I finally saw the 2019 Oscar nominated film Roma, and was enormously moved by it. The film is slow moving; I can understand the criticism that “nothing happens.” Actually, life happens, but much of life is not dramatic or fast paced. Life is kids coming home from school, a trip to the movies, getting dinner on the table, cleaning up after the dog, having a minor accident on the crowded streets of Mexico City — interspersed with an unwelcome pregnancy, a husband leaving home, and other momentous things.

The film is set in 1970-71 Mexico City, in the home of an upper middle class family with servants, and is seen through the eyes of an indigenous young woman, Cleo, who cleans and cares for the children. Her story is Gloria’s story, for those of you who have followed the blog and know the history of my Panama family. In Roma, the children come rushing in from school and drop their things on the floor for Cleo to pick up. Gloria entered service for a wealthy Panama City family at the age of 16. She remembers the kids doing just the same thing, and when she asked them to hang their coats up instead of dropping them on the floor even the youngest said with disdain, “It’s your job. You pick it up.”

The film depicts several things: the fact that when the upper class step out of their gated homes they are in the midst of the chaos and confusion of crowded city streets just like everyone else. The poor, who are the servant class, have a life of their own which takes place beneath the more gilded lives of their employers, and of which the employers are largely oblivious and totally indifferent. The servants spend more time with, and are deeply caring, of the children in their charge, yet are uniformly treated with disdain — except when the children are sick or injured and run to the servant for comfort. Poor women have a much harder life than poor men, because poor women can get pregnant. Poor men can walk away.

The cinematography in the film is gorgeous, especially the scene where pregnant Cleo confronts Fermin, the father of her baby, on the athletic training field.

The film gots lots of Oscar nominations; perhaps it should have had more wins. In any case, the film tells a story of people whose voices are rarely heard. If you are interested in a subtle and nuanced depiction of social class difference, this is your film. On Netflix.

Two thumbs up.

Book Review: Gilead

Gilead, a 2004 novel by Marilynne Robinson, is a quiet meditation on leading a moral life. The narrator is a 77 year old pastor, still preaching to a waning congregation in his dilapidated church in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, speaking to the 7 year old son he will never see grow up, hoping to share a reflective life. My sister in law Jeannie recommended the book to me; she said she’d found it profoundly moving and thought I might too. If you know Kent Haruf’s work, the quietness of Marilynne Robinson’s novel will remind you of that.

By happenstance I was reading Gilead just as the college admissions cheating scandal broke out, just as young Miss Olivia Jade Giannulli, a beneficiary of the scam, was on YouTube pronouncing herself uninterested in her USC education, just in the tailgating and parties and lucrative social media opportunities that are now hers as an “influencer”. College students haven’t lived long enough to have complex moral lives, but the particular vacuousness of this young woman is breathtaking.

Gilead made me think of Ana, Minga’s daughter. Ana is in her mid-60’s. She’s raised five children to adulthood. She and Raul have had their fifteen year old granddaughter Miley since infancy, raising her too. And for the last year of Minga’s life, Ana devoted herself to her mother’s care, getting up at 3am three days a week to launch her household into the day before getting Minga to dialysis on the bus well in advance of the sun coming up. Last November I asked Ana how long she could do this exhausting and emotionally draining schedule, and she said without a shred of self-pity or complaint “As long as my mother needs me.”

Ana and the narrator of Gilead share much in common: they lead richly moral lives in quiet, out of the way places with recognition from no one and little by way of financial reward.

One of the reviews of Gilead suggested that you need the underpinning of an observant Christian life to really understand the book. I don’t think so. I found the book a little slow to start, but then I got into the rhythm of it. This is the rhythm of my Iowa grandparents and aunts and uncles who gathered on the farm for Sunday dinner after church. Nothing much happened, after the hard physical labor of the week. Sunday was the day to rest, to be present, to share a meal, to honor each other’s good and decent lives.

I wish Olivia Jade could get off the USC trustee’s yacht in the Bahamas and into a book like Gilead, which they might even teach in an English Lit class at the university, were she to bother attending.

Gilead isn’t a new book, but it’s available on Kindle. Highly recommend.

Choosing Green Book

I can understand why Spike Lee was incensed that the vanilla version of race relations in Green Book was chosen Best Picture over Lee’s grittier BlacKkKlansman. James Baldwin, he of If Beale Street Could Talk fame, would have been incensed too if he were still with us.

I thought both BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk were searing, powerful, humbling, frightening. If we  moviegoers are going to seek out a cinematic window into black experience, maybe we should make room for the black writers and directors who can give us that window firsthand, and not go for the Driving Miss Daisy version just because it’s easier for white people to swallow.

The Academy missed by a country mile on this one, trying to soften the story for its still majority white audiences.

Edie Falco’s Greatest Act

I don’t watch a ton of TV, but I loved the mob drama The Sopranos, now celebrating the 20th anniversary of its completion on HBO. Part of it has to do with the fact that many of the mob scenes were filmed in my home town of Kearny, New Jersey. Tony’s family scenes were in the more upscale suburb of North Caldwell. Satriale’s Pork Store, the site of many mob meetings and the early-in-the-series murder of Emil Kolar — whose name Christopher pronounces as “Email” — is right next to my grandmother’s house on Kearny Avenue. When the camera angle was right, I could see her house, three identical flats one on top of the other, and St. Cecelia’s Church up the street and the firehouse right next door. The Sopranos feels to this day like my home-town drama, and it’s the biggest thing Kearny ever had going for it.

This complex moral drama had a host of powerhouse actors, including James Gandolfini as Tony, Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, and Edie Falco as Tony’s wife Carmela. According to Lizzie Feidelson, writing for the New Yorker, Edie Falco takes the prize.

Falco’s performance as Carmela Soprano, the sharp, bejewelled wife of the mobster Tony Soprano, had a wholeness and an independence to it; it was never defined by Gandolfini and her other scene partners, however excellent they were. Especially when crying, Falco was virtuosic. I recently rewatched “The Sopranos”—as many fans were inspired to do as the show marked its twentieth anniversary, this January—and I was struck again by Falco’s ability to make herself, through fleeting expressions of sentimental piety or grief, the linchpin of the show’s explorations of moral frailty.”

I first saw Edie Falco in the 1999 Indie film Judy Berlin. The Sopranos began on HBO that same year, January 1999, and ended in June of 2007. Falco’s subsequent major role as Nurse Jackie on Showtime ran from June of 2009 until June of 2015.  Since then she’s been on Broadway, and won another Emmy nomination for her role in Law and Order: True Crime. This is a hard working actress.

I thought all of the acting in The Sopranos was incredible, and so did the people who give out things like Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards. But I have to agree: Edie Falco is brilliant. Her best work was in The Sopranos, and if you don’t yet know Carmela Soprano, you should.

Reading Michelle Obama

For Christmas a friend gave me Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. I didn’t take it to Panama, as it’s the hard cover print edition and weighs a lot more than my Kindle. I’m deep into in now, and relishing the read.

Atlantic reviewer Hannah Giorgis has a phrase about Michelle Obama that encapsulates our former First Lady’s entire life: conspicuous excellence.

Barack Obama chose politics and the minute scrutiny and public judgment that follows. Michelle Obama didn’t. But she took the conspicuous excellence of her life up to that point and created an iconic model of what a First Lady might be. Hard not to contrast the rich family life and warm public welcome to the White House that the First Lady created with what we have now: a pinched, angry president roaming the White House alone and Melanie barely to be seen. No cultural events. No welcoming school children, or speaking up for the education of girls around the globe. No anything, really.

I am continually amazed that the Republican family values crowd loves the morally vacuous Trumps, and was withering — and often overtly racist — in its criticism of the Obamas. Remember the West Virginia woman who called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels”? Or the Wisconsin Congressman who said Mrs. Obama had a “big butt”?

The Obamas were and are surrounded by a strong network of family and black professional friends. I always thought that part of what enraged the people who became Trump’s base was the Obamas’ ease with who they are. They don’t try to act white or pass or get along in white culture. One of my Iowa relatives included me on an email chain that derided Michelle Obama as “uppity” — until I asked firmly to be taken off my cousin’s distribution list. The Make America White Again crowd tolerates, barely, blacks who signal subservience and a desire to fit in. People like my cousin, a woman you’d find gracious and lovely if you met her, are infuriated by the slightest whiff of whatever constitutes “uppity” for them.

I hope we haven’t seen the end of Michelle Obama’s public life, although I’m sure it won’t include a run for public office. I hope she keeps on being uppity, out there, speaking up and speaking out. I’ll be fascinated to see how she and former President Obama, who are still quite young for a post-presidency, yet again create new lives.

And I hope she writes another book.

Reading V.S. Naipaul

The much-recognized Trinidadian-British author with Indian heritage, V.S Naipaul, died in August of 2018 at the age of 85. During Naipaul’s lifetime he won the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize for his writing, among many other awards and recognitions. I’d never read any of his work, and decided that I should tackle something to round out my reading life. Naipaul’s focus was place and identity, which are of interest to me. I chose A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961 and the first of Naipaul’s novels to achieve wide acclaim.

The book is based loosely on Naipaul’s father’s life, and runs to 578 pages. I have to say that by page 200, and probably a lot sooner, the reader knows that Mr Biswas is never going to get a house that doesn’t get blown away, that doesn’t fall apart, that he doesn’t get turned out of by his wife’s overbearing relatives. Mr Biswas dies at age 46, and he never gets that house — or a solid and stable identity, if that’s what the house stands in for.

This is a sweeping opus of post-colonial Trinidad, not without interest but for me a bit of a slog. I usually try hard to finish a book once I start, and I did finish here. Perhaps part of my frustration was reading about Mr Biswas while I was in Panama, where so much of what Naipaul wrote about was unspooling in front of my eyes in real time — and more powerful than any version of that reality in print. There’s not much solid and stable about the stark poverty in rural Panama either.

I’m glad I read the book, although I probably won’t read any more of Naipaul’s extensive list of highly acclaimed novels. Would I recommend it to you? Only if you enjoy a complex and detailed novel in which the end is evident from the moment you begin to read.

Death of Poet Mary Oliver

I met the poet Mary Oiiver several years ago, at the College of St. Elizabeth, my undergraduate institution. In honor of a revered English professor, Sister Alice Lubin, I gave a substantial gift to bring poets and writers to campus. Sister Alice was still alive then; she got to meet and interact with many, including Oliver. A priority was not just the public reading, which brought many local people to the College, but a master class for students. Oliver excelled in both.

Oliver had a longtime partner, Mary Malone Cook, and wrote a poem about their relationship and the capacity for surprise, even in someone we know well. I used that poem in a talk I gave about Jerry’s death, saying that one thread of loss of a beloved spouse or partner is the loss of the capacity to be newly surprised. My audience found it an interesting point.

Oliver died on January 17 at the age of 83. Her death is a loss.

Golden Globes 2019

Disappointing night for A Star is Born, which was supposed to win big. Did the film peak too soon? I didn’t see Bohemian Rhapsody, but was rooting for If Beale Street Could Talk. I didn’t see Olivia Colman in The Favourite, but loved her work in the BBC crime drama Broadchurch.

Loved that Glenn Close won, and Carol Burnett’s acceptance speech for her lifetime award was poignant in its awareness of how TV has changed.

Lady Gaga had a seriously flowing dress going on, but she mostly carried it off. I think of practical things when I see a dress like that, as in how do you go to the bathroom or get in and out of a car?

On to the Oscars.

Word of the Day: Opsimathy

You know that I love coming across words I’ve never seen before. Here’s one: opsimathy. I came across the word in Susan Gubar’s 2018 memoir, Late-Life Love. Gubar isn’t being pretentious in her writing. She’s a longtime English professor, with a vocabulary and stable of literary references to match.

Opsimathy is learning that begins or continues late in life.

My friend Ada, who is older than I and teaches courses in World War I to other older adult learners, engages in opsimathy. 🙂

Ada herself can be referred to as an opsimath.

Wouldn’t that look great on a business card?

Remembering Gilda Radner

I was never a fan of SNL, and hadn’t seen much of Gilda Radner’s work. But CNN did a New Year’s day special on her, and promoted the heck out of it — enough to entice me to watch.

Like many other comedians, Radner didn’t become a funny person because her own life had been a hoot. Concerned about her childhood chubbiness, Radner’s mother put her on Dexadrine at the age of ten. Later, Radner would have to be hospitalized for an eating disorder that left her weight dangerously low. Her beloved father died when she was fourteen. As an adult, Radner was in and out of relationships, finally marrying Gene Wilder, with whom she remained until her untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 42. She miscarried the baby they conceived together, and then the discovery of her cancer precluded trying again.

Radner was funny in the iconic mode of Lucille Ball — both highly physical comedians whose bodies and facial expressions and gestures did as much to communicate humor as their words. Radner was not a stand up comic who relied on monologues, like Seinfeld or Rosie O’Donnell. Radner created hilarious characters — Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner — and she inhabited them even as she spoke of their inhabiting her. She could, she told us as her audience, do anything as long as people were laughing.

I expected that the program might be a collection of her funnier sketches, but instead was touched by the deep dive into the life and early death of someone who was brilliant at her art, and whose work took comedic roles for women a quantum leap forward. Beyond that, she started Gilda’s Clubs, where women with ovarian and other kinds of cancers can receive support.

Radner made a lasting impact, despite her foreshortened years. One of the things I’m aware of as I’ve passed 70 and am headed toward 74 in 2019, is that long life gives lots of chances — for learning, and growth, for experimentation, for healing, for mistakes to be corrected and relationships rewoven, for growing in the appreciation of life’s beauty and preciousness. When you die at 42 you don’t get nearly enough of that, whether you are famous or not. Rest in peace, Gilda Radner.