First-Half Life Rafts

A few weeks ago, one of my mom’s oldest pals, Theresa, emailed me about the Golden State Warriors’ championship parade. Theresa’s a born and bred Bay Area sports nut, a lifelong Warriors fan well before Zuckerberg Silicon Valley, and one of maybe seven diehard Oakland As fans in the Northern Hemisphere. Three days after Kerr and Co. clinched in Cleveland, she was still giddy about the title. I was bummed about the Celtics but happy she got to celebrate…again. And as most conversations about basketball or otherwise tend to go, the email exchange moved towards Margie Gibbons praise: your mom is a life raft. 

I loved that—the truth of my mom being a life raft (to so many), the term life raft itself as a word guy, and the idea of the life raft as a terrified-of-open-waters guy.

It got me thinking about what art has served as a life raft for me recently. What’s helped me float. What’s made it easier—pardon the heavy-handed metaphor—to navigate the stormy seas. In the past, I’ve called this list Things That Especially Spoke To Me This Year, but I like the image of the raft this time around: offering buoyancy, bringing me steadily closer towards land/clarity. (I can’t stress enough that I’m terrified of open waters, the non-metaphorical kind.)

In 2016, I posted this list at the end of the calendar year, as most non-psychopaths tend to do with year-end lists. In 2017, I posted this list at the end of August because I was impatient and excited, and I wanted to use the new structure of an academic calendar as an excuse to post early. This year, in 2018, I’m posting two editions: First-Half Life Rafts, from January through June, and Second-Half Life Rafts, from July through December.

I’d love to hear what’s been a life raft for you! Here we go:

10. Be Kind Rewind.  It’s so weird and so dumb but so endearing and such a love letter to creative misfits. I watched this after a particularly rough workshop this year and was reminded to stay loose. And I was reminded that our best, purest work is usually the simplest work with the smallest budget. And I was also reminded of the iconic Toni Morrison line: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

9. Pauline Kael. This past semester, I took a literature class on Transcendentalism. And because our professor was so refreshingly flexible, in the spirit of Transcendental free thinking, our semester-long research paper could be about anything loosely related. I looked at Margaret Fuller’s ideal of art criticism from 1841 through the lens, so to speak, of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews from the 1960s: how Kael weaves the personal with the critical; how, in the words of Fuller, the audience would ideally “live with them [the critic] rather than be taught by them”; how the job of the critic isn’t to impose an opinion but to offer “records of impression…to sift, not to stamp a [allow us] to catch the contagion of their mental activity.” I’ve never felt more lifted or at home in a crusty old literature class (and am still shocked I managed to write about Marlon Brando in a class about Thoreau).

8. Brooklyn 99. For four seasons, BK99 has always felt more clever than funny—clever in its puns, clever in its intricate detective writing, clever in how balanced its ensemble cast was. But this year, Season 5, has maintained the clever, managed to get funnier, and suddenly revealed its huge heart. It took four years, but I’m all in. You know what? Don’t listen to me. Just ask this guy:Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 4.44.18 PM

7. RBG. A 96-minute masterclass on persistence, humility, and conviction. What. A. Rock. Star.


6. The Art of Slow Writing Every so often you come across a book that feels like it’s talking directly to you and saying exactly what you need to hear exactly when you need to hear it:

When we begin a new project, as embryonic or unsatisfactory as our early work may seem, we’re readying ourselves for the deeper work that comes later. We learn about ourselves as writers. We establish our work’s foundation. We permit ourselves to play and explore. We commit—or recommit—to working steadily and purposefully.

5. This Movie Changed Me podcast. Dan In Real Life is a very average movie—and I say that as someone who worships Steve Carell the way most Bostonians worship Giselle’s husband. But what’s radiant and radical and very NOT average is how Sharon Salzberg talks about said average movie:

Well, for me — and my own particular background has a lot to do with learning meditation when I was quite young, when I was 18, and meditating all these years and teaching meditation — so for me, that quality of love and very, very deep connection comes from how we pay attention. And even biochemically they say that, in terms of oxytocin or neurotransmitters or and all that. It’s not about a particular relationship. It’s not about going off into the sunset together. It’s not about vows. It’s about a moment of really being present. We can have that same experience with a stranger in an elevator, if we’re really paying attention.

4.  Naomi Shihab Nye

Very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse. It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.

When you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem.

3. Gary Gulman. This special’s from 2016, but it’s one of those things I still check in with every few weeks. I can’t think of a stand-up who resonates more with me: (mostly) PG-rated, observational humor; the constant riffs and progressive worldview; his fascination with old ladies, Trader Joe’s, the Scholastic Book Club; his disdain for empty language (“at the end of the day” from 39:25 to 42:30 kills me).

Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.—Ann Patchett

2. Seeing Harry Styles live in concert. My three biggest takeaways—as someone who’s been a huge Harry fan for a little over a year now: 3. The comparisons to a young Mick Jagger are valid and flattering but don’t totally paint the whole nuanced picture. They both have the hair, the wonderfully spastic stage presence, the wardrobe, the British rocker roots, but Harry has more of Mr. Rogers’ sensitivity and David Bowie’s activism. The only times he paused during his 100-minute set were to wave around gay pride flags (with fans he invited up to be back-up dancers) and remind the audience that they’re “free to be who you are.” Then he asked an older couple how their night was going and profusely thanked his crew and band for all their help. There were Black Lives Matter signs all around his stage. His guitar says END GUN VIOLENCE. All of his merchandise just says TREAT PEOPLE WITH KINDNESS. He’s too charming to be just the Mick. 2. Of the 19,000 sold-out seats at the Garden, I’d conservatively guess that 18,600 of those were females between the age of 11 and 25. Every time he half-smiled, the place got louder than any Celtics game I’ve ever been to. It was complete Beatles Mania. 1. Relatedly, I’ve never experienced shorter lines for the men’s room.

1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Command F: movies I’ve seen in theaters this decade that have made me laugh, cry, and have made me feel capital W capital F Warm and Fuzzy.

Results: Toy Story 3, Inside Out, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brigsby Bear, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 

The only documentary on this exclusive list (which says everything). So calming. So life-affirming. So heart-meltingly sweet. Let’s all just play nice and listen to each other and, like, not be dicks? Cool?

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