Thursday, May 25, 2006

My Own Elizabethtown

I remember there were a lot previews for this movie, but it simply disappeared. It was a good movie with a lot of soul, but no body. There was something missing and I’m still not sure what. Kirsten Dunst is always good, and there’s Orlando. Orlando, Orlando.

As usual, there are movies reviews elsewhere online, but I write about what hits me.

After his father’s sudden death, Orlando’s character, Drew, comes to his father’s Kentucky hometown. Drew is a “citified” kind of guy with a hotshot lifestyle and only his sister and mother in Oregon. When he enters Elizabethtown, he’s amazed that strangers know who he is and why he’s there. He enters a house and everyone jumps on top of him with hugs and recognition as “Mitch’s boy.” Drew is amazed at the lack of formality and openness. There’s an aunt (Paula Dean) who holds the family history with words, photographs, and food. Traditions and beliefs have long roots in their home.

I recognized myself in Drew at that moment. I’ve felt that way visiting India. My first trip was when I was eleven and we had gone to my father’s small town Rajpipla. People came out of everywhere to introduce themselves as an aunt, uncle, cousin, or a neighbor who held my father on his knee. First cousins I didn’t know I had jumped to greet us at the bus depot. I didn’t have to prove myself or earn their hugs and affection. They knew who I was and we were family.

I remember going to a community event with a friend, and we were talking to a woman. She needed to identify me and asked whose daughter I was. My parents’ names did not ring a bell for her, since we didn’t live there. I mentioned my aunt’s name and our address (“opposite the post office”). She said, “Oh, are you the America-walli?” She had heard.

One line out of the movie that echoed for me was when a random cousin says to Drew, “Everyone says we look alike. Wow. It’s like looking in a mirror.” Bit of a joke, since he does not look like Orlando (no one looks like Orlando). When I went to India a few years ago, people kept telling my cousin Sheetal and I that we looked alike now. The comparisons were a bit tiresome. When Sheetal and I were reunited, we faced each other, holding the other’s shoulders. We studied each other’s face, and I said, “Wow. We look alike.” She said, “I feel like I’m looking in a mirror.” We laughed hysterically because we didn’t.

Since our visits have been few and far between, it is more of an introduction than a reunion. We don’t have too many memories together and need to find links and common grounds. For example, it was exciting to learn first cousins on my father’s side also have creative talents. We knew we got our artistic talents from father, but we didn’t think beyond our immediate family. It was amazing to have an innate connection to others.

The openness and lack of formality in India is like being wrapped up in a warm fleece blanket. Definitely feels wonderful when you’ve been in the cold. Of course, even if it’s 100-degrees outside, that blanket is still there. Indian relations believe they have the right to interrogate you about your weight, pimples, eyebrows, eyeglass prescription, etc. Not only will they ask, they will offer unsolicited advice and solutions to things you didn’t know were a problem. It’s not just immediate relations, but anyone who feels they have a connection. So, it’ll be that neighbor’s sister-in-law’s friend who will make recommendations about your complexion. That’s when the American in me needs to shake off that blanket and retreat into a world of privacy.

"Elizabethtown" invoked these memories of being an outsider who actually belongs. (Here's one more picture of Orlando for the road!)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Review: The Squid and the Whale

I had heard a lot about this movie through NPR interviews with writer/director Noah Baumbach. I thought it was going to be an intense, serious movie about a breakup of a marriage and family. It was definitely serious, but it had something else that made it so realistic and familiar.

Laura Linney is absolutely fabulous as an actress. There's one scene where she's talking to Jeff Daniels and her face runs a gamut of emotions - first cold and hard talking to her estranged husband, then her face is lit up talking about her son's achievement and suddenly she's on the brink of tears as she realizes what is happening to their family. All within a few minutes on a doorstep conversation.

By the way, seeing Jeff Daniels as a professor in a relationship with a student reminded me of his role in "Terms of Endearment."

There are plenty of reviews on line, so I wanted to pull out another interesting point in this movie. The oldest son plagiarizes in order to win his father's approval. He has no problem reiterating what his father says without having the substance to back it up. Anna Paquin's character also confesses to plagiarizing.

Now, this brings me back to our enfant terrible, Kaavya Vishwanathan. I said in my previous blog that she was an example of an overachiever for whom success was more important than substance. I think at 17 you feel like you know more than everyone else and can do anything you want. I thought it was interesting that a similar plot line developed in this movie. So, Kaavya is probably not the first and definitely not the last.

By the way, at the end of the movie, I was left a bit exhausted by the enormity of parenting. It's a phenomenal task to guide and build a human being. Every action and expression from the parents registers in the children and it affects them in many ways. If there's one takeaway from it, it was the need to create memories because who knows what the future holds.

The ending was good as we saw the older boy learning to reject his father's life, which he had adopted and start building his.

The DVD has a nice interview with Noah Baumbach and he talks about the themes of the story (e.g., the boys have different reactions to acknowledging their parents as sexual beings, parents need to know where boundaries). Also, this movie was born from his own experiences going through his parents' divorce, so the details are there. For example, how do you have joint custody of a cat?

Definitely think we will see the two boys in more movies in the future, and hope to see more from Noah Baumbach too.

Renewing with Libraries

Helen Keller's autobiography was the first book on my first library card. I was six, I believe, at the Queens Borough Public Library. The book had the Braille alphabet on the back. A few years later I was lucky enough to get a copy of it, maybe through RIF.

Anyway, I loved going to the library throughout my childhood. My friends and I would return home with stacks of books and aching arms. We would nourish ourselves with chocolate bars bought en route.

When we moved to NJ, I was 13 and did not ask the librarian where the teen books were. I saw the children's section and the adult's books. So, I coolly wandered through the adult sections and picked up classics, contemporary fiction and nonfiction. The things I read! I didn't really understand a lot of it until I was older. I think by the time I found the few shelves of teen novels, I didn't care for them by then.

In college, I lived at the library like everyone else. However, it drove me nuts to have read my assignments instead of all the great books on the shelves. I would dream for the day when I would have nothing to do, but sit and read there. Actually, I remember studying for calculus and my eyes wandered to a shelf. There was "The Hobbit." A beautifully illustrated version, and I had never read it before. Of course, let's read this instead of studying calculus!

Actually, in college, books like "The Hobbit" were like chocolate bars. I just break off one piece at a time and savor it. Put the rest away for later.

My first "real" job was in the development office of a major city library. I loved walking into the grand hall every morning, after I passed the homeless people who slept on the steps. I didn't particularly like the librarians. They were very possessive about books and knowledge in general; this assessment was later confirmed to me by someone who was trading in his MLS for an MBA in a less cutthroat environment. Our office was tight and not glamorous at all. My pay was meager and tasks were endless. But, I loved walking down the grand staircase or being in the Rare Books Department for a special events and hovering around authors. I was in an elevator with Chaim Potok and was totally starstruck and tongue-tied.

Then I feel like I lost my libraries. I got busy with my life. Found some local libraries that sufficed for the time being. My town actually does not have a library of its own. So, like others, I was lured by the mega-bookstores that offered overpriced cappucinos and biscottis. I could get the latest and greatest, as well as a clearance rack that offered treasures. I pulled out my credit card as books called to me.

Now, a neighboring town has a new library and it's just lovely. It's a new building and the shelves are still bare. However, the collection is new and diverse offering. I loved finding old friends like Seth, Divakaruni, Rushdie and Selvadurai on the shelves. The best part is that it's free. Just the idea of "here's a book for you. Just read it and give it back" is so refreshing.

I'll buy books that I want to keep. My weakness is South Asian and Asian writers. I think for so long it was rare to find any books, that I snatched them up. Now, I can't keep up.

Anyway, that's my walk through the libraries. A few more stories came to mind when I was writing, but I think I'll save those. By the way, I was such a geeky bookworm when I was little, I used to pretend my 10 books at home were my library and I'd sign books in and out. Interesting though - I never wanted to be a librarian.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

On the Job Training - Motherhood 13: Secrets

Part of gaining independence is stepping away from parents and having a life outside of the parents. This is when they form secrets.

In the past, she had a little box and put one of my necklaces in there. She said it was a "Surprise! Don't look!" I knew what it was and didn't care.

Last week she went to a birthday party where they painted jewelry boxes. I admired her box and I listened with half an ear when she told me the lid was glued and didn't open. Later I checked the box and saw it did. I noticed the little things in there, but didn't care (a princess hair brush, hair accessories, shiny stones).

The other night, she wanted to brush her hair and made me close my eyes while she went into her box. She didn't say where the brush was, but I obviously knew.

Anyway, I don't think I will go into her box. As a girl I always had special boxes. There were 2-3 shoeboxes, which held movie stubs, notes, programs, pretty ribbons, and shells. I have them in my basement now. I know what it's like to want to capture special moments - either through material objects or on paper. I had my first diary when I was eleven and I kept journals on and off through the years.

I know my sister and I struggled with our mother to keep our secrets in tact. We begged her not to touch our "stuff" and we could sense when she had. I don't think she ever read a diary - I was hiding it especially from my sister's prying eyes. From my mother's point of view, she was just going in our rooms to clean up and if we did it ourselves, she wouldn't have to come. Also, she wanted to make sure we were not doing anything disagreeable (on drugs, on birth control, talking to boys, failing exams).

However, I am now on the other side. I'm the party being barricaded. I know that in order for me to build a trust with my daughter, I have to pass many tests. I'll be tested to see if I can be trusted to hold certain secrets, not go forth to others with it, and respect the boundaries.

I still remember key conversations with my mother that shut windows of communication between us. Ordinary, everyday conversations about school and friends that happened when I was thirteen to seventeen.

I also see her saying something casually and then when I ask her, she will quickly say "Nothing!" and make up something else. I try not to be judgmental when she's telling me things.

Another mom told me this a few years ago - every night before bed, she would ask her daughter to tell her a secret and she would tell her a secret in return. The secrets were nothing big, though important to the girl. However, it was part of the building the relationship. Her daughter was eight or nine at the time, and I don't know when she started. I hope that this would set her knowing there was one parent she could confide in when she needed to.

Since Annika does not have siblings, I feel I need to be that confidante for her. However, I'm still the "mom" and when she says "Nothing!" to me that shows she knows my authority, which is good. So, now I need to give her space.

My favorite quote about motherhood: "A mother is not a person to lean on but person to make leaning unnecessary." (Dorothy Fisher)

By the way, this is a Mother's Day picture Annika drew of us. She's the one with long, straight black hair and I am the one with light brown hair with pink streaks and orange tufts. In reality, she has short curly/wavy dark brown hair and I have dark brown hair with reddish brown highlights (not orange!!). I thought it was kinda cute because we're almost the same height. I don't know if she considers me as her equal or she is my equal. I love the butterflies though.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

On the Job Training - Motherhood 12: Our Mothers

This month's O magazine has activities that I never do - I usually mull over them for a bit, but I never write them down. This time I will.

1. List 5 things you do instinctively that your mother did.
- When I get my daughter ready in the morning, I find myself putting the same hairstyles on my daughter that my mom did. I thought they looked boring at the time. Now I see it's cute and practical.

- After I do her hair, I put some moisturizer on her cheeks and then kiss her face.

- I wake Annika up with kisses & hugs.

- Calling her 'gandi' (crazy girl) affectionately.

- Telling her how much she means to me and how tiny she used to be. I never understood it when my mom said that to me. I usually thought, "Yeah, Ok. Get over it now."

2. List 5 things you have chosen to do differently.

- I almost invited extra friends to her birthday party because I talk to the mothers; she is not necessarily very good friends with the girls. My sister warned me this is how we ended up with the extensive wedding list of people I didn't know, but with whom my mom was friends. Birthday guest list was shortened.

- Controlling my temper and trying to choose my words wisely. I know now they will be remembered.

- Let food be central part of the house, but not spend unbelievable amount of energy cooking. That way I have more energy & time for friends and family.

- I don't sing when waking up Annika. I don't sing when her friends are around. I don't sing period.

- I go out with my girlfriends for my book clubs, writing groups, and nights out on the town. My husband pursues his social life & hobbies, which are independent of our activities as a couple and family. We have given each other space to grow. My mother, as many Indian women of her generation, believes that she should mold herself to her husband. A wife should always accompany and be accompanied by her husband. His interests would be hers. That is a difficult choice. But, it is a choice and the rules of propriety are not the same.

Now as a mother, I let my daughter see how mommies and daddies can step away from each other and come back together.

Actually - a big kudos to the men for giving women the freedom to do this. Men now are more capable and confident about child care and household duties than they were in my father's generation.

Monday, May 01, 2006


"Casablanca" was playing on Turner Classics tonight and I paused. That's about it. The first time I saw the movie, I was in college. My roommate Ellen & I had gone to the student center one Friday night to see it. It was ok. We both walked out of it confused, not sure what the hype was about.

In the meantime, I watch people cry, quote, misquote and praise this movie ad nauseam, and I've been declaring it was overrated.

A few years ago, it was on TV and my husband told me I had to watch this from the beginning. Fair enough. Let's do it. I pretty much forced myself to watch it after a certain point. I don't really like Bogart, but I told myself, "Just finish it." I was so into it that I got up to do the dishes at one point.

Then, came the final scene:
Ilsa: You're saying this only to make me go.
: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid.

All of a sudden, I got it! Tears started flowing. I've heard this speech over and over, and I finally understood the context and what it meant for Rick to say that to her. She felt caught between the past and the present, and he was letting her go. Now I get that "here's looking at you kid."

They say a classic is something that endures time by remaining fresh and real. Something that always lets you see something you missed before.
So, this is what a classic is? This is how a story, script and actors blend together to create timeless event.

With that said, I've seen it once and had an emotional rapturous experience. However, I don't think I can sit through the whole movie again though. Sorry Rick & Ilsa.

By the way, I love old Hollywood. When I was young, I used to get library books about child actors, Hollywood of the 30-50's. I used to borrow the same books over and over. I loved looking at my father's Life magazine collection of 50 years of Hollywood. I feel intimate with many of the actors and stars, though I may not have seen their movies. I think I'll have to do separate blogs for some of my favorite stars like Katherine, Cary and Audrey.