Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sunset Boulevard

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small." -Norma Desmond

This evening I had the pleasure of watching Sunset Boulevard on the big screen with some friends. Our art museum holds these wonderful Friday night showings of movies. I would go every Friday if life allowed.

I love old movies. In some ways, I think Norma was right. There's something about the older movies. Something powerful that newer movies don't generally have. I don't know exactly what it is, but older movies move me and affect me differently. Maybe it's that the years have let the schlock fall by the wayside, so the movies that have survived to be shown are real jewels. Maybe it's the black and white. Maybe it was the writing. Maybe it was the types of stories being told. Maybe it was the acting.  As Norma said: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

If you've never seen this film, you should. There are few near-perfect movies in this world. But this is one. (Another is Casablanca). The main three characters: Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson, Joe Gillis played by William Holden and Max Von Mayerling played by Erich von Stroheim were all so spot on. Not a false moment. The curator told us in her talk about the other actors considered for the roles of Norma and Joe, but now it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles, so entwined have they become with these performers.

In fact, there was (I presume and imagine) some element of personal truth for the actors in these roles, and I wonder if that is where the strength of performance comes from. Gloria Swanson had indeed been a silent film star, and, like many women of Hollywood, knew how unkind the industry was about aging. She is undeniably beautiful. Even as she holds her head at that impossible, cockeyed angle that she invented for the character, she is lovely.

But, as the recent Oscars showed us with catty and harsh comments about Kim Novak and Liza Minelli and even Matthew McConaughey's mother, Hollywood is very uncomfortable with aging in women, regardless of whether you age "gracefully" and "naturally" or fight the process tooth and nail. Gloria Swanson tortures herself to try to recapture her younger face. If the story were written now, she'd probably have botox and surgery.

I'm not in Hollywood, obviously, but even ordinary women feel the sting of the shift in the way the world treats you when you are considered past your sell-by date. Sexuality, we're told, is for the young, slender and beautiful. There's a little longer window these days, for the MILF . . . but even that role is one you can play only briefly, when you still are guessed as too young to have a child as old as you do. G-d forbid you should look your age.  Hollywood isn't the only place in the United States that doesn't know what to do with a woman old enough to have lines and sag, but who hasn't resigned herself to an asexual invisibility either. It was Joe who said it best: "There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five."

William Holden may have understood Joe pretty well, too. His alcoholism was affecting his looks. The "shine" was off him. He was too old to be the golden boy anymore.  Holden did a beautiful job with the nonverbal parts of this role. Every time Holden's Joe accepted money or gifts from Norma, a part of him died. He hated himself for being kept, and hating himself made him want to be cruel. Even when he told the young woman he was falling in love with the truth of his life as Norma's kept man, there was so much subtext in each line and each movement. He conveyed the pain and anger of his own lost chance at happiness intermixed with a feeling of worthlessness that meant he didn't deserve that chance in the first place. He sent her away because he loved her enough to save her from himself.

I don't know anything about the actor who played Max, but he, too, was amazing. His quiet protection of Norma, his acceptance of his responsibility for what became of her. The torch he still carried after all these years.

What a tragic love story! No one loves the right person. Max loves Norma. Norma loves Joe. Joe loves Betty. Artie loves Betty. Betty loves Joe. Everyone is reaching for someone who doesn't love them back. Or, in the case of Betty and Joe, the love was poisoned before it could grow by the circumstances of its birth--infidelity and deception.

Whew! Makes me glad I'm in no danger of becoming famous. I'd end up face-down in the swimming pool for sure.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Giving up Teaching

I'm planning to leave teaching at the end of this school year (assuming I can find something else to do for a living). In all honesty, it scares the heck out of me. It feels like looking over a cliff and deciding to step off without knowing what's beneath me.

I've never not been a teacher.

I decided to be a teacher in first grade, when Mrs. Aldsorf paired me with another student who was having trouble understanding something. I helped her. She understood. I was hooked.

I've been a public school classroom teacher for eighteen years, pretty much all of my adult life. The only other jobs I've ever held were brief, and long ago. I took them because I couldn't get a teaching job and dropped them as soon as I found a classroom. I was a tutor, a secretary, a receptionist, a librarian, a teacher's aide (even in that list, two of those jobs are arguably teaching). But I was always going to be a teacher.

There are a lot of reasons to leave teaching. The hours are long. The pay is laugh-so-you-don't-cry poor. The stress is high. The work conditions are atrocious. The basic rights any worker should be able to expect are not guaranteed. I could bore you for several days with my frustrations with my field, my state, my country and my school. When I successfully talked my daughter out of becoming a teacher herself, the relief was palpable. I want better for her than this.

The reason I've always stayed is that I believe in the work. That old saw about being there to watch the lightbulb go off in some kid's mind is totally true. It's magical every time. And my work matters. I'm not manufacturing goods no one needs and trying to get people to spend money they don't have to buy them. I'm *helping.* One starfish at a time.

So, why now? Why quit work that I still love?

Because all the external stuff is getting to me. I'm hearing that burnout tone in my voice, that bitterness that I have seen in many the colleague who stayed too long over the years. So, I need to leave. I need to leave before I'm not good at it anymore, before the bitterness starts to spread to the children.

In a way, it's like breaking up with an abusive lover. I still love him, but he's not good for me. He treats me poorly, blames me unfairly for things that are out of my control, even outright beats me down at time.  I don't like who I am when I'm with him. He separates me from my friends and other things I love. He manipulates with guilt and blame to get me to do more with less. He thinks he owns me.

But that doesn't mean that it's easy to leave. Ask any woman who has had to do it. It's easy to say you'd leave if someone was abusing you, but how many of us stay? More than would like to admit it. Especially when our financial well-being is tied up with the abuser.

We stay because we are afraid. We're afraid that whatever we leave for isn't going to be better. We're afraid that we haven't given it fair shot. Some part of us hopes that it will get better if we are just patient. The devil you know vs. that hidden devil out there in the deep blue sea. We stay because we don't know where else to go.

Good bye, teaching. I know I will miss you, but I deserve better.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Holy Ice Storms North Carolina!

I live in North Carolina. It's a very temperate place. Even in winter, I don't expect much of what the rest of the country thinks of as winter.
Not here.

If we see snow once a winter, that's good. Just a taste to remind us, remember the tingle of a snowflake on the tongue and the magic feeling of seeing the world transformed overnight.

Perhaps a day off school. Honestly, I don't even own winter boots or a real coat anymore. There's just no need.

Not usually.

This winter has been downright bizarre. By my count, we have missed five days of school, and had two early release days due to snow.  The entire state is making a face like Burt Ward's over there. WTF? Seriously?

Then, just when we thought it couldn't get weirder, we had an ice storm. Not even the whole area. Just my little town and *some* of the other little towns nearby . . .not all mind you. In fact, when we had been without power for twelve hours or so, and got hungry, we were able to drive twenty minutes north to the nearest mall, and find that the roads weren't even wet, let alone icy.

Then, by the next morning, it's so warm that I'm not even wearing a jacket and when the ice particles fall from the trees that are bowed with their weight and hit the ground, they become steam without even taking time to turn liquid first.

So, in the space of twenty-four hours, there was ice and snow, breaking branches and fallen trees, no electricity or heat, sunshine, mud, and steam.

It was so localized and so brief, this bizarre little ice storm, that I suspect it is not natural in its origins. Perhaps there's a wizard living here who has a strange sense of humor. Or perhaps Löki is visiting and brought one of his Frost Giant relations along. It has to be something more than nature.