Drifting: The Slow and the Curious

So ask me why yesterday turned out to be the day I would start watching the Fast franchise? What in the actual crazypants hell? How many years have these movies been in the world? How much have I never had any interest in watching them? And then yesterday …

I was thinking about Paul Walker and the farewell video with him and Vin Diesel taking different forks at the end of the road. Why have I seen that video when I’ve never seen the movies? And why was it in my head yesterday? #TheEternalQuestions

While I certainly wasn’t a Paul Walker hater, I was never a fan, either. I often confused him with other generic-white-guy actors (Ryan Reynolds primarily … yes, I know, they look and are nothing alike). And I was pretty much unaware of most movies he was in. I knew about the “Fast Family” (as, apparently, some people call it), but not much. I love a good action movie, love car chases and crime capers and all that. Still, the Fast movies have never called my name.

Until they did yesterday.

There’s a moment pretty early in the first movie where Walker gives a smirky smile and delivers his line, and a lightbulb came on over my head. “Oh,” I thought. “So these are just really not good.”

(Because, well … yeah. I mean, isn’t that why I knew not to watch them in the first place?)

But I kept watching that first one. And then rolled right along into 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a clever naming thing, but that’s not enough cleverness when there’s a whole movie to watch. Not by half. But Devon Aoki with her can’t-be-a-real-girl face is in it, and Ludacris’ afro is in it, and Eva Mendes’ mole … I watched it. Of course I did. I had bought in, wanted to understand how the whole Family was going to be corralled into one crew, wanted the backstory that would lead to Tyrese’s social media meltdown over Hobbs and Shaw. Sure.

It’s good that yesterday was Tuesday. That meant I needed to draw the line, close the curtain on this nonsense before it got too late in the night. I did, however, start watching Tokyo Drift. Because yes, now I’m totally bought in. I watched this overseas Part the Third through the opening plot device that gets Sean, the lead character this time around, sent to Japan. Watched a long chunk of it as I ate dinner tonight. Pretty sure I’ll watch the rest before I sleep.

Aside from being all-in with this nonsense, I’ll also watch because of Lucas Black, the actor who plays Sean, because of the mind-blowing realization of who Lucas Black is. All through that opening sequence, I tried to work out where I recognized him from. When his plane landed in Tokyo, I paused the film and turned to Google for the answer. And immediately saw that yes, of course I recognize him because he’s on NCIS: New Orleans. Okay … but then I got dope-slapped by the not-actually-believable-but-clearly-true reality of him being the boy from American Gothic. I still can’t process the fact of that. I spent at least 30 minutes scrolling through stills from the show and having to admit that yes, that boy’s face is obviously the same face as the man playing a boy in Tokyo Drift. I have to admit it, but it’s just entirely impossible.

So yes, as long as I can find them for free, I’ll keep watching these movies.

But … WHY?!

I keep watching, but I can’t lie and say that I’m enjoying them. Paul Walker had a great smile, and his face in these movies was definitely the face of a guy you’d have fun hanging out with. He looks and moves like a nice guy. Maybe he was a jackass. I have no idea. But he doesn’t look like one. It’s sad that he’s dead and that he died young. It’s still not enough of a reason for me to be watching these movies instead of the many other things I could and should be doing, could and should be spending my mental energy on.

Oh.

That last bit is the missing piece. Yes, of course it makes sense that I would choose this moment to submerge myself in something that will wash over me with little impact (aside from the Lucas Black shock).

Because so many things are whirling together in a vortex of awful, and so many of them are imploding and exploding very particularly in this moment, and it’s more than I can manage. The destruction of our system of government, the earthquake in Haiti, the building wave of delta-Covid, the instant and catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan.

It’s too much. My heart and head just … can’t.

And, frustratingly, I can’t seem to do any of the things that usually distract me from the world. I just sit and stare at my Spanish homework. My writing projects collect dust. My apartment has still not been organized into a home. …

But I can watch these movies. I can stare at these things in which I have no investment, stare at the screen and not have to think. And it didn’t have to be this franchise, of course. It could be any series, any set of movies in which I have no stake. Somehow, this just happened to be the one this time.

And it has perks. Paul Walker was cute. And this third installment has introduced me to Sung Kang, who is also cute. Eventually the Rock will make an appearance, and he’s always a pleasure to look at. Perks.

*

I’ll have to start reading the news again. And before too long, too. I’ll have to find the strength to step back into the maelstrom that is this moment in our history. But I’ve got six and a half more of these distractions to go. And I welcome the oblivion of that. I’m not completely submerged, but there’s a buffer space around me that I hope is deep and high and wide enough to give my head and heart the time they need.

I’m on the drift … and it’s exactly the ride I need.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Soul-less

I was skeptical about Pixar’s Soul. I love animated movies, but watching the trailer and seeing the Jamie Foxx-voiced lead, Joe Gardner, morph into a little glowy orb thing gave me a stomach ache. Soul looked as if it would be yet another animated movie in which a BIPOC character spent a major portion of the film not visible as a BIPOC character but as an animal, or an object, or whatever.

I read a little about the film before seeing it – very little because I hate spoilers. (There are, in fact, spoilers coming up, so be forewarned if you haven’t yet watched the movie and hate spoilers.) I did that recon because I wanted to know what other folks were saying about this “mighty morphin’ BIPOC” crap. Some were sharing the same disappointment and concern that I felt after seeing the trailer. Others were talking about how hard the filmmakers had worked to not fall into those traps. I remained skeptical.

I read excellent pieces by Monique Jones (Shadow and Act) and Andrew Tejada (Tor). I even found a Change.org petition.

I knew I was going to watch the film, but I still had a stomachache about it. My bits of research did nothing to resolve my doubts. A good friend called with a rave review – so beautiful, what a great story, such amazing animation. I still had doubt. I raised the issue, and they said they didn’t think it really applied to this film. Which actually made me more doubtful.

Okay, before was just a casual heads up. This now is an official SPOILER ALERT. If you keep reading, you’re absolutely getting spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So I watched the film. And it is beautiful, and the animation is amazing, and the story is good … ish.

Yes, Joe Gardner turns into a little glowy orb thing pretty early on in the film, really early. And I gather from some of the pieces I’ve read since watching the film that I’m supposed to be charmed by the fact that – after a brief time in the “soul world” – I get to see the Black man on screen again and see him for the remainder of the movie. I’m supposed to be charmed … or perhaps lulled into acceptance/acquiescence/inability to see what’s actually going on. Yes, I get to see a Black man on screen again …

Except not. When the body of the Black man returns to the screen, the man himself – the magical essence that makes him Joe – is in another character’s body and Joe’s body, the Black man’s body is inhabited by … wait for it … a white woman. I’m serious. We do get to hear the Black man because his soul winds up in the body of an animal. We get to see the Black man’s body – moving awkwardly and with the voice and thoughts and ideas of a white woman. Just typing it makes me tired.

All of the significant moments the Black man experiences in this section of the movie – which is, of course, the bulk of the movie – are  worked through and experienced by the character called “22” who’s voiced by Tina Fey. If you watch the trailer, most of the moments in which “Joe” is shown having a moment of joy or a significant realization are moments when Joe is actually not Joe. All of those moments and realizations are happening for 22. Yes, Joe – in his furry, animal form – is there to observe these experiences, but he is removed from the direct experience himself. This is most telling in an important scene sham-Joe (Joe’s body without Joe’s soul inside) has with his mother. It would mean so much more for Joe to be the one speaking, for Joe to be the one having that moment of understanding with his mother, for Joe to be the one embracing his mother. Instead, real-Joe gets to watch 22 have a beautiful moment. When real-Joe acknowledges his mother at the end of the scene, of course she’s not paying him any attention because she’s focused on sham-Joe and, even if she were looking at real-Joe, all she would hear would be animal noises because real-Joe’s soul is bottled up in an animal.

And then there’s the fabulousness of 22 deciding not to give Joe his body. Yes, the white woman decides that she’s quite comfortable living in Joe’s body, thank you very much, and isn’t interested in returning it to him. Yeah, that.

Joe does get back into his body and gets to spend some time on screen as Joe’s-soul-in-Joe’s-body. There is a return to the soul world in which we, of course, lose Joe’s body again. And then comes a brilliant bit of original writing, a kind of plot point we’ve never, ever, ever seen before: Joe decides to give up his body all together to help 22. It’s clear that I’m supposed to be moved by Joe’s sacrifice. Joe is that good, that giving, that heroic. No. I mean, I was moved … to being totally pissed off. Joe is going to sacrifice himself so that a white woman can go enjoy her life? Really? Haven’t enough Black bodies been sacrificed? Even just in the past year, forget about decades and centuries of history.

Back in October, Kristen Acuna wrote about the work the filmmakers did to avoid racist tropes:

“We were unaware of that [trope] as we started, but we certainly became aware,” Docter, who’s also Pixar’s chief creative officer, said […]

“My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen,” Docter continued. “I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of where he goes, people he’s with, and then the other part is in the soul world.”

Yes, sham-Joe is on screen for the majority of the movie. Sure. But sham-Joe is just that. We get to see a non-Black person move through the world wearing a Black man’s body like a costume. We see sham-Joe interact with the Joe’s friends better than Joe has interacted with them. We see sham-Joe live Joe’s life more fully than Joe. It’s pretty aggravating.

There are other annoying things about this film. There’s the ham-fisted microaggression of another Black man being mistaken for Joe – He’s Black, get it? That’s comedy! – and then being terrorized as a result of that botched identification. And the entire story arc of the hunter from the soul world who comes to earth to capture Joe is problematic. The character, Terry, is a little too slave-catcher-y for my tastes, bringing to mind John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet.

Soul frustrated and disappointed me, but I have to acknowledge that some parts of this movie are pleasing. Some of the ideas about how our souls develop and how our personalities are shaped are great — at turns funny, a little wrenching, thought-provoking. Some of the animation is stunningly joy-inducing. When Joe (real-Joe) plays the piano, the sequences are gorgeous. His hands, especially, are everything I could ever want and more. I read about how Docter worked hard to capture pianist Jon Batiste’s playing style so he could create it for Joe, and I give him full marks and extra credit for the finished result.

Those pieces of the film that are stellar actually make me more annoyed with the film as a whole. The time and attention taken to create them is clear. The filmmakers wanted to be sure to get them right, to wow us with just how right they got them. (The simply perfect animation of a samara fluttering down from a tree and into sham-Joe’s hand is quietly extraordinary, beautiful.)

All that care and attention … and not once did someone think it might be a mistake to have the body of a Black man inhabited and controlled by a white woman? Even if, as Docter said in interviews, the filmmakers were unaware of the issue of Black animated characters disappearing from center stage almost as soon as they arrived, surely someone in this current world we live in should have seen the tone-deafness of having a white woman take over the body and voice of a Black man. We’re years into the constant barrage of news stories showing white people white peopling, showing Beckys and Karens raising the alarm when they see Black men doing nothing more egregious than talking to their wives at local brunch spots.

And yet, the care taken to create Joe’s beautiful piano playing, his gloriously long and graceful fingers, his nearly tangible joy in the music … that same care couldn’t be extended to the embodiment of the primary character?

Soul isn’t a “Black movie,” isn’t a film that delves into the Black experience. It is, instead, a movie about learning to value yourself and your time, about living your life fully. It is a movie about all of that, and the central human character is a Black man. His Blackness isn’t key to the unrolling of the storyline. His Blackness simply is. And that’s great. Black characters written as multi-faceted beings going about the business of living their lives, unburdened by the stereotypes they’ve been written into forever is excellent.

Soul isn’t a Black movie, but it is, too. It wants to take advantage, with a kindly nod and wink, of the double connotations of its title. And it for-sure wants credit for the gentle dive into showing some aspects of Black community – the barber shop, the tailor shop. So, not claiming to be a Black movie, but … trying hard to be one all the same.

Whether Soul is considered a Black movie or not, Joe’s Blackness can’t be ignored. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet learned, colorblindness isn’t real, and pretending to be colorblind is insulting, is racist, is hurtful and damaging. True acceptance of others isn’t about being able to magically not see the things that make them different from us. It’s about seeing those differences and having them not make a difference. So Joe’s Blackness, while not a plot point of this film, can’t be ignored. Joe’s Blackness is. We want to be able to watch his everyman story play out, and we need to see that his Blackness is in good hands, that the filmmakers understood their responsibility for Joe’s Blackness.

They didn’t. At least not fully, not enough to see some glaring missteps.

Docter said he was unaware of the disappearing-animated-BIPOC problem. And I find that easy to believe. BIPOC folks have been aware because we’re the ones it’s happening to, ours are the faces and bodies that are being disappeared. Docter has had the cozy privilege of not having to pay attention to such “details.” He has been able to simply watch and laugh as a frog or pigeon or llama or whatever bumbles along through the film instead of the BIPOC character whose story is supposedly being told.

I can play along and believe that Docter didn’t know about this pattern of erasure. But it’s also true that he was made aware of the issue and still didn’t take enough care to avoid errors like the ones written into this film.

And yes, as part of his efforts, Docter brought in Black folks – writer, director, various consultants – to work on the film. Soul was already three years into it’s five-year development. It’s great that Black folks were brought in to work on this film The fact that there weren’t already Black folks involved is a red flag, but it’s also true the lead character wasn’t a Black man in the first versions of the story … I want to believe that the moment the character became a Black man, someone looked around the table, saw all non-Black faces and said, “Oh, we need to do something differently here,” and set about to shake things up.

Kristen Acuna’s article about the effort to avoid racist tropes includes this comment from Kemp Powers, a Black filmmaker who joined the Soul team:

“This film is that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director. And, it’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many Black people in general in positions of power in animation,” Powers noted. “Just in the couple of years that I was at Pixar, I watched the number of Black animators and Black story artists increase. I just love the fact that rather than just talk about it, Pixar was moved to action and I can speak to that having witnessed it.” (Acuna. Insider, October 2020)

It’s easy for me to believe that much (all, I really should just say all) of the gorgeousness of the portrayal of Black people in Soul exists because of the inclusion of Black creatives on the film crew. Still, I was left feeling that those creatives were brought into the production to serve, in part, as shields. When folks like me raise concerns about the movie, those creatives will be shoved in our faces and we’ll be reminded that they — the some-of-my-best-film-crew-friends-are-Black Black folks — thought the film was okay, so we must just be overreacting and seeing bias where there isn’t any. Again.

Soul is beautiful, and it has a lovely message in the end. It also left a bad taste in my mouth.

A venal monster by any other name …

I have taken to calling the president “Caligula.” Seth Meyers put this in my head by referring to him a few weeks ago as “our drooling, potato-brained Caligula.” It felt perfect. I used the whole description for a bit, but have given up the adjectives. They offer too much cover for evil.

At the start of the administration, I refused to put the word “president” beside Caligula’s name. Also wanted to avoid using his name. I started calling him “THOTUS” instead: Titular Head of These United States. (I was pretty proud of that one, I have to admit.) THOTUS worked for me on many levels. It gave a nod to the man’s baseness by including “tit.” It acknowledged the obvious fact that the decisions he was making were guided by his masters even as he wore the crown. And it let me bypass saying his name or calling him by the office he held.

Eventually, I had to give up THOTUS. It still worked for me, still felt satisfying, but the damage being done to and by this country was too great to be tossing around a cutesy name for a greedy, self-aggrandizing, painfully unintelligent, insecure, hate-monger bent on theft and destruction. And so I finally succumbed, began calling him both by his title and his name.

But now the power and horrific majesty of “Caligula” has been presented, and I find it too fitting to pass up. I’ve been using it almost daily, and it satisfies utterly. Or … almost utterly. Sure Caligula’s rep is that he was a monster and a sexual predator who thought he was a god. That all tracks. Yes, the homework I did that turned up questions about the accuracy of those accounts, but it still felt right. But somehow not enough right. And, of course, that’s because of Caligula’s grand-nephew, Nero.

Nero keeps getting in my way. Famous for “fiddling while Rome burned,” which definitely feels right if you sub in playing golf for fiddling. But “Nero” doesn’t feel as right for me, and “Caligula-with-a-side-of-Nero” is just ridiculous.

And, too, there is the concern that saying anything other than his title and name is just repeating the mistake of THOTUS, the mistake of being funny when there isn’t a single funny thing happening.

I’m sticking with Caligula for now, despite the inaccuracy of the comparison — the Romans at least got one good year of not-insane rule before Caligula turned into a horror legend. I’ve dropped the almost cutesy, doddering-old-fool additions of “drooling” and “potato-brained” and settled fully into this usage. Hoping that I only need to use it for the next seven and a half months.

Hoping.

Clean up in aisle two …

I’ve been working from home. I’ve been putting together distance learning plans. I’ve been listening to the news. I’ve been talking about the pandemic. I’ve been looking at articles about doomsday hoarders. I’ve been looking at people’s pics of the chaos in their stores. I’ve been seeing my neighbors swaddled in face masks and blue nitrile gloves.

What I’m saying is that I haven’t been asleep. I’ve been fully aware of the state we’re in.

But … It seems I wasn’t really aware, wasn’t really paying attention, not real attention.

Today when I took a break for lunch (I finally remembered to take a break for lunch!), I thought, “Oh, let me just place a grocery order.” I’m not out of anything, just figured I’d set up a delivery for early next week so I wouldn’t have to think about it.

(And yes, I’m a person who gets her groceries delivered. Neither of my “neighborhood” grocery stores is in walking distance of my house, and the cost of getting Peapod to come to my door is about the same as getting a cab home from either market. I don’t think I would have become a gets-her-groceries-delivered person if I hadn’t torn my rotator cuff in late 2017. Rolling into 2018 not being able to use my left arm for anything and knowing I was going to be even less able in the immediate aftermath of the fix-it-up surgery I had planned was what introduced me to Peapod in the first place. I’ve been a devotee ever since.)

Yeah, so I went on the Peapod site. There’s a pop-up message warning of diminished delivery options and the new COVID-conscious ability to have “contact-less delivery” and what-all. I clicked past it and filled my cart. Then I went to check out.

And discovered that there are no delivery days or times available before some time in April.

WTF?

Yes, every delivery slot was sold out, and the customer service line is down because everyone’s been sent home to shelter in place.

Oh.

Oh, you mean all this pandemic stuff is impacting my life, too? Really? Oh.

Yes, I am this ridiculous. Apparently.

 

I finished working around 6 tonight and figured I go to my favorite of the two stores in my area. I took a cab because … well, because I’m obviously a pampered little so-and-so. The driver and I talked about what his work week has been like — awful, hardly any fares 😦 — and then I went into the store … to find it almost completely picked-over bare.

I didn’t take pictures because we’ve all seen the pictures. I mean, I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve talked about the pictures. But I’d also been to the store as recently as last Friday, and the store was totally full of food, was totally fine. What a difference a week makes.

I kept wheeling my cart through the aisles, looking, thinking surely I’d find some little something to bring home. And yes, I did find a few things to bring home. But not the things I had on my shopping list. No yellow or orange peppers, no bananas, no grapefruit, no honey-wheat pretzel twists, no hummus, no Chobani Key Lime Crumble yogurt, no, no, no, no. no.

(Don’t be alarmed: my house is full of food. Full. You know, of food I actually have to put some effort into preparing, as opposed to food I can just unpackage and eat. I’ll be just fine.)

But, yeah. In the last few days, the craziness came right up to my door and swept past me in a tidal wave, and I was so busy navel gazing that I didn’t notice.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Fleshing Out the Five: Lost in the Woods, Part 3

And, as I got into writing the story of being lost in Thatcher Park with my younger sister’s Girl Scout troop, I realized I was telling that story as if it was the first time I’d been lost in the woods … only to have a memory of an earlier experience of being lost. And so …

First memory of being lost in the woods: When I was 12, I was at summer camp in the Adirondacks. It was my sixth and final summer at camp. It was, in fact, my last night at camp. And a boy I liked who liked me asked me to skip that evening’s farewell event and sneak off with him to climb a rocky, wooded, giant hill we called a mountain. The mountain was on the edge of camp property, blooming up behind the ceramics studio.

It was crazy that anyone would ask me to sneak off and do anything. I was a painfully good girl at 12, and breaking the rules so dramatically should have been an impossibility for me. Should have been. But it was the last night of my last summer. There was no possible punishment anyone could hand down. And, even with the risk of punishment, I really liked The Boy. And I’d never see him after camp. That hike in the woods would be the only time we’d ever be alone together. I made a strong show of agonizing over his invitation — talked a girl friend, talked to a guy friend — and then I said yes. I mean, of course. Because that was always going to be my answer.

The mountain we were set to climb was the first serious hike many campers went on. It seemed kind of like a baby climb, but it was trickily steep in places and the trail was awkward. It was a small mountain, however, a baby one, and it seemed reasonable to think that, if we slipped away after dinner, The Boy and I could climb it and get back to camp before lights out. The Boy had arranged to borrow a friend’s watch so we could chart the progress of our evening against the timing we imagined for the big event happening in the Quonset hut.

And so, after dinner that night, The Boy and I — circling from different directions, naturally — met up near the big kilns, joined hands and headed into the trees.

It was nice. We talked, we made jokes, we wondered if anyone might have noticed our absence. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I might be moments from my first kiss.

We stopped holding hands when the trail narrowed and we needed to walk singe file. And we stopped chatting when the climb got steeper and we needed our breath. And then we reached a small rock face and looked at each other and acknowledged that we’d never seen it on any of our times up the mountain in the past. We sat on a benchlike outcropping in the rock and determined — quite calmly, as I remember — that we’d gone off course and hadn’t been following the right trail … or any trail at all, perhaps, given how rough the path had been.

We sat for a while to look at the pretty view — trees, trees and more trees — and then decided to keep climbing. Yes, despite knowing we were lost, we chose to go back into the woods and wander around some more. Don’t try to make it make sense.

Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a bad idea. We didn’t find the top of the mountain, and we didn’t find the trail. And, when we finally decided we should head back, we didn’t find anything we’d seen on the way up, including the rock face where we’d sat.

It bears noting that I wasn’t scared. As I said in the last story, I wasn’t afraid of wilderness when I was a kid. Being in the forest with no idea of how to get out and the sun setting … probably it should have frightened me. I even knew that bears lived in those woods. I’d seen bears more than once in my time at camp. I surely should have been scared, but no. I was fine. I was annoyed to be lost because putting energy into finding our way seemed sure to mean no first kiss. I was annoyed, but not scared.

As luck would have it, The Boy and I wandered around in a kind of perfect way. When we finally stumbled enough out of the trees to see civilization, we were right near The Boy’s tent. Who knows how we’d managed to walk horizontally across the side of the mountain when we’d thought we’d been walking down the mountain, but there we were.

And, upon checking the cleverly-borrowed watch, it turned out that we weren’t lost for as long as it had felt while we were lost. We had time, in fact, to sit in The Boy’s bunk and talk about how much we liked each other and would miss one another … and — HALLELUJAH! — share the all-important first kiss! All that before running down to the Quonset hut and slipping into the audience (from different entrances, of course) without anyone noticing we’d been missing.

And that was my first lost-in-the-woods story. A few firsts that night: breaking the rules in a big, kind of technicolor way, getting lost in the woods, kissing a boy. Quite the trifecta for meek-and-mild me.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot