Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Visions of Sugar Cookies

If you went to school with me or go to church with me or work with my husband, you know that I like to bake. Actually, I think I like the baking even more than the eating (which is why most of my product goes to work with Steve.) However, my baking prowess is nothing compared to that of my Nanny, professional maker of all things sweet and yummy. When I think of childhood trips to Maryland, I think of Cool Whip containers packed full of fudge for the long ride home and bags of sugar cookies that I would ration out for days just to make them last. Dinner at her house is always punctuated by fudgy Texas sheet cake or "Green Stuff" (I actually have no idea what it's called, just that it involves massive amounts of pistachio pudding and Cool Whip.) So, back in April when we went to Maryland, Nanny and I set aside a day just for making sugar cookies. I had never attempted my favorite of her cookie confections, and I was determined to master the art of Nanny's soft, doughy sugar cookies.


Fast forward to December. Months have gone by, and still no sugar cookies have been made in my kitchen. First I had to acquire the right cookie sheets that were just like Nanny's. (I did that months ago.) Then there was the small problem of not owning a rolling pin. (What can I say? I'm not a pie person, and therefore had never bought one.) I acquired a rolling pin just before Thanksgiving, and my excuses were dwindling. Last week almost saw me attempting the cookies only to realize that I couldn't find any of my old cookie cutters. (They must not have survived one of my many moves.) Finally last night, two days before leaving on another trip to Maryland, I made my very first solo attempt at Nanny's sugar cookies. I mentally prepared myself for disappointment while still hoping for the best, and with camera in hand, I dove fearlessly into the world's stickiest cookie dough.


Overall, I would have to say that things went smoothly. There were a few hiccups. Due to circumstances at least partially out of my control, I wasn't able to start until late, which meant that I couldn't leave the dough in the fridge for a few hours to stiffen up. The problem? You have to use more flour to keep the dough from sticking to everything, and the cookies lose some of their famous softness. I was a little worried about this, but I decided to forge ahead. Another problem? Target didn't have any plain, round cookie cutters, so I had to use these little snowflake/poinsettia Christmas numbers. Very cute in cookie cutter form, not so much in a sugar cookie. I now have two bags of what look like red and green Christmas starfish. I guess we're having a little Yuletide Under the Sea at the Gray house.


Apart from the flour issue and the apparent Little Mermaid theme, however, the cookies turned out pretty well. They were puffy and doughy and soft like Nanny's. Okay, maybe they weren't quite as soft as Nanny's, but to the inexperienced eater, I'm sure they're quite perfect. If you never tasted the pillowy goodness that is Nanny's sugar cookies, I'm certain that mine taste quite superior to their local peers. Tomorrow, though, it's on to Maryland. I'm taking a bag of my underwater beauties with me for two reasons. 1. To prove that I did, in fact, attempt Nanny's cookies. She did, after all, take the time to show me how. 2. To have them taste tested by the experts. No holding back, people. I need you Nanny connoisseurs to lay it on the line and make the hard criticisms. I can take it.

What's next in my quest to become the Frances Lantz of the Greer set? Nanny's Fudge - my first time with a candy thermometer...should make an entertaining blog even if the fudge is inedible.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Movies + Mail = Magic

I've mentioned before that I'm married to a major technophile and that we share a mania for movies. Well, those two obsessions have found the perfect marriage in Netflix and its PS3 Watch Instantly feature. Though we have discussed a Netflix subscription before, we've never joined. Steve (in true Steve form) wanted to wait until Netflix opened up their Watch Instantly site to the PS3 Network, and (as usual) he was right to wait. It's amazing! While we receive Blu-Rays in the mail as fast as we can watch them, there is, of course, a two-day lag as we wait for the next flick. With the Watch Instantly feature there are tons of movies that we can watch right on our tv without paying any more money! Do I sound like a commercial? Yes. Do I care? Not so much. As Steve likes to say, "It's a good time to be alive." No more trips to the video store. What's next - flying cars?


So here's the rundown on some of our Netflix viewing (both Blu-Rays and Instants). I won't do extensive reviews, but I'll tell what was a winner and why.


Bottle Rocket - Yay for finally getting to see Wes Anderson's first film! I must admit I'm a little obsessed with Wes Anderson and his movies (I've probably seen Royal Tenenbaums a couple hundred times.) So my opinion of this film may be a bit biased. Suffice it to say that if you didn't enjoy any of his other films, you probably won't like this one either. I, on the other hand, thought Owen Wilson was his usual brilliant self in the movie that he helped Anderson write. The set and costumes had the same not-quite-real look and feel of Anderson's other films, and the plot meandered deliciously from one offbeat scene to another. And last but certainly not least, the soundtrack was pitch perfect. While this isn't my favorite Anderson film, I didn't feel a bit cheated by my first Netflix rental, and I will be adding this Criterion Collection Blu-Ray to my Christmas Wish List.


Away We Go - This film stars Maya Rudolph and John Krazinski (The Office) and follows two lost souls as they tour the country looking for the perfect place to raise their unborn child. The movie was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and, as I found out in the Blu-Ray featurettes, was a "green" film where environmental impact was considered throughout every aspect of the filmmaking process. This movie featured some of my favorite comic actors, such as Catherine O'Hara and Allison Janney, and they didn't disappoint with fresh performances that kept me laughing and cringing (in a good way.) Rudolph and Krazinksi were both charming as the world's most unprepared parents, and I was left feeling entertained despite a few brief forays into sappiness. Overall, there was a indie feel without the depressing indie ending.


Star Trek - Yes, I caved. I wasn't sure I wanted to see this movie since I simply didn't trust J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame) to reimagine my precious Star Trek characters, so needless to say, I went into this rental with very low expectations. Perhaps I should make this my new policy when watching movies since I was so pleasantly surprised by this film. Yes, it was more of an action flick than anything Gene Roddenberry ever created, and yes, changes were made. Any inconsistencies in plot, however, were explained away with a clever twist that allowed Abrams far more latitude than I would have imagined. The relative unknowns who played the iconic Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Checkov, Scotty, and Bones all did admirable jobs of following in their predecessors' footsteps. The "new" Kirk did drop the William Shatner halting over-the-top delivery, but he stayed true to the spirit of Kirk, which was more important to me. Nobody can be Shatner, and it would have been pointless to try. Like Lucas' Star Wars prequels, the film did suffer from the whole better-technology-when-the-prequels-get-made malady making it hard to believe that the Enterprise was actually less advanced than in the tv show, but the rest of the movie was good enough that I forgave Abrams this small sin.


Funny People - This movie was hyped so much on The Tonight Show (I swear Conan interviewed every single cast member at some point during the film's theater run) that I had fairly high expectations for it, and it didn't disappoint. That is not to say, however, that this movie was what I expected. I went into to it expecting the usual Apatow fare (that's not a bad thing, by the way), but what I got was a much darker film with a bit of an indie feel. Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen were hilarious together - especially the scenes where they are writing stand-up material. I was also happy to see one of my favorites, Jason Swartzman, and he was funny (and weird) as ever. Jonah Hill was entertaining, though nothing about his performance was particularly new or different. I hate to declare the man to be a one-trick pony, but alas, I think I may hear the glue factory calling.


As for Instants, we've been watching everything from Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the first and second seasons of Dexter. Steve's also been loading up on all his guilty favorites, cult classics from his childhood, some of which I have watched and some I skipped. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen? Not bad. I mean, how bad could a film be that features cast members from Monty Python and Robin Williams playing a disembodied head? I managed to skip Krull (saved by a Sunday afternoon nap.) I've added a few Instants of my own to the queue, and I'm hoping to watch some of them this week while Steve's at work and I'm taking a break from schoolwork. After all, I don't think I can convince Steve to watch Monsoon Wedding or Smart People. The poor guy is already having to put up with a crazy pregnant lady, and every man has his limit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We Were Hollywood - A Veteran's Day Tribute

In honor of Veteran's Day, I am posting a couple of poems I wrote based on the Library of Congress Veteran's History Project interview of my grandmother's late husband, Scheller Garlock. Scheller served our country in both WWII and the Korean War and retired from the Army as Major. He was a wonderful and amazing man, and I am grateful for the years my family had with him.

The two poems I am including are from different parts of a poetic sequence that follows Scheller's military career. "We Were Hollywood" is about his time in the Army War Show, a traveling show that demonstrated the great warm machine and sold bonds to support the war effort. "Sons of Bitche" is in reference to a German practice of impersonating dead American soldiers in order to get behind enemy lines. Bitche is a town in France. After the Americans took it back, the men involved in the mission started calling themselves the Sons of Bitche. Scheller was proud to be among them.


We Were Hollywood

Picked for our looks, we played war
to earn money and recruit men - with out tanks
and guns loaded on trains, we occupied cities from
Baltimore to Milwaukee.

Stadiums shook with explosions
and applause while the Master of Ceremonies -
some famous guy I can't remember - announced
each act to the audience.

Dressed in starched uniforms, we fought
off the girls who thought
us famous - movie stars.

Plying our Uncle's trade,
in front of thousands, each night
we rehearsed the part we would soon play
and told them this was war.


Sons of Bitche

Stuffed in G.I. uniforms like a hand in a puppet,
they wore the dog tags of the dead
from further up the line. Pilfered identities
could not hide their butchered English,
and discovery always meant death.
An unforgivable blasphemy,
to wear the clothes of the dead,
they were punished for their heresy.
Stripping them of their American skin,
so we could kill the German heart.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Room of One's Own


The final deadline for the final packet of semester is quickly approaching (I need to get it mailed by Wednesday...in 2 days.) I'm slowly plugging away at the work - slowly being the operative word. The new room/desk is helping. I may have waited 7 years to have my own desk again, but it was worth the wait (nevermind that I had to get pregnant in order to get it.) What's not helping? The large, purring cat dancing around in my lap, the doctor's appointments, the dinner that needs to be fixed, and that ongoing struggle to keep what's left of my brain from leaking out my ear. I think I know what I want to do with my story now (which helps), and I've gotten some more reading done while waiting at the doctor's office (so that's something.) Looks like a couple of days' cramming is now in order.


I am reading Best American Short Stories 2009 for part of my packet. I have to write 2 to 4 pages about current trends in short stories. So far I'm struggling to find a common thread/element between the stories I've read, but I still have one and a half more to go. That's not to say that the stories aren't wonderful. It was such a smart move on my part to take a break from Charles Baxter to read a few of the stories from this book. I was starting to get bogged down in writing theory. I have found, however, that when one is not running on all eight cylinders (is that how that saying goes? Not a car person...it is a car metaphor, right?), it can be paralyzing to your writing to read a lot of theory and rules. I'm not saying that Baxter isn't brilliant or that I don't love the book, just that my confidence is barely hanging on by a thread. I need to steer clear of sharp object, writers, and observations to avoid it being severed.


Hobson (my cat) must have sensed my need to buckle down and get things done. She came upstairs for moral support. Despite her brief attempts at distraction, she has now curled up happily on my lap and is purring loudly. Nothing quite so soothing (and potentially literary) as that!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Unoriginal Sin: A Review of The Plan and V


Coming off the glorious ride that was Battlestar Galactica, I have been in a Sci-Fi downward spiral ever since. First there was the disappointment that was The Plan, a Battlestar Galactica straight-to-DVD release that chronicles the story from the Cylon perspective. This was followed closely by the spanking-new show V (I say that tongue-in-cheek, since everything is a remake these days). While I'm certainly not putting these programs in the same category (V could only dream of being of the quality of The Plan), I will say they both are rubbing elbows in the disappointment department.


First there was the greatly anticipated The Plan. The DVD was Argument One for never reading the online buzz and director comments about a film beforehand. Edward James Olmos may have declared this the be-all, end-all of Battlestar Galactica movies that will redefine how fans view the series, but methinks he exaggerated. Just a bit.


First of all, I was expecting revelations, explanations, Cylon history, SOMETHING for crying out loud. What I got was a glorified clip show. You know when sitcoms do those annoying programs that feature clips from the past four seasons strung together by the thinnest of plot lines? Well, that was pretty much The Plan. You're telling me that the Cylons' plan was to kill the humans? Gee, thanks. I pretty much got that from the PILOT! Cavil was the "bad" Cylon? I was able to grasp that from the series. Where there could have been back story on the "Five" or a further explanation of the "Angels" (the supernatural element was one of the most intriguing elements of the series, after all), there was simply a rehashing of the downfall of the 12 colonies with a few new Cylon scenes thrown in.


So Mr. Olmos, you may have been the quintessential Adama, but you should, perhaps, keep your directorial mouth shut on the DVD extras where you made those sweeping statements about the new film. The new movie does not, in fact, make me want to go back and re-watch the series in a whole new light, though, I may re-watch it in order to banish the mediocrity that was The Plan from my mind.


I was only semi-recovered from my traumatic BSG experience when I started seeing previews for ABC's "new" program V. I asked my personal source for geeky, sci-fi information, Steve, about the program, and he informed me that it was a remake of an older series. How shocking. Are we completely incapable of coming up with anything new in American television or cinema these days? Must we either steal the ideas of a previouly successful show/movie or bastardize the work of our friends across the pond?


So suffice it to say I was skeptical about V, but Steve wanted to check it out. I tried not to be the cynical one and added it to my DVR's to-do list. We watched the pilot last night. If it hadn't been for Steve, I probably would have deleted it twenty minutes in, but for his sake, I kept plugging away. The pilot opens with a technique that I usually favor - they jumped right into the action. Bam! The aliens have invaded. The problem? The writers/director felt no need to build any suspense, whatsoever. It was almost as if they had a meeting and said, "Hey, you know what? Everyone saw the original, and they know the aliens are coming and what they want, so let's just fudge that part. It's not that important anyway."


Fast forward to the acting. First there was the appearance of some sci-fi regulars, such as Joel Gretsch (The 4400), and I even noticed Rekha Sharma of BSG. This isn't necessarily a problem, just thought it was interesting. What wasn't interesting was the acting itself. Of course, maybe I'm being too hard on actors who can only work with what they're given. I'm not talking about their God-given talents, but rather...the script. Not even Alan Tudyk could rescue lines like, "The medical examiner says he was tortured before he was killed," a line delivered after finding a dead guy wearing a bloody shirt and tied to a chair in a secret bunker. Really? You needed the M.E. to suss that one out? I hate it when writers insult my (the viewer's) intelligence. In a fiction workshop, you would get flayed alive for that sort of information dumping in dialogue. It doesn't work on the screen either.


Then there's the predictability factor...and I don't mean because it's a remake. I've never seen the original. Don't need to. I was able to predict nearly everything that happened - with ease. When I watch a program and say, "I could have written that!" I don't mean it as a compliment. As for originality, it really is true that things come in groups, and it seems to be apocalyptic programming's turn. Funny that the "groups" even occur on the same network (Flash Forward, anyone?)


Surprisingly, I'm giving V one more chance...against my better judgement. Steve seemed to be pulling for the show in an uncharacteristic burst of pie-eyed optimism. But that's all those hacks at ABC are getting from me. What's the tired old saying? "Fool me once, shame on you..." Well, I have a feeling that next week, it'll be shame on me.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Poetry Break - "A Ritual to Read to Each Other"

As I struggle through this last new story of the semester, I thought some inspiration might be in order. So here is a poem that I love. Every week before poetry workshop, Dr. Fisher would have us read this aloud, like a sort of prayer. It inspired me then as it does now. Plus looking it up to add to my blog, I got to read/re-read the poems around it. It's a good afternoon for some William Stafford.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe -
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford. The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Graywolf Press, 1998.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Under Construction

I've been absent from blogland for a little while. Between the chest cold that wouldn't die, my inability to keep a clear thought in my head, and my newly shortened attention span (is there such a thing as pregnancy ADD?), I haven't been doing much writing lately. Perhaps you would assume that I've been immersed in all things baby, and I guess that's partly true. Mostly, however, I've just been in this haze of stupidity that has left me useless for much beyond staring at a TV screen, surfing the internet, and the inescapable housework. I feel like I'm turning into one of my cats, just sitting around, blinking and taking up oxygen. (No offense, Hobson and Abby.)

Alas, I must end my personal inertia and get busy if I'm going to meet my final deadline for the semester. So I think I've got a start on a story (knock on wood.) And I'm trying desperately to plow through Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House, a book which I can tell that normally I would really enjoy, but now with my brain working at half-capacity, I'm struggling with just a bit. If any of you out there have ever been the victim of my vicious trivia game playing, now would be the time for revenge. I'm liable to forget just about anything these days, and I'm certain that you could mop the floor with me (metaphorically speaking.)

On the exciting news side of things (okay, exciting for me, anyway), the workers are diligently toiling away upstairs on the bonus room. Soon all of the office stuff will be stowed away upstairs, and I can get to work on the baby's room. I'm not sure whether I'm more excited about "doing the baby's room" or just excited about having it done and off the list. Right now, everything is in turmoil and chaos with boxes and furniture stashed haphazardly in the office and guest room. I don't function well in chaos (it probably isn't helping my writing any knowing that mess is in there behind closed doors.) So, yes, I'm looking forward to a cute little girl's room all ready to go, but mostly I think I'm just looking forward to an orderly house...at least until February.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rule #4 The Double Tap - A Review of Zombieland


I can't quite seem to catch up these days, what with being sick and having deadlines and assorted other commitments. On my birthday weekend, Steve took me to see Zombieland. Well, that was a week ago, and I still haven't posted a review, so I'd better get cracking....

Zombieland, directed by Ruben Fleischer (no, I hadn't heard of him either), follows four survivors of a worldwide zombie-virus holocaust as they master their zombie-fighting skills and search for a zombie-free safe haven. Woody Harrelson stars as Tallahassee, a tough-talking, zombie-slaying pro who joins forces (if a bit unwillingly) with innocent, lost soul Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, Adventureland.) As they search for food, namely Tallahassee's Twinkies, they encounter two, young sisters (Emma Stone, Superbad, and Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine), and eventually they become a foursome.

This film is hardly the first to poke fun of the zombie movie genre, but it does manage to walk the fine line between parody and zombie cliche with an ease that even Shaun of the Dead didn't quite manage. While Shaun slipped back into the very overly-dramatic zombie flick elements that it sought to mock, Zombieland maintains its tongue-in-cheek tone throughout without becoming directionless. One of my favorite elements in this film that helped with the overall tone was the list of zombie survival rules. Eisenberg's character begins the film with a list of his top survial tips in order of importance. What's survival rule #1? Cardio. Makes sense if you're going to be doing a lot of running from the undead. As the movie continues, these rules pop up on screen as appropriate situations present themselves. Tired of seeing people die senselessly in movies because they didn't bother to make sure the gutshot zombie was dead? That needed final bullet to the brain is the Double Tap, and every time someone implements it in the film, the rule materializes onscreen, a comic reminder that is funny. Every time.

Of the four main characters, Woody Harrelson's wild man Tallahassee stood out as the most original. His humor, while classic Harrelson, is a departure from the doomed zombie fighters of the past. There is something freeing in not having to "worry" about the main character's safety because he never worries about himself. Eisenberg's portrayal of the bumbling Columbus smacked slightly of a Michael Cera homage, but he was still funny, and at times, charming.

For me, the best part of the film was the cameo. It's not often that inserting a big star into a bit part can steal the entire movie, but Bill Murray's appearance as himself does just that. From the moment the four travelers drive through his gates with the giant "BM" across the iron bars to his final post-credits bit, the cameo is quirky, random, and perfectly wacky.

It is, of course, important to remember that this is still a zombie film. It is not for the weak of stomach. There is blood, guts, and zombie vomit (whatever that is). Overall, however, the film is more about humor than high drama, and unlike the Shaun of the Dead group, this rag-tag team mostly sticks to their zombie-survival rules so the audience can spend less time saying "Look behind you!" and more time laughing hysterically.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Righteous Risotto, or How I Consumed My Weekly Calories In An Evening

Because I have a wonderful husband who knows what I like (and also because I specifically asked for it), I got to eat at Ristorante Bergamo for my birthday dinner. We didn't get to go on my actual birthday since it was a Sunday this year, but we did get to have a lovely date night at my favorite place with my favorite person (and my favorite waitress.)

Ristorante Bergamo (or just Bergamo's as we call it) is a small Northern Italian restaurant in downtown Greenville. It has been open since 1986, and we're hoping it stays around for many years to come. Chef Nello owns the place and even grows his own herbs. The food is amazing, and you won't find any spaghetti or garlic bread anywhere!

We first visited Bergamo's quite a few years ago (five or six, at least), and it quickly became our favorite place. In fact, we used to eat there so much that we started being considered regulars. (A status we still hold despite our less than regular attendence since expensive milestones like buying a house or me quitting my job to finish my degree.) When we go there, they know us by name. Our favorite waitress, Tanya, knows how I love the risotto and always brings me honey for my Earl Grey without my asking. She even knows what kind of wine I like (not that that matters these days.)

My favorite part about Bergamo's (aside from the food, obviously) is the atmosphere. I don't feel like I'm in Greenville anymore when I'm there. I'm in some big city eating at some trendy, little hole-in-the-wall, like one of those uber-hip travel show hosts. (Okay, I secretly have a thing for Anthony Bourdain.) But seriously, it's a place that transcends location.

So Saturday brought Steve and I there for dinner. We requested to be seated in Tanya's section (which they kindly obliged), and then we proceeded to eat ourselves into a delicious stupor. We learned a long time ago not to eat much for breakfast or lunch on Bergamo days, and we had followed that pattern on Saturday. I was postively ravenous when they brought out the bread and olives. I must have 3 or 4 pieces of bread soaked in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and at least 6 olives. I did finally slow down on the bread, though. I've learned over the years of visits to pace myself.

When Tanya came to take our order (there is small set menu and everything else changes daily), I was disappointed to learn that the risotto of the day (or Risotto del Giorno) had quail in it. Since I have to avoid wild game during my pregnancy, the risotto (my usual go-to dish) was out. My disappointment soon abated, however, when Tanya told me that they would fix the white truffle risotto for me if I wanted it. If I wanted it? Where else will they fix you something on the menu "just because"? Happy Birthday to me!

I ordered the risotto (of course), while Steve got the Stilton cheese salad with arugula and tomatoes and the fettucini con gamberi and arugula. The white truffle risotto was divine. I'll never understand what it is that Chef Nello does to make his risotto so perfectly creamy and delicious. My risotto at home, while far from inedible, comes nowhere near the culinary ecstasy that is his risotto. Steve's food was delicious, too. Part of the fun of Bergamo's is sampling each other's food. But I never regret the decision to order the white truffle risotto. Who knew something so closely akin to mushrooms could taste so good? I told Steve that it made me want to run home and reread A Year in Provence. (Different country, I know, but same truffle worship.)

Dinner was capped off by pistachio gelato (homemade) for me and strawberry and raspberry sorbets for Steve. I also had my standard Earl Grey and honey. It was the perfect end to a perfect ending. I told Steve that we can't wait so long to go back this time...even if we have to rob a gas station in Wellford to do it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Liquid Memory

Today, I indulged in one of my favorite cool weather comforts: a giant, steaming pot of Slumgoyan. Sure, the thermometer is pushing 70 degrees outside, but that's positively brisk for September in South Carolina, and quite frankly, I couldn't wait any longer. There's nothing like the comfort of a bowl of Slumgoyan and all the memories that entails.

What is Slumgoyan, you ask? Well, I don't think my description of the soup is going to help your understanding any. It's basically a big, boiling pot of water, ground beef, onion flakes, salt, and the oh-so-crucial potpie bows (called "bowties" by the folks at Muellers.) Not flipping your culinary wig? Never heard of such a dish? And where did that ridiculous name come from?

Slumgoyan is my grandmother's creation. I have no idea where she got the name. I doubt she does either. Not certain when exactly its origins were, but I feel fairly sure that it somehow evolved around a need for simplicity and frugality. It is, after all, cheap and easy. She made it for my mother, who in turn, made it for me. It is comfort food in its highest form: simple, fairly plain, and familiar.

I never really comprehended how personal my love for this dish is until I made it for my husband. Steve, who will try anything once and is not one to criticize my cooking, did the unthinkable...he didn't like it. I was devastated. How could this man whom I love more than life and with whom I have such a connection dislike this food of my soul? He called it tasteless and bland, and even worse, he offered suggestions on how to improve it. I began to wonder how this marriage would ever work with two people who are so different. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but I really was shaken by his rejection of my favorite soup.

Now I'm reduced to clandestine affairs with my stock pot. I have Slumgoyan on nights when Steve has to work late or goes out with the guys. I even fixed it once when my parents visited, just so I could have that shared experience again. Don't misunderstand me. I love eating my Slumgoyan any way I can get it, but there's still nothing like digging into a piping hot bowl with your family yumming and eye-rolling their way through bowl after bowl with you. Slumgoyan is about cold, winter nights and being all bundled inside your home with your family. It's about old movies and lunches in front of the TV. It's leftovers reheated on Sunday after church and trying not to let the noodles get too mushy the next day.

Right now, it's just me and my bowties and ground beef. I spooned my way through three bowls today at lunch. I was so full I could hardly move, but it was a sweet discomfort. I was full of warm, nostalgic goodness. It's like memories in soup form.


In honor of my celebration of this family tradition, I am including a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about this wonderful soup. Please remember that I am a fiction writer, NOT A POET, and judge accordingly.

Slumgoyan

Made up name, made up soup.
Grammy's masterpiece of potpie bows
swim with ground beef and
that onion smell fills up every corner of the house.
Only allowed to have it in winter
no matter how much you might crave it come June.
The bigger the pot, the more leftovers
to heat up the next day and the day after
until the noodles are so soft they just fall apart.
Opposite of Mom's vegetable soup
that you eat in tiny spoonfuls
and chase with sweet tea and dirty looks.
Hot, liquid memory slides down your throat.

I still only have it in winter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Critical Condition

For the past four years, I have been the thick-skinned, tough who could take anything in workshop. You don't like my story? No problem. Hate the language or structure of my poem? Water off a duck's back. I could take the helpful advice and shrug off the dross. I was made of steel (for the most part, anyway.) I even held my own in the blood bath that was my first MFA residency workshop. I survived being told by a professor that there's no such thing as a successful child narrator. (Poor Laura and her pastoral musings.)

So what happened to that person? When did I change into this puddle of needy goo? I've already written about my struggle with the voices in my head (critics, not crazy voices) that were slowing down my writing. Unfortunately, the craziness doesn't stop there. After receiving the critiques of my first two packets from my professor, I completely melted down. Both times.

So what changed? I've decided it's a medical condition. To quote one of my favorite tv shows, I'm in the Jon Voight way (think Alien,) and it's starting to affect my brain. I've heard of women complaining of pregnancy brain, forgetting everything from their keys to the names of their children. I haven't forgotten anything (yet, don't worry, I'm not being smug), but I have morphed into an overly-sensitive, emotional wreck. To those considering an MFA program, may I suggest that pregnancy hormones and professor critiques are a lethal combination.

After packet #2 came back, I ended up on the phone with the long-suffering Steve crying because there was nothing in the house that I wanted to eat and Leslie hated my story. Sure this was an overstatement. Yes, I knew it was crazy and irrational while I saying it. Didn't matter. It took me a good two days to recover from that little episode. Then I had to psyche myself up for packet #3.

Fast forward to today. I got my email from my professor regarding my third packet, which contained a rewrite of the story from packet #2. I did better this time. I was actually able to focus mostly on the good stuff she said in the opening paragraph of her critique, rather than the two pages of suggestions. Maybe I'm growing. No wait, that's just my waistline.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bon Appetit

It's Tuesday, and I feel like I'm still recovering from a very busy weekend. The craziness started on Friday and didn't really let up until Sunday night (late), and yesterday wasn't exactly relaxing. So here I am, days away from my next deadline (I really need to send out packet #3 on Friday), and I'm in no condition to write...anything. I suppose this blog entry will have to serve as my warm up, and then it's down to business, regardless of how I feel.

Friday was one of those days that started out one place and ended somewhere completely different. The first part of the day was devoted to my usual Friday pastime...cleaning the house. Unfortunately, I didn't get finished before I had to meet a friend at Starbucks for coffee (or in my case, tea.) I planned to finish my neglected housework after a quick sip and chat, but instead, we camped out in overstuffed chairs in Starbucks for three hours. Who knew we had that much to say? I think we covered every topic and solved most of the world's problems in that amount of time. Perhaps someone should have been there recording our wisdom. I suppose it's lost forever.
While the Starbucks sit-in was fun, it didn't leave much time for me to run home and get ready for girls' night out, a rare but much anticipated event that, of course, involved food. We hit Takosushi in downtown Greenville. Though I had a little trouble getting the waitress to understand my inability to consume spicy food, we eventually ended up with delicious dinners. As usual, I was the least cool person there. My friend munched her veggies, shrimp, and rice with her expertly held chopsticks. I used a fork. I'm not Chinese. Why pretend? I appreciate their food, but lack the coordination to appreciate their utensils.



Dinner was, of course, followed by a movie. I agreed to a chick-flick (a rarity for me), and we saw Julie and Julia. I won't do an extensive review. I lack the energy for such things today. I will say that it was fun. Meryl Streep was quite convincing as Julia Child, and if you like Nora Ephron's usual fare, you'll enjoy the film. There's nothing surprising or particularly original about the movie, but it's mostly charming. Some of the "drama" felt a little forced, and I wasn't sold on all the choices they made for scene selection (especially in the Julia Child portions), but overall, I'd say it was a rental. Put it on your Netflix and skip the trip to the theater. Oh, and don't watch it if you're hungry. There are too many scenes of gorgeous food to count. You'll be gnawing on your arm before it's over unless you're well-fed beforehand.



Saturday and Sunday didn't prove to be much of a break either. Poor Steve had to work non-stop all weekend, and I was left to my own devices. There were lots of events with church, and I managed to make them all. To be honest, by the end of the weekend I was in social overload. Mixing and fellowshipping is always a bit of an effort for me, and so much crammed into such a short time period was exhausting. My friends are wonderful, though, and I'm glad I got to spend so much time with them. It's just that now I'm going to enjoy missing everyone for a while. Does that make me a terrible person? Probably.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hello Goodbye

I am wondering where September is going. Things are going crazy fast, and this is a short month. I feel like I just turned in MFA packet #2, and I'm already worrying about the next one due September 25th! The scariest thing about time flying is that the faster it goes, the more pregnant I get. I'll be 16 weeks on Friday! That's freaking me out just a bit. At this rate, February will be here in the blink of an eye (pardon my cliche.) Lots of schoolwork to do between now and then, so it's a little scary.


On the upside, I finally finished all my Flannery O'Connor reading today (FINALLY!) Don't get me wrong...I love her. I was just in O'Connor overload. Now, I'm finally getting to the part of my reading list that I've been waiting to read. First on the agenda? Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club. I love Amy Tan, so I'm very excited about this book. I started today after I finished with O'Connor, and I've already soared through a big chunk of the book. After that it's Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth (thanks to Leslie for letting me put that one on my reading list.) I'm so excited about all three, so knocking them out before the October deadline should be a breeze.






On a completely unrelated note, today (technically yesterday according to the clock) marks the release of all things Beatles. Beatles Rock Band is being released, and in conjunction with that, they are also releasing remastered versions of all their albums. Being Rock Band junkies, we already had our copy of Beatles Rock Band on reserve, and Steve picked it up on his way home from work. He then proceeded to play like a man possessed. He didn't even stop for dinner. Now that's devotion. The game was great, though. The songs are divided up into the years in which they were released, and the venues coincide with the years. For example, the early songs are performed in The Cavern, and the two American venues are Shea Stadium and the Ed Sullivan Show. We played drums, we sang, and we strummed on our fake plastic guitars. John Lennon is probably rolling over in his grave after my performance of "Twist and Shout," but hey, it was fun.




As with all our previous Rock Band fests, the cats remained unmoved as the music blared through the living room, rattling both furniture and bones. It doesn't faze them anymore. I'd like to think they were just chilling out to the mellow notes of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," but I think it's more likely that they've just grown numb. Good thing. We've got a Beatles party coming up, and they need to be ready.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Breakthroughs, Battlestars, and Bogus Bad Words

Packet #2 is in, and I can breathe a sigh of relief, well, at least for a few days. The next deadline is September 25, so I'm not exactly basking in free time. I've got a book to finish, 2 papers to write, and a short story to create between now and then. Oh great, now I'm going to start the panicking all over again.

The good news about Packet #2 is that through my work on it, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I've been struggling ever since the residency with a bit of writing paralysis. I won't call it writer's block because that isn't what it is. I've got ideas and stories I want to write, but I've had so many other voices rolling around in my head (professors and such) that I couldn't hear my own voice. I was trying so hard to manufacture something that I thought everybody wanted that I had completely obliterated any hint of my own writing. After months of struggling, really bad writing, and prayer, I finally was able to turn off those other voices. The point of this MFA is to fine tune my voice, not to create some lifeless, hybrid voice that isn't me. The writing came quickly and easily after that. The jury's still out on whether my professor/mentor will like what I created. Either way, though, what I created was mine. We'll see how long the epiphany lasts.

Since I turned in my packet, I've taken a bit of a holiday from all the hard work (I actually missed a Friday house cleaning during the last minute rewrite.) What have I been doing with my brief stint of free time? Just indulging my inner nerd with complete immersion into the world of Battlestar Galactica. A friend of Steve's has been loaning us all the seasons on the Blu-Ray, and we have become seriously addicted. We've been averaging about a season a week!

If you've never seen BSG, it's a reimagination of the original 1978 television show. I mean total reimagination. (Starbuck is a girl.) The funniest part of the show (not that it's meant to be funny) is their made up swear word. Apparently the word has its origins in the original show, though the new version has certainly taken it to new levels. What is the word you ask? Frak. Yes, that's right. Frak. You can imagine all the parts of speech in which it is used. The characters use it fluently and without a hint of amusement. Steve and I are halfway through Season 2, and it hasn't stopped being funny yet...every time they use it. I don't think it will ever stop being funny. I think it may be even funnier than the bleep (a personal favorite.) The best part? You can actually find an entry for "frak" on Wikipedia! I love the internet.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What's Black and White and Dead All Over? - A Review of Inglourious Basterds


As I sit down to write my review of Inglourious Basterds, I realize that everything I write will be colored by the fact that I'm a devoted Tarantino fan. So regardless of what I say, if you find his previous films ridiculous or his violence gratuitous, you're probably going to feel the same way about this one. It's not a departure for him. Of course, for a fan, that's hardly a bad thing.


Pesky disclaimer aside, I will get down to the business of telling you everything you need to know about Tarantino's latest offering, Inglourious Basterds. The film follows an elite group of eight American soldiers as they enter Nazi-occupied France with the single goal of killing as many Nazis as they can. This hardcore killing team eventually becomes embroiled in a plot to assasinate Hitler and his top men. Brad Pitt stars as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the band of misfit American soldiers, and Diane Krueger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress turned American informant. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and let's face it, Tarantino's films aren't that plot driven anyway. He keeps it simple. Maybe that's why I like him (or at least his movies.)


As soon as the film opens, you are immediately aware that you are watching a Tarantino creation. The opening credits are in his usual throwback style, and the opening music is similar to that of his other movies. Immediately following the credits is the title for "Chapter 1." I have to admit that in the past I have found Tarantino's use (or overuse) of the chapter delineation to be a bit pretentious. I mean, we get it, Mr. Tarantino. You're different. You break all the rules. Whatever. For some reason, however, I found the use of chapters to be more effective in this movie. Maybe it was the fact that for once he used a chronological arrangment. Maybe it was the historical setting of the film. Whatever it was, I felt that the divisions were far more organic than some of his previously different-for-different's-sake chop jobs.


Once you get to the movie, there is no time to get bored or check your watch. There is action from Chapter 1, and it doesn't stop. While the opening scene is a bit slower than the rest of the movie, it still far from static and is absolutely necessary for set-up. With Chapter 2, we are introduced to the Basterds and their charasmatic, mountain-man leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt.) As in his performance in Burn After Reading, Pitt shows us that he is not about being the Hollywood glamor boy. He's flat out funny (and funny looking) from his first scene, and his performance never loses momentum. His accent, which might have sounded ridiculous in any other film, only served to add to his understated comedy.


Of course, I am talking about very dark humor. This film is not for the squeamish. The Basterds harvest the scalps from their Nazi conquests and have no qualms with torture to reach their ends. Inglourious Basterds does manage to avoid the cartoonish violence of Tarantino's previous offering, Kill Bill, where everyone was a bleeder. It is still extremely violent, however, the violence is tempered by the film's demonstration of the Nazi's evil deeds. There is no Valkyrie-esque gray area here. Nazis = bad, Everyone else = good. One of the things that makes this film different from some of the recent WWII movies is the satisfying revenge angle. The viewer doesn't have to deal with any annoying, conflicted, emotionally tortured Nazis. Every Nazi in the film is pure evil, and you can't help but cheer on the Basterds as they slaughter their way across France.


Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the film is the clever, caricature-like portrayal of historical characters, both good and bad. Hitler rants and raves in a flamboyant cape, Goebbels preens in front of his mistress and her poodle, and Winston Churchill puffs his giant cigar. The people who are most real are not the ones pulling the strings; they are the people down in the trenches getting dirty. Brad Pitt may insist that Tarantino has defined, or perhaps redefined the WWII genre, but I submit that he pokes big funny holes in all the WWII movies that have gone before. It's apparently not enough for him to do it "his way." He has to point out the "ridiculous" (Pitt's word) in the old way.


While I did love this film, there was one aspect of which I was less than fond. The music. I know Tarantino prefers a very specific style of music that has become an easily recognizable characteristic of his films. In this historical flick, however, the soundtrack was anachronistic and, frankly, at times, distracting. It was as if Tarantino felt the need to keep reminding the viewer that they were watching one of his films.


Another curious inconsistency was the one character bio inserted partway into the film. If he had done this throughout, then it might have worked, but instead, I only saw one instance of his taking the viewer completely out of the film to give a comic book hero style introduction complete with massive font graphics of his name flashed across the screen.


Despite his new cast, Tarantino did find a place for his favorites. Samuel L. Jackson didn't appear in the movie, but he did do periodic narration. I wasn't sure if I loved the narration, which seemed a little too sporadic to be effective (or consistent), but ultimately, I wouldn't wish it gone, if only for sentimental reasons. After all, what is a Tarantino film without Jackson? Harvey Keitel also lends his voice to a scene, though it's very brief.


All these little criticisms do not add up to very much in the scheme of things, however. The movie was fun, fast, and vintage Tarantino. I went into the theater wanting to like it, and I actually did. It doesn't usually work out that way. While the movie may break new ground in WWII movies, I don't think Tarantino did anything significantly different from his usual M.O. That's okay with me, though. I go to one of his films expecting certain things, and he certainly delivered. I left satisfied, not only with the movie but also with the justice of it all. The body count is high, but so is the level of revenge. But most importantly, nobody fell in love, felt regret, or found a deeper truth. Oh, and you get to see Brad Pitt speak Italian with a Tennessee accent. Now that's why I go to the movies.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Are You Excited?

I've been thinking about stupid questions today. We all get asked them, and, let's face it, we all ask them from time to time. Comedian Bill Engvall has even made a pretty good living from people's stupid questions. And while this blog entry will most certainly turn into a bit of rant, I must admit that I have asked more than my share of stupid questions over the years. I may have even asked the stupid questions in question. (How's that for writing skill? Don't ever tell my professors I wrote that sentence.)

I have decided that pregnancy is a time ripe for stupid questions. People rarely think before they ask expectant mothers questions. Like the unwritten rule that mommies-to-be no longer are entitled to personal space, there is apparently a rule that says you can ask a pregnant woman anything. It doesn't even have to make sense.

As soon as you spill the big news to a friend or acquaintance, there are always two questions that follow. One (usually the first) is perfectly logical. It's usually some variation of "When are you due?" or "How far along are you?" Makes sense. It's the next question that kills me. This lovely, well-meaning person looks you (and possibly your partner) in the eye and asks, "Are you excited?"

What kind of question is that? First of all, you've just shared your big announcement voluntarily. What about that smacks of indifference to the asker? Which leads me to my next question. What do they really expect you to say? Is this a rhetorical question? Either you're going to say "yes" and mean it, or lie and say "yes." Do they really think you might say no? I can see it now. "Actually, we're really bummed, but we wanted to track you down and tell you anyway." Now that would be a fun conversation.

Next dumb question? "Are you going to find out what you're having?" (Okay, I admit I'm pretty sure I've asked this one.) Isn't the answer always going to be yes? I know I'm talking semantics here, but I really am tempted the next time someone asks me to just say, "Eventually." After all, shouldn't I get some fun out of this?

I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Undercover Blues (we're not talking great cinema here, folks, just fun.)

Dennis Quaid is pushing his child's stroller down a New Orleans street when a policeman friend asks him a question.
"Oh, cute baby! Boy or girl?"
"Gosh, I hope so."

Exactly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dead Cows, Dead Nazis, and a (hopefully) Not-Dead Story

I'm feeling slightly less panicked today than I have been over the past few weeks. I have cranked out a VERY rough draft of my next story, and I don't completely hate everything about it. That's progress, right? It actually ended up taking a very different direction than what I had planned (which isn't saying much since I had very little planned.) But just going where the writing takes you usually leads to good things (or so I'm told.) I ended up doing something a little different and splitting up the narrative between a first person narrator and a limited third person. I'm not sure it works yet, but I like the idea anyway, so I guess that's something.

Because I'm working on what has come to be known as a "Laura" story, I had to call one of my technical advisors (my mom) today to get some advice on a somewhat grisly detail of my story. (Just exactly how long could a dying cow remain lying down before the end comes?) Who would have thought I'd ever be asking that question. Unfortunately, my TA couldn't give me a definitive answer and will have to refer to another of my TA staff, my grandmother. I guess if you're going to write about farming, it's handy to have some farming types on staff. Makes me sad that the real expert is no longer around to answer questions. There would be no inaccuracies in my farming stories if Granddaddy were my technical advisor.

Before I start sounding too celebratory about my writing progress, I should remember that I still have several hundred pages of Flannery O'Connor to wade through before my third deadline. I must say that while I love O'Connor, this complete and extended immersion into her writing has tempered my affection a little. I'm afraid there may indeed exist too much of a good thing. All my other books (that I really want to read) on my reading list are tantalizing me and making it harder to plow through yet another story of Southerners fallen on hard times. Was anybody sane or even nice in Georgia in the forties and fifties? Apparently not where Miss O'Connor hung out.

As a reward for all my hard work (we'd be doing it regardless), Steve and I are going to see Inglourious Basterds on Friday. I can hardly wait. We haven't been to the theater since Public Enemies (yawn), and I could use a little cinematic therapy. Actually, it's more like Quentin Tarantino redeeming me from the cinematic sins of Michael Mann. Please, Mr. Tarantino, send me a little senseless violence with a simple plot and lots of dead NAZIs. Warning: If anyone cries, falls in love, or looks passionately into somebody else's eyes, I'm out.

My other reward for eeking out another story (rough though it may be)? I get to write a blog entry. Why is it that writing a blog entry is never intimidating? Nor does it hang over my head like some dreaded chore. Sometimes story first drafts do that. You'd think I didn't love writing the way I have to force myself to sit down and work on first drafts. Oh, well. Here's hoping another good movie will come out soon so I can "reward" myself after the next story. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tom Sawyer in the Limelight - A Review of I Love You, Man


Saturday night, we went to some friends' house for dinner and a movie. After some after some highly edible food, we headed into the living room for a viewing of I Love You, Man, featuring Paul Rudd, Rashida Jones (The Office), and Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)


While this film was not associated with Judd Apatow in any way (as far as I know), it had a similar feel to many of his movies. It had the same same crude humor and even many of the same Apatow go-to cast members. Another thing this film shared with other Apatow movies I've seen is the highly likable characters. Despite the flawed personalities, unimaginable insecurites, and crazy situations, the viewer is left feeling like they understand and care about the characters. No one is a completely bad guy (not even Jon Favreau's character with his hilarious and hideous perm.) These are basically good people just trying to get by in the best way they know how.


The film follows Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) as he gets engaged (to Rashida Jones' character) only to realize that he has no close male friends. What follows is a ridiculous, and yet somehow still charming, journey to finding a bosom pal. Klaven's new buddy, played by Jason Segel, is a little unorthodox, though certainly well-meaning. Together they bond over their shared love of all things Rush and their mutual feelings of loneliness.


Paul Rudd's performance, while entertaining, is not exactly a departure for him. While I certainly wouldn't deem him a one-trick pony, I will say that no new ground is trod by his portrayal of the clueless Klaven. Jason Segel, however, is truly funny and refreshing as the mostly honest and always on edge, Sydney Fife. The trailers might make Segel's character seem like the ultimate loose cannon, but upon viewing the whole film, he seems more well-intentioned and overzealous than overt troublemaker. Jon Favreau was also good for quite a few laughs, despite his small amount of screen time. His onscreen chemistry with Jamie Pressley (My Name is Earl) is palpable as they play the couple who loves to hate...or is it hates to love? each other.


Perhaps one of my favorite reasons for loving this film was that it was yet another new film that was obviously catering to the uncool crowd. Sure these people had insanely nice houses, cars, and clothes, but deep down they were also ubernerds. The viewer who thinks that crude humor means no clever humor will be surprised by this film. Yes, there's enough frat boy funny to go around, but there's also something there for the well-rounded geek. After all, it's about two guys who worship Rush. How cool could they be?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stuck In The Middle With O'Connor

I hate that in-between feeling. One MFA packet in, the next one dangling over my head like some ominous literary cloud, and I keep floundering away at my next story. I worked hard last week on my next piece and ended up with 7 pages of meandering nothings. Then Wednesday I tried just writing with no exact goal in mind and ended up with several pages of creative non-fiction. Somebody needs to tell my brain that I'm getting my MFA in fiction. Oh well. At least I was writing something, right?

For various reasons, I haven't been able to sit down and write anything for a few days, and I think the hiatus has done me some good. Only time will tell, of course, but I may have come up with a solution to my problem with the story. Who am I kidding? One of the problems with my story. I guess the other hitches will have to work themselves out as I go along. Either way, I feel less panicked about getting to work on Monday. I have so much to write in the next 3 months that sometimes (mostly at night when I'm trying to go to sleep) I break out into a sweaty stress fest. That's when I have to remind myself who gives me these stories and the ability to write them, and I have to remember to trust Him. It sure it hard at 2 o'clock in the morning, though.

Of course, it doesn't help that I'm currently reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays on writing. The woman is merciless in her criticism of modern writers and literary fiction. Everything she says is so spot on, and her open disdain for inferior work leaves me in such a state, that when I sit down to write I'm paralyzed with fear. Maybe that fear is a good sign. If I could just blythely read her criticisms without feeling the burn, I would be the most clueless student writer in history. Maybe my panic shows an awareness of my inferiorities and serves as a reminder of what all writers aim for - perfection. I know that unattainable goal is thousands of miles off, and I'm still stuck at the starting gate. And after all, isn't knowing half the battle?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."


Thursday I was out running errands and such when I got a text message from my husband, Steve. It said, "John Hughes died today. What's going on this year?" I couldn't believe it. The man whose movies helped define 80's teen culture was gone. I know it all sounds a little dramatic on my part, but the more I thought about it, the moved I was. I mean, who else's films have become such an intrinsic part of my life and family traditions?

First, there's Thanksgiving. Every year since Steve and I got married, we have had a Thanksgiving Day tradition. Sometime during that day (or during that week if we have company), we watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. There's no Macy's parade on the Gray family TV. Just Steve Martin and John Candy bumbling their way across the US. Every year. And every year, I sit waiting for Steve Martin's profanity-laced meltdown at the rental car counter. Steve and I can recite it together. Sometimes he's Steve Martin and I'm Edie McClurg. Somtimes we switch it up. It's funny every time.

On the heels of Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and with it comes another John Hughes tradtion. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. While we put up the tree and decorations we watch Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story (not Hughes, but still great.) Actually, we put up our tree around Thansgiving, so this doubles as a Thanksgiving tradition, too. Then we rewatch Christmas Vacation several times as the merry holiday approaches.

Then there's the dreaded sick day. Feeling feverish? Got a stomach bug? Too sick to leave the house? That's when I pull out the greatest sick day movie. Ever. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I've seen this movie probably hundreds of times, and it doesn't matter. It never gets old. I love Ferris. I want to be Ferris. Alas, I'm not even Sloane Petersen. I'm probably more Cameron Fry than anything. Oh, well.

There are sentimental favorites, too, that have no association with holidays, but are still a major part of my life. There's The Great Outdoors, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Weird Science. And dont' forget She's Having a Baby. These movies are like comfort food for my soul. I know what everyone's going to say before they say it, and that only makes the films better.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I would have to disagree...at least with regard to John Hughes' films. Steve and I are obsessed with movie quotes and trivia, but we both have a weakness for Hughes quotes. We can do whole blocks of dialogue from Ferris Bueller. It's like remembering the words of a friend. In honor of John Hughes, I have been posting quotes from his films on my Facebook status. When I used one of my favorites from Ferris Bueller, a friend immediately responded with another quote, and we went back and forth, amusing each other and wallowing in nostalgia. Do I feel guilty? Not a bit.

You may wonder at my leaving out some Hughes classics such as: Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. These aren't as close to my heart as the ones I mentioned above, but if they speak to you, celebrate them. There's nothing wrong with a little Judd Nelson quote or a Molly Ringwald quip. Lay it on me. Or just turn up your boom box and pretend like you're dancing in the library.

I leave you with the words of a very wise individual:
"-Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, 'I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.' Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off people."

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Confessions of a Baby-Hater

I know I have 30 more weeks of this insanity to go, but I have to let a little of the crazy out or I'll never make it. After ten weeks of being pregnant, I have come to the comforting realization that pregnancy didn't magically turn me into that girl. (What a relief.) Wondering who that person is that I dread morphing into? Allow me to elaborate.

The other day, Steve and I were watching a Married With Children marathon. One of the episodes was from the season where Katey Sagal was pregnant. It began with the family gathered around the kitchen dinette set having a "baby meeting." Peg is massively pregnant, and the rest of the Bundys are less than thrilled with the prospect of competition for the scant nutrition of toaster leavin's. Each time their lack of enthusiasm leaks out, Peggy insists that they do penance with a chanted "Hail Baby." After a particularly anti-baby comment, Kelly is told that she must say multiple "hail baby's in the privacy of your own room."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the belly rubbers. I actually read today where some woman said that she enjoyed having people rub her pregnant stomach. I think she should have her head examined. I have to come to terms with the fact that friends and family are going to be coming at me soon, hands first. (Actually, it's already started.) What I refuse to accept as inevitable are the curious hands of strangers groping my mid-section. I have never in my life felt the compulsion to touch a total stranger's belly, and I am completely mystified by others' desire to do so. As I told a friend the other day, I'm never going to be that person.

Of course, I've been painted as a baby-hater in the past. After I wrote a short story about a woman who fakes a pregnancy and miscarriage to stop her co-workers from hassling her about not wanting children, people assumed that I was opposed to even the idea of babies. Apparently being inspired to write a story after years of harassment about my procreative plans made me an evil, neo-natal nazi.

I like to think I fall somewhere between the pie-eyed baby enthusiast and the hardcore DINK (that's Double Income No Kids.) I like the idea of babies. I've decided to have a child. Therefore, pregnancy is just kind of means to an end. I don't like baby shower games, and I'll never see the point of gruesomely detailed birthing stories relived over lunch. Does that make me a terrible person? I don't think so.

The worst is being judged by the pregnancy romantics. After my first doctor's visit, the nurse stopped me as I walked away from the lab station of the doctor's office. Didn't I want to keep my pregnancy test? Was she kidding? Why would I want to keep something soaked in...well, you know. Did she think I'd forget the result? I smiled and said no thank you, but I could feel her judgement all the way to the waiting room.

Then there was the ultrasound. I'll admit that it was pretty cool to see the baby's heartbeat. I still felt like my response was somehow less than what the technician expected, though. My one concession to the traditional prenatal excitement? I posted the ultrasound pictures on Facebook. Okay, so they were kind of amazing.

So to summarize? I feared that the day I got pregnant I would change into somebody completely different. I guess I'll have to save that experience for when the baby actually gets here (as everyone I meet likes to warn me.) As for all my other anti-baby rants? Well, I guess I'll just have to do a little prenatal penance. Hail Baby.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

I've been MIA from blogland for over a week, so it feels like time to check in. I'd love to say that I've been off working away on some new story. Truth is, it's taken everything I have to finish my draft of my current one. Apparently, nausea and fatigue don't mix well with great writing. It's not easy to come up with new material when all you want to do is lie down (or barf.) I'm still plugging away, though.

While I haven't been as prolific with the writing as I would have liked, I have been reading, chipping away at my MFA reading list. Currently, I'm reading Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories and her collection of essays on writing, Mystery and Manners. Her short fiction is, as always, amazing, but what has been really been blowing me away is her writing about writing. She is so plain spoken and wise. Every time I read something that I think will be the most insightful thing ever, I go on to the next chapter and find something else. If my first 9-day residency wasn't enough to make me think twice about writing anything, Miss O'Connor's hold-nothing-back advice would make me tremble in my flip-flops all by itself.

On the lighter side, I've had some fun on the days when I don't feel like yuck personified. Last weekend, Steve and I went to the Greenville dog show. It was so much fun to see the breeders that we've befriended over the past year or two. I got to love on/hang out with Cash, the super-amazing Pointer with whom I am desperately in love. We got to hold a baby Min Pin, and we also got to see lots of gorgeous Komondors. After the show, all the Komondor people came over for a cookout at our house, and a Komondor came over, too! Ella, a beautiful little girl who's just starting to cord, stayed in her portable crate most of the visit, but when she came out, she was little-miss-friendly. She even jumped up on the couch and sat on Steve's lap! (Please keep in mind that is a huge dog,) It was the cutest thing EVER, and Steve was extremely pleased with himself. I just wish I had gotten a picture of Steve pinned to the couch by a giant ball of white fur, all while grinning like an idiot.

Unfortunately, this weekend hasn't been quite as fun-filled. I cleaned the house all by myself yesterday (a first in recent weeks), and I definitely paid for it today with lots of fatigue and nausea and loitering in a horizontal position. Big moment for the day? A trip to Bloom for groceries. Tomorrow is church, though I'm still not quite up to Sunday School yet. Seems I can't be separated from food for that long. Hopefully, I'll feel well enough tomorrow to be able to enjoy church.

On the update front, I have a couple of doctor's appointments coming up over the next two weeks. Maybe there will be new ultrasound photos forthcoming. I must admit that while I don't go in for a lot of this pregnancy stuff that other women seem to go nuts for, the ultrasound experience is pretty exciting. It certainly lends a reality to the whole affair that my puking hasn't quite given me. It's nice to have a tangible reminder of why I intentionally made myself feel this crappy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's The "Cold" War - Put On Some Underwear: A Review of The Watchmen


Last night, we had a tacos and movie night. Steve picked up The Watchmen on Blu-Ray, and we watched (I watched, he re-watched) it during and after dinner. While I'm always excited about a new Blu-Ray to test the limits of our HD television and rocking surround sound, I must admit that I was less excited about this film than I might have been about others. For one thing, Steve had warned me that it was quite long, and for some reason that will remain a mystery, this "director's cut" version was significantly longer. I tried to keep an open mind, however, and we settled in for some extended movie watching.


The Watchmen is based on a comic book/graphic novel of the same name. It follows several unorthodox and slightly unsavory superheroes as they try to maintain peace and order in an America gone wrong. The story is set in 1985 (mostly) and follows an American history slightly different from what we all read in high school. Nixon has been re-elected multiple times. We won the Vietnam War (thanks to superhero assistance.) But the Cold War still rages on, and people live in constant fear of nuclear holocaust.


As a writer, I am always intrigued by alternative structures for a story. I love it when someone finds a way to top "Once Upon A Time..." followed by a chronological telling. Perhaps, I should rephrase. I am always intrigued by effective alternative structures for a story. The Watchmen was a harrowing hash of flashbacks that kept the story from moving forward for at least an hour.


An hour of flashbacks, you ask? Wondering how there was any room left for the story? Don't worry. There was plenty of room in the 3 hour film. Of course, there are stories that can support 3 three hours of movie. This wasn't one of those. It's one thing for a film to be preachy or heavy-handed. It's quite another when it's preachy and heavy-handed for 3 hours. By the end, I was hoping that Dr. Manhattan (a glowing, blue, naked, know-it-all) would die just so he would shut up.


Then there were the characters. This can't all be blamed on the filmmakers, however. According to my source for all things comic book, Steve, the film characters stuck pretty close to their book counterparts. The problem was, most of them were boring. Dr. Manhattan was a blow-hard, know-it-all. The Night Owl served no purpose in the story whatsoever, and as for the girl, well, her purpose was mostly to run around in latex. Hardly a compelling reason to exist in a story. The only character I found remotely interesting was Rorschach, a no-compromise idealist with a penchant for violence.


I know that I am probably signing off on my own hit by nerd assassins for knocking this film, but I can't endorse such a manipulative, over-wrought piece of drivel. I quickly got tired of the hand-wringing and posturing. Nothing in this movie felt timely for me. Even though V for Vendetta shares a lot of the same warnings against heavy-handed government, this film lacked any believable link to today. The Cold War is over. Perhaps the filmmakers or the writers were hoping to draw a parallel between America's past obsession with Communism and their current focus on Islamic extremism. If that was their aim, however, they missed the mark. Instead, the story felt dated and ridiculous. Nixon as the ultimate evil, re-elected year after year, grinding our country into the ground? I was more frightened by the actor's prosthetic nose.


So if you read The Watchmen and thought it was brilliant (though I'm really having trouble with that idea), go rent/buy/see the movie. From what I've been told by my resident expert, it sticks fairly close to the original (at least for a movie adaptation.) If you're hoping for another V For Vendetta, skip it. Better yet, get out your old copy of V and have a re-watch. Neither film is particularly subtle, but at least V's clever, something that The Watchmen certainly can't claim.


Oh, well, at least the tacos were good.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pampered, Petted, and Possibly Spoiled

What a weekend! After two to three weeks of misery, I had such a lovely weekend. All this loveliness was thanks in part to not feeling like death for a change, but mostly, it was due to Steve. Apparently, this pregnancy had turned him from attentive husband to doting crazy man. I have only to think something, and my wish materializes before my eyes. I can't imagine he'll be able to keep this up until February. What a sweetheart.

Friday afternoon I was able to get most of the housework done before I gave out. Saturday morning after he mowed the grass, Steve did the vacuuming that I didn't get to the night before while I mopped the kitchen. Then we decided to take advantage of the unseasonably gorgeous weather and went shopping. After lunch and quick trips to Home Depot and Sam's, we headed to Fresh Market where Steve bought our groceries for the week. So much nicer than shopping at our usual Bloom. I got olives at the olive bar, my favorite Imperial nut mix, and a loaf of fresh-baked sourdough bread. Steve bought some gorgeous meat, including some amazing filets which he grilled for dinner, along with some peppers and zucchini. Then after dinner, we did something we haven't done in AGES...played Rock Band. I scored two 100%s on the drums in one night. Must have been all the good eats fueling my drumming fury.

Sunday was church, of course, and Steve had to work for a while in the afternoon. After work, he went to the driving range, but he made up for his absence later by making his delicious lasagna for dinner. I ate a massive slab that tasted even better than I remembered. I even got to pick the movie we watched. I must admit, I was sorry to see the weekend end.

Lest you think I'm letting all this pampering go to my head, however, I'm making Steve his favorite risotto for dinner tonight - risotto with gorgonzola, apples, and walnuts. I'm even going to watch Band of Brothers with him during dinner.

On an unrelated note, the writing is going better (finally.) I hope to have the first draft done within a day or two, and I already have a pretty good idea of what I plann to do with the next draft. I'm actually looking forward to writing again. That's a nice change.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Play It Again, Sam

Today as I was feeling yucky and procrastinating writing (I did eventually get to my writing), I watched an old favorite that my trusty DVR had recorded for me, To Have And Have Not. To those who scorn old movies as boring, over-the-top, unrealistic, irrelevant or any of those other lame excuses for not watching the silver screen classics, I challenge you to not love this movie. The dialogue is quick and clever, and the suspense is tight. And if you're looking for glamour, well, it doesn't get any more glamorous than Lauren Bacall. She is beautiful and sultry and her verbal parrying with Bogart? Smoking.

This re-watching of an old favorite got me thinking, however, about the movies that I love to watch over and over. Some movies you watch, they're okay, you forget about them. Then there are those that make you laugh/cry/think every time. So here's my list of flicks I love to watch and watch. It's far from comprehensive.

Adam’s Rib
African Queen
The Big Sleep

Bringing Up Baby
Casablanca

Dark Passage
The Desk Set
Fargo
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Get Shorty
Juno
Little Miss Sunshine
The Mask
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Pride and Prejudice
(the mini-series)
The Princess Bride
Raising Arizona
Rear Window
The Royal Tenenbaums
Rushmore
Sense and Sensibility
Snatch

Speed
Spellbound

The Thin Man
To Have and Have Not
Undercover Blues


You've probably seen most or all of these. Some are fine cinema classics, while some are just guilty pleasures. Either way, if you see a favorite get it out for a re-watch. Got one I've left off the list? Let me know. I'm always ready to add to my favorites!

Monday, July 13, 2009

High-Heat Hiatus

The past three weeks have been three of the most surreal, exciting, and miserable I've experienced in a very long time. Of course, there's been the air-conditioning saga (henceforth to be known as the A/C Debacle of 2009.) The extreme temperatures inside my house meant no writing. When your house is already hot, you avoid electronic (heat-producing) appliances like the plague. So, no laptop. My struggling story stalled under the high-heat hiatus. Then there were other distractions. Early morning queasiness, dizzy spells, and fatigue always point to one thing in the movies, and turns out real-life isn't all that different. So a doctor's visit confirmed that I will be suffering through an additional nine months of queasiness, dizziness, and fatigue accompanied by weight gain. May I take this moment to say that there is nothing like a hot, sticky, air-conditioningless house to turn queasiness to full-on nausea?

We finally have cool air circulating through our rooms again, though, and I'm hoping to soon feel like a human being (or at least something close) and get some schoolwork done. Thanks to my faithful writing buddy, I have some ideas of how I want to shave down my story and get to the meat sooner. Deadlines that seemed so far away in June now are looming hot on my neck. So tomorrow I've got to get busy regardless of how I feel.

Last night, Steve was out, and I was left to my own devices. So I headed to Ingles for some Big Red Soup (Lipton's = comfort food) and some DVD's. I ended up renting Last Chance Harvey and Changeling. Both were on my list of "Must See But Steve Won't Want To." Unfortunately, one of my other list picks Mrs. Pettigrew Lives For A Day was no longer at Ingles, so I guess that'll have to wait until sometime when Steve is out and I feel like driving to Blockbuster. Since I watched two relatively recent movies, you know I've got to give my two cents worth on my blog. Here goes...

Last Chance Harvey was charming. I mostly wanted to see this film because I loved Hoffman and Thompson together in Stranger Than Fiction, and funnily enough, that is also why this movie got made (at least according to the Bonus Featurette.) If you're looking for a touching love story without all the saccharine and sap, then this is your flick. The characters were quirky and real, and the dialogue was simple and true. If there was a weakness in the film, it was the writer/director's one concession of the romantic comedy formula - someone promises someone else that they will meet somewhere at a certain time, and you know something's going to happen to keep one of the someones from making it on time. The film does resolve this one annoying tic fairly quickly, however, and the end of the film is lovely. Of particular note in the acting department is Dustin Hoffman's father-of-the-bride speech about halfway through the film. Even I got a little choked up.

Changeling was a very dark mystery/true story directed by Clint Eastwood. I had high expectations for this film (because of Eastwood), and I was not disappointed. The acting was superb. The period set and costumes were perfect. I was immediately drawn into the suspense and tension surrounding this woman's (Angelina Jolie) injustice. At well over two hours, the film was long, but I was so wrapped up in the movie that I didn't mind. While I certainly shouldn't have been surprised based on Eastwood's other films, the movie was even a bit darker than I expected. The disturbing violence was more often implied than shown, however, which made it far more effective than some over-the-top bloodbath. Overall, Jolie's character helped the film maintain its humanity despite its inhuman circumstances. Jolie was compelling as the wronged mother of a missing boy, and even if you're usually a fan of her work, I would encourage you to give her one more chance.

On a completely unrelated note, I want to give a plug for something else that gives me viewing pleasure and a recent find. Though a friend had recommended this show to me quite a while ago, school, work, and other programs kept my viewing schedule a bit too booked to check it out. This weekend as I rested up in my cool living room, however, Sci-Fi (or SyFy as they are now known) ran a marathon of Eureka, and I checked it out. What fun! If you're a nerd (like me), then this is definitely a show for you. While it doesn't pay to ask too many questions while watching it, it is definitely pure fun. So if the summer re-runs have you craving something new, check out Eureka on Friday nights at 9 on SyFy. It's a show about a hidden town full of geniuses working on secret government projects. What's not to like?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kissing, Crying, and Other Crimes: A Review of Public Enemies


In an effort to beat the heat of our air-conditioning-free house, Steve and I headed to the movies this weekend to check out the latest Johnny Depp offering, Public Enemies. We enjoyed the abundance of cool, flowing air, and I was grateful for the two-plus hours without sticky skin or wayward, bloodthirsty mosquitoes. It seemed apt that, like the characters in the 1930's set film, we were using the movie theater as an escape from the summer heat. Steve and I were kicking it old school. The only thing we lacked were the newsreels before the movie.

Public Enemies is a Michael Mann film that follows the career of the infamous John Dillinger. The film is based on a book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. I can only guess that the film is based very loosely on the book, which is published as history/non-fiction, since the movie takes great liberties with the facts. Johnny Depp plays Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, the bank robber/folk hero who robbed, charmed, and murdered his way across the Midwest in the 1930's. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, an overzealous FBI agent hot on Dillinger's trail.


I had high hopes for this film. Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors, and I was fully prepared to enjoy his usual quirky, edgy acting and a unique interpretation of a criminal legend. Unfortunately, Public Enemies misses the mark. It's not Depp's fault, of course. His acting is always solid, and he is lovely to look at. Once again, however, Hollywood has underestimated the intelligence of the American viewer. Dillinger's folk hero status and the complications and implications of his Robin Hood persona are dumbed down to a nauseating degree. Rather than showing the poverty of the time and, therefore, the appeal of Dillinger, the film tries to make him likable by turning him into a sensitive, romantic, weepy girl. If one is to believe this film, Dillinger's actions were determined by a desire to be with the woman he loved - a woman he loved at first sight. There are way too many scenes featuring long stares and passionate embraces, at least as many as there are of gun battles and car chases. If Dillinger was really that bad of a tactician, being led solely by his overly mushy heart, then surely he would have been caught long before the famous Biograph Theater trap.


Perhaps unrelated or perhaps symptomatic of the above complaint, the movie was boring. That's it. No fancy word for it. The film was over 2 hours long, and I found myself checking my watch early on. There was no getting lost in this film, losing track of time as you live the lives of the characters. Rather, there were too many characters, too many shootouts, and lots of muddled confusion. Most of the criminals were too similar in appearance and mannerism to be differentiated one from another, with the possible exception of Baby Face Nelson who was actually the only character I found remotely interesting. Crazy is always interesting.


As for shootouts, well, there were plenty. Almost every corpse in the movie got that way from acute lead poisoning. While machine guns and car chases were certainly an important part of Dillinger's crime spree, I was able to grasp that after a couple battles. I didn't need one every five minutes to remind me of his violent lifestyle. In fact, it felt like the writer/director/whoever's making these choices overused shootouts in an attempt to build suspense and excitement in an otherwise directionless film. They seemed unaware of the adage that more is sometimes much, much less. Any power these violent scenes might have given the film were weakened by their ubiquity. As the film neared its end, I started hoping that a stray bullet would hit Dillinger so I wouldn't have to sit there and wait for the Biograph shooting.


Not everything about the film was bad. The look of the piece was right, and the acting was solid. If only the dialogue written had been worthy of the actors' skills. The music was mostly of the period so it was evocative. There was one exception of the fine acting assessment, however. Christian Bale. Though the audience was spared the gravelly voiced growl that he featured in The Dark Knight, they weren't exactly treated to an Oscar-worthy performance. Bale's portrayal of G-Man, Melvin Purvis, was one-dimensional at best as he followed the Keanu Reeves school of acting: monotone delivery sans any sort of facial expression. While the filmmakers were obviously pushing the idea of Purvis as a soulless puppet of J. Edgar Hoover, Bale failed to pursue any opportunities to give Purvis any sort of depth.


So if you're a screenwriter, director, or producer who's always dreamed of making the ultimate 1930's crime drama, the slot is still wide open. Give America a Dillinger they can sink their teeth into, not some modern, misunderstood guy who's not afraid to cry and spoon. Give me Robin Hood in a suit, tie, vest, and overcoat. I want a chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, devil-may-care, Clark Gable-meets-Errol Flynn-meets-Jack Nicholson guy. I don't go to a gangster movie to feel warm fuzzies, so please, keep the canoodling to a minimum.