Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Straight up

I never realized how often I drop things until it became too painful to pick them up. The once-automatic act of picking up after myself became a daunting task. Think of how many times you drop something - a set of keys, a piece of paper comes off the desk, a napkin off of the kitchen table. No big deal, right? You just swoop down and pick it up. Not me. As soon as that item hits the floor I go through a battery of considerations, do an impromptu risk assessment and then formulate a plan for how to recover the dropped item. You just don't consider how handy bending is until you lose the ability to do so.

I didn't know it at first, but what I was dealing with was two herniated discs and mild spinal stenosis. For weeks I just thought it was back pain and if I rested for a bit it would get better. In the meantime, living with it was horrible. On the first day I walked into my apartment and accidentally dropped my keys on the floor. I took a deep breath and just stared at them. I stared at the floor the way you would stare down the Grand Canyon if you had just dropped your cell phone and were working up the courage to rappel down and retrieve it. It's so far down. I'm going to hurt myself. I may not make it back up. What am I going to do? Can I live without my keys? Can I just leave them on my floor forever and have someone make a new set for me? Perhaps I should just make dozens of sets of keys and when I drop one I can leave it behind as collateral damage - leaving the world littered with sets of keys. That seems like a reasonable solution. Anything sounds better than bending over.

Of course, I did not make a dozen sets of keys - I would need the original key to cut the duplicates. I had to slowly bend my knees with my back remaining upright and feel around on the floor to pick them up and hang them on the nail. It was a laborious task. It didn't stop with keys, either. I started to wonder if I've always been a klutz and never realized it. Every day I would drop something. The worst was when someone else dropped something by my feet. The polite thing to do would be to pick it up and retrieve it for them. Sorry pal, you are on your own. If someone dropped something on the Metro and it slid below my seat, I would just kick it back to the person. I would try to explain that my back is screwed up and I can't bend over. But the damage was done. It's really not polite to kick something at a person after they drop it. Especially when you're as uncoordinated as I am, and the item would likely get kicked past them, or somewhere within a 3-foot radius of their location. Precision is not one of my talents. It sucks when it's painful to be polite. It was not completely debilitating. I could still go to work, I just had to get up from my desk and walk every couple of hours so I didn't get sore.

One day, after a long day at work, I came home to find that a delivery person had slid a menu underneath the doorway of every apartment in my hallway. What the hell kind of masochist would do something like that? That's just great. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get this off the floor? I am going to have a pizza menu on my floor for all of eternity. What was that delivery person thinking? It was as if someone had vandalized my apartment and I had to figure out how to fix it. Cruel, cruel delivery driver.

The pizza menu stayed on my floor for a couple of days. I finally went through the process of getting x-rays and an MRI on my spine to determine what was causing the pain and that's when I learned of the spinal stenosis. The orthopaedic surgeon showed me the MRI results and pointed to a white line leading from my spine to my right leg. "Do you see the white lines? Those are nerves. Now look on your left side. Do you see how that nerve just stops?" It was creepy to see what's going on inside my body, but it answered a lot of questions. The herniated disc was bulging right into the nerves and cutting them off. Along with the back pain being on my left side, I also had been feeling like my foot was asleep. I often untied my shoelaces and loosened them because my foot hurt, and I thought I had just pulled the laces too tight and cut off my circulation. It turns out that it was not a circulation problem, but my nerves were affected by the back problems. At times it feels like I am walking on something underneath my toes. I must have taken my shoes off and straightened my sock a dozen times because I thought it was my sock bunching up below my toes. But my socks were never bunched. I was feeling something that was not there. I guess that is how the jumbled nerves manifested themselves. It felt very uncomfortable, but not painful like the back pain. The back pain was the worst.

One thing that was very hard for me when dealing with back pain, was that it was all internal. I didn't have a cast on my leg or a brace around my neck that clued people in on my delicate state. If someone didn't know me, they would think I'm an able-bodied young woman in my twenties. Looks can be deceiving. What looks like a 25-year old body on the outside, feels to me like it's 75-years old. I take public transportation everywhere and I struggle with finding a seat during rush hours. I have started waiting until later and taking the train when it is not as packed. When I get to work, I now take the elevator to the second floor instead of the stairs. It makes me very self conscious because I'm sure it just appears to other people as if I'm lazy. Some friends have recommended carrying a cane or wearing a neck brace, just to make it easier to find a seat on the Metro and on the bus. I can't bring myself to ask someone to give up their seat. How do I know they are not suffering from some internal injury as well? Who am I to pick and choose who should give up their seat for my ailing back? I never do. I just suck it up and go on and it seems to get a little better every day. If I have learned one thing from this experience, it is that you can't always tell when someone who comes across as rude or lazy is actually just dealing with pain in the best way that they can. If I have learned two things, it is that bending is awesome and is not to be taken for granted.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

19th Century filmmaking meets 3D magic

Last night I attended a screening of a rare PG-rated Martin Scorsese film that did not include Leonardo DiCaprio. I love Scorsese's films, but Hugo is undeniably a kid’s movie and this is not my preferred genre. It should come as no surprise that my favorite character in the film was played by Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen.

While I do prefer a film that is geared toward adults (but to clarify, not the “adult film” genre) there are elements of Hugo that I genuinely appreciate. I love old films, and when I first saw the poster for Hugo, I recognized the resemblance to the iconic scene with Harold Lloyd from the 1923 silent film Safety Last!

What I did not realize was that this film has more than simply a subtle tip of the hat to a silent film, but it is a bit of an homage to the early filmmakers. I was delighted to see brief images of various films ranging from the late 19th century through the time that the film takes place – in 1930s Paris.

The story centers around two children who meet in a train station in Paris. Hugo, an orphan who lives life in constant fear of a relentless Station Manager, and Isabelle, who lives comfortably but her only knowledge of adventure is informed by what she reads in her library books. What follows is a fantastic adventure as the children gather clues in search of more information about Hugo’s father and Isabelle’s godparents.

Their adventure leads them to the world of movies where they learn more about the wondrous world of cinematic techniques from pre-WWI filmmaking through the contemporaries of the film's setting, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Did I mention that this entire homage to early films is done entirely and beautifully in 3D?

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hugo's brief tribute to early films through rose-colored (3D) glasses. The labor that was taken to create special effects in the 19th century and most of the 20th century created an imaginative world that is lost to today’s technology. Hugo reminds us that while the techniques may be obsolete, every generation takes their film pioneers for granted. In a time when reality TV passes for entertainment and 3D effects are now being employed by movies like Jackass to show the audience a high-tech, virtual groin-kick, it is poignant to look back at the painstaking work that filmmakers put into creating and editing their art before the computer age. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic, but I can’t help but think that every new advancement in special effects has only served to lower the overall expectations for the next generation. This movie is a perfectly good example. Visually, this film is stunning to watch. The 3D effects are used beautifully. But, while Martin Scorsese is a brilliant filmmaker and children may love Hugo's story, the film was most effective in reminding me that he is no Georges Méliès. I mean no disrespect with that statement, quite the contrary. This may well have been Mr. Scorsese's intention all along.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not a film review: Pariah at Lincoln Theatre

Tonight the Lincoln Theatre in DC hosted a screening of the new film Pariah, followed by a Q&A panel discussion with writer/director Dee Rees, producer Nekisa Cooper, and actors Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans. I was not sure what to expect from the film, but I was very excited to see Kim Wayans in a dramatic role. I have fond childhood memories of watching Hollywood Shuffle and In Living Color with friends when we were not quite sophisticated enough to understand all of the adult humor, but just old enough to love it and repeat catchphrases for years to come. (But I ain't one to gossip, so you didn't hear that from me!) The Wayans are an immensely talented family and Kim's dramatic performance was enough to bring me to the Lincoln Theatre tonight. Yet, there is so much more than Kim's outstanding performance that make this film worthwhile.

In short, the film is about a 17-year old girl (Alike, or "Lee") coming to terms with her lesbian identity, and struggling with the expectations and influence of her family and friends. All of the actors in the film do a spectacular job of bringing very real characters to life on the screen - each battling their own personal challenges.

Pariah is an impressive film. Writer Dee Rees has brought very rich and complex characters to the screen in a relatively short debut film (86 minutes, according to IMDB) I see a lot of movies, and most of them rely on a standard formula. In the first 30 minutes of most films, you can often predict certain elements - you know who is going to fall in love with who, the tragic flaws within the characters begin to develop and you begin to take things for granted on where the plot is going. Pariah constantly kept me guessing. Judging by the title and subject matter of the film, I was repeatedly trying to predict the "gotcha" moment or dramatic climax that was going to happen next, but I was always pleasantly surprised. The flow of the film is such as life. I never knew which direction the story was going to go, just as Lee herself never quite knew how to handle herself in those situations. The interaction between the family was so familiar that there were scenes that had the audience laughing that may not have been intentionally humorous, but something as small as a reaction of a spouse, parent or sibling felt so familiar that the theater filled with murmurs of laughter. It felt like a shared experience because on some level, we have all had the same awkward interactions in our own lives. It is this familiarity that makes the movie feel so real.

In a word, "real" is the best way I can describe the film. It is not just the overall feeling of the film, but in the literal sense as well. During the Q&A discussion after the screening, writer Dee Rees explained that she based the film on her personal experiences. While it is not completely autobiographical, she shared many experiences and struggles of the main character. It portrays the experience of many people in the LGBT community who have struggled with their sexual identity while looking for love and suffering their own family conflict, but it is such a personal glimpse, that it is easy to relate to the characters and what they are going through. Anyone who has felt that they did not fit in and has ever struggled with the expectations of family or friends will likely see a part of themselves in Lee. During the Q&A, an audience member explained that she was of the same generation as the mother (Kim Wayans' character) in the film, and it helped her as a parent to see the other side of the struggle in accepting children for who they are, rather than who they are expected to be. After this comment, Dee Rees' response was so genuine and touching as she explained that is the reaction she had hoped for when working on the film - To reach people and allow them to understand the main character's internal struggle and coming of age, while constantly dealing with the labels that other people have projected onto her.

It is a very impressive film and the filmmakers made it clear that it will have a very limited release beginning in December, so word-of-mouth is very important in encouraging people to see the film. I don't know how persuasive of a case I have made since it is getting late and we all know I am challenged when it comes to film reviews anyway. So what I am saying here is - I encourage you to see the film. More information about Pariah can be found here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How many states have you been to?

I recently took an Amtrak train from Washington, DC to Chicago. I take this trip once or twice a year and I have never suffered from lack of conversation. You meet interesting people on a train, and when you are stuck together for 18 hours, people tend to be fairly social. On this recent trip, I had both seats to myself and was excited to be antisocial and start a new book I've been wanting to read. But as I got settled in, I couldn't help but hear the introductions being made by new seatmates all around me. On the other side of the aisle a young man in his twenties chatted with a woman who appeared to be in her forties. Even though I was immersed in the world of ESPN, his voice carried across the aisle as he asked her: How many states have you been to?

It struck me as a naive question. Or rather, a question that would be asked by someone who has not traveled much. I would not expect anyone to know the answer to that question off the top of their head unless they had a fairly short list themselves. The woman also seemed surprised by the question and didn't know how to answer right away until she said, "Jeez, I don't know. I travel a lot. It would be easier to name the ones I haven't been to." She then rattled a short list of the usual suspects - Montana, North Dakota, Utah, etc., and I didn't hear more of their conversation because I was already in my own little world, trying to count on my fingers - how many states have I been to? I had no idea. Not that many, really - but enough that I couldn't name them all without looking at a map. So, when I got home I printed out a map of the U.S. and grabbed a set of colored pencils and started to color in the states I have been to. They have to be places I have actually visited and not just spent time in a layover at the airport - that would be cheating. When I finished my map, there were seventeen total, plus the District of Columbia, of course. The stark whiteness of the remaining states made me realize how little I have traveled in my life. It immediately became a new addendum to my bucket list. It is not unreasonable to visit all 50 states within one's lifetime. In fact, I think it's a fantastic and patriotic goal. Whenever I think of vacations and travel, I always fantasize about other countries and wondering where I should get my passport stamped next. It's a shame that I haven't made time for a weekend trip to West Virginia, or visited relatives in North Carolina. All the times I have had a layover in Atlanta, I have never stepped out of the confines of ATL, as evidenced by the gaping white region on my map between Virginia and Florida. I have never been to the south, never to Texas, and haven't hit the Pacific Rim either in the U.S. or otherwise. This is a very sad and boring map.

When I returned to work the following Monday, I asked a coworker, "How many states have you been to?" She gave me a strange look and I told her that I had overheard someone ask that question on the train. She agreed that it was an odd question. Then, after we mutually speculated on the lack of world experience of the person who had asked the question on the train, she said, "Dammit, now I'm curious" and printed out a map and started circling the states she had been to. She printed out another copy for me because she wanted to see where I had been and compare. Just like myself, and the woman to whom the question was originally posed, she said, "It doesn't count if you're just driving through, right?" Of course not. Same as the airport rule - it would be cheating. She had been to 23 states, but most of the whiteness remaining on her map was in the Midwest - where most of mine is shaded in. It makes sense, she is retired from the Coast Guard so her remaining states are landlocked.

This conversation took place over a month ago and I often spend time daydreaming about where I should take my next road trip and knock out some more of my bucket list. Whenever I receive an email from one of the airlines advertising last-minute airfare, now I look to see how cheap the prices are to places I have never been. Just in case opportunity presents itself to take a spontaneous vacation/bucket list trip. Apparently I am not the only one who has kept the map handy. My coworker came to my desk excitedly a few weeks ago and said that she had to take a work trip to visit Missouri. Now she could mark one more state off of her map and she's almost covered half of them! She's not going to St. Louis, or any city that she was excited to see. But the thought of crossing another state off of her list felt like an accomplishment. As it should. This is a big country, diverse in geography and culture. And we are fortunate to have the freedom that we can just take a road trip and see what the rest of these United States have to offer. Someday I will hit all 33 of those remaining states, and I hope you will too.

I still wonder about the person who originally asked that question. My immediate thought was that he must not have traveled much in his life, but he was on an Amtrak halfway across the country so I'm probably judging too hastily. It is possible that this was his first big trip, or maybe he just knew it was a thought-provoking question. It certainly provoked a lot of thought in one person sitting across the aisle, quietly eavesdropping. Whatever his motivation, I'm glad he asked it. I intend to keep this little map handy for a long time. And when I start to feel like I need a vacation, I may just have to keep my passport locked away and take a little road trip. Maybe I will even find myself on a different Amtrak route next time around. I know just what question I will ask when it comes time to make small talk.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hindsight and speculation from the murder in Bethesda

A verdict was reached this week and Brittany Norwood was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of her coworker, Jayna Murray. This brings to a close the trial that has kept me riveted, disturbed, and deeply saddened. Ever since the first information was released with Norwood's claim of being a victim, I have been trying to wrap my head around what happened on the night of March 11, 2011 at an upscale yoga clothing store. It did not take long for the jury to reach a consensus that Norwood was guilty, but there are two more people who have been receiving a great deal of judgement and criticism: Two employees of the neighboring Apple store who submitted their testimony about what they heard the night of the murder.

It had been widely reported that there were employees next door who had heard the screams of young Ms. Norwood that night. This week during their testimony, more specifics came out and we learned that they heard not only screams for help, but specifically: "God help me. Please help me." The two employees listened on the other side of the wall and one person called the other one over to confirm that they both heard it. For reasons no one seems to be able to determine, neither of the employees called the police or took any action. They later learned with the rest of the world that the screams came from Jayna Murray, whose body was found with at least 322 wounds. By all accounts, this was a disturbing and brutal attack. It is impossible not to be haunted by the question - If those two employees had dialed 911 that night, would Jayna Murray still be alive? They may be asking themselves that question for the rest of their lives, but it will never change the reality. The police were not called that night. Jayna Murray was murdered. Brittany Norwood has been convicted. And hindsight will not heal the broken hearts of the victims family and loved ones. This is a sad, disturbing tragedy and my heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by this senseless act of violence and tragic loss.

When I say that my heart goes out to everyone, I mean that statement to be inclusive. Sadly, there are many people who have no sympathy, but only contempt for the two employees who heard Ms. Norwood's screams that fateful night. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak asks, What's scarier: The slaying or the bystanders who did nothing? That is easy, Ms. Dvorak. The person who took the life of another person and lied to the police about being a victim to avoid being caught stealing. That is scarier. There is no question who the villain is here. Yet, if you read the comments after Ms. Dvorak's opinion piece, you will read hundreds of comments blaming the employees next door. Presumably by hundreds of people who would unquestioningly do the right thing in that circumstance.

It is easy to speculate what we would have done in that same situation, especially with the specific and graphic information we have received from the testimony. But we have not been in that position, and I hope that none of us will ever find ourselves in that quandary. I like to think that I would have called 911 after hearing those screams. In college, I lived next door to a couple who fought constantly. When my roommate and I heard things being thrown and glass breaking, we called the police more than once. I think it would be my natural reaction. But I don't know. I can say with near certainty that I would never have expected the reality - that the screams coming from the yoga store next door were the sounds of a woman being brutally murdered and stabbed 322 times. Even having read testimony and seen photographs of evidence, I still find this act of violence unbelievable. It is impossible to comprehend the events that took place that night. Yes, the employees should have phoned the police. For whatever reason, they made a terrible, horrible, tragic decision not to get involved. And yes, it is possible that they could have saved Jayna Murray's life that night. That is something they must come to terms with. But that is not the same as committing an act of murder.

As much as we would like to understand why the two people in question decided not to call the police that night, in the end it does not matter. If there is anything positive that can come out of this horrific event, it is the lesson to be learned by all of us. If, God forbid, you do ever find yourself next door to a suspicious altercation, think of Jayna Murray and her family and pick up the phone. I can only speculate what I would have done if I were in that position on the night of March 11th, but I can say with absolute certainty that if I should find myself in that position in the future, I know exactly what I will do. Two people exercised very poor judgment that night. Their inaction is not akin to murder, but they clearly made a mistake. Let us all learn from that mistake and not take anything for granted.