Film #8: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows two boys who, after the older boy’s mother is taken by the police, are left to fend for themselves in the projects for an entire summer.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

When the Pirate and I first looked at the catalog copy for this film, it looked a lot like Tekkonkinkreet, a manga we both loved about two orphan boys who fend for themselves in a weird futuristic fictional city Treasure Town. We were very, very wrong.

First of all, I’ve heard this story before. In December of 2007, This American Life aired a segment called Boy Interrupted about a boy who, at the age of 15, was left alone for five months while his mother was in the hospital. “Defeat” took his story, and amped it up considerably, first making the mother a heroin addicted prostitute, then adding a 9-year-old Korean boy with a mother who was not only a junkie prostitute, but an abuser as well.

There are certain things I can’t watch: torture, abuse, privation, humiliation. I especially can’t watch innocents undergo sustained abuse. By halfway through this film, I was crying and mouthing the words “I want to go home now” over and over.

To spend two full hours watching two boys undergo disappointment, humiliation, neglect, assault, starvation and abandonment is more than I can take, but I’m shocked at the review given it by Salt Lake Magazine’s Dan Nailen, who ended his review with “By the time The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete started answering those questions, I had stopped caring.” I guess that’s the problem that makes me weep. Yes, this is a movie. But as the TAL episode shows, it’s also real. And there are millions of other people in similarly harsh, desperate circumstances that don’t just have to sweat them out for a few months, but have to live them for YEARS. I’m willing to bet that Dan Nailen never even started caring about any of them.

I’m fortunate in that I have enough money to do pretty much whatever I want, including coming out to spend a week at Sundance. The problem is that I don’t have quite enough money to solve anyone’s large-scale problems, and the people that do have that kind of cash don’t feel any pressing need to help anyone else. But just because I’m no longer poor (and I say “no longer” because I grew up government-cheese-and-horsemeat poor) doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what desperation, shame and hopelessness feel like.

I’m happy for Dan Nailen that he never experienced that kind of life, but I’m sad for him and anyone like him who look at “Defeat” and see nothing more than a movie they didn’t like.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.

Harder Than It Looks

I’ve done it. I’ve come out to the world. I’ve said it in public and can’t take it back now.

I can fly.

I’ve been able to do it for ages. It’s hard to describe how it works, really. You just sort of jump and then keep going. Steering is all about using your core. You have to have a strong core if you want to fly gracefully. Pilates helps. Fear of falling a very long way helps even more.

When I first told everyone, we’d been hiking all day and had made it to a spot on South Mountain from which you could see the southernmost reaches of Phoenix on the opposite side from downtown. You could actually see where the line of the city ends and the reservation begins. A stark line with slightly down-at-heel suburban stucco housing developments on one side and bare earth on the other.

We were taking turns taking each other’s picture on top of a rock overlooking the view and I said “Hey, guys! I can fly!”  Of course everyone laughed, but Trudy did the stupidest thing. She pushed me.

It took me by surprise, and I fell a good 50 feet before I turned over and surged upward, describing a graceful arc back to where everyone else stood transfixed.

When I landed, everyone was stunned, but I was fuming.

“Trudy, what was that? If I had just been joking, you would have killed me. I would have gone tumbling off the cliff and died. Why did you push me?”

“Lighten up!” Dave said. “You weren’t hurt! You can fly! She didn’t do anything to you!”

“Hey, take me up! I’ll just climb on your back,” Perdy said, and came scrambling up the rock. I hopped down.

“I can’t carry anyone. You’re too heavy,” I said.

“I’m too heavy?” Perdy said, looking hurt. “Look who’s calling me too heavy! You’d think that if you can pull that carcass through the air, you could take little me.”

The rest of the hike back down was really uncomfortable. Trudy acted all hurt because I’d yelled at her, and everyone petted and coddled her as though she were the one who’d been wronged. They immediately treated me as though, by flying, I had done something mean and distasteful, like pulling a crude practical joke.

Lesson #1: People won’t be glad for you.

Flying feels wonderful. Having the wind rushing through my hair, being able to see for miles. That’s really nice. Then again, the higher I go, the colder it is. And when I’m really zipping along, the wind cuts right through my clothes. It’s also tough to find good flying clothes. If they’re too baggy, they flap uncomfortably against my skin. If they’re too tight, they restrict my movement. If they’re too heavy, flying becomes more chore than joy. I’ve settled on that high-tech long underwear that’s made out of plasticky miracle fabrics, and I only put it on when I want to fly.

I look ridiculous. I mean, there’s no disguising my big butt. And there’s especially no disguising it in something that looks like a Superman costume (minus the cape – what the hell was the cape for?). I already knew I looked like an idiot, but Trudy, Dave, Perdy and Karen were all happy to remind me.

I’d pretty much stopped hanging around them. They acted like I’d started flying just to have one up on them, and stopped inviting me out to do regular stuff. I was out flying around because I didn’t have anyone to go to the movies with when they spotted me. I was cruising close to the ground and I heard the familiar sound of their raucous laughter. I landed near where they were picnicking at El Dorado Park, and they immediately started making fun of my outfit.

“You look like 10 pounds of sausage stuffed into a 5 pound casing,” Perdy said.

“You’d think flying would be more aerobic, you know? I would think it would make you lose some weight,” Trudy said, taking a huge bite of sandwich.

I hadn’t said a word, and before the tears could spring to my eyes, I flew off as Dave was saying something I didn’t hear.

Lesson #2: Real people should not dress like superheroes.

It started with getting kittens out of trees. I did it for a while, too, until it was the same kitten for about the sixth time, and I was on my way to a hair appointment and the woman got really nasty.

“But she’s been up there for hours,” she whined.

“Then another hour and a half won’t hurt.”

“It won’t take you five minutes!”

“You’re ten minutes in the opposite direction from my hair appointment. Look, I can’t do it. And you know what? If you just leave her alone, she’ll get out of the tree all by herself.”

“Well, you’re the shittiest superhero I ever heard of,” the woman said before hanging up on me.

I stopped answering my phone after that. Who said I was a superhero? I certainly didn’t. I can’t carry anything heavy when I fly, so it’s not like I can fly up into the mountains and rescue stranded hikers or save airplanes from falling out of the sky. I’m not impervious to injury, as I find out practically every time I’m in the kitchen. And yet, because I can fly, people assume that I have a whole host of other unusual powers.

The chief of police asked me to infiltrate a drug ring. He wanted me to fly around the desert until I found where their big distribution point was, then tell the cops. I told him that I was scared of being seen as I flew around, and that the drug dealers would shoot me, if not right then, after I got home, since there’s nobody else I could be mistaken for. He told me I should turn invisible. When I asked him how I should do that, he acted like I was just being difficult.

The authorities have stopped trying to make use of my particular strength and have taken to just harassing me. I got in trouble for flying without filing a flight plan, but I beat that because I pointed out that the FAA regulates aircraft, and I don’t possess any kind of aircraft. Now they just hang around me when I’m doing normal stuff and ticket me all the time for things like parking too far away from the curb and going 36 in a 35 zone.

Lesson #3: If people can’t use you, they have no use for you.

I’m waiting for that part of my movie where the other people with superpowers show up and take me into the fold. I need someone to tell me how this works. How do I make friends with normal people again? How do I live a normal life? How can I make it through another day without feeling so lonely I just want to fly off the Earth entirely and die? Super my ass.

Neither Love Nor Money

I went to the drug store this evening looking for those plastic scouring-pad things you use on your face. I normally get them in boxes of six, and I use each one until it’s smashed flat and has no fight to it – about two months or so. This particular pharmacy was the most rinky-dink, low-rent, sad-ass operation I’ve ever seen. Their “skin care” aisle was, to be fair, an entire aisle. But there was only one, perhaps two, but no more than four, of each product on the shelf. And they were spaced a hand’s breadth apart. They had one single sad little teardrop-shaped facial cleansing pad in a box for $4.79. I stood there and stared at it for a minute. Because what I’m used to getting is much, much less expensive.

There was not a single instance of another brand of the same product, no similar products. But you know what I did find? Facial cleansing wipes. I won’t even link to them, mostly because if you Google that particular phrase you get over two million results. Which is about how many brands of the things that store had.

Living in northern California, I feel that I’m constantly being bombarded with the message that human beings are killing the planet with their unending appetite for more consumer goods. I’m inundated with the message that I need to consume less, recycle more, be creative about what I use. And yet, the second I step into any consumer good emporium, the message is not just that I must consume more, but that each purchase I make must be made out of the most material it can possibly use. I can’t buy an aseptic quart box of milk (one that can sit on a shelf without refrigeration before it’s opened), but I can buy four tiny aseptic boxes that are then wrapped in more plastic to keep them all together for more than it would cost to buy a regular plastic gallon jug of milk. People still buy disposable diapers, and then they buy those monstrous contraptions that wraps each plastic diaper in more plastic. Now it’s washing our face. I like just buying some face soap and either using my ancient plastic scrubber thingie or a regular wash cloth and washing my face with it, but obviously, I’m not doing it right if, at the end of every process, I don’t have something to throw away.

Some day soon, we’re going to look back on all the shit we threw away, and wonder “what the hell were we thinking?” It’ll be a day when you won’t be able to get any of this stuff for love nor money, and that day is not far off.

Wait For It…..

I’m an enormously emotional person – I cry over something, good or bad, just about every day. There’s a non-zero chance that a lot of writers are like this, and I think it’s at the heart of a piece of advice Terry Wolverton gave during her revision lecture this morning. It wasn’t new – it’s the same advice I heard from Nanowrimo back in the day. The advice was that once the first draft is done, put the work aside until you’ve gained some perspective from it. Terry took that one step further: she said that once you’ve received criticism from your critique group, your mentor or your agent or editor, you should put that aside as well. Just let it sit.

I received my evaluation from my project period mentor. I felt the same sense of trepidation about looking at my evaluation as I did about looking at the feedback on my last packet. Which, by the way, I still haven’t seen. He told me in his email that he was less happy about my last revision than he had been about the one previous, and I was too crushed to look at his feedback. Anyway, despite my misgiving, I looked at the feedback.

He was meticulous about documenting all of my stumbling, but at the end of the review were the words I had been waiting for. My mentor believes that I can be “a fine novelist.”

Maybe I’m ready to open that last packet now.

Making Things Right

A week ago, I went to Betty’s Eat Inn (Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz) with my daughter. When I got the bill, I gave them my credit card but then never got it back, and so walked out without it. The next day I called the restaurant. They had the card, and I told them I’d come to pick it up. I didn’t make it there on Thursday, but on Friday when I went I was told that they had destroyed my card.

I’m still processing what happened. I called. They knew that I knew the card was missing. They knew that I knew they had it and that I wanted it back. And they destroyed it.

The last time I had to get a new credit card, I found out a few things. I found out that my husband and I don’t just share an account, we share an actual card – our cards have the same number, etc. This makes it tough if, for instance, I want to use Paypal. You can’t have more than one account with the same card number, and he updated his with the new card first. I also found out that in some instances if you have a service that’s automatically billing your card and you switch cards, they may skip a single auto-billing. You’ll end up having a late fee (unless you’re me and pitch a fit about it). Most of our bills are on auto-pay, and every single one of those accounts would have to be manually changed over to the new account number.

I called the restaurant again to find out what happened. The woman I talked to said that she had spoken to the manager and that my card had been destroyed. She said that she understood it was upsetting, that it was all a misunderstanding. She said that the manager would call me on Monday (yesterday) because they wanted to “make this right.” Nobody called me.

What does “making it right” look like? In a case when you’ve accidentally done someone an injury that can’t be fixed with money (replacing something broken, etc.) how do you make it right? I don’t want vouchers for free food at a restaurant where the staff has done something to harm me. I don’t want to make friends with someone to reward them for having screwed me. It’s out of the question to have someone else go through my accounts and undertake the tedious work of both getting the new card and fixing the accounts that use that card.

I’m sure that a lot of people have had similar problems. Someone has done something to you that they can’t fix. How do you handle it? How do you gracefully get through it without letting yourself be made bitter at people’s incompetence? How do you allow the other person to atone for their actions without unfairly hanging a millstone of guilt around their neck. That gets to the crux of the matter. If you’ve done something wrong, you want to be able to apologize, be forgiven, and get back to okay as quickly as possible. But what if the thing you’ve done has long-term consequences? What if the thing you’ve done comes back to haunt the other person for months or years? How long do you have to keep apologizing for the same sin? When I look at it like that, I come up with a very different answer.

What’s right? Who’s right?

UPDATE: I happened to be having lunch on Pacific Avenue again today, and afterward I stopped by Betty’s to see if the manager would talk to me. He did, and he was just short of hostile in his condescension. His attitude was “I cut it up and now it’s gone. What do you want me to do about it?” Not “I’m sorry that I’ve just caused you a huge headache.” He consistently blamed everyone else on his staff (an action that always sticks in my craw). What’s worse, he and the assistant manager acted really strange about the whole thing. I asked them if there was a particular card that was different than the others. No, they didn’t think so. Really? No, they were all just regular cards. Except that mine was a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. They’re made of metal and so can’t just be put through a shredder or cut with scissors. You would notice if you were trying to snip one of these. And yet, nope, there was no problem with any of them.

The whole thing is beginning to sound suspicious to me.

What Money Gets You

In the past two years, I’ve heard “the rich” vilified. In the past six months, I’ve heard how “the rich” are coddled and catered to. In the past two days I’ve heard how “the rich” are uninteresting and nobody likes them.

Talk about “the rich” is beginning to take on the characteristics of bigotry. Merriam-Webster, would you do the honors? “Bigotry is the state of mind of a bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group…with hatred and intolerance.” Thank you, Merry. Buy you a drink later.

I get that the gap between rich and poor is escalating in this country. A high school diploma is no longer enough to guarantee you a factory job that you can keep for life and pays a wage that will allow you as a single earner to buy a house and send your children to college. But the cost of college has already escalated out of reach of most people, so those who want to use higher education as a ticket to the middle class dream have to first put themselves in debt, so that even after they’ve graduated and are working better-paying jobs, they’re still starting out in the negative.

But who are these uninteresting, coddled, predatory rich people that everyone hates? Are they the people on shows like the Real Housewives franchises? Are they the folks that millions of people watch, read about, whose products they buy, whose lives they support? If that’s what the bigots are talking about, what they hate, I understand that completely. Watching people do nothing but consume is supremely uninteresting and panders to all the wrong instincts in people – a desire to be like them in their grossly unnecessary levels of consumption.

But I’m lucky enough to know some folks who have made a lot of money because they’re smart. They think about problems and come up with interesting solutions and then work to make those solutions available to other people. That’s the hard part. It’s easy to solve your own problems, but other people don’t always know what they want or want contradictory things.

Talking with people who made their money making stuff is fascinating. When your ability to solve problems isn’t limited by the money it takes to build the solutions, you can think big, crazy, fantastic. And they do. Big, crazy, fantastic ideas that become the Segway, antibiotics, pants.

So before you go badmouthing the rich, think about whom you’re disparaging. If it’s one of the larvae that clog the television, chewing their way through the retail forest with their platinum card teeth, I’m down. Consumerism is supremely uninteresting. If you are attempting to distinguish yourself by what you buy, you are doomed to fail. But if you’re badmouthing those people who are out there thinking about the next great thing they’re going to build, you’re missing out.