Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Sentimental Cynic Views a Chick Flick

January 28

Yesterday I had lunch with Don, a friend who unabashedly admits he likes chick flicks. It was raining and quite chilly, and when I got home I yearned for a nice warm movie to crawl into.

One of the movies on the tube last night, a slight film with the title 13 Going on 30, was fine fare for my mood. Even though it meant enduring the constant interruption for annoying commercials -- during which I could channel-surf and observe and hear the drone of authors on Book TV on C-Span 2 -- I found myself intrigued with this little female version of Big.

The advantage this movie had to me is my lifelong admiration for girls in the age span of 11-13. There is something so touching about this age, particularly for females, before they really begin to think about how beautiful they are and how best to enhance whatever charms they have. A friend once described this life passage as "the grace period," referring to the authentic and often clumsy, childlike joy of girls before they begin to prepare to become women. Maybe my fascination is based on memory of myself at that time, enjoying the freedom from the oppression of competition for the the new shade of lipstick, the new charm bracelet, the right kind of shoes. Little girls of that age love each other, and, though they often yearn for grownup traits, they don't really have them yet.

The beginning of 13 Going on 30 captures that, in the beginning of the movie, when the little girl -- perfectly personified by Christa B. Allen -- is planning her 13th birthday party. She is best friends with the boy next door, and she seeks acceptance by the obnoxious "in" group of girls, admitting that she will do anything to be like them. To escape the nightmare of the party (during which the girls play a cruel trick involving the boy next door whom they regard as nerdy), she must become like a celebrity in her favorite magazine, that is, she must become 30 years old and love it.

The movie is silly, actually, with the device of magic dust transforming her to age 30; just as Big transformed Tom Hanks through an amusement park machine. Given that, and given that I was already hooked and eager to see what Jennifer Garner could do in the Hanks-like transformation, I stayed with it and remained at least bemused by the rest of the film and quite hooked by the inevitable ending.

Garner, it turns out, does a nice turn at being a 12-year-old in a 30-year-old body. (I know she's chronologically 13, but to me it's more 12 since it's just her birthday.) She adores her clothes, loathes the men in her 30-year-old life, and seeks out the boy who used to live next door, whom apparently she had traumatized all those years ago as part of the party trick. Luckily the boy next door is now played by Mark Ruffalo, and is now a hunky photographer and she is now a powerful women's magazine editor.

I won't give away any more of the plot, such as it is. Let's just say my favorite scenes were the dancing of "Thriller," first so touchingly by Christa B. Allen, and later by Garner, Ruffalo, and a host of New York sophisticates said to be in the publishing biz.

This is not a movie of any consequence. It is entertainment, if you're willing to suspend disbelief. I was happy to get acquainted with the pre-Affleck Jennifer Garner, who, in 2004 when the film was released, had a very shapely body atypical of the times (read: She actually had hips), and see that there is considerable flair for comedy there. Mark Ruffalo won me over too. And Christa B. Allen, wherever she may be now that she is outside the grace period, I shall forever hold in my memory as the prototype of a little girl of that certain special age.

And guess what: 13 Going on 30 will be shown again tonight on the Fox Movie Channel at 6 P.M. EST.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Revisiting a Butterfly Tree

January 24, 2007

When I first sat at the table signing copies of the original edition of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, I was under the impression that I had written a book about Fairhope, sure, but one with broader appeal than that. There were tourist books about Fairhope already in 2001; books on where to eat and why to move to the toney bayside village. I thought I had written kind of a shorter Lake Wobegone Days with a Single Tax slant, a picture of a unique place with a personality that would appeal to people who really had no sense of different ways of looking at things.

In Fairhope, by far the most compelling chapters seemed to be those written by Bob Bell, my collaborator who had enjoyed a lifelong love affair with his own memories of the town in the 1940's and 50's. When people urged me to write a second book, I felt it should be gutsier, grittier; in short, it should tell of some of the iconoclasts who had changed their lives by moving to early Fairhope or changed early Fairhope by moving to it with their maverick ways intact.

Publishers, when I worked to get a reprint done after the initial 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree sold out, told me they felt it was a book that would have only local appeal, and they said the same thing about The Fair Hope of Heaven, the second book. It has a certain amount of charm, they said, but the world really doesn't need to know about Fairhope.

Recently I sold a copy to Dan Spiro, author of an excellent new novel called The Creed Room, and writer of a blog called The Empathic Rationalist, which is linked to this one. He has never laid eyes on Fairhope, and I'll venture to say had never heard of it before I wrote him about my book. He liked MMATBT and offered to write a review of it for, as two of my friends, including one who identifies himself as John Sweden when he comments on this blog, had done before him.

Imagine the little thrill I felt when greeted with a copy of his review this morning in the email box:

Butterfly trees, the authors tell us, refer to a species of plant that "attract butterflies, which alight upon them, sometimes all at once, creating a visual spectacle that is very pleasing to the human spirit." Notice the word choice: not that these trees are pleasing to the eyes, but that they are pleasing to the spirit. That is precisely how I would describe this book. For those, like me, who share its authors' values, we can't help but find this book and the town that it describes to be spiritually uplifting.

Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree is a beautiful portrait of a place. In this portrait we find a group of people, all of whom beat to their own eccentric drummers, who somehow come together like butterflies on a tree and light up their environment with love, encouragement, and mutual respect. I was particularly taken by the description of the School of Organic Education, which is the antithesis of the modern status-conscious, teach-to-the-test, mind-numbing school that has come to dominate our society in the era of No Child Left Behind. It is clear that the Organic school depicted in this book didn't need slogans to demonstrate its commitment to universal education. But nor did it need to stress test scores. Its faculty were the types who care about creativity, and who value learning for its own sake and wish to inspire students to do the same. The result, no doubt, is a community of lifelong learners -- not mere grade-grubbing pre-professionals.

I could criticize this book by saying that its initial chapters didn't fully grab my interest. But I've never been to Fairhope, nor any town remotely like it, and hail from one of the most self-obsessed, workaholic cultures in the world (the legal world of Washington, D.C.). So perhaps it simply took my mind's eye a bit of time to adjust to the portrait of a utopian town. Once the story turned to the Organic school and some of the more colorful characters who populated the town, I was entranced for the remainder of the book. At that point, you see, I realized what the authors were trying to communicate: if we want our lives to be clothed in beauty -- both as individuals and as a community -- we can find incredible guidance from the people of Fairhope and the philosophy embraced through its institutions.

Non-conformity, collegiality, creativity, playfulness, intellectuality, spirituality -- these are the values of Fairhope. Can they become the values of a community, not of hundreds or thousands, but of millions? Of billions? These are the questions I found myself asking. That's what a true utopian asks.

Take that, you provincial citizens of the rest of Alabama, you who think Fairhope is just a little upscale shopping center with pretentions to Art. Fairhope as it once was was a lesson for you all.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

In Praise of Paul Giamatti

January 23, 2007

I’m not kidding with that title; this is a post in praise of Paul Giamatti.

It takes a lot for character actors to get the attention they deserve, because they are simply in the business of convincing the audience that they are not really acting at all, they are truly that guy (or woman) in that street, part of this particular story. They are best when they look slightly familiar, like someone you would know, and when they subtly take over the film or play by being so very real. Never mind that that is the job description of every actor – it is often not the job done by leading men, leading ladies, or ingenues, because their primary goal is usually to achieve what is known as stardom, and it is important (to them) that their own personas outshine the roles they play.

It’s especially difficult for young character actors, who seldom get romantic leads, and find it difficult enough just to get parts. Giamatti has been working steadily, it would seem, for years, yet did not get a lead in a movie or the name recognition it entails until the offbeat little movie called Sideways a couple of years back. He was extraordinary in that, sympathetic, inept, gentle and emotionally moving. As if to point up the imprecision and caprice of the awards system, he was passed over for the Oscar nomination, while his partner in the film, Thomas Haden Church, was nominated for the statuette for his performance.

The next year brought Cinderella Man, to me an entirely forgettable movie but for the extraordinary performance of Paul Giamatti. He did win a nomination for an Oscar for that one, but lost out to George Clooney in Syriana. I have a pet peeve about Oscars (actually I have several, but let me stick with this one for now). I think it's bizarre that a person gets snubbed for the nomination, and then gets nominated the next year, and it is assumed the second nomination was given in compensation for not getting the first. In this case, he did a spectacular job of acting in both movies, but especially in Cinderella Man, and should have won an Oscar if an Oscar were the sign of a brilliant performance. (It's not, and that's one of my other pet peeves about the award itself. Maybe on Oscar night I'll post about all my other negatives about that particular statuette.)

I rented a recent film, The Illusionist, and watched it the other night, to be moved once more by this ordinary-looking, balding man, who seems to fit into another century quite as easily as his own. (That is one mark of a great character actor.) Giamatti dominates the film by being at ease in it, and by persuading us that he is a somewhat frightened apparatchik heading a police department in times of political turmoil, enchanted by magic but quite willing to suspend scruples for the sake of job security. He compels us to be interested in his mystery.

Giamatti is the son of the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. I confess, not being an avid baseball fan, I found this tidbit of biography quite intriguing. The young Giamatti has a great education resume, and yet he decided, with all odds against him, to become a movie star. And he has made it, enriching the world of cinema with a character actor for the next generation. I look forward to seeing his next work, and the movie after that, and so on, for years to come.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gagging on Religion and Politics

January 20, 2007

There is some question whether concern for mankind is the prerogative of one side of the political spectrum or the other. Liberals have staked out this territory for generations, and lately have been branded as know-nothings and dangerous loonies by certain proponents of the Right, who lay claim to a deep and pervasive grip on not only Righteousness, but also religion and spiritual truth.

There are enormously popular blogs which expend a great deal of energy in espousing hatred and claiming that it is the other side which is doing so. There seems to be an intellectual snobbery on both sides, and each has its lunatic fringe which plays into the paranoid game. People who stumble onto such blogs get sucked into the discussion, thinking they will get a hearing; they are smacked down by the regular readers and commenters and accused of everything from stupidity to treason, and held in contempt by the all-powerful blogmeister.

The odd thing about these adversarial blogs is that they are addictive. Even those readers who seemingly learned their lesson by asking a question or two about a particular post and being vilified by the assembly (and the blogmeister himself) return time after time to get in on the fray. The seduction is mysterious, but it is very real indeed. The appeal is twofold – the seducer is the very brilliant if brittle mind of the writer (meister) himself. He is clever with words and absolutely astounding with ideas, some of which are so blatantly wrong and vicious that it is a marvel how they are couched in wit and a coating of religiosity that make them seem relatively benign if not actually enlightening.

The other side of the seduction lies in the nature of those seduced. They are vulnerable, seeking, sometimes needy souls who want to be led into the light and may have a certain amount of masochism. They feel that they are enduring the flagellation to some end which will result in a kind of wisdom and serenity, although there is certainly no indication that such is the province of the others who read and comment.

This particular blog, Finding Fair Hope, has touched on spirituality and the existence of God in several posts, but found no real pay dirt in the discussions that ensued. No one was convinced that the blogmeister here had any particularly direct line to the answers, although the posts profound in the eyes of the writer; since the need to proselytize was absent, and no proselytes appeared.

I think I’d better find something other than religion and politics to comment on. However, if you’d like to refresh your memory on what I did say, click here or type "A Cry in the Wilderness" in the "Search This Blog" box at the top of the blog.

And how about making a comment below? We could get a whole new thing going.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Horse Races

January 17, 2007

It's award time in the land. Now that the Golden Globules have been awarded, we shall soon hear from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. From Hollywood, I most enjoy the Independent Spirit Awards, which you can view if you subscribe to the Independent Film cable channel.

Everybody knows an award for any art is futile and pointless, if that's indeed what any of the academies of whatever truly thinks they are doing. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra describes the creation of the aforementioned "academy"as a vehicle to give out awards, which was seen as a way to boost sagging ticket sales in a floundering industry that feared it would go the way of the dodo as a result of the Great Depression. The original awards were given out at a small dinner in a Hollywood hotel, to little fanfare and with no suspense as the recipients were announced in advance of the presentation. What a little knowhow and years of learning by experience can do for the public relations concept!

Now, as a precursor to "Oscar," we have the Foreign Press Association awards, complete with statuette, red carpet, cameras and flashbulbs, acceptance speeches, and tears from both winners (in public) and losers (not in public). Indeed, the tail wags the dog -- people become actors because they want to win those awards.

Along with this horse race comes the announcement of Presidential candidates. The day after the Golden Globe awards, the rock star has announced the formation of his exploratory committee for the nomination to be standard bearer for the Democratic Party in 2008. Do I think he should do it? I certainly do.

Like the Oscars, it's getting to be time to make predictions about the political scene. Also like the Oscars, I haven't made my picks yet. But I can tell it's going to be a hell of a horse race.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Matter of Opinions (Mine)

January 13

A lot of browsers find this blog when looking for specific topics, or posts about certain people. Anderson Cooper, say, or Bear County, or Mateer's Restaurant or "Fairhope Storybook Cottage." Almost every time they would have been disappointed, because what they will find here is the rantings of one very opinionated woman -- me -- usually not exactly on the topic for which they were seeking information.

My opinions are not unbiased, even though they are almost always right, but I'm sure they are something of a slap in the face for the casual Internet browser who has a sincere curiosity and a need to know. Last week someone Googled "Bear County" and hit my post about Stephen Colbert, who did a few shows on an Alabama county called Colbert County which he insisted on pronouncing with the same French accent he uses for his own name. If someone came here loaded for bear, he was in the wrong place indeed.

On the other hand, if the browser was looking for some genuine admiration for Anderson Cooper , he would not have been disappointed. If he was seeking information about Andy Warhol, he might have learned quite a bit about the world of modern art. If he had a question about Southern women as pictured by Tennessee Williams, he would have had his eyes opened. And if he wanted to learn how to watch movies with his eyes open, he was sent to quite another place.

I've tried to reference other blogs with a lot of what is known in Internet terms as "html" before, and as you see I'm still trying, but, if you click on any of the above and don't get where I was trying to send you, you're on your own. You can search specific topics on your own by typing your topic in the "Search This Blog" box at the top of the blog. Finding Fair Hope is a blog full of opinions of all kinds, from who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare to the institutions of old Fairhope (Alabama). Its name is derived from my own fair hope of getting the best from Fairhope and my only fair hope that I will.

Welcome to a slightly skewed world of many things.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


January 6, 2007

Just when the world needs a hero, one pops out of the crowd, makes his move, and then says, "Who, me?"

Wesley Autrey is just such a guy. Weary of all the coverage of the death of Gerald Ford, I spotted the human interest feature about him, the man who, standing in a subway station, saw someone fall onto the track just as an oncoming train screeched in. Autrey did what he says "anyone would do," and threw himself onto the track, covering the body with his own and held them both down low enough to avoid the oncoming train.

I watched re-enactments on television. I thought, "I wouldn't have done that." I racked my brain for anyone I know who would have. You never know, but I know myself pretty well and stick by my initial reaction. I would have thought how horrible it was, but I would have averted my eyes and maybe run from the scene. Others I know would have been fascinated and stayed to watch. But it takes a hero to do what Wesley Autrey did. My whole spirit is lifted to know that there is such a man walking among us.

He had received honors and awards for his deed, but all he says is, "I'm just enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame," and that the money will go to his kids for their college education when they need it. No doubt more honors and more money will come to him, but he isn't seeking it, and he truly seems to think he did nothing out of the ordinary.

I rented the Oliver Stone film World Trade Center yesterday and watched it last night. It was something like the WWII movies about war, but more real and more touching because it was telling a story of heroes, in a simple way, showing that they were simply doing what they felt they had to under the circumstances, which they felt was nothing out of the ordinary.

My late husband, a child of the Depression and G.I. during that war, often lamented that young people didn't have any heroes to look up to. His generation had venerated Lindbergh, he said. One day, when on this jag, he asked my teenage daughter if she had a hero. She thought about it and said to him, "Eleanor Roosevelt." I have never been prouder of her.

I do not tend to idolize people. Certainly the Lindbergh-hero model is tarnished (and he would not have been a hero of mine even if I had been of an age to see the historic flight to Paris). But I'll put all those people I don't know, all the Wesley Autreys who jump out of the crowd to perform a heroic feat, all the rescue workers of the world from the local firemen to the many who put their life on the line in the aftermath of the bombing of the twin towers, to those fighting in Iraq, on my list.

Would I do it? I don't think so. Would you?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Alabama Rain

January 5, 2007

It's raining like crazy this morning. I love days like this.

Jim Croce had a song called "Alabama Rain" tucked away in one of his albums. It was a lazy, somewhat romantic song, which sounded as if it were written by someone who had actually walked in the warm gentle rain of this region of earth; I always liked it. It was not until I lived in other climates that I discovered that rain is different, depending on where it occurs. In most places, rain is cold, hard water, cutting into one's face and any other body parts that are exposed to it. Here it has a friendly, Southern feel to it, and as long as you have towels about, nothing to worry much about. The television news has done what it can to demonize rain and to produce a general anxiety about it, but, as usual, if you look out your own window you can decide whether you have anything to fear.

I have been astonished at the reactions here to hurricanes. (I'll get to Katrina in a minute, but I'm talking about the general run-of-the-mill bad boy that hits this area a few times every summer.) When I grew up, hurricanes were something little kids looked forward to with great anticipation. We didn't have the sophisticated weather forecasting devices; in fact, we didn't even have television. Hurricanes were not identified by name until I was a teenager, they were not known even by categories, at least not by the general public. They were scary, indeed; but that was what made them fun. Nowadays, with all the the technology and all the advance prediction, all we get is a general atmosphere of fear, yet real provisions are not made for such catastrophes as Katrina.

But many newcomers left the area after Ivan hit year before last. Surely more moved away after Katrina. I had friends whom I would have thought knew better saying they couldn't take another hurricane season. I for one take with at least one grain of salt the reporters who stand in the storm, or stand in front of a map showing the projected path of the oncoming storm. These projections show at least five places the storm might hit -- and they start those predictions as much as two weeks in advance of landfall. Anyone raised in hurricane country knows this -- you never know where it's gonna hit. And, be sure of this, no matter how straight the path appears, the last hours before landfall are when the path will change. It'll wobble to one side or the other. Ask the Katrina victims of Mississippi.

Today's storm is mild in comparison. There was a line of thunder, which I heard in the night, and flashes of light that woke me up, but that has subsided and all there is now is a steady, gentle downpour. Nothing to go walking in, but lovely to listen to. And with the drought conditions we've had for the past months, welcome.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Luck

January 1, 2007

There is a tradition in the South that if you eat blackeyed peas on New Year’s Day, you will have good luck all year. During the 14 years that I lived in New York City, I tried this just about every year, for old times’ sake, until I decided that all the bad luck I was having was because of those peas. From then on I ate whatever I wanted on New Year’s day and things got better. Now, there are those who feel there is no such thing as luck anyway, and to some extent I agree with them.

New Year’s Eve here in Fairhope was wet and unseasonably warm – with a high of about 70 degrees – and I was destined to spend it alone. No let-down, actually. I don’t think much about the coming midnight of the last day of any particular year any more than any other midnight, so I seldom plan anything for it. Anyway, I’m taking an inventory of my stuff, physically and psychologically, at this point, so the rainy Sunday was a perfect day for it.

Also, I looked in the wine rack for something bubbly and found only a bottle of actual champagne leftover from my birthday party last May. Who better to celebrate with than myself? So I laid in some shrimp and fixings for hors d’oeuvre and planned that little party for a party of one. I crawled in bed early but woke up in time to see some of the New York City celebration on tv, and then by midnight our time, the fireworks lit the sky in Fairhope, from a point just a few blocks from my house. I realized they can be viewed from here and started planning a party for next year.

I bought some oranges to make a Buck’s Fizz for breakfast New Year’s Day in case there was champagne left over and I felt like hair of the dog. Buck’s Fizz is the English name for a drink we Americans call Mimosas, except the Buck’s Fizz must be made with fresh orange juice to be authentic (It’s better that way anyhow). As it turns out, I feel like a bracing start today, so there is a little flute of the stuff at my side as I type.

The upcoming year is very promising. Before the end of January I’ll send the outline and a few chapters of the new book to a genuine agent, and if she rejects it, my nephew, also a published author, has promised he’ll help me in the submission of it to his own agent. If it fails to excite either one, too bad -- I’ll go back to other projects, as I have many of them in the works.

The main thing, in Fairhope anyway, about 2007, is that it will mark the 100th Anniversary year of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education. Our school was founded in Fairhope the same year Dr. Montessori founded her revolutionary school in Rome. Something about being seven years into a new century, I guess, that breeds reform and new thinking. At least that was true for the 20th Century; the 21st has yet to show us.

The year in Fairhope will be peppered with Centennial events celebrating the school, culminating in a huge reunion of all classes, to be attended by people from all over the world. There is a London-based writer who is considering coming, a seller of antiques in Atlanta, and an environmental scientist from Oregon. We are trying to locate Mary Pat Anthony, whose father was the man who said, “I have a lady in the balcony, Doctor,” on the radio show of the 1940’s called “Dr. I.Q.” There will be at least one graduate of the class of 1927, Mrs. Helen Dyson, who still lives in town and was everybody’s favorite First Life (1st and 2nd Grades) teacher. There is Nicholas Lindsay, son of the poet Vachel, who lives in South Carolina and whom we’ll encourage to attend and do one or more of his famous readings of his father’s work. And there will be Dr. Paul Gaston, Professor Emeritus of Southern History at the University of Virginia, leading a seminar on the work of Marietta Johnson. The reunion will be the high point of the year in Fairhope, at least to a certain blog writer and member of the Board of the school. Sometime during the weekend I'll make a talk about Mrs. Johnson's life and school.

By the end of January there will be a special advertising supplement to the Mobile Press-Register with a calendar of events for the Centennial celebrations for the school. Readers who plan to attend can watch this space for details on how to apply for attendance.

I'm sure other events will occur this year. I'll just be so consumed in planning local Centennial activities, preparations for the reunion, and then the actual reunion, that I'll hardly notice the parade of candidates for election in 2008 or any of the other minor crises of the world outside Fairhope. It will be a good year!