A photo of Brooklyn Bridge in black and white

The Art of Jumping

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[Names are whatever I want them to be]

I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.

From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”

It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.

Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.

There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.

When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:

“Maybe it was a God idea.”

Meet Cute

I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.

Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.

With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.

After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.

“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.

“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.

The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.

We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.

Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.

The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.

Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.

“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.

Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”

Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.

A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.

We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.

It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.

Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”

I laughed.

Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.

In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:

My foot is broken.

I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.

Jay Street Train

Flashback

New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.

Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.

And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.

Montage

Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.

After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.

Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.

Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.

Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.

She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.

At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.

I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.

I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.

Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.

The Final Reel

Emily in SilhouetteFor the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.

I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.

On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.

There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.

Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.

I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.

Read from the beginning

A Movie in New York City

One of the great pleasures in life is going to a movie theater alone for some sparsely attended weekday matinee. Yes, it is nice to cuddle with a date at a movie or see a blockbuster with friends on opening night, but a great film experience is by its very nature solitary. If the artists have done their job right, it should always feel like you’re an audience of one.

That’s the special power of seeing a movie in an actual theater. The darkness, the cavernous space, the all encompassing surround sound transport you into the film. At least, that’s how it should be.

In reality, couples natter at each other, idiots check their phones, old people ask their companions what just happened and someone is constantly scrapping their fingernails on the bottom of a carton of popcorn. It’s hard to get lost in the experience.

Some movies are better with a crowd. A hilarious comedy or an Avengers-style action romp or a truly terrifying frightfest are improved by the collective laughter and unexpected jumps of an engaged audience.

Many other movies, though, are best seen alone. (Here’s where I admit I once stopped dating a girl largely because she talked during movies.)

Birdman Poster

This week, I finally got around to seeing Birdman, this year’s Best Picture Oscar Winner, and I was pleased to find a mostly empty East Village Theater when I arrived. All the easier for surreptitiously pouring my flask of whiskey into my half-filled cup of coke.

A group of four Japanese girls came in shortly before the movie began and I was worried that they might be Chatty Cathys but they were graciously silent throughout.

Birdman is bit of a paradox in that it’s a deeply cerebral and artistic film that rewards close viewing, but also a wickedly funny and mesmerizing flick that manages to borrow much of the visual flare from the superhero movies it’s satirizing. I’m happy to have seen the movie essentially by myself so as to not have the intricate details overshadowed by laughter or a rowdy house, but at the same time there were so many impressive scenes – both in terms of acting and directing (I think Michael Keaton should have won Best Actor, but whatever) – that watching the movie with a packed house very well could have heightened the thrills and emotions.

Regardless, I thought Birdman was a fantastic movie. It wasn’t my favorite film of 2014, but it’s certainly one that I will be recommending enthusiastically.

My favorite film of the last year was another movie that I saw in a mostly empty Manhattan theater: Whiplash. I have been recommending this staggering film to almost everyone I’ve met ever since I saw it and I was rooting mightily for J.K. Simmons to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he did!). I’ve never seen the exhilarating thrill of live music captured so perfectly on film, even in concert documentaries.

Whiplash PosterThere is no question that this is a film of powerhouse performances with Simmons and Miles Teller filling each and every scene with pathos and sheer emotional rawness. For the first hour and 20 minutes or so of screen time, this is one of those ‘see it in an empty theater’ type films. It’s a powerful character piece that explores the depths of artistic obsession both in a student and a teacher.

Without getting too much into the details, I will say that the last 20 minutes is absolutely a ‘see it with a crowd’ type film. It’s a sustained climax in every sense of that word. Seriously, after the nearly 80 minutes of punishing musical instruction, the final performance is basically the equivalent of a cinematic orgasm.

That’s the singular power of film. It can speak to you as an individual while also uniting you with an audience for one glorious, shared trip.

My New York on Film

It’s fitting that both Whiplash and Birdman were set in New York City (come to think of it, my other favorite movie of the year, Obvious Child, was also set in NYC). It was reading about New York City in novels (and comic books) that first made me want to be here, but it was in movies where I found my first taste of what that life could be like.

Few cities in the world can claim as vast a cinematic language as the 5 Burroughs (perhaps only Paris matches New York for pure visual fantasy). Whether in romantic comedies, hard-boiled noir, action/adventure, crime drama or any other genre, there’s always that cliché: The city is a character, too. And no city has a more schizophrenic range of characters than New York.

Of course, I realize that most movie representations of New York are about as realistic as Friends, but that’s beside the point. I’ve never looked to movies for their documentary depictions of life. Even as a kid, I was simply reaching for cathartic release, an escape from small town Kansas and insular Christianity. A part of me hoped New York life could be as glamorous as it was onscreen, but what really drew me in was simply the size, the gargantuan storehouse of possibilities

Now I’m in New York and, no, to answer so many people’s question: It isn’t everything I imagined it could be. Because my imagined New York City is a movie set, a fantasy. And that’s okay. Reality has never matched up with my imagination. Every city I’ve lived in has failed to live up to the imagined version I held before I moved there.

And, yet, in a truer sense, every city has surpassed my imagination because any mental picture will always be hopelessly limited in comparison to the real thing.

My time in New York City is only just beginning. It has included concerts in Central Park and the Barclay Center, drinking on a rooftop with the Manhattan skyline in the background, late night subway rides with passed out drunks, bookstores and coffee houses and pizza joints and even a short but intoxicating liaison with a beautiful and talented French artist. And I haven’t even been here 6 months yet.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here before the call of the road takes me away, but sitting in that movie theater this week and seeing New York City on screen again, I was reminded why I always wanted to be here in the first place, why I had picked this city to be my 10th and final stop.

So, no, my time in New York City hasn’t been filled with non-stop thrills and raging parties. I haven’t had the definitive New York City experience yet, nor will I ever. But I’m having my own experience, and that’s enough. It’s my movie to make how I see fit.

Only time will tell if I’m making a crowd pleaser or the kind of film best seen on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in an empty theater.

Birdman In Focus

Unreliable Perspectives

What is to be made of an unreliable narrator? Generally, our cultural narratives are presented through an omniscient perspective, so much so in fact that often we miss or are simply incapable of recognizing when we’re presented with a dubious point of view. It is so engrained in us to trust the narrator or protagonist to tell the true story, we are far too often easy marks for unreliable narrators or liars. Even when the story lets it be known upfront that it is the subjective experience of a particular character, audiences are often burdened by their addiction to literalism.

Unreliable perspectives were used notably in a variety of popular films in the 90s and early 2000s, particularly in The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento. Strangely, after the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind in 2001 fooled us with the perspective of a schizophrenic, mainstream Hollywood movies shied away from such narrative chicanery. That’s not to say that such films didn’t exist, but they have either been poorly received by audiences or just plain poorly made (2004’s Secret Window being both). In the wake of 9/11, did our need for distinct heroes and villains make unreliable narrators less palatable?

Summer Days

Occasionally in this young century, a film (or book) has broken through the mainstream with an unreliable perspective, but audiences largely chose to take the presented narrative at face value.

500 Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009) is one of the most glaring examples in recent years. The movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as ‘Tom’ and Zooey Deschanel as ‘Summer’ is ostensibly a romantic comedy that indulges in a variety of symbolic and playful cinematic flourishes to tell the story of love found/love lost. While there is a (basically) omniscient narrator throughout the movie, the perspective of the movie is Tom’s, and the film lets the audience know early on that not everything he believes is necessarily true (we are told that as a child his romanticized view of love led him to misread the ending of The Graduate).

Many fans of the movie seem to enjoy it non-ironically as if it were a traditional rom-com, while almost every criticism of (500) refers to Summer as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (a popular term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin), which is derogative shorthand for an idealistic, quirky, nigh-perfect (usually she has some insignificant flaw) female who helps the male protagonist grow and better understand himself, or love, or the world. Or all. The true defining characteristic of the MPDG is that outside of her role in the male protagonist’s life, she has little to no personal drive.

The irony of this film’s critics labeling Summer a MPDG is that that’s precisely the way Tom sees her, a dream girl who exists to save him from the drudgery of his greeting card-writing life.

The first hour of the movie allows Tom to indulge in this fantasy, but reality abruptly reasserts itself about halfway through the story (overtly symbolized by the split screen party scene). This shift clues the audience in that Summer is not just a plastic doll for Tom’s fulfillment (or, contrarily, a ‘bitch’ as the opening narration asserts). Rather, she is a living, breathing woman with her own desires and her own proclivities in sex and relationships. She’s not perfect, but she’s also not a monster. At the risk of spoiling the ending, those who leave (500) with the belief that Summer is a MPDG are either misapplying the term or are trapped in the same delusion movie-watching mindset that gave Tom his rose-colored view of The Graduate.

(I’d argue that 500’s final scene meet-cute with Tom immediately falling for new girl, Autumn, is actually a subversively pessimistic suggestion that Tom hasn’t grown at all, but I digress.)

Learning To Question Ourselves

I wish more movies and books in the popular canon indulged in unreliable perspectives. While common wisdom claims this is the generation of irony, earnest narrators and protagonists remain quite in vogue. There is nothing wrong with sincerity, and in fact I frequently prefer it to irony which in the hands of lesser artists is nothing more than a feeble cover for having nothing to say. But fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter) benefits from a willingness to suggest, “Here’s one perspective, but it’s just one of many, and maybe it’s not even a very good one.”

In Steven Pinker’s (2011) exhaustive analysis of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he suggests that one of the major factors in our species’ shift towards more benevolent treatment of each other was the printing explosion that made it possible for books (especially novels) to proliferate and spread. Reading allows us to recognize that other people from completely different backgrounds still have recognizable experiences, beliefs and thoughts. It’s harder to dehumanize an entire group once you’ve been in their head.

Unreliable perspectives in our narratives can help us go even further: They make us more receptive to the idea that our own views might not necessarily be correct. In a culture dominated by Right vs. Left, Red vs. Blue, Us vs. Them, is there any doubt our civilization would benefit from more people being willing to say, “Well, this is what I believe, but I might be wrong”? When you read a book with no definitive perspective or watch a movie that questions its own premise, you are being trained in the valuable art of self-evaluation.

A recent scientific study has revealed that reading literary fiction improved “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence” in participants. Literary fiction is one of the few genres (alongside mystery) that frequently uses unreliable narrators or perspectives. However, whereas a mystery might use an unreliable narrator to fool the reader, the unreliable perspective in literary fiction is used to question traditional viewpoints and undermine simplistic interpretations of events.

This Is Not A Love Story…

Looking back on a number of my past romantic relationships, I can recognize the perspective I had at the time, I can even understand how I came to the view I had. But with time, those views seem less like mountaintop outlooks and more like the perception of a guy in the valley, just like everyone else. That doesn’t mean there isn’t objective truth, or that real wrongs weren’t done (on both sides), only that the story I tell myself and others originates from an unreliable narrator, just like all of our stories.

That’s really the message of (500) Days of Summer: Every story has two sides, and both are probably wrong. It isn’t the first movie to attempt that message, and it won’t be the last, but it is unique for coming out in a time when most media seemed locked into the Good Vs. Evil paradigm. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it does something better than almost any romantic comedy in recent memory: It gives both parties their own agency and trusts the audience to judge them for who they are, not for who they present themselves to be.

We live in complex times. Our art and entertainment should reflect that. It should challenge us to question what we know, and in doing so, it will teach us to be more engaged. Not just with films and books, but with the world we dance, kiss, screw, cry, scream, sing, laugh and, ultimately, live in.

Never Share Your Love; or The Dangers of a Mixtape

Cassette Tape

One of my favorite things in the world is creating a music mix. Call it a mixtape (I do), a mixed CD, a playlist, whatever, the name doesn’t matter, it’s the act that matters. The curation of a good mix is an art form, but it’s an act of love, too.

Now, I don’t mean an act of love in the sense that making a mixtape means you love the person you’re making it for (though that’s usually the case). I mean that taking the time to compile, organize and craft a mix is the act of loving music, perhaps even to a fanatical, obsessive level.

I’ve made mixes for girlfriends, crushes, friends, siblings, and even just mixes for myself when I’m in a particular mood and need a pick-me-up (the process of creating the mix can do the trick). The common thread in these mixes is my love of the music. Sometimes the songs I choose are meant to be representative of a period in my or the listener’s life. Sometimes it’s about creating a timeless mix. A good mix, besides flowing from one song to the next, can often tell a story, maybe even with a moral.

I love mixtapes, but boy are they dangerous.

When you share a song with someone, you share a part of yourself. No, you didn’t write it, but we all have a song (or movie, or book) that resonates with us so deeply that it feels like an organ inside us. To share it with someone is to open yourself up and say, “This is me.”

We all know the crushing disappointment of sharing that part of ourselves with someone and them saying, “Meh. It’s okay.” For many of us, the art we love is so much a part of our identity that any rejection (or indifference) feels personal. But, I tell you, there’s a far greater danger inherent in the mixtape.

When you enter into a relationship with someone, you share the things you love. There is intimacy in that, even when that just means having “your place” for slices of pizza or a favorite dive bar. A relationship is about intertwining oneself with another, a binding that ties your tastes together. Your girlfriend starts listening to electronica because you blast it on your happy days, or your boyfriend starts watching Paul Thomas Anderson films because you said he’s the greatest living director.

For a perfect moment in time, the things you love are loved by the person you love, and you achieve the Eros Singularity.

And then you break-up.

For the first month or two, everything reminds you of your ex, no matter what it is. The smell of bacon, the way the leaves crunch underfoot, the nattering sounds of co-workers discussing The Voice. Somehow, every road leads back to the one now gone.

With time, though, you heal, and those connections fall away until you can go back to living a normal life without the constant reminder of heartbreak.

The problem, though, is while the implicit connections are no longer there, the explicit ones still exist. You might be able to go downtown without thinking about him, but getting a slice of pepperoni pie at Luigi’s is out of the question. And it doesn’t matter if Mike the Bartender is loose with the pour, you can’t sit on that stool without her sitting next to you.

These connections are never deeper than with shared art. The two of you had a song, a favorite movie, a novel that you read together and had lengthy discussions about deep into the night.

Those stinging associations are the price of doing business. Losing them is yet another loss in the process of heartbreak, but you lived without them B.E. (Before Ex) and you’ll live without them now.

No, the true danger comes with sharing the art you loved before you met the future/former significant other. Those are the songs, movies and books that were a part of you when that other fell in love with you. It’s part of what they liked about you, because you had internalized that art as part of your personality. When you break-up, they get to take that with them, leaving behind a scar. It’s a raw wound, and unlike Luigi’s or the oeuvre of P.T. Anderson, you can’t avoid touching it because it’s still a part of you.

This is why you should never share everything that you love. Sure, this girl is the love of your life now, and you want her to know everything about you, but don’t be a fool. You’re 24 and you’re going to date other people. You got engaged? That’s great, but at one point so were 100% of the people who are now divorced (give or take Las Vegas).

The relationship ends, and suddenly everything that once defined you is ripped in half.

Never share all your love. I love the music of Ryan Adams and have had at least one song of his hold special meaning for every ex I’ve ever had. But not “Come Pick Me Up.” That’s my song, no one gets to touch it.* It’ll never be associated with just one woman (even if the lyrics makes me think of one or two), and I will never be unable to listen to it because of a painful connection.

The same goes for Radiohead’s entire catalog. I’ve never once dated a girl who loved Radiohead like I love Radiohead (which probably explains why none of my relationships have lasted). They might have been fans, or grown to like them because of me, but there isn’t a single song or album by the band that makes me think of an ex. I never have to worry about a startlingly wave of sad memories when I listen to my favorite band.

There’s so much art out there that I love, a lot of which I want to share with romantic partners, even when I acknowledge the realistic odds that things won’t work out. That is, as I said, the price of being in love.

But a person should hold onto something that is all theirs. Autonomy requires it. Love is a ‘many splendored thing’ and all that horseshit, but the love of art is the purest form that exists. Why taint that?

*Obviously it’s a lot of people’s song. But in relation to my personal love life, it’s mine.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Not Quite Young Man

I have been doing this for eight years now, as of June 1st, 2005.

cropped-10-cities.jpg

What shape do we expect the decades of our life to take? In my twenties, I lived in 10 different cities, became the first member of my family to graduate from college, marched through a few serious relationships, abandoned the religion of my youth and completed writing 3 (of 4) novels.

But so much is left undone.

If my twenties were a movie (or, better yet, a season of a TV show), it would definitely be ending on a cliffhanger: 10 Cities / 10 Years is incomplete, my ongoing real world education progresses, I continue a Ted Mosby-esque search for a lasting relationship, and my goal to merge my Humanist worldview with my literary aspirations has yet to produce a book deal.

That feeling of incompleteness is what motivates most us to keep going. For me, the thought that someone else might take up the mantle of 10 Cities / 10 Years if I failed to complete the journey has kept me on the path, both in the project and in life. That state of noncompletion, though, can feel like a weakness, or even, on the worst days, abject failure.

After all, I’m about to start a new decade of my life and the list of my accomplishments is relatively short.

Young Success

Mark Zuckerberg Time Cover

I can’t imagine being a Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook at 19 and turned it into a billion dollar business by the time he was 23, or a Swift/Beiber-type musician who will always be best known for the songs they did at a young age, no matter what they do with their aging career. Sure, some of these teenie-bopper artists transition into adulthood with their careers intact, but for every JT or MJ, there’s a dozen Britney Spears and whoever else was in N*Sync.

That’s not to say that any of those people can’t or won’t do important things later in their life, only that their names will always be associated with something they accomplished when they couldn’t even legally drink alcohol. Now, most artists, inventors and creators in any medium would give their entire careers to have one success that brought them world-wide recognition (if not renown), so there’s no reason to pity the Zuckerberg/Beiber/Swift-s of the world (that, and they’re really, really, really rich).

The truth is, most artists are burdened by this, no matter how successful they are in their careers. Due to our limited cultural attention span, for a large percentage of the population Radiohead will always be the band who wrote “Creep,” Michael J. Fox eternally remains Marty McFly and F. Scott Fitzgerald is unjustly known exclusively as the writer of The Great Gatsby. Each of their respective fans will love them for much more than that, but in the shorthand of our collective consciousness, an artist can only be known for one thing. Some artists embrace their legacy, others spurn it.

My Success?

It will be my great fortune in life if I can achieve some sort of national (dare I wish, global) recognition for this extended literary project. I’ve gone all in on this whole ‘man of letters’ thing, so I either make a career of it or I’ll be signing autographs down in front of the 7-11 dumpster.

It’s perhaps unbecoming to publicly hypothesize about future success that hasn’t been achieved, but don’t fool yourself: Every artist you know spends a good portion of their time imagining what life will be like if (when) the world finally acknowledges their talents. Even those guys who sneer at pop artists and talk about how they will never compromise their art for financial success are dreaming of grandeur because either a) they’re full of shit or b) they have delusions that the world will magically transform and suddenly start rewarding integrity. No one works to create anything just so it can go unappreciated or unseen.

If 10 Cities / 10 Years grows into a book and launches my career, it’s likely nothing I create will ever break out from underneath its shadow. Knowing my personality, I can imagine that will frustrate me in my latter years, when I’m sure to be doing the best work of my life. But if that’s the price I pay to be able to pursue my ambitions as a career, so be it.

Whatever comes of 10 Cities, though, I have no intention of ending there. I have dozens of novels in me, as well as ideas for movies, TV shows, plays, and countless other art forms that I will never not aspire to master. Despite the epochal shifts through my twenties, those ambitions haven’t changed one iota. I might have stopped believing in heaven, but that doesn’t mean I stopped believing in the everlasting life of the artist.

Maybe it’s nothing but pretension, a delusion that was endearing in a twenty-year-old but is pathetic in a thirty-year-old. But the greatest art in the world was created by men and women with just such delusions.

So we beat on… oh, you know the rest.

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Why You Should Watch ‘The Great Gatsby’ on Opening Weekend

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby Movie Poster

On May 10th, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (in 3D) will release in theaters.

It promises to be many things, though perhaps a spectacle above all else. Every one of the trailers has put the emphasis on the visual and stylistic beauty of the film, which is no surprise coming from the director of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom. Each of those films has their critics and champions, but no one would ever claim that Luhrmann fails in his visuals. The most common critique of his films is that he is all flash, no depth.

Many of the naysayers who are already sharpening their axes in order to chop down Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby are starting from there: They say the trailers are clearly showing a movie that’s all glitz and glamour, ironically missing Fitzgerald’s criticism of the dangerously shallow excess of the 1920s and, particularly, the moneyed class. How can this film be any good if it doesn’t get the fundamental message of the book?

Well, let me blow your minds for a second and argue that The Great Gatsby‘s defining theme is not the fatal excess of the rich. Now, before you wannabe English Lit professors have an aneurysm, let me say that, yes, that is a message in the book. It’s one of the messages, but it is not the central one.

Far too often, with our vantage point of history, we tend to adopt an interpretation of art that the artist never intended. Knowing that the Crash of 1929 was just around the corner (well, 7 years around the corner from the setting of the book), it’s easy for us, in hindsight, to read the book as a prophecy of the fleeting nature of wealth. However, Fitzgerald wrote the book between 1923 and 1924 and published it in 1925, well before the Great Depression. Because the novel, and Fitzgerald’s own personal arc of history, mirrors the boom and bust of the 20s/30s, it feels all too natural to view the book through that lens, but it’s an optical illusion.

So, if wealth’s fragility is not the defining theme of the novel, what is?

Our inability to escape the past. Throughout the novel, references to time come up again and again. In “The Authorized Text” edition (if you own a copy, odds are good this is the one you have), Matthew J. Bruccoli explains that in the novel, Fitzgerald uses “some 450 time-words, including 87 appearances of time.“¹ Every single one of the characters in the book is trying to either re-invent themselves or escape their past in some form. Gatsby is obvious, but you also have Tom and Daisy who have run from Chicago after a car crash shed light on one of Tom’s many affairs, and then there’s Jordan Baker, the golfer who was accused of cheating but managed to weasel her way out of it. Even Nick, the narrator, is trying to escape his life back home, reinventing himself as a bonds dealer in the mythical East.

(Minor characters are just as trapped: When Wilson finally gets up his nerve to force his wife Myrtle to leave New York, it leads to the climatic tragedy of the novel, fate maintaining a kind of stasis.)

There are other major themes in the book (the shallowness of excess being one of them), but Fitzgerald’s focus is most definitely on identity and its rigidity. The author was plagued by a desire to reinvent himself, and eventually did, transforming from an Irish Catholic in a Midwest middle class family into a member of the Protestant First Class. But just like his characters, that transformation would prove false and, ultimately, fatal.

What does this have to do with Luhrmann’s seemingly all-flash movie interpretation?

What the kneejerk critics don’t seem to get is that the flash is absolutely vital to the story. The dreadfully dull Robert Redford and Mia Farrow adaptation reveals what happens when you try to make a version of this book and strip it of all its youth and excitement. We’re talking about a book that pretty much defined the Jazz Age, the rebellious, youth-fed phenomenon that set the pattern for Rock n’ Roll, Disco, Punk, Rap, Grunge and every other youth movement since. As Fitzgerald famously said, he was writing “for the youth of his own generation.”

Yes, The Great Gatsby is a great work of American Literature and it deserves its place in the pantheon, but that doesn’t mean it exists in a museum. It’s a book of folly and youthful indulgence. Let us not forget, the narrator turns 30 during the events of the novel, and Gatsby is only a little older. The author was 28 when it was published.

f scott fitzgerald

Okay, fine, maybe the movie will be good, but why should I see it this weekend?

I’m so glad you asked.

Have you read this? Hollywood will always look for the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to churn out a sure-fire hit (or, if it’s cheap enough, a sure-fire meh). I’m very happy that The Avengers was the huge success that it was, because while it was a summertime popcorn flick, it was well-acted, well-written, and, most importantly, well-directed. I’d rather it was Joss Whedon ruling the summer movie roost than Michael Bay.

Still, the success of summer tent-pole movies is a given, and has been since Jaws. The zeitgeist when it comes to summer movies won’t change all that much, give or take a smart Inception-type blockbuster. Some years the superhero/giant robot/alien attack movies will be good, some years they won’t. That’s just the way the summer works.

Hollywood really only pays attention when a true anomaly breaks through. What could be more anomalous than a hyper-stylized (3D even) period piece based on a classic novel that dispenses with notions of redemptive, everlasting love? A movie like that becoming a huge success throws a wrench in the system. Computer programs can’t predict that sort of thing.

Now, I’m not naive. I realize that if Gatsby is a huge success, it won’t be because of it’s dark themes or classical literature pedigree. It’ll be because of it’s flashy trailers and soundtrack featuring Jay-z and Beyonce and Fergie. Well, good! I can’t think of anything more fitting than slipping a work of literature into the mass consciousness via the Trojan Horse of flash, spectacle and Pop music.

I don’t know about you, but I sure like the idea of a movie producer calling in his lackey and saying, “How can we get in on this great literature trend?”

The only way, though, that such a bizarre reality can come to be is if The Great Gatsby is an out-the-gate success. I mean, a huge success. Again, I’m not naive enough to believe that this film will open to Iron Man 3 numbers, but it doesn’t have to. If Gatsby breaks the $50 million mark in its opening weekend (a feat that wouldn’t even put it in the top 100 of all-time opening weekend records), that would be spectacular (it’s projected to hit in the mid to high $30 mils) and also a huge flag for studio execs.

“You mean, we can make character- and story-based movies that actually sell? Who knew?”

Look, I know there are some people who have already decided this movie is going to suck. Maybe you hated the previews, or you’ve hated everything Luhrmann’s ever done, or you just hate anything that’s popular. Well, go see the movie this weekend anyway. I mean, if you want to be able to intelligently criticize the thing, you’ll have to see it, eventually. Might as well get it over with as soon as possible so you don’t sound like a pretentious hipster-doofus for the next few weeks. And then you can go back to listening to your vinyl.

I am fully optimistic that Luhrmann gets the book and Fitzgerald and will produce a film that is not only true to the spirit of the novel, but the spirit of the age, both the 1920s and the 2010s.

But even if the movie ends up disappointing, I’d rather Hollywood try its hand at interesting, experimental adaptations of intelligent source material than yet another movie about a toy. So I’ll be there at the midnight showing Friday morning.

I hope you’ll join me.

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1 Fitzgerald, F. S. (2003). The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.