Lights from Salem

Musings and thoughts of a traveler and armchair linguist on his journey through the ups and downs of life.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Movies and Books in Review - 2016

Every year, usually in December, I publish a list of movies I’ve seen that year, or that year prior if I don’t actually publish until January.

This year I was slower in getting the list out, but here is my list of books and movies for the year 2016. As usual, this is only for movies or books I’ve seen that year, rather than reflective of the year the book or movie was published. So my “Bests” of 2016 are not always going to be contemporary media.

*= Books or movies I’ve already seen or read, but were re-visited in 2016.

Books

Already Awake by Nathan Gill


Being: The Bottom Line by Nathan Gill


Book of Revelation by Translation by R. Mark Arey and R. Philemon Sevastiades. Adaption by Matt Dorff. Illustrations by Chris Koelle 
Very Good. Difficult to follow, and very surreal, but gets a high mark for its beautiful illustrations

Contact by Carl Sagan
Slow and lumbering at first but story and interest eventually pick up. Nevertheless, never seems to hit optimum pace.

*Da Vinci Code, The by Dan Brown 
Read in Spanish.

Death in the Jungle: Diary of a Navy SEAL by Gary R. Smith and Alan Maki 
One of the better SEAL memoirs.

*Deception Point
by Dan Brown 
Read in Spanish

Delta Force: The Army’s Elite Counterforce Unit
by Col. Charlie A Beckwith (Ret.) and Donald Knox 
Good, but a little slow and dry.

Direct Means to Eternal Bliss
by Michael Langford 
Extremely clear and extremely blunt.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Moving and well-paced. A worthy sequel to “The Shining” and good story.

From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (Illustrator) 
Slow to get started, and never really hits a good stride, but very dense, detailed and ultimately, well-thought out.

Full Stop by John Wheeler 
Clear, firm, uncompromising, to the point, if you are ready for it.

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: Dutch Fluency 1
by Mike Campbell and Jan Baars

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: Dutch Fluency 2
by Mike Campbell and Jan Baars

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: Dutch Fluency 3
by Mike Campbell and Jan Baars

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: Mexican Spanish Fluency 1
by Michael Campbell and Daisy Gomez

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: Mexican Spanish Fluency 2
by Michael Campbell and Daisy Gomez

Hammer of Eden
by Ken Follet 
Good, but slow starting. Not one of Follet’s best.

Hornet Flight
by Ken Follet 
A little slow at first but picked up the pace and became engaging.

How To Practice Self Inquiry
by Ramana Maharshi 
To the point but merits re-reading to be fully absorbed.

How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator
by Corinne McKay 
Good and useful. I look forward to seeing how it helps this year.

Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit
by Eric L. Haney 
Fast-paced, well-written, with an engaging narrative.

Introduction to Spanish Translation
by Jack Child
Informative but not terribly useful. It does have valuable lists of false friends and idioms, though.

Last Rescue, The: How Faith and Love Saved a Navy SEAL Sniper
by Howard Wasdin and Debbie Wasin with Joel Kilpatrik 
Quite good and poignant, though not nearly as good as his first story. Enough messages of faith to possibly merit a place in a religious bookshop, too.

Lose All The Way
by Joey Lott 
Clearly written and very down-to-earth, but too short.

*One Moment of Realization
(Audio) by Gilbert Schultz 
Clear and direct, as is his usual style

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain 
A little slow moving, but validating

Richest Man in Babylon, The
by George S. Clason 
Excellent, fairly simple, and engaging.

Seven Steps to Awakening, The: Powerful Quotes by Ramana Maharshi, Annamalai Swami, Vasistha and Sankara, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Muruganar and Sadhu Om
 
Very good at points, and a planting seeds to geminate at other points.

Son, The
by Phillip Meyer 
Other than the first few chapters, I only read Eli’s chapters. The rest of the book was slow and dull.

Unborn, The: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1692-1693.
Translated by Normal Waddell 
Bankei was a true master and among the best in pointing it out, even today.

*Walking Dead, The: Vol. 1: Days Gone By
by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Tony Moore

*Walking Dead, The: Vol. 2: Miles Behind U
s by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Tony Moore

Watchmen by Alan Moore (author) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator) 
Beautiful illustrations and immersive story, but ultimately not my style of story.

Whips and Whip Making – 2nd Edition
by David W. Morgan 
Informative and Educational

World Without End
by Ken Follett 
Well paced, soulful, sad, entertaining, engaging. You look forward to coming back to its world.


2016 Book of the Year

World Without End by Ken Follett

Honorable Mention

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Movies

I include my predictions of Academy Award nominations, as this list was compiled before the nominations were announced.

10 Cloverfield Lane - 2016
Tense and claustrophobic. Remarkable that it keeps the audience guessing about what the reality in the movie really is.

Arrival – 2016 
Poetic and soulful, although at times a bit slow. Also, it was disappointingly simplistic in going into how the language works. Possible nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Adams), Cinematography, Visual Effects, Editing

Big Short, The – 2015 
A little technical, but still very user friendly, well-paced and very funny in its (ir)appropriate way.

Carol – 2015 
Well-acted and well told, but slow and not terribly interesting.

Casablanca – 1942
The excellence of this film still holds up after all these years. Timeless or nearly so.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World
– 2014
Less about film making and more about the artist. Unsettling and yet backlit with life and hope, just like Giger’s art.

Deepwater Horizon
– 2016
Tauntly told and very well acted. Possible nominations: Supporting Actor (Malkovich), Supporting Actor (Russell), Visual Effects, Editing, Direction, Art Direction/Set Direction, Sound Design

Devil’s Knot – 2013
Well told, but long, which worked against it.

Dr. Strange – 2016
Cumberbatch is good as always, but this superhero movie didn’t feel like it brought anything new to the table. Possible nominations: Visual Effects

Eight Crazy Nights
– 2002
Good animation, but the movie in general was ho-hum and not my style of humor.

Enemy Below, The
– 1957
A war movie that still holds up in acting in special effects.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
– 2016
Not bad, especially for Potter fans, but felt shallow. Possible nominations: Visual Effects

Fifty Shades of Gray
– 2015
Masterpancaked. Not terrible. The bad reviews are more on the overhyped end. It could have been much better.

Godfather, The
– 1972
Well-crafted, well-paced, well-acted. A nearly flawlessly told story.

Godfather, The: Part II
– 1974
Well told, but not as well paced as the first film.

Green Room – 2016 
Intense and at times shocking.

Hacksaw Ridge
– 2016
An okay movie of an amazing story. Best part was realizing that all of the actors and actresses were doing fake American accents to cover their Australian ones.

Hail, Caesar!
– 2016 
Funny and hits all its marks, but just doesn’t have a lot of staying power. Quirky, but rather forgettable.

Hannibal – 2001
Surprisingly good. Acting is great and Ripley’s story telling is masterful, as usual. Gary Oldman is stellar and literally unrecognizable.

Hannibal Rising
– 2007
Even as an origin story it feels forced. The source material also felt shoe-horned in. Not even all that fascinating.

Hardcore Henry
– 2016
Fun, very violent, and at times felt exactly like a FPS video game.

Hateful Eight, The
– 2015 
Not as violent as many of Tarantino’s other films, this one feels almost like a play. Brilliant performances all around, as usual. A commendable modern Western classic. The cinematography was done with the soul of a visual poet. Possible nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction, Sound.

Hell or High Water
– 2016
Well-written, well-acted, and above-average cinematography. Funny and at times shockingly violent. A good modern Western. Predictions: Screenplay (Original), Cinematography

I, Robot
– 2004
Mostly holds up.

*Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
– 2008
The weakest and worst-written of the bunch, but still has the spirit and magic of the series. A fair movie, made worse mostly in by comparison with its superior predecesors.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge
– 2014
Fascinating and adventurous.

Jason Bourne
– 2016 
Exciting and intelligent as usual, although very much the weakest of the Jason Bourne movies.

*Jungle Book, The
- 1967
A classic, and still holds some of its power, but in other ways has aged.

Midnight Special
– 2016
Very well acted, simply told, but very complete sci-fi story. Rings with truth and believability.

Mulan – 1998 
Good, as usual, although formulaic. But Disney movies are for how a story is told.

Omen, The
- 1976
Still well-made, but the feel of the horror doesn’t seem to translate over the years.

Raiders!: The Great Fan Film Ever Made
– 2015 
An excellent and well-crafted documentary that captures the magic of the original and the love of the Adaption. A near-perfect documentary.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
– The Adaption – 1989
A superb and delightful twin to arguably the greatest adventure movie ever made. This film glows with the love and magic that movie making and the love for movies is all about.

Re-Animator
– 1985
Funny, but felt a little drawn out.

Reel Injun – 2009
Entertaining and educational. I wish it had contained more about Dances with Wolves or a clip from the Oscar being accepted in Lakota.

Ref, The -
1994
Fair, but somewhat tedious Christmas comedy.

Revenant, The
– 2015 
Poetic cinematography is the real star here, but excellent acting and story telling lead to a very visually powerful film

Rogue One
– 2016 
Good as a standalone movie and as a backstory. But did seem to somehow lack a Star Wars Spirit.

Room – 2015
One of the best and most moving films of the year. Excellent chemistry between the lead actors. Larson is particularly good and deserved any and all praise she gets.

Shallows – 2016
Surprisingly tense and at times well-made. Some very remarkable cinematography. But ultimately nothing special.

Silence – 2016 (February 2017) (Good)
Beautiful to look at, but very drawn out. It does capture Andrew Garfield’s conflict in faith, battling against the eternity of damnation vs. saving the lives of the Christians around him. Felt like a Terrance Malick movie, although not quite as prone to meander when Malick waxes poetic. Cinematography nomination was well-deserved.

Split – 2016 
Surprisingly good, given Shyamalan’s shaky record (although not as shaky as everyone says, in my opinion). James McAvoy deserves a Best Actor nomination. Possibly best original screenplay, too. Technically it is first rate, as it is with all of his movies. Twist was a bit of a small one though, considering his history.

Star Trek Beyond
– 2016
Weak and rather dull for the new ones. Some action and nice set pieces, but low on story. And sad to see Chekov’s scenes.

Tora Tora Tora!
– 1970
Nice to see both sides told almost equally and in their own languages. But not as good as I had hoped.

Walk, The – 2015 
Well-paced, with excellent set direction, cinematography, acting, writing and special effects.

Where To Invade Next
– 2016
Funny and with a heart.

Witch, The
– 2016
Brave, dark, atmospheric. It seems to unweave a little in the middle, but holds an overall sense of foreboding. Excellent cinematography.

X-Men: Apocalypse
– 2016
Entertaining, but a bit of a let down. Special effects were too cartoony.


Best Movie Watched of 2016:
Arrival

Honorable Mention

Room – by far and away the most moving movie of the year

Spiritual Honorable Mention 
Raiders!: The Great Fan Film Ever Made
Raiders of the Lost Ark – The Adaption
These movies were not far off, and I felt a special category needed to be made due to the impact that the Indiana Jones, and especially Raiders of the Lost Ark has had on me. 










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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Interrupting Nothing

At 4:00 am last night I was woken up by two people screaming their lungs out at each other. I was jolted out of sleep and heard the screaming stabbing me directly in my ear. My first reactions were anger. The location of the racket seemed to change from outside of my window to somewhere outside on a floor above me. The placement effortlessly blended from one to the next the way it can when you are wired but actually more asleep than awake and the world is sharp-edged but also wobbly and elastic. As the energy and gibberish morphed into understandable words, I lost the feelings of anger towards them and I just became very annoyed. It was clear the two young people were verbally tearing each other down, and to hell with the time of night or any sense of privacy about it. As it became obvious, though, just how in each other’s crosshairs they were, my next reaction was to be slightly afraid, like someone afraid of watching a living storm boil over outside and worried that it might somehow notice them.

The young woman was in a rage, saying “fuck” in its many varied mutations, and the young man replied, with slightly less bite than the woman, “Shut your whore mouth! Shut your whore mouth! Shut your whore mouth!” Beyond this I never could figure out what was being said, or what they were arguing about. The shouting continued and eventually the woman started stretching her words out with screeeEEEAAAAMMMMMMS to where even if I could have understood her before, it was no longer possible.

There wasn’t any real sense of time though. It felt simultaneously as if they had been arguing for moments and for an hour. At some point I started to fade again back to sleep, and the energy was burning off from the two young people as well, apparently.

As my collateral turmoil faded and sleep began to ink back in blackly, I heard the woman heatedly rocket off her words, but everything had become quieter and muffled staccato-sounding. The world was losing focus and going quiet itself, I thought about the woman’s upturned anger and was struck by how she was a conduit for words flowing fluently out of her. “Look at you go!” I thought. A rocky babbling brook would have recognized its kin in listening to her fire away with not a single stumbled syllable. As if the noise of life was unwittingly on a conveyer belt moving away, the world was becoming transparent and the woman’s voice seemed to fade easily from existence. Her energy and passion and anger remained clear, and it was almost the last thing I remembered. But the space and stillness, the same space and stillness I had been interrupted from, helped me detach from her emotions and just hear her now meaningless syllables, and it was like watching a thunderstorm, but this time from a safe vantage point. Something for something. For all the matter black holes devour, even they emit x-rays. And for all the ugliness and apparent lack of love that was put into that was put into this couple’s arguing, the space and stillness nevertheless hushed the situation and produced something subtle and beautiful.

And then they were gone. I guess it was hours later. I have no memory of falling asleep or waking up. I just remember becoming aware that it was quiet, like nothing had ever been disturbed.

And at that point between being awake and asleep, where the world is thin and doesn’t have any apparent rules, and everything fades like daylight during dusk, perhaps nothing can really be disturbed.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Lessons from the wallet

Last night I finished a course on live drawing, fulfilling a decade-long dream of taking an intensive drawing course. The course was seven weeks long and if I left my office right at five o'clock, I’d make it there with a little time to spare. After my final class was finished I drove up to a book store to pick up a dictionary that I hoped with help me with some translation work. While still parked in my truck I realized my wallet was missing. My stomach lurched when I thought of all the places it could be, such as in the dark parking lot at work or at the art school. I was also a little disgusted with myself: less than a month earlier my debit card had vanished out of my pocket. I had made a purchase but while juggling the items I bought I securely jammed my wallet and card both into my pocket. But somehow the card had managed to disappear from my pocket, truck, parking lot, and store. And now it was happening again, but on a more significant level. But I doubted it would have just fallen out in a place where I was for just a minute or two. It would be more likely to have fallen out somewhere where I had been for a long period of time. I couldn’t find it in my truck but it was too dark to make a thorough search and since I remembered seeing it at work, I reasoned I must have taken it out of either my pocket or my bag and left it on my desk.

With little else to do, I started my truck back up and headed home. When I arrived, once again I made a pass through my cab, and then through my bags when I was in my room and had decent light to work with. To my dismay it still wasn’t around, but I knew it had to be at work. I had left things there before, although my wallet would be a first.

When I got to work today I was disappointed and again dismayed to not see it anywhere. Then I realized I could have accidentally packed it with my art supplies. I told another senior translator that I was worried I’d left my wallet at home after my class and needed to go back to check. I only live five minutes’ driving time away so it wasn’t a big request. He looked concerned and asked if I had any money, or needed any while I looked for it. I told him I had some cash but appreciated his offer. I was quite positive it would materialize in my art supplies.

But it didn’t. I spilled my art folder onto my bed and found nothing but my usual, non-tender art supplies. I returned to work but found, a bit to my surprise, I couldn’t focus. I figured I would be able to compartmentalize my anxiety better by now, but instead I was chewing over how I would have to cancel all of my cards, and I couldn’t even remember what all was in there. My library card was in there, and for some reason that especially pissed me off, even though I have a separate card-tag safely on my keychain. I contacted the art school and asked them they had my wallet. They hadn’t and suggested I come and look for myself before classes really got underway. I again updated the senior translator and this time he offered to help me search my truck. I told him that would be fine, inwardly cringing that he’d later tease me about how I kept a messy truck. Again, we found nothing and he gave me permission to check the art school, where my last hope for success was.

But there was nothing there. No little black wallet hidden under a radiator or left on a table, invisible to everyone except to me, who by some miracle could find it.

As I got back in my truck I felt like I had rancid cement spoiling in my stomach. I was a little bewildered that I was so pissed off over just a wallet. It was pretty straight forward. Just cancel the cards and get new ones. But the idea of figuring out how to go and get a new license and then spending hours of my workday doing so (and also a new social security card? I’d have to check to see if that was in my room. I was sure it was in my Important Documents box, but not sure enough to not check).

I started to think about the thunderous, stormy people I’d come across in my life. People for whom negativity was less a passing dip in the daily ups and downs, but for whom instead it was more like a chronic illness that became what you would know them for. The world would somehow darken around them and energy would slow down around them as their weary and brittle, judgmental eyes would find something else they felt threatened and harassed by to bitch about and paint with a sour slant.

I thought about how, within the past year (a little more actually), I have run into so much bad luck all at once I have started to think that I might legitimately some kind of curse on me. A tooth just up and cracked, and all dental work to get it fixed and get some cavities filled have spiraled into nearly ceaseless expenses and pain, root canals, crowns, and I’m still not out of the woods. Plus my truck has been giving me attitude, and all this has left me almost broke and starting to feel hopeless while I try to get on my feet professionally.

But then I saw that if I started buying into the narrative about curses, or even something less dramatic, like just always expecting things to be like this: broke and in pain with never any changes, I would start to always see the world as a shitty place out to fuck me. And I saw that I had a choice to at least keep an eye on my attitude instead of let it plop its fat ass down in the driver’s seat. And even though I felt threatened, I realized that most people who find a wallet aren't going to go take advantage of it, but instead are inclined to be helpful.

So, first thing’s first, I decided. Cancel my bank card so at least that can’t be used and maybe my wallet would turn up later in the day somehow. I arrived at the first bank of the branch I use and made up my mind to be upbeat.

“How are you doing today?” the teller asked me.

Ah hell, I thought. “Well, not too well,” I decided to say. I explained my wallet was missing and I needed to cancel my card.

“We can do it over the phone here, but I need to see some ID like a passport, to close down your card and give you a new one.”

For God sakes, I can call from home, I thought. Maybe I fucking am cursed after all. Just one thing after another. I told them I’d get my passport and be right back. Some part of my brain was thankful for the safety measures, but the actively loud part of my guts was roaring “But it’s me! It’s my account and card! Of course it’s me!”

I drove home to get my passport.

And found my wallet hiding under some clothes I hadn’t yet put up. I saw them and thought, I know it’s not there, but what do I have to lose?

I felt relieved and as all the pieces fell into place when I remembered how it actually got there, I felt foolish for (being so concerned? seeing the clothes and not looking their earlier? for misremembering thinking that I had it with me and telling the senior translator, yes yes, I know I had it with me?) and was happy there was no one else around to watch me feel like a fool except for the cat, who didn’t give a damn about anything.

If I hadn’t been frustratingly turned away from the bank, I would have just cancelled my card and been without one. So my plans didn’t work out, and in fact they didn’t work out for the best.

And I realized something else. Sometimes when you lose something, maybe you’ll find - despite all your convictions, and despite all the news and signals from everyone else - that it, whatever that "it" may be, has been with you, or safe and secure and never really lost, all along.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

2015 Books and Movies in Review

At the beginning of every year I publish a list of all the books and movies I have read during the past 12 months, and give a little micro-review about some of them. This year will probably by titled as “The Year I Finally Saw ‘The Terminator,’ ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ and ‘Total Recall.’” For some of the movies I also wrote some of my predictions for Academy Award nominations, which have since been announced.

* = Among my favorites

** = I had already seen it before I started keeping my list, but I re-watched for the first time since I began my list.

Best movie I saw this year:
Sicario

Honorable Mentions:
It Follows
Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II

Best book I read this year:
Men in Green Faces

Movies
Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Good documentary on a fascinating and unbalanced, and ultimately pitiful, individual.

Almost Famous

American Sniper*
Well-told, well acted, not sappy. But still some Hollywood elements, like the handling of the duel subplot between the two snipers.

Auschwitz: Inside The Nazi State*

Babadook, The*
Brilliant, sensitive and very scary horror film. Excellent writing, acting, directing, sound-mixing and cinematography.

Bernie*

Birth of the Living Dead*
Excellent and fun documentary about the groundbreaking horror film.

Bridge of Spies*
Good, but not great. Well acted and well made, but still felt like it was simplistic.

Burbs, The

Crimson Peak*
Beautiful, but not very scary. On some level it falls short. Predictions: Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Visual Effects.

Devil’s Advocate *
Entertaining, if not particularly profound, film. Pacino is an excellent Satan and is the reason the film is good and not ho-hum.

Everest*
Good acting and moving. Felt very documentary-like and real. Great Cinematography and Visual Effects

Ex Machina*
Beautiful production values, good acting. But script was lacking. Nothing new brought to the table.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Foxcatcher
Excellent performances but once was enough for me. Bleak and cold movie.

Ghost and the Darkness, The

Good Shepherd, The**
Detailed, but ultimately dull story. Meandering and rather boring.

Hateful Eight, The*
Not as violent as many of Tarantino’s other films, this one feels almost like a play. Brilliant performances all around, as usual. A commendable modern Western classic. The cinematography was done with the soul of a visual poet.

Hedi Schneider Steckt Fest

Horns*
Nice dark and macabre love story. Very fascinating.

Hunger Games, The: Mockingjay – Part Two

Ich Seh Ich Seh (Goodnight Mommy)

Imitation Game, The
Well acted story, but also not terribly originally told. Cumberbatch is good, but not his usual great.

In the Heart of the Sea

Insidious*
Surprisingly good and frightening.

Insidious: Chapter II *

It Follows*
Incredible, relentless, terrifying. Well-acted and well directed story and allegory about the loss of innocence. Possibly best movie of the year.

Jurassic World

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Krampus

Legend of Hell House, The
A good, albeit a non-scary adaption of a non-scary book. Good, but not great.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels*

Mad Max: Fury Road*
Amazing adrenaline rush. A real piece of art. Notable: Art Direction/Set Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing.

Manhunter

Martian, The*
Well-made survivor film, hits a lot of human notes. Award predictions: Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Art Direction/Set Direction, Editing, and Best Actor (Damon)

Meru*
Inspiring to see people push themselves to excellency and beyond to achieve goals that seem to hang only on the fringes of possibility.

Missing, The**

Mr. Holmes
Well made and well acted, but rather forgettable, and kind of depressing.

Navy Seals*
Fun, but bad 80’s music.

Night Before, The

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue *
Very interesting look at the evolution of American horror films.

Nosferatu, eine symphonie des Grauens
Good, atmospheric German telling of Dracula

Nymphomaniac Volume I – Director’s Cut*
Raw and told with a jaded, troubled heart, but a real heart, nonetheless. Beautifully acted, directed and shot.

Nymphomaniac Volume II – Director’s Cut*
The conclusion to a remarkable, brave, dark, raw and human movie.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Ravenous
Boring. The whole thing was an uncomfortable experience, and not in an entertaining way. Bad soundtrack and just bizarre. Which sucks. I had been looking forward to seeing this movie for years.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan

Room 237
Entertaining, but a little disturbing in how obsessive it got.

Shakespeare in Love**
Good, sad ending, and well-made but still not deserving of Best Picture of the year.

Sicarcio*
A near-perfect film situated squarely in a heart of darkness. Lyrical, violent, bleak, and poetic. Easily one of the best films of the year. Everyone puts in a good performance, but in the end, the cinematography and very taunt direction are the stars in this ballad Predictions: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Actor (Del Torro), Cinematography, Original Score.

Silence of the Lambs, The*
Excellent, and surprisingly not as graphic as I had expected.

Sophie’s Choice*
Beautiful and extremely well acted. Streep embodies the character completely.

Specter*
A trifle too long, but one of the strongest entries in the 007 series. Predictions: Best Cinematography

Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
Although it doesn’t quite capture the magic of the originals, it is a solid entry, respectful, humorous in the right way and not vulgar in its special effects. Abrams has a brilliant eye, especially in the scene where the solar system is destroyed. Possible nominations: Visual Effects, Editing.

Stir of Echoes
Good ghost story and pretty believable main characters. But it could have been better.

Terminator, The*
Still holds up for the most part.

Total Recall
Fun and has re-watch value, but not exactly a classic.

Trip to the Moon, A
Interesting and fun little short and silent film. Good set pieces.

Unbroken
Good, not great. Cinematography was the best part of it.

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Generation War)*
Not as good as bad of brothers, and not nearly as expansive (in fact, it is quite simplified), but still well told and recommendable.

Victoria
Excellent and daring cinematography and very natural acting. A slow burn.

Visit, The
Surprisingly spooky with good and disturbing scenes. Well-acted by everyone.

Water Diviner, The

Whiplash*
Amazing acting, inspiring about the drive to be the best.

Books:
Bear and the Dragon, The
by Tom Clancy
Takes a while to get moving but when it does, it goes at a break-neck pace.

Beyond Freedom: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj*
Edited by Maria Jory

Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla
by Stephen King

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 1
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 2
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 3
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Hell House
by Richard Matheson

How to Win Friends and Influence People*
by Dale Carnegie

Instant Self-Awareness (Talks on Ashtavakra Gita)*
by Swami Shantananda Puri

Jackdaws
by Ken Follet

Man in the High Castle, The
by Phillip K. Dick
OK. Meandered and ultimately the a world slip through its fingers.

Men in Green Faces*
by Gene Wentz and B. Abell Jurus
Fast-paced yet subtle, hard to believe this was not non-fiction

Only That: The Life and Teaching of Sailor Bob Adamson*
by Kalyani Lawry

Pelican Brief, The
by John Grisham

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer*
by Patrick Süskind
Very Good – Well paced and poetic in its telling.

Point Man*
by Chief James Watson and Kevin Dockery

Rainbow Six
by Tom Clancy

SOS Help for Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger, and Depression
by Lynn Clark

Sum of All Fears, The,
by Tom Clancy

Testament, The
by John Grisham
Very good: Well paced, exciting and ultimately touching

Why Can’t I Fall in Love? A 12-Step Program
by Shmuley Boteach

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Blue Skies

[Author’s Note: Quotations are stated as precisely as I can recall, but are not always exact.]

A friend of mine asked what was going through my mind as I jumped out of a plane. I answered, and this entry is an extended version of that answer.

I was curious to see if I’d feel like I was about to faint again: When Judson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and fellow Germanophile, asked if I would like to join him and a small group to go skydiving, I agreed. It would be the second time I’d ever jumped from a plane.

In the meantime between talking about it and heading to the airfield, I ran into health problems which quickly started to eat up my savings. I considered backing out, but I had already emotionally committed myself, so I made my reservation. The night before the jump I went to a bar and saw two magic 8 balls at the cash register. Why the hell not? I thought. I asked, “Will I die tomorrow skydiving?” and consulted the 8 balls.

“You can count on it.”

“It is decidedly so.”

Well fuck both of you, I thought and went back to see the group I was with.

The day of the jump, I woke up feeling very calm. I had done this before. I don’t really have a crippling fear of heights. I don’t get motion sick. I wore confidence like comfortable clothing, while in the air I could feel electricity of anticipation humming faintly.

I met Judson and friend Desdemona of his who was joining us to jump. Judson’s mother was also along to watch. But it turned out it would be a small group: everyone else had either backed out or had lost interest.

Judson and Desdemona both had some shopping to do on the way there, so we made a stop at an outlet mall in San Marcos. I tagged along, unsuccessfully looked for a bookstore, and was disappointed to discover that the Pottery Barn is not an arts supply store.

Our small group went to a burger joint to get lunch. I munched on some fries but then realized I had no appetite. I doubted I would get motion sick but now did not seem like the time to tempt anything.

That afternoon, while making our way to the airfield, most of what we did was answer questions for Desdemona, who was the only first-time jumper of the three of us going. She wanted an outlet and distraction from a recent tragedy in her life and felt a jolt of adrenaline sounded like a hell of an idea. I was not too focused on what was ahead and felt happy to listen to her and answer any questions I could.

The first time I had gone skydiving in Colorado, where I was surprised to learn that people would do this more than once a day. Once a skydiver is certified to jump on their own, they can go as long as you can pay the pilots to take them up. This time around I watched the experienced skydivers walk around relaxed and with a confidence that I admired, wondering how many times they had already been jumping today. I was still feeling calm, but the electricity was hummed louder and I could feel my nerves started to make their presence known.

“Why is there a crashed airplane out front?” Desdemona asked several people working there, referring to the stripped body of a plane angled into the ground with a welcome sign attached to it. I could not tell if she was joking or legitimately concerned.

We didn’t have to wait long before our group was called up.

“Hey! Are you Tristan?” I turned and saw a guy wearing a purple jump suit, a bunch of tattoos and a huge grin.

“Yes?”

“I'm Panda! I'm going to be your instructor today! Go pee and get back here!”

Reality started to sink in a bit.

I went to the rest room and then met him to suit up. Panda, who looked like no panda at all, helped me into my jumpsuit and went over the procedures for safely exiting the plane.

“Your first job: Can you have fun?”

“Yes!” I guess, I thought, not feeling too outgoing and already feeling guilty about it. I didn’t want him to think I’d be a wet blanket.

“That’s the most important thing,” Panda said before talking about how to position myself while we were in free fall.

“I'm going to strap you in with four hooks, even though any one of these hooks could hold a car.” He said it so nonchalantly I had to replay it in my head to process what exactly he meant. Throughout the whole process of getting suited up my adrenaline was starting to kick in, and I wondered why some people crave adrenaline rushes all the time. To me it felt all tingly, like how I felt before running in track. Panda was very enthusiastic and looked like he was right at home, and it was hard not to feel at ease around him.

After all getting onto my jumpsuit up and with my harness on, I waited for him to ask me, but he never did. I almost let the question go, thinking, I'll ask on my third jump, and then immediately asked anyway: “Can I pull the rip cord?”

Panda paused and looked at me. “Do you want to?” he said in a tone where I could not tell if he admired me for asking or if he was sorry he had heard me ask.

“Yes.” Is that the right answer? Do I get some cred?

“Alright!” he replied with another jovial smile. He explained where the cord would be, pointed out a pack on the wall with a cord next hanging from it. “Just pull six inches out on that thing that looks like a golf ball. This will be the signal.” He waved his hand in front of my face, and then said he would be on it in case I was to wound up to pull it myself.

We made small talk. Panda told me was from Boston and also that he had 3000 jumps under his belt. I hold him I translated Spanish. Again his tone changed and we could have been chatting at a house party. He asked me for advice on learning Spanish because he and his girlfriend had recently decided to get fluent in it. “Should I get Rosetta Stone?”

“Absolutely not.” It felt good to be in my element before most literally stepping out of it.

A small Cessna plane roared down the runway and stopped near us and we boarded through its little sliding door while the engines were still running. The assistants’ speed at loading us up was intimidating and made me want to withdraw into my shell.

The plane was so small that for a second it was easy to think it was our own private little craft hired out just for our group, despite the few solo skydivers already crammed in. The interior was rough, with just a bench to straddle and bumper stickers about the skydiving life decorating the wall. I got in and crouched down in front of Panda and behind Judson and his instructor. I noticed an altimeter attached to the instructor’s wrist. The needle was safely at zero and somehow this obvious fact was reassuring to me.

Oh Christ, I thought. I'm actually about to do this. I can still back out if I really want to. They can’t force me to go.
I let these thoughts have their say and then tuned them out. Time to enjoy.

As the plane started to take off one of the experienced jumpers yelled out “Hey, one of you guys up front want to be the door monkey?” Some dude squeezed by us and lay down in the foot space by the plastic door, placed his foot up on the wall of the plane, and cozied right down.

Through the small windows I saw the plane leave the runway and the ground started to sink away. The electricity was humming loudly now and my stomach flipped a bit. It wasn’t terror, but the adrenaline was well past kicking in and I was glad I had eaten so little. I was riding this thing out, playing it cool. Panda started to talk to me, going through our safety checks. I noticed the sun glint off of the altimeter strapped to the wrist of instructor crouching in front of me. The needle was climbing.

By now, everyone was started to get excited. The professional jumpers started high-fiving each other. One of the solo jumpers moved to the back of the plane.

“This guy is gonna jump at 5,000 feet and open his chute right away. We are gonna go higher than him,” Panda yell at me over the plane’s roaring.

The solo jumper sat next to the door monkey and got also made himself comfortable.

I took some deep, slow breaths through my nose and fiddled with my goggles. I noticed Judson’s instructor had ear plugs in and simultaneously thought, That’s kind of un-badass and also God, I wish I had remembered to bring those. At some unseen signal the solo jumper got moved to the door and heaved it open. Wind rushed into the plane and suddenly things felt more primal. In a machine there is a relationship to man. But the wind seemed to me like it was reminding me of where exactly we were about to go. The jumper lay down next to the open door and waited for a bit, looking as natural as if he were laying on a couch at home. Then he turned up to us, gave a wolfish grin, flashed the Hang Ten! gesture, appeared to lean back and then just get sucked out of the open door. There and gone. The door monkey closed the door and we continued on higher above the few clouds in the otherwise clear blue Texas sky.

There was little to say and it was almost impossible to hear anyways, so I did a bit of mindfulness meditating, letting my nerves go through me and appreciating how it felt. Panda went through his hook ups strapping me in and pounding off every connection point on my shoulders and hips while he counted. “You are locked in!” he shouted. I was too excited to be excited, but I knew that later the enthusiasm would come, like an aftertaste.

We reached our altitude.

The lights over the door flickered and the door monkey hit the switch. Once again wind rushed in.

You’ve done this before. Don’t chicken out. As a game, see if you can avoid screaming this time.

Judson slid down the bench to and waddled over to the door with his instructor fastened tightly to his back, put his arms on his shoulder straps as we had all been instructed, and put his feet over the side out the door. He yelled something that sounded like “Cowabunga!” over the screaming wind and his instructor pushed out of the plane.

I still had a few seconds before I was up. My survival instincts started to kick in and lap up ever second before Panda gleefully yelled out, “Ok, you ready for this?!” I screamed hollered out a “Hell yes, let’s kick its ass,” or something else that would have immediately sounded stupid to me had I been in any state of mind to be very self-conscious.

My mind started to overload, racing with its second-guesses and anticipations.

We started to slide down the bench and my mind slowed down, digesting every second and my survival instinct started to rebel against me.

Just move forward, bit by bit.

I went into automatic mode and focused on the movements in front of me, one by one, not focusing on the anything other than one second ahead of me. We crawled over to the door and I sat down to hang my feet out of the plane.

I can still back out. I'm not going to. But you can. Fuck THAT! I'm doing this!

I looked two miles down.

Just sit.

This is so unnatural.

Everything rational inside of me is fighting what I am doing. I have no control now but my body is screaming for something to control.

I grab my shoulder harnesses just so. My arms want to fight and grab for the door and cling and refuse to budge, like how a how a cat would cling spread eagle if it was stretched over a sink over a sink of water (Note: No, I have never done that to a cat, so don’t ask!).

It’s not to late to back out! I can’t believe I'm doing this, this is so unhealthy.

I lean back onto Panda’s shoulder like he told me to.

Maybe something will happen. Maybe the plane will break and --

The floor fucking disappears. Everything is gone, replaced by blustery wind and the roar of air. Even the plane out of earshot.

Freefalling. A have no fucking idea which was is even up. We are tumbling and I give an involuntary scream that starts as terror and then feels triumphant.

I am going to enjoy this shit out of this!

And it’s not hard. This is primal. We go on down and I look around checking out the clouds from above, looking briefly for Judson or Desdemona but nothing is visible except the blue sky and the brown horizon. We do nothing fancy, no rolls or flips or headstands, although any of that would have been great. There is a family of clouds hundreds of feet below us. We sideswipe the wisps of one of them and then it is gone like it was never even there. I realize I have to shut my mouth because it is so windblown I can’t even swallow.

But in the rush of it there is something that is also very calm. And for something so extreme it feels natural. I don’t know if it feels natural to only certain people who live for this, but I suspect not because when you are at the mercy of the world’s elements, you are reminded you are really part of it. The world’s deadly side is also a side that welcomes you in, like a yin and yang. It’s a romantic thought, and one that comes after contemplating my jump, but I wonder if people who live on the edge also need a bit of hopeless romanticism in their personalities to really appreciate the lifestyle they have.

Panda waves his hands in front of my face and I am disappointed that it is time to pull the cord. I'm having too much fun exploring the sky. But by God I don’t want to lose my chance to try this, too. So I reach down to the cable with the golf ball on it and tug, hoping that my adrenaline doesn’t rip the goddamn thing right out of his pack. But it takes very little effort and suddenly the chute opens with an explosion above us. We jerk abruptly like being belted in a vehicle that has made an unexpected jolting stop at full speed. I don’t even think to look up. I could not say what color the fabric is. It opened, and that is enough.

Panda asks me how I'm doing, and all the nervousness I had in the plane is filtering out of me. The enthusiasm has already been taking over. I'm great, I say, and it’s true. And least, I think so. Everything has gone so fast I'm still catching up mentally. Panda starts pointing out landmarks over an almost empty that fades off in every direction. I have no idea which direction is which. He asks me if I want to fly this thing.

Why, yes. Yes, I do.

He gives me some very basic instructions on how to fly the chute (a rectangular one that allows you to glide, not the round military style parachutes that drop you like a bag of hammers). I yank on one of the handles and we go into a spin. My head feels like it is being crushed I get nervous that we are going to flip but we never do. The blood comes back down from my head. He points out the landing spot.

“Alright, we are half a mile up,” Panda alerts me.

I am used to measuring distances in running, and to me it looks like we are still two miles up.

“Wanna spin left this time?” he asks

Sure do! I yank the handle again and we do exactly the same thing. Again my head feels the pressure from all the blood rushing to it.

Then we slow down and Panda takes over and says he is going to make our approach in for landing, explaining wind direction and other details that are too much for my brain to absorb at the moment.

We steer one down to the patches of grass and I recall how Desdemona’s instructor said he got caught in one of the cracks in the dirt last year and ended up with a broken leg. Panda tells me to lift my legs so he can touch down first. I get them into the air as high as I can and ignore the brief discomfort.

And then we touch down with a thud. “Fuck!” I holler as my tailbone hits down first. Nothing broken, and not a bad landing, but I have literally landed on my ass. If anything though, it's funny, and facts being facts, I am alive and unharmed. I had no doubt in Panda, but still, I am alive. I only wish everything had lasted longer.

Panda asks me how I'm doing and I am quite fine. I sit still for a moment to see if nausea or lightheadedness seizes me the way it did five years previously when I jumped. But nothing sneaks up. I get to my feet, woozy from the adrenaline but otherwise quite stable. Panda unhooks me and gives me a high-five.

“You’re a natural!,” he says with that huge grin of his.

Excellent, I think. I am already looking forward to going again.

Judson and Desdemona land safely, although Desdemona looks a lot like how I did when I first jumped: stunned and weak at the knees, so Judson and I walk her back to the sitting area patio where she could get some water and while she process her experience. Judson’s mom greets us in the sitting area and shows us some of the videos that she has taken of our landings.

Afterwards, we stripped our jump suits off and each got an envelope to prove we had successfully gone skydiving. Panda suggested I hang it prominently in my bathroom, since that is a location everyone will eventually have to go.

We climbed into Judson’s car and suddenly it was like any other Sunday afternoon again. We passed the decorative plane sticking out of the ground and headed back to Austin, talking about how it felt and if we would go again. Judson definitely wants to. I do, too. Again and again. Desdemona still sounds wind-blasted and said she can take it or leave it, but who knows. I felt exactly the same way after my first jump.

But now something inside of me felt different. I never considered myself a thrill seeker, but rather more of an explorer. Yet, there certainly is an intense side to my life. It doesn’t have to be expressed through extreme sports, but balance is important for everyone to find in their life.

What I noticed though was not how intense the solo and professional were, but to for want of a better expression, how down-to-earth and warm everyone was. Professionalism and playfulness abounded amongst the few experienced jumpers that I spoke with.

The rest of the day felt very quiet and calm. I didn’t want to go speeding down the road with my hair on fire. Instead, things had a subtle vibration to them, like music was playing that only I could hear.

I hope this message finds you well and for you to have, as Panda wished me, “Blue skies!”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Project Berlin

When I was in college I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This should have come as a surprise to no one, and as it turns out, by the time I was diagnosed I was busy spinning so many plates to keep myself together that any surprise remaining in me was half-hearted at best.

I've debated about whether I should elaborate on this in some other entry, but this story is not about what I went through back then.  It does, however, set the scene.

I set out to attend a four-day Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, Germany in early May.  I also gave myself another week to spend in Germany on my own.  As much as I love traveling and living abroad, the process of actually going abroad is slightly terrifying to me, like the professional skydiver who is afraid of heights or public speakers who will admit to having stagefright.

The plan was to spend four days at the conference.  After that I had some very loose notions of what I would do in Germany, but I also went to run a test of sorts on myself and to see how open I could be to what life has in store:

I was going to go in with a vague idea at best, and with no preparations beyond that (such as no pre-arranged places to stay) just to see how life would fall into place if I took my hands off the wheel.  Instead of planning for everything to overcorrect the mild but constant drone of anxiety that accompanies me every waking minute, I stopped tinkering to see what would arise spontaneously.  This was my experimental project, such that it was.

I hope that my new friends and acquaintances will read this and some of my other entries, but for those need a definition of this funny sounding word, a polyglot is a person who has a fluent handle on several languages.  There is no real set number on how many qualify - some think it is three, although I personally won't consider myself one until I can speak five languages.  I also am not even going to touch the question of what counts as fluency, since that is beyond the scope of this entry.

I don't recall the numbers now but there were several dozen countries and languages represented.  Other than English, almost everyone spoke German, which somehow surprised me, although in a crowd of polyglots, German would be one of the major languages learned first. Naturally the other biggies were represented, too: Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and many others that would be two numerous to list here.  But there were also smaller (yet just as precious)  languages to be heard: Welsh, Irish, Icelandic, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Navajo, and at least one dialect of Sami (also known as the Lapp language, although nowadays Lapp is considered a politically incorrect and insulting term in those cultures).

Additionally there were some constructed languages gracing the crowds: Esperanto seemed to be spoken about as widely as Italian or German. There were two people who had knowledge of Klingon (I've also studied it, but now can only vaguely describe the features of the language) and Toki Panasonic (which I've also flirted with.

For myself I only speak English, Spanish and German.  I also included Esperanto, Norwegian, French and several others on my name tag but I am not yet fluent in but have studied.  I marked them as such out of the hope it would start connections along the lines of "Oh I studied that one as well for a summer, etc" but instead it caused confusion and left me feeling slightly misleading about what I could speak, so I simplified my card to just ones I could function in currently.

Most people spoke at least three languages, although a few spoke just English and their native language.  Weighing in at three myself, I was certainly on the lower end of the numbers spectrum. The majority of people could probably handle about five languages, and there were a few who spoke around thirty.

To me, the most subtle and most interesting aspect of the whole gathering was that while you could argue that some or most of the world's best language learners were all at this gathering, there was an atmosphere of just common air.  There was practically no arrogance at all, no ego of who spoke more or who spoke best.  There was no competition in who knew the most languages, and if there were any geniuses or prodigies in the crowd, you would never have noticed.  Everyone was absolutely normal and average (or as normal and average as you can expect of out lovingly obsessed language geeks, one of which I am proud to be).

There is the idea that to speak a large number of languages, or even one or two more languages in addition to your native language, you need to have a superior brain, but this in fact false, or at least mostly so.  Certainly there is talent and some have more talent than others, but most people who learn something well do it because they love or because they need it.  And many people will probably not learn six or eight languages or more because they "need" them.  When you get to that point, it you have the mark of a language lover.  And it is a lot of work, too.  It can be very enjoyable, but it is still work.  However, it is fun work.  And that is what the folks at this gathering understood.  So if you told a polyglot they were a genius, they would probably be a little confused by that remark, since they know how much energy rather than the acute lack of cerebral magic it takes.  And I think everyone at this grasped this innately by this point.

It was also touching to see how many Americans were present - not a lot but not a few either - breaking the ever-more-outdated stereotype that Americans are monolingual.

For me, one of the most interesting sessions was a two-parter about life as an interpreter, presented and taught by Lýdia Machová (you can find more information about her and her language mentoring in both English and Slovak).  I already do some interpreting on the phone but it was fascinating to see an experienced and trained interpreter with years of professional experience talk about working at huge gatherings and speak about some of the pitfalls that can happen, like when some kicks the cable to the microphone and kills the audio, or if a doorknob falls off the interpreter's booth and the maintenance worker decides to drill it back into place while you are still at work.  The next day included interpreting exercises which proved to be so demanding (and fun) that it whet my interest to learn more about this art and profession.  I still prefer writing however, which means I am more inclined to translate.

The people themselves were wonderful and I made some new friends from around the globe.  One of the first people I met was Cristina, a woman from Norway, and while walking around in Berlin in the 50 F degree weather (10 C) she commented on how hot it was, which I knew to be true for her but I still thought that was a mild tragedy. She probably thought the same about me for saying that in Austin it was getting up to 90's F (30's C) and that I thought that was decent weather.  This conversation proved not to be the strangest one we would have but certainly be beginning to many interesting ones.

And interesting conversations were to be had in several languages, indeed.  German has been near and dear to my heart for many years, but I found my practice lacking in America, as I focus more on Spanish for my job.  My goal is to move to Germany to at least study translation in a grad school program, and possibly to move there long term.  So if there is anyone who reading this who has advice on how to apply for school in Europe, I would love to hear from you, please.

Other languages I found a rekindled interest in were Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch.  Now, these were all languages I have near the top of my to-learn list, and it doesn't hurt that they were all spoken very very pretty women at the Gathering, but meeting people to speak them with and to see it was possible (which I always knew, to but to meet people who've accomplished it helps) was a great inspiration on its own.  In fact, on my way home I ended up speaking with a new Russian friend in Norwegian on a chat feature on my phone.  I didn't really even know I could converse in Norwegian beyond "I've studied it for a little bit but I've forgotten almost everything."

In one memorable instance I wanted to test the melody of a Dutch sentence with Hannah, a woman from Flanders.  I've been told the sentence "I have a rusty razor that needs to to be sharpened" gives a fine concert of throat explosions when rendered into Dutch, and so I asked Hannah to please translate it for me without bothering to tell her why I wanted to hear it. She gave me a bemused look and then started translating it before pausing and asking "But, wouldn't you just buy a new one?" The answer was so disarming I decided not to worry about the translation.

So for my next gathering, I'm planning on adding Dutch and Norwegian to my list, and possibly Finnish and Swedish too, in addition to maintaining my German and Spanish.

I'm afraid of leaving some languages out, since I always met some nice Poles and French speakers...but I've known for ages that my To-Learn List for languages would be a week long.

The Gathering was only four days, with a couple of book-ended activities that were fun, but after the four days it was time to say good bye to almost everyone, and I found myself with a few new buddies to speak with from around the globe and to look forward to meet again.

Myself, I still had plans to stay in Germany for another week. I didn't want to travel so far for just four days, so I took almost two weeks of vacation.  And that is where I took a bit of a leap of faith or whatever you want to call it.  I knew I'd be nervous about what I would do, where I would stay, what I would eat, and all those other things that my mind grasps at like sand going through your fingers. So I kept to my project of planning only the bare minimum and see what would happen.

I had planned on visiting a few friends in Germany, but that all came quickly undone: two had important engagements they couldn't get around and one of them had fallen ill and needed to be with her family.  I toyed with the idea of going to Prague but it was harder than I had expected to get in touch with my friends there (and one of them was out of town anyways) and, quite frankly, after four days of hundreds of people, I needed time to decompress and recharge. So I booked myself a single room in the hostel I stayed at for the conference and started wandering around the town, taking pictures and running into Russians (I'll get back to that).

This does not mean I was a hermit, though. There were a few other people who stayed late after the conference that I did some sight-seeing with while they stayed in town. It also happened that Julia, a friend of mine from when I studied in Germany, suggested I meet up with Heike, her old roommate, who now lived in Berlin.  I wrote Heike a Facebook introduction to which she replied that she would love to meet up.  She suggested I join her roommates, friends and herself to watch a soccer game at a bar.

I personally find sports dull to no end, but I didn't exactly  want to say that, so instead I said, "Sure, sounds great."  Heike met me at the subway station to take me to the bar, and asked me if I enjoyed soccer.  She seemed nice enough and I didn't really feel like making shit up so I said no, which she laughed at and said she didn't really either.

The start of a beautiful friendship!

But indeed watching the game was fun.  By which I mean it was fun to see everyone sitting outside the bar watching a TV through and drinking mugs of beer that make American glasses look like samplers.

Heike then invited me back to her place with her friends to have some Riesling wine, which was from the region that the two of us (as well as Julia, my friend who put us in touch) all studied in.

So really, I have Julia and Heike to thank for making the second part of my trip so culturally enriching.  Heike invited me to an old GDR cinema to watch a movie and to a barbeque her neighbors hosted.  She also introduced me to the German tradition of watching crime shows on Sunday evening.  Unfortunately for her, the mystery had a major twist itself when it turned out the bar was showing the wrong show.  So I think I was only half-introduced to this German tradition.  Does it count if the show is not correct?

I met up and got breakfast with another old friend, Anna, who I first wrote about in this entry, and also met up with a penpal of mine, Gregg, an American polyglot who has amassed knowledge of a huge number of languages and yet was still humble and down-to-earth about his usage of them.  While walking around the city we passed a Japanese restaurant that had an English/Japanese advertisement and I asked Gregg if he could read it. Instead of bragging or bluffing or just reading the English and saying he was reading the Japanese, he merely pointed out the characters he could understand, told me what the meant, and said that the rest of them he could not read. And yet in the course of our trip in addition to English, he moved gracefully between German with passersby and French on his phone, and told me stories of his in-laws whose language he had to learn as well because they speak a dialect of German so unique that it has since been deemed its own separate language in the Germanic branch.

The vast majority of my trip was one of quietness though. As Heike was at work and my other friends were busy, I busied myself by not being busy at all.  I wandered over to river banks and drank pints of beer while I read my book, and sought out Döner Kebabs to dine on. On one particular evening I decided to visit a park I had heard about; Treptower Park.  I thought this would be a nice and spacious place to meander and take some pictures of a monument I had heard about.

What I did not know was that it is full of Soviet memorials for those lost in the war and particularly in the taking of Berlin.  I also didn't consider that the week I was there they commemorating the end of World War II and so the park was far from empty.  Instead there were thousands of Russians standing in droves, shouting chants, holding flags, looking at the memorials and laying thousands of beautiful flowers and wreaths at the bases of the statues.  So indeed I got my pictures.

I also got myself promptly lost while trying to find an abandoned and haunted-looking theme park called Spreepark.  Somehow I completely lost it, finding instead only a bus and train stop that looked plenty haunted itself.  I then promptly ended up getting my own self lost trying to get back to my metro station, or so I thought.  It turned out I wasn't lost at all, I was just confused, which amounts to the same thing when you boil it down.

My last day in Berlin were spent visiting two more friends from my Trier days, Maren and her boyfriend Micha, and then sight-seeing in the evening with Heike where we visited one of largest protestant cathedrals in Berlin and went to the top of the Fernseherturm, the tallest point in Berlin. Heike and I finished off the evening by going dinner at an East-German style restaurant.

My experiment had been to see what would happen if I took my hands out of the mix of planning and just let things fall into place, and things indeed worked out quite nicely during my trip.  It was inspiring to see that life has its way of working out, as it tend it tends to do.  Space was filled plenty and in a better way that I could have planned for by myself.   Even though the hum of anxiety drones on in the back of my life, there comes a point when it just becomes part of the soundscape, the way the sound insects chirping outside is no longer noticed when you stop focusing on it.

As to the Polyglot Gathering, I am definitely going to do everything in my power to go next year and see some of most wonderful and interesting people the corners of the world has to offer. 

*****

Addendum:

The morning I woke up to leave Germany, I got a text from a friend directing me to a news article which reported that the skeleton of a young woman was found at the bottom of a cliff in Trier.  This struck a chord with both him and me because this person proved to be Tanja Gräff, a student at our University who had had suddenly vanished seven years prior during a summer party during her first year there, which had also been our first year there.  Even though I had never met her I had wondered from time to time what had become of her, although I don't think anyone was surprised to see that it had been a fatal outcome.  According to the articles I read, even her mother had known in her heart that Tanja had died, but at least there will finally be some closure.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tristan's List of Books and Movies from 2014

Being the somewhat compulsive list maker I am, I keep track of what I've watched or read throughout the year.

For 2014 was a good year for movie watching, and there were some real ringers to be had.

For books there was less of an outcome, but most of the books I read were extremely dense and demanded more attention, time and energy.  

As usual, I've put in some reviews where I felt appropriate.

Movies
(*= a movie I've seen before 2014, but not before I started keeping a list of everything that I've watched)

1. 12 Years A Slave (Interesting story, well acted, beautiful scenery. But felt heavily abridged.)

2. American Hustle (Good, but not great. Very well crafted film, strong in every way other than it simply didn’t hold my interest like I had hoped.)

3. Babadook, The (Brilliant, sensitive and very scary horror film. Excellent writing, acting, directing, sound-mixing and cinematography.)

4. Bad Words

5. Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus) (First half was very good. Second half was a mess.)

6. Batman*

7. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Excellent and well executed dark comedy.)

8. Brokeback Mountain *

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Good, but not as gripping as hoped. Herzog shows his brilliance, but some of his monologue is a bit over-the-top.)

10. Changeling (Slow going at first, but amazing plot twists. Annoying score.)

11. Closer – 2004 (2014) (Good - Very well acted. At times difficult and disturbing to watch.)
12. Day of the Dead (Dark, bleak, but still interesting.)

13. Dial M for Murder

14. El Juego de Arcibel (Very Good – Simple but well-told and well-acted story about fighting the system. Good make up effects, too.)

15. Emperor (Trite Hollywood fare. Tommy Lee Jones is good, and acting is fair overall, but as a whole the movie is nothing special.)

16. Fifth Element, The*

17. Forces Spéciales

18. Fright Night

19. From One Second to the Next

20. Gang Wars (aka The Devil’s Express) (Schlocky, but entertaining)

21. G.I. Jane

22. Godzilla – 2014 (Good effects, fun story, good editing, kept the pace for a monster movie.)

23. Gone Girl (A near perfect (and perhaps superior) adaption. Cinematography and score are especially excellent.)

24. Guardians of the Galaxy, The (Fun, good but nothing new or fresh.)

25. Hard Candy

26. Her (Very Good – Touching look at how we perceive others. Strong performances all around.

27. Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug

28. Heart Machine, The – (Very good – Interesting love story. Surprisingly touching and good acting.)

29. Hot Fuzz

30. House of the Devil, The (Very Good – Atmospheric, and good at capturing the look of 70’s films. Surprisingly violent. Excellent cinematography, score and editing.)

31. Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire

32. Hunger Games, The: Mockingjay – Part One

33. Imitation Game, The (Good – Well acted story, but also not terribly originally told. Cumberbatch is good, but not his usual great.)

34. Interstellar

35. Into the Abyss (Very Good – Another fine documentary by Herzog. Stark and bare.)

36. Jack Reacher

37. Kill the Messenger (Good – Good performance by Renner)

38. Lone Survivor (Very good – Exciting and sometimes hard to watch. Fascinating look at modern warfare.)

39. Million Ways to Die in the West, A

40. Mummy, The – 1932

41. Night of the Living Dead - 1990* (Good - Perhaps unnecessary, but still good and entertaining remake. Has some power to it.)

42. North by Northwest

43. Oculus (Good - Actually scary and suspenseful. )

44. Passion of the Christ, The *

45. Platoon

46. Predator*

47. Psycho – 1960 (Good – Well done, but as I’ve seen it before (just not uninterrupted) as well as how famous it is, it’s lost a lot of its power.)

48. Rear Window – 1954

49. Relic, The

50. Sadist, The

51. Scrooged

52. Sleeping with the Enemy

53. V/H/S (Good – Shocking, frightening, surprising, creative.)

54. We Were Soldiers (Very good – Excellent and powerful war movie, probably one of the greatest
      portrayals of battle ever shown on film. Should be on the list of all-time greatest war films.)
55. Wolf of Wall Street, The 

55. X-Men: Days of Future Past
*******

It was a good year for reading about the Navy SEALs and for reading about spirituality.  I don't see a relation between the two.

Books
(* = books that were the best I'd read this year.)

1. “Art of Living, The: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by S. N. Goenka”* by William Hart 

2. “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learner”* 
     by Michael Erard (Very good, interesting and inspiring, but heavy on psychology.) 

3. “Butterfly Effect, The: How Your Life Matters”* by Andy Andrews (Short but good and to the point – Thank you Dad) 

4. “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight”* by M. E. Thomas (Good – Interesting portrayal of a possibly misunderstood part of the population.) 

5. “Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior” by Rorke Denver and Ellis Henican 

6. “Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass” by Stephen King (Good; a romance story, the weakest link so far though.) 

7. “Dasbodh: Spiritual Instruction for the Servant – Spiritual Discourses Between a Master and Listeners” by Saint Shri Samartha Ramdas 

8. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway (OK. Gimmicky but subtly effective.)

9. “Four Agreements, The: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom”* by Don Miguel Ruiz

10. “Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 1” By Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

11. “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (Good – Starts out a bit clunky and (seemingly) predictable, but climax is suspenseful.)

12. “I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj”* by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Excellent. Piercing and unflinching.)

13. “Illusion vs. Reality – Dialogues with Shri Ranjit Maharaj” by Ranjit Maharaj

14. “Master Key to Self-Realization”* by Shri Sidharameshwar Maharaj (Sublime: Clear, kind, poetic, powerful.)

15. “Peanuts Guide to Life: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Best-Loved Cartoon Characters”* by Charles M. Schulz

16. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy (Fun, as his books usually are.)

17. “Rogue Warrior”* by Richard Marcinko with John Weisman (Very Good – Surprisingly well-written; would be a great movie.)

18. “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper”* by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin (Excellent. Well written, down-to-earth, both ferocious and gentle, the story wields both the sword and the olive branch.)

19. Service: A Navy SEAL at War by Marcus Luttrell and James D. Hornfischer (A quieter but in some ways more complete story than “Lone Surivor”.)

20. “Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy SEAL”* by Chuck Pfarrer (Well written, and with honesty and humility.)