When I think phenomenal, I think Maya Angelou.
Dr. Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis (go Cards) and raised in Stamps, Arkansas—a place full of stories, many of which I read about during That Time I Should’ve Been Reading Harry Potter (Apparently). I found a couple Maya Angelou books on my mother’s bookshelf and because “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” sounded a bit like a mystery novel, I read it.
It was actually Maya’s autobiography, a book that illustrated the trauma and struggles associated with her life in Stamps—traumas that included sexual abuse and blatant racism—and the triumph of transcending her life in Stamps—transcendence by way of the arts and family.
Maya is a dancer and performer, a reader and a sister, a daughter and a granddaughter, a political activist and many things in between.
In The Heart of a Woman, another Maya Angelou autobiography I took from my mother’s shelf, she recounts a few years of her life in New York City which include volunteering for MLK and Malcolm X, having Billie Holiday sing her son to sleep one evening and marrying an African politician—and those are just the things I remember off the top of my head.
The woman exemplifies her poem “Still I Rise,” making void any and all excuses for not being anything and everything you want to be. Obstacles? She had ‘em. Patience? She had that, too—and not the type of patience that just sits and waits quietly, the type of patience that involved doing what you love in every capacity (for her, getting involved in politics and stage acting) and finding ways to improve in all of the above categories.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of Maya’s “Letter to My Daughter.” She never had a daughter, but if she did these are some of the things she would’ve told her: that growing up was a continual struggle against surrender, that she believes one can never really leave home and that voices need to be reminded to sing again and again.
Live well and live with meaning.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Film is a reflective medium; it’s only successful when it finds ways to tap into the public’s subconscious and provide some sort of mirror or escape.
I once read an article from 2008 that addressed this from a political standpoint: the Bush years, the inhumanity of extreme capitalism and There Will be Blood; the Obama campaign, hope and cute films full of possibility like Away We Go.
In that context, what does it mean that we now have critically acclaimed films like Blue Valentine and Like Crazy? Films that document falling head over heels for an idea and then getting (1) exhausted by working at it and/or (2) disillusioned. Similarly, what do our blockbusters mean now?
Almost two months ago, I worked an advance screening of Hugh Jackman’s Real Steel. In case you don’t know, it’s about robot boxing. Robot boxing. Despite coming into the film expecting to hate it and actually hating the first twenty minutes (the phrase “robot boxing” was actually used and I felt so disappointed and embarrassed for this screenplay’s writer), I liked it.
Real Steel is set somewhere between now and the 2020s. There are no flying cars, no Jetson-style homes (ps, I’m so glad we’ve all collectively realized that shit is just not ever happening), nothing to scare us or indicate that we’re too far from where we’ve been. But there are robots and almost no human emotion.
In the first pivotal scene, the robot that the story will revolve around, Atom, is described as being second-generation, while the robots that they have in the present are third and fourth generation. Second generation robots were dismissed as being “too human-like,” they’re used as sparring robots and, consequently, are made to withstand hits.
This second generation robot saves the life of the main character, a little boy. In a sense of obligation to his hero, the boy cleans him up and connects with him. He decides to enter the robot into boxing matches, despite everyone telling him that the robot is old and a piece of junk. But he doesn’t listen, and Atom is thrown into matches in the only place that will take him: “The Zoo.” This is a bacchanal, junkyard of robots run by people who still exhibit human pleasures: girls and boys, boys and boys, and girls and girls hang off each other, drink beer and yell and make bets while Atom fights.
It’s a Disney movie, so of course the robot wins and keeps winning, and this is where you can see the world that these people are living in.
Robot boxing (oh, that phrase) is the new American basketball: it’s popular and profitable and the fighters are unreal—literally unreal, because they’re made out of steel. That’s where the title comes in—the “World Champion” robot, a robot described as “the champion of this universe, and any known and unknown” is named Zeus and is tons and tons of steel.
He was created by an international hipster and is owned by what looks like a Kardashian. They run around in an extravagant penthouse suite filled with even more Kardashians and indistinguishable blondes.
Everyone glorifies the seemingly indestructible and recoils at the human. In fact, the mortality of human beings makes them insignificant; everyone invests in their money-making robots, not people—which is why a robot made to reflect human emotions is discarded. Who wants to be any part of that?
When Atom faces his big-stakes-patented-Disney-challenge he gets three rounds with Zeus and three rounds to teach us a lesson. First he survives when he shouldn’t, he gets back up when no one thinks he can and finally, when he loses his ability to operate on his own, Hugh Jackman steps in to control him in a “shadow-mode” where the robot can only mimic the movements of somebody else. Whether the robot wins or loses, it’s only as good as the human operating it—and never better than that.
In watching the final scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” and feel hopeful. We are the ones that are indestructible and this is a nice reminder.
“The leather shop where I take my boots has a turquoise kayak in the yard, an old piano with keys that don’t move, piles and piles of bowling balls decorated with plastic jewels and paint that makes them seem like versions of the Earth if the Earth had been created by happy-go-lucky four year olds or Antoni Gaudi.”
Some days I remember my camera. Some days I just remember.
Like, 70 degree weather in the middle of another unbearably hot Midwest summer and spending it at the lake. Briars that lean over and snatch at sweaters forcing single-file lines of couples and families and dogs. Tree branches breaking in the wind, screaming “Caveat Emptor” on their way down but never actually falling onto the path.
Going a different way and finding a mound of dirt promising a Buena Vista at the top and rushing to see before deciding I’d rather meet it than run to it.
Yeah, days like that.
If you follow the curve of the next two blocks, you’ll find rusted out American cars, tree-lined streets, guitar playing neighbors and little boys digging for China but getting distracted by automatic sprinklers before they can get there.
At least, on Sundays you will.
At least, on this Sunday you would have.
Count the swings you pass and see if they are as numerous as the colors on the trees.
Try to remember the name of that German artist when you pass the red house and why it reminds you of him.
Contemplate stealing your neighbor’s red roses, but leave them behind (always leave them behind).
Open Jane Candia Coleman’s collection of poetry on the American West and write down the first thing you see.
I closed the doors and left them…
Bureaus, chairs, a good iron stove.
But roses? Scarlet bergamot?
The blue spikes of rosemary?
Leave those quick and lovely children?
So I brought them…seeds, slips, roots
wrapped against weather, nurtured
in my apron pocket.
No one will say I must abandon them
to lighten the load.
I will disappoint the thieves,
impress the Indians with holy madness
for I touch them like rosary,
repeat their names and know with each
a day, a moment gladly spent.
And each day’s march has precedent
for Mormons brought the seeds
of sunflowers to mark their way,
stout wives in wagons flinging gold behind,
and now the whole trail’s yellow,
firmly rooted in fragility.
Make a mental note to leave a trail of gold wherever you go and to remember those days and moments gladly spent.
Like everyone else, I have done my fair share of bad things. I have spoken badly about people, I have shared secrets that were not my own, and I have no need to hide any of it—any of my humanity—because the same feelings that have sometimes led me to do bad, have led me to do good, too.
When I was in the third grade, Mrs. Leiker, my 19-month pregnant teacher (I went to a Catholic school and I swear my teachers were always pregnant), pulled the three quietest kids to the front of the room and screamed: “THESE are my favorite students.” I guess we were being loud, I don’t remember. What I do remember is her fury and feeling like a bad kid because I hadn’t been chosen as a favorite. In retrospect, this moment explains the years I spent striving to be the perfect kid. But I can’t pretend like that urge to be the kid at the front of the room has vanished with age.
During that time, what I refer to as “That Time I Should Have Been Reading Harry Potter (Apparently),” I read Beverly Ann Donofrio’s memoir Riding in Cars with Boys. She begins her story in kindergarten, crying in front of her assigned cubby-hole because they were all marked with initials and the kids were making fun of hers. She was B.A.D. She was bad. She spends her life trying to make up for being B.A.D., only to end up pregnant at sixteen and spending the subsequent years seemingly negating all that work she did to be good.
Mrs. Leiker moved to a small town after that year, leaving a forwarding address and weird memories in her place. I only remember two of the three kids that were pulled to the front of the room: one was a girl I got my belly button pierced with in the back room of a salon when we were 18 and belatedly going through our Thirteen phase. The other was a dude who now spouts conspiracy theories and has somehow stressed himself out enough that he has lost a majority of his hair.
And the rest is pointless because you can’t view things through a black and white lens when we live in a Technicolor world.
Even if you smoked in the girl’s locker room (twice, because you were bored and wanted to see what it felt like to be Rayann Graff instead of Angela Chase), skipped school at lunch time and showed up to (a majority of) your high school’s sporting events smelling like winter fresh gum and vodka, were you nice to people that day, without needing applause?
If you went to bed at 10 every night, made sure your skirt hit just below the tip of your longest fingers and always completed the required reading before class, did you do something for the benefit of someone else that week? Month?
I was always a mix of bad and good and I was never too afraid of hiding that because sometimes it’s not that complicated and even when it seems like you’ll never be able to start back at zero with anyone or anything, that’s never really the case. And if it is the case, then maybe you don’t need to be at zero, maybe you need to remember where you’ve been.
The supreme act of courage is that of forgiving ourselves.
That which I was not but could have been.
That which I would have done but did not do.
Can I find the fortitude to remember in truth,
to understand, to submit, to forgive
and to be free to move on in time?
I’m exactly who Paul McCartney was talking about when he said “some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.”
I want to be Toulouse-Lautrec swinging from the ceilings of the Moulin Rouge reminding everyone to love and be loved.
I want to be Galway Kinnel walking amongst “the ten thousand things scratched in time with such knowledge” that the wages of dying is love.
I want to karaoke to “Lovefool.”
I want to carry a golf-sized umbrella through the rain, with enough space for me and the unprepared mothers with babies standing underneath store awnings or trees.
I want to recite Pablo Neruda and Regie Cabico with the knowledge of someone who knows words aren’t enough, but that these words are the best.
I want to tell everyone I love them by giving my time, by answering my phone, by just eating the goddamn heels of the loaf of bread instead of skipping over it. I want to pay for the hot chocolate AND the extra whipped cream. And I want songs that remind me of all this.
Driving home from work, I caught the tail end of a song I hadn’t heard in years, which prompted me to pull out my iPod and reminisce with music from five years ago playing in the background. My premature nostalgia is one of the marks of being a part of a generation constantly confronted with how precarious and ephemeral everything here is. The other is an ambition to feel and see it all because it’s not going to last forever.
I turned on Dashboard Confessional – “searching just like anyone, I could be anyone” – and fell down the rabbit hole with Taking Back Sunday, laughing at the fact that almost every song they had was a breakup song or a song about someone lying to them and breaking their heart. And then “This Photograph is Proof (I Know You Know)” shuffled on.
I remember the day I bought “Where You Want to Be.” My friend Kati and I had been dropped off at the mall to see a movie and we were wandering around before it started. We went into a now defunct CD store, whose name I can’t remember and who charged an outrageous amount for everything, and I saw the cover to this CD: a naked baby on a deserted road and thought it seemed like something I should own.
When I got home, I played it and “This Photograph is Proof” stood out to me. It wasn’t tinged with any of the dramatics of the other songs, it was honest and urgent. “I’ll wait ‘til you listen,” he sings, like someone with something important to say. Ending the verse with a sad: “And you’re noticing nothing again.” It’s written for an old band mate and an even older friend and it is their one, sincere love song.
“I know you know everything, I know you didn’t mean it,” he repeats in the chorus, ending the song with his voice see-sawing back and forth in a way that makes it sound like a lullaby. It’s an “I’m sorry” and an “I forgive you,” two alternative spellings of “I love you” and hearing it again made me so happy because it is Toulouse swinging from the ceiling, it is Paul McCartney going there again, it is Galway discovering the world through “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.”
And it is so full of love, like we all are.
For some reason, this prompt took me a while to answer
and now looking back on my answer I don’t think this is at all one my favorite lines from a movie but just a line from one of my favorite movies. Nevertheless, here //EDIT/it/EDIT// is my answer to the prompt:
The Royal Tenenbaums is filled with hilarious quotes but these quotes don’t particularly make sense out of context. At the turning point of the film Royal turns to his family, after being kicked out, and says: “These last six days have been the best six days of my entire life.” A frequent liar, Royal is surprised to realize that this statement is absolutely true.
He then says this:
Royal: Richie, this illness, this closeness to death… it’s had a profound affect on me. I feel like a different person, I really do.
Richie: Dad, you were never dying.
Royal: …but I’m gonna live.
I can’t think of why exactly I enjoy this quote, except for the fact that it’s full of hope.
I think my favorite line from a movie is much more simple than that. It’s from ‘Half Nelson’, the movie from 2006 that earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination. He has a one night stand with this teacher who then rummages through his bookshelf. She finds a copy of Che in Africa and The Communist Manifesto. Since he owns these books she asks him if he’s a Communist; annoyed, he replies back with the question: “If I owned Mein Kampf would you think I’m a Nazi?” Their conversation ends like this: Isabel: Well, you don’t have a copy of Mein Kampf, but if you did, then yes, I’d ask if you were a Nazi.
Dan: Maybe I’m hiding it.
Isabel: Why would you hide it?
Dan: ‘Cause it’s just not cool to be a Nazi anymore, baby.
Ryan Gosling is a phenomenal actor and I would definitely recommend watching this movie. I always like to watch my favorite movies with the director’s commentary on after I’ve seen them a couple of times and listening to the director’s idea for this film was eye-opening. It’s such a beautifully written and well-directed film, with profound meaning wrapped up in simple gestures and words. Everything has significantly more meaning than you think it does at first glance. This is not one of those moments with profound meaning though. This is just a scene where Ryan Gosling looks and sounds really sexy.
Another favorite line from ‘Half Nelson':
Second chances are rare, man. You ought to take better advantage of them.
Even if it’s only been a few days, I can’t read anything I’ve written without wanting to take a big red pen and slashing and rearranging sentences. On the Internet, specifically WordPress, it’s so easy to make corrections but it’s so much harder to remember the first mistakes once you’ve taken them out. I want a track record, I want a list of edits in case I want to put something back in its place, keep a little reminder of a longer story for when I have time to tell it.
I spent the better part of an afternoon this summer roping off entries, marking things as private from years past (more because of my gratuitous use of the “F” word and “like” and less because of confidential information) and now I want to retell these stories because sometimes I got it right the first time–like Royal’s quote.
Doesn’t it always feel so profound when you realize that everything is always ending and beginning? That you can always decide to live and it’s always going to be a BIG DEAL moment?
I think the more of those moments you can get the better; I think I got it right the first time (although second chances are pretty great, too, so…you know). And while that sounds much more congratulatory than I intend it to, it’s just right.
At first, the idea of retelling stories (or just straight-up telling them) seemed like an implication that I had nothing else to say, but it’s kind of the opposite.
I was happy. I am happy. Hell, I’m often drunk on a complex cocktail of profound gratitude, enjoyment, wonder…
- Jennifer Gilbert, always getting it
To the left, to the left.
“ ‘cause she knows it would be tragic if those evil robots win.”
Growing up as the youngest child in a family of seven (!) (three are half-siblings and much, much older, but still) the only thing I ever wanted was a little sister. And to meet John Travolta circa “Grease.” I don’t know.
One of those things happened when my junior high guidance counselor shuffled my schedule around to make space for a high school math class and needed to find an elective that fit into my schedule. She chose Tech Lab*, which was a fancy name for wood working.
By the way, I only mention the advance math thing because I spent the next year not understanding and then cheating my way through Geometry (is there a way my high school can retroactively take away my passing grade? If yes, then this is all a really specific joke with no basis in the truth, Mrs. Kelly). I thought I would die if I didn’t get an A. THIS IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF TELLING TYPE-A KIDS THEY’RE “GIFTED” AT THINGS THAT THEY’RE NOT REALLY GIFTED AT DOING.
I’m still waiting for some situation to come up wherein I’m totally screwed over by the fact that I don’t understand geometry.
But back to the point!
I met John Travolta.
Okay, but really. There were two girls in my wood working class. One was a girl named Samantha who wore smeared black eyeliner, a wrist full of plastic bracelets and would say things like “Call me a bitch.”
The other was Hannah, who was a year younger than I was and in the same scheduling situation as me. We built racecars, I broke the band saw and we made a bridge together out of balsa wood. Our junior high didn’t practice block scheduling, so we saw each other every day. Sometimes after school we’d go to Bogey’s, an ice cream and deep-fried-anything haven. She was the oldest in her family and me being the youngest in mine, it was a natural progression that we adopted each other as sisters.
We played basketball (terribly), we watched indie movies and eventually she’d work at the art house cinema in town and I’d work as the Films & Media coordinator on my college campus. We both ended up at the same college despite being sure that we both “belonged” out of state and even though our lives have twisted and turned in different directions we’re still looped around that same family tree that lets us spend hours trying on dresses from each other’s closets (isn’t that the point of sisters?), borrowing CDs, nail polish, jewelry and advice about what to do with friends or dudes that suck.
And right there is truly the point of sisters, or family in general: reminding someone and letting someone remind you to love, live life, proceed, progress.
*This was not the last time she did this. I spent my sophomore year of high school making an end table.
Outside of Emilio Estevez’s magnum opus “D2: Mighty Ducks,” I’ve never really thought about Iceland nor have I had reasons to think about Iceland. But after watching this tourism video, I realize how foolish I’ve been.
Adding “Perform choreographed dance on mountain in Iceland” to the life list (only kind of joking).