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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Into the Woods" Bring Tick Repellent

"Into the Woods" is one of the worst A-list-star, major-studio movies I have ever seen. It lacks magic. It's boring and it is so inept it's actually offensive. Performances by international stars like Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp go kerplunk on the screen, without motivation or artistry. The cinematography is murky and flat, as if provided by Moe's Sporting Goods and Cinematography-To-Go.

The problem of "Into the Woods" can be summed up in one word: "meta." "Into the Woods" is an attempt to *tell* fairy tales while simultaneously making meta commentary *about* fairy tales. The film fails on both points.

Imagine someone telling you an anecdote about what happened with their day, and stopping after every line to say, "At this point, you should be feeling empathy because I have just told you a sad thing. At this point, you should be feeling exhilaration, because I have just told you a celebratory thing. At this point, you should be concluding that Obama's economic policies have failed, because I have just told you that I do not have enough money for lunch. At this point, you should be feeling frustrated, because I have just defied your expectations of how this story should end."

Think of how rapidly that storytelling style would grate on you.

"Into the Woods"'s plot is a regurgitated slop, with several fairy tales mined for their money shots and slapped together in order to make some arcane point about how fairy tales are really psychologically and socially complex documents, full of implications about sexuality, gender roles, parent-child relations, and economic inequity.

There's no narrative drive, no need to see what will happen next. The plot elements were just thrown in the air and allowed to fall to the ground in a random fashion. There is no main character to root for. There's no goal to be achieved and celebrate or mourn for. None of the actors can register a breath of conviction because there's nothing happening that anyone could care about. When the movie feels over, it suddenly lurches on for twenty more minutes.

The music and songs do not deserve to be called either "music" or "songs." Is Stephen Sondheim the first fully deaf man ever to make a career as a composer and lyricist? Does he compose his music and lyrics by throwing darts at a piano and a thesaurus? I saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's magical "Cinderella" when I was around five years old. I have not seen it since. I can still sing some of the songs, they touched me that deeply, especially "In my own little corner," which captures the heart and soul of every little girl who ever felt alone and escaped on dreams to a better world.

I couldn't begin to recapitulate a single one of the songs from "Into the Woods" and I saw it just a few days ago, except for the line "Children will listen." All I remember is: "Children will listen blah blah blah." Actually, since it's Stephen Sondheim, it's more like "Chil' dren will LISten blah blah BLIIIH." With the "BLIIIH" on a minor key.

There's a scene where two dueling handsome princes sing a competitive song: I'm more handsome than you; I am suffering more than you are suffering romantically. It's a great concept accompanied by a lousy song and even worse execution. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, both talented stars, are directed to move without grace or charm, and they do all this in leather clothing in a waterfall. The entire time you are thinking, "Wow, that water is really gonna ruin that leather."

Fairy tales are magic. Fairy tales do make important points about gender roles, socioeconomic inequities, and parent-child-relations. Fairy tales are deep. If you want to immerse yourself in those points, read scholars like Bruno Bettleheim, Alan Dundes and Bengt Holbek. Ripping the innards out of a fairy tale and tossing those innards about randomly kills the tale. All you get is inert fairy tale innards. "Into the Woods" isn't sophisticated or intelligent, as it desperately wants to be. It isn't saying big, thoughtful things about fairy tales. It's just a big, meandering, amateurish misfire created by people who really aren't as sophisticated as they think they are. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper" Virtuosic Filmmaking

War movies are not my genre of choice. I am a romantic comedy fan. "American Sniper" is such an excellently made film that it demanded my full attention and earned my esteem. This is a violent, bloody, war movie with a sad ending. The film is so expertly made I left the theater exhilarated. Such is the power of art.

It is astounding that this film was made by a director, Clint Eastwood, who is in his eighties. "American Sniper" is fast-paced, gripping, suspenseful, and the most truly contemporary film I've seen in a while. It addresses what we are all thinking about: the West's confrontation with violent Islamists. The film feels as if it was peeled out of our brains during our nightmares. There is no elegiac feeling here. No nostalgia, no backward glances. It is all now, now, now, now, with the forward motion of a locomotive at full tilt. With "American Sniper," Clint Eastwood has outdone himself and set the bar very high.

Bradley Cooper is flawless. His commitment is one hundred percent. This is a performance for the ages.

"American Sniper" tells the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history. The film depicts him as having been taught to hunt by his father. His father also taught him that there are three kinds of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and shepherds. It is the shepherd's job to defend the sheep from the wolves. Kyle became a rodeo bucking bronco rider.

After terrorist attacks, he decided to join the military to defend his country. He was sent to Iraq, where he did four tours of duty. He covered soldiers moving into urban combat zones in cities like Fallujah. He would lie on rooftops, survey surrounding areas, and shoot at suspicious characters, including women and children assigned to bomb troops. Interspersed with his tours in Iraq, Kyle married his wife and fathered two children. After his return to the US, Kyle aided returned veterans who suffered from PTSD.

"American Sniper" follows this story in a completely straightforward, unadorned fashion. You can't help but think of other war films when watching "American Sniper." The flamboyant operatics of "The Deer Hunter," the heavy-handed, manipulative, almost propagandistic politics of "Coming Home," the graphic combat of "Saving Private Ryan." "American Sniper"'s style is almost no style. The movie simply meticulously recreates what Kyle did and saw. There is a scene where American soldiers raid the headquarters of The Butcher of Fallujah. There are shelves on which human body parts, including at least one severed head, are stored. The camera does not linger on this hideous and telling sight. The moviegoer sees these body parts for only as long as the soldiers running through the headquarters sees them.

There are no White House scenes, no Pentagon scenes, almost no scenes of reporters commenting on the war. There are no lingering shots of gas stations hint hint – petroleum caused this war! One soldier does begin to question; he dies. Kyle attends his funeral. A mourner begins to read a document questioning the wisdom of the Iraq war; she cannot finish. The three-volley gun salute drowns her out.

The movie soundtrack begins with an ominous male voice intoning "Allahu akbar." Characters who are obviously Arab and Muslim are shown doing very bad things, including one very brief but disturbing scene of a man torturing a child to death in a hideously inventive way, in front of the child's father. American soldiers are shown being dedicated and trying to avoid civilian deaths.

Politically correct moviegoers will decide that what is missing from this movie is the heavy hand of an interpreter reaching in and telling you that the war was a mistake, that it was all about petroleum, that the American soldiers were all racists, that the Arabs were merely attempting to defend their homeland from invaders, that truly evil men like the Butcher of Fallujah were the products of failed US foreign policy.

I found "American Sniper"'s minimalism to be an incredibly courageous and innovative stylistic choice. Eastwood must know that every moviegoer enters the theater with his or her own opinion about the Iraq War, about the West v Islam, about terror. We know that Fallujah is now under ISIS control. We know that another war looms.

This isn't the viewer's movie. It isn't the politician's movie. It is Chris Kyle's movie. The movie veers wildly from scenes of incredible tension and horror in Iraq. Kyle goes on leave and is back in the US. Suddenly the biggest issue is getting a collie to behave at a family barbecue in Texas. Kyle sits in front of an empty TV screen, reliving Iraqi battles. The film delivers no lecture about PTSD. It just lives Kyle's PTSD with him.

"American Sniper" is a gripping, suspenseful, involving, virtuosic film. I am glad it is getting the Academy-Award nominations and record-setting box office and audience it deserves.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gifted Painter Rusty Walker Reads Save Send Delete

Rusty Walker is an amazingly gifted painter and my Facebook friend. I'm so touched that he had himself photographed while reading Save Send Delete. On the stool in front of him, you can see the books he had to put on hold while reading SSD.

Here's Rusty's review of "Save Send Delete" 

Dr. Danusha V. Goska is a deeply insightful, extremely intelligent writer. Dr. Goska, through her upbringing, life-experiences, and travels is a proven survivor. She can be as complex, wild and adventurous as the folklore in which she earned a doctorate.

There is in Dr. Goska a no-BS-allowed interior and a gritty exterior (her travels include sleeping on ice cold gravel), and yet Danusha remains feminine and appreciative of real men in her life. Her debating Atheist, Rand, appears at times to fit this alpha male, and provides so formidable a challenge that he elevates her writing to a higher plane. She keeps her word in not disclosing who this real celebrity is, and we do not see or miss his responses. Her clever writing allows us complete understanding of what he wrote.

Books that change our life are often those books that move us by showing us a way to confront that which we most fear- dread of impending doom, death, danger, and devastating loss. This is the stuff of philosophers and pastors. Danusha, as "Mira," has given us a way of thinking about the unthinkable. This book is not simply written for the religious or non-religious. "Save, Send, Delete" is an exquisitely written treatise on confronting real life, by living it- through questions of faith and illuminating stories.

This is a book for anyone who dares to look inside themselves and confront their own darkest thoughts, motives, morality and questions during our deepest despair and still find that "rock" on which to survive. Danusha, as "Mira" communicates through e-mails to a world-renowned Scientist/Atheist who makes a living not just debating the existence of God, but, "skewing people of faith."

That "Mira" has to navigate through thugs and perverts just to walk to her college where she teaches as an adjunct, we might find alarming, until we are acquainted with her Peace Corps work, having hitch-hiked and scaled mountain terrain from Africa to Nepal, and beyond.

Through her uncanny storytelling abilities of real events and scenic descriptions that place you there, we follow her world adventures from the blue stained glass windows of Chartres to the upper reaches of the world of Nepal; Should I mention the Monk that tried to rape her? She "basically beat him up!"

Here is Mira, teaching around untouchables, tribal children playing near plateaus, with mile deep drop-offs on three sides; the lush jungle, the torrential downpours and rush of river waterfalls, to baby-killing jackals; suddenly we are catapulted into the contrast of gloomy faces of the privileged fortunate of the city. Why? Her too-young-to-die brother had in fact died, bringing her back to civilization, and reconciling the absurdity of the two worlds, as would a young Camus. Then back in Nepal, a barefoot, environmentally endangered child smiles and gives her a marble, later to emerge as synchronistic affirmation.

The ever-present Atheist Rand we find reading at a moment of despair, passages from Jung, confronts what should be a game-changer through a synchronistic, outer-worldly occurrence that appears with the arrival of a precision coincidence: a 'Mira" e-mail that simply cannot be explained away by his dialectical materialism rhetoric. Even the scientist, Rand with his mathematical answers grapples with Mira's claims that even the greats in science arrive at conclusions when at the limit of calculation, are forced to rely on creativity: leaps of faith.

There is a chemistry that builds between the Atheist "Rand" and the college teacher, Catholic "Mira." The heat rises and so does the language. This is not an unexperienced women in life or love, lust, nor in handling the licentious Rand, who has a propensity to abruptly change the subject to sex if losing the argument. She can handle it, in Africa with the Peace Corps parasites come with the territory.

"Mira," is first and foremost, a world-class writer and thinker. To me, she has the mind of the Catholic intellectuals: the Jesuits. A purist, a Catholic, so powerful in her faith that can admit, "I'm not sure if I love God." Would the narrative, "Jesus come down here and I will crucify you again," make sense if you existed as she did for six (6) years, with so dreaded an unknown illness that you were rendered immobilized, as she was, in a fetal position, blinded, crippled and vomiting for days, weeks, sometimes months without warning, or available treatment?

Should I mention that during this time she was attempting to complete her doctoral studies!? Having been turned down by Social Security Disability to social services agencies, Governors to Senators, and outreach to rich celebrities from Oprah to Chopra, finally losing all her friends, nonetheless we find, her faith not shaken- it made her "kinder." How was she was healed? You will need to read the book to find out.

One of her answers to Rand, included that devastating time of illness, when, voices took "Mira" to a bookstore, where she blurred her eyes so as to open randomly to passages from an unfamiliar Bible; Psalms appeared that completely related to her condition so that she no longer felt alone! There is synchronicity in lives, hers appear saintly. It is possible, as you read her stories, to wonder if the hands on her shoulders were angels.

Twists and turns will captivate you towards the end. There is surprise, shock, and disbelief in the ending chapters. As Danusha accomplished in her other important book, "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture," she once again shows us she is the consummate storyteller and thinker, ending "Save, Send, Delete" with a clear resolve- one that allows you to walk away uplifted, and say, "Wow, I needed to read this book."

Dr. Edward "Rusty" Walker- Collins College, Provost, retired.

Read Rusty's review on Amazon here 
You can see more of Rusty's artwork at his website, here.

Roses, Coffee, and Antique Books by Rusty Walker

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Ida" 2013 Review. Beautiful but Underdeveloped

"Ida" 2013 directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is a brief (80 minutes) black-and-white, two-character movie. It is very quiet; you barely need to read the subtitles to follow the slender plot. It is so slow-moving that three times while watching it I suspected that technical difficulties had stopped the film. No; the actor and scene were merely all but frozen. This almost anorexic film takes on huge, sweeping issues: Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, identity, the Holocaust, guilt, karma, Communist oppression of Poles, and the Catholic vow of chastity for nuns. Reviewers have blessed "Ida" with glowing reviews, insisting that this minimalist film makes big points through allusion and suggestion.

I doubt this. I think most viewers who don't know a heck of a lot about Poland will be baffled and bored by this movie. I think sometimes less is not more but really is less. I think "Ida" would have been a better film with a more tightly focused and more developed screenplay. Words can lead to misunderstanding but words are what we've got to work with. "Too many notes!" a cinematic emperor criticized a Mozart work. "Ida" suffers from "too few words."

In spite of its heavy subject matter, what struck me most about "Ida," and what I will most remember, is its visual beauty. "Ida" is shot in black and white, and it takes place in undistinguished Polish settings in the depth of winter. You see snow-covered fields, corner bars, dingy buildings with cracked plaster. The careful composition of each shot, and the cinematographers' lovely handling of different gradations of light and shadow, transform otherwise dreary locales into works of art.

"Ida" is about a teenage girl in Poland in the 1960s. She has spent her entire life in convent, and she is about to take her final vows. Her mother superior orders her to meet, for the first time, with Wanda Gruz, her sole living relative. Ida does so, and Wanda informs Ida that she is Jewish. Wanda and Ida travel to the village where their Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a barn. Ida's parents and brother were murdered. Wanda and Ida travel to their grave. This new information causes Ida to reassess her commitment to becoming a nun.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. Press accounts claim she is not a professional actress. She is given very little to say or do. The camera spends much time gazing at her youth and beauty. A male director ogling a gorgeous young amateur – the director's "discovery" – whom he does not allow to speak, act or develop as something other than an artistic composition – distracted and offended me. Enough already with females as marionettes of male geniuses.

Agata Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, Ida's aunt. Wanda was a judge under Communism. Wanda participated in the persecution of Polish anti-Nazi fighters in the post-war era. Wanda is based on the real life Helena Wolińska-Brus. Wolinska-Brus participated in the Stalinist persecution of genuine heroes who had fought the Nazis and aided Jews. She was a monster.

The Wanda Gruz of "Ida" is not a monster. She is the most fascinating and memorable character in the film. She is the one burning ember in an otherwise inert, black-and-white landscape of monosyllabic Polish peasants and the boring Miss Goody Twoshoes, Ida. Wanda is complex. She is a highly tormented character who drinks, smokes, is sexy and sexually promiscuous, and reveals her superior intelligence through her sarcasm. In the scene where Wanda and Ida are brought to their relatives' graves by a morally compromised Polish peasant, Wanda reveals deep grief. You cannot help but like Wanda.

In a movie that touches on WW II and the Holocaust, I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film? If not, then why did he place a sexy and lovable Stalinist murderess at the center of his film? Answer: Because Stalinist murder does not carry the same taint as Nazi murder. Problem: the millions tortured and murdered in the name of Communism are just as dead as the millions murdered in the name of Nazism.

There are volumes of history and hours of debate transcripts behind the issues that "Ida" touches on. Most filmgoers will have no idea of any of this and much of the film will pass right over their heads. Reviews on the International Movie Database reveal this. Sincere and intelligent filmgoers were unmoved and befuddled by "Ida." Key pieces of information are never articulated: Poland was occupied by Nazis. Nazis persecuted and murdered Polish Catholics as well as Jews. Some Poles betrayed Jews. Some Poles were heroic and saved Jews. Many Poles were neither heroic nor villainous. Everyone was afraid for his or her life. A thousand years of history preceded the Nazi era, and every word and gesture has history behind it. There are no easy answers.

"Ida" falls into predictable traps. Its Jewish character, Wanda, is fascinating and verbal, worldly and morally compromised. Its Catholic character is pure, but boring and simpleminded. These stereotypes are trite and unworthy of any serious film.

Towards the end of the film, one major character leaves the movie and the other character is left to pursue an underdeveloped and aborted subplot that serves no end except to add extra minutes to the runtime. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holidays and Family

In some sense we are all the proverbial "alien who just arrived from Mars."

I am, for example, totally allergic to football. If I were dragged to a football game, I would have no idea what was going on.

Scrolling through my Facebook friends' posts about the holidays with families, I am the alien just arrived from Mars.

Parents express affection for children, grandparents express affection for grandchildren, aunts and uncles express affection for nieces and nephews, nieces and nephews express affection for aunts and uncles: all utterly alien.

Child abuse isn't something you are supposed to talk about. Mention of it makes luckier people uncomfortable. They don't want to be exposed to your suffering.

The primary abuser was my mother. I was beaten, insulted, malnourished, not well groomed, sexually assaulted, and gossiped about. She occasionally threatened to kill me, and if we lived in a society where parents could kill their children, I think she would have.

Though I am Catholic and am personally horrified by abortion, I am pro-choice. If I could turn back the hands of time, yes. Yes. YES I would have given my mother that choice.

You, dear reader, are not superior to my mother. Getting a warm sense of your own superiority is not the payoff you or anyone else receives from reading my story.

One of the challenges I have faced since I was old enough to think is this: people can do unspeakable things and be fundamentally no better and no worse than anyone else.

My mother was brilliant. She was an incredibly talented, natural writer. I have never met anyone who worked harder than she did. When I was a child, she often had two, fulltime jobs. A Slovak immigrant, she was shafted by the American Dream and she had had to leave school to support her own brothers and sisters when she was only a young teen; her father had emphysema from the coal mines.

She did manual labor: cleaning houses, working in a candle factory. Denied birth control by her church and the peasant custom she was born into, she was pregnant nine times; at least two of those pregnancies were medically dangerous. She had to have surgery when she was five months pregnant with me, and the doctor told her that either she or I would die.

Around the time I was born, my father was alleged to be overindulging in alcohol and rubbing shoulders with organized criminals. I say "alleged" because I never saw any of this; my father found AA and never touched alcohol by the time I was conscious, and the Mafia's threats on my and my siblings' lives were hearsay.

Add, subtract, divide and multiply these facts until you realize what I did, the complicated mathematics that made me realize that Jesus had it right: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I was an abused kid. I'm not talking about my mother when I say that. I'm talking about me, my own life. More about my life: I thought that my mother was the abuser, and when she died, I thought that the abuse was over.

Not. So. Fast.

It takes a village to destroy a child, and that village included my family.

My pale skin used to blossom with dramatic bruises. The children at St. Francis School would line up to view my bruises. The nuns, not exactly models of tenderness (they beat me, too) asked about these bruises. I made up a self-incriminating story to protect my mother: "I fall down a lot, sister."

My hair was unkempt. I can see this in old photos. I wore clothing that was obviously hand-me-downs and ill fitting.

My mother had many siblings, as did my father. We saw them often.

No one ever said a word.

When my grandfather died, there was no dress for me to wear to his funeral. My older sister found a brown polyester jumper, a repulsively ugly garment, a size too large. She and I walked into the funeral home where my grandfather's body was laid out. My mother yanked me aside. "You look so ugly. So fat and ugly. Don't you realize what a disgrace you are? You are shaming me in front of my family."

Nobody saw that – though it occurred in a room full of relatives. Nobody heard it, though it occurred in a silent funeral parlor. Nobody intervened. Ever.

That was training. Every person in that room was being trained: Diane is garbage. We see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil when her mother beats or humiliates or gossips about Diane. Because Diane is garbage.

Complicit. I think they passed that complicity down through the generations.

My senior year of college I was beaten and sexual assaulted in a way that I found unendurable, so I ran out of the house with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, and I wasn't even wearing socks. I write more about that here. My brother, Michael Goska, got married that year. I was not invited to the wedding. In fact none of my siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles has ever invited me to his or her wedding. 

My brother Mike fathered two children, Donald and Lydia, and then he died. Before he died he was quite ill and his family was in need of funds. I sent his wife ten percent of my entire bank account, a few hundred dollars, which was a lot of money for me at that time.

I "met" Donald when he was a baby. I have never met Lydia. I have written to both of them, and I receive no reply. I sent Lydia a Facebook friend request. No reply. I wonder if this isn't generational hate: "We've always ignored Diane, like on that day she showed up for her grandfather's funeral in the ugly, brown, polyester jumper and her mother screamed at her and we all ignored it; there is no reason to break precedent now." I don't know.

Right before I left for graduate school my sister threw a party for my mother's birthday. I was nervous; I am afraid of the people I am related to. I never know what they will do. But I wanted so very badly to go. I love my family.

My parents spoke Polish and Slovak. The sounds of those languages are delicious to me. I love the music. I loved it when, at family gatherings, Aunt Tetka and Uncle Strecko would start singing a folksong with one hundred verses. I love the taste of poppy seed cake. I love the stories. My family are all spectacularly good looking, movie star quality. Tall, slim and muscular. Athletes, cops, soldiers, workers, and criminals. Clear, pale skin. Beautiful, shiny hair. Brilliant eyes of mermaid blues and glacier greens.

I have such fond memories of playing with my cousins. Séances, walks in the woods after Thanksgiving dinner, swimming down the shore, inviting supernatural encounters in the haunted house that belonged to my aunt's father-in-law, driving past a mountain that glowed in the coalmining Pennsylvania town where they landed after arrival in America.

I wanted to go to this party.

I sought an appropriate dress, always a fraught experience for an eyesore like me. I begged a former student to give me a ride to my sister's house, off the beaten path of public transport or even easy hitchhiking.

We drove up to the driveway and noticed that there were no other cars.

My sister's husband walked out of the house and said, "Ha, ha, ha. The party was yesterday."

We left.

My sister would later insist that she had not purposely given me the wrong date.

I had been in my apartment the entire day before, cleaning before leaving for grad school. My phone never rang once. Everyone I am related to on my mother's side, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, all my living siblings, was there for the family reunion to honor my mother's birthday, and it never occurred to a single person there to inquire as to why I was not there, or to phone me. I've asked. They told me. No, none of us phoned.

I went to grad school. I got a PhD. No one I am related to ever said "Congratulations." I eventually published my dissertation and it became a prize-winning book, which I dedicated to someone I am related to. This person never mentioned the dedication.

Recently I had a tough few years. I was evacuated from one hurricane during which the Passaic River entered my building. I stayed with a coworker. There was dramatic film footage on national news of the river's rampages in my city (example here). No one I am related to asked about me. I broke my arm and then received a cancer diagnosis. Coworkers, my boss, a couple of friends, and virtual strangers from Facebook drove me to and from medical appointments and brought me food. Someone I am related to said to me, "We talked about it, and we decided that you do not deserve our help."

I have a Facebook friend, Karla. She regularly reads my writing and comments on it. She holds my hand when I whine. She shares newspaper clippings and videos with me about subjects that interest me, from God and atheism to birds. Karla doesn't know this, but every time she is kind to me, patient with me, every time she encourages me or even pays attention to me, she shocks me and warms me. I am so grateful to Karla.

Which is one of the many reasons it always amazes me when I see cousins express affection for cousins on Facebook, or grandparents express affection for grandchildren on Facebook, or people say "I feel sad because my aunt / uncle / cousin / grandfather just died."

I am the proverbial alien who just arrived from Mars.

There's this guy, I call him Lestat, who has been in and out of my life, mostly out, for decades. He's the guy who, when I first met him, was brilliant, attentive, flattering, and charming. Everyone said, "Oh, this is so great; here's a man who can really love you; you are soulmates."

Then Lestat would do weird, ugly things and everyone said, "Oh, he's a victim of satanic possession; dump him. Forget him."

I don't think Lestat is a victim of satanic possession. I'm reading a book called Stop Walking on Eggshells about something called borderline personality disorder. I think Lestat may suffer from that. I'm not a shrink so I can't say.

I kept Lestat in my life much longer than people thought wholesome. Lestat was abused as a kid. He sees the world I see. When I talk to Lestat, I am no longer the proverbial alien who just arrived from Mars. I am among my own kind.

I wonder about my family. I used to think it was all because my mother's life had been so hard. But I met other immigrants, even concentration camp survivors, who didn't torment their own kids. My beloved Uncle John killed someone. (More about Uncle John here.) Is our coldness genetic?

I wonder how many families there are where indifference, if not abuse, is the order of the day. Grandparents who, like my grandparents, really could not care less about their grandchildren. Cousins who have no idea of their cousins' names. Children, like my brother Mike's grandchildren, who don't know that they have an aunt out there somewhere who wonders what they look like.

I guess I'll never know, because this is stuff you are not supposed to talk about.

In 24 hours, the holiday season will be over, and I can finally say "Happy Holidays."