Friday, May 20, 2011

An anniversary of a different kind…

Notice lights glowing in the distance--these are from homes in Pudimoe

I’m celebrating and acknowledging my Peace Corps swear-in date, which is the 17th of each month, on Facebook. As my time for returning home draws nearer, I’m becoming more and more excited—especially on the 17th of each month and am having fun counting down the days!

However, I’m quietly celebrating another anniversary of a different kind. In May of 2010, I relocated my Peace Corps South Africa living situation from a very busy, boisterous “dorm room” setting, to a much more private residence on campus in a permanent “caravan home” at my college. (In the States, we call these “trailers,” or at least we used to call them this.) So, I’m celebrating a year in my little trailer here at the college and have been very, very happy living in it.

It was difficult for me to ask to move out of the “hostile hostel,” which I jokingly, but somewhat truthfully, began calling it. For one thing, when compared with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, having my own private “flat,” with a separate kitchen and bath space, even if inside a girls’ dormitory, was considered a “Posh Corps” living assignment, and many of my friends expressed jealousy. For Pete’s sake, I had indoor plumbing, a bathtub, and a flushed toilet! (Many, many of my fellow volunteers live in homes without indoor plumbing and haul water for drinking and household use from a community tap.) For another, there was a lot I liked about living in the dormitory, especially my large glass windows that provided an “IMAX” viewing experience while watching the drama of the African sky. And when things felt threatening outside, be it a weather-related storm or a soccer-related storm (I could overlook the campus soccer field from my room), I felt snug and secure inside my second-floor castle room in a cinder-block building.

After eight months of desperately trying to find happiness in my dorm room existence, I did ask to move. I was living with, well, college-aged kids who were joyful, boisterous, and loud during restful hours. Also, since I was a captured audience, I had frequent visitors and it was difficult to hide if I need to rest or be alone. But there were other things about it, that were much more unpleasant. For example, the building itself was infested with rats and African-sized cockroaches and about 200 girls and I were pad-locked into the building each evening with no possible escape in the case of an emergency (and no sprinkler system in case of a fire). While I was living there, a sewage pipe burst and raw sewage bubbled up out of the ground underneath my bathroom window for months. Also, the building lost water and electricity regularly.

However, even with these undesirable living conditions, there was something else much more intolerable to me: Strange men would visit the dormitory on weekend nights and the solicit college-aged girls. I found this to be the least tolerable circumstance of my living situation and eventually asked to move. (Yes, yes, I did make my campus supervisors aware of this unacceptable issue but unfortunately, nothing was done. There are cultural differences between American and South African attitudes regarding sexual relations between “older men” and “young girls.” Although I find the practice unacceptable, unfortunately and sadly, it is accepted here.)

When I made my supervisor aware of my wish to make other living arrangements, she encouraged me to “start looking around” for other possibilities. I was assigned two schools, as we all are, and in addition to the college, was working for a primary school out in the village. I began seeking a place to live off-campus, as I preferred to live in the village anyway.

Before I decided to move I was in the habit of strolling around the campus and had found a row of caravan homes—trailers—that I learned were occupied by educators at the college. There was one abandoned trailer and I began to long for it. It hadn’t been inhabited for quite some time, so I wasn’t even sure if it were habitable. I found myself visiting a picnic table on campus and sitting dreamily, eyeing the vacant trailer and praying for the possibility of living there.

Long story shorter: I did find someplace else to live in the village, but hadn’t realized the problem of the college “losing face” if I left it. In rural South African culture, to be embarrassed or seen to “lose” something is highly, highly undesirable—and for the college, to “lose” their Peace Corps volunteer to a village home would have been embarrassing.

I approached the college about moving into the vacant trailer.

Now, keep in mind, no one had lived in the trailer for quite some time. I knew there was a reason it was uninhabited and figured it must be in pretty bad shape. At this point however, I would have rather lived in a pitched tent in the back lot of the college than in the dorm room, so I asked to see it. As imagined, it was in pretty bad shape: the stairs providing entry way to the trailer weren’t there, the toilet didn’t flush, the cold-only water trickled out of the faucets, the hot water heater needed replacing, and there were hot wires coming out of most of the electrical outlets. Furthermore, while I had water and electricity provided by the college in the dorm room, I would need to purchase my own electricity for the trailer.

I didn’t mind any of these things—I’LL TAKE IT!

My change in residence needed to be approved by Peace Corps, especially in regards to my safety and security. With my Peace Corps supervisor’s help, we negotiated repairs and made arrangements to have security bars put in place.

My new home was becoming a reality!

Well, in the end, there was quite a bit of unhappiness involved with my move. I would later learn that, even though the trailer had sat vacant for quite some time, my South African colleagues—fellow educators—raised quite a stink at my “getting” to move into the trailer when they were without campus housing. They viewed my moving as an example of “white privilege.” So AFTER Peace Corps had installed security doors and AFTER I had moved myself in (I hired college kids to help me move—none of my peers were interesting in helping); AFTER I had scrubbed as much of the filth and grime away as I could, I get a visit from the campus manager to explain that everyone at the college was upset at my preferential treatment and no, they wouldn’t be repairing the hot wires, the toilet, the stairs, or the hot water heater after all.

I was FURIOUS. :-)

In the end, I got to stay, and, well, the live wires were repaired, the stairs somewhat replaced, and the college bought me a “mini-geyser,” which is basically a device you drop into your bath water to heat it. Many, many rural South Africans heat their bath water with pots on the stove, pots over a wood-fire, or with electric kettles.

I was also warned too, by a sympathetic South African, that the trailer sitting unprotected from the African sky “would be an icebox in the winter, and an oven in the summer.” And she was absolutely right about this! It does become an easy-bake oven in the summer and now that winter is coming, has turned into an icebox.

However, even with the dramatic extremes in temperature, even with the disgruntled college educators, even with faulty wiring and a toilet that doesn’t flush, I’m much happier here and have been—for a whole year. I have privacy, I have a “yard,” I can garden, I can line-dry my clothes, I can “hide” if I need privacy or space, I have space to accommodate overnight guests, I have an oven, and yes, I have indoor-plumbing and a bathtub! I have been much, much happier here in my little African home and am grateful to have had it.

As my time in South Africa draws to a close, I’m rearranging my little trailer home one last time: I’m moving my “living area” back to my bedroom, which is on the east-facing end of the house, so I have good, direct sunshine (and heat!!) all of the day. Also, I have a door that I can shut to keep in the heat from an electric heater that I eventually broke down and bought last winter (after foolishly trying to “tough it out” most of the winter!)

I’m finding in the mornings now, I’m waking warm with my heater on, and dress into warm clothes, and then exit into the kitchen of my trailer—which is ice cold. I warm water immediately to wash and prepare my coffee. For my coffee, I must warm my cup and milk or, because my dishes are so cold, my coffee ends up being tepid. I return to my warm bedroom, which now has become my “living room,” to prepare for my workday. With my heater and my rearranged living space, I’m warm enough now that I go off to school feeling warm and my mornings feel bearable, rather than last year when I felt my hands and feet nothing but blocks of ice all winter.

In my rearranging my house for my last winter in Africa, I’m also making a mental note of who I’ll be leaving my Peace-Corps-purchased belongings to. (While Peace Corps provides us funds to set up our households, they also ask that when we leave and return to our homes in the States, that these same household furnishings be distributed to needy members of our communities.) I will be finding a home for my bed, my wardrobe (these were actually provided by the South African Department of Education), my linens, my fan, my dishes and all kitchen pots and utensils, my electric kettle, and yes, my heater. I’ve met some wonderful people here in my time in Africa, and have “earmarked” my friends for these things along the way.

Since my group is in the School and Resource Project classification in South Africa, most of us finish our teaching and work with schools at the end of June. By wrapping up our professional work assignments, and after an extended school break in July, this leaves us a month or so to say our goodbyes to our communities.

My Peace Corps service is quickly coming to an end. Although I’ve been away from home and not seen my family members, I’m already hearing my loved ones say, “It doesn’t seem like it has been two years.” (Meaning, for them, time has gone quickly.) For me, it has definitely felt like two years and has felt like a VERY LONG TIME.

So, I’m counting the days and gearing up for my last winter in South Africa knowing this one, with my heater, will be much more comfortable. I have loved living in my little trailer home and am sure I’ll feel sad to leave it.

Soon, Karen

PS. Although my dorm room provided an “IMAX” view, my trailer allowed “amphitheater seating”—and these pictures are of “my” South African sky.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, 2008

Movie poster courtesy of Media Pro/Wild Bunch Studio

After  seeing Woody Allen’s 2005 film, Match Point, which I felt sure a masterpiece, I’ve become a reluctant fan of Mr. Allen.  I’ve tried to be a fan before, but, well, there was that off-putting scandal in his personal life and I’ve often felt I just didn’t “get” his movies.  However, I’m impressed with and enjoyed Vicky Christina Barcelona in much the same way I was impressed with Match Point, and  I find myself looking forward to his new films.

Mr. Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona  has cast three of the most gorgeous people on the planet—Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Scarlett Johansson—and has set his story in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Barcelona, Spain.  As with many of his films, he examines the notion of love and the complexities of romantic relationships and is dialogue-driven.  Mr. Allen seems to develop interests in actresses and uses them again and again in his films, much in the way he did with his long-time lover, Mia Farrow.  In Vicky Christina Barcelona, his crush seems to be with Scarlett Johansson as she was also cast in Allen’s 2005 film, Match Point and his 2006 film, Scoop.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is the story of two young women, Vicky and Christina, played by Hall and Johansson, respectively, and their summer spent in Barcelona, Spain.  The two women are long-time friends but both have different desires in love: Vicky seeks devotion and security in marriage while Christina longs for love that she is unable to define, but is always on the lookout  for.  The story chronicles what happens to the two women and their ideas of love after they meet two Spanish artists, Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, and his ex-wife, María Elena, played by Penélope Cruz.

Johansson and Hall were fine in their roles and I particularly enjoyed the sassy banter of Hall’s character, Vicky.  I’m a huge fan of Ms. Cruz and am happy to watch her act in anything, but I particularly enjoyed her performance as the fiery, unpredictable  María Elena.  It was great fun to watch her lose her temper while spouting off obscenities in Spanish!

If I have one disappointment with the film, it is with the performance of Javier Bardem.  In saying this, I loudly proclaim Mr. Bardem one of my favorite actors living today and find him perfectly capable—beyond capable--as an actor.  However, I couldn’t quite feel that Mr. Bardem inhabited this role: he seemed aloof and detached and, well, inebriated most of the time.  Perhaps this was Allen’s vision for the character, but I didn’t find him quite as dreamy as I was hoping.

In addition to his stars, Mr. Allen also cast witty, intelligent actors in Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn, and Chris Messina, all who take marvelous turns and are fun to watch—especially Ms. Clarkson.

The Spanish music in this film is simply gorgeous—especially the selections featuring Spanish guitar!  And the narration by Christopher Even Welch kept me smiling throughout.

Mr. Allen both wrote and directed Vicky Christina Barcelona and the film was produced by Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures, Stephen Tenenbaum, and Gareth Wiley. The film earned several awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture—Comedy or Musical and Ms. Cruz’s performance won several awards for Best Supporting Actress.

I recommend this film if you’re a fan of Allen, the actors, or Spain! Mr. Allen’s
Vicky Christina Barcelona showcases beautiful people, in a beautiful place, listening to beautiful music, and saying beautiful things—well, sometimes saying beautiful things!  The film is simply gorgeous!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, 2010

Movie poster courtesy of Apparition
In 1975, Joan Jett formed an all-girl rock band, the Runaways, in Hollywood, California and the band’s brief three year run influenced later generations of rock and roll musicians and paved the way for women in rock.  Floria Sigismondi’s film, The Runaways, chronicles the story of the major players in the band’s original line-up: Joan Jett, played by Kristen Stewart, and Cheri Currie, played by Dakota Fanning.

Original band mates Joan Jett and Cherie Currie were actively involved in making the film. In fact, the film is based on Currie’s memoir recounting of her life with the band:  Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway.  Joan Jett served as a producer of the film along with  Bill Pohlad, Art and John Linson, and Kenny Laguna.  Floria Sigismondi wrote the screenplay and directed the film.

The film opens with Joan Jett and her pursuit to play electric guitar “in a man’s world of music” and her meeting Kim Fowley, the infamous record producer, who would navigate the Runaways into fame and rock and roll history.  Early in the film, we see how Jett and Fowley recruited the very young Cheri Currie to front the band.  The band quickly rises to fame and the film follows the shooting-star projection of a limited run in the flashy chaotic lifestyle of rock and roll fame.

Kristen Stewart, of the Twilight franchise fame, is cast as Joan Jett, who would later front the band, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.  Stewart does a fine turn as Jett.  Dakota Fanning is cast as Cheri Currie, the original singer for the Runaways, in a gritty and very grown-up performance when contrasted to what we’ve seen Fanning in before.  Michael Shannon is cast as the extraordinarily creepy Kim Fowley and makes us fear for the well-being of all young women everywhere.  If you can get over how truly creepy his character is, Shannon’s performance is fun to watch.

Tatum O’Neal does a surprising turn as Cheri Currie’s mother—so surprising that she escaped my notice on my first viewing and I watched the film a second time just to catch O’Neal in her role.

The film is difficult to watch, probably due to the exposure of the very young women to the rock and roll lifestyle. Cheri Currie was only fifteen years old when recruited for the band.  I repeat, she was fifteen years old and toured the USA and Japan in a rock band.  The film accurately captures the mood of the pre-punk rock days in the 1970s and the dark, risqué nightclubs the girls frequented.  It’s also difficult to watch the characters using drugs at such a young age.

The film is a rock and roll drama, but interestingly, music isn’t featured as much as one would expect.  Both Stewart and Fanning performed music for the film but the soundtrack also features tracks from the actual Runaways as well as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.  The film focuses on the relationship that develops between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie.

I was interested in seeing the film because, although I missed the Runaways as a fan (I was still too young in their 1970s hey-day), I did grow up watching Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Lita Ford on MTV.  Seeing the film has inspired my interest in the Runaways as a band and in Ms. Currie’s book, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway.

The film has been criticized for an underwritten script and a focus on Currie rather than Jett and you can’t help but feel that a sharper focus on Jett may have put the sparkle on the film that it seems to be missing.

I recommend the film if you’re a fan of the actresses, the band, or the history of rock and roll--but be warned: it’s a gritty, dirty, uncomfortable ride!

Ryan Murphy’s Eat, Pray, Love, 2010

Movie poster courtesy of Plan B Entertainment/Sony Pictures
When Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love was published in 2003, it became an international best seller.  A memoir, Gilbert tells her story of a spiritual quest that took her to three exotic locations: Italy, India, and Indonesia.  Gilbert traveled to and spent some time in each of the locations as she recovered from the aftermath of a devastating divorce.  The film version of Gilbert’s story was released in 2010 starring Julia Roberts, as Gilbert, and Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, and Billy Crudup in other title roles.

I am a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert as a writer and was fascinated by her portrait of Eustace Conway in her 2003 book, The Last American Man.  When her book, Eat, Pray, Love came out in 2006, because I was already a fan, I was eager to read it.

I enjoyed Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love very much and was deeply moved by her accounts of the heartbreak experienced at the loss of her marriage and the resulting quest to rediscover the truth of her life.  In the book, the quest is very much of a spiritual nature, a fact that isn’t as strongly emphasized in the film.  Another point that isn’t emphasized in the film: the film portrays Gilbert as seemingly inspired by this trip all on her own, while in fact, Gilbert had negotiated a book deal with her publisher to finance her year abroad.  While I do not question the spiritual nature of Gilbert’s journey, I can’t help but feel she was as interested in selling a book as well.

Gilbert’s year-long quest to self-discovery and healing had her residing for several months in Italy, to learn the Italian language and enjoy wonderful Italian food; and then another few months  in India, to study the teachings of a guru in an Hindu ashram; and then finally to Indonesia, to study under a Balinese medicine man.

Ryan Murphy directed the film and co-wrote the screen-play with Jennifer Salt.  Ryan Murphy has another feature film under his direction, Running with Scissors, and he has also directed TV shows, including Glee.  I wonder how differently the film would have come out if Elizabeth Gilbert had adapted her own book for the big-screen rather than someone else.

Julia Roberts is cast as Elizabeth Gilbert and seems a likely choice: Ms. Roberts is an exceptionally capable actress that has an impressive body of work to her credit.  And while Roberts more than rises to the task of reaching the emotional peaks required of the role, I couldn’t help but feel her casting choice was a bit off the mark.  I found myself wondering if Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice. 

Javier Bardem, on the other hand, is an excellent choice to play Gilbert’s Brazilian lover, Felipe, although his casting has been criticized because he is a Spanish actor.  Bardem, while certainly easy on the eyes, did an excellent job of portraying the emotionally caring and sensitive Felipe. 

Richard Jenkins, also an excellent actor, was also a bit of a casting disappointment for me as well.  In the book, I had imagined the “Richard from Texas” as Sam Elliot-type of character, albeit a 250-pound Sam Elliot type.  Also, in the book, I had a sense that the banter between Gilbert and “Richard from Texas” was more of a teasing and playful kind, rather than the aggressive and confrontational type portrayed between Roberts and Jenkins in the film.  Granted, Gilbert was often exasperated by her relationship with “Richard from Texas” in the book, but again, in the book I felt their relationship warmer, kinder, and more playful.

The film is certainly luscious in its landscapes: the film is, after all, set in beautiful, exotic locations full of Balinese rice paddies and beach scenes to the ancient art and architecture of Italy and the mystique of India.  The film is also beautifully scored and the song selections are spot-on:  I will own this soundtrack.

As previously mentioned, in the book, the reader has a better sense of Ms. Gilbert’s journey as spiritual in nature.  However, in the film, her quest seems to be more about seeking pleasure and new love, although admittedly, it is certainly a more intriguing cinematic adventure to be searching for romance and pleasure than spiritual fulfillment.  In the book and in the film, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of sadness at the end: I was hoping her spiritual quest would provide a different ending for her story; however, instead, both in the book and in the film, we find her embarking upon the same familiar path yet again.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, 2009

Movie poster courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment, Revelations Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m not a fan of westerns, war movies, or sports dramas, but in the last decade or so, Clint Eastwood has become one of my favorite actors and directors.   He won my heart forever with his 1995 film, The Bridges of Madison County (Well, ok, I’m a sucker for tragic love stories!) and I was practically bowled over with his 2004 film, Million Dollar Baby.   I eagerly await new films from Eastwood because I want to be awed at what he does next.  Eastwood doesn’t flinch from the grim realities of life and because he also forces us to see these grim realities, his films are sometimes difficult to watch, but always compelling!

In 2009, he made a film about Nelson Mandela’s campaign to win the World Cup Rugby match in 1995.  I was particularly interested in this film, because at the time I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa.  As a new volunteer, I was deeply interested in South African history and of course was interested in all things Nelson Mandela.  Furthermore, South Africa was in the midst of another World Cup frenzy, as the nation would be hosting the World Cup Soccer Match in 2010.

I couldn’t wait to see Invictus and read the book on which the film is based in the meantime, John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.

Nelson Mandela was and is a brilliant political strategist and he attempted to heal the racial tensions remaining in the newly-established, post-apartheid South African democracy by rallying the nation to support the predominantly white South African rugby team, the Springboks, in their bid for the Rugby World Cup in 1995.  For Mandela, this attempt at unifying his country in this fashion was extremely controversial: the Springboks had, for many years, represented the brutality of the apartheid government.  Most of Mandela’s South Africa—black South Africans—where shocked and angered at Mandela’s request for his nation—black South Africans--to rally for this team they had historically despised.

Eastwood’s film attempts to capture the drama of this historical event and showcases the talent of actor Morgan Freeman, who plays Nelson Mandela.  Freeman, in addition to starring in the film, also produced it.

I enjoyed Morgan Freeman’s performance of  Nelson Mandela very much and truthfully can’t imagine anyone else handling the role.  Freeman beautifully captures Mandela’s strength and determination at unifying his nation by insisting that the “forgiveness begins here” –within his  administration and among his staff.  Freeman also had me laughing out loud at several gentle comedic moments in the film.

Matt Damon was cast as the Springbok’s team captain at that time,Francoise Pienaar. Damon’s casting choice has been criticized and I admit, he doesn’t seem quite right for the role, but I can’t imagine anyone else better to play him.  Perhaps a beefy Brad Pitt?  I thought Damon had the quiet strength and determination that Pienaar surely exhibited in leading his team in 1995.  What is most obvious in the film is Damon’s physique in comparison to his rugby-playing teammates: Damon is an American actor while true South African rugby players were cast as his teammates.  Rugby players, in every sense of the word, are giants and Damon does seem remarkably smaller in size when standing beside these guys.

I’m not a sports fan (sorry!) and most of the movie highlights the actual World Cup Rugby match.  I thought Eastwood did a great job of capturing the drama and excitement of the game—especially with the tense moments at the end of the game--when all of the rugby players were exhausted yet unrelenting in their final bids for the win.  Eastwood’s direction also captures what it must feel like to be inside the “scrum” of a rugby match.

However, in the end, I was ultimately disappointed in the film.  It came off a bit flat for me.  Perhaps my expectations of it were too high.  I noted too, that much of what Mandela did politically to posture the Springboks for the win was very controversial and politically brilliant, but the film does not quite portray the weight of Mandela’s gestures.  For example, we know from reading the book how significant it was for Mandela to wear the jersey and cap of the Springbok team at the final match and in front of the nation and the world, but in the film, this significance is lost.

An interesting note:  Watch for Eastwood’s son, cast  as a Springbok team member.  The family resemblance is amazing and it is fun to spot him.

Also, Eastwood closes his film with actual photographs of the Springbok team playing in 1995, so as a viewer, you see the actual players.  It was a touching way to close the film and fun to see the actual players.

The soundtrack for the film and music selections has been criticized but I thought the music captured the mood of the time and the historical significance of events quite nicely.  

The film is certainly worth seeing, if only for Freeman’s performance as Mandela.  Both Freeman and Damon were nominated for Academy Awards, for best actor and best supporting actor, respectively.  And, although a bit flat, Eastwood does deliver another fine film. 

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, 2010

Movie poster courtesy of Alliance Films/Focus Features

When The Kids Are All Right was released in July, 2010,  I was curious and excited about the movie because a) it was about a lesbian couple raising a family together and b) the film starred some A-list actors including Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo.  Because well-made, main-stream films about alternative families are rare and because of the actors involved with the project, I felt sure the film would be spectacular. There was quite a bit of buzz about Annette Bening’s performance in particular.

The film would go on to be nominated for Academy Awards and won Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Actress for Benning.  I was sure I would love the movie and couldn’t wait to see it.

Well, I’ve seen it and am disheartened to report I didn’t like  it.  I’ve been brooding a bit for a few days trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like it, because I felt so sure I would.  The film is categorized as a comedy-drama, but I found little to laugh about in this film.

The film revolves around an upper-middle class lesbian couple and their children, one of who will be soon leaving for college.  We see straight away that the family is successful, the children well-adjusted, and the marriage between the women strong.  The film highlights how this family dynamic is affected when the daughter contacts the previously-anonymous “father” of the children: the man who contributed to the conception of both children by donating sperm years prior.  In the story, both women conceived a child each from the same man’s donation. 

The mothers are rattled by the betrayal of the children at contacting the man who contributed the sperm, “Why didn’t you tell us?”  This initial family betrayal sets the stage for the rest of the story.

Annette Bening plays Nic, the professional-half of the lesbian couple who supports the family as an obstetrician.  Nic is somewhat straight-laced and uptight.  Julianne Moore plays Jules, the other mother, a freer spirit who struggles with Nic’s high expectations of her.  The women’s relationship is challenged when Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo, the sperm donor  and therefore biological father of the children, is invited into the family fold at the request of the daughter played by Mia Wasikowska.

The film is meant to be a sympathetic portrayal of a “normal” family headed by a lesbian couple and the challenges they face as a family.  For the most part, I think the film beautifully showcases the “normality” of an alternative family arrangement.  However, I was somewhat put off by things I perceived as stereotypes about lesbian women; in particular, I was put off by the wardrobe choices for the Jules character and the depiction of lesbian sex between the women.  Also, I was uncomfortable observing the evolution of difficult relationship between the son of the family and a trouble-prone neighborhood boy.  Furthermore, I was uncomfortable watching one of the character’s indulge too heavily on alcohol.

The acting in this film is superb and Bening, as promised, more than delivers.  However, I was much more impressed with Bening’s performance in Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty.  Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo are spot on, and I was impressed with the performance of Mia Wasikowska, an Australian actress that plays Joni, the daughter.  Perhaps another lesbian stereotype that irritated me was that the mothers would name their daughter in honor of Joni Mitchell.

The script co-written by Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed. The story is  well-written and tight, but I couldn’t help feel a wanting at the end, that the story wasn’t quite resolved satisfactorily.

And perhaps this is why I didn’t care for the film: the story wasn’t tied up nicely in a pretty package, all nicely resolved at the end.  And perhaps the emotion in the film was a bit too raw and made me feel too  uncomfortable;  perhaps the reality of the film was a bit to gritty for my comfort-level; and perhaps the events facing the family a bit too close to home for me to enjoy.

However, I do recommend seeing this film because some of the most powerful films we ever see will be the ones that make us feel the most uncomfortable.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, 2010

Movie poster courtesy of See-Saw Films/Bedlam Productions
I’ve only now seen the 2010 British historical drama, The King’s Speech, and enjoyed it so much I watched it twice—and paid a fortune to do so!  Of course, it’s old news to you guys, as earlier this year the film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Tom Hooper, Best Actor for Colin Firth, and Best Screenplay for  David Seidler.

This film features the enormously talented Colin Firth, who deservedly won the
Academy Award for Best Actor,  but I have only this to say about the film: Geoffry Rush, Geoffry Rush, and Geoffry Rush!

I was introduced to Geoffry Rush’s enormously talented acting in his 1996 film, Shine, and have been a devoted fan since, but I delighted in every moment of Rush’s performance in The King’s Speech.  Rush’s acting in this film is simply flawless and The King’s Speech showcases his talents brilliantly.  Rush’s performance absolutely steals the show!

The King’s Speech dramatizes the story of  King George VI of England’s ascension to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated his rule prior to the beginning of World War II.  Although based on historical facts, the film dramatizes the relationship that developed between the reluctant king, George VI, played by  Firth, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Rush, hired to help the King overcome his embarrassing and un-king-like stammer.  The acting of both Firth and Rush is a delight to watch in the seeming sparring match as the men build a tenuous-at-first but ultimately a rich, lifelong relationship between a common man and a royal.

As with the 2006 film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, which depicts the lives of the royals in the wake of the tragedy of the death of Princess Diana, The King’s Speech beautifully allows us entry and an insider’s view into the lives of the royal family and what challenges they face as human beings, even though they are  under enormous pressure to rise above the thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events as contrasted to those of “the common man.”  Stories such as these make the families of the British monarchy more accessible to us all residing in the realm of the “common man.”

Also, since I’ve lived in the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it was great fun to see her portrayed as a child along with her sister, Princess Margaret, under the care of their royal parents.  And it was fun too, to see a more playful, witty side of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in her younger years played by the wonderful Helena Bonham Carter.

The story is based on true events but the historical facts are altered to increase the dramatic effect of the film.  In particular, the film has been criticized for the portrayal of Winston Churchill’s part in the abdication crisis.  In history, Churchill urged King Edward the VII to resist abdicating the throne, but in the film he supports the abdication.  It is also said the characters of King Edward and King George V were made more antagonistic than they actually were to increase the dramatic effects of the film as well.

I was delighted in the casting of this film: the roles seem tailor-made for every actor.  I can’t imagine anyone better to play the Queen Mother, Helena Bonham Carter, another fabulous actress and a favorite of mine, and Guy Pearce’s performance of King Edward VIII is delightfully wicked.  The casting choice of Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill has been criticized, but I found him fine in the role.  The more I see of Michael Gambon the more I like and he was a perfect choice to play the superbly strong but ultimately ailing King George V.

At first I was put off by the very dark and murky tone of Danny Cohen’s cinematography: the film seems washed in dark gray tones and I felt I was in a depressing cave the whole time viewing the film.  However, such cinematography wonderfully captures the mood and dreariness of nineteenth century England at the beginning of another World War as Hitler and Nazism came to power.  The costume designer Jenny Beaven was spot-on and it was fun to see the royals decked out in their impeccable clothes as contrasted to the attire of Logue and his family’s “commoner’s” fashion.

Again, I delighted in the film and felt a personal connection as I’ve lived in the time of the reign of the current Queen, Elizabeth II.  I loved an insider’s seat to the story of her mother and father and I found myself, a closeted anglophile, running to brush up on my British history as soon as I left the theater.  This film is a definite must-see if you missed it—and Geoffry Rush single-handedly steals the show!

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, 1995

Movie poster courtesy Columbia Pictures
Sense and Sensibility was a film released in 1995 starring Emma Thompson, a very young Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman.  The film is directed by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson wrote and won an Academy Award for the screenplay.

I love Ang Lee as a film director.  He is an absolutely amazing filmmaker and he won my heart forever with his Brokeback Mountain.  As a director, he simply adores landscapes and captures  scenery in a way that overwhelms his films with breathtaking beauty.  And as Sense and Sensibility is a period piece based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, the setting is early nineteenth century England full its dramatic aristocratic residences, dramatic aristocratic gardens, and dramatic aristocratic ladies and gentlemen in their period costumes riding around in lovely horse-drawn carriages.  The film was shot in some of the most historic manors in all of England, including Saltram House, Compton Castle, and Trafalgar House. 

The story follows a family of women who have recently lost their husband/father and his fortune, which then by law falls to the distant son.  As a standard of the times, the women’s lives revolve around pursuing a marriage in the prosperous ranks and all of the worry and disappointments that go along with such a pursuit.  Lee’s drama follows Elinor Dashwood, played by Emma Thompson, and Marianne Dashwood, played by Kate Winslet, in their pursuits of love and marriage.  The sisters represent the “sense” and “sensibilities” of such endeavors: Elinor is the sensible one while Marianne is caught up in passion.  Austen’s novel, as does the film, critiques the inequalities of women’s rights at the time: women weren’t allowed to even earn an income.

For modern day audiences, both now and when the film was originally released in 1995, a period drama showcasing the early nineteenth century lifestyles of English aristocracy, revolving around manners, etiquette, and culture of a time and place we have no relation to, is quite a stretch.  In short, Americans are used to and demand quick paced stories set in current times with high-action and added special effects.  Can one endure two hours of characters bowing politely with lowered eyes before resuming their needle point?

The answer is a resounding yes, but only with Thomson’s top-notch writing and Lee’s superb directing.  Although Thompson herself plays the part of Elinor Dashwood, it is said Thompson wrote the screenplay with a much younger actress in mind—she had intended for Vanessa Redgrave’s’ daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson to play the parts of the sisters—and balked when Lee suggested Thompson play the character of Elinor, on the basis that she, Thompson, was too old.  However, Lee insisted and Thompson was cast, of course, and the rest is history.  Of course, Emma Thompson, the stellar actress that she is, does a wonderful turn with Elinor.  However, I could not help but wish for the casting to have matched Rickman and Thompson as  lovers and Grant and Winslet as a pair instead of the reverse.  Of course, my casting would have proven untrue to Austen’s novel but in Ang Lee’s film, the love interests seemed inauthentic and I feel would have played better with the switch.  Good thing I’m not Ang Lee, eh?

Greg Wise plays a wonderfully dashing scoundrel in John Willoughby that all but ruins Marianne, and it’s great fun to see performances of the  supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson (too-brief an appearance!), Hugh Laurie, and Jemma Jones.  Harriet Walter, as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, and Elizabeth Spriggs, as Mrs. Jennings, are both a hoot!

The movie is lush valentine to nineteenth century England in landscapes, interiors, and manners and the acting is superb.  Do yourself a turn and seek out Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibilities and be sure to watch out for the “period” sheep! 

James Cameron’s Avatar, 2009

Movie poster courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Ok, ok, I’ve only now seen James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, and the short of it—I loved it!

Ok, ok, I know James Cameron’s films can be hokey and predictable. I know there is something obscene about supporting the work of a man that produces films that earn $760 million; I know he can be a bit clumsy in portraying delicate themes--like, spirituality; and I know we have to endure yet one more scene with a busty, gutsy woman in a white tank top, but you’ve got to admit: if you want a visually-stunning, sensory feast, then Cameron, more often than not, delivers!

Avatar is another telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith story whereby an outsider comes into an indigenous culture and brings along a whole slew of incoming imperialists to harvest all the available riches and throw the indigenous ways of life into ruin.  In this case, the imperialist is the overinflated, non-stoppable machinery of American capitalism and greed—and of course, the bad guys are coming into Paradise to ruin everything.

Cameron’s computer generated film is gorgeous.  Cameron has always worked on the cutting edge of developing cinematic technology and it is said Cameron waited a few years for the technology to advance well enough to reach the vision he demanded for Avatar.  He spent a lot of time under the sea filming other projects, mostly documentaries inspired by his oceanic filming of Titanic.  The influence of Cameron’s long time spent under water is beautifully reflected in the landscapes and movement in Avatar: everything is vibrant in color, and even though Pandora is depicted as a lush rainforest, the flora is reminiscent of coral in its vibrancy and all movement in the film, from the humanoids to the seeds of trees, flows through the air as  it were flowing under water.

The actors for this film are new to me: Sam Worthington plays the male protagonist and Zoe Saldana plays the female protagonist.  While the film is computer generated, Cameron used sensory data (from electrodes attached to the actors’ faces) to portray emotion and gestures.  By Cameron’s account, the film is 60% computer generated and 40% live action.  I wasn’t sure if Worthington would be able to carry off the task of becoming our hero, but handled the responsibility of a star turn quite well.  I was impressed Saldana immediately.  By the end of the film, I was online to see where else I could find these actors. 

Cameron’s heroines ultimately defeat the bad guy in all of his films, but Cameron’s female characters endure bone-crunching brutality in their quests. 

Stephen Lang, of course, makes a great, Cameron-film bad-guy and it was fun to see some of the power-house, human-movement-generated robot concepts from the Aliens movies of twenty years ago.

Although it is evident why Cameron cast Sigourney Weaver in Avatar—she was showcased and ultimately a breakout actress in Cameron’s Aliens film in 1986--, Weaver seemed uncharacteristically vacant and detached from the role of the saucy and bold Dr. Grace Augustine.    Even Weaver’s avatar wasn’t convincing: Weaver’s avatar seemed a young, hip, twenty-year old to Weaver’s sixty year old Grace Augustine.

The highlight of the film for me, is Cameron’s film embracing and celebrating the Gaia Theory, which views the Earth as a planet as a living organism in and of itself.  I love this theory and often think of Mother Earth giving us her best doggie shake to knock all of these destructive human fleas (us!) off of her at any time now.  By using the Gaia Theory as the central theme for the film,   Cameron easily incorporates Native American Indian spirituality that celebrates earth and nature as “all of creation” and reinforces what all good naturalists everywhere know: all things on Earth are connected!

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Movie poster courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment, Revelations Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures
I came to South Africa to serve with Peace Corps in 2009 and the country was already very excited about World Cup Soccer to be hosted in South Africa in 2010 with soccer teams competing from all over the world. I’m not a sports fan, but the excitement for the upcoming soccer competitions was contagious—you couldn’t go anywhere in South Africa and not hear about the upcoming World Cup games. South Africa hosted one big party from June through the end of July, 2010.

Also in 2009, the year I came to South Africa, a film about the South African World Cup Rugby games hosted in South Africa in 1995, Invictus, was released in the United States and starred Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The film was based on John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, that recounts Mandela’s political strategy of using a national sport—rugby—to unify a newly democratic South Africa in 1995.

Please note the difference: 1995 was a rugby match and 2010 was a soccer match—this distinction has racial implications for South Africa.

The film’s title, Invictus, is also the title of a poem written by English poet, William Earnest Henley, a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela while in prison and in a way he hoped to pass along to the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar. Translated from Latin, “invictus” means “undefeated” or “unconquered” and the film uses the poem as a core theme.

If you watch the film, Invictus, you will see a lot of the South Africa I see and live in, and you will be under the impression that at that one moment in time, when the South African Springboks defeated the New Zealand All-Blacks in that famous game in 1995, that the racial tensions in South Africa at the end of apartheid were completely healed thus culminating in “the Rainbow Nation.” I too, came to South Africa, under the impression that Mandela had done great things and that South Africa was truly a diverse and happily homogeneous—but racially diverse-- population, an impression that I was saddened to learn very quickly that does not exist, at least it does not exist among the South Africans that I live with. When I first arrived in SA, not understanding much about sports and soccer, I was asking a white South African about the World Cup Soccer and was told that white South Africans enjoy rugby while black South Africans enjoy soccer. (A “joke” in regards to this reference is made in the movie.)

I was also struck with how the black South African college kids that I lived with were outraged that an American actor, Morgan Freeman, was cast as their beloved Nelson Mandela. I told them that of course, it was an American made movie and that the movie makers were mostly interested in making money. But it saddened me to see how this one casting choice stood as yet another example of American imperialism: we’ll choose an American actor to play a famous South African leader.

Here are some general impressions that I came away with after watching the film:
• In the opening shot, you will see two schools: a white school and a black school. The white school children are impeccably dressed in smart uniforms, are attending a fine school, are practicing rugby, and are playing on grass. The black school children, on the other hand, are dressed in street clothes, are attending a modest school, are practicing soccer, and are playing on dirt. This opening shot, I believe, best represents the racial divisions that I still see in South Africa today. The two schools are divided by a road that Mandela’s entourage will travel and you will see the black children excited at Mandela’s passing and the white children observing with contempt. The white coach advises his team to “remember this day when our country went to the dogs.” Sadly, I still see these attitudes in the South Africa today.

Also, the family’s attitude of the white South African rugby team captain, François Pienaar, especially the father’s comments, mirror those of what I still see in white South Africans today, that “they (black South Africans) will take our jobs and drive us into the sea.”

• In the film, you will see wonderful aerial shots of Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park, where I spent Christmas holiday, 2010. Also, the South African rugby team trains in Cape Town throughout the film and there are lovely shots of Table Mountain against the backdrop of the city. These are the same views I experienced while in Cape Town, and yes, the city and the mountains are truly this beautiful.

• The film opens with the South African song, “Shosholoza,” and we, as Peace Corps volunteers were taught on our arrival in-country. The song was used controversially in the past by black South Africans as a show of solidarity in defiance of the apartheid government. Mandela speaks of singing the song with other prisoners while during his imprisonment on Robben Island. The song has since become a source of national pride and you will often hear it at sporting events and other national competitions.

• Many of the shots of Mandela as a statesman are at the Pretoria Union Buildings that I recently visited. Yes, these buildings are this grand and beautiful and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to be in that crowd and hear the great Nelson Mandela at the fall of the apartheid era.

• In the film, we see Mandela residing in a “fortress-like” home with high security measures in place. This is how I see all white South Africans living in the South Africa of today: all of their homes are fortresses.

• Mandela was a brilliant political strategist, something you get a much better idea of in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation (on which the film is based) and in my reading about him, I find myself comparing to Mandela to Abraham Lincoln in thinking about how these men were simply brilliant in their political strategies. When Mandela won the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the white South African Afrikaners hated black South Africans and vice versa, and this hatred had raged for 50 years. You get a sense of this hatred in the film when the police force, both newly-appointed members and members of the old regime are forced to work together at Mandela’s request: these racial tensions in the film are depicted as very, very high. (Also an attitude that I’m sad to report exists still today.)

What was brilliant about Mandela, is he knew that to undermine the racial hatred in his country was to approach the white South Africans, the Afrikaners, with their language, their history, and their culture. Mandela spent many of his years in prison learning everything he could about Afrikaners, and was especially careful to learn the Afrikaaner language.

Because Invictus is an American-made film, the actors are speaking in English and we lose the significance of the impact of Nelson Mandela speaking Afrikaans to every white South African he encountered and the impression that made. Therefore, in the scenes we see with Mandela and the Springbok’s captain, François Pienaar, they are speaking in English. In reality, Mandela would have been speaking to Pienaar in Afrikaans, not in English.

• There is also a shot in the film that juxtaposes the white reality of a white South African farm, a large, spacious, well-established house surrounded in an abundance of gorgeous landscape against the black reality of a crowded and poverty-stricken township: we see the sun rising over a “city” of tin shacks, where people live on top of each other. I see this as very much a stark reality in the South Africa of today, that the white South Africans are still in the role of the “haves” and black South Africans are still oppressed and limited in their roles of the “have nots.” Also, in the shots of the townships, you will see the donkey carts, street vendors, and street markets that are common in my village and shopping town. In several shots of the movie, you can see vendors selling their wares on busy streets, something along the lines of having people selling things on the side of I-65 in America, and yes, this actually happens in South Africa.

• In the film, you will see black South African women in roles of domestic servants (still a large reality today); notice their clothing of the drab fabric you frequently see black South African women wearing today. The cloth is still the least expensive of any cloth you can buy in the shops and is still the primary cloth used in “traditional” black South African fashions.

• The first rugby match in the film is played in Loftus Stadium in Pretoria. I have visited this stadium a couple of times: there is a restaurant inside that you can sit, and eat, and watch the teams practice. The rugby match of the World Cup match is played in Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. I have not seen this stadium.

• At one point in the film, you see black South Africans being “led” by a choir in singing the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Black South Africans would never, ever need a choir to lead them in song; furthermore, the spontaneous singing of black South Africans is much more beautiful than that depicted in the film.

• Something fun to watch for: Clint Eastwood, the director of the film, cast one of his sons, who looks just like him, as one of the Springbok rugby team players. See if you can spot him. Also, Matt Damon is cast as François Pienaar, the white South African rugby captain of the Springboks. Mr. Damon is fine in the role but he is an American actor cast with true South African rugby players. If you’ll notice Mr. Damon’s physique when compared to the other rugby players, Mr. Damon is shockingly smaller than the sportsmen.  Rugby players are giants, literally and in every way.

• At one point in the film, the rugby players tour Robben Island and the infamous prison where Mandela served most of his 27 years in prison. Yes, the prison cell in the film depicted as Mandela’s is indeed, the actual prison cell of Nelson Mandela. In the film, the “tour guide” is a white South African. However, I’m told that former inmates of the prison on Robben Island currently serve as tour guides—black South Africans and former inmates—and that these tours are not to be missed.

• Notice that the crews sweeping a rain-soaked rugby field are black South African women.

• The Pienaar’s black South African domestic servant is invited to attend the World Cup match. Watch for her to do the famous cry of black South African women: “Lee, lee, lee, lee!” I have been practicing this cry and am not very good at it, but hope to be able to demonstrate it for you when I come home.

• During the famous match, the film depicts black South African’s watching the match on TV in a liquor store: Zuki’s Liquor Store. You see these kinds of stores all over South Africa and they are made secure by the walls of metal grating that you see in the scenes. I have to say too, that the black South Africans watching the match on TV in the film are much more sedate and subdued than I imagine they would have been. I have never seen a group of black South African men gathered together and being quiet.

• In the film, you get a sense of the reluctance of the white South African rugby team to learn the new South African anthem: Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. In the book, you get a much better idea of how the team’s learning of the song and then singing it publically impacted the nation. Also, the fact that Nelson Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and cap at the match was a very, very controversial gesture and you don’t quite grasp the significance of it by watching the film only—it’s better understood by reading the book. The Springboks as a team and especially the colors of their uniforms were strongly representative—to black South Africans—of the apartheid government and its brutality for a very long time.

• One of my favorite parts of the film is the closing credits: Mr. Eastwood has included actual photographs of the winning Springbok 1995 rugby team, so you get to see pictures of François Pienaar and his teammates during the world-famous match. It gave me cold chills to see them.

Again, the movie closes and gives the impression that black and white South Africans were united as one nation that day in love and kinship. This is the impression I hoped to see and experience in my two years in South Africa. I’m very sad to say, however, that the racial relations I have observed between white and black South Africans is hardly loving and kind.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Morning glories, having been mowed all the way back, but bloom beautifully still.
The little black barbs in the center--these are the seeds to South Africa's ubiquitous "black jack."
These seeds are in my bed, in my clothes, and everywhere in my house!  They're everywhere!

It is my second and last Mother’s Day in South Africa. I didn’t post last year for Mother’s Day, and can’t remember why.  Mother’s Day always seems to sneak up on me--something happens with being too busy in April, with Easter and all.  And then, as a Louisvillian, the beginning of May signifies the coming of the Kentucky Derby for me, not Mother’s Day.

So, for this holiday especially, I run late with cards and greetings. And this one is no exception. So, if you’re a mother in my life, a card is on the way, but it will reach you after the fact. However, I’m thinking of you today, on Mother’s Day, so Happy Mother’s Day!

I’m posting photos of plants still surviving in my garden. These plants have endured a brutally hot, South African summer sun, the constant-throughout-the-whole-season-attack by hungry goats, a horrible infestation of weeds, a full, down-to-the-ground mowing, and a light frost. They have been growing for seven months and keep cycling through blooming, fruiting, and destruction —yet they endure. They are survivors and they are resilient, like mothers.

My green beans are blooming again!

I am a mother of sons, but I never think about my sons on Mother’s Day. I think instead about my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt--the “major” mothers of my life. I also think of the grandmothers I have lost and how important they were to me—and still are to me. And I think of others who are favorite mothers: this year a favorite niece is a new mother and I can’t wait to come home and see my grandniece! Two of my best friends are mothers, and one of my spiritual guides is a powerful woman who has raised a wonderful family.

I am blessed with many mothers in my life!

I woke this morning, early this Mother’s Day, to a text message from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who is also a mother. Like me, she longs for home and family, and like me, has longed for them since she arrived in South Africa two years ago. I enjoyed very much this early morning Mother’s Day greeting, and we commented about how the closer the time comes to being reunited with our families, the longer the time seems to tick on “this side.” We both ache for home and on Mother’s Day, we are missing our families and our sons.

This is my amaranth... You can see the stalks lying on the ground--they were mowed down to the ground.
However, the amaranth refuses to give up and is generating new growth--and new growth with seeds!

There is a six hour time difference, so my early morning calls to express Mother’s Day greetings might come at 3:00 am.  This, as you can imagine, might not be so happily received, even by the kindest and most compassionate of moms, so I decided to treat myself  to a “Happy Mother’s Day” walk instead of waking all of the women in my family in the middle of the night.  Mother’s Day is celebrated in South Africa too, so on my early morning walk, a wonderful young man greeted me, “ Good morning Madam, and Happy Mother’s Day.” Since he seemed the same age as my sons, I smiled especially big at hearing it.

As I walked, I thought about the roles of motherhood and the women who have served as mothers in my life. In thinking about these women and the definition of “mother,” I started wondering about what makes a mother what a mother is: What defines motherhood?

Must one give birth to a child to be a mother? What about adoptive moms? What about widowed dads? What about grandparents who “take on” the responsibility of raising their grandkids? What about older siblings taking on the maternal role of an absent parent or parents?

My tomatoes, also mown all the way back, are resprouting and reblooming! 
It was a cold, rainy morning, so the blooms are closed up tight--but they're there!

And what about those dads, anyway? Can a dad be a mom? Of course a dad can be a mom: dads cook, clean, bathe, protect, and care for their children. Dads are certainly moms—or can be.

What about children? Can a child be a mom? Ever watched a little girl—or boy—care for a baby doll? A beloved stuffed-animal? Or a puppy?

What about women who haven’t birthed children? I have dear, childless friends who watch over me, are protective, nurturing, loving, kind, and maternal—they care for me. Same goes for childless male friends.

When I think about my mom and the other mothers in my life, these are the qualities I see: strength, perseverance, creativity, kindness, compassion, a giving nature, patience, quick-thinking, is fiercely-protective, smart, capable, loving, warm, faithful, loyal, and generous. However, in my musings, I found the consistent quality of “mothering” and the “ability to mother” is the demonstration of care. All mothers I know care and care deeply about another or others.

A watermelon on the vine that has been mowed, eaten, frozen, etc.

My faithful remaining one plant of Swiss chard. 
The goats and I fight over it.
And what about this notion of giving birth, after all? Must we give birth to a child? What about giving birth to ideas, art, music, sculpture, and literature. Can we care about our ideas? Our art? Our films? Our stories? What about being a mother to kindness? Or a mother to compassion? Or a mother to patience? What about giving birth to a garden or a flower arrangement? How about giving birth to a salad or decadent soup? What about giving birth to a political movement or a new ideology? What about giving birth to a new nation? What about giving birth to a new earth or a new world? What about giving birth to a new way of life?

We are all mothers who care—or could all be mothers who care! So, Happy Mother’s Day to all of us, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone!

And a very special Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom, my Grandma, and my Aunt Bea. Thank you for caring especially for me!