I get a lot of grief from my friends who comment on how many movies I haven’t seen. Thing is, I have seen a lot of movies, it’s just a big percentage of them are in black and white. Even though I am not a prolific consumer of film, I am a passionate one. The movies I love, I really, really love. So I thought I’d share some of those with you, along with why I love them. There won’t be much in the way of film appreciation here. This is personal.

1.) Silence of the Lambs changed my life. It came out in 1991. I saw it three times in the theater. It was the perfect fit for my sensibilities and just as importantly, it introduced me to the concept of screenwriting. I saw Ted Tally’s name and realized that the director and the screenwriter could be two different people. I’d wanted to be a filmmaker, except I really didn’t want to work with people. Being a screenwriter seemed like the perfect solution – lots of time spent alone, writing, but you still get to tell stories through the movies. (In junior high I was a bit of a misanthrope. Avoiding people was a key feature in my dreams for the future.)

2.) The Royal Tenenbaums makes me cry. Every time I see it. I cry when Mordecai comes back. I cry when Margot and Richie listen to The Rolling Stones in the tent together. I cry when Chaz says, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” and Royal replies, “I know you have, Chazzie.” But it also makes me laugh. Every scene with Pagoda. Almost every line that comes out of Royal’s mouth. For example, to the Catholic priest, “Well of course I’m half Hebrew, but the children are three quarters Mick Catholic.” Priest says, “So they were raised in the Church?” And Royal goes, “I believe so. I really don’t know.” I really don’t know why The Royal Tenenbaums works for me the way it does and I don’t really care to find out. As an additional bonus, the fact that Wes Anderson was so deeply influenced by J.D. Salinger’s stories about the Glass family led me to those novels and short stories. I am profoundly glad it did so. Franny and Zooey is the best novel about faith that I’ve ever read.

3.) The Elephant Man is my biggest influence. As a kid who was bullied a lot, I wound up strongly identifying with Joseph Merrick at a young age. I read about him a lot and I watched this movie a lot. Guys, I even dressed up as him for Halloween. It was a really good costume, too. Thing is, not only did The Elephant Man dovetail perfectly into my young psyche, but it is also an amazing piece of filmmaking by David Lynch. In the end, I don’t think any other piece of creative art has had a bigger impact on me as a writer.

4.) The Producers taught me about the joy of comedy. Young Frankenstein, too, but The Producers even more so. It also served as the common point between myself and my father as I grew up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dad and I were a little too alike for our own good. My dad grew up as a class clown and he was worried I was going down the same road he did when I became one, too. So in a sense, comedy was both the glue that held us together and the source of friction. Also, because of my dad’s weird sleeping habits – namely, sleeping on the couch in the afternoon to the sounds of The Producers – I’ve seen this movie literally hundreds of times. Somehow it never gets old.

5.) The Big Lebowski for anyone who has followed this blog, you’ll know why I have special love for this movie. Here’s an explanation in case you missed it. But even without the personal connection, The Dude and Walter would have a special place in my heart. Like The Producers, it is a movie that never gets old. It also is the most quotable movie of all time, which is just so much fun. Yes, in the end, The Big Lebowski equals fun, and what’s better than that?

6.) Ghostbusters fits perfectly into the pattern of the previous two comedies. It never gets old, it’s quotable, it’s fun. But it is special to me because it was the first time I recognized that I had my own comedic sensibility. There were a couple of close-to-dirty jokes in the movie that made me laugh so hard. This was 1984, by the way. My mom, bless her heart, assumed I didn’t know what I was laughing at. As we walked back to the car in the theater parking lot, she explained the jokes to me. Suffice to say, this was the moment when I learned I was inherently more crass than my mother.

7.) The Exorcist was a movie I campaigned really hard to see at a really young age. My mom was like, “I don’t know…” and my dad was like, “Sure!” So I watched it. For someone already predisposed toward dark thoughts, The Exorcist was like throwing gasoline on a fire. Not entirely in a bad way. It made me passionately hate evil, so that’s good. It also ignited my imagination, such that I was kind of terrorized by my own mind. At the same time, it hugely shaped the writer I became, so I can’t really begrudge those years of internal terrorizing. Also, like The Elephant Man it’s an incredible work of art. I learned a lot about story from The Exorcist.

8.) The Philadelphia Story is a delight. It is a comedy of manners and mixed up relationships and nobody can play drunk better than Jimmy Stewart. There are a couple of odd scenes that haven’t aged well, but generally speaking it still fires on all cylinders. The dialogue crackles, Cary Grant is Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn is my patron saint of awesomeness. Later on, I learned another reason to love this movie – it was Katharine Hepburn’s baby. In getting this movie made, Hepburn blazed a trail for not only women in the movie industry, but for any individual who wanted to get a picture made their way. I love strong, smart, independent people who get things done. That spirit is reflected in the energy of the movie itself, too, even if it is a bit on the fluffy side.

9.) Casablanca is Casablanca. I remember watching it for the first time. I was in my mid-teens and I’d already decided I wanted to go into film, so I was looking into the classics. I’d watched It’s a Wonderful Life with great results, so I turned my attention to Casablanca. It was a summer night. I put in the VHS after everybody else had gone to bed. I didn’t expect much. I expected it would be boring and not live up to the hype. Ten minutes in and I was a goner. At first, I couldn’t understand the ending. I was young, didn’t get it. As I’ve grown up, I’ve developed a deeper and deeper appreciation for this story. It is everything everyone ever said it was, and more. I feel sad for people who have never seen it.

10.) Age of Innocence is, in many ways, a weird inclusion. It is, in a lot of ways, a collection of things I don’t much care for. Normally, I adore Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. In the movie, she made a lot of very ham-handed choices. Or perhaps that was at Martin Scorcese’s request, I don’t know. I love Daniel Day-Lewis, so very much, but in this movie you can sometimes hear his English accent and he plays Archer with a sort of softness I find unappealing. Michele Pfieffer was also sort of weirdly soft and Winona Ryder is downright annoying. The entire movie is slow, the plot is repetitive, and the ending unsatisfying. The score is at times overpowering. A more hyperbolic piece of music could never be found. And yet – and yet! – I’ve always loved it. For one thing, it is a feast for the eyes. For another, it brings you so strongly into a sense of time and place. The Scorcese attention to detail is astonishing. I love the wry voice over by Joanne Woodward. Ultimately, despite everything, I buy in on the story wholeheartedly. It feels incredibly real to me. It makes me feel like I’ve spent a part of my life in The Gilded Age in New York City and there is something very magical about that.

I could go on, but ten is plenty. Long story short – I love these movies and if there are any you haven’t seen I hope you give them a try. They’re worth a watch.

Sky Whales

Last night I dreamt I was at a house party.

It was late in the evening. The house was up on a hill, a rolling sort of hill, with big sky, not a lot of trees. The house was single story, sort of a mix of 60’s ranch and contemporary. One corner was nothing but glass. Most of the people at the party were older. It was a quiet conversation kind of party, but I did have some friends there.

I found a courtyard garden that I loved. It had Japanese maples and a lot of lanterns. It was a small space with one large tree in the center. It was dark up on that hill, we were far from civilization, but the party had so many lanterns that the fire glow kept you from being able to see the stars.

Leaving my friends behind, I left the garden, made my way through the house, and out to the blackness of the driveway beyond. The entire time I was at this place I knew I was in a different land, but I didn’t really know what that meant until I looked up into the vast darkness – and I saw whales. In this other land there was a level of atmosphere so thick it could support life, and up in the atmosphere there were dozens of whales. As my eyes adjusted, I saw there were also translucent jellyfish, the size of buses, drifting across the cosmos, the way that jellyfish do. It was magnificent. The miracle of creation. I went back to the party and called the others to come to the driveway with me, and we just stood there for awhile, watching the sky whales and the jellyfish swimming through the atmosphere.

Marriage Advice You Don’t Want, Part IV

Mirror image Fightin' Roos!

Here’s what might be the final installment of my series on marriage advice. I may add more, especially because I’m fixin’ to make a mess right here. It’s going to be a mess because I am about to say a couple of contradictory things.

Here’s the first thing.

Don’t give up.

If your marriage is going through a rough time, do not give up on it. Give it absolutely everything you have. Be willing to change your mind. Be willing to give it all your energy. Be willing to lay your body down to save it.

I’ve received a lot of letters about this blog series from friends and family who have been in the marital trenches. Both from people who have gotten a divorce and from those who managed to not only save their marriage, but find themselves in a better relationship with their spouse than ever before. Obviously, I cannot speak from experience, but hearing from those who were successful in saving their marriages was incredibly gratifying – proof positive that rebirth and redemption are possible. To paraphrase, that marriage is a good thing and worth fighting for.

A friend shared a quote with me:

“No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

Through grace, our failures can be redeemed.

If this isn’t a concept you’re familiar with, or one you buy into, I’d recommend contemplating it, researching it, coming to understand it. I can think of few truths less important than that one.

So to sum up point one – don’t give up. Fight with everything you have. Surrender yourself entirely to the endeavor. Hold nothing back. Your marriage is worth it.

Now for point two.

It is not the end of the world if you fail to save your marriage. You will continue. God will not love you any less because you failed. The people in your life who love you will not love you any less because you failed. And if you’re smart, you will not love yourself any less because you failed.

You will quickly learn that there is something worse than divorce. Namely, enduring a loveless marriage. If you’re smart, you will allow yourself to let go of all the things that are no longer your problem. Letting problems sail off into the wild blue yonder is pretty amazing, you guys. You’re going to go through a lot of hardship, getting divorced. You should take full advantage of every possible upside headed your way – and not feel badly about it. I’m guessing your sense of self-worth has probably been damaged. Here’s your chance to reclaim it. Moreover, this is your chance to become who you really are, unhindered by the 1,000 lbs. suit that is a dead marriage.

Here’s the thing – sometimes marriages die. Sometimes they’re dead on arrival. Sometimes it takes awhile. Either way, it’s better to take off the 1,000 lbs. suit than to carry it for the rest of your life.

The above reflects my experience. Divorce can go down in a lot of different ways. One of those ways being engulfed in a massive amount of regret. I believe a marriage that has even a flicker of life left in it cannot be abandoned in good conscience. Because I fought as hard as I did, for as long as I did, as fully as I did, I am not plagued by regret. For that, I am thankful.

(Now, here comes a part that might be weird for you guys to read. I am going to give Evan some compliments. Don’t freak out, you guys. It’s going to be okay. Some of you may not like it, but I promise you, there is nothing self-loathing about this.)

I am also thankful that Evan took off the 1,000 lbs. suit. In doing so, he released me from the same. Truth is, I would never have stopped fighting. It’s just not in me. Especially given public perception of us as a couple, there was a price to be paid for being the bad guy. Moreover, in making that decision, he took charge of his own life and began a new relationship with honesty. In the end, if he could not find a way to love me, the most loving thing he could do was to set me free. Ultimately, successful relationships must be built on a bedrock of truth and honesty. Which is why Evan and I get along sooooooo much better now than we ever did in the past. Isn’t it ironic. Don’t ya think.

(One more time: If your marriage is going through a rough time, do not give up on it. Give it absolutely everything you have. Be willing to change your mind. Be willing to give it all your energy. Be willing to lay your body down to save it. Marriage is a good thing and worth fighting for.)

I Need Your Advice About My Dogs

Angel, the stray who wound up having her puppies in my friend's barn. Shenanigans is to the left of the picture. Tom is underneath somewhere.

This isn’t going to be a normal blog post. I need advice, but I want to tell the backstory, which would be far too much for a Facebook post, so I am using this space instead. Not ideal, but hopefully people will read this and give me advice.

Five years ago, Shenanigans and Tom were born into a large litter of mutts. Their mother was a huge dog, part Great Pyrenees, part who knows what (Shenanigans got her mother’s polydactylism, Tom did not). Their father was a purebred Australian cattle dog. The puppies looked like cattle dogs, except for Shenanigans. She was the biggest puppy and mostly solid black. I wanted her and I wanted to name her Shenanigans. But I also wanted a Tom Foolery. One of the plainest puppies, a blue male, crawled over to me as soon as he could crawl and never left me. Whenever I visited the litter, that one puppy would seek me out and stay with me, even when the rest of the litter would reform into a sleeping ball of dog. He was my Tom Foolery.

I found a rescue group to take the litter, but I kept Tom and Shenanigans, ostensibly to give to a friend. But that sort of fell through/I really, really didn’t want to give them up. I wound up keeping them. Evan didn’t want them, and as a result, they became outdoor dogs. I always felt guilty about this, so I tried to make up for it with lots of obedience training, walks in the woods, dog park trips, playing in the yard, even sheep herding. (Tom, who is very smart, was a sheep herding rock star. Shenanigans, the most maternal animal even born, was a conscientious objector. She just wanted to love the sheep.)

Tom Foolery as a young man.

Recently, I’ve been turning them into indoor/outdoor dogs. Whenever they come in they remind me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, where the characters go to heaven and each thinks, “Surely, this cannot be meant for me.” It makes me feel like I failed them. Right now, as I write this, Tom has his nose on my left elbow and a look of pure rapture on his face. He is gloriously happy.

I am the opposite of gloriously happy.

In less than a month, I am going to LA. It might surprise you to hear this, but a BFA in screenwriting only gets you so far in South Carolina. I will be there for a handful of weeks, during which time I am going to try to figure out a way to move there. I might succeed, I might fail. (It’s not something I am going to do if I can’t afford it.)

I have six animals, you guys. The chance I could afford a place in LA where I could house all six is essentially nil.

In an ideal world, I would find a friend willing to keep my dogs until I could afford such a place, but I’m not hopeful that I’ll be able to find such an arrangement.

Placing them permanently seems more likely, but there I run into another issue. Shenanigans’ favorite person in the whole wide world is Evan’s mom, Alice. This makes me pretty confident she’d be equally happy with someone who isn’t me. I’m not sure if that holds true for Tom, who is a one person dog. He picked me when he was tiny puppy and never looked back on that

Little Shenanigans, using her brother as an elbow rest.

decision. So, I could place Shenanigans and not Tom, but I worry he’d be lonely without her. And would it be fair to him, this dog that loves the woods and his backyard, to turn him into a city dog?

It occurs to me that all of this may read like a lot of agonizing over something that isn’t very important, in the grand scheme of things. It’s like in Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart makes the observation that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’d imagine it amounts to even less when it’s the problems of a couple of dogs. Not that either of them knows there is a problem. Ignorance is bliss. (Tom is still at my elbow, smiling at me. He smiles.)

I know these problems aren’t important, but this doesn’t stop me from crying about them. Tom Foolery and Shenanigans, more than anyone, have been there for me. They have been my solace. They are my family. They are always happy to see me when I come home. There was a time when my life was darkness and anxiety, but when I’d pull up into the driveway and Tom would always be there, rain or shine, his tail a giant windmill of wag.

I have never placed a dog or a cat before. Once you’re a part of my family, you’re a part of my family forever. I keep my commitments and I try my best to do right by them. Not only do I feel like I have failed to do right by my dogs, I feel like I am preparing to repay their loyal service with betrayal.

Shenanigans and Tom Foolery today.

But maybe these are over dramatic and inaccurate thoughts. Maybe they’d be happier in a new home, where they’d get to be inside a lot. Certainly, Shenanigans would like to be a professional laying down dog at this point in her life. When we go on our woodland rambles she plods along slowly beside me, only occasionally trotting after Tom. Tom, meanwhile, is still as much of an explorer as he ever was, checking out miles of forest for each one I cover. He always checks in on me, though. He’ll be gone for awhile, but then he pops up, lays eyes on me, and bounds off again. Sometimes, when he gets a little too comfortable with staying gone, I’ll put him on the leash for a few days. He’ll walk patiently beside me, as if he didn’t really want to be somewhere else. He’s a good dog. They’re both good dogs. If they weren’t, this wouldn’t be so hard.

Long story short – I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s best for them. I want to do whatever is best for them. I know that nobody can really answer these questions. But any and all thoughts and pieces of advice would be welcome.

How to Survive the End of the World

Once your world has ended it will feel like there is a bowling ball in your stomach. This is normal.

Your friends will ask you to come take a walk with them. This will not help. You should go anyway.

When you wake up in the morning, sometimes you will wake up knowing. Sometimes you will wake up having forgotten. It is better to wake up knowing.

People will tell you how to feel. Do not listen to them. Especially do not listen to them if they tell you to feel angry and you do not, or if they tell you not to feel angry and you do.

You have taken care of your pets for years. Let them take care of you. They will do an excellent job.

People will tell you what to do. Listen to them with an open mind, but follow your own instincts. Your instincts are distinct from your fears. This is a good opportunity to learn the difference.

You will decide that you need company, so you will find people. As soon as you find them, you will realize that you need to be alone. Continue to move back and forth between company and solitude. Eventually, you will stop moving, but you will not sleep.

This may not be the first time your world has ended. Do not look to the past for clues about how to navigate the present. Every world is unique; they all end differently.

Take long walks with your dogs in the wilderness. Let yourself get lost. Climb mountains. Cross rivers. Do not worry that anything bad will happen to you. It will not. God is not that merciful.

There will come a day when you will forget that the world has ended for just a moment. You will laugh and then you will remember. This will hurt.

Sometimes you will feel like you’re doing well. This is good, because you are. Sometimes it will feel like you’re barely holding on. This is okay, because you are.

At a certain point, life will return to normal. Except it won’t. You have survived the end of the world. You are now living in a new one. It may never be as good as the one that has ended. It may be better. It will be different. And so will you.