La Misérable

Amid the recent fanfare Howard Schultz’s adroit publicists have stirred up around Starbucks’ new “We Pay for College” policy, many former critics of the mega-corporation are now waxing downright sycophantic.  Their mission statement – “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time” – has become a sign of genuine hope for a downtrodden nation.  Youngsters can hope for a better future by signing on with Starbucks, a life without debt, a life where a college education is as simply acquired as working a few hours each week for the Starbuck benefactors then going home and logging on to Arizona State University’s online classroom.  Raise a cup of Joe to the All Powerful Schultz.

But make no mistake, if you work for Starbucks, and if you don’t want to be ruined in the workplace, you must tread carefully.  And if your manager doesn’t like you, even if your manager is incompetent and vindictive, you may be screwed even if you are careful.  But one thing is clear: there are no mistakes that might not be punishable by banishment from Starbucks, and the Corporation is at liberty to deny you so much as a second chance.

Erin took a job with the Astor Street Starbucks in 1997, when she was still a student at NYU.  For four years, she worked for the Corporation, enjoying the work which allowed her to balance her efforts to attend auditions, to study her craft, and to feel useful in the workplace.  She was a cheerleader for Starbucks, and her managers universally loved her.

As she moved about, Erin applied for and easily achieved transfers to other locations.  She worked for a long time in the original Times Square store, which did not have bathrooms or seating but did have long lines and a high level of stress.  Sam excelled as a barista there, and when she moved back to her family home upstate, the company gladly offered her a transfer to her hometown Starbucks.

Still attending auditions in The City, still attending classes at Second City and the like, Erin applied for a shift supervisor position, and the promotion was automatically granted.  For over a year, she worked in that capacity, and she attracted a following of local regulars, who set their Starbucks visits by when she was on duty.  She, her co-workers, her fellow shift supervisors, and her manager got along famously, and they all agreed that they had the best Starbucks team in the country.  Andrew, the Store Manager, averred that they had, to his estimation, the best working team of any kind anywhere.

But Andrew completed his MBA and left Starbucks to take an administrative position in another company.  The regional office rushed into hiring JoEllen, who had recently joined Starbucks from a national clothing chain, and she was vocal from the start about how much she disliked the coffee business.  Her dissatisfaction with her new responsibilities were evident to everyone, but she made Erin her special project.

For reasons Erin was not clear about, JoEllen went out of her way to schedule Erin at exactly the times she requested that she not be put on.  Erin loved to open, but she requested that two days a week, the mornings after her late night classes in New York, she be allowed to work later or to be off.  JoEllen persisted in putting Erin on, and Erin went to work without complaint.  But because Erin was  very critical of everything Erin did, Erin was constantly terrified that she would make a mistake.  Self-fulfilling prophesy.

One morning, after returning from New York in the wee hours, Erin failed to hear her alarm.  When she awoke and realized she was late, she rushed to the store and opened ten minutes late.  She was terrified of JoEllen’s rebuke, as the manager had been increasingly hostile and demeaning in recent days.  She jumped the clock, changed the time, and she signed in on time.

JoEllen did discover the cover-up – a customer had complained that the store had never opened late, and she could not understand why it did so on this one day – and she summarily fired Erin.  “You might have well as dipped your hand into the till and stolen money from the company,” she told Erin.

Erin acknowledged her error.  She tearfully apologized, begged forgiveness, even got down on her knees in wailing supplication.  “I was only trying to stay out of trouble,” she said later.  “I never intended to steal from Starbucks.”  But JoEllen was obdurate.  The firing stood.  She had stolen the equivalent of $.06 from the corporation.

Contrite and miserable for her theft, Erin appealed to her regional manager.  The regional manager apologized to Erin, acknowledged the fact that Erin had had a perfect record for the five years she had worked for Starbucks, congratulated her on her accomplishments as a barista and a shift supervisor, but she told Erin that she was powerless to do anything to reverse the firing.  “The company has a strict policy that Managers have control of their stores, and to that end, the company will uphold any managerial decision, especially a firing for cause.  This is considered a theft.”

Five years of Erin’s work history became unusable.  No one wants to hire a Starbucks reject, but no one will hire a woman with experience-empty years on her resume.    Erin could not find a job.  So she appealed to Corporate Headquarters.

By this time, JoEllen had been fired.  In fact, she was fired just weeks after Erin was leg go.  JoEllen was actually skimming her store’s intake.  So, when Erin turned to the people at Corporate, she included that morsel of information in her letter.

Again, she received a glowing thank you for your service, but you are screwed.  After all, you did steal from Starbucks. We cannot take you back.

The world has not spun evenly for Erin since that day.  She cannot find a job, and she faces enormous, endlessly increasing student debt.  She had to drop out of school entirely because she could no longer afford to be there, and not having the degree has hurt her as well.

“I was stupid,” she says now.  “I never denied that.  But I didn’t do anything malicious, and even an ex-convict can get a job with Starbucks when h/she gets out.  I feel like a Jeanne Valjean! Shouldn’t there be some kind of statue of limitations on how long I have to suffer for this?”

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Bob Ziering: Portrait of the Artist as an Old(er) Man (republished by permission of Catch & Release, The Columbia Journal Online)

Bob P'town “There aren’t a lot of restaurants like this one left in town,” Bob Ziering says, leaning over his lunch.   A glint appears in his eye as he quips in a spot-on Eastern European/Yiddish accent, “So, you think maybe we gonna eat?”  Of course I laugh.  This is how Bobby dispels his basic disdain for talking about himself, and I have asked him some very personal questions about his life and his art.  Whenever he wants to deflect his reluctance to talk, he slips into one of a hundred accents. He has chosen to meet in the Piccolo Café, an intimate little Italian restaurant on the upper west side, where Bobby has lived since the early ‘60’s.  Like Bobby, who was born in 1932, the Piccolo, established in Italy in 1938, has at once an old school charm and a hip vivacity. Piccolo might look like a little, old café, but there’s a robust energy here, and it’s a good foil for Bobby, who looks like he might be getting on in years until he starts to talk – or sing or paint – and you realize he’s younger than any of the hip upper west siders who frequent the Piccolo. I met Bob not long after he moved to this community.  He was, in those days, as he remains today in a more mature way, remarkably handsome, extraordinarily entertaining, unerringly funny. My Uncle Fred, a loud, opinionated Genovese, introduced us at one of the weekly open houses he and my aunt hosted, where copious amounts of delectable food preceded equal servings of delicious music played live or selected from his extensive record collection.  Fred had met Bob through a gay friend, and he loved to point out to us that while he was definitely not attracted to men, if he were, Bobby would be the only man he could ever love. Even then, I understood why. According to Uncle Fred, Bobby sang like Caruso or Bjørling, painted like Rembrandt or Caravaggio and did imitations like Rich Little.  Well, in those days they were imitations like Rich Little; today he does imitations more like a geriatric Jimmy Fallon. In any case, Uncle Fred knew whereof he spoke. “He’s a true Renaissance Man,” Fred would declare in a rasping voice that no one could mimic as well as Bob Ziering.  “A monster talent.” “I’m 80 years old,” Bobby says now.  “I’ve had a great career as an illustrator, I’ve traveled and sung in some wonderful operas.  But no one knows who I really am.  I am working to re-invent myself, and I want to be noticed. I’m still working, still creating, and you’re never too old be discovered.  I just want to be seen!” In truth, Bob has been noticed.  Is still being noticed.  He had a long and storied career as an illustrator, his works featured in advertisements, on book jackets, on posters at the Metropolitan Opera, in The New York Times, all over the place.  And all the while he was working – freelancing –he took time to represent other artists, to study music and voice and sing in the (now defunct) Amato Opera Company, among others. Along the way, he found time to establish himself as a collector: Bob Ziering owns an impressive array of African tribal art, Enrico Caruso memorabilia, classical opera recordings.  Just as impressive is that as busy as Bobby has been, he has never been too busy for friendship, and he has managed to create lifelong friendships that attest to the depth of the man’s humanness.  Ziering is a man who simply commands attention and is anything but obscure. It is true that he has not been very masterful at self-promotion.   “I want to be reborn, “ he says with a laugh; “but I am easily distracted by my many fascinating projects.” The Kiss This is a man who, above all else, communes with the world through his work, and his work is his first love.  He has, in recent years, produced a major body of work, and the subjects are as diverse as the wonders that stimulate Ziering’s imagination. Nowadays, Bob’s work is colorful, expansive; it succeeds the elegantly drawn illustrations that provided Bob with a comfortable income for many years.  At their best,  the illustrations are tributes to Ziering’s profound observations, his remarkable insights, his ability to capture the essence of an idea or a character in the simple but dynamic assembly of lines drawn with pen and ink, and they are reminders of his salient influencers, the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Francis Bacon, J.M.W.Turner.  Ziering’s illustrations caught figures in motion and projected whole stories in single images.  http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/artist/bob-ziering// Bed But the newer work, the work of the past twenty years since he left illustrating, comprise the body of achievement Bob is proudest of.   In the new art, he is able to explore his emotions – universal human emotions – by telling visual tales, which he finds in his fellow humans, in animals, in burned piers and discarded chairs alike. “This woik you should see, dahling,” he whispers slyly, channeling his inner yenta.  “The woik everyone should see.” Silverback Ziering is a serious artist, interested in very serious subjects.  In the 1990’s, during a time of great personal loss, Bob was drawn to the plight of the Mountain Gorilla.  He became obsessed with the idea that mankind would soon render these magnificent beasts extinct. My Future Is In Your Hands In an interview with Nicholas Polities, of Print Magazine, Ziering explained, “The deep feeling of hurt I experienced seemed to fire my passion for expressing loss in terms of the species. . . . Without losing focus on the plight of the gorillas, I was also using it as a metaphor for universal themes of loss, cruelty, inhumanity, and death.”  He spent fifteen years researching, examining, compiling samples from gorilla life, from the foods they ingested and the environments they inhabited to the layering of their skin and the color of their eyes.  He worked to depict them as the complex organisms they are, to dispel the stereotype of the angry, beastly gorilla loner and to show what gentle, social animals they really are.  But he did not flinch from also honestly illustrating moments of aggression and retaliation. Reaching The series is a remarkable body of work and had exhibitions at the Marywood University Art Gallery in Scranton, PA, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.  As the Marywood catalog described, the “skillfully rendered images of the majestic and imperiled Mountain Gorilla underscore their endangerment. . . . The artwork is descriptive, suggestive and bold. . .showing subjects that have a poignant familiarity.” So Close The waiter in the Piccolo brings us our soy caffe ‘l ‘attes, and Bob cannot resist the urge to slip back into his accented alter ego.  “You gonna write about my sexy stuff?”  I laugh.  Discussion of some of his newer work still make him the slightest bit uncomfortable. As a child of the pre-boomer generation, Bob Ziering has came late to an acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and he had to learn to accept himself as a gay man, a journey he has given beautifully textured life in his artistically erotic chalk drawings of people on the verge of lovemaking, figures in intimate repose, etc., which have been frequently exhibited by the Leslie Lohman Gallery; three pages Ziering’s work are permanently on display on their website (http://www.leslielohman.org/).   The work is deeply affecting, but it never verges on pornography.   Rather, in the tradition of the great masters, Bob conveys a life seething with sensual stimulation that insinuates sexuality and tantalizes without exploitive titillation. Bob draws his face into a kind of exaggerated squint.  “You look too serious.  Vot’s so serious? “  I tell him that I am just concentrating on hearing the details, understanding how he himself perceives his work, and I am probably responding to the expression on his own face.  “Ya,” he quips now in a mock Dutch accent.  “The face tells all.” It was Rembrandt’s face that inspired another recent series.  Fascinated by the variety of countenances, the unabashed aging in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Ziering created a series called Rembrandt’s Face, his own interpretations of the artist’s interpretations of self.  It’s a startlingly revealing series, one that illuminates both Bob and his subject in surprising ways.  When I spoke earlier to Miki Marcu, an old friend of Ziering’s, about his work, and she chose the Rembrandt series as one she especially adored. “He decided on REMBRANDT?” She exclaimed.  “What a jump.  What a facility he has as an artist.” Rembrandt Not content to express himself through the animate realm, Bob has looked to what other artists would call still life for two other major series: The Burnt Pier, which studies the thrumming vitality of an abandoned pier on the Hudson near Bob’s UWS home, and the Blue Chair, in which a discarded wicker-back chair veritably dances, reverberating with color and motion. Burning Pier Bob lapses into seriousness when he talks about the medium in which he works.  “I think the biggest thing I have done as an artist since I left the illustration racket is that I am working in color.  I deliberately sought to transition into color, but I wasn’t comfortable working with a paintbrush.   Then Alan gave me a set of pastels one year, and I have found that they have freed all my spirits, which gave me the momentum I needed to really immerse myself into the life of my art. “ Pink Mist Alan is Alan Lawson, a fellow artist, who has been with Ziering in a steadfast, ever-evolving friendship for thirty-three years.  “Early on, he showed me a copy of Vermeer’s Lady with the Red Hat he had done in pastels, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen . . . .  He had done it when he was still a kid of maybe 17 . . . . He had not touched pastels since then.  I thought to myself that this was the medium that could bridge his transition from being a draw-er to becoming a painter.  So for Christmas one year I gave him a box of pastels, and what he can do with those pastels is just beyond description.  He finds layers of color, dynamism of scenes that I’ve rarely seen done in any medium.” Sitting in the restaurant, Bob sighs.  “I expected to do so much with that work.” “You’re still working,” I protest. “But nothing has changed.  The gorilla  — along with so many animals! — grows closer to extinction every day, and . . . .” His voice trails off, and he sighs,  “There is so much more to do.  I may do things a little more slowly than I used to, but I can still do so much!” Bob at Twighlight Everyone who knows Bob says it is, above all, passion that defines the man, and it is passion that drives the artist, keeps him young. Lawson, a painter and scenic charge for both film and theater, came to NY to attend school in 1979 and took a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he met Ziering in 1981.  He says that it’s always been hard to keep up with the older man.  “When I met him, I was just in my second year at Pratt, and here he was this seasoned native New Yorker, so knowledgeable, so passionate.  He was passionate about everything.   Talk to him about his tribal art collection, his record collection, his own work, and so many things . . . things that I had never heard of.   He introduced me to so much. . . . .And I have to say, his passion today is the same as it was thirty-three years ago.   His passions run very deep, they’re very strong, and he has an amazing vitality.  Boundless.” Ziering credits his happy Brooklyn childhood for his zest for life. Lapsing into Yiddish tones again, he tells me he was an aesthetically astute child, who loved the Friday night family food extravaganzas at his father’s parents’ home, in the company of all his exuberantly musical and artistic relatives, the first generation born in New York City, USA.   He had a great voice, and he loved to sing, but even then he knew he would be a visual artist.  “My mother told me she believed I was already drawing in the womb, that she felt movement that was more akin to the scratching of a pen than the kicking most babies inflict on their mothers.”    She felt compelled from the very start to introduce him to the cornucopia of visual art available to anyone growing up in Brooklyn, and he cherished the time he spent with her visiting museums and galleries, his favorite destinations. “You’d think I’d wanna go to Ebbets Field or play stick ball,” Ziering laughs. “I was a lousy baseball player . . . but wonderful gallery goer, at a very early age!”  His parents and his friends alike admired his talent, and he was fueled by their respect.  Yet his love for the work was always his strongest motivating force.  “I couldn’t wait,” he says; “to get to my studio in the finished basement, back to my drawing and painting.” “I enjoyed being with the other kids, but I loved being with adults, and I loved to show off.  The other kids didn’t seem to mind.  They knew I would play for a finite amount of time, and then I would retreat to my work.” Joyce Hellman, a classmate of Bob’s in the High School of Music and Art, Class of 1950, remembers Bob as a warm, loving, gifted but extraordinarily disciplined teenager.  “I was  music major, so we didn’t become close, “ she says, “Till years and years after graduation, after our 35th reunion, but everyone knew who Bob was.  We knew he could sing – oh, how he could sing – and we knew he could dance, but we also knew he loved to work.  Couldn’t seem to get enough of it.” Lawson concurs.  “Bob’s one true love is his art.  He has the good fortune of having his studio right next to his bedroom, so he can get up in the morning and be right at the heart of where he needs to be to do his work.   But you know, that takes a lot of discipline.  I’ve had it both ways, had a studio in my home and a studio away, and each presents a different scenario.  I mean, to get up every day and to face first thing what you did the day before can be challenging.  You’re with it 24/7.   Then too, it can be too easy.  Sometimes people need the effort of getting to somewhere to make them work.  That’s not Bob.  He’s an incredibly disciplined person.“ I ask Bob if he thinks he has this drive, the kind that sets the artist apart from the dabbler.   “Yes,” he asserts.   “First thing, every day, I go for a little walk, get my coffee and a croissant, and then, after I go to the JCC to swim or lift weights, I return and work till the light dims in my studio.  Then it’s music and friends and books and all the wonderful things there are to experience.  But first there’s the art. ” Face Me Miki Marcu, who met him when she was the director of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of African Art in Chelsea, where Bob was a client, says that it’s exactly his relationship to his work what makes Bob Ziering different even from the other artists she has known.  “He’s a funny man. . . a very loving friend, has seen me through some truly tough times,  and he loves all kinds of music and art.  But I always know that he is committed entirely to his art.” “Working every day is how Bob stays balanced on the beam,” says Lawson.  “Life can be a narrow path, and you can find yourself losing your footing.  Having that discipline, that drive to stand in front of that board is what keeps him balanced.. . . . “  Lawson tells me that Bob’s favorite work shirt is one he bought at the Dia  Art Foundation, in Beacon, NY, designed by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a sculptor whose work Bob greatly admires.  The t-shirt proclaims, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”  “I think he wears that,” Lawson goes on, “because  it speaks so profoundly to the truth of his own life.” In A Child's Garden And Sky Bob’s studio was probably the master bedroom of his spacious, rent-controlled apartment, and he is an eager host who never tires of showing off his works in progress that hang on his work board or his past oeuvres, stashed neatly in his art drawers.   On shelves, in albums and books, he keeps more of his work, carefully cataloged, meticulously arranged so he can easily find anything he wants to share.  The newest series is startling.  Youthful exuberance, naiveté, shyness captured in portraits of several models, most notably  “K” the personal trainer at his gym, a kind of surrogate for the young man Ziering was himself at 23. (K) 1 The series is called Aloneness, and through the work, Bob explores the dimensions of being alone.  “Understand, I am not talking about loneliness.” Bob says as he shows me a particularly engaging picture – the young man, alone, covering his face with his hands, posing but not comfortable posing, knowing he is semi-nude and being watched.    “It’s very different.  Sometimes it’s thrust upon us, but more often we choose it.”  This is his most personal series to date. (K) 2 By his own accounting, Bob’s best companion is his art, but he says he craves human relationships.  So his relationship to aloneness is dynamic, morphing as he discovers new dimensions in himself and in his environment.  He spends most of his time away from human contact, rubbing chalk on a paper hung on his board, drawing a story he is compelled to tell.  He works from photographs he takes of his subjects and his models, and he breathes his own life into them, interpreting their skin, their expressions, their breath.   “Listen,” says Lawson, “Bob and I have been together for a very long time, and we have been through every kind of relationship experience two people can have.  I know him well, and I wouldn’t say he’s exactly a loner.  He can have periods of isolation, but I can’t say I have ever known him to be lonely, and he seeks others out.  He lives alone, is self-sufficient . . . It’s very true that he stands alone in his studio when he is working, but his dialogue with his subjects is so strong that one can imagine him having a conversation  with the image, whether it’s of beautiful bodies in bed or a gorilla or a chair or an aging Rembrandt or even a burnt pier being washed over by the incessant sea.  And that’s what makes the work so resonant.  You feel the dialogue between the artist and the subject.” Bob at Twilight II In Ziering’s life, Lawson reminds me, he has had three very deep, very long-term relationships.  His communion with Alan, which began and remained for many years a romantic partnership, has transcended the many ways both their lives have changed. In the new series, relationships are at the core of the vivacity that defines them.  There is distinct dialogue in every piece Ziering creates, and it is clear and ambient.  The work is exuberant, joyful, celebrating the human just being.  The joy the artist clearly derives from the engagement points to a very important difference between aloneness and loneliness.  As Alan Lawson explains, “People who have been alone for a long time and feel lonely reach a certain level of bitterness.  That’s not Bob.  All you have to do is be with Bob, walk out the door with him, see him looking with interest at EVERYthing, and you realize he is not that kind of a person.  His receptors are always up, and he allows the world in.  With open arms.” I can see that here in Piccolo Café, where the waiters treat him like a beloved brother, and where he nestles comfortably into his familiar seat at a booth in the back of the restaurant.  “I want to be known, to be loved, but mostly I want to keep on working!” Which he will undoubtedly do for years to come, descended as he is from a long line of nonagenarians.  Like my Uncle Fred, his fans adore him, and they hope his best work is yet to be “discovered.” “He’s brilliant,” effuses Miki Marcu.  “A truly modern Renaissance man.” Burning Piervisit  www.bobziering.com

 

Trivial Observations

I love New York.  It is the very best and the very worst of everything, randomly assorted about the five boroughs, and it is always a surprise.          154478_10151743976298267_943420043_n

Little things are what dazzle or repel here on the Island of Manhattan.  The nearly full third-gibbous moon over Morningside Heights with three tiny specks of starlight on an early-September evening looks like the cover illustration for a fantasy fiction tale; the rosy claret color of morning before the sun has risen or the vagrants have found a place to set take the breath away.

And while I am enjoying either sight, I nearly stumble over a rat the size of a raccoon ambling unperturbed out of a garbage sculpture on the curb.  Or,  on my return from my morning walk, as I attempt to settle into my writing routine, my next door neighbors, whose speakers are on the wall their living room shares with my bedroom, both taking the day off from work this day, will crank the volume up on their bass, and the beat will rock me to the brink of insanity.

Then comes the evening, and I stroll through the lowering dusk to Lincoln Center, where I watch the dying light transform the sky to a sapphire backdrop behind the digital projection of perfect Puccini opera.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

The hunger, the joblessness, the impossibly high rent pale in the face of opportunities.  One night a friend treats me to a production of Brecht-cum-Ethan-Hawke theater, and Paul Dano stands next to me in the outer lobby waiting for the house to open, talking softly to a girlfriend, sipping a small drink.  Jeremy Irons approaches the entrance and held with everyone else, unacknowledged, unlauded, till the ushers allow us to enter, and afterward, when he finds a purse on the seat next to him, it is I who say to the woman coursing up the aisle, “Ma’am, does that bag belong to you?” and receive Irons’ sincere gratitude.

Another night, still teary from a pre-release screening of Enough Said, I stop at Handles for a shot of yogurt, and who’s standing in front of the eponymous handles, befuddled by the choices, but Mandy Patinkin.  The cool I felt in the presence of Dano and Irons heats up; I’ve been in love with Patinkin since the first time his clear, true tenor plunged into golden baritone range then swung back again on my Mamaloshen cd.  The man sends me. 180px-MandyPatinkin

This time I had to stop, breathe, remind myself that any minute now I will most likely be accosted by a foul-smelling man with oozing sores guilting me into giving him my last quarter, and I smile benignly at Mr. Patinkin, who has now figured out the delivery system but isn’t sure what to do with his yogurt at the check-out station.

“It’s easy,” I say.  “Just place the cup on the scale. She’ll weigh it for you.”

It Wasn’t So Very Long Ago. . . .

I wrote this two years ago, and today much of it still rings true. . . . Especially the last paragraph.  I do mourn the lost time in getting to this glorious day on which the Supreme Court of the United States of America finally that the bonds and protections of marriage are legal and binding nationwide, but it should not have taken this long.  And the decision should remind us that there is still a terrible disparateness in human rights in the country; women and minorities, neither of which is  in the minority at all, are still oppressed, and the rights of gun owners are killing our loved ones.  We have a long way to go before we have achieved liberty and justice for all, and while I celebrate this momentous day, I want my granddaughters to live in a society of true equal rights.

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June 3, 2013

The announcement on Wednesday of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages, is unconstitutional set me to thinking about Gay Pride Day, a day we take for granted in New York, an institution.  This year it will be more raucous than ever, and with good reason.  Yet, as the day approaches,  I await, as I always do,  with awe, elation . . . and with no small amount of sadness.

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It is easy to forget how recently there were so few who were straight without being narrow, so few gay men and women able to admit who they were in public, so few willing to support the notion that being gay was no less normal than being straight. Back then, we whispered secret messages, talked about “gaydar” and prayed whenever one of our friends went out for the night that he or she would be back unbruised, unbowed from a night of partying.

In that distant past of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, gay men often sought beards to protect them from the prying sensibilities of those who might want to out them, and when I, a naïve innocent from upstate New York, arrived on the dating scene with my tentative self image, I was immediately identified as one who would do very nicely.

My very first boyfriend was Mark, a Native American from outside Santa Fe, and he was the perfect match for me. A fellow theater major at the University of New Mexico, he knew just how to make me happy. Squiring me around in his fancy sports car – we even ran away together over spring break to escape the boredom and would have landed in NY if the car had not thrown a rod – he took me to plays and films, taught me to order alcohol, introduced me to all kinds of excitement and never expected me to “put out.” I was 17 and as grateful for his companionship as he was for mine; we co-shielded until I finally found a way to get to New York.  I adored him, and I thoroughly enjoyed his friends and family.

images-1When I moved to New York, a bit older and slightly more worldly wise, I was comfortable within that niche I had created with Mark. Uncomfortable with women, I chose to room with gay men instead. At Mark’s behest, I had read City of Night, which led me to expect that things should be far more liberated and out in the open in NYC, but to my dismay, people were nearly as closeted and far more anxious about being outed because here the threat of discovery was far more ominous – night life, clandestine and guarded as it was, was always in some Nosey Parker’s purview.

My last roommate before marriage changed me into a less participatory but equally supportive friend was Barry. Barry was gorgeous – a raven-haired Ned Romero type, tall, muscular, with seemingly black eyes that burned a hole in your heart if he caught your gaze, and a cleft in his chin that looked as though it would be a nifty place to go spelunkering.  A brilliant young man who wanted to be a filmmaker if only he could find a camera, Barry drank too heavily, smoked too constantly, and loved too voraciously. He had a lover named Donny, who would today be called his partner.  Donny was the gentlest poet I have yet to meet, a deep thinker who adored being challenged by Barry, and it seemed like the two of them had it all; but Barry was restless. He wanted more than anyone could give him. He wanted to be out in the open, to let everyone know that he was gay and proud, and unashamed to be all that he could be.

Which, I guess, is why Barry attempted suicide in the wee hours of the morning following Mother’s Day, 1969, a brief month before the Stonewall Uprising. I had spent the weekend at home with my mother in the Adirondacks and had gone to sleep late, worried I wouldn’t awake in time to catch the early morning bus back to the city.

Mom came into my room and called my name. I didn’t budge. She called me again. Still no response. Then she said, “Carla, Barry’s on the phone.” It was Barry’s name that woke me. “I think there is something terribly wrong.”

There was. A many-hour struggle ensued. I had to call the State Police who called the local precinct in Chelsea where our apartment was, and they in turn called the fire department, who broke down the door and took him to St. Vincent’s to have his stomach pumped. He had taken enough Secanol and Demerol to kill a wilderness of monkeys, but he survived. When I got to the hospital later that day – an eight-hour bus ride sans the solace of information (how did we survive before cellphones and texting!) — he was in ICU. The nurses allowed me to see him briefly, and he was only quasi-conscious.

When he did wake up, he told me to leave him alone.  “I didn’t want you to save me,” he said, his black eyes dripping with remorse. “I wanted to be free. I just can’t stand the charade anymore.”

We lost touch . I married, had children. AIDS happened.  I lost a nephew who was far too young, far too gentle, just like the friends I watched suffer and die.  Then things changed, albeit too slowly for too many. I am positive that Barry fell to AIDS; he was a prime candidate, and so many of our less vulnerable friends did.

In 1982, when I was living in Phoenix, the phone again rang in the wee hours of the morning, and I answered with trepidation. This time at the other end was the poet, Barry’s lover. “Carla.” The voice was unmistakable; few deliciously true bass voices exist in my world of then or now. “Donny.” There was a long moment of breathing. Nothing else. Then, “I just wanted to know if you were still alive,” he finally said and hung up.

I am guessing, though I cannot be sure, that Barry was already not alive. I never heard from Donny again, and I wish I knew if where he might be, if he yet lives, though I fear he probably does not.

For Barry and for Donny and for so many other friends I made and cherished over those years, I weep whenever I see the Gay Pride Parade pass by, as I wept when the Supreme Court made its positive but still wishy-washy decision the other day.  So many Donnys and Barrys and gave their freedom, their tears, their blood to the fight; those of our generation who managed to stay together through the decades can now at least “enjoy” the benefits of widowhood, can stop being taxed and fined for their inheritances and can claim the social security payments that are rightfully theirs.

But those men and women who cannot partake of the limited bounty, those who did not live to see these days and those who lost their partners far too soon must be remembered.  They earned the right to be celebrated, to be recalled with gratitude for what their lives have wrought.

So I wave, and I cheer, remembering the laughter and the nonsense of it all; and I am glad the gay community finally pulled together, invoked some sanity from the non-gay world and affected all this positivity. I am grateful that except for the –finally! – infrequent backlash to the movement, gays can be who they are with impunity.

But I mourn for the years lost, the lives lost, the dreams lost because up till now the world was blinded to an essential reality that has always seemed so crystal clear to me. It is far easier to find happiness by taking pride in one another’s humanity than to invoke stress by worrying about what consenting adults might be doing under the bedcovers in their own privy chambers.images-2

Salvation and Stu Elliott

I was never one of those gifted people who are called to teaching.  In fact, teaching was one of two things my teen self had decided, absolutely, I would never do.  As the oldest of seven children, I was adamant I’d have none of my own, and as a misfit who was terrified by teens, I was intractable in my resolution to eschew any contact with them.

To be a writer was all I wanted, and when I did have children — after all, life and love do intervene —  I envisioned myself a kind of Bohemian Doris Day typing away while her brood ate the daisies, but eventually I needed a profession with a steady income that afforded me the freedom to spend the kids’ vacations with them, and so I landed in teaching.  I got certified and cut my teeth in Phoenix, but my first long-term job was in Connecticut.

By the time I was hired, I knew that I actually liked youngsters, respected their wit and wisdom, felt comfortable among them.  I realized that this might be the result of the fact that those around whom I was actually uncomfortable were my own peers, and I was aware that I would never be good at navigating the rarified world of school system politics.  But over the years, to my own surprise,  I managed to evolve into a competent teacher, a good friend to many of my students, and a strong advocate for them and for my drama program.  I did so because Stu Elliott saved me.

Stu strode into my life as a welcome surprise.  He was a Clintonesque colossus, tall, engaging, boyishly charming and cunningly smart, and he was newly appointed Principal of the school whose grounds abutted the half-acre we had just purchased after our move from the desert. I had dreamily thought — and dismissed as fantasy — that I might be hired to teach there, and to my great delight, Stu chose me to fill a vacancy in the English Department.  When he hired me,  Stu gave me two gifts: some great advice and the drama club.  The drama club came first.

“The school hasn’t had one for years, and I think you’d be good for it, ” he crooned.  Who could resist that?  I could have argued for a Literary Magazine, but I knew, as an English teacher, I would be inundated with student writing, and the Drama Club felt right.

Then, as we shook hands over my contract, Stu looked me in the eye and said, “You’re gonna break the rules.  I know that.  I’m okay with it.  But do me a favor.  Whatever you do in the classroom or in your extracurricular duties, write a rationale.  Give it to me.  If it makes sense to me, then no matter how crazy it seems to the rest of the world, I’ll cover your ass; if it doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll tell you, and you’ll rewrite your plan.”

I never had to do a re-write.  He protected me like a guardian angel, and I loved him in the same innocent, dumbly admiring way the kids did.  He dropped into classes, shook his head in amusement, left singing along with us; he counseled me often when colleagues complained that I “got away with murder.”Stu candid

Too few years later, after a long illness had kept us missing him terribly, when he had just begun to segue back to attending school daily, Stu was hit by a drunk driver during an early morning jog, and he died before the ambulance reached him.  When the shock wore off, when we had accepted his departure as best we could, I would have expected teaching to become unbearable, but he had prepared me.

Before the illness, Stu was reaching up in his career.  He wanted to be a superintendent, and a few opportunities had presented themselves.  Called in to his office one afternoon, I had to nod and agree when he made me promise that I would support and if necessary promote the ascension of our assistant principal to his position.  “She’s not like me, Carla,” Stu said.  “She will drive you crazy because she’s all about the rules.  But she’s good for the school, and so long as you remember to keep writing rationales, you’ll be okay.”

He was actually wrong.  I did campaign for the appointment of his chosen successor, but the rationales never really helped.  Our new principal hated me, told me I was evil because I introduced craziness to the kids, but it didn’t matter.  And the reason it didn’t matter was that Stu had given me the Drama Club, and she could not wrest it from me.

The kids who come out for a drama program are often the smartest, the bravest, the nerdiest kids in school.  They can also be the most beautiful, the most popular, the most conforming.  That’s what is so great about a drama program — it brings the various worlds of high school together in a realm of mutual understanding and respect.  When I recruited the high school football team to play sailors in South Pacific, the cheerleaders came too, and suddenly at the homecoming ball they were all dancing with the “geeks,” singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” over the Stevie Wonder single playing on the disk jockey’s turntable.

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Michael Goglia on the set of Crimes of the Heart, which he designed, 1995

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No one had ever trusted me with a screwgun before, and I felt powerful. It was heady

I learned from all my students every day, but the kinds of lessons I learned in drama club, I’d never have learned elsewhere.  When Michael P. Goglia came to me as an 8th Grader and said he would like to “help you out” by designing and building sets, I looked at his skinny little frame and thought, oh sure; but he and his father came every time the auditorium was available, and they indeed built wondrous sets out of the cheapest materials one can imagine, sets Mike had designed.  And unbelievable as it may sound, Mike ran his crew like a well-oiled rig, engaging boys and girls, who had hitherto wielded nothing heavier than a joystick, in the construction of sets, hanging of lights, striking of heavy objects.  More unexpectedly, Michael taught me how to use a Makita (electric drill), how to construct a flat so that it’s sturdy enough to withstand a production but easy enough to dissemble during strike, how to create the illusion of water where none exists, etc.  I had studied acting and had been in productions, but no one had ever trusted me with a screw gun before, and I felt powerful.  It was heady.

When we did Our Town, I fretted about the sight lines for people in the first several rows of the massive auditorium.  Michael said, “Let’s rake it.”  Sure, I thought.  We can do that.  How?  Michael taught the others, and me, and I had no idea how huge this was until later that school year when the town meeting was called to vote on whether to eliminate my nominal stipend from the budget and thereby eradicate our program.  At that meeting, Misha Magoveny, who rarely sought the limelight for anything, addressed the assembled citizenry and explained how she would never have learned what the devil she was studying trigonometry for had it not been for drama.  “See, Ms. Stockton and Mike said we were going to rake the stage, and I couldn’t imagine how you figure out how to do that, but Mike said, ‘You use sin and cosine to find the relationship of the angles, and you go from there.  You know how to do that already.’  And all of a sudden, I understood what my math class was trying to teach me.  We found the angles, and we raked the stage!”

Every day brought new challenges.  The town council rented the auditorium out from under us in the middle of tech week.  The assistant principal approved a cheerleading extravaganza on the stage the same day as a dress rehearsal.  A flood in the storeroom wiped out our expensive muslin (for set construction).  The fencing team made regionals, and half the cast and most of the crew were unavailable for opening night.  Each new stumbling block ended in our laughing at the way we had worked out solutions, creatively, collaboratively.  We all learned the true meaning of teamwork every time we congregated.

Some of our problems were more devastating.  Two of our kids lost fathers within a year of one another; we sustained the loss by suicide, by car accident and by illness of fellow students, and we were assaulted by the insurmountable reality of losing Stu.  Having one another got us through the worst of times, and having one another provided more occasion to celebrate in the best of times.
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My personal battles with my political foes were rendered worthwhile by the faith my drama kids and I had in one another.  Two of my more schadenfreude-inclined colleagues reported that I was smoking marijuana with the kids in the costume room; another reported that I was perhaps, well, you know.  Because of the kind of relationship I had with the kids, no one ever took any of that seriously, and if I had to pay penance for choosing “subversive” material like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls or Crimes of the Heart, the fact of our alliance fueled my passion.

We traveled to conventions together, went to shows in New York, participated in competitions, created magic on the stage.  Most importantly, we all grew, expanded our horizons, learned to roll with the punches and go with the flow.  We learned to count on one another, to trust one another, to be unafraid to need one another.  We created a family that never superseded our biological families but that always strengthened our faith that family is the institution that matters.

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The cast of The Wind in the Willows, no-budget, student produced and directed children’s play.

Over time, I oversaw summer programs, several in-school programs, and one fabulous conservatory program funded by the State of Connecticut that brought professional and educational theater under the same roof, where NY actors and tech experts taught, mentored and shared the stage with the kids, and we ALL benefitted equally.

When I left teaching, I left because I could no longer fight, and I was always expected to fight.  There was never enough money for the program, so I spent — to the great detriment of my personal kids — far too many hours alongside the indefatigable drama club members, running car washes, mowing townspeople’s lawns, operating cake sales, selling goods at garage sales, etc., to raise the funds we needed to survive.   Everyone agreed that the theater program was worthwhile, but when money is tight, you eliminate fluff, and a theater program is almost always perceived as pure fluff.  I just got to a point where I was exhausted, depleted, drained of my resources.  So I left, and I have never regretted that I did.

But every once in a while, I like to remind myself how glorious it was to be part of that amazing body of youngsters who peopled my programs, how eternally grateful I am for the love and the wisdom they shared with me, how inextricably changed I remain because of the time I spent with them. They made me a better classroom teacher, one who is equally grateful for those students’ presence in my life, and together they all made me a better person.

I am a lucky, lucky woman.  And I owe it all to Stu Elliott.

Whom I continue to miss . . . every day.

It Hath Made Me Mad

Cold, sharp rain enveloped my city on the February morning when I returned to the neighborhood Loew’s to see Silver Linings Playbook for the second time.

urlI love attending the first show of the day.  Now that I’m a senior, I no longer need the price break; there’s something about the people, whose sparse presence affords me a sense of community while I luxuriate in the near isolation of a private screening.  The audience seems to be there to see the film, seriously, not to make out or have a conversation; people turn their cellphones off before they are instructed to do so, and they eat their popcorn quietly, sipping their water thoughtfully so as not to obstruct their own ability to follow what’s going on on screen.

This day, however, perhaps owing to the nasty weather outside, things began uneasily.  Sitting behind me was a young woman, clearly out of her comfort zone; she was wet, squirmy, audibly unhappy.  Waiting for the previews to finish and the feature to begin, she complained to her companion, “Why is the sound up so loud?  I don’t think I can stand it if they don’t turn it down.  I came here to see a film, not to have my eardrums punctured.” I wondered why the sound bothered her too much.   I read somewhere that hyper-sensitivity to sound is a sign of mental illness.  I tried not to turn around to look at her.

When the film began, I heard the girl sigh mournfully, her breath heavy with equal portions of aggravation and passion. “I thought this was going to be funny,” she complained.  “When will it get funny?”
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Then, during most excruciating moment of the film, when Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper) accidently slugs his mother (Jackie Weaver) and is attacked by his protective father (Robert DeNiro), the voice from behind me wailed softly, “I need to leave.  This is too painful to watch.”

I no longer thought the speaker aberrant and began to wonder how many others in the theater were experiencing the same level of discomfort.  Promoted as a comedy in the vein of a slightly more mature Judd Apatow kind of project, the film must shock people who settle into their seats and find themselves bombarded with the painful realities of familial dysfunction.  Most of us are at least a little put off.  Who among us has not lived through moments like the most disturbing ones in the film?

The Cooper character is identified as insane.  He has bipolar disorder, and others treat him as though he were contagious, distrusting his pronouncements, which, to be sure, are proclaimed, as he admits, “without a filter.”  They constantly instruct him to take his meds, meds he detests because they make him lose focus.  But look around him.  Is he honestly the craziest person in the group?  Ever?

When I was a kid, I had a relative who was hospitalized for depression.  She underwent shock treatments, was sequestered for months at a time in various institutions; then she was treated like a looney, derided and mistrusted by her nearest and dearest.  She had children, and it was particularly difficult for them, as they were left alone in a gossipy world without her protection.

I often wondered what she could possibly have done that got her put away.  Was it any less “normal” than the fights my father and I would have — physical fights, I’ll have you know — over whether I would go to church or what I would teach my sisters about sex?  Like Cooper, my relative was surrounded by a tribe of entirely unhinged personalities, yet she was the one who wore the scarlet I on her forehead.

When my relation was finally released from her incarceration, she was expected to take all manner of drugs, mostly the kind that made her drool and babble inchoate thoughts.  It was 1968, and the world was turning upside down, yet when she lost herself to uncontrollable weeping over the death of Bobby Kennedy, her doctors upped the dosage on her soporifics.  As if she were out of whack in a sensible world.  Meanwhile, I was running amuck pretending to myself that I was gainfully engaged in a (choose one) protest movement when all I was doing was drowning my fear in sex and cigarettes.  Who among us was sane?

What is the nature of sanity?  What constitutes successful coping?  In Silver Linings Playbook, the “sick” one tries to resolve the conflicts around him, to soothe the raging beasts who founder without ballast.  He counsels his best friend (John Ortiz) to fix his marriage and lose his destructive anger; he responds to his brother’s condescending attempt to make conversation by offering an embrace and saying, “I have nothing but love for you.”  He makes a futile effort to stop the tailgating frenzy that erupts when some of his theoretically rational compadres can’t control their urge to drink, fight and spew racial epithets.  All the while they are calling him the cuckoo, the wacko, the non compis mentis.imgres-3

His fellow nut case Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose embarrassed family attempts to keep her hidden from the rest of the world, solves the worst crises as they arise and puts broken Pat back together again while her entirely conventional sister is coming apart at every seam.

On the way out of the theater, I strained to hear what my neighbor would have to say.  I wondered, since she had entirely quieted down and had seemed to be engaged in the film, what she would think.

“I hated the first part of it,” she was saying as I slowly pulled my coat on and feigned looking for lost items of clothing.  “He just made me feel so empty.  I’m like that.”

The woman she was with muttered something I couldn’t hear, and they walked backward out of the theater, watching the credits, as I always do.  “I feel insane because I want to do and say what’s right, and it just gets so mixed up so much of the time.  And the world is so distorted.  How can anyone be sane?”

Just like the rest of us, I thought as I turned to take my place at the back of the rest room line.  The assembled women were quiet.  I wished I knew how many of them felt what that young woman had articulated.

I feel it every day.  Never more so than when I try to make sense of the news.

Two months ago, a young man named Adam Lanza took a bushmaster, an AR-15 automatic rifle and enough rounds to eliminate a large platoon of combatants into an elementary school.  There he gunned down twenty-six peaceful, harmless innocents.  The papers said he was insane, that he was being treated for emotional and mental disorders.  Yet it was his mother who owned the weaponry, stockpiled the armory in her home and then left it entirely accessible to her son.  Was she sane? Really?

Ultimately, Pat Solitano was lucky.  He was sent to the hospital by the law as a punishment for beating up his (theoretically reasonable) wife’s lover after he discovered them together in his home shower.  He got good care, found a very helpful doctor (Anupam Kher), and he learned strategies and skills with which to cope.  Most of us have to pay for our treatment, and it’s very expensive.imgres-2

That Adam Lanza’s mother, I, the young woman behind me, so many others probably need the kind of firm and gentle guidance Solitano gets from his Dr. Patel is a given.  But most of us cannot afford it, and health insurances are loathe to provide the needed coverage.  Besides, a good doctor is often very hard to find.

Which means that the vast majority of us are out there, swiping at stationary windmills, shouting at the moon, jostling one another with angry stares in subways and grocery stores, groping for inner peace.  It’s a problem.  A real problem.  One that needs to be dealt with in a big way.

There is nothing cute or dismiss-able about David O. Russell’s  brilliant Silver Linings Playbook.  It is a very real statement on how we view our fellow human beings, how we treat one another, how we drive one another crazy.

And it’s been effective.  Even Joe Biden and Barak Obama are initiating dialogue by citing the film.  But that’s only a start.  We all should be doing more than talking about it. We should be studying it, and we should be discussing what we can do to fix what is shattered and yet preserve what ain’t broke.  We should be insisting that the Nancy Lanzas get help right alongside their messed up kids.  We should be fighting for improved mental health care coverage and non-drug interventions.  Instead of stigmatizing people with emotional and mental disease and disorders, we should be standing with them, insisting they are more like us than different.  We need to recognize that it’s a crazy world we inhabit; loving one another is our best defense.

We must find ways to eliminate the desire to act out our anger, to employ guns to murder and create.  There are alternatives.  We will support them.

The last thing I heard my young neighbor say as she grabbed onto the revolving door to leave the theater and braced herself to meet the pelting sleet was, “It’s growing on me now.  I’m really glad I saw this movie.  You know?  It was really good, really true.  Don’t you think?  She pulled her hood up over her ears.  “It’s nice to know it’s not just me.”

Impossibly Impossible

No doubt about it, The Impossible is a well crafted film.  The Tsunami is impeccably recreated, the acting is superb, and the script orchestrates intermittent tears with the deftness of a klezmer clarinet.  I hated it.
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Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the filmmaking.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted a remarkably terrifying horror film out of a natural disaster, and he has captured the aftermath with paralyzing clarity and alarming accuracy of detail.  He has harnessed a physical violence no Freddy Kruger film could possibly find.  And that is just what troubles me.

What is the point?  That we should respect and fear Nature?  Okay, I agree.  That tourists should stay away from Thai beach resorts?  What other recourse if you want to avoid the risk of being swept up in this kind of maelstrom?

I wonder if Bayona might have made that point more effectively if he had written more about the aftermath of the ordeal, more about the emotional violence every one of those survivors must surely have suffered in the months, now years, since the tragedy.

This is no Titanic or Ship of Fools with disparate characters thrown together and forced to recognize one another as fellow passengers on a death-bound express.  And therein lies, for me, the rub.

This is one family’s terrifying wrestling match with Fate.  We know precious little about them, and that’s all we need to know. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts)is a non-practicing doctor and Dad Henry(Ewan Macgregor) has a job in Tokyo; she has a hankering to go back to England, and he is ambivalent.  Their three boys Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast) are pretty typical — entitled, smart, cute.  They make a perfect group to illustrate the blindness of fate; why does this family survive when so many others were so less fortunate?

In perfect horror film cadences, Bayonna lulls his audience into the family’s idyll — not just their vacation in this perceived Phuket paradise but, moreover, the fairy-tale perfect family they embody.  fmp-the-impossibleMaria is beautiful, bright, calm and loving; she soothes her husband’s worry when he gets a text that implies he might fact difficulty at work.  Henry is handsome, intelligent, affectionate; he spends most of the time before the storm playing with and hugging his boys.  Then, knowing the viewers are securely tucked into the family’s Christmas paradise, he dashes them against the  harrowing flying debris — cars, trees, homes, animals, mud — and bloodiness of the tsunami.  The audience reels in the center of the mayhem along with the family as they are torn asunder, roiled in the brine, dashed back to land, remaining on the brink of disaster every minute of the film and until they are, miraculously, reunited and sent flying off to Singapore to begin their happy-ever-aftering.

Which, from where I stand, is where the real struggle will begin.

More than the moment-to-moment endeavor to keep breathing, the life they all move onto will most certainly be fraught with strife that few films, few novels thoroughly investigate: the real struggle for survival, the one that starts after calm returns to the world.  One of the trailers boasts that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit, but in the awful 72-hour wake of the immediate tidal wave, we only see the beginning of the test.

Several times in the course of the film, Bayona’s camera confides the horrors the family witnesses on the way out of mayhem.  We watch, rapt with fear and dread, as Maria comes up from the brown abyss, gasping and moaning.  She sees Lucas, still a self-absorbed child, clinging to flotsam, whining, “Make it stop, Mommy.  I don’t want to be here.”  Then, despite all indications to the contrary, the two manage to connect, and so Lucas begins his fast-forwarded transformation into manhood, while Maria learns to allow herself to be parented by her child.  No doubt about it, the human spirit is boundless, and these two are riveting in their courage.the-impossible06

But then the movie turns quite ordinary, sluggish, boring.  It begins to rely on tear-wrenching moments of great pain and emotion-numbing relief as the rest of the family is recalled to life.  There are some lovely bits — Lucas learns to find solace from his suffering by relieving others’, an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) bonds with Simon under the stars — but we know how it’s going to end, and after a while we just want them to get on with it already.

The interesting stuff awaits them.  How completely must the nightmare in the water murder all their sleep from now on?  How entirely will the PTSD interfere with their interpersonal relationships?  How will the acrid smell and the visual obscenity of all those rotting dead cast along the shore, the road, the ditches on every inch of each one of their journeys to find one another?  How will their survivor guilt manifest?

Some fine acting has been captured in this movie.  Neither Watts nor Macgregor, who are usually fine, has ever shown more polished chops, and the boys are natural, believable, delightful.  Tom Holland emerges as the real find of the movie — his performance is subtle, nuanced, mature way beyond the actor’s sixteen years.

But how much more could this director have wrung from all that talent if they had had some human opponents to battle.  If, for example, they returned to England and found that no one remembered what they’d been through and just assumed that because they’ve lived, they should be nothing but grateful.  Or if Mom becomes a workaholic because she can’t shake the feeling that if she hadn’t been on so decadent a vacation, one of this would have happened.  If, after the idyll was dispelled, he had taken them back to — horror of horrors! – – real life.