Gleanings: A Blog from The Family Savvy

Blog @ The Family Savvy

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2014

The Honorable Woman: A well-timed tale of middle eastern politics (for mature viewers)

the-honorable-woman-maggie-gyllenhaal-tca-panel

I’m just going to rave for a few paragraphs: I’m enamored of an original 8-part miniseries from Sundance TV and am heart-broken that it will end this week with the final installment of what has been a spell-binding tour of London and Gaza. Tried and true binge TV watchers will appreciate a television show that takes its time to unravel a complex story. And lovers of suspense will relish a tale that twists back on itself incessantly, employs dynamic flashbacks, and revels in wonderful character actors with the flair of a classic Le Carre tale.

The Honorable Woman stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steven Rea, Janet McTeer, and a host of other terrific actors. It is directed with blistering power by Hugo Blick. Head to your DVR immediately, and soon you will be able to enjoy hours of excellent, suspenseful filmmaking. ( (Thursday at 10 PM – Time Warner subscribers can download past episodes).

Ms. Gyllenhall plays a British baroness, Nessa Stein, whose family is intricately enmeshed in the politics of the Middle East. Her father was an Israeli arms dealer, and after his violent death she and her brother inherited his considerable fortune. Despite her father’s Zionism, Nessa is determined to build bridges between Israel and Palestine – tunnels with fiber optic wire that she sees as a very simple way “to just talk to one another”.

Nessa’s stubborn desire to lead her family’s multi-billion dollar business through the quagmire of the region’s enflamed politics is at once noble and astonishingly futile, and her heart is torn in pieces in every episode.  She’s both cold as stone and an endearingly fragile character — Gyllenhall accomplishes this all while wearing enviable suits from Stella McCarthy and speaking with an impeccable British accent.

The Honorable Woman a brilliant, but unmistakably violent piece of storytelling – characters are brutally murdered in each episode, and the tension that builds from episode to episode is akin to that in HBO’s Homeland. The script portrays all the players – Israeli and Palestinian – as equally culpable, with blame pointed in a more abstract direction, to an overt theme of “secrecy”. The plot’s twists and the fine acting all around make for excellent television, the likes of which we may not see again this fall.

Warning: The Honorable Woman contains extremely mature content – from rape, to murder, with often upsetting sexual predicaments. It is for adults only.

STA0618TELEVISION_1078909k

THURSDAY, AUGUST 28, 2014

Book Report: The State of our Educational System

As the school year approaches, it’s good to take a moment and think about the point at which our individual and collective educational efforts are aimed. The race to get into the ‘right’ schools is all encompassing at each step along the path – pre-school, elementary, middle school, high school and college (and beyond). It’s easy to get caught up in the immediate pursuit and take our eyes off the prize…

…which is a well-adjusted and productive child who reaches his or her potential and finds his or her place in the world.

The goal can’t be merely be to get into Harvard — because it’s increasingly difficult for even the finest students to do this. The goal is to open a child’s mind and help them find both what they’re good at… and what they love. The tools necessary to be successful in these critical life categories include perseverance in the face of failure, willingness to take risks, and knowledge of self enough to determine a path to happiness.

41fnXeHzNxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Several books have just come out that address how we’re doing at educating our kids in the US. There’s a tremendous media frenzy surrounding William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” The author, a former Yale professor, claims that Ivy League students are so programmed to be perfect (spending all their energy jumping through the hoops of tests and resume building) that they perform like “excellent sheep” in college and get dumped into traditional money-making careers without adequate exploration of the self or questioning of the system. Excellent counter-arguments to his thesis abound right now (the best being The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller in a recent article “Poison Ivy” — which is required reading if you are tempted by Deresiewicz’s argument).

SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.12

Another new title provides compelling reading about how other cultures approach education. “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” is powerfully written by Amanda Ripley and follows three American kids who each spent a year in the most successful school systems in the world — South Korea, Finland and Poland. Her real-life stories track ground breaking research on the most successful classrooms around the world and Ripley analyzes how they reached these high marks. The comparison to how we do things in the US is jaw-dropping. Put simply, each of the three cultures place much more importance on education than we do in the US, and the proof is in the pudding. A prioritization on academic performance is written into the DNA of their students, who are measurably more committed to their own academic rigor and performance than are American kids. The South Korean kids literally live at school (sleeping during class is the norm) and are tutored late into each evening in preparation for a single all-important test that determines their career path. Finish kids have laser-like focus on their school work, but don’t sweat outside the classroom, and traipse about the world unencumbered by parental oversight. (There are no helicopter parents in Finland). The two examples represent polar extremes, and neither could be duplicated easily here, but Ripley presents a hopeful view for US students if only because the three most successful nations have transformed their educational systems within the past few decades.

tycw-pb

As for how to operate in the here and now, our next book will be Madeline Levine’s “Teach Your Children Well.” Stay tuned for our thoughts!

FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 2014

A No Brainer for Parents: The 529 College Savings Plan

My favorite author discovery of late is George Saunders, who just came out with a delightful book called Congratulations, by the wayIn it he urges kids to lead kinder, more fulfilling lives, with words of wisdom gleaned from ‘the failures of kindness’ in his own life. The book is the draft of a speech he made at Syracuse University’s commencement last year, and it will be my go-go graduation gift this year. Here is a 2 1/2 minute animated version of the popular speech.

employers-want-to-hire-college-graduates-with-these-majors

Speaking of college – we all want our kids to go, but it’s easy to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that the astronomical bills that accompany that education are going to magically take care of themselves… News flash: they’re not!  The daunting price of higher education is exactly the reason to start saving for college now. In fact, the average amount of college debt that students carry in this country is $27,000. What parent wants to saddle their child with that kind of burden? The job market is going to be hard enough once they graduate.

If your employer contributes to your 401(k) plan, you’d be crazy not to take advantage of the tax savings, right? Contributing money to a 529 plan to save money for a child’s higher education is the same type of no-brainer decision.

A parent would be crazy not to do it.

I heard about a college savings vehicle called a 529 plan when my daughter was three, and my husband and I have been putting money away for college for over 18 years. Her grandparents have also made impactful contributions. Her money has grown tax-free, enough so that when her tuition bill arrives I make a withdrawal from the 529 savings account. Like a squirrel who has buried an acorn for a cold winter’s day, we feel tremendous satisfaction from being able to cover the cost of her education, and that of her younger brother, with funds that we’ve methodically saved over the years.

The benefits of compound interest and tax-free savings speak for themselves to recommend the 529 savings plans. California’s 529 plan is called ScholarShare and is one of the nine best college savings plans in the country, according to Morningstar. We did not happen to invest in California’s plan but I remember that low administrative fees were an important consideration in choosing where to invest, all those years ago.

So whether saving $25 at a time from your payroll deduction or maxing out an annual contribution, families should do their best to put money aside in this nifty savings vehicle. (Click here for an article from Reuters about strategies for super-funding these accounts). A 529 contribution is also a nice gift for family members and close friends – consider the option of donating to a niece or nephew’s college plan at the holidays instead of piling on more toys (or, as an add-on to a small gift).

The years pass quickly, as I can attest, and you can imagine the pride you will feel when watching a young man or woman don a mortarboard and march with their class on Graduation Day. Without college loans to pay off, they’ll be able to hear the wisdom of commencement speakers like George Saunders with clear hearts, and head off to make the world a better place.

Like I said… a No Brainer!

800px-College_graduate_students

Here are some salient points to remember about 529 plans

** After tax dollars get put into the 529 savings account and grow tax free. They’re not taxed at withdrawal.

** The funds can ONLY be used for higher education, which is broadly defined as anything from graduate school and college to vocational school.

** The fund’s beneficiaries can be changed or passed along to subsequent generations.

** The money can be used for tuition, books and some room and board costs.

** Funds can be used at schools across the country or the world.

** Account holders can manage how the funds are invested over time. (ScholarShare offers 19 investment portfolios giving account holders options, depending on their savings goals and risk tolerance, and other plans should have similar choices for your investment).

** Anyone can open an account as a gift for a child or loved one. And families can make contributions to existing accounts.

This post was sponsored by ScholarShare, California’s 529 college savings plan. All opinions stated are my own.

MONDAY, JANUARY 20, 2014

MLK, Jr. Day Reflections: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen & a Charleston, SC Plantation

charleston plantationTraveling produces potent memories, and one of the most indelible experiences I’ve had on the road took place on the grounds of a former rice plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina called Middleton Place.  I can’t remember exactly why we chose to visit Middleton and not any of the other nearby plantations that had more popular visiting programs. We may have been draw to the “oldest landscaped gardens in America” and indeed, Middleton Place has spectacularly beautiful grounds.

But, neither beauty nor clever marketing can mask the history of Middleton or any of the other plantations that are sprinkled throughout the South.

Middleton Place is set along a lazy bend in The Ashley River, and visitors can see visible remnants of the rice fields in which generations of slaves worked. On a still afternoon during the winter, with barely a tourist around, every corner of the plantation felt haunted, as though the past were still present in each manicured magnolia garden or discarded horseshoe.

Middleton maintains a building called Eliza’s House, the home of the last of the family’s slaves, Eliza, who remained on the plantation after her emancipation, until her death at 94. The rooms are spare, and the single building attempts to represent generations of people brought over from Africa to work the rice fields. It’s a bare-bones, reluctant politically-correct attempt to explain the past.

Walking around the grounds provoked layers and layers of emotions – the plantation was eerily gorgeous, but the history of slavery produces a shame that is impossible to ignore.

Visitors interested in an accurate history of slavery are not going to get straight answers during a visit to the plantations. In fact, a quick perusal of the Charleston plantation websites reveals language explaining slave history that could be fodder for a college thesis, pages riddled with ironic and dated statements that dance around the issue at hand.  (Here is Drayton Hall’s “From Slavery to Freedom” page; it’s a bit harder to find details at Boone Hall Plantation, but there is a Gullah history page; and Magnolia Plantation also has a “Slavery to Freedom” tour.)

No matter the words, being in these spaces is truly haunting for the stories that are not told. And probably will never be.

I was reading Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family while visiting Charleston. The book, which won a National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1998, chronicles the author’s investigation of the slaves owned by his own family in South Carolina. A profound investigation of the commingling of the histories of black and white families over the years, Slaves in the Family is a riveting read, with stories as haunting as the plantation grounds themselves. The two informed the other, providing an indelible narrative for my visit.

12-years-a-slave

Which brings me to 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s film that is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave offers a profound look at the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for a dozen, devastating years.  Directed with a confident, calm hand, the film takes a measured look at how Solomon Northup, an educated and free black man, survives a horrific descent into the hell that is a series of cotton plantations in New Orleans.  12 Years has been called “the most painful, clear-eyed feature ever made about American slavery.”   (Christopher Orr of The Atlantic). The fact that 12 Years has a fair chance to win several awards this season is a good thing, because more people will be brave enough to watch the movie.

I admit to being wary of seeing 12 Year a Slave because so many reviews foretold the story’s brutality. I did not know McQueen as a director, and thus was unaware of his art-world credentials. McQueen grew up in London and went to a British art school, where at a young age he received the country’s highest honor for artistic achievement – the Turner Prize. McQueen’s unique combination of artistic and political sensibilities gives 12 Years a Slave a purposeful coherence and allows him to tackle a difficult topic with unflinching poise. (His previous films had political subjects, as well).

Indeed, the film contains many images of violence (rape, whippings, beatings, hangings and more). Yet, because the director remains focused on Solomon’s journey to survive, and portrays the preponderance of cruelty in credible fashion, the brutality isn’t played for shock and therefore has a greater impact. What is portrayed breaks the viewers heart, and the film becomes a peeling back to the truth of what happened in this country, on those plantations.

 Steve McqueenSteve McQueen. Photograph: Richard Saker

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, McQueen has this to say about his much-lauded film:

 “This film, for me, more than anything else, is about love. That sounds very crazy and very corny but I will tell you why. It’s all about Solomon holding on to hope and holding on to his soul and getting back with his family. He’s been tested on every single level, he’s been tested by mental violence, he’s been tested by physical violence, and at the end he survives and goes on. A lot of people are talking about the movie not in terms of its violence but about the endurance and love and survival.”

It is also, says McQueen, about beauty: “The plantations where we filmed are beautiful, but some horrible things happened in the most beautiful places. It was a very intense time for the crew and the actors and we created a family and supported each other in order to get through it and make the sort of film we thought we needed to make.”

The film is exquisitely well made, with moments of lyrical beauty that offer us access to a man’s soul as he battles with the ultimate human degradation. As we honor the birthday of Mr. King, there is no better way to remember his simple, eloquent dream of freedom than to watch this fine film.

For mature teens and adults.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2013

Remembering Mandela

Nelson.inddThe media has been saturated with accounts of Mr. Mandela’s extraordinary life since his death last week at the age of 95. Much of it is worth reading — notably Nadine Gordimer and Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker.

The celebration of Mandela’s life presents the opportunity to teach your children about the great man.  Here are a few ways you can do just that.

LONG-WALK

Books:  In a conversation years ago with a notable screenwriter, I learned that she often started her research on a topic with a children’s book, because the format required that all the relevant facts be distilled into the simplest form. So, there’s no shame in getting your facts about Mandela’s life from the authorized kid version of his autobiography.  Of course, you can also read the autobiography itself, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

images-2

Film: As noted by Thomas Freedman in the New York Times, the film Invictus (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon) examines key facets of the widsom of Mandela’s leadership style.  Many articles from the past few days have cited this film as a nice entry point to discuss Mandela’s philosophy, because it shows how he took the 1996 Rugby World Cup, which took place in South Africa, and helped show his countrymen how he envisioned the future as their leader. (The film is rated Pg-13 for swearing, threats of violence and brutal sports action).

Documentary lovers may want to take in Frontline’s Long Walk of Nelson Mandela. And, there is a biopic in theaters right now called Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.  The running time is 141 minutes, and the film has been a hit in South Africa.

Here is the poem, Invictus.

Invictus

BY WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2013

An Extreme Soccer Mom Makes the Case for High School Sports

Soccer Sideline

I am approaching the end of my tenure as a bonafide “soccer mom.”  True confession: I was actually an extreme soccer mom who spent up to three evenings a week driving my son to a practice field 40 miles from home. I drove him to practice long after he could drive himself, because I was worried about his safety on the roads after a long day of school and sports. But, also because it allowed me all that extra time with him.

After years of playing club soccer, my son was invited to an Academy team, which was both exciting and contraversial. Exciting because the team competed nationally and controversial because the Academy forbids players to compete on their high school teams. He competed at this level throughout his Junior Year, and although he loved the boys and the competition, he gave it up after a year to spend his Senior Year finishing out high school playing sports with his classmates.

This was one of the first difficult decisions he had to make in his young life, and it was based on two things – first, he was recruited to college for both soccer and lacrosse, and second, the Academy commitment proved to be just a little too much. Because my son was also playing football and lacrosse for his school, he didn’t spend the time he should have on school work. (The demands placed on the boys in the Academy are being debated all over the country, but that’s a topic for another time). There just weren’t enough hours to do everything in the day, especially if he wanted to get a good night’s sleep.

In our family, as with many families in this country, we love sports for the community it provides and because it allows kids to explore (and often excel) in non-academic pursuits.  My son’s example is an extreme one, but I have to ask myself whether we were wrong to let him pursue every sporting opportunity that came his way. His primary identification is as an athlete and he took full advantage of all the opportunities that opened up to him, giving him a range of skills and a good dose of self-esteem. In letting him pursue all three sports, we bucked the recent trend of specialization. In many ways the cross training helped him stay injury-free, and the joy with which he greeted each new season stands in stark contrast to the workman-like attitude (or burnout) that can overtake kids who specialize too young.

Football PreGame

The Atlantic Monthly ran a controversial article recently called “The Case Against High School Sports.” In it, author Amanda Ripley compares the attention spent on athletic programs in the US compared to other nations, and bemoans this prioritization in a global economy where American students are woefully behind students from other parts of the world, and are particularly deficit in the STEM categories (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics).

Even though Ripley was a high-school athlete herself, she “wonders about the trade-offs” US schools are making.  Her most compelling evidence is a story about a school in Texas that gave up its football team and quickly saw radical improvement in student performance.  The school wound up resuming most sports after the initial trial year, but restricted students to only one travel team a year.

Ultimately Ripley’s argument is more focused on the attention that schools themselves place on sports, and sets aside considerations of how athletics can benefit students, schools and communities.  The story provoked readers and received over 580 online comments. Passionately, readers argued that the lessons learned on the field are often as important as those taught in class, as this rebuttal to Ripley’s piece lays out in intelligent form. What the article really succeeded in doing was exposing a fault line in how we think about high school sports in this country.

Lacrosse Nation

As a family, we lived on that fault line, and gambled that a commitment to athletics was the right choice for our particular kid.  It’s true that the year my son spent playing Academy level soccer pushed the envelope of reasonableness, but it also assured his college recruitment. In the case of our daughter, we took the more accepted route. She played volleyball for school and at the club level. From her experience, I can safely assert that kids who play just one sport – even if that includes a club commitment — can readily balance their social schedule and school responsibilities. She elected not to play sports in college.

While my household might have been an extreme case, both kids would agree with me that the benefits of high school athletics – on club teams and for school – went beyond health. Participating in both school and club sports teams consistently provided an outlet that kept them busy. They learned that gaining a physical skill takes time, and lots of repetition. They garnered emotional fortitude coping with difficult coaches and punky teammates. They gained a gut-level understanding that athletes lose as often as they win. And, best of all, they made lifetime friendships and had a whole lot of fun.

I have never relished the much-derided moniker of “Soccer Mom,” but if being one has meant that my kids garnered these real-life lessons, I will wear it with pride. Especially as the years of sitting on the sidelines draw to a close.

 

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2013

Why I Love Borgen (and the Danes) Like I Do

Borgen CastI’m not sure when I first heard the word “Borgen” but the way it was spoken – in hushed admiration, shared like a state secret – made me know I had to watch.

Finding a way to watch the show was not so easy, it turns out.  After searching Amazon and Hulu and Netflix, and even Googling “How to Watch Borgen” one thing was clear; I would have to purchase the first two seasons of the show on DVD.

Probably the best $50 I’ve ever spent on media! Click here to purchase them for yourself.

Borgen is a savvy retelling of The West Wing set in the Danish Parliament, an institution commonly known by the Danish as the castle, or “borgen.”  The storyline follows the country’s first female prime minister as she navigates the politics of parliament and the work life balance (she has two children and a not-so-happy hubby).  She was thrust into the role of PM when her party inadvertently wins an election and much of Season One is occupied with the mistakes and humiliations of learning on the job.

The show, produced by Danish Television (who also brought us “The Killing”), has gained a cult following here in the US. Yet, when I mention it in casual conversation, most folks have no idea what I’m talking about. If you read television criticism, you’ll see it sprinkled among commentary about great TV shows, and just recently, I’ve heard ads for the show popping up on KCRW. The show’s 3rd Season is now being carried by KCET and has been credited for helping KCET survive its recent divorce from PBS. 

I sped through the first season and am plowing through Season Two, riveted by Machiavellian politics and infatuated by the strong female characters. While it’s true that the male characters are equally well-drawn, a large part of the appeal of the show (to me) is that the main players in the country’s drama are women. It’s thrilling to watch their particularly Danish blend of cut-throat careerism and indignant idealism.

The main character, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, is played by the spectacular Sidse Babett Knudsen without a scent of sentimentalism. She only occasionally needs to flash her mega-watt smile. Most of the time, she’s battling her political rivals or worrying about her stressed-out children.

birgitte/BORGEN

She’s the best heroine on any screen, large or small, in the past five years.

christiansborg-castle2jpg

I admit to being particular to things Danish right now. My 20 year-old daughter is spending a semester in Copenhagen, and I recently visited her.  But when she had to duck out to a class, I had one place I wanted to visit: Christianborg, where Birgitte Nyborg and her fictional parliamentarians spend their days. Like a true fan, I traipsed through courtyards and castle grounds where the show is actually filmed. Now, the interstitial shots of Copenhagen’s streets and rivers have a deeper meaning for me.

Copenhagen is a “wonderful” city — remember the Danny Kaye song “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen” from the movie Hans Christian Andersen?  But, what struck me as wonderful after the visit  are several KEY categories which set the Danish apart from Americans.  I might never have learned about these components had my child not spent time in this faraway city, but now that I know them, they’re downright admirable.

It turns out, the Danes are Happier than Anyone Else.

Take a look at a recent Huffington Post article explaining why Denmark was just named the “happiest country in the world”.

A strong health care system, equality between men and women, a priority on parenting, 50% of the population bikes and… they all believe in something called Hygge – it’s untranslatable, but seems to mean something like “cozy”.

The biking alone is a model we should consider adopting in the States  – great for the environment and for health. When you walk around the city center, it’s stunning to realize that NO one around you is overweight. No One.  Besides being healthy and happy, as a bonus, on any given day Danes can visit the terrific Tivoli Gardens, the amusement park that inspired Walt Disney to create his own version of “the happiest place on earth.”

how to be danish

Before my girl headed to Europe we bought her this book. The author is a fan of Denmark and simply chronicles a few highlights of contemporary Danish culture: the resurgence in Danish television and film industries, the basics of which are articulated in this article about the stylistic strengths of recent Danish productions. Of course, everyone knows about Danish design but it turns out the country’s food culture has also experienced an important locovore revolution in the past five years, spurred by a #1 Restaurant in the World designation for Rene Redzepi’s Noma.

It’s an exciting time to pay attention to Denmark!

*A quick trip to a Viking exhibit taught us that Vikings never had horns on their helmets!.

 Here is KCET’s Borgen webpage.

Photos by MIKE KOLLÖFFEL DR

WEDNESDAY, JULY 24, 2013

Films about Old folks for All folks

best exotic marigold hotelA few days of visiting with my parents offered a chance to catch up on two recent and very popular films, both of which focus on unconventional old age homes and the delightful inhabitants therein.

The first is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a tale about elders from Great Britain who find themselves encamped for the rest of their days in a once-glorious hotel that a dreamy young Indian has reconfigured as a make-shift retirement home. The story is gentle and profound, the film shot so beautifully it makes your heart stop, and the characters presented are as quirky and loveable as any on screen this year. With star turns by Dame Judy Dench and Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson and a curious camera that explores the noisy, crowded environs of Jaipur (down to having some fun with India’s favorite call-centers), this film stayed in my mind for two or three days. My father had already seen it once, enjoyed sharing it with me and was ready to watch it a third time on our second night together.maggie smith/quartet

Instead, we watched Quartet, the first film directed by Dustin Hoffman that also stars the inimitable Maggie Smith, this time as an opera diva forced out of retirement for one last concert. Instead of a retirement home set in an exotic locale, this story is set in a home for retired opera singers and is cast with real musicians and singers who have reached their golden years in real life and who must have been tickled pink to assemble for this film. Based on the play by Ronald Harwood and set at a Downton Abbey-like British estate, the movie is quixotic and real in it’s depiction of the vagaries and indignities of old-age.

Both films treat aging with humor and grace. To watch them with parents that are dealing with their declining years with similar aplomb was a simple summer gift. The first film suggests that we should trust that things will work out in life and the second explores the pure joy experienced by those who pursued their talent and passions – to watch the opera singers music of any kind (a child’s recital, an aging sax player practicing, someone whistling at work) is one of the film’s more clever conceits.

Whether you are spending time with your elders this summer, or just looking for an evening pastime, these two titles will make you smile.  (Quartet is slower and less interesting for anyone under 20, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a bit slicker and makes for an excellent choice for anyone over 16 who can handle a bit of sexual innuendo).

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2013

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

From the Mixed UP Files...

One of my favorite authors died over the weekend, E.L. Konigsburg. She was 83 years old. The news gave me pause – caught my breath up, actually. And, when I saw a FB from a writer friend who admitted that she’d shed a tear over the famous author’s passing, I felt a rush of camaraderie. Sure, it’s a strong statement about a book read too many years ago to count, but I would tell you today that From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler was the seminal book of my childhood. It came after Laura Ingalls Wilder and before Nancy Drew – if that helps you set it into a literary chronology of childhood — but the details of this single story stayed with me. Why?  The story contained a mood, and images, that I retained all throughout my life … and I was more excited about introducing it to my children than perhaps any other book. (Which is saying something considering all the hours I spent reading to my kids). It even figured in the creation of my first website, Kids Off the Couch.

So what is it about the story? (And, I say story because in all these years, I wasn’t particularly inspired to read any other titles by Konigsburg).  All the books I loved had female leads (see above) so the gender of Konigsburg’s lead, Claudia Kinkaid, was not the point.  It was set in NYC, which was exotic and wild to me, growing up on the South Shore of Boston, but it wasn’t just that.  Claudia was Intrepid. Fearless. And, most of all, Curious.  She and her brother ran away from home when things got annoying and hid at the Met for days, sleeping in exhibition beds, bathing in fountains and hiding from the guards before closing by standing on top of the toilets during a bathroom sweep.  It may be this particular, kid-centric detail that stuck with me — for, I often think of them tip toeing on the porcelain toilet rims and eluding the museum security guard.

More than anything, Claudia was Confident in her own intelligence. Like Harriet the Spy (who I liked a lot less), she got an idea in her head and followed it to its logical conclusion, ignoring the conventions of the world of adults and finding respect and answers from a cranky, mysterious older woman — she of the title — who answered her questions and set her back on her way home.

So, the book served as important talisman for the creation of Kids Off the Couch. When my writing partner and I dreamed up the website, our very first adventure was to read this book with our fourth-grade daughters and unleash them at The Getty Center to plan a pretend sleepover hideaway at the museum. It was a magical experience, because the girls loved the book as much as the moms, and because the idea of looking at the Getty as a place to hideaway was really exciting to the kids. Whenever we met anyone along our travels with that four year project, we’d test them to see if they knew the book. Anyone that did was a friend for life. And we never really trusted the ones who hadn’t read the book.

Here is the posting from many years ago.

E.L. Konigsbug, quoted on NPR over the weekend, explained why her main characters tend to be 12-year-olds. She explained, “Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer. Kids want to be like everyone else. and they want to be different from everyone else. So the question is, how do you reconcile these opposing longings?”

Now, that’s a question I’m still trying to figure out.

FRIDAY, APRIL 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

ebert_star

This is the way I will remember Roger Ebert – as the robust, thumbs-up toting film lover who loved movies (perhaps) more than any of us. As the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his contributions to cinema go down in history. He watched over 300 films a year, writing consistent and fresh criticism in a syndicated readership and popular television show that pushed film criticism into our daily lives.  And when cancer disfigured him, eating through his jaw and voice, he bravely faced the world and continued to write. That’s when he captured the hearts of millions, through his continued reviews and consistent tweets about film, and life, and… cancer.

I’ve relished reading the many, many loving obituaries in the mainstream media as well as in FB and Twitter postings. Here is a good one from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, and here is the LA Times article with a from film critic, Kenneth Turan: “Roger through his reviews, blog posts and tweets brought the appreciation of film, and film criticism, to the widest possible audience and into the 21st century. And his refusal to give an inch to a terrible disease was beyond inspirational.”  His feelings about the impending end of his life comes in an article in Salon from September 2011, in which he articulates a zen-like view of life. Read down to the part about “Kindness covering all his political belief.” It’s no wonder he is mourned so universally today.

When writing reviews for families for both Kids Off the Couch and The Family Savvy I spent hours reading his words, and considering movies that I watched (and often loved) in new ways thanks to his discerning, demanding and delightful eye. Through his words he could lift up a film that hadn’t found a large audience, point out the weaknesses of movies that were box-office gold and champion new writers, directors and actors with affection and confidence. Having been a semiotics major in college (don’t ask…), I had my fill of highly intellectual literature and film criticism.  While some pooh-poohed Ebert’s populism, as I did in during the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” years, I came to appreciate his fierce demand for films to be worthy. My admiration grew when he started to champion films from the past, in reviews and his book series Great Movies,  bringing the classics to a popular audience as a reminder of all that film could, and should, be.

He was a stern critic –  publishing a book of reviews called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and another called Your Movie Sucks – but he published many more books that eloquently expressed his passion. Pick one up if you’re looking for some extra reading, and don’t be shy about referring to the copious reviews on his website when you’re looking for something worthy on a cozy Friday night. (His site will reportedly relaunch next week with all his reviews going back to 1967)

Here is an obituary from the paper for whom he wrote for 46 years, The Chicago SunTimes.