Friday, November 28, 2008

'Breakable You' ...

At the beginning of the year, Mercurie challenged me to read one book of fiction per month in 2008 because he thinks we just don't read for pleasure enough anymore.

So a few days ago, I wandered over to my shelf of books waiting to be read and saw this book for what felt like the first time. I'm sure it had been there all along. I'm sure someone didn't break into my house in order to slot a novel into my collection, and yet, when I pulled it down and read the first sentence, it felt completely new, not like one of the many books I've thought about starting before.

I started reading and kept reading. Unlike some books that languish on the floor next to my bed, bookmarks firmly wedged between pages and unlikely to ever move again, this book drew me in, kept me wanting to turn the pages. So I did.

The chapters vary in length. Some are "chaptery," others are just a page or two. So by page 12, I was already on Chapter 4. By page 35, I was already on Chapter 6. But as I read Chapter 6, I thought, "Haven't I read this already?" Indeed, I had. Chapter 6 is almost identical to Chapter 4. Huh? Was that a mistake, I wondered? Did an editor miss this? Did the author, Brian Morton, cut and paste for some reason and then forget to change one of the chapters? Would the chapters repeat again? Was this the literary equivalent of "Groundhog Day"? Was I going to read the same chapter over and over? Would the logic of constructing the novel this way reveal itself by the end of the book? I eventually realized that Chapter 4 is told from Maud's perspective, while Chapter 6 is told from Samir's. But from that point on, my antennae were up. I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and ripped off bits to mark Chapters 4 and 6.

I kept the rest of the paper as a bookmark. My bookmark, however, got smaller and smaller as I kept cannibalizing it to mark other parts of the book. I never do this when I read. Well, I guess I do now. This volume has many scraps of paper peeking out from top.

The next scrap, after Chapter 6, doesn't appear until Chapter 14. I wanted to remind myself of this sentence, of Eleanor, the mother: "Tonight, she watched Law & Order for half an hour, wondering idly, as she always did, whether Sam Waterston was unattached."

That sentence made me smile. I have a crush on Sam Waterston, too. I have for years, ever since he portrayed Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields.

Not all the scraps denote "issues" with the book. Some are in place to call me back to a well-written sentence or a thought deserving of praise. Like this sentence on page 137: "We wish for symmetry of feeling, but we rarely get it. It is painful to be the one who loves more, and painful to be the one who loves less."

Ditto this sentence, about 9/11, of Samir, Maud's Arab boyfriend: "He understood with his rational mind that it was an event in the world, out there, but the event was so huge as to punch a hole in the wall that separated the rational mind from the dream mind ... ." That's exactly how I felt that day. I was watching CNN, understanding what I was seeing, but somehow unable to believe what I was seeing.

Consider this a spoiler alert. I'm about to reveal some essential parts of the book that you may not want to know about if you have any inclination to read it. OK? OK. On we go ...

You need to know that Adam Weller is the father in the book, a writer of some renown, a B-list writer to Saul Bellow's A-list status. Izzy Cantor was Adam's contemporary but was always better received in literary circles, hovering between Weller and Bellow. On page 99, an "Adam" chapter, Morton writes of Izzy, "In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe that any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters did something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. ... Adam wasn't eager to be immersed again in the vague skim-milky kindness of his old friend's world."

You also need to know that Izzy's widow, Ruth, ran across a novel in Izzy's papers that she believe to be his best work yet, and asked Adam to read it and offer his opinion. Adam was reluctant to take it, worried to be in possession of the only copy of a potential masterpiece. But Ruth reminded him that Izzy always kept a carbon copy of everything he typed. Adam eventually, reluctantly, reads the novel and discovers that, indeed, it is a work of genius, the book that will bring his departed friend the glory he always deserved, the book that will cement his standing among the Bellows of the world.

So when Ruth dies and Shelly, Izzy and Ruth's daughter, tells Adam and Ruth wanted him to have Izzy's papers, I instantly knew what was coming: Adam was going to publish the novel as his own, justifying the "morally reprehensible act" by telling himself that its success could no longer bring any joy to Izzy or Ruth, and that the main character was partly based on him anyway. I knew this on page 198. The chapter is written rather expressly in that vein, so I'm not patting myself on the back as some telegraphing genius, but there existed the possibility that Adam wouldn't go through with it, that he'd redeem himself before the endpaper, that he'd prove himself to something other than a narcissistic ass after all. But nope, I knew Adam wouldn't do the right thing, because Morton told me on page 99 that Izzy never wanted to believe that any of his characters could be evil. Ergo, one of the characters in this book had to be evil. Or, if not evil, morally reprehensible. Adam. Done.

Meanwhile, on page 239, Eleanor, Adam's wife who has been left for the much-younger Thea (because all successful men in their 60s leave their wives for young, hot women who fawn at their feet) is supposed to be listening to one of her clients – she's a therapist – but she's distracted, which Morton indicates with this bit of "effort": "Huh? Eleanor thought. Did you say something?" Huh, Morton? Lazy much?

Which brings me to the most obvious moment in the book. On page 245, Morton writes of Samir, Maud's boyfriend, the man with whom Maud is expecting a baby, who is going to drive back to New York late at night, "He wished he'd remembered to buy a cup of coffee, though, before he started out." Oh, for the love of God. Reading that was like having a hand reach out of the pages and slap me as if to say, "That was foreshadowing, in case you didn't know!" Sure enough, on page 249, the chapter ends with "It's funny how". No period. Just an abrupt ending. All that was missing was a black screen and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Samir, of course, just died, mid-thought. And in case I wasn't sure, though I was very, very sure, and very, very annoyed – could it be a bigger cliché to kill the father of the baby part way through the book? – the first words of Chapter 44 are, "After the funeral ... ."

Still, there are some thoughtful moments in this book. Like this passage on page 275: "Ralph [Maud's friend] was a friend who asked the second question. She thought that this might be one of the definitions of true friendship. If you have a friend who pays enough attention to you to ask the right question, you're lucky; if you have a friend who listens to the answer, thinks some more, and asks the second question, then you're blessed." Here, here.

Maud has the baby at the end of Chapter 53. Chapter 54 begins, "She named him David." That made me laugh. Almost everyone in my life is named David or Dave. The other day, I was relaying that fact to someone and rattled off 10 of them with no effort.

Throughout the book, Morton tosses around the names of philosophers like a boor at a cocktail party, but through Maud, he offers an idea that made me muse about my life. "The question of how we should treat one another is the central question in personal relationships and the central question in world politics. It's the question.

"This is what she had thought. But now she saw she was wrong.

"All of her time in graduate school had been spent on this — this mincing meditation on how we should treat one another. And it had all been a mistake. She'd inherited the good-girl gene from her mother: the gene that makes you too ethical, too aware of the needs of others, too nice. Her mother had thrown away her life. She'd made a fetish out of caring for others because she lacked the courage to take care of herself. ... If each of her parents had been a little bit more like the other, then each of them might have become a complete human being. her father would have had some feelings for other people and her mother would have had some drive." I have plenty of feelings for other people. I need more drive.

This sentence got flagged just because I thought it was beautiful: Of Eleanor, "She had written her way into a profound solitude." And this one got flagged because it made me chuckle: Of Adam in relation to Thea, "She had made him seem to be a creature of the contemporary world, rather than a fossil from a bygone age when Jewish intellectuals walked the earth."

There are several phrases within the book that caught my ear, among them "pocket-sized park" and "the cluster of illuminated bridges to the south looked like creatures of a great and ancient dignity." And there are many other slips of paper tucked into these pages, though now that I reread the words, the passages seem less worthy of note, whether I was fond of them then or frustrated.

But let's end on a high point, shall we? Maud, in the face of Samir's death, having checked herself into an institution (her third such stay in her relatively young life) despite having David to care for, checks herself out for a weekend and visits the library in Samir's hometown, hoping to find the book of poetry he had quoted from when they were together, the poetry that provided him "a door to a wider life." After reading a bit of philosophy, too, she decides, "My first act of resilience ... will be to believe in my own resilience." Which is a very good place to start.

We're all breakable. Life, in many ways, is fragile. But life, too, in many ways, is not. We're all able to endure far more than we believe possible, and not only to merely survive, but thrive. As Maud notes of her friend: "Ralph knew how much this meeting meant to her, so he was trying to put aside his own troubles and make the occasion successful. It struck her that there were many opportunities for heroism in life. You don't need to fight a war to find out who you are."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful ...

Sure, I'm thankful for the same things everyone is thankful for on Thanksgiving: my health, my family, the health of my family, my lovely home that keeps me safe and warm, my amazing circle of friends. I could go on for days, really.

But right now, just because it makes me laugh, I'm thankful that one of my nephews turned me on to this tonight:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holidays Behind The Scenes ...

Dana, the author of "Mamalogues," one of the many blogs I visit, wrote a lovely Thanksgiving post that included this perfect sentence: "I think the magic that lives in our youth comes from not knowing how hard the adults worked to create it."

Sometimes, when I'm reading, a sentence will leap off the page or the screen and wow me with its sentiment and eloquence. That is one such sentence.

I was thinking earlier today about tomorrow. I spend Thanksgiving at my brother and sister-in-law's house every year. Everyone converges on their house and when we arrive, the house smells great and my brother has a fire burning brightly in the fireplace and the volume of the chatter in the house steadily swells. Everyone contributes something – my annual contribution is bread – but my sister-in-law still has plenty to do all day.

Which isn't to say that my brother and their kids don't help – they surely do – but she won't sit down to eat until she's sure that everyone else has everything they need, as she's a fine hostess.

Dana's sentence set me to thinking about parties I've thrown and how, for that day, I'm really not part of my own party. I'm busy preparing leading up to the party and then tending to details the day of the party up until my last guest leaves. There's always something that needs to be done.

When we're at someone else's home for a party as guests, even if we offer to help, we're still guests.

Mom and I often end up doing the dishes on Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law invariably sees us and says, "You don't have to do that," but she and my brother deserve a break after all their effort to make the day special for the rest of us. The least we can do is leave the kitchen in order so that when they close the door after the last friend or relative departs, they can sink into the couch in front of the fireplace and relax, instead of having to wash stemware and china.

A couple of years ago, I wrote this post about Christmas Eves, past and present. These days, Christmas Eve is a relatively small affair for my family, but when I was younger, it was a huge to-do. Even as a child, I was aware of how much work went into preparing for that houseful of relatives and friends, but as an adult (who only throws one big party a year, for the 4th of July), I'm even more aware of how much effort, how much love, my mom put into making the holidays magical.

And she still does.

Just as my sister-in-law will be up early tomorrow to get the turkey prepared for the oven and then be busy until we arrive and until we leave.

People who love us enough to make sure our holidays are special are one more thing for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Car Wars ...

Well, OK, maybe not wars, but oy with the car trouble already!

The thing is, my current problem might be a problem that's not actually current. My car might have been trying to tell me something was wrong but when something completely flukey happens for two seconds and then everything seems perfectly fine and then the flukey thing doesn't happen again for months, the tendency – my tendency, anyway – is to shrug and say, "Well, that was weird" and keep driving.

My current problem is literally a current problem. My car battery, it seems, is sucking too much power when it's turned off, which is rendering my car a 4,000-pound paperweight.

Thankfully, my brother Paul is a bit of a deductive-reasoning genius, and he very kindly offered to come over and help troubleshoot the problem. He has a hefty handful of degrees, one of which is all about electrical stuff, so he hooked up a meter to my battery and touched leads to terminals and measured things while I opened and closed a door and then opened and closed the trunk and then used my remote to lock the doors and then unlock the doors – who says most chicks are useless around cars? – all of which allowed him to figure out that my car has a problem that he can't fix.

Because cars these days are smarter than Sarah Palin (sorry, I couldn't stop myself; it just came out) and Paul's knowledge of all this new-fangled technology comes from the mechanics' manuals, which I do not own for my car. (Paul, it's worth noting, does own the manuals for his SUV, so he can troubleshoot problems if they arise. But in my case, I need my mechanic to figure out the rest of the problem because he deals with late-model cars on a regular basis.)

So, what does all this mean? Well, I have no idea. I could be an expensive fix. It could be an inexpensive fix. Right now, my car is in the garage, hood up, with a battery charger clamped to the posts, and once it's juiced up again, we'll detach the positive terminal and then check the battery a day later and see if it held its charge on its own. If it holds, I have a bigger problem, possibly the body control module. If it doesn't hold, then this battery is just crap and it's easy to pop this one out and pop a new one in.

Fingers crossed that the battery is crap. That'll be the quick 'n' easy fix. My father, conveniently, still works part time in the auto-parts industry, so I get anything my car needs for less than most of you. He very kindly hung out at work late tonight (thanks again, Dad!), waiting for me or my brother to return his phone calls, wondering if we needed him to bring anything to us. Unfortunately, we were outside playing car doctor and car nurse and missed his calls until we came inside to get warm and by then, it was quite a bit later than it usually is when he calls it a day.

In the meantime, I am a woman without a car. Which is fine, really. In a pinch, I can borrow a car. But the drug store, the grocery store, and the bank are all within walking distance of my house. So I can stock up on some baking supplies – as many as I can carry home from the store, which will be good exercise, since I won't be going to the gym – and get crackin' on my holiday baking. The list is long and time is short. I need to make room in my freezer.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Inspiration ...

This story on "World News with Charles Gibson" tonight left me in uncontrollable tears. An amazing story, an amazing life.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

For Rhonda ...

I have the best neighbors. Truly, if I could create custom neighbors from a neighbor-making menu, I couldn't construct better neighbors than the ones who live next door.

Rhonda called this afternoon to check on me because there was a bit of a disturbance on our street last night. I had gone to bed early and slept right through the commotion, but I was touched that she wanted to check in with me. She and her husband and her son are those kind of people, the kind who keep an eye on your house when they know you're not home, the kind who are always ready to lend a hand or a tool or who just go ahead and help. William has earned a lifetime's supply of baked goods for all the times he's ridden over on his mower and cut my grass for me when he's done cutting his, bless his heart. It's high time I fire up the oven and start churning out the treats. But they know they're at the top of the cookie list every Christmas. Rhonda cleverly returns her hatbox every year for me to refill. And Shane is the sweetest guy on the planet, always helpful and kind, offering advice for my unruly yard or squiring me around in his pickup when I need to retrieve something oversized from a store.

See what I mean? Amazing people, all of them.

But when the weather turns chilly – or, who am I kidding, now it's just plain cold – we retreat into our homes and those lovely neighborly moments that are sprinkled throughout the summer evaporate, those driveway hellos that turn into a marathon chat or the visit to their insanely gorgeous, perfect, photo shoot-ready back yard to ask a question that turns into lazing around the patio table sipping beverages and whiling away an hour.

So today when Rhonda called, I mentioned that I need to have her over for coffee, to make a concerted effort to see her. (Of course, William and Shane are welcome, too, but they don't seem like the sitting-around-drinking-coffee types, not with we hens, anyway.)

Rhonda is a regular reader of this blog and she commented today that I haven't been writing as much lately. Guilty as charged, not that she was charging. I told her that I just don't feel like I have anything to say these days, and I hate to be that person who blogs about not having anything to blog about, to which she kindly replied that even if I wrote about that, she'd enjoy reading it.

It's so nice to have a fan.

Happily, I had a fun, blog-worthy day. Doreen took me to see "Don't Dress For Dinner" for my birthday. It was entirely delightful! I highly recommend it. Doreen scored excellent seats in the fourth row, centered on the stage, which was exactly at eye level for us. And our seats were numbers 13 and 14. I sat in 13, as it's my favorite number (because it's my birthday).

But first, we had a late lunch at Uncle Julio's, which has been at North and Halsted (a k a The Seventh Spiral of Saturday Traffic Hell) for I don't even know how many years, but which I'd always avoided, writing it off as another Mexican chain, because really, who the hell needs more fried ice cream and chihuahua cheese?

Oh, was I wrong. So, so wrong. The menu was really very interesting, so much so that I had a hard time deciding, but I settled on (drumroll, please) beef fajitas. I know what you're thinking: "Gee, Beth, could you be any more boring?" But oh, my friends, these were the best beef fajitas I'd ever had. (Yes, Jay, even better than the ones I ordered when we had lunch for your birthday at that little Mexican café, which, the rest of you should know, is cleverly named That Little Mexican Café.) The tortillas at Uncle Julio's are handmade, which isn't unique to Julio's, but holy hell, these were the best torts I'd ever had. I skipped the cheese and sour cream option when I ordered and instead topped my meat with the guacamole and pico de gallo that were served along with my sizzling platter of the most perfectly seasoned, tender steak I'd ever had the pleasure of eating as part of a fajita experience.

The meat was so good that Doreen, who hasn't eaten meat in I don't even know how many months, tried a piece when I started raving about it. And then snuck another piece before our server took my plate away.

That's right, kids: meat so good it'll woo a non-meat eater back to eating meat.

We were both feeling like distant cousins of Mr. Creosote by the time we waddled out of there, so we took the long way to the theater in the hopes that the walk would jostle our systems into performing something resembling digestion. While we walked, we cursed Uncle Julio's tortilla chips, the bowl of see-through-thin crispy goodness that arrived on the table seconds after we sat down, accompanied by a cupful of salsa that was delightfully light on cilantro with just enough chipotle smokiness.

The play, A.J. (After Julio), was a couple hours of great writing and even better acting by a charming cast, most of whom you'll recognize from various TV shows and feature films. And the Royal George is a lovely place to see a play, a small venue without a bad seat in the house. I won't go into a lot of detail. You can check out the web site and decide how much you'd like to learn before the performance. I like to go into things with very little knowledge of what lies in store for me. Doreen reads the reviews of plays before we buy tickets, so I never worry about suffering through a dud.

Unless you count "Passion Play" at The Goodman last season. But we didn't sit through that one. We walked out after the first act.

Anyway, I've rambled on quite long enough for someone who just this morning thought she suffered from a case of Nothing To Say.

Rhonda, see you soon!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

'Mister Foe' ...

Or maybe it's "Hallam Foe" to you, depending on where you live. I found three different movie posters for this film. It has a couple of identities.

Either way, Mister or Hallam, whatever poster applies, this is a very quirky film.

Mister Hallam Foe is Jamie Bell, a k a Billy Elliot, all grown up but living in a tree fort. (Seriously, just go with it. He doesn't live there for the duration of the film.) I don't like to know anything about movies before I see them. So I had no idea what I was in for with this film. I rented it as part of my ongoing Ciarán-a-thon. I love the look on his face in this shot:



As with all of Ciarán's performances, he completely becomes his character in this film. I'm friends with the man but even I stop seeing "Ciarán" and see only the character on screen. Most of the time. (I finally got around to seeing his death scene in "Rome," and while I did initially say, "Oh, honey!" because, ow, those senatorial bastards were killing my pal, I was quickly drawn into his performance. The man dies really well.)

So in this film, he's quite a bastard, and no doubt a big part of the reason that Hallam is so disturbed. Then again, Claire Forlani as Hallam's evil stepmother doesn't help matters, either.

Rent it. Just know that it has a distinct creepy bent. Which Ciarán's face so accurately conveys.

Tick, Tick, Tick ...

Georgie say "Relax! ... I only got this much time left."

As of today, our – ahem – leader has 61 days left in office. Ninety-four months down, two little months to go.

I was just in my closet, making things tidy, and spied my good ol' George W. Bush Out of Office Countdown page-a-day calendar (a Christmas gift from L.A. Dave), and thought it was time for another installment of head-shaking, vote-rueing fun. (Not that I voted for the man.)

Here, then, is another smattering of Bushisms for your very much president-mocking pleasure. Do not adjust your brain. There are no typos here:

"I mean, there needs to be a wholesale effort against racial profiling, which is illiterate children."
— Second presidential debate, October 2004

"It's important for us to explain to our nation that life is important. It's not only the life of babies, but it's the life of children living in, you know, the dark dungeons of the Internet."
— Arlington Heights, Illinois, October 2000

"There is a – we've got a homeownership gap in America, let's face it. Over 75 percent of white Americans own their home, and less than 50 percent of Hispanos and African Americans don't own their home. And that's a gap, that's a homeownership gap. And we've got to do something about it."
— Cleveland, Ohio, 2002

"They want the federal government controlling Social Security like it's some kind of federal program."
— St. Charles, Missouri, campaign speech, November 2000

And a guest comment, a Brownism, if you will: "Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well."
— Former FEMA director Michael D. Brown

And last but not least, this funny little nugget: "Wow! Brazil is big!"
— Upon seeing a map of Brazil at a meeting with the Brazilian president, November 2005

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yes, I Can! ...

Monday night, for the first time in I-can't-even-tell-you-how-many years, I surfed on over to Monster.com and, much to my surprise, found a posting for a job that sounded interesting and was practically in my back yard.

Tuesday morning, I jumped through all of Monster.com's hoops to apply online. (No, you can't upload a PDF of your resume, but you can upload a Word doc. Which is fine, except that not everyone in the world uses Word, and versions of Word can make for wonky viewing.)

Two hours later, my phone rang and the next thing I knew, I had set up an interview.

For this morning. How's that for encouraging?

I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon preparing for the interview, and spent a good part of yesterday evening feeling really hopeful about the possibility.

I can't even remember the last time I went on an interview.

And as interviews go, this was easily the best I've ever sat through. It felt less like I was being interrogated and more like we (there were three of us in the room) were just having a conversation.

Of course, it helps that for this job, I would bring a lot to the table. It's easy to sell yourself when you're very confident and know you have a lot to offer.

In the end, we weren't able to arrive at a salary that fit their budget and fit my needs, but it was a valuable experience. It was a boost of confidence and it served to remind me of all that I can do. All that I have done.

The woman who called yesterday to ask me to come in mentioned that I've had quite a life so far.

In the everydayness of every day, it's easy to lose sight of just how much I've done, how many opportunities have come my way.

So, today didn't pan out, but the universe is set in motion again (not that it ever stops) as we advance toward what's next.

And, as I said in my thank-you note to them, I'm always glad to expand my network of smart and engaging people.

Onward!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dispatches From DivanLand ...

Two weeks ago Saturday night, I went to bed feeling mildly crappy.

I woke up that Sunday – at 5 a.m. which was really 4 a.m. – unable to breathe. I had been dreaming that I was unable to breathe and, sure enough, in the conscious realm, too, I was unable to breathe.

So I spent the balance of the day camped out on the couch, watching hour after hour of "Gilmore girls," one of the best shows in the history of television, and drinking orange juice.

That Monday morning, though, I woke up feeling better than expected and so I started to putter around the house – setting clocks, cleaning up my office, writing out bills, emptying the dishwasher, filling the dishwasher – until my body tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Um, STOP."

Every time I get sick, not that I get sick very often, I do the same thing. Thinking I'm well on my way to wellness, I slam into fifth gear until my body makes its great displeasure known and I drop back to first.

So here I am, two Mondays hence, and I'm still fighting whatever crud has decided to take up residence in my respiratory tract.

It is, in a word, annoying.

I am the functioning infirm. Saturday, I ran errands. Yesterday, I raked up pine needles and honey locust pods, and put away outdoor furniture and wind chimes and plantless containers, and spot-pruned my yews, and swept my front stoop until snow started falling as if to say, "You're officially done with your fall yard work." Today, I spent the day puttering around the house and tending to a bevy of niggling tasks, and once again, my body eventually said, "Um, STOP." At least I had the presence of mind to cancel with Brandon today.

It's a weird state of sickness: not so sick that I feel like I can legitimately camp out on the couch but not so well that I can perform at a normal pace without quickly hitting the wall. But then I think, if I keep up this start-and-stop pace, my battery will continue to remain drained and this cough, this pesky, persistent, chest-rattling cough, will never go away.

But at least, when I am on the couch, I can fire up my lovely laptop with wi-fi and the world is only a few keystrokes away.

Now if only I could think of something interesting about which to blog ...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Growin' Up ...

(I have that Springsteen tune running through my head as I write this.)

Now that I am officially facing 40 – there are no other birthdays to hide behind; 40 is next on this hit parade we call life – I finally understand why some people seem to back off from their birthdays.

Not that I'm freaked about turning 40. Not at all. Bring it on, I say. And then bring on 40 more. And then some. I've been mulling over my 40th birthday party for many months already. I may never get married, so why not throw a big fete for 40, right?

I still like my birthday, I still look forward to it, but it's no longer the big deal it used to be. I used to anticipate my birthday with glee. It always seemed as though my birthday should feel different than any other day. And when I was younger, it did.

Back in the days, my birthday was a huge deal: a party and cake and ice cream and family and friends and presents and candy and games and tchotchke plastic prizes that to this day are taking up space in landfills everywhere.

My mom used to make me breakfast in bed for my birthday (she still offers, bless her heart) and I'd open cards and presents in bed, too. Our kitchen ceiling would be transformed with twisted crepe-paper streamers (two colors, always) punctuated by balloons of assorted colors.

I could have anything I wanted for dinner, at home or at a restaurant. I don't remember when I started wanting annual lasagne, but lasagne has been the must-have birthday dinner now for years.

I could have any cake I wanted, from a bakery or from mom's imaginative hands. Memorable cakes include Ziggy's head, a green Monopoly house, and, of course, the piece de resistance, the stuffed green olive complete with giant frilly toothpick. Mom conceptualized the olive using an Easter egg cake pan to render the cake in 3-D and I fashioned the frilly toothpick out of bamboo skewers and foil wrapping paper. My new annual cake from the local bakery is white cake with lemon filling and stabilized whipped cream in lieu of buttercream frosting, topped with pale yellow roses and pale green leaves.

This year, though, my birthday felt more like a regular day. This year, I woke up happy and said, still lying in bed, "Happy birthday to me!" And hopped out of bed and booted up the computer and had birthday e-cards and e-mails waiting from family and friends. And mom came by with helium-filled balloons and apricot danish. And I had lunch with 8 friends, all of whom presented me with something special – cards, flowers, presents – even though the invitation I send every year specifies no gifts. (I'm really at the age where I don't need anything. Not that birthdays should be about need. And I surely appreciate the gestures. And the gifts were all practical: a CD, a journal, gift cards, a magazine full of inspiring cookie recipes for this year's Christmas baking extravaganza.) Then dinner with my parents: the aforementioned lasagne and cake. And when I got home, phone calls with Patty and L.A. Dave to wind down the day.

So it was still a very "birthday" birthday, but it felt different. The youthful birthday glee has finally faded.

I'm very grateful for every birthday that arrives, of course. But now, the day is very much about the people in my life. I'm happy to have both of my parents with whom to share the day. And I'm blessed to have so many friends who gather to celebrate over a long lunch. Both of my brothers were traveling this year so I didn't see them or my sister-in-law but my nephews and niece did come by the night before to bring me my card and, of course, spending time with them is all the gift I need.

My 40th will be as big a blowout as my budget will allow, but that, too, will be about surrounding myself with those I love, not about the birthday, per se. Though there will be champagne. And chocolate. And wine. And cake. And whatever food I think I'll fancy on that day.

I wonder if mom can make lasagne canapes.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Once, In A Lifetime: The Birthday Disc 2008

Each year, I invite a group of friends out to lunch for my birthday and several years ago, I hit upon the idea of creating a CD for each guest, a party favor/placecard hybrid. Each disc includes each guest's name as well as a note on the cover and a collection of songs, which sometimes center around a theme and which sometimes, like this year, are a merely a collection of tunes I like for various reasons.

The cover of this year's CD reads:

Friends:
The birthdays, they keep on coming.
This disc is the fourth in a series.
I hope to make and share many more.
I love spending part of the day with you
because each of you hold
a special place in my heart.
My life is richer for knowing you.
Thank you for being a part of
the tapestry.
xo,
B


The songs are ordered very particularly, for flow from one track to the next. Try to listen along in your head. Here are the songs and my reason for choosing each:

1. Technicolor/Vida, Coldplay
This tune is actually Life in Technicolor and Viva La Vida from Coldplay's latest disc. On the album, they're separated by several other songs, but they follow each other quite naturally, so I asked Dave to edit them together for me. I can edit on my iMac, but I can only splice songs together, not do nifty crossfades like Dave can – and did – on his souped-up gear. In any event, it's a combo I've been listening to all year and it makes a nice ramp for the rest of the disc.

2. Promises, Promises, Naked Eyes
I toyed with the idea of doing a entire disc of '80s tunes, but then thought the better of it. Not everyone in my life is as much an '80s geek as me. But this song more than stands the test of time. I loved it then, I love it now. I'll probably love it when I'm 60.

3. Meg White, Ray LaMontagne
I first heard this song when I heard Ray perform it earlier this year at the Chicago Theater and I was hooked immediately. I love the driving rhythm. It drills its way into your head. Right after the "High Noon" open.

4. Won't Stop, OneRepublic
Yes, yes, it's poppy. But I love the guitar in it and I especially love the chorus. And the vocal. I love the whole song.

5. Insight, Depeche Mode
My friend Chris put this tune on a compilation CD he made for me and I've loved it ever since. I was a huge Depeche Mode fan in high school and Dave Gahan's voice still delivers. Very atmospheric open.

6. Something Got Me Started, Simply Red
Another throwback to an earlier time in my life. I've always loved Mick Hucknall's voice and I find this song especially cool for the way he tags out of the song on a single note. I'm a sucker for keyboards.

7. I Wanna Be With You, Bruce Springsteen
Classic Bruce.

8. Roll With The Changes, REO Speedwagon
Earlier this year, I heard an REO tune and thought to myself, "You know what's missing in my life? REO Speedwagon." I own High Infidelity on vinyl. (I'm pretty sure it's still in my office closet in a hefty stack of albums.) But the time was nigh to go digital.

9. Drive, The Cars
Ooh, I love this song. Moody.

10. Superstition, Stevie Wonder
Go ahead. Turn on this tune and try to sit still. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

11. Burrito, Pete Yorn
Yes, that's right. A song about a burrito. Except it's really not about a burrito. Because that would be silly. But whew, this baby rocks!

12. Buses, Bo Pepper
Happy, bouncy, dance-y tune that posits that boys are just like buses. As in, we girls are never quite sure when they're going to come along.

13. I've Been Thinking About You, London Beat
This is one of those songs that I hadn't heard in years that suddenly popped into my head and seemed like a very good idea for inclusion on this disc. It's peppy!

14. Wise Man, Liam Finn
Liam opened for Eddie Vedder this year and knocked me out. Usually, I want most opening acts to get off the stage, but every once in a while, an opening act presents itself as a true gem. Liam is one such gem.

15. Hard Sun, Eddie Vedder
This track is from the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild. I love Eddie's voice.

16. I Believe, Robert Plant
Because Robert Plant deserves to be represented everywhere, all the time.

17. A Thousand Beautiful Things, Annie Lennox
Annie is one of my all-time favorites, so it stands to reason that she'd be a fixture on these discs. A beautiful song, beautifully written, beautifully sung.

18. Happy Girl, Beth Nielsen Chapman
What better song to wrap up a birthday CD for my friends? With them in my life, I am indeed a happy girl.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Boring ...

That's right, I'm boring. I've been camped out on the couch for the better part of a week. I've left the couch to get my hair cut and colored and to go to the gym and to do yard work, but each time I try to pretend like I'm A-OK, my body says, "What do you think you're doing?" and migrates back to the couch to recharge.

Let's hear it for Gilmore girls on DVD. And Dr. Oz on Oprah. Because looking at a handsome man always makes me feel better. And today, he was especially attractive, taking the hand of a woman with severe acne and telling her that she's beautiful. Very sweet.

And my cough has turned into the very barky variety. I'm really ready for whatever's taken up residence in my head and chest to leave. Soon.

But one of these days, I hope to have something interesting to say again.

Sadly, today is not that day.

Tomorrow, maybe.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

'Stardust' ...

I seem to remember that this movie was in theaters for about half a minute. It had been in my Netflix queue for months, buried toward the bottom of the list. But I moved it to the top recently and popped it in last night.

Now, maybe the cold medication I finally got around to buying had something to do with my viewing experience, or maybe the fact that I kept falling asleep had something to do with my viewing experience, but I have to say, of what I saw of this film, I really liked it.

Not enough to try watching it again from start to finish. Now now, anyway. But maybe someday. Michelle Pfeiffer was especially good, alternating between old and ugly and not-so-old and Michelle Pfeiffer-y. DeNiro didn't have much to do in this movie, other than lend his name to the poster. And I don't usually go in for fantasy-ish films, but this one was sweet.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Disappointed ...

In a way, I understand.

See, 1,462 days ago – four years and two days – I felt much the same way as you're feeling right now. The difference was, as me and half the country sat stunned, most of the rest of the world sat stunned along with us. Newspapers across the globe published headlines of disbelief. Web sites appeared expressing our apologies to the planet.

But Tuesday night, in Chicago and Atlanta and Washington D.C., in living rooms and bar rooms, in churches and mosques, a little better than half of us rejoiced. And this time, the planet joined us.

Tuesday night, after I watched Obama speak, I said, out loud to my empty den but within earshot of the universe, "We have our country back."

The country of the past 8 years has been an aberration. I'm sorry, but Bush was not a good president. He was a bad president. He was, quite possibly, the worst president.

There was a time when I could have been convinced of a McCain candidacy. I wouldn't have voted for him, but I would have understood those who did. Then he chose Sarah Palin and all bets were off. And it got so, so ugly as they got more and more mired in the mud they were so frantically slinging. It made me angry, but most of all, it made me sad.

So here we are, two days hence. The confetti has settled. The front pages have been printed. And many of you are stewing. You're disgusted. You're pissed.

And now you know how half of the country felt four years ago when Kerry lost. (Please note that I didn't say "... when Bush won.") The world sat in stunned silence that night as the returns trickled in. I remember. I was awake into the wee hours, refusing to believe what I was seeing, sure that if I simply stayed up late enough, Peter Jennings would tell me, "We made a mistake. John Kerry is the next president of the United States."

I was on the phone with a friend that night. We were both crying.

The pain of Bush's first term was real, and that night, the pain was extended for four more years.

It had to end. Two wars, economic turmoil, the erosion of civil liberties, shall I go on?

Contrary to your belief, I'm not here to gloat. Unfortunately, the chasm in this country is now so gaping that we seem to think the only way for us to hear each other is to yell when what we need to do is talk to each other in calm, measured voices, to help each other to understand our respective thoughts.

So allow me to share my view of John McCain from the Obama side of this schism:

In John McCain, I saw a disingenuous man. Every time he referred to the country as "my friends," I cringed.

In John McCain, I saw a reckless man. No one will ever convince me that Sarah Palin was qualified. McCain, unable to choose from among his top choices, opted for shock and awe in a skirt. But she was quickly stripped of her style and had no substance to reveal.

In John McCain, I saw an angry man. It pains me, deeply, that so much of all politics is about tearing down, not building up. But McCain's campaign descended into nearly unfathomable darkness, from the constant barrage of negative ads on radio and TV to the angry mobs at rallies. Thankfully, the angry mobs eventually dwindled. Because people stopped coming to his events. In the last few days of the campaign, Obama drew 80,000 to a rally, and the next day, only 1,000 showed up for McCain. Those numbers further illustrate my point: People responded to Obama's message of hope and change. People tired of McCain's relentless attacks.

Tuesday night, as I watched McCain concede, I wondered, "Where was that man during this campaign?" I believe he would have had a real chance.

But instead, the man who ran made a Faustian deal. He sold his soul. And then he lost. Because you can dance with the devil but he'll always break your heart. To believe otherwise is simply naive. Bush may have finagled his way into four more years, but he didn't win. Because four years later, in a stunning repudiation, the country said "no" to divisiveness in a big way. State after state after state voted for change. Look at this map (source: New York Times) that compares how counties voted in this election versus 2004. Note the vast profusion of blue. Voters rejected the Republican agenda from coast to coast.



So many of our hearts have been broken for these past eight years. So we know how you feel. But trust us, this time, it's completely different. It may not feel that way to you. But did you see what happened Tuesday night? As we cheered, the world cheered with us. Hope prevailed. Change is at hand.

For all of us. As Obama said in his speech, "I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices."

We all hear your voices. I know cynics remain. But don't let your anger blind you. Cast your skeptic eyes toward the future. This is our country. It belongs to us all. Eight years of anger and shouting brought us to the brink. It's time to step back, to turn around to face the land we all love, and return this country to its promise, its potential.

Obama won because he appealed to the belief that we are more alike than we are different, that at our cores, we all thirst for the same basic truths. We may not always agree on the best way to get there, but as long as each path points toward the future, we'll arrive. Together.

The journey begins in earnest January 20, 2009.

On our marks. Get set. Grow.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Communication ...

For months, I've had an Obama "Hope" buddy icon in all my chat windows.

This morning, I felt like it was time for something fresh.

So I whipped up a new little icon.

Feel free to use it, too.










© 2008 Beth Kujawski

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Exhale ...

I'm overwhelmed.

To Doreen, who worked so fervently on this campaign for so long, congratulations!

To all my Obama friends, congratulations!

To all my McCain friends, please join us in mending this divided country.

It is my sincere hope that we can come together and heal our national schism.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blogging To Recommence ...

... when my voice returns. Yes, I'm literally losing my voice thanks to whatever bug has decided to take up residence in my respiratory tract, but I'm also feeling very blah and therefore don't have much to say in this medium, either. I've started a couple of posts but found that I was boring even myself.

But first thing tomorrow, no matter how stuffy-headed or scratchy-throated, I will head to my polling place. And I will wait for as long as it takes until it is my turn to cast my ballot.

And then I will likely return to my bed for the balance of the day.

Vote, vote, vote!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not My Obama Rally Wrap-Up ...

In addition to my spiffy rally card (those blue cardboard signs everyone waves at rallies), I also left last night's festivities, it appears, with some type of illness.

I guess that's what I get for hanging out with 40,000 people and leaving my Purell in the car.

I went to the gym this morning despite a slight headache but figured that I was just experiencing caffeine withdrawal. A stop at Starbucks on the way home for a triple grande hazelnut non-fat latte seemed to remedy that malady. But as the day wore on, I quickly dissolved into a cliché: afghan, couch, DVDs, intermittent dozing, cough, sore throat, slight fever, general lethargy.

But I pulled myself together and headed to the store where I scored supplies and a pint of hazelnut gelato, because, well because it's hazelnut gelato.

I've had some orange juice and chicken soup and feel slightly more human. Go, hydration! But I will continue to camp out on the couch in my comfy clothes, the remotes within easy reach.

Obama In Three Acts ...

I'll write at length about today's rally tomorrow (that is, Friday's rally Saturday), but in the meantime, allow me to convey the experience in pictures. Yes, I was that close to the stage and to the senator himself.

Barack is so good and pure, he presents simply as an orb of light:


I'm just kidding. He was actually behind the podium:



After his speech, he greeted some of the crowd before he left: