Friday, February 11, 2011

Blue Valentine

After a delay due to hunger last night, I successfully dragged my unwilling father to see Blue Valentine. It was a stark contrast from Black Swan, the only similarity between the two being the format of the titles, though I have to say I was blown away by both for different reasons. Black Swan showed female strength at an extreme, in a manner that seemed to me much like Rambo or Full Metal Jacket only from a female perspective. Black Swan felt like an exercise in what happens when you take a concept and just push it way off the deep end. By contrast, Blue Valentine was so extremely real that my thoughts often drifted into my own past experiences and I walked out of the theater with my head spinning about how complex relationships are, the difficult dynamics involved, and the decisions we all make which are never as clear cut as a traditional hollywood movie pretends them to be.

One of the things I both loved and hated about Blue Valentine was the dialoge. It was just so utterly real, so awkward, so tense, and so painful to watch. Notable highlights include the words exchanged about the dog, the discussion in the car about the liquor store encounter, and the dinner conversation in the future room. Those moments were just so painful to watch. As far as actions go, the confrontation at work and the dinner with Cindy's parents were so vividly miserable that I felt my entire body tense up for the duration of each. I really appreciated how those harsh moments were not softened by the few tender moments, the bus ride scene was heartwarming and innocent but yet still very awkward and real despite it's freshness. The dance/serenade sequence was similarly real in how non-pretentious it was, especially the presidents portion.

After an extended discussion with my father, during which time he asked some thought provoking questions, I came to realize that his perspective, although a bit more black and white than my own, is a very valid take on the movie. The bottom line is that she settled for a man who was barely right for the moment, but his aspirations, goals, work ethic, and life plan did not match with her own. He was there at the right time, in the right place, and he was loyal and willing, so he applied for the position and he was picked. It's as if she put almost no objective thought into the decision to marry him, granted she was young and pregnant, but yet this was one of the most important decisions of her life and she did not evaluate it properly. The result was that she wound up married to someone who she had fallen out of love with, and while the blame for making that decision is perhaps more on her, the reality is that he did not fulfill the most basic pieces of the social agreement. He smoked, drank more than he should have, did not seem to help out with chores, and showed no aspiration to contribute financially in the ways that almost any partner would expect.

And yet, it's so much more complicated because he was a fairly fantastic father, relating almost too well to his daughter. And he clearly loved both of them and wanted her to love him back, like she once did, even though they both knew she couldn't anymore. Sure he said plenty of awkward things throughout the movie, and those scenes were dramatically painful, but the dialogue is not what we should judge either of them by. The reality for her was that her life was based on a coupled pair of decisions, one to have a child and the other to marry her boyfriend at the time, and at least one of those decisions was not the right choice for who she was and what she truly wanted out of life. For him, the lesson learned is an all too common one, that some of the things he may not have wanted to do might have been worth a more open mind. It's easy to hate him for smoking around the daughter, or showing up at her workplace drunk and argumentative, but the reality of it all is that if he were even slightly more respectable, if he had a somewhat decent job and pretended to be an adult once in a while, didn't get upset about the oatmeal or the liquor store encounter, maybe he would still have some of the attractive qualities that made her want to be with him initially.

It wouldn't be a complete blog without a dash of self reflection, and I do feel compelled to share some understanding I have from watching their dialogue. In particular, it seems clear that his natural first response when finding out the dog had died was to place blame, and yet when watching it, it's so easy to see exactly how wrong those words were, regardless of whether they were deserved or not. There's a time for grieving and there's a time for asking for behavior changes, and the two rarely coincide. I know I have made that mistake in the past, and I hope to have the foresight to not do so in the future. On top of that, the dinner scene was one that hit home as well, she was really trying to connect with him and have an adult conversation and he just totally blew it. I know how that feels, having been through similar conversations myself, and I know how important it is to really listen to your partner, understand what it is that they want, and attempt to figure out a way to provide it to them without sacrificing your identity. In his case, I guess his identity was as a husband and father and he did not feel that work mattered at all. In many ways, I do have empathy for him because it's not like he sold himself as someone he wasn't, his personality did not waver much, although he did seem more of a burden as he got older. The last moment of self reflection came in the midst of the struggle for physical affection which was as awkward in the future room as it seemed natural during their courtship. Some of his words in those moments showed just how painful it is to know things are falling apart and yet want so badly for them to get better. I do fault him for not making positive change to improve, as much as I fault myself for not having done so in my own past and yet I completely understand how easy it is to live in a state of denial as things are crumbling.

To boil Blue Valentine down to it's essence, I like to take the perspective of who would you rather live with? Hands down, it's Cindy, for anyone older than 10. And the reasons why, other than the fact that she ages better than Dean does, or the fact that Michelle Williams was outstanding in her role, are as concrete and old school as they can be. The partner with a decent job, who does a few chores, and stays sober most of the time is a better catch that the one who is drunk half the time, acts like a child, and doesn't care about money. Of course that is just my perspective, but it seems a pretty clear that she is still a catch and he is still a loser, perhaps even more so as he gets older. Yes it's far more complicated than that, and yes we do empathize with both of them in various ways, and yes they are both responsible for the destruction of their marriage, as are both of sets of their parents who do next to nothing to demonstrate a healthy family environment. It also seems like a little bit of money might help smooth the rough edges a bit, and perhaps poverty is a contributing factor to the pressure on her which causes some of the tension. But the bottom line is that she has options because of who she is and what she tries to make of herself and he is clinging to her because wife and daughter are the only things of any value in his life.

What is so difficult to process or speculate on is what the future could be for them if they managed to work through this situation. Could they grow together? Could he find a passion with music or art and possibly become someone she could love again? And what changes would she have to make in order to help things out? Perhaps being more open to spontaneous affection, although we all know that it's not possible to manufacture attraction or emotional affection. What could she do to enable his success, and what could he do to listen and understand her better? While they don't seem to have much in common other than a shared love for their daughter, people can always grow close and change for the better. These thoughts are felt the strongest during his final pleas for a chance to make it work, which are surely too late after what he has done, but yet somehow that last scene is as gut-wrenching as any because of how difficult it is for all four of them.

I know I'll be thinking about this one for a while. All I can say is, WOW, it definitely made an impact, perhaps even more than I was expecting it would.

Overall, the movie was a traumatic experience, not unlike an actual breakup, and therefore so very real that it forces all of us to think about what it means even if we can't come up with anything coherent to say on that topic.

Thumbs up and down, all at the same time, just like Dean managed to compliment and insult Cindy all at the same time during their conversation on the bus.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


To make good pancakes requires a bit of ADD. You have to shuffle between pouring, flipping, and stacking, all within a matter of minutes. There's just enough time in between each action to get distracted by something else (such as writing a blog.) And there is really too much time in between to just sit there and watch them cook, it's too mind-numbing. I've been told before that you have to "watch them like a hawk", but I've never been able to subscribe to that level of dedication with my pancake cooking.

I've never played football before, but I like to think that pancake chef shares some very small similarities with the quarterback position. One of the most difficult challenges a quarterback faces is an awareness of how long the play has been alive. Some QB's try to keep the play alive at all costs, and as the play goes on, the risk of a sack increases while the chance of a gain decreases. The more savvy qb's have an internal clock that ticks off the seconds and if they have nobody to throw to and nowhere to run, they throw the ball away instead of risking the sack or forcing an off-balance pass. The more football you watch, the more you see this difference, it's one of the aspects that makes a QB great rather than just good.

In pancake cooking, I've come to take it as a personal challenge to fine tune my own internal clock. Every 30-40 seconds, the mental timer in my head is supposed to go "bing, your pancakes are ready" so that I return from sipping my coffee, eating my earlier batch of cakes, or talking to someone else in the room and flip or stack the old and pour the new. Sometimes I ignore my internal clock and I get slightly burned pancakes, that is the equivalent of a sack in the sport of pancake cooking. Sometimes I show up at the pan earlier than I need to be and/or flip a not-fully-cooked pancake and realize I jumped the gun. It's a dance, a delicate balance of precision mixed with ambivalence which drives the process.

The best part is that it really doesn't matter at all as long as some of the pancakes are edible.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Family is one of those words that has a whole slew of meanings to me. The Hawaiian word for family is ohana, but the Hawaiian definition is often extended well beyond the walls of the immediate family unit. I tend to restrict my thoughts on the world "family" to the 5 people I know of who share substantial portions of my dna.

I would imagine we all create our own definition of the word as we stumble through the transitions between infant, adolescent, adult and senior citizen. The photo above includes all of the descendants of my parents at various stages of cognizance of the world around them. And, while it seems that no actual progress has been made on my own family front, I can say that the last year has marked the first time in my life when I think I know more parents than non-parents. The topic does seem to come up on a daily basis for me, partly because it's so interesting to think about the concept of giving life to another creature and partly because of all the complexity surrounding the commitments involved in such an endeavor.

I know a few single parents, some of whom are dating and I have to admit that I find their lives ironically simpler than my own. There is no ambiguity about who they are going to have children with, that decision has already been made. There is also no biological clock ticking away, their clock has already started and they are making progress towards the eventual goal of a healthy, happy, independent human. I'm obviously glossing over the tremendous amount of work that is involved in being a single parent, but I do think the lack of uncertainty allows for clarity of vision and lowers certain types of stress.

I know of quite a few adults who have aged past the point of having biological children. Some are happy about the decision to not contribute towards world overpopulation, it seems fairly common to forego the option for kids, particularly among the educated athletic crowd I find myself immersed in. Others may have searched for life and love and found themselves still searching, perhaps with modified plans for adopting or an acceptance that they may never become a parent.

I also know my fair share of happy adult couples with the beginnings of a family. Most of my high school and college friends who got married over the past decade are in this situation and seem to be on pace with the modern definition of how a family is built. As I interview kids applying to my school, I get a taste of what life is like for a high school senior, and how it differs from my experiences in 1992. Listening to my classmates talk about the price of tuition also brings back memories of some of the struggles and fears that surround the concept of family. The closest I've come is the roughly 10 years I've been a father to my dog, Hunter, which is of course orders of magnitude easier than raising a child, and yet somewhat sad as well because of how short a dogs life is by comparison to a human's.

I arrived home (see my prior blog for the meaning of that word to me) today, for my 3rd trip to Oahu in as many months. This time there are 9 of us in the house my father lives in, including his girlfriend, Gerri, my sister and brother-in-law, my newphew Carter, and my sister's 3 girls, Juniper, Clementine and Hazel (pictured above.) It's definitely different here, now, with all of us, than it was during my last two trips. And while I like to think my family is boderline traditional in some respects, it's also somewhat sad to think about the 2 who died too young, Gavin's first daughter, and my mother, both of whom I would suspect might enjoy these moments far more than I ever will.

One of the high school students I recently interviewed has a mother who is a dentist in the Navy and has grown up all over the globe. I reflect back on my own life and realize that my only real international travel (since you can't count Mexico or Canada as international) was done with my mother, father, and sister over 20 years ago. There is something unique and special to what a family does, how it operates, and how memories are written in indelible ink amongst the presence of children that simply does not exist in adult life. Now, I'm not lamenting the joys of sleeping in, drinking, exercising for 8+ hours, or spending the day living out of your car in the sunshine of southern California or Hawaii. How could I say that doesn't completely rule? And yet, while I have those friends who are content with their dogs and their endless summer lifestyle, to me there is one major piece missing to my life.

Part of the impetus of the 3 trips I've carved out of my schedule these last few months is to reconnect with my father. He is a great man, a wonderful man, a man who sacrificed his young adult years in a hospital so that babies would live and so that we could eat and play and go to an expensive private school and not have to worry about anything at all. He is a man who is now, finally, rewarding himself with a few of life's indulgences, some travel, a lot of dancing, some good food, and a home with a view that is iconic and borderline postcard worthy. It is incredibly sad that his life partner, the woman who made those same sacrifices alongside him, the woman who raised my sister and I, is not here to enjoy all of that with him. I know things would be different for him if she were, and though he is not sad, there is most definitely a part of him which will always miss her and wonder what-if?

Now, with my sister and I bordering on a level of minimal maturity, and with my sister having cranked out 3 little girls, the concept of family has completely mutated. With my dad and I, we can share time as men, and it's a fact that he has more energy to go out at night than I do, so while there is an inequitable divide in terms of life experience, I consider us as two peers in some sense, two men trying to figure out wtf we are doing with our lives. When it's my sister and I, the traditional roles of brother/sister are replaced by an almost complete focus on the children, so it's mommy, uncle david, and daddy Gavin as our roles by necessity. Then when my dad is around my sister he assumes a role of grandfather, in a way not unlike how he is kind to Hunter, and hopefully with slightly more interest in what they have to say/mumble.

When we all get together, it's nothing like it used to be when I was younger. For one, my mom wore the pants and set the schedule, made the rules, enforced order, and handed out all the instructions. She was damn good at it too.

But at this point in our lives, we can remember, and we can celebrate her life and what she might be like now, but we have to define it all for ourselves every day. And the truth is, while my sister might have an idea of what "family" should be, I don't think my dad or I have any freaking clue.

Perhaps that is the simple mars/venus truth of it all. Are men incapable of building a family on their own without a woman? I suppose I might hear differently from my homosexual male friends on that topic, although I can't think of any who are raising children of their own. And I'm certain I can think of at least one or two women who rely on their man to help define the family unit, to schedule, shuffle, juggle, shuttle, and supervise. And sometimes to just "shrug" it off and let the absurdity be whatever it is and laugh about it sometime later, when the cost of whatever repair or ER visit has been forgotten.

I hear lots of stories about 50 year old men having babies with younger women. I can see how that might happen, both for a man who already had one set of kids and wants to try to build a new family because the first one didn't work for some reason, and for the man who was just having too much fun for too long and finally woke up one day and realized he was missing out on one of the most fundamental and important tasks of our own humanity. I know I don't want to be 50 and dating a 35 y/o. I know I don't want to be 70 and attending a college graduation. I owe it to any children I might have to give them a few of my better years, before I get grumpy, old, crusty, and rusty like my dog.

I suppose at the core of it all I am still waiting to define what the word "family" will mean to me as an adult.