5 Films for May


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May is a nice time for movies dripping in scenery, yet not epic in narrative.  As the days grow longer and my mind begins to wonder, I find myself drawn to films that dwell on beauty while also amusing, meaning I don’t have to think too much–just enough to make me feel like I’m escaping the mundane. So, while April showers bring May flowers and May hints at summer, why not augment spring by watching 5 dewy films?

5.  The Brothers Bloom (2008)


Before Looper, Rian Johnson earned those comparisons to the Coen brothers with this quirky film about two orphaned brothers (Mark Ruffalo & Adrien Brody) who become confidence men wooing rich heiresses out of money.  Enter rich heiress (Rachel Weisz) who challenges the type, add a voyage aboard a ship referencing Mark Twain, pop a dash of that girl from Babel (Rinko Kikuchi), and you’ve got a film that plays with magical realism, film noir, and nineties sensibilities. Think Big Fish meets Notorious.  Why is it so good during May?  Cause it’s dripping with novelty.

4.  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)


If you happen to like the con man theme in The Brothers Bloom, you need to know who did it first.  My favorite movie to watch on a lazy afternoon is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  It’s still funny every time.  A seasoned con man (Michael Caine) challenges an upstart (Steve Martin) after the young man moves in on his territory in Beau-Mont-Sur-Mer, France.  Seeing Martin and Caine riff off each other reminds you how great the eighties could be (but often were not).  Also, the scenery of  Southern France isn’t too shabby.  Hipster Test: Ask someone why there is a “cork on the fork” and see if they really do know everything!

3.  The Secret Garden (1993)


The Secret Garden is one of the most luscious films, exploding with natural beauty while subtly alluring viewers.  With all the CGI, 3D, IMAX overload, you may want to watch a film that relied on actual scenery for its compositions.  Highlights: Maggie Smith as a villainous maid (Lady Violet would be so mad!); a young female heroine who is not only fully-formed, but challenging; and a female director who also directed episodes of The Wire and Treme.  The film is not only faithful to the book, but embellishes with caution and appropriate candor.  Honestly, this film should be shown to all little girls–with all the ravings about Merida in Brave, I think most people should revisit their opinion of Mary Lennox. It’s not her fault she was confined to the end of the Victorian era.

2.  I Remember Mama (1948)


It’s the mantra of May, “Don’t forget Mother’s Day!”  Well, whether you did or didn’t, you can remember mom with this gem of a film, which also happens to be from the year my mother was born.  Don’t be scared by black-and-white and 1948; you’ll be absorbed in this film in about 15 minutes.  You thought your mother had it bad?  Try being a Norwegian immigrant in San Francisco in the early 1900s, raising children on a shoestring budget.  The story is narrated by Katrin, one of the daughters, as she remembers her mother and her childhood.  At times she challenges her heritage and her mother’s methods; at others she glimpses the complexity of her mother’s world.  This film is dotted with poignant lines and comical sketches, all of which relate to anyone who’s experienced adolescence.

1.  Midnight in Paris (2011)


Ah, Paris in the springtime!  What could be more divine?  Well, for those of us who aren’t trustafarians, we can jet off to Paris in Woody Allen’s homage to both Paris and nostalgia.  I never would have thought Allen would give up the neurotic, romantic role, or that Owen WIlson would be just the WASP to carry the torch, but Midnight in Paris proved me wrong.  Wilson is at his best as Gil Pinder, a sell-out screenwriter from LA who longs to write a novel in Paris, like his literary heroes.  Allen tackles magical realism and transplants the manifest destiny of ownership to Paris, as Gil is transported back to 1920’s Paris while walking at midnight (cue Patsy Cline).  Watching well-written charicatures of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmigway is fun, but watching Rachel McAdams as a snarky, spoiled fiance is even funnier.  If you are wondering why this film made #1, just watch the first 3 minutes–it’s nothing but shots of Paris and music.  You’ll feel as if you’ve escaped the mundane already, and the magic hasn’t even happened yet.  It’s a subtle fantasy, and that’s what May is all about.


3 Tips for Valentine’s Day Wine


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For me Valentine’s Day is all about what I’m going to drink–not so much where I’m going to be drinking it.  OK, who I’m drinking it with is a factor, but I’m willing to drink something I like with a less-than-stellar date than vice-versa.  I guess I’ve always bought into the whole consumer indulgence regarding Valentine’s Day due to the fact that it always seems to fall around a time when I’m feeling a little burned out.  For example, flu season is always at its peak around Valentine’s Day, and I’ve suffered a few drinkless, not to mention dateless, evenings at home, watching Arrested Development on DVD while trying to swallow huge antibiotics.  What I miss most during those times, much to the enjoyment of friends who think I should join AA, is the wine. I can live without steak, chocolate, a card–hell, even a date–on Valentine’s Day, but I’m not quite feeling the romance without a good bottle of wine.  I know enough about wines to never feel out of place ordering for a large table in just about any restaurant; moreover, I can find something I like about any wine.  However, I’ve learned that most people don’t enjoy choosing wines, and I happen to have dated a large majority of those people.  I tried to never act let down when my date brought a sickly sweet bottle of Cook’s Spumante because the guy at the liquor store said that’s what his girlfriend drinks, or when my girlfriends decided that Cupcake sauvignon blanc had such a cute label, and after all, we were eating cupcakes later–but come on!  There’s an art to selecting the right bottle of wine for Valentine’s Day, be it a night at home making sweet love to your spouse, or a night griping about love and watching chick flicks with the girls.  If you find yourself wondering what type of wine to buy for Valentine’s Day, look no further than my following tips!


TIP #1: Sparkling Wine Never Fails

Sparkling wine goes with anything!  It’s so popular and so requested because it’s so versatile.  Sparkling wine tastes fantastic alone, with clams, with asparagus, with quail, with rhubarb pie; honestly, it doesn’t matter.  Yes, you can get into some trouble regarding the dryness or sweetness of sparkling wines, but if you have an idea of what you, or the person you’re buying the wine to drink with, like then you’ll never go wrong with the right type of sparkling wine.

First, you don’t have to buy Champagne.  No, even though some wines say they’re “California Champagne,” no sparkling wine is champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France.  The wine is named for the region, not the type of wine.  Some popular brands of Champagne are Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roderer, and Moet and Chandon.  Champagnes are usually made from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Petit Meunier grapes, although some other varietals are occasionally used.  If you buy sparkling wines in general, you could be drinking any number of varietals depending on the country and region the wine comes from, although most California or U.S. sparkling wines usually try to mimic the flavor of champagnes and use similar grapes.  Most people assume since champagne is white that it must only use chardonnay grapes, or white grapes, but pinot noir grapes are traditionally used, however the grape skins are not left on to allow the rosy color to form.  

If you want a high quality sparkling wine that taste just as good as champagne but costs a fraction of the price, you should buy a sparkling wine from Burgundy, France.  These will sometimes be labeled by the name “Bourgogne.”  These typically costs around $15-$20 a bottle and will fool most knowledgable drinkers into thinking they are drinking a $50 of champagne.  These wines come from a region near Champagne, a region that is known for producing the world’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir–the two favorite varietals used in Champagne.  These wines are made the exact same way as Champagne, but because the region is different, you pay a fraction of the price!

You need to choose a sweetness profile for any sparkling wine, so decide what profile you would like.  Sparkling wines will be labeled according to the amount of dosage placed into the bottle right before corking.  The more dosage, the more sweet the sparkling wine.  “Naturale” champagnes contain no dosage, and are, therefore, very bitter.  But, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “natural” outside of Europe.  Here are the labels according to taste from the bitter to sweet.

  • Brut – will usually have “toasty” flavors and hints of “metallic” or bitter finishes
  • Extra Dry – not as dry as a Brut, meaning more “green apple” and “raspberry” notes.
  • Demi-Sec – starting to finish sweet, but losing the “butter” and “toast”
  • Sec – hard to find now unless a sparkling riesling; sweet notes of “honeysuckle” and “spice”

You may read these and think, Demi-Sec for sure, but while Brut does mean a more bitter taste, it also brings a nice yeasty / butter quality that you will lose to a more round fruit flavor the sweeter you go.  Extra-Dry is always a safe bet.  I love bringing a sparkling Burgundy Extra Dry wine to parties and for gifts because it’ll have the hints of butter and green apple of a Brut, but it will finish smoother.

The standard Brut or Extra Dry Burgundy sparkling wine goes great with appetizers, like rosemary crackers with green apple slices, honeycomb, and nutty dry cheeses, or main dishes like roast chicken with vegetables.  If you want to try these wines with dessert, why not try grand mariner creme brûlée or apple pie?  These wines have a crisp profile so they round out and compliment a savory meal that isn’t too spicy or sweet.  Of course, they’re fantastic on their own, and nothing says intimate like a bottle of bubbly!


TIP #2 Sparkling Comes in Pink and Red Too

Remember how I said Champagne uses pinot noir grapes but doesn’t allow the skins to color the wine?  Well, one of the many reasons I love the French is because they find a way to try everything.  So, sometimes those winemakers in Champagne use only pinot noir grapes to make their sparkling wines and allow the skins to sit on the grapes for just a few days, just to give it the most lovely pink glow.  That’s what pink champagne is: pinot noir sparkling wine!  So, when Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr are running into each other on their cruise in the film An Affair to Remember, this is what they keep ordering.  It’s not merely champagne, or just sparkling wine; it has a different flavor profile.  The lack of chardonnay, sometimes they do put some in, means that you get more “berry” flavors and less “apple.”  Also, since the chardonnay grape is the one that really lends that “metallic,” bitter taste, you mostly get a rounder flavor profile.  So, if you want to bask in the glow of a pink champagne on Valentine’s Day, you should try a Burgundy Rose sparkling wine.  After all, Burgundy grows the best Pinot Noir grapes, and you’ll be paying far less than a true Champagne.  These wines are fantastic with turkey, quail, duck, and pork (not great for steaks, though) and usually have hints of “citrus” and “strawberry,” making a great pairing with any cakes.  

I love to drink sparkling roses before meals or before rich desserts because they always seem to refresh your senses.  If you’re dating a lover of Pinot Noir, which seems to be every person who saw Sideways nowadays, why not surprise them with a special bottle of Burgundy sparkling rose?    After all, you could drink the bottle while watching An Affair to Remember?  

If you want a deeply sweet sparkling wine to go with the chocolate lava cake or brownie, try a brachetto d’aqui, which is a type of Italian red sparkling wine.  Brachetto d’acqui is made from the brachetto grape, an Italian grape that produces a sweeter red juice.  This will have more sweetness than a demi-sec and sec champagne and more fruit flavor than a sparkling rose wine. Brachetto d’aqcui has a deep “strawberry,” “cherry” flavor and a deep red color to match.  It looks lovely in a glass next to anything sweet on Valentine’s Day, and it usually costs around $12 a bottle.  If the wine is labeled “frizzante,” you will be drinking a semi-sparkling wine and you will have to pull that cork rather than pop it.  If the wine is labeled “spumante,” then you’ll be poping the cork and drinking a full-on sparkling wine.  For some reason, U.S. wine customers have come to expect that Spumante means sweet, probably thanks to Cook’s and J Roget’s labeled Spumante.  The term Spumante actually just means “fully sparkling.”  If you know your date has a sweet spot for sweet wine (moscato, anyone?) try a brachetto to spice and deepen things up.  You can even tell your date that Julius Caesar is said to have gifted Cleopatra with a similar wine.


TIP #3: Get Your Chocolate Covered Cherries in Your Wine

Speaking of Sideways, that film ruined the image of merlot, a lovely grape.  I’ve always quite liked merlot for the reason that merlot can be anything you want, meaning if you don’t oak merlot, you’ll get a very tart, juicy wine, but if you oak merlot, you’ll get a nice woodsy, tannic, deep flavor.  Merlot is fantastic for Valentine’s Day, and if you’re going the traditional red meat route, you’ll find a great value in the right merlot.  Of course, the french do merlot well in Saint Emilion, for example, but for Valentine’s Day I like a great Washington State merlot.  I think the cooler climate really makes those blackberry and dark cherry flavors pop out in the wines.  Some of the best merlots for Valentine’s Day are coming from the Columbia River Valley, specifically Yakima Valley.  I love those wines for Valentine’s Day because you’ll pay less than a comparable Merlot from Sonoma or Napa, and the fruit profiles tend to develop a nice chocolate-covered cherry flavor instead of a woodsy, boysenberry flavor that is more common in Napa.

Some of my favorite Washington State Columbia River Valley merlots are Bridgeman and Stevens Winery.  These merlots can vary in price from $15-$40 and offer fantastic chocolate finishes coupled with deep cheery flavors.  I’m a sucker for any wine that gives me notes of chocolate for under $50.  With these merlots, the more expensive you go, the more woodsy character you’ll encounter.  So, if you just want cherry, stick to the $14 end; but if you want cedar and heavy chocolate, head towards the $40.  However,any Yakima Valley merlot will head you in the right direction for Valentine’s Day in a bottle.

I hope that you find the perfect wine to share, or not to share, this Valentine’s Day.  Since Valentine’s Day falls on a Thursday this year, I’m teaching 5 classes at my university while working a 12 hour day and driving a 3 hour commute.  So, you can bet that when I get home I’ll be enjoying a trifecta of wine.  I plan to start with a nice brut sparkling Burgundy, follow up with a glass of Bridgman merlot during my crock pot dinner, and finish with a glass of Louis Bouillot Rose for dessert.  Now I just have to figure out how to find someone to have all this waiting for me!


Six Degrees of Schindler: Hidden Blessings in Teaching


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In the aftermath of the Sandy Hooks shooting, I find myself concentrating on one of those unexpectedly connective moments that only happen to teachers–a moment where you find yourself grafted to a whole new world through a student–a moment when the student finds you inside a personal space only inhabited by family.  This moment was when I found myself only 3 degrees from Oskar Schindler, a failed entrepreneur who managed to be a successful, yet not self-proclaimed, savior of hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children during WWII.

I had been immersed in the last weeks of student teaching at a well-known Georgia public high school, only then becoming relaxed after suddenly taking over my mentor’s 5 classes due to her mother’s unexpected passing only 2 weeks into my visit.  I was teaching several eleventh-grade, Honors British Literature classes, which in no way prepared me for teaching  in the real world, but which were mostly filled with bright, articulate, smart-asses: my favorite!  I loved those students in a naive and collegiate way.  They were protective of me, understood my stress, and respected my young exuberance.  I took time learning not only every name, but every personality.  One student, a student in the overfilled fourth period with several needy and overly talkative students, was a quiet, intelligent, and sociable enigma.  He downplayed his witty comments and disliked too much attention, so I would make a point of praising him before or after class, which he seemed to understand and appreciate.

One afternoon another teacher in the English department come into our classroom.  She was normally professionally composed and very articulate, but her demeanor this day was that of a wide-eyed Twilight fan who just heard Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson were engaged.       She did not come to the front of the class, but stood in the doorway with my mentor teacher and immediately started addressing this enigmatic student, much to his chagrin.

“________, I had no idea your grandmother was a Schindler Jew!”

Apparently this boy’s grandmother had given a survivor speech at a local fundraising event for a visiting African refugee and genocide survivor the previous night.  I had seen the email regarding this fundraiser and several teachers’ plans to carpool or attend.  Apparently, his grandmother’s story had been deeply affecting on the audience, including several teachers from his school.  Apparently this made the boy a celebrity.  Apparently, since his grandmother told her story publicly, this boy would want to discuss his relation publicly.  Apparently this was not apparent to the student.

“Why don’t you share your grandmother’s story with the class?!?!”

I saw this boy shrug his shoulders in the same manner he would as I praised an intelligent point on his quiz to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“It’s my grandmother’s story.  She was one of the children that Schindler documented as workers to save from the concentration camps.  I don’t know enough about it.”

The teachers wide-eyes closed a little, only a little.  They decided to explain the story themselves, as teachers, after all.  They told the class snippets from the grandmother’s story and reminded the students of the film Schindler’s List:

“Remember when he rescues the children with the little fingers?”

I must admit I was excited.  What a great story!  What a remarkable heritage!  But I saw the boy seemed neutral and slightly annoyed with the attention, so I segued into my own surprise train-of-thought in order to get back to the train-of-thought narrative in Mrs. Dalloway.

After class I asked this student about the eruption of his family into our classroom, not the Schindler connection.

“I just don’t think I should be the one talking about it.  It’s my grandmother’s story.”

We discussed his embarrassment that stemmed from the assumption that he would be as engaging as his grandmother, I think.  He thanked me for deflecting the attention in the situation, and I think I mentioned something about how he may find the situation more of a story of heritage than just his grandmother’s story later–silly for me to assume.  But I remember thinking about certain lines in the film Schindler’s List later that night.  These lines concern the list of Jews that Schindler will employ, and thus save from concentration camps and likely death:

“The list is an absolute good.  The list is life.  All around its margins lies the gulf.”

These lines reminded me of how close I came to never meeting this student, of how close he came to being in a gulf.

How many students have the same story in their family, but no specially known figure like Oskar Schindler to tie to the survivor’s narrative?  How many students’ sit and listen to me lecture on film, or make jokes about cowboys in literature and laugh, who would lie in such a gulf if not for a similar gesture that is long forgotten?

After this incident this student became slightly more outgoing and less apologetic for his comments.  He began slowly and slightly to allow his class persona to be unique.  It was an unspoken choice, like most teenage choices, but I noticed, and this student knew I noticed.  I don’t think anything I said made a difference, nor do I believe it’s due to me.  But I do think something personal–his reluctance to tell what he considered his grandmother’s story–shifted our relationship from merely public to personal.  I had upheld a personal boundary for this student and he had relaxed some of his to include me inside his personal wall.  He knew I would protect his boundaries, and I got to see why he created such boundaries.

Whenever I have a troubling day teaching or a troubling student, I remember my ‘Six Degrees of Schindler’ Student.  He’s now well into his mid-twenties, possibly more comfortable with his grandmother’s story, possibly forgotten me and the incident.  I like to remember how blessed I was to meet him, and how I was let into his secret about how I almost never met him.  I think about him today as I read and watch stories of little children who I will never meet or teach and about little children who I may get to meet and teach due to their teachers’ heroism to save them: of how close those children came to being in that gulf.

Mary Hood wrote a short story where a girl experiences her father’s suicide all through her memories, even though the suicide happens when she’s an adult.  She remembers finding his body as a child crawling on the floor, or as a little girl dancing, or as a mother-to-be.

Hood describes the difference between murder and suicide writing, “Imagine a photograph album, with a bullet fired pointblank through it, every page with its scar. Murder attacks the future; suicide aims at the past.”

Perhaps this distinction does not hold true for some, but I find the imagery startling and imaginative.  I wonder, “What would the image of that future photo album look like for someone like my student?”  Despite my husband’s urgings, I still find that sometimes imaginative imagery is the most logical explanation.  Today I imagine my ‘Six Degrees of Schindler’ student with a photo album of his many future events with Oskar Schindler lurking in the background, sometimes as a bothersome burden, sometimes as a laughing gent, sometimes as an angelic force, but always visible.  I imagine little 6 and 7 year old survivors of Sandy Hooks with pictures of their weddings and their long dead teacher and principal attending.  Most of all I imagine my own pictures in the future and the long line of students around me, some off the path, some further on the path than myself, some burdensome, some laughing, some that I don’t even like to remember, but all of them there–even the ones I haven’t yet met–even the ones I’ll never get to meet.

To me that is every teacher’s future album, even those who are already departed.