Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ode on a Sugar-Filled Urn

Tonight was the annual MA/MFA student Literary Dessert Party, whereby everyone is asked to bring a dessert inspired by a work of literature. More points were given for creativity than taste, which only partially explains why we lost. (Also a big reason: some of the professors wanted a student to win and refused to vote for a professor. Which I thought, quite frankly, was idiotic. And no, that was not me trying to bribe my current students with extra credit points so that they would vote for our cake. And no, I'm not bitter that I lost the flashing tiara prize. Nope. Not at all. sniff...) Indeed, we were asked to vote before we were allowed to taste anything; after trying our cake, four profs came up to me afterwards and lamented that they had voted for someone else because they were just melting in the yumminess of our cake.

Anyway, the winner -- one of my former students -- was clear from the minute I walked in:In case it isn't obvious by looking at it, count the layers: it's Dante's Inferno Cake. That's right: nine layers of hellacious goodness. And yes, those are nine separate cakes stacked on top of one another. I mean, jeez, how could I not vote for that? Do you see how much frosting is there? "It's an architectural marvel!" one of us remarked. And it was actually tasty to boot.

Ours? Well, if you remember the last time Angela made a cake (that time for Xan's birthday), it should come as no surprise that we were also on the extravagant side:
Behold: Chocoblanca!
("It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of cocoa beans in this crazy world.")

Yes, not strictly "literary," but I teach film in a lit department, so my field must be asserted somehow. The cake itself is a ridiculously delicious chocolate cheesecake, containing Bailey's Irish Cream and a full pound each of cream cheese and dark chocolate. And yes, the rendering of Bogey and Bergman is done is dark chocolate on top. Naturally, Angela made the cake, I only helped with the decorating at the very end. I also bought the ingredients. ("So, should I buy any of the light or lowfat versions of these ingredients, Ange?" "For this cake? Hell, no.")

The worst part? Poor Ange didn't feel well, thus missed a party whose raison d'etre was dessert, which tells you how ill she was feeling. Xan, meanwhile, ate six of the nine layers of my slice of the Hell Cake pictured above and then started zipping around the party like a wildebeast. These were, by the way, only two of what were at least 35 different dessert entries (two inpired by Dante, two by Achebe's Things Fall Apart, one "Love Song of J. Alfred Pruefrock," a Life of Pi(e), one Bluest Eye, one Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and one basket of apples which came with the label Paradise Lost). I came home and immediately needed something salty.

Next year? Maybe One Hundred Cookies of Solitude.

The winner (a.k.a. Bitch stole my flashing tiara, dammit!!)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Fujis weren't ready yet. Well, maybe one was.

That's right! It's apple-picking season, and time for the annual trip to the Homestead Farms out in Poolesville, where everyone goes to pick their own apples. Literally, it will be everyone in a few weeks, which is why we went this weekend when it was still early in the season. As it was, we still ran into old friends we hadn't seen in awhile.
Jolie was back again for more apple-picking goodness and it was great to see KC and JP again. They took off a little on the early side, perhaps because last year we all developed a taste for the scrumptious Pink Lady variety and most of what was ripe was just Red Delicious, the eternally misnamed fruit.

Perhaps they took off because they sensed the silliness that was about to occur.Yes, this is how Angela and Jeff attempt to get the apples from higher in the tree. There were ladders. There were poles. But this was fun. (Plus, Xan seemed to get a kick out of the fact that someone besides him could go on Dada's shoulders. And that that someone should happen to be Mama.)We're actually planning on going back again because with only 20 pounds of apples, we'll be ready for more in about a month or so, when the ones we really like will be in play. Mmmm, tart apples.

The shirt I'm wearing is worth noting. It did happen to be on the top of the pile of t-shirts, but it turned out to be quite appropriate. You may notice that it says "Chile" on it. My father-in-law got it for me and was very proud of himself. I looked at it and thought, Wow, this really is a great shirt, color and all, and it's a soccer oriented shirt! I said thank you.

"I got it right," he said, happily.

Ange glared at him. "Peru, Dad."

With look of horror: "Oh, no. They haven't been at war with one another, have they?"

"Just the War of the Pacific. Very bloody." He looked sick. "But I really do like the shirt!"

Today, however, was a good day to wear the shirt since, as it turns out, the Chileans finally did Peru a good turn after all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Class is in

So this is where he's going to go.

We took a few pictures a while back to get him used to the idea that he's going to preschool. We just happened to have him around as we were dropping off some papers, so now he got to experience it firsthand. Naturally for him, he didn't want to leave once he saw it.

For almost two years, I've had the immense pleasure and joy of being a part-time stay-at-home dad. As much as I agonized giving up whole workdays -- which ate considerably into getting-the-book-done time -- I never complained, nor regretted it. Few dads in particular either can or choose to spend time with their kids, so I knew that I had a good gig going here. I also knew that it would end all too soon.

Tuesday was my last full day with him and I think he was prepping me by being as impossible as he could for most of the day, so that by the end of the day I would say, "OK, fine. Thank goodness he's a-goin' to school." That said, I'm already still looking to see when are the first days when, gosh darn it, the center is closed and look! it's my day off!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I (do not) win

I would like to announce that I officially introduced my son to the world of board games today. I have always loved board games, ever since I was a little kid -- virtually any board game will get me going. I have blogged before on the usual game played in out house among the adults, but I saw a really neat version of a good game at the mall today that was markdown-priced and thought, It's time to induct the new generation into another passion of mine.

What I was not expecting was that I would get my ass completely beaten to a bloody pulp.

Yes, it's true. I have not lost in any game by such a large margin in a very long time. And it's not like I was trying to play badly so that my son would be bolstered by a win. No, by sheer luck, my game piece was barely past the opening while my son crossed over the finish line. It wasn't even close. I was crushed like a bug.

Indeed, it may take a little while for me to recover to play Candyland again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"It took all the strength I had not to fall apart"

Somebody who I hadn't spoken to in a little while called and asked how Xan was dealing with the terrible twos. "Has he entered into the 'NO NO NO NO' phase?" she asked. "Well, in his own way," I replied. "And by that, I mean he seems to offer further explanations with his 'no.' It's rarely a simple 'no.'"

He has actually done this for a while (in fact, I blogged about what turned into his favorite phrase at least once) Case in point for the new version: This morning, the three of us were in the car to go to work when suddenly Gloria Gaynor came through the speakers, discussing her post-breakup Survival skillz. Naturally, because disco was involved, we in the front seats started car-dancing and singing along with Gloria: "At first I was afraid I was petrified..."

The back seat disapproved. "No!" came the shout. "No dancing! No singing."

This has happened quite a bit lately, the plea for no more frivolity. And I have to say, it's not because the two of us are tone-deaf. I also have a hard time remaining quiet and morose all the time, particularly when he is having so much fun. We stopped for a minute, then suddenly bounced back: "And so you're back! From outer spa-"

"No, no! Mama and Dada, stop singing and dancing." There was some actual distress here.

"Listen," I patiently explained, "all the books we read indicate the singing with your child is a good thing, even if you have a bad voice. And not only don't we have bad voices, we have good voices. And I know you haven't read those books yet, but that's what they say, so there you go. Not to mention that this is disco, which is definitely indicates the necessity for dancing."

He contemplated that for a moment.

"And besides," I continued, "Mama and Dada sing because we're happy."

This, he could counter: "No."


"No. Mama and Dada are not happy."


"Yes. Mama and Dada are not happy."

I looked at Angela. "Well, I was hoping it would be a good day with the students, but I'll have to tell them that I was told I was 'not happy' today. I wish I had something to grade, man."

Angela stopped giggling enough to pipe in at this point. "Does that mean Mama is sad?"

"Yes," Xan said, "Mama is crying."

Angela proceeded to cry. I continued, "And that must mean Dada is angry." I then started growling like a lion.

This actually made him happy. He forgot that we were not supposed to sing and dance by this point and we could go back to doing that eventually -- although the downside was that we were then met with cries of "Mama, cry please! And Dada, please growl!" for much of the rest of the trip.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Telluride 2007 (a week later)

See that picture? That's one happy cat, taking in the gorgeous mountain air, so thin and so wonderful that all you can do is avoid it entirely by sitting inside a theater to watch movies.

Many people reading this may know that Angela and I are fortunate enough to work the Telluride Film Festival each Labor Day weekend. I have been going since I was a stealth programming intern distribution manager way back in '94 and have tried to go every year since. I have not been to any of the world's other major festivals -- heck, I've only attended other film fests of any sort in Lima and Washington -- but from what I hear, I don't want to go anywhere else. Telluride is special: a fantastic location, a fest where stars are free to walk down the main street without the stalkerazzi, and where the U.S./World Premieres of the Movies That Will Be for that year share space with some quirky, fun stuff, retrospectives and restored/re-found films you'd never see anywhere else. (Heck, last year, one of my favorites turned out to be William Wyler's Dodsworth, which I had never seen.) It also is, as Ken Burns said at the staff introduction, "home" of sorts, where I see fellow film geeks (many of us part of the so-called "Dartmouth Mafia" of former directors of the Dartmouth Film Society) who are not necessarily also film academics. It's the fest-for-folk-who-really-love-movies, and it's a pleasure to be able to go.

Last year, I attempted to post daily, but I was caught up in my new position as "ringmaster," which means basically I'm the emcee at a particular theater. In the case of my theater, this also meant I came up with trivia questions to auction off the TCM (our theater sponsor) versions of Scene-It. (It's all about having Rosebud as a game piece, trust me. This is why, this year, the aforementioned Ken Burns was thrilled to win a copy for himself, heh heh.) Back then, I still got a chance to see some of the "new cool stuff" when The Last King of Scotland and Jindabyne still played at my theater.

This time, however, not a chance: the "big" movies sailed past my theater into the larger spaces only, leaving only the more esoteric choices for us. This usually doesn't bother me, but I winced at seeing a movie play twice in our theater, if only because that meant I couldn't see another movie, dammit. (Don't they think of me?) Chained as I was to the theater, this means that I can't comment on the likes of the premieres like Juno (the big fest hit), Persepolis, Margot at the Wedding, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Savages or Into the Wild. All missed, because of programming. (I did catch two of the "bigger" films, but we'll get to that in a moment.) And, if you're interested in commentary on those films (and others), check out JJ's blog: a former student (who is the spitting image of Jack Nicholson these days, I tell ya) and an alum of the Telluride Student Symposium program, he is now also a happy fest slave like me, only he's at a theater that gets the bigger films. (Further tangent: if you ever want to see someone run quickly, try dancing close to a former student. I laughed myself silly.) In any case, the two blogs together give a nice overview of a lot of the fest.

What I Liked:
  • Jar City (Mýrin): This was a taut thriller from Iceland which, in many ways, could have been very standard fare. Yet, between the extraordinary Icelandic atmosphere (complemented by the horrifying Icelandic food, which led me to actually ask the director if the food was supposed to be taked as "horrifying" or if it was just Icelandic fast food... and 'twas the latter...), and a cast who looking more intriguing than attractive (I don't think it's an accident that the only classically "good looking" character gets his nose broken early on), there lies a carefully spun story that left a gritty, yet satisfying taste in my mouth. A week later, I still remember this one as what was ultimately my favorite of the fest.
  • Secret Sunshine (Milyang): This one won the Best Actress award at Cannes (apparently the first time for an Asian) -- and wow, I can understand completely. This contemporary story finds a young widow and her son returning to her husband's small hometown, where she puts up a front to try to establish herself as a successful person -- with disastrous results that lead to the second part of the movie, which becomes less an exploration of faith as much of an examination of a singular character. Smaller than it initially appears, the movie follows the character of Shin-Ae through a cavalcade of situations and emotions that becomes riveting.
  • A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: I think a lot of people didn't like this one but here's another quiet meditation that turns out to be more than it initially seems. We forget that the guy who made Maid in Manhattan, Because of Winn-Dixie and The Joy Luck Club, also made things like Smoke; here, Wayne Wang films a not-so-simple story about culture- and generation-clashes (between a Chinese father and the Americanized daughter he is visiting) in a quiet, natural way. I'm also now inspired to read the story by Yiyun Li upon which the film is based.
  • Edith Kramer: Every year, Telluride brings in a guest director to program some (hopefully) unusual yet interesting material. This year, the selection fell to the former curator of the Pacifica Film Archive, no small cookie. While I was only partially enthralled by her selections (I'm still not quite there yet with George Kuchar and I thought the "old film" selection of Millions Like Us was good but not overwhelmingly thrilling), I was charmed by Edith herself, who was a delight to work with, had some amazing stories to tell and absolutely, positively refused to sit down in the theater at all, preferring a side stance so as to view the audience along with the film. A true film lover, she charmed me every time she walked into the theater.
  • Peter Sellars: Several years ago, I was told that I should be thoroughly insulted if I did not receive a hug from fest regular Peter Sellars, who really did seem to hug everyone; last year, therefore, his presence was sorely missed. This year he came back, and with a documentary about him to boot. I knew he was simply one of the most amazingly wonderful human beings I've ever known; I had no idea that he is literally brilliant. Watching the doc on him (particularly given how absolutely, shamefully ignorant I was concerning what he did outside the festival), I just sat in awe of what he has accomplished and what he is. Today, I asked a colleague about him and she happily extolled his importance in the history of both theater and opera. The funny thing is that I can't even aspire to be what he is, on so many levels. And yet, the man still hugs me. Such a thrill.
What I Am Solidly on the Fence About:
  • I'm Not There: Ah, the new Todd Haynes, a.k.a. the flick where Cate Blanchett plays Bob Dylan. Overall, I thought that the notion of having her (and Christian Bale and Richard Gere and Heath Ledger and...) play Dylan was a thrilling, compelling choice. Let me go on record right now by saying that she is seriously the best thing about the picture, bar none. The idea of fragmenting Dylan's life, intermixing the yarns of his songs and the yarn that was his life, is tour-de-force. And yet -- for experimental it wants to be, I actually have a problem with the very thing that it's getting press for: its use of stars in these roles. Yes, Dylan is a star now, and so are the characters that he sings about, but oddly enough, I could rarely get beyond the notion that I was watching Richard Gere on screen to really be able to process more beyond that. In the end, I couldn't tell whether the film was brilliant or a brilliant mess -- and, a week later, I'm still not sure, although I'm tending toward the latter.)
What I Really Didn't Care For
  • Let's forget for a moment that this is a feature film doing what documentaries have already done. Let's really forget the politics of it all. Let's just look at Redacted, the de Palma secret flick that just won him the Best Director prize at Venice, somewhat inexplicably from my point of view. It's about the current war and, like I'm Not There, also has an ambitious, innovative way to present itself: by using the same tools used by the soldiers to document their own stories: regular video cameras, blogs, videophones, etc. I thought this was inspired and, when I found out that my little theater was going to have the U.S. Premiere of the film (having debuted only a night before in Venice! with a live feed from there featuring de Palma himself!!!), I actually got a little excited. (This, after I figured out the title. "Redacted?" I kept saying, "why are they not giving me the name? How silly." This is what I get for actually knowing what words mean.) And yet -- like the Haynes film, actually -- it seems this didn't quite work. Here, the acting seems "fake" throughout and the amateurish quality (which might have been intentional) of the atrocities, while stark, were otherwise unconvincing for me. The Q&A didn't help me with the film either. It doesn't matter that I agree with the film's politics: I didn't think the film was all that to begin with.