Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Waiting for Sweetpea -- An Embryo by Any Other Name

What do you call a baby that hasn't arrived yet, and hasn't reached full capacity? 

This was my dilemma when our daughter Julia announced that she was expecting our first grandchild. I first figured that I would call it he or she. But when I asked her and husband Matt if they knew the gender, she said, "Oh, we're not finding out. There are so few surprises in this world that we'd like to have this one."

All right then. How selfish of them. Didn't they know I needed a moniker to pin on this kid?
I thought back to when she first told Marie and me that she was expecting and said the baby was the size of a lentil. Yuk! What a stupid nickname for a baby. Lentil. Sounds like a Barbra Streisand musical movie. "Grandpa, can you hear me?"

But I remembered that we live in the Digital Age, so I asked Google, "What fruits and vegetables are the size of a lentil?" There was a long litany of lentil-like names, all unappealing, one popped up that seemed just right.

Sweetpea. Yes, a veggie the size of a lentil, but more euphoric.

What a great name! It's sweet! It's diminutive! It's non-gender-specific! I announced that this would be the name for this child in waiting. a way to personify this burgeoning life, and it took hold. 

Jim and Peggy embraced it, as did our son, Francis, and his wife, Angela. Soon everyone was calling the baby-to-be this name.

"How is Sweetpea doing?," we'd ask Julia ("Doing the calypso right now, I think," as she winced in pain.)

Julia used the name all the time. "I was in a business meeting, and Sweetpea got bored and started kicking my bladder. I think Sweetpea wants out!"

Julia kept up with her improvisational comedy throughout her whole pregnancy, and she could tell that the baby was getting off on her performing. "I swear, I think my adrenaline went right to Sweetpea, who thought HE was on stage. I'm sure she was saying to the audience, "Thank you everyone. I especially want to thank my mother who made all this possible." 

But now that we are near the end of this long strange trip, we four grandparents want to stop using Sweetpea and give it a real name. Problem is, not only do we not know the gender of the baby, we also don't know the names that Matt and Julia are considering. That is worrisome. It could be some really stupid or outdated names like Bertha for a girl and Elmer for a boy. Or worse, Bertha for a boy. (I apologize to any Bertha and Elmers who are reading this, but hey, face it, your names belong in the 19th century.)

So now we wait. What will the real name be? More important, what will this new person really be? Sweetpea carries the genetic fingerprints of parents, grandparents, millennia of traits going back generations. Will Sweetpea be a birder like Daddy and Grandma Peg? Will s/he get the facility with words that Mommy, Uncle Francis and Grandpop Pasquale have? Organization skills like Mommy and Grandmom Marie? Considered introspection of Grandpa Jim? The possibilities are broad.

What we really know is this. We are waiting for you, Sweetpea. We are looking to see the color of your eyes, the tint of your hair (if you are born with any), and whether or not you have a cleft in your chin. (The last trait comes from me. Hey, I want to have some positive biological imprint on this kid, certainly not my clumsiness with tools or my complete lack of physical coordination.) 

But regardless of any of this, you will be loved and warmly welcomed into this world. Just hurry the hell up, Sweetpea. It's been a long 40 weeks.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Waiting for Sweetpea

Part 1 -- Annunciation

In spring 2018, our daughter, Julia, and Matt, her husband of 18 months, conducted an ambush on my wife and me.

Julia and Matt drove up from Arlington, Virginia, to help Marie and me declutter our suburban home. We had sold the house a month before to fulfill a longtime dream of moving into the big city of Philadelphia. We were empty-nesters, having married off our two kids in a 10-week sweep in 2016. Now we were selling off or donating loads of goods, as we were bound not to have enough room in our (not-yet-found) new home to accommodate it. Marie had already retired, and I was hatching a plot to escape my employment in mid-June. What was the point of retirement if we were bound by the same old possessions?

So Julia and Matt rented a truck to pick up our castoff furniture, garden tools and other goods for their home in Virginia. It was a busy day. Matt did a lot of heavy lifting. Julia rummaged through the memories that Marie had dutifully saved for her throughout her life. they included cards that accompanied baby gifts when she arrived in the world. Papers from her elementary and middle school days that foreshadow her career as a writer. Books, lots of them, more than I could imagine reading in a lifetime, but Julia made short work of them. Again, that foreshadowing thing.

Reading the cards and other congratulatory notes from her many years of youthful accomplished, Julia observed that she received a lot of love over the years. Indeed she 
had. Even as a little girl, Julia was loved for her loving nature and admired for her intellect and drive.

She winnowed those items by about 80 percent.

We finally sat down to eat, all four of us tuckered out from the day’s work. Marie prepared a favorite Italian American meal of pasta, meatballs and sausage, and a green salad. I presume there was wine.

Julia decided to take advantage of the fact that we were together to make an announcement. While she had us together, she wanted to tell us her plans for my wife’s annual Christmas Eve feast of seven fishes (also known by its Italian nomenclature, “La Vigilia”). The event is well attended and much anticipated. A seat at the table is a hot item, so Julia surprised us with this request.

“I want to bring a guest to La Vigilia this year,” she announced.

I was surprised, even somewhat annoyed, and protective of Marie, since the seating around the table is tight. I was a bit miffed that she would impose on her mother that way, even months in advance.

“Who is it,” I asked. “Somebody we know?”

“Well, you don’t know the person yet, but I can guarantee you it will be small and not eat very much fish.”

I got it right away. I jumped up, put one hand out to Matt who was close to me, and I put my arm around him. “Congratulations, Matt, I said. In a burst of male empathy, I added, “Good job.”

It took a few moments longer for Marie to grasp that Julia was announcing her pregnancy. (It’s not usually like that. I’m traditionally the denser of the two of us.) Still, she stood up and asked plaintively “Are you telling me what I think you are?” 

Their eyes welled up (business as usual for these two). They hugged. This announcement was a moment that we were not entirely sure would come, especially this soon into Matt and Julia’s marriage. Julia did not know just how easily she would get pregnant in her mid-30s. Not that she had any reason to worry, but she was also not taking it for granted. That was why she decided to tell us so early, just four weeks into the 40 necessary to bring this child to full viability. 

“I wanted you to know now,” she said, “because I didn’t want the first news from me to be that I had a miscarriage.”

I asked one of the essential questions. "How big is the baby so far?"

Julia laughed. “It’s only about the size of a lentil.”

She was right. The baby had a long way to go before being able to eat fish on Christmas Eve.

We laughed our way through the remainder of dinner. Uncertainty be damned; this was a happy occasion, goddammit. Wine flowed for Matt, Marie and me, though not for the mother-to-be. Beside laughing, there wasn’t much else to say. This was a baby in theory only. There was a long stretch of road ahead.

Marie and I walked Julia and Matt to the door, hugged them over and over again and told them how happy we were. We watched them get into the car, and then we waved as they pulled away to return home.

When they were out of sight, I closed the door and set the latch. I turned and looked at Marie. Then I jumped up and down and stomped my feet on the foyer floor, pumped my hands in a celebratory motion.

“Yea!” That’s all I needed to say to Marie.

Sold our house after a week on the market. Retirement for Marie. A planned retirement for me. A new home at some point. Now to be first-time grandparents.

Yes, 2018 was going to be a big year.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Baby Boomers -- Fools for the City

How do you like the new view that my wife, Marie, and I have? Or our new neighbor, Billy Penn, who looms over our new home in Philadelphia?

Yep, we have finally made the move that we talked about (or bored our friends with) for the last 20 years. We ditched our home in the northwest suburbs and have relocated to Bella Vista, if not the heart of the city, at least one its main arteries.

It turns out we’re part of a trend, not that we have ever been particularly trendy. Consider this stat: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of renters in Philadelphia aged 55 and older jumped 22 percent (compared to an eight percent jump among millennials). As you poll or otherwise probe our generational peers who made this move, we find that our own reasons and drivers were similar. We downsized from our modest, though still oversized, 4BR suburban home, which had at least two more bedrooms than we needed. We don’t have kids at home anymore, having successfully educated them, kept them out of jail, and made them into model, tax-paying Americans. Thus, schools aren't an issue for us anymore. (If they were, Philly would be a bad bet).

Much to Do and View
Additionally, Marie and I are culture vultures, and the city is awash with museums, theater, exhibits, lectures and the like. On the greener side of things, recent Philly administrations invested in parks and other open space, as well as parking.

Excellent restaurants have long been a given in Philadelphia. And as a follow up to them, there are many hospitals and other healthcare facilities to tend to my clogging arteries and soaring glucose levels. Believe me, I’ll be looking for a new endocrinologist there.
There is also lifestyle. The area we moved from was a lovely place to raise our two kids, but once we stepped outside our traditional Colonial for a walk, there was little to do or even see. Heck, there were hardly any sidewalks, fercrissake. But yesterday, I walked to the local hardware store in my new neighborhood, and I saw more in that five-block walk than I did in the last two decades in my burbs. Plus the walk itself was good for my aging constitution.

Despite what may be counterintuitive to city haters, Philadelphia is affordable for us. Even on a fixed income, our years of equity building and selling my soul just to have a couple of pensions have given us more money for housing than most of the poor millennials who are loaded with college debt. (Note: Data from TenantCloud, a property management software service, show that nearly one-third of all urban applications are for renters over age 60. Another sign of the influx of boomers.)

Planning is Essential
Making this move was not a piece of cake. Decluttering nearly four decades of marriage and packing up an old life to make way for a new one in smaller quarters was not easy. But we were systematic about it. We kept a large poster board in our kitchen, and we covered it with Post-its to mark the things we had to do to make this move happen. That included primarily of deciding where we wanted to go, then getting our own home ready to sell.

The second part was harder and took more time to do. It took us about 18 months to empty the four-bedroom house we owned for nearly three decades (to the day, coincidentally; we turned it over to the new owners on the day after our 26th anniversary of purchasing it). It’s amazing what things we call “shit” you can accumulate in that time. Extra CDs and DVDs went to the local library, until they cried “Uncle!” Unwanted or ignored miscellanea, such as books, artwork and the like went to Goodwill and other organizations. We hired junkers like JDog Junk Removal & Hauling to haul stuff away either for charitable donation or just to trash. Our contribution to the growing landfill problem in the USA.

Then we had to get our home ready, and there was much to do. It’s amazing how easily you can overlook certain things in your home when you are dealing with more mundane issues, oh, say like raising a couple of kids, figuring out how to contribute to their college education and their weddings, and replacing your job during the Great Recession. So in a relatively short time, we replaced the windows, replaced the roof, spruced up the bathrooms, and repainted and recarpeted the house.

These things work great in a sellers’ market. We put up our “for sale” sign on a Tuesday, and by the following Wednesday, we had two agreements of sale at our asking price. (We chose the one that had no contingencies.)

Living for the City
Next came the critical task of planning our new location. Did you see the reference above to a “sellers’ market?” That tiny detail made our search more challenging, and it took several months. (I suggest that you pick a reliable realtor, which seems obvious but is easy to overlook or flub. In our case, we were served by Ryan Kanofsky. He came to us when he followed up an online inquiry that Marie made. He e-mailed her, asking if she was looking; she said not yet. Ryan checked in with her patiently for five years. He was our guy, always turning over stones, making himself available on weekends, and advising us when he thought we were too enamored of a particular property. In the end, he, with help from his associate Caitlin Beck, came through for us.)

We shopped several downtown Philly locations, including Fairmount, Brewerytown, Queen Village, Center City and the Graduate Hospital area. All terrific, all worthy of consideration. But we landed in Bella Vista, the section considered the original Italian-American section of the city (even though early citizens also included Irish immigrants and African Americans who were former slaves).

Bella Vista is Italian for “beautiful view,” but it’s not the original name for the area. That name was part of a rebranding campaign in the early 1970s. Though Italian Americans still make up a large percentage of the population today, Bella Vista can still boast a good deal of the cultural diversity that we couldn’t get in the suburbs, including neighbors who are African American, Vietnamese and Mexican. We are so looking forward to this aspect of our new climes.

Our new home was voted “best neighborhood to live in Philadelphia” by Niche.com in 2016. There are plenty of parks and other green space, which are supported through a multitude of volunteers. The volunteer groups also produce public events in the parks such as summer concert series, yoga, and outdoor movies. There is a permanent community garden at 10th and Kimball, and the local athletic scene includes the sport that’s just right for an aging Italian American like me -- bocce. 

So excuse me, I have to drop this blog to run to John’s Water Ice up the street for a traditional lemon ice and a soft pretzel. The prices are good, and the commute there is minimal. Just don’t tell my endocrinologist.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Among Oscar’s Slimmer Pickings, (Just) a Couple Stand Out This Year

I’m getting worried. This is the second year in a row that I am unenthused about the Oscar nominees. I am starting to believe that it’s the continuation of a trend, an inexorable decline in the film industry. Last year, I believed that all the nominated films were good, though none of them great. This year, I think my top two picks among the nominees are classics, but there are others that may not have been nominated in a better year. Some are out-and-out bad!

We may be witnessing a sea change where the best works are not being produced by traditional movie studios, but by upstarts like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Are less worthy projects and talents getting greenlighted today in Hollywood? I suspect that is the case.
For those of you who know my annual blog, you also know the drill: These are not my choices of the best films of 2017, nor are my predictions of who will win. This is how I rank this year’s Academy nominees, from worst to best, according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I often quote Roger Ebert’s single criterion: Which movie made me feel differently about film this year? That’s what I am looking at, and for the most part, I am underwhelmed.

It’s criminal that Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River received no recognition this year. Attribute that to the producer, that major persona non grata, Harvey Weinstein. Anything connected to him is cursed in Hollywood this year, maybe forever.

As director and screenwriter Sheridan showed in Hell or High Water, he is a master at many elements of cinematic storytelling. Here, a master tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service (played with cool efficiency by Jeremy Renner) helps to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman in Alaska. As the story unravels, so does a tale of isolation, male dominance, cultural segregation, and, ultimately and hopefully, redemption. Well-acted throughout, a special shout out goes to Elizabeth Olsen, who gives a fine supporting performance as a law enforcement officer assigned to the case. (NOTE FOR LATER:  I felt much more connected to this theme of heartache over a young woman’s murder than I did months later with an ostensibly similar film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.)

9. The Phantom Thread — Mark Twain quipped that a classic book is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Same with some “prestige” films like The Phantom Thread — people feel they should see them, but most can’t sit through them. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread starts well enough as a handsomely detailed character study of 1950s London fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (stunningly played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The film shows Woodcock’s devotion to his craft, but with little room for anything or anyone else. Then enters Alma (Vicky Krieps), who eerily and without explanation becomes Galatea to Woodcock’s Pygmalion.  As we sit through Woodcock’s cakewalks, his personal quirks, and a murder plot that seems to come from another movie, the film eventually goes nowhere. The last cryptic shot of the film embodies the feelings of the audience with whom I shared this film: What was that about?

8. The Post —Director Steven Spielberg tells the story of how The Washington Post struggled to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified document whose release helped end the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep gives a perfectly fine and nuanced performance as publisher Katherine Graham, though I never for a moment bought Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. As a film about journalism, we get some cinematic flourishes, like close-ups of flashing phone buttons and trucking shots through a newsroom, spicing up an otherwise static story (this is Spielberg, after all). But I feel as though I saw this movie 40 years ago when All the President’s Men was released (which received a respectful nod in The Post’s final shot). Ultimately, The Post is much like eating your broccoli. Yes, it’s good for you and much more nutritious than other sugary fare. But it’s also not particularly interesting or very much fun.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — If I could give an award for “most overrated film of the year,” this would win hands down. I admit that I liked Frances McDormand in a focused, flinty performance. Another underappreciated favorite of mine, Sam Rockwell, injects some semblance of subtlety into a role that is grossly overwritten (emphasis on gross, in view of the gratuitous homophobic violence he commits). Both performers deserved more than this hot mess of a script — a grab bag of melodramatic, cheap theatrics with no narrative cohesion. Also, I felt no connection with any of the film’s characters, which is inexcusable in a film about an unsolved rape & murder. It all leads to an opaque and equivocal ending that is less thought-provoking than it is a device for ending the film because the screenwriter had nothing left to say.  This may well win Best Picture, but I didn’t like it one bit.

6.  Darkest Hour — This could have turned out to be just one more account of how Winston Churchill singlehandedly dragged the U.K. by its collective lapels into World War II. But it turns out to be more. Directed crisply by Joe Wright (a tidy 89 minutes!), we first see Churchill’s late-life rise to power as Europe begins falling to Hitler’s lust for domination. Churchill stands alone as the leader who recognizes der Fuhrer’s threat, and we see how the Prime Minister rises, falls, and ultimately triumphs in guiding Britain to leadership. The film is ultimately driven by Gary Oldman’s bravura lead performance. (Please, let’s just hand this most respected actor the Oscar he has been denied so long.) The Book of Proverbs says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Darkest Hour reminds us to thank our stars that Churchill arrived in time to promote a singular vision of a free world.

5. Call Me by Your Name — In its Italian pastoral setting, Luca Guadagnino’s film strikes a somnambulant tone that is sometimes too much (too little?) to bear. But look more closely to uncover its universal theme of longing and burgeoning adulthood in this story about Elio, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Oliver, a charismatic older man. In one of the most moving performances of the year, Timothée Chalamet conveys attraction, metamorphosed into love, only to lose that fleeting happiness to the realities of the world. Though the film is too languid for my tastes, there is no mistaking its tenderness, captured perfectly in the heartbreakingly long final shot. Special note: Watch actor Michael Stuhlberg performance in a poignant penultimate scene as Elio’s father. This fine actor is unrecognizable in The Post, The Shape of Water, even as Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo. Look for him in other films, if you can find him.

4. Lady Bird — More than another coming of age film, Lady Bird is a sweet memoir that felt as fresh to me as its title character, played by the wondrous Saoirse Rowan.  (How does this young Irish woman play American so well?) Rowan is supported ably by the rest of the cast, particularly Laurie Metcalf as her all-too-human mother, Tracy Letts as the supportive and understanding father, and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the Catholic school principal.  (The good sister has one of the most poignant lines when she compliments Lady Bird on the fullness of her writing. The girl says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan responds, “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”)  Likewise, Lady Bird flourishes under the attention of director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, who shows us just how challenging it is to grow into adulthood. A familiar story told touchingly by the ascendant Gerwig.

3. The Shape of Water — Much to love in this magical movie about a mysterious, saturnine amphibious creature that is captured in a Cold War-era lab and subjected to a cruel study. The flawless design evokes both the time and the Silver Age of DC comics, which were awash in sci-fi settings. Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaning woman who begins communicating with her fellow misfit. Though Director Guillermo del Toro weaves these elements into a unique vision, he goes astray in several ways: A fantasy dance sequence seems lifted from The Artist. A room flooded for a romantic encounter strains credulity, even for a fantasy. Add interspecies coitus, and this overly long (by at least 20 minutes) concoction turns…silly; no other word for it. Del Toro will likely win Best Director, and I agree he shows a gift for using film to create an otherworldly world. This movie would be at the top of my list if he had also shown some restraint.

2. Dunkirk — With 2007’s Atonement and this year’s Darkest Hour (both directed by Joe Wright, coincidentally), plus this epic by Christopher Nolan,  it appears the “miracle of Dunkirk” is getting new attention — a miracle because in May 1940, nearly 340,000 Allied forces were rescued from the French seaport of Dunkirk, mostly by civilian boats. (Had those troops perished, it is likely that the Nazis would have prevailed in World War II.) Dunkirk eschews the templates of previous war movies; rather than telling the story through characters, this movie places us directly in the bedlam of war, alternating between land, sea and air. Driven by highly credible re-creations of battle and anchored by powerful and compact performances, Dunkirk’s ultimate moral is how individuals can combine their forces to make a huge difference. Nolan makes large scale, larger-than-life filmmaking fashionable again.

1. Get Out — I have long admired comedian Jordan Peele’s witty takes and commentaries on race, violence, the National Football League, and other pertinent social issues as half of the Key and Peele TV show. But that insightful work didn’t prepare me for his jaw-dropping debut as a screenwriter and director in Get Out. With this film, he reinvents the horror genre in a way I would never imagine, injecting a social theme (specifically, race relations) into it, and it is not merely a perfunctory exercise. It is trenchant and powerful.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, an African American student and photographer, who is preparing to visit the home of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of Girls, in an underrated performance). He asks if her parents know he is black; after all, he knows all too well the danger (or at least the discomfort) that lurks in such a situation. She assures him that all is okay. Instead, when Rose’s parents meet Chris, they are actually very accommodating, even a bit nervous. Overbearing, in fact. There are some patronizing comments from the dad, Dean Armitage (deliciously played by Bradley Whitfield). Example: “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.” Mother Missy (an eerie Catherine Keener) stays more in the background, making her formidable presence known later.

Eventually, we learn that Dean, Missy and all their friends have a keen interest in black people, but for a horrifying reason. Chris’s uncovering of that secret forms the ensuing plot of this clever and fast-moving film. But don’t be misled by the chase scenes and comic relief (the latter supplied mostly by comedian LilRel Howery in a hilarious turn as Chris’s friend, Rod, proud of his stature as a TSA agent). Peele makes pointed statements about how we as American people cannot talk to each other, and also how racism causes many people to devalue others. As an auteur, he is smart, insightful and resourceful. Most important to his filmmaking aspirations, Peele is also efficient and polished: Get Out is well paced, clocking in at just an hour and 44 minutes, certainly not bloated as many first films can be. And it is economical. The film was made for just $5 million, and having grossed more than $30 million, it is profitable several times over. That alone should boost Peele’s stock in Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what new projects will come his way as a result of this success. Same for Daniel Kaluuya; he is a revelation in his role as Chris, and he was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his nuanced performance.

For its witty and perceptive screenplay, the integration of special effects, a uniformly high caliber of performances, and above all, its consistent vision of its theme, I see Get Out as the best film among the Oscar nominees this year.

On March 4, Oscar turns 90, and it is satisfying to see so much diversity behind the camera in many craft categories being honored this year. They are all well-deserved, adding a special touch to this year’s ceremony. I will be looking forward, past this year’s ceremony, toward the 2018 crop of films, hoping that they can raise the ante a little bit for next year’s ceremony.