Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hell is Relative

I am fond of proverbs. My absolute favorites are those I create myself. Heck, if Mao can have his Little Red Book, I can have "The Little Blue Book of Paula." (Blue is my favorite color, not to mention how well it reflects my political leanings. Note, too, that the title of this post is NOT "Hell is Relatives." That theme probably merits its very own post.)

Seven years ago, my son underwent 8 months of intense chemotherapy for a rare form of leukemia. As our family moves through that experience and the changed life that follows, I sometimes share our story with the people I meet. Extended family and close friends were told about the cancer early on; for acquaintances and new contacts, I had to feel ready, it had to feel right to tell them. Many people I know are still unaware, but that's because I perceive my role as "cancer mom" to be only one aspect of myself, just like many people don't know I bake sourdough bread.

I remember one conversation in particular, with a buddy of mine from a writer's group I attended. She read a short story I had written, a vignette about an interaction I had with my son while he was hospitalized. I had purposely worded the piece to suggest it was fictional, when in reality every scene, every action and word was memoir. After she offered her critique, I shared that it was a true story. "Wow," she responded. "I can see how such an experience would color your writing. How could it not?" She offered her sympathy, and like many people, expressed that she could not imagine how she would cope with such a devastating diagnosis, with the idea that her child could die.

In another conversation, at another time, she had told me details of her own life; that her oldest child struggled with behavior problems at school, had difficulty making friends, threatened to hurt himself as a consequence of his frustration with his world. "One doctor said he has Asperger's, but another one thought he might have Bipolar, so they are trying him on some meds." My response was supportive; my thoughts were of gratitude. Cancer I can deal with; but mental illness? Something that can't be cured; a treatment approach based on intelligent guesses and the process of elimination? No thanks.

This interaction with my fellow writer came to mind this week when I talked individually with two of my customers, each struggling with a difficult situation, who happened to know each other (but didn't know that I knew the other party.) Each person expressed an identical sympathy and pity for the other: "Yah, this is tough, but I think about what X is going through and I can handle this. Just reminds me that, you know, somebody's got it worse."

I like my hell, the hell I was assigned by fate. I can understand and accept it, I can live with it. And I wouldn't want to trade it for your hell.

It should be axiomatic: Hell is Relative.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Amazing: A movie that I liked better than the book.

When was the last time you could legitimately say that?

After our Gogol Bordello adventure last weekend, my son mentioned, in an off-hand way, that Eugene Hutz had been in a movie: Everything is Illuminated. It might be entertaining to watch, my oldest mused, and promptly pulled up clips of the film on YouTube.

Everything is Illuminated a movie?? When did that happen? I slogged through the book months ago: was it late last year? The book was an odd, disjointed read that had somehow been recommended by the critics yet available for 50c at the local used book shop. It took me chapters and chapters--perhaps half the book--to finally get into the rhythm of the alternating story lines: Alex, the youthful Ukrainian translator and his absolute slaughter of English, relating his experience as a tour guide; and Jonathan conveying the fanciful history of Trachimbrod, the bizarre, ancient Jewish settlement of his ancestors. And then the intersection, where the reader understands that Alex is accompanying Jonathan on his journey to Trachimbrod, and more significantly, to search for the mysterious Augustine, a woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather's life (after a fashion)...a dreamlike, cryptic sequence that recalled Arthur Dent's visit to John Watson's inside-out house. Or maybe it was 1984? Things are, but they aren't?

Although Alex's voice is comical, a consequence of scrambled synonyms, the book just didn't grab me. I didn't see the point. And I could hardly envision it being concentrated into a movie. But I was willing to give the movie my time, if only to view Eugene Hutz clean-shaven and trotting around Odessa followed by an oom-pa band.

And now that I am following the typical process in reverse: view movie, read book (well, read book AGAIN)--in contrast to the usual sequence--I really like Liev Schreiber's take on Jonathan much more that Safran Foer's original.

In fact, I find the screenplay brilliant. All those chapters and chapters of Trachimbrod's psuedohistory have been stripped away, leaving the pure essence of a story: a road trip, a voyage of discovery, leading to deep insights into the nature of humans, trauma, and identity. The screenplay has layers and layers of meaning, accomplished in a clean, precise way.

In other words, the movie has no wasted moves, no filler. Everything is significant. Each scene, each word moves the story forward. The motivations of the characters are clear and yet very human. There is humor, there is surprise, there is transformation.

And at the end, everything IS illuminated. For each of the characters, and for the viewer too.

Skip the book. Watch the movie.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


I can't sleep, my mind still buzzing from last night....truthfully, early this morning; I'd expected my 2 AM bedtime would have me drowsy by now (10:30 PM). But I guess this is the cost of obtaining a musical education.

One aspect of parenting teenagers that I sincerely relish is having them teach me about popular culture; and what could be more significant to a teen than the bands they enjoy? A unique characteristic of this particular generation of kids is their deep respect for the classics. I am as delighted to observe my 70-year-old uncle share Pink Floyd with my 17-year-old son, as I am to talk about The Beatles with my 13-year-old daughter. I've used the philosophy of Dylan to resolve the teen angst about the work world ("Gotta Serve Sombody!"). My middle child has bridged the years between Rush and Ramstein; my youngest has introduced me to Julia Nunes and fun with ukuleles. When my oldest talks about Cake and Spoon, I counter with Bread and Cream. And although Blue Oyster Cult was the bane of my high school years, we all agree that you can never have too much cowbell.

Which makes last night, upon deeper reflection, a truly amazing experience.

I heard about the band when the lead singer was interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR and was immediately intrigued.

My oldest learned about the band from a friend...I think the same friend who introduced him to Vampire Weekend and Streetlight Manifesto. He was taken with the group's high energy and the unique sound.

So when Gogol Bordello was scheduled to play Philly, there was no question we were going. A more significant question might be which one of us was more enthused. I planned my attire for weeks: one must attend a gypsy punk event dressed like either a gypsy or a punk, no? Given that my ethnic roots tilt toward the former (and at age 49, the latter would just look silly on me) the choices were obvious. And I was hoping to wear my purple shoes--my attempt to start wearing purple--but the heat wave suggested sandals might be a more comfortable choice.

I am convinced that if I attended a Gogol concert three times a week, I wouldn't need to worry about any other form of aerobic exercise. One cannot help but dance, and honestly, I was deeply concerned by those attendees who stood stoically, arms folded across their chests. People, this is like a Ukranian wedding, minus the bride and the rustic foods! I ended up next to two 20-ish women, Aubrey and Sandi, who invited me to dance with them. (Aubrey was truly inspirational, starting her dancing during the set-up for Gogol, jiving in response to a Flogging Molly song, and not stopping until 90 minutes later, when a shirtless, perspiring Eugene Hutz bid us all good night.)

Eugene lost his shirt somewhere during the second song, and I suspect attendees would have followed his lead had it been permissible. I am amazed at the level of energy the entire band--and the audience--were able to sustain. Wow. They made The Who seem like the electric organist at the nursing home.

But what really has stayed with me (in addition to the pain in the soles of my feet) is how Gogol's music is the music of my Eastern European roots (and my husband's too, his ancestors from the pogroms of Russia). I love this stuff, could listen to it endlessly, its melding of the celebratory and the melancholy. (Is it merely coincidence that my people are Hungarian and Hutz's first band was named "Eugene Hutz and the Bela Bartoks"?)

Even more amazing is my son's love for this genre. Is it genetic? Is it something in the blood? Or is it the way of nature that we ultimately embrace that which reflects our heritage?

Tomorrow--it is fast approaching--I shall "Start Wearing Purple."