Monday, June 24, 2013

Spelling Bee Commentator

Welcome back folks. We’re here at the Haverford Resort in Maryland tonight for the 2014 Annual Spelling Bee. It’s been a fantastic day of spelling, and after fifteen rounds we are now possibly one word away from declaring the winner. That’s right, just one word separates thirteen-year-old Divya O’Hara from the glory that all these contestants have been dreaming of.

Do you hear the buzz in the audience? It’s been a tough slog to get to this point, but they finally sense a champion in their midst. And why wouldn’t they? Divya’s fresh off the heels of spelling ‘Staphylococci’. She’s had a great run so far but what’s stood out the most to me is her demeanor. There is no extravagance in her stance. She acknowledges each word with a mere nod of the head. This is a welcome counter to those who believe that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. For example, her mom Lalitha—yes she’s the one wearing a ‘Bee-n there, done that’ t-shirt—led a “For she’s a Human Spellcheck” chant during the break.

My God that t-shirt. It drives me crazy. ‘Bee-n there, done that’. For fuck sake it was 33 years ago. Whoa. Sorry. Can’t believe I let the f-bomb slip. Nothing that can’t be bleeped out, right Jerry?

So, here we go. The judges have the word.

SORITES.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Shit. Sorry, Jerry.

I’ve never seen my producer this red. Haha, what’s up with me today? Take a deep breath. That’s it: inhale… exhale. I apologize for that outburst. It’s just that, well, the word SORITES and I go back a long way. 33 years in fact.

SORITES could have been my ticket to glory.

I have this recurring nightmare: a smug twelve-year-old Lalitha holds aloft the trophy while I clap softly from my seat behind her. A never-ending stream of confetti drops from the ceiling and soon envelopes me. I shout for help but no one notices the sinking runner-up. I wake up with the sweats.

It’s fine, Jerry. I got this. I’m a professional.

Divya’s not taking any chances here. She’s going by the playbook. Language of origin, alternate pronunciations, you know the drill.

Question. Have you ever been so close to glory that it scared the shit out of you? Have you ever been so close to glory that it made you doubt the very strategy that got you there in the first place? I knew how to spell the word. I knew SORITES didn’t start with a silent p. But that’s when that annoying little voice inside my head took over: “No it can’t be that easy.”

You’ve never seen someone shake in their chair before, Jerry? I’m a professional goddammit. Do not try to mute my mic.

Divya practices the word on her palm. There is zero emotion on her face. She is seconds away from winning this thing… as long as she doesn’t fall for the Silent P trap.

Lalitha’s snort when I uttered the P still haunts me. I remember the look on her face when she walked past me, like she was destined for greatness and I was just a tiny obstacle in her path.

Divya’s ready. Here we go. Do we really need to split-screen this Jerry? A reaction shot of the mom? C’mon man. That t-shirt she’s wearing… it really does drive me nuts. Brings back all those memories. All that confetti.

Bee-n there, done that.

Bee-n there, done that.

GODDAMMIT. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ME. I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE 1981 SPELLING BEE CHAMPION. I SHOULD BE WEARING THAT T-SHIRT. JERRY, DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE. DO NOT MUTE MY

Friday, June 21, 2013

Flat

“Do you mind bringing the shutter down?” she asked.

“It’s beautiful out there,” I said.

“I’m afraid of heights.”

“Hmmm, we’re at 30,000 feet.”

“My dad once threw me into a pool that was twenty feet deep,” she said.

“Were you OK?”

“I was until he told me the pool was twenty feet deep.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK. Well, not really. You know why?”

“You’re afraid of heights, and we’re on an airplane.”

“Bingo.”

I turned my attention to my laptop.

“What are you writing?” she asked.

“A short story,” I said.

“I write too these days.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, I’m working on a mystery series,” she said. She looked out the window and took a deep breath. “The first novel starts with the protagonist, a retired detective, moving to Bartlesville to get away from it all. But then there’s a diamond heist and he can’t stop himself from getting involved and helping the city fight crime.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

“I may be overwhelmed by the clouds floating outside your window, but I heard the sarcasm.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What’s your story about?” she asked.

“I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing.”

“Are you afraid I’ll steal your story?”

“Of course not. I’m sure your protagonist’s got enough adventures in Bartlesville to keep you occupied.”

She started to tap the edge of her tray table.

“Stop doing that,” I said.

“You should write about us,” she said, still tapping.

“Us?”

“Now don’t say us like that. You know what I mean.”

“I really should get back to…” I pointed at my laptop.

“I skimmed through what you’ve written and it’s pretty flat. Now if you wrote about—”

“—It’s flat?”

“Like a plateau.”

“This is so like you.”

“Being honest?”

“No, being mean.”

“Would you like anything to drink?” the flight attendant interrupted.

“I’ll have a Coke, please,” she said.

“I’m good, thanks,” I said.

“It’s free, you know?” she said leaning in.

“I’m good, thanks,” I said.

“You guys look great together,” the flight attendant said.

“He doesn’t think so,” she said.

“You two would have just the cutest babies… if you don’t mind me saying,” the flight attendant said.

“Actually, I do mind quite a bit,” I said.

“He gets like that sometimes,” she said.

The flight attendant placed the Coke on her tray table.

“Have a good rest of the flight,” the flight attendant said and moved her cart one row forward.

The airplane jolted.

“It looks like we’re heading into some turbulence,” the pilot’s voice appeared. “Fasten your seat-belts, hold on to your drinks and tell yourself ‘we are going to be just fine’.”

“Oh shit,” she said.

“We are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said, moving her cart back one row.

The airplane jolted again. She spilled her Coke all over my jeans.

“Ah shit,” I said.

“We are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said.

“No, it’s not that… it’s—” I pointed to my jeans.

“Oh you poor thing. We really are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said.

“No, it’s not – I didn’t – ah fuck me. She spilled her drink on my jeans.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like another Coke?” the flight attendant asked her.

“Yes, please,” she said.

“Thanks for your prayers. We’ve made it through the turbulence. Now that wasn’t so bad was it,” re-appeared the pilot’s voice.

She twirled the ice in her drink.

“Happy?” I asked her.

“Very,” she said.

“How’s the Coke?”

“Flat. Just like your story.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years.

Warning: Contains spoilers.


“You come here to Paris, all romantic, and married, OK? Screw you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to get you or anything. I mean, all I need is a married man. There's been so much water under the bridge, it's...it's not even about you anymore, it's about that time, that moment in time that is forever gone.”

For days after seeing Before Sunset I thought about the tragedy of Celine and Jesse – the nine years they spent thinking back to that moment in time that is forever gone, nine years of wanting desperately to relive that perfect night, having to give up a core part of themselves to handle the blow of that lost connection. I thought about the scene in the car where the two characters finally erupt; Celine reveals how numb she’s become, and Jesse offers in return how terrible his life is – “I have these dreams, you know, that I’m… I’m standing on a platform, and you keep going by on a train, and… you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and I wake up with the fucking sweats.” The romanticism and hope that we saw in their slow wander of Vienna is markedly absent. The characters are consistent, but their concerns are larger.


I left the theater with the same feeling after watching Before Midnight. There’s still the crackling conversation and undeniable chemistry between Jesse and Celine. But this movie is harder to watch – it gives you a front row seat to an eruption different to the one in Before Sunset. The difficult part of a relationship usually isn’t the initial connection, but how it continues to work for the years and years that follow. There is a dinner conversation early in the movie about love and longevity; the inevitability of time defeating all. The trajectory of the conversation shifts based on who’s talking – there’s the excitement of new love tempered by a surprising pragmatism and there’s the age-old discussion on the differences between man and woman, but what I found most interesting was how the tone of the conversation changed based on the age of the person. Jesse and Celine are in love, but the years they’ve spent getting to fully know each other and the years of caring for their children have hardened them. The oldest woman at the table, maybe in her sixties, who’s been silent so far finally speaks, and she seems at peace, her voice dripping with experience. The conversation closes with her comment on the ephemeral nature of life. “We matter a lot to some people, and then one day we disappear. We’re just passing through.” It’s a theme that is explored throughout the movie. Time moves too slowly when we’re young, and then one day we wonder how it all occurred so quickly.


What I love about this series of movies is how we’ve been privy to the encounters of two engaging and charming characters who’ve grown and matured over two decades. Their joys and worries are so relatable. The way they wing it in Before Sunrise, the way they get around the awkwardness of December 16 in Before Sunset through that art of flirting, and the way they challenge in Before Midnight the notion of soul-mates and true love. Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater must have developed these characters from a deeply personal space for the dialogue and body language feel so authentic. Think back to that scene in Before Sunrise, right after Celine and Jesse get off the train, there’s a distance between them as they walk, she’s looking down, the gravity of what she’s decided to do unnerving her, and a nervous laugh escapes both of them. Most film-makers would have chosen to skip that moment of vulnerability.

Having just re-watched the first two movies, it was nice to see nods to them in Before Midnight. Jesse makes a clicking noise as he bids his son farewell at the airport, a nervous tick that shows up the first time 18 years earlier when he convinces Celine to get off the train. And of course there’s the same kind of beautifully crafted ending where it’s up to the audience to decide what’s next for these characters. Will Celine and Jesse make it work? The journalist at Shakespeare and Company asks Jesse a similar question in Before Sunset to which he replies, “Well, it depends on whether you’re a romantic or a cynic.”

What do I think? Well, my take is that they stay together. But then you should ask me again in nine years.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recent good reads

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

“It was a real whale, a photograph of a real whale. I looked into its tiny wise eye and wondered where that eye was now. Was it alive and swimming, or had it died long ago, or was it dying now, right this second? When a whale dies, it falls down through the ocean slowly, over the course of a day. All the other fish see it fall, like a giant statue, like a building, but slowly, slowly.” 
There is an underlying sadness to the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You. The characters search for connection, anything really, to break out of a loneliness that threatens to engulf them. But I sensed the sadness slowly, partly due to the humor on the page that is uniquely July. Take for example the hilarious premise of The Swimming Team: The protagonist teaches three seniors how to swim in her apartment for the town has no swimming pool. With Mon Plaisir, July writes a tremendous short story about a couple that connect as extras on a movie set. When the director yells 'action' something changes for these two characters, and July describes this change beautifully. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve read.

Here is New York by EB White

“It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. Every time the residents brush their teeth, millions of gallons of water must be drawn from the Catskills and the hills of Westchester. When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that. The subterranean system of telephone cables, power lines, steam pipes, gas mains and sewer pipes is reason enough to abandon the island to the gods and the weevils.”
'Here is New York' is a tiny hard-bound book that houses EB White’s essay about the city, written in the summer heat of 1948, a tribute that still relates sixty five years later. Even if you couldn’t care less about New York, the prose is wonderful and the essay can be read just for that. The writing flows; the sentences are built with a cadence that begs to be read aloud, and there is preciseness to the language that reminds one of Hemingway:
“The cafĂ© is a sanctuary. The waiters are ageless and they change not. Nothing has been modernized. Notre Dame stands guard in its travel poster. The coffee is strong and full of chicory, and good.” 
White puts down his flag of ‘this is what the city was like in 1948’ and this gives us the opportunity to contrast with the modern day. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and trends (“There are fewer newspapers than there used to be.”) but there is one passage that stopped me and required a re-read, both for it’s foresight and the succinct evaluation of the kind of world we live in now:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”