Thoughts on love, life, and Lemony Snicket

I’m having a really pleasant Christmas this year, the best in a long time. I’m home again, after a few months away, and I feel like I’ve learned and grown a lot since the last time I was here. I didn’t realize grad school had been changing me so much until recently, but now I feel like I’m seeing everything differently (see quote in left sidebar!). It’s kind of odd because I thought I’d hit a point where I really understood myself and my place in the world, but now all that seems to have changed completely without my even noticing, so that I’m constantly being surprised by my own responses to things. It used to be that changes in me came very consciously, after I’d done a lot of careful thinking. But lately the changes are much more subtle and apparently go unnoticed until they manifest themselves. Some of this pleases me, some doesn’t make me happy at all. It’s unexpected, but not unwelcome. When I do have the chance to sit down again and think long and hard about what’s going on in my head, I’ll have a lot of food for thought.

One really positive result of my changes in perspective is that I’ve ended up focusing a lot more this holiday season on the truly important things in life. I know, that’s so cliche I can hardly even write it, but it’s quite true. Friends and family have been much more important to me this Christmas, perhaps because I’m farther away from them during the rest of the year now. My family and I have been spending a lot of time together, sometimes hilariously (four of us ladies warbling in the car together is a fond thought) and sometimes crankily, as inevitably happens with families. On Christmas Eve Shra, Al and I all piled into one bed and discovered when the alarm went off in the morning that we’re too big now to all sleep together comfortably. This year the family gifts have been much better than usual, and it’s not so much for the money spent; I think it’s the time we spent together preparing for the holiday. I’ve really enjoyed the company of friends, too; I’m thinking of a mad baking afternoon and evening spent with Wei-Ling and Alan and Jennifer, and my various visits to Berkeley. I find myself thinking every day of Jackie and of Dana and can’t-wait-ing to see them when they return from their respective cruises! With them gone there’s definitely something missing. That it’s wonderful to see Erik daily goes without saying, but lately our time together has become even more vital to me than ever before. I am beginning to realize that sustaining a relationship on phone calls and once/twice-monthly visits soon gets to be more about doggedly maintaining what’s already there, than about creating and growing, especially when there is so much change going on in other aspects of my life. It has been very hard at times and it will not get easier, but one does become slightly more aware of how distance works on a relationship and how to combat it. We’ve been together more than five years now, and it’s time to be thinking very seriously about what the next few years will bring. Erik and I talk about our future, we’ve always talked about it, but there’s a new urgency to our plans. Even my relatives are asking now when there will be news to announce. I can’t say for sure, but I think and hope there will be something in the next year or so. I suppose I can say that on the record since I’ve always said it to friends who asked, and if Erik has anything to add, well, he knows my livejournal password and can log himself in and add it. ;b Do I sound ambivalent about our future? It would be dishonest to admit no anxiety. But if you’re worried about what will become of us, know that it’s not Erik I’m ambivalent about, but whether we’ll be doing the right thing at the right time. For better or worse, Erik is the other half of my being, and of this I am certain.

Christmas spirit
I finished nearly all of my Christmas shopping in one day (um, the cards haven’t gone out yet, though) and avoided shopping altogether on weekends and evenings. I bought gifts for fewer people, so as a result I was able to get nicer presents for my nearest and dearest, which pleased me very much. But I think there has been a lot less focus on stuff for me this year. I tried to give people things they really wanted or needed, instead of useless junk. Erik and I are deeply satisfied with our gifts to each other: I gave him a Mercy kit, and he presented me with a water buffalo. These are, of course, not physical presents (much as I’d love to bring a water buffalo back to my studio apartment), but symbolic ones, donations to help others around the world. I had thought I would have a hard time with this charity-instead-of-presents thing, since I look forward to opening my packages as much as anyone. I’m sorry to say I even went as far as to ask Erik for one small tangible gift to soften the blow of getting no big present. But I found I really rather preferred knowing that some of our inordinate middle-class American wealth was going out to those in need, and not being spent to buy me yet another piece of stuff that I’m only going to have to lug around forever. Erik and I are very excited to make this our Christmas tradition.

I had another selfishness-crushing venture a few days before Christmas, when I spent the morning playing “merry elf” to needy families at Sacred Heart Community Service‘s annual toy day. Families signed up a month in advance for appointment times to come in and select donated toys for their children. Each child was allotted one stocking stuffer, one book, one stuffed animal, and two toys, and the range of stuff available was really amazing. Most of it was brand-new, and what wasn’t was in excellent shape. DVDs, board games, sports equipment, gift baskets, clothes, even bikes, binoculars, boomboxes, and duffel bags filled with watches, socks, and other useful stuff. Everything was arranged or piled up in gorgeous pyramids of things. It was wonderful to see. Those of us who were “elves” spent our time taking one parent at a time through the gift rooms to help them choose their toys. Something about the whole process just really rekindled my giving spirit and made me remember what Christmas at its best is all about. After that morning, I found it really hard to go shopping at all, since I and everyone else I know already has so much stuff. One mother had wanted a Harry Potter book for her son, but there were none available. I thought about the paperback Goblet of Fire I’d bought just days ago on a whim (because I wanted to read it on BART on the way home from Berkeley), and I wished so badly that I could give it to her. Some of the parents had waited outside in the cold for hours, hoping vainly that they might be allowed in before their appointment time. Many of them spoke only Spanish, reminding me that all my highly articulated intellectual training won’t break barriers the way a smile and a few kind words can do. I don’t mean to idealize; some parents got desperate enough to be grabby, and others tried their best to evade the two-toys-per-child rule by wheedling or pleading. It’s only natural. To my surprise it was very easy for me to resist the pleas, and I realized then that four years of traversing the streets of Berkeley and Oakland has trained me to be able to say no and sorry firmly and persistently. I do not think that I have become hardened; I think I have just learned that compassion and charity unfortunately cannot be given out as freely and effortlessly as smiles, to ease all the suffering of the world, and that love and generosity don’t necessarily mean saying yes every time. But spending time at Sacred Heart filled me with the joy of giving, and that particular joy is a beautiful thing to remember. I think that when we completely forget our own selves for a time, and focus only on what we can do for others, then we can fully understand what it truly means to love. I said it about four years ago, and I’m feeling it again now: this is how I wish to live my life, giving.

Unfortunate events
Yesterday I saw and really enjoyed Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As a children’s movie, I think it’s really brilliant. I can imagine being a kid, getting the video, and watching it over and over again. The movie also succeeds as an adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s books, considering that the seemingly neverending series has no real plot aside from the constant stream of unfortunate events that befall the main characters. (Book-A-Minute-type synopsis: Recently orphaned Baudelaire kids go to live with kindly relation. Count Olaf: Ha ha ha I will kill you and steal your fortune! Baudelaires: Never! Our combined wits and teeth will save us! Conclusion: Danger averted for time being. Await next installment of series.) This being an American kids’ movie, the producers inserted an optimistic and heartwarming ending, but wisely didn’t stray too much from the spirit of the books and make it happily ever after. The young actors, Liam Aiken (perhaps previously best known as the boy who was almost Harry Potter) and Emily Browning, are soooo beautiful that it’s almost worth watching the movie just to gaze at them. The HP kids are good-looking but I don’t think they’ll grow up to be knockouts; these two might. The rest of the cast is very enjoyable, as well. Jim Carrey (whom I like, by the way) does a bit of his usual posturing and hamming but is for the most part quite controlled, and his Count Olaf is really wonderfully evil. Meryl Streep gets a fun bit as a hypochondriac widowed aunt. The film is incredibly gorgeous, one of the most visually stunning pieces I’ve seen in a while (or maybe just since Lord of the Rings?). The costuming and sets are fabulously imaginative and not a bit fake-looking, unlike the first two Harry Potter movies. The end credits are a fantastic bit of animation. I truly enjoyed this movie and would encourage other people to see it as well, but I should not conceal that my mother and aunt didn’t get much out of it, and neither did many reviewers. So… it’s your call. But I would say just don’t worry about the story too much, or else read the books first, and then go and feast your eyes.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]