Not having any place to blog for so long has left me tragically behind on reviewing the films and books I've watched/read recently, so I am going to try to catch up on that. Susan and I saw Little Miss Sunshine a couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of Susan's friend Laura, and I was very pleasantly surprised. The previews for the film were minorly intriguing, but it looked as if it might be one of those films in which everyone is so awkward that it's more painful than funny, so I wasn't all that excited about it. What I found, however, was a story that was both sweet and funny and biting and sarcastic, snappy dialogue, fantastic acting, and a timely (especially given the recently renewed interest in the JonBenet Ramsey case) and right-on indictment of children's beauty pageants.
The film centers on the multi-state trip of one fucked-up family, in an old VW bus, with the goal of getting daughter OIive (played remarkably well by Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Everyone in the family has his or her own cross to bear or axe to grind. Grandpa (a fantastic Alan Arkin) is Olive's biggest supporter, but he's also a porn-obsessed drug addict who has recently been kicked out of his assisted living facility for smoking heroin. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an irritating wanna-be self-help guru, obsessed with winning while he himself is clearly a loser. Uncle Frank, an understatedly hysterical bearded Steve Carell, is recovering from a recent suicide attempt, spurred by his doomed love affair with a male student and subsequent job loss (he's America's number one--or number two--Proust scholar!). My favorite family member is sulky, silent brother Dwayne, played by Paul Dano (who is not, as I thought, the kid from Elephant), who takes teen family angst to a whole new level with his Nietzsche obsessing and 9-month vow of silence. Finally, there is mom Sheryl, a harried Toni Collette, who is just trying to hold it all together.
While the bulk of the film's time is spent on the chaos that ensues in the family's cross-country trip, giving each actor his or her moment to highlight each character's psychoses and humor, the true pay-off comes when they finally arrive at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. In only a few minutes, the film manages to scathingly indict an industry that sexualizes little girls and pits them against each other, as well as making me laugh so damn hard I nearly fell out of my chair. It would spoil the surprise to tell you exactly what happens, but suffice it to say Olive surprises everyone when her routine is unveiled, and the scene uniquely able to be funny on both a slapstick level (Dano and Carell's dancing alone is worth the price of admission) and a sarcastic one.
by Sara Gruen
May 2006, Algonquin Books
Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants is a book after my own heart. It takes place in a travelling circus in the 1930s--what could be better than that? Told through the recollections of an elderly (either 90 or 93, he claims) man who is unwillingly cooped up in a nursing home, this tale of animals, intrigue, and true love on the circus circuit in the early 1930s kept me rapt for the entire 300+ pages, and wishing there were more when it ended.
Gruen's narrative is very colorful, with both the spectacle of the show itself and its cast of characters described so I could clearly see them in my head. This is unusual for me, as someone who usually sees nothing more than words when she reads, and it was very nice. It also really made me hope that somebody in Hollywood reads this novel, because it would make a great movie.
Which isn't to say that the whole book is cheerful, because it's most certainly not. This circus is more dark than bright, with every scene covered in Depression-era grime and dust, and the people who populate the book are mostly hard luck stories and villians. Much of the story is very sad, and the abuse of people an animals it portrays will make you sick. However, the story is ultimately redemptive, though in a brutal way.
Though there are obvious parallels between Water for Elephants and Katherine Dunn's brilliant Geek Love, Gruen's book isn't as grisly, nor is it as people-centered, as Dunn's. Gruen's sympathy clearly lies with the animals in her story, which gives the circus a completely different feel. There is also an undercurrent of hope in Water for Elephants that doesn't run through Geek Love, making it a bit easier to stomach the rough parts.
All in all, I'd highly recommend this book. It's some of the best fiction I've read in quite some time.
Let's get something out of the way right off: today, August 28, is my birthday. I was born at 2:59 in the afternoon on Tuesday, August 28, 1979, making this the 27th anniversary of my birth. So if something truly terrible happens to you today, it's my fault.
To explain: bad things happen on my birthday. It started on my 18th birthday, when my great-grandfather, with whom I was close (and who had been sick for quite some time), died. The next year, on my 19th birthday, a family friend died. The next year, on my 20th, my dad's dad died unexpectedly. On my 21st, my dad and stepmom announced their divorce. Fast forward a few years where I think the curse is broken, and last year, on August 28, millions of people attempt to evacuate in Louisiana and Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina threatens. They don't all get out, and the next day Katrina hits. My birthday is not a good time for all.
Even though the rest of my birthday tragedies have been personal, and that last one is anything but, it's the last one that hits the hardest. When I just felt like I was killing off my own family members, that was one thing, but feeling like I share an anniversary with one of the biggest days of destruction in national history really is a little bit much. Ever media outlet plays some version of "Katrina: A Year Later" and I whimper "but...but...it's my birthday!"
You'd think, nine years into this curse, that I'd just give up and stop celebrating, or declare a changed birth date, or something. But instead I stubbornly insist that I get to keep my birthday and the bad shit can just go happen some other day. But I walk with caution, too--as if it's always Friday the 13th on August the 28th or or something. And you should, too. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Welcome to the new and improved What if No One's Watching! If you're an old reader who managed to find me in my new location, I commend you and hope you like the change (and that you'll spread the word). If you're a new reader, I hope you'll stay.
My recent move from Blogger was spurred by several things, including features I wanted to use that are not available there, irritation with how often I am unable to publish on Blogger, and my general rapture with the MT-powered blogs created by my friend The Princess (to whom I am deeply, deeply indebted for helping with the creation of and hosting the new WINOW). However, now that I've been through the process of copying three years worth of Blogger content over to this new space, I've gone from slightly exasperated with Blogger to seriously pissed.
You see, Blogger, through some glitch in their system, has locked me out of WINOW as it exists at avengingophelia.blogspot.com. Which means there is no way for me to post notice on that site for readers to come here to find me. When I emailed Blogger asking for help, they refused to help, saying that they are concentrating all of their resources on Beta. So as far as I can tell, there is nothing I can do. This is supremely frustrating. It's not like I have a huge readership, but I'd like to be able to tell those people who do read WINOW that I've just moved, not jumped ship completely.
Griping aside, I am really excited about this new space and what I'll be able to do with it. It's not fully operational yet--no pictures, no sidebar links, and only some of my old content fully imported in. However, these things and more will be coming over time, so stay tuned.
I have probably mentioned here before that if I could clone our older dog, Leo, I would. Leo is a beautiful animal and a truly good soul. I told Mark the other night that in the last year (the time we've had him), Leo has given me more unmitigated joy than any other creature I've ever known (it speaks to how well Mark and I understand each other that he didn't find this insulting in the least). And it's true, he really has. Chance taught me that I love dogs, and that they are completely worth the effort, but Leo is my canine soul mate.
A few days ago, on one of my frequent trips through all of the local dogs on Petfinder, I may have found Leo's clones. Or perhaps even his offspring.
This is Leo:
This is Louisa, Poe, and Shelley:
Leo is, we think, an Irish Wolfhound/Great Pyrennes mix. Louisa, Poe, and Shelley (they're called the "Literary pups" by their rescue) were listed as Giant Schnauzer/Pyr mixes, but I don't think that's the case. They just look too much like our boy, and have heads and tails that remind me too much of full wolfhounds. They are four months old. They were rescued after being used by some sadistic fucks as target practice. They were starving, ridden with fleas and mites, and mangy. They're all doing much better now. The weirdest part? They were rescued within only about sixty miles of where Leo was found (a few hours from where we live).
Descriptions of their personalities given to me by their foster mom don't sound exactly like Leo, but as similar as you'd expect when comparing an elderly dog to a puppy. They sound like fantastic dogs. And, as irresponsible or impractical as some people (Mark) may think bringing a third permanent dog into our family is, I can't stop thinking about them. I can't help but think that these puppies are the answer to my wish for a Leo with a full life ahead of him/her. My heart feels good looking at their pictures, and feels the same pull as it did when I first saw pictures of Leo, only a couple of short weeks after we lost Chance. Like there are millions of dogs in the world, but this is my dog.
Now to convince Mark.
An acquaintance of mine is about to adopt a dog. While it is not her first dog, it is her first extra-large breed dog, and the first time she's planning on having a dog reside mainly inside her house. It's also her first experience with rescue, rather than buying dogs from breeders. So she's asked me quite a few questions lately, and I've given her what advice I can, based on my experiences. This has gotten me thinking about a more general list of recommendations/advice for those who are adopting a dog for the first time, or who are considering their first very large dogs, or first inside dogs, or their first dogs of any kind, or whatever. So I thought I'd start compiling a list.
1. Make friends with your vacuum cleaner. Seriously, if you and your vacuum do not have a good relationship, then get a new one. If it's subpar, replace it now. You are going to be spending a lot of time with it in the near future. This is important particularly if you are adopting your first long-haired dog, but even with a short-haired dog you'll be surprised how often you need to vacuum. It's not just their hair (though it is, at least in our case, mainly their hair); they also bring in a lot of dirt and leave and various other stuff you don't want on your floors. Someone asked me once how often we need to vacuum. Need is an ever-changing thing. In order to keep my house in the shape it was typically in pre-dog, I'd need to vacuum every day, at least once. In order to keep it livable by my new, dog-adopter standards, we vacuum at least twice a week, and usually 3-4 times. So, like I said, learn to love your vacuum, or purchase one you can love. Also, buy stock in the vacuum bag company, because you are going to be changing your bag a lot more than you ever thought possible.
2. Get a Dustbuster. If you have a multiple level house, get one for each floor. Your Dustbuster will get lots of us, and they are not that hearty to begin with, so plan on having to replace it every year or so. We are on our fourth Dustbuster. It's worth it. Any mess that isn't worth hauling at the vacuum for can probably be handled by the Dustbuster, including spilled dog food, small piles of hair/dirt/leaves, etc.
3. Give up your attachment to your carpet, or get rid of it. As I plan to own dogs (and as many as I can fit) for the rest of my life, I will never choose to have carpeting. Simply put, they ruin it. Even if they are perfectly house-trained (which you shouldn't count on, no matter what their foster families say), they will eventually vomit or have a bout of diarrhea and you will have a stain. Depending on the type of carpet you have and how quickly you find the stain, you may be able to get rid of most of it with a carpet cleaner (I particularly like Kids N' Pets, though it can be kind of hard to find), but no matter what you do, something is eventually going to stick. It's better to accept this now. If you are committed to having dogs and have a choice in flooring material, I'd go with heavy duty laminate or tile. Stains aside, it's much more fun to clean up vomit or poop off tile than off carpet. Trust me on that one.
4. Consider your schedule. I can't stress this enough. Dogs are very different than cats. They cannot be left alone for endless hours and expected to entertain themselves and behave. They need companionship, and they need to be let out to go to the bathroom. So, if you work long days regularly, reconsider the dog idea, or figure out a way (lunch at home, a paid caretaker, neighbor willing to look in, whatever) to give your dog what s/he needs BEFORE you get him/her. We are not prize examples of this, because we regularly leave our dogs home for 10 hours a day, but we're lucky in that we have exceptionally mellow dogs with large bladder capacities. Partially this is breed dependent, partially it's age dependent, and partially it's luck. It's not something you should count on, though.
5. Dog-proof your house. What this entails depends a lot on the size and age of the dog, as well as her natural tendencies. My dogs don't generally chew on anything but toys, so we can leave our shoes out, the remote control lying on the coffee table, etc. This isn't true of some other dogs. If you are getting a large dog, consider what might be a tail level (pictures on end tables, vases, etc.). If it's at tail height, the tail will eventually hit it. In the case of my acquaintance, who is planning to adopt a Great Dane, dog-proofing includes removing anything the dog might get into from kitchen counters, because he's tall enough to counter surf.
6. Do your research. If you've never had a dog before, don't assume you know how to handle one. Talk to some folks. Read some books. Sign up for a training class. Look into the traits of the breed(s) of dog you are considering, then disregard half of them because they're so often BS. Look beyond the physical phenotypes that appeal to you and think about the type of personality you are looking for in a dog. No matter how cute you think Australian Shepherds and Border Collies are, for example, if you want a low-energy dog, they probably aren't for you. Think about what kind of relationship you envision yourself having with a dog, and keep that relationship in mind when you are choosing a new companion. All dogs are not good matches for all people.
7. Budget. Dogs are expensive, more so than you'd ever think, and even in the best of circumstances, when nothing goes wrong (and something will go wrong). Estimates of the cost of having a dog abound all over the place, and they are very dependent on the individual dog, but I'd say our dogs cost at least $2,000/year each, and that's assuming they remain relatively healthy. It's important to plan for extreme cases as well--a sick or injured dog's vet bills add up very fast. Look into pet insurance and decide if you think it's a good investment in your particular case (for us, it's worth it for one dog and not for the other, based on risk factors including age and breed). Look at the research and decide if you think premium dog food is worth the extra cost (my feeling is that it is, for a whole host of reasons). Consider whether you are going to have to board your dog or hire a dogsitter if/when you leave town, and factor that in. Consider the costs of preventative medicines (heartworm, flea and tick, etc.), which generally go up in price as your dog gets bigger. What about grooming? Toys, beds, etc? Training? If you considering an extra large breed specifically, I recommend this amusing blog post about how much that costs. Maybe my estimates are low...
Once a dog actually lives at your house, everything changes. These are only the few, top of my head things I can think of that you might need to consider. There is much, much more. But please don't let that scare you off getting a dog. There is no question in my mind as to whether they are worth it. There is honestly no way I'd rather spend my time or my money. However, I think that the more realistic your expectations are before you bring a dog or dogs into your life, the happier everyone will be.
The summer ends, and we wonder where we are,
And there you go my friends with your boxes in your car.
And you both looked so young and last night was hard you said,
You packed up every room
and then you cried and went to bed,
But today you closed the door and said
"We have to get a move on,
It's just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead,
we push ourselves ahead."
-Dar Williams, "End of the Summer"
I was just reading a really good essay by Pam Houston (who I obviously haven't promoted enough already), where she mentioned that March 21 is her favorite day of the year, because from then on she knows the days are going to get longer, the weather is going to get warmer, and summer is going to come. The fall solstice, on the other hand, depresses her, because even though fall is lovely, the days are getting shorter and winter is coming. And even the longest day of the year in June is bittersweet, because she knows that it's all downhill from there.
Pam Houston lives in Colorado, where the seasons play a much bigger part than they do here. Here, we get sun most of the year, and summer is the time of year most people complain about. Not me, though. After 23 years in gray Oregon, there isn't enough sun in the world for me. I continue to worship at the alter of summer no matter what happens to the heat index.
Part of the summer love, I think, is not so much about whether as it is about someone who has nearly always lived her life by a school-year schedule. For nearly all my life, I've been in school, and I've often worked at schools or at other places that followed school calendars as well, so I'm pretty well in tune to the academic year. The new year starts for me in September, rather than January. But I have a complaint: that new year starts earlier all the time.
When I was a kid, school never started before my birthday at the end of August, and it almost never started before Labor Day. When I started college, I got used to classes starting the week of my birthday, cutting as much as a full week out of August. But this? Summer ending in the middle of the month? It's ridiculous. How can it be August 9 and I already feel like summer is gone? School supplies in the stores, the local primary and secondary schools starting classes next week, people prodding me about my plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas, which should be so far away.
I want--I feel that I am owed--three months of summer. And cutting it off in mid-August doesn't give me three months. The rotations of the Earth and the sun tell us that summer runs from June 21 to September 21--why do we fight it? First, we moved it from June 1 to September 1, more or less, and now we're chiseling away at it. Completely unfair.
Another reason I know it is the end of summer is because things are changing. As referenced in Dar's lyrics at the beginning of this post, it is the end of summer and my friends are leaving. True, they are not yet gone, but my consciousness is clouded with the preparations for their leaving. And it seems only natural that they are moving to a place where it is nearly always winter. I know it's a metaphor, and that I shouldn't make it more than it is, but I can't help but feel the permanence in that transition, and fear the distance between where I am and their new home in the snow.
These films have quite a bit in common. Both deal with corrupt companies and aid organizations, massive pain and suffering in the "third world," and "bleeding heart" Westerners who risk everything to try to make a difference. While The Constant Gardener focuses solely on Africa, Beyond Borders starts there, but moves to Eastern Europe and Asia. In Beyond Borders the original bleeding heart who gets himself into trouble is a sexy British man (Clive Owen) and the person he radicalizes who eventually comes to save him is a gorgeous younger woman (Angelina Jolie). In The Constant Gardener, it's the sexy British man (Ralph Fiennes) who is radicalized by the bleeding heart sexy younger woman (Rachel Weisz). All in all, though, they have in common than not. They even have matching "save this child, even if all of the others die!" scenes, complete with wise, Black chauffeurs (one a truck driver, one a pilot) telling the stupid white bleeding hearts that isn't the way things work. It's eerie, actually.
Except that Beyond Borders was widely panned, and The Constant Gardener was heavily praised. And except that I found Beyond Borders depressing, but interesting and well-made, and The Constant Gardener ridiculous, confusing, and way, way too long.
Part of the reason I thought Beyond Borders was actually the better of the two films was acting. Angelina Jolie was as good as she ever is (something that depends completely on your perspective, I guess), but Clive Owen brought the house down. The Constant Gardener, on the other hand, was drug down by the slow pace of Ralph Fiennes, who I can't ever make myself care about in a movie, and was also a surprisingly dull turn for Rachel Weitz, who I normally like a lot (and who, quite surprisingly, won an Oscar for the role). The supporting cast, including Bill Nighy and the always-fantastic Pete Postlewaite was quite good, but it wasn't enough to save the film.
The biggest difference, though, was pace. The Constant Gardener was slow, slow, slow. And I think that is actually one of the reasons it was so highly praised. People are always afraid that if they are bored by a movie, it reflects badly on them, rather than on the film, so they often pretend that they were actually interested enough that the dragging 2+ hours was fine with them. Well, I'm not proud, I'll admit it wasn't fine with me. I thought it was boring and more confusing than it needed to be, and the insistence on using the same footage several times, with different color filters, to portray Ralph Fiennes emotions, seemed to me to be more of a cruel trick than an artistic device. We certainly didn't need to see that stuff two or three times--it wasn't that good the first time around, and the damn movie was long enough as it was.
Some, I'm sure, would put my irritation with the pace of The Constant Gardener down to my MTV-generation attention span, but I think that's a cop out. I can handle a long and serious movie, it's a long and serious movie that I don't care about the outcome of that gives me a problems. If the acting, writing, and directing had been better, the length of the film wouldn't have been a problem. Proof of that? I just looked up the run times and saw that Beyond Borders was actually only two minutes shorter than The Constant Gardener, which I never would have guessed.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that if you are looking to watch an incredibly depressing movie about how much things suck for people in other corners of the world and how you, implicitly or explicitly, are responsible for it, go against the grain and choose Angie and Clive's take. I wouldn't classify either of these as great films, but Beyond Borders is certainly the better of the two.
What a lovely weekend I had! I wish it weren't over. Mondays are so depressing. No matter how much I like my job, Mondays are just sad.
We sold the Mazda, which was fantastic. We got $200 less than we asked for it. We probably could have held out for full price, but it's nice just to have it over and done with, and the family to whom we sold it were very nice. So now our floor fund is complete, I think, and we are going to start figuring out what our plan is for the floors. Finally. Mark got all emotional about letting the car go--it's such a great car, it was our first major purchase together, etc. I thought it was funny. But I apparently have ice water in my veins, so there you go.
I watched a couple of movies, finished a book, hung out with my friends The Princess and Siobhan, and generally just had a fantastic time all weekend. We took Leo to the vet for his annual shots on Saturday morning and he came away with a clean bill of health, down 5 lbs (124, yay!), and looking great, except for his teeth, which are a mess. Dr. Julian, our beloved vet, says that he doesn't have to have a dental cleaning right now, but there is likely one in his near future, and his two broken canines will need to be extracted at that time. The cleaning and the extraction are no big deal--he's not using the teeth anyway, and they are damaged enough to be a risk for infection, so taking them out is the right thing--but we, as always, fear anesthetic. Even though there is no earthly reason Leo shouldn't come out of it fine, there's always that back of the mind concern. So I'm glad we can put it off for a little bit longer. In the meantime, we're trying to brush his teeth, which seems to be a pretty lost cause. Does anyone have any input on how to successfully brush a dog's teeth? I'm at a loss.
We bought some new houseplants and potted them last night, which was a pain in the ass (the mosquitoes wouldn't leave us alone and it was still hot at 9PM), but they look great in our living room. I made a major effort to choose plants that are supposed to thrive in low light, so hopefully they won't die. Much as I love my house, it doesn't get very good natural light. Given the climate in which we live, that is mostly good, but it is hard on plants. The plants I have in my office do much better than the ones at home. We have a peace lily that is outgrowing its pot every couple of months, though. Apparently they require neither light nor care in order to thrive. I actually hope it stops growing soon, as it's now in the biggest pot that I want in my living room. Is there a way to stunt a plant's growth? Should I water it with coffee?
I have been watching a lot of documentaries lately. I've always really liked the genre, but I've been really into it in the past few week. So I thought I'd review a couple of them.
Several months ago, Mark and I watched The Weather Underground which is about the Weathermen/Weather Underground radical activist/"terrorist" group in the 1960s and 1970s. I already knew quite a bit about them and found it pretty simplistic, but Mark really liked it, so I went in search of more documentaries about the radical groups of that time.
The first one I found was Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (also sometime called Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbianese Liberation Army). Guerilla made The Weather Underground look like an in-depth master work. Seriously. I realize the film was mostly about Patty Hearst's capture and bizarre behavior, but they could have given enough background to make it make sense! Watching the film gave you very little idea of what the SLA was really about, how it started, and why they did what they did. It was mostly a waste of time.
The next thing I saw was an old documentary called Who Are The DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? (made in 1977). It's a much better movie than the Hearst one, even if it is old-PBS style documentary (lots of voice-over and not enough of the "subjects" speaking for themselves). It tells the story (or a piece of the story) of the DeBolt family, who have seven biological children between them and twelve adopted children, of various races (mostly Korean and Vietnamese), most (all?) of whom have various disabilities (several of them are partially paralyzed, two are blind, one has no arms or legs, etc.) Simply watching the logistics of the DeBolt family, with twelve children living at home, is fascinating enough, but this film also does a fairly good job portraying the kids with disabilities as whole people, rather than martyrs, or caricatures. Given the prevailing attitudes towards people with physical disabilities in 1977 (and now...), it was impressive to see.
Which isn't to say that the film is perfect--it's certainly not. As I mentioned, I would have like to see more of the family speaking for themselves, and it erred on the side of making things appear a bit sunnier than they possibly could be. However, I found it surprisingly good overall.
Lastly, S. and I went last night to see the new documentary about the New York Times crossword puzzle and its devotees, Wordplay. Wordplay is much lighter fare than the previous two movies, but it's also better made. In fact, I think it's one of the best made documentaries I've seen in a long time. There's no clear film-maker agenda, and the people featured in it are give the space to speak for themselves at length. The viewer comes away with not one but several clear views of why these people do crossword puzzles, even why they become obsessed with them, and it makes sense. I was especially impressed with filmmaker Patrick Creadon's ability to use film to portray love and respect for language. To move between the mediums like that, without the effort being obvious, is a triumph. Wordplay is also able to walk the line between taking itself too seriously and taking itself seriously enough, which, given the subject matter, is a fairly thin line.
As a testament to the impact the film made on me, I attempted to work several crossword puzzles today, something I've never been interested in before. While I doubt conversion was Creadon's goal, it has to say something for his work that it got me interested in trying them out. I suck, by the way. Becoming a Times devotee is a long way off.
I didn't sleep well last night and I'm very tired this morning, so I replace content with a meme from Delany.
1. What are your siblings' middle names? Laurence and Christine.
2. Where is your dad right now? One is likely already at work in the woods, the other is likely on his way to the job site.
3. What was the last thing you said? "Morning."
4. What is something you've learned recently? That the bag of coffee in the freezer that I thought was fine-ground is coarse-ground.
5. What colour is your watch? Black with silver studs.
6. What do you think of when you think of Australia? That's not where Sofiya is from.
7. When was the last time you squatted to pee? I can't even remember.
8. Who is the last person you liked? Hrm. I currently like a few people. Not many, but a few.
9. Are you close to your mum? Yes.
10. Where does your best friend work? One is in medical school, one is in graduate school, one is a a full-time mom and part-time tech writer.
11. What is your least attractive feature? Depends who you ask.
12. How old were you when you started wearing a bra? I wore one sometimes in high school and college. I didn't wear one regularly until post-college.
13. What color are your pants? Black.
14. Do you have a roommate? No.
15. What color is your bedroom flooring? Sea grass carpeting.
16. Do you have a chair in your room? No.
17. What time of day were you born? 3 in the afternoon.
18. Do you know anyone who is engaged? Yes.
19. What's your favorite number(s)? 8.
20. Do you know anyone named Laurie? Yes.
21. What color is your mom's hair? Light brown and gray.
22. Do you have a dog? Two.
23. Where did you live in 1987? Oregon.
24. What happened to you in 1993? I started high school.
25. Does your first memory involve your dad? No.
26. Do you remember singing any songs as kids? Tons of songs.
27. When was the last time you went swimming? A couple of weeks ago.
28. Has your luggage ever gotten lost? No. It's missed my plane, but always shown up.
29. When was the last time you talked to one of your siblings? Last week.
30. Did you ever go to camp as a kid? Yes.
31. Do you play an instrument? Sadly, no.
32. Have you ever thought it would be cool to smash a guitar? It's never crossed my mind.
33. Do you like fire? Not particularly.
34. Where is your best friend from? One is from Oregon, one is from Rhode Island, one is from Oklahoma.
35. Are you allergic to anything? Nearly everything.
36. When was the last time you cried? When I watched "Wit" last weekend.
37. What kind of shampoo do you use? Nature's Gate Chamomile right now.
38. Have you ever been to a spa? Yes, just recently.
39. Were you popular in high school? No.
40. Did you take science all four years of high school? No, three years.
41. Do you like butterflies? Ambivalent.
42. What is the last book you read? Just finished "Waltzing the Cat."
43. Do you like Coke or Pepsi more? Pepsi.
44. What is one thing you miss about your past? Most of the people I love being in the same geographic area.
45. Did you ever see the school nurse? We didn't have one.
46. Have you ever wanted to be a teacher? A few times. It's a bad idea, though.
47. What is one thing you've learned about your life recently? Things take a really long time.
48. Are you jealous of anyone? Usually.
49. Is anyone jealous of you? Probably.
50. When was the last time you were in an elevator? About an hour ago.
The woman in my passport photo is not smiling. She's wearing a sleeveless white shirt and dangly silver earrings. She has a blemish on the right side of her lower lip. She has a look about her that could pass for ardor at a glance, but is likely just sweat. She's so young. Calculating the dates makes her 26. She seems younger to me.
I know, because I remember, that she wasn't planning a trip to anywhere specific on the August morning when she stood in line at the post office, filled out the forms, and had that picture taken. She was old enough to navigate the bureaucracy and pay the fees, old enough to think about obtaining a passport, but young enough to take pleasure in doing so, even without a trip planned. She was in that in-between state of embryonic adulthood. She had the outside trappings of being an adult--a steady job, a mortgage--but she wasn't all the way there on the inside yet. Adolescence lasts longer than we think.
I could say I barely know her now, with her silly earrings and her expectations all over her face. But the truth is I do know her. She's been here all the time. She emerges with every trip to somewhere new, while making reservations or in the security line at the airport or when the plane touches down on new land. And even if I don't remember the feeling she got standing in that hot university post office, posing for that terrible picture, she does.
I've recently been very into Pam Houston. It started when I picked up her first book of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness (remember, Amazon is for research, indie bookstores are for buying!), based solely on my love for its title. Not generally being a short story person, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. The stories are basically all about the same woman/type of woman--a early-mid 30's woman born and raised on the East coast by dysfunctional parents who expatriates to Colorado, gets into an artistic profession (usually photography or writing), does a lot of outdoor activities, especially boating/rafting, has unsuitable taste in men, and loves dogs. But they are not boring, each story illuminating a bit more of this woman/these women, and Houston's love for nature, the West, and especially dogs shines through.
Next, I encountered Houston in her introduction to Woman's Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives (edited by Megan McMorris, Seal Press, March 28, 2006), which I reviewed here. In her piece, Houston wrote about her Irish Wolfhound, Dante, and mentioned the autobiographical novel she'd written about him, Sight Hound (W.W. Norton, January 30, 2005). After reading about Dante, and seeing a copy of Sight Hound's amazing paperback cover, I couldn't wait to read it. So I got it from the library and cried my way through it a couple of weeks ago. It's about Rae, the same type of woman as those featured in Cowboys Are My Weakness, though this time she's older and much more clearly based very closely on Houston herself.
I finished Sight Hound just in time for Houston's more recent book of short stories, Waltzing the Cat (W.W. Norton, October 1998) to come in from the library, and I've consumed it over the past couple of days. The stories are very much in the same vein as those in Cowboys Are My Weakness, showcasing the same composite of Houston-like characters in their time in between where we left them in Cowboys and when they all merged into Rae in Sight Hound. There are stories about rafting, dogs, and a ranch in Colorado that feels like home. And the stories feel like home to me.
The last Houston book on my list, which I haven't yet started, is her book of personal essays, A Little More About Me (Washington Square Press, October 3, 2000). Given the clearly autobiographical nature of Houston's fictional characters, I'm curious to see what she has to say when she's not under the auspices of fiction. I can't imagine it will be anything but enjoyable. And then I hope she publishes something else really quickly.
Houston is compared (at least by Amazon) to another Western-inspired female short story writer, Annie Proulx. Proulx is, as I'm sure you remember, responsible for the short story (and, with Larry McMurtry, the screenplay) "Brokeback Mountain." I'm a big fan of Proulx's (maybe I like short stories more than I thought, or maybe just ones about the West...), but in many ways I like Houston better. Although she explores some of the same issues as Proulx (the interplay between people and land, love and independence, etc.), Houston's stories are more accessible to me and more amusing, and she is able to write about rural life without divorcing it entirely from non-rural life (her characters spend time in cities as well as in Colorado and find beauty and meaning in both). If you like Proulx, though, chances are Houston is worth a read for you as well. And if you've never read either, I'd start with Close Range: Wyoming Stories (Scribner, May 10, 1999) for Proulx and Cowboys for Houston.