear a helmet.  Personally, as someone who has seen every single one of the James Bond films, I think it's safe to say that the well had run dry on all gizmo and action plots.  Adding a human element to Bond gives the story energy.  It gives Bond a purpose.  It gives the characters around him motivation, and meat to work with, especially in what may the best part of the new Bond-verse: the expanded role of M.  Judy Dench should earn her own movie franchise for her portrayal of Bond's exasperated boss, a woman who is experiencing her own evolution in learning how to deal with this conundrum of an agent.  

Quantum of Solace isn't perfect.  The lack of a giant dam explosion flooding the Bolivian desert is unforgivable, really (You'll just have to see it to know what I'm talking about.  Once you do I'm sure you'll agree with me).  But as an entertaining and exciting end to the journey started in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace delivers.  And now that we know where this International Man of Mystery is coming from, I suspect that further installments will be lighter.  There was never anything wrong with the double entendres, hot and cold running bikinis or martinis for everyone, but they were always the frosting, not the cake.