Saturday, July 22, 2017

Summer Adventures, Book-Learnin', and That One Song From South Pacific

Once upon a time, there was a girl who wrote a blog, and she was very diligent in the writing thereof, and there were lots of posts, and lots of followers, and lots of comments, and lots of friends, and a lot of time spent in reading and writing things of great interest and some of not much interest whatsoever.

Then Life happened, and the blog took a backseat, and some of the blog readers went on their merry way and read other blogs, and some of them lacked the time for any blogs at all because Life was happening for them too, and yet more of them stuck around from time to time and checked the blog just in case there was anything new happening.

(For purposes of a disclaiming nature I must take this opportunity to note that I am not implying that the reading and writing of blogs signifies one's Lack of a Life. It is a good and righteous hobby if it does not constitute the ENTIRE WHOLE of one's life - though, indeed, if it does, it still does not signify that Life is lacking, but rather that it is being rather frivolously squandered. Ahem.)

This post is for those last few, and my great gratitude is also extended to them-ward, for their tenacity and loyalty and sticking with me even though I've written a big ol' pile of nothin' in the last year or so.

I did, however, finally get a little bit back into the swing of things earlier this week, and though I make no promises about the future regularity of my posting, I really do want to make a better effort at writing.  Because writing feels good! Putting words together and creating a (somewhat) cohesive whole at the end sharpens creativity! I become an unstoppable writing force, as one with the old masters of literature, the wordsmiths of the ages, the Austens and Miltons and Shakespeares and Wildes and whoever wrote the dialogue for the original Winnie the Pooh films! 

The thing is, carving out the actual time to write stuff is not as easy as it looks.

If you've been following my blog for a while, you may know that I formerly worked an 8-5 office job (from 2015-2017).  As of now, that is no longer true - I quit my job in May to focus primarily on obtaining a certificate in Administrative Office Management.  So now I'm taking college classes and working semi-part-time.  Emphasis on the "semi" at the moment, because I'm also spending the summer (well, most of it) with the very first person who ever followed this blog.

In other words... my best friend, Melody.  Pink goes good with green.  (She's on the right, I'm on the left, and no one was actually driving when this selfie was taken.  We were stuck in traffic and the car was in Park. Ease your minds.)

At the beginning of June, I packed my mostly essentials and headed... WEST. (I won't get more specific than that. Melody is entitled to her state's right to privacy. :P) I'm here until the first week in August, and we are having a blast. Because, obviously. We're best friends.

We've been having a fantastic time together that has included shopping (thrift stores for the win!), camping (twice!), swimming (quite a lot), babysitting (her nieces and nephews are all adorable but the youngest one is quite definitely and undeniably a bona fide Cutie Pop), reading good books (just finished A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay, which was better than The Bronte Plot but not as good as Dear Mr. Knightley), watching some movies and TV shows (yay for Poirot and Call the Midwife!) and working, too, believe it or not.  In our first couple of weeks together, we got a temporary job helping to move medical equipment in a hospital (a task that included good pay and sore muscles!) and then we spent several days temping at a local plastics factory (not-so-good pay and not great for breathing... we didn't like that one as well).

I've also been doing a great deal of HOMEWORK, which is not at all fun but bears mentioning, lest you think my so-called college classes are all in vain.  They are not. I will PowerPoint you to the death, if challenged. (Or to the pain. You choose.)

I could go off on a long and sappy tangent about what a great friend Melody is, and how blessed I am to have her in my life, and how much fun it's been, getting to spend an extended visit with her... but I don't want to take up TOO much of your precious time (since this is going to be a pretty long post ANYWAY), I'll just give you a short and sappy tangent.  We have been friends for nigh on six years now, which is pretty incredible (though seven years may be insufficient for some people to form a really close connection, seven days may be sufficient for others, or seven emails in our case...) and though we have had our ups and downs (some of them even during this visit!) our bond has only strengthened as time goes on, and there is really nothing quite like a best friend.  I was sniffling a bit over some of the tributes to Jane Austen's life earlier this week, on the 200th anniversary of her death, and the remarks Cassandra Austen made about her relationship with her sister stood out to me particularly. Obviously Melody and I are not sisters by blood, and we are both healthily alive and kicking, but if you change Cassandra's writing to present instead of past tense, it fits my thoughts about her very well.

"[She is] a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She [is] the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I [have] not a thought concealed from her..."

We've both been reminded in various ways over the past year or so that life is changing and we must change with it; we're no longer the completely carefree teenagers we were when we first met.  Jobs and higher education and financial woes and health worries and family troubles and the joys of falling in love (ahem) have brought us into the world of adults since we first met, and I wouldn't change any of that for the world - but as the world changes, I'm glad I have a best friend to embrace that with me.

*end sappy tangent*

Anyway.  All in all, it's been a delightful summer thus far, despite my occasional bouts of homesickness and a great deal of... well, missing a certain person.  Who is not Melody. Because she's here. With me.

No, the person I've been missing so much is, in fact, someone who hasn't been mentioned on this blog until today.

Perhaps, just for fun and for the sake of maintaining the pseudonym I've used here for the last five and a half years, we'll call him Mr. Ferrars.

Let's rewind a tiny tad bit.  

It was in 2013 that I first became involved with Civil War reenacting, through a local historical house that was recruiting volunteers to give living history tours (an opportunity to get dressed up in old-fashioned clothes? YES PLEASE). That led me (and the rest of my family) to join an actual Civil War reenactment unit (Union forever, thank you very much), sparked my rabbit-hole-descent into making Victorian clothes, gave me quite a few opportunities to attend balls and parties and parades in historical garb, fueled my already-intense love of history... and, along the way, introduced me to my sweetheart. 

(If you follow me on Instagram, you're probably already well aware of his existence, but in case you don't, or in case you, unlike Flynn Rider, "do backstory," here's a bit more of the Detail.)

Technically speaking, we met in 2014, but neither of us can remember the particulars.  It was an outdoor encampment on the grounds of the house where I was volunteering (and where he had volunteered in the past), we were briefly introduced by a mutual friend, and that was about it. Later that year our paths crossed again at a Christmas Civil War ball, but except for a couple of partner-changing dances, we didn't interact much - until my sisters' and my GPS decided to die after the event had ended and we were stranded in an unfamiliar town with some uncertainty of how to get home.  So this gallant gentleman offered to let us follow him to the main highway before we went our separate ways.  I am still rather embarrassed about this (my sense of direction HAS improved since then), but clearly not so embarrassed as to stop me from writing about it on a public blog. I guess it serves as dramatic emphasis for just how nice that guy was.  

That was something I'd noticed, you see - I didn't know him very well, other than the fact that his name was Rob (there ya go, anyone who was dissatisfied with the vague "Mr. Ferrars") and his good manners and kindness to the people around him made a distinct impression on me.  That, as it turns out, was a very accurate impression indeed.

And then we started seeing each other at other events, and shyly talking a bit (okay, it was shy on my part...) and my sister teased me about him here and there but obviously that didn't mean anything, right? And then we became friends on Facebook. And then he innocently texted me asking for some information about an upcoming event in which we were both interested.  And, uh, we have not stopped talking since that day, which was nearly a year ago.  And then we started dating... and I fell in love with a wonderful guy

And now we're seven months into a relationship that's gone beyond anything I could ever have dreamed of, reinforced my belief in true love, convinced me that there really is another person out there in the world who understands my craziness, and given us both countless hours of laughing and crying and talking incessantly and baring our souls and telling of our most appalling secrets. 

Attempting to pose for a picture like civilized adults at a formal Victorian ball, and failing miserably.

I'm actually trying really hard not to make this overly sappy and starry-eyed. I'm not sure if you can tell.  Probably not.  But believe me, I could be a lot worse.

I wouldn't say that in the past I approached romance with a cynical eye, because I didn't. I loved reading books and watching movies about people who had found their soulmate, but deep down inside I wasn't sure I would ever meet that person who was completely right for me. I'd seen enough relationships and even marriages between people who seemed reasonably happy together, but who didn't always seem to "click" in the way that I wanted to do if I ever met my person. So I began to think that that person probably wasn't out there, that I wasn't going to ever meet someone I could truly love with my whole heart and know without a shadow of a doubt that he loved me back just as fiercely and understood what makes me tick.  Which was all well and good. I was fine with being single. In fact, I embraced it! And when God said, "No, My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts," and brought along the person I thought couldn't exist, I actually resisted at first. Surely it couldn't be that easy. Surely we couldn't have just been made for each other... could we?

Yeah, turns out we could.

You want to know the real kicker? The clincher, one of (several) things that convinced me that this was Really Truly Love? Guys, he's not a Jane Austen fan. It's not his thing. And you know what? I love him anyway. 

Oh, sure, we have lots of other shared interests and hobbies and nerdiness about books and geekiness about grammar and fascination with long-dead people and love of the outdoors and sense of adventure (well, okay, he has a sense of adventure and I remind him to wear his seat belt), and he'll sit and watch a costume drama with me (we blew through the first season of Victoria alarmingly fast) but Pride and Prejudice is not his cup of tea, and that is okay.  (For the record, Jurassic Park was not my cup of tea either. :P) 

Although once I get back from my trip, we are totally watching Sense and Sensibility together. ;)

So, uh, yeah. That is, in a nutshell, why my blogging has taken a backseat. Because the hours I used to spend researching and writing blog posts (and watching period dramas, too, let's be real) have lately given way to phone conversations and Skype conversations and hanging out in real life and spending time with each other's families and talking a LOT, did I mention that yet? The time I used to have for my Internet presence has dwindled drastically... and I am okay with that. I don't want to neglect this blog entirely (as I've been doing... cough cough) but, well, stages of life, people. Stages of life.  

I'm grateful to all of you who have stuck with me over the last year (with basically no content on here... heh) and to those of you who are reading this and will be sticking with me in the future.

Because now that I'm done with that first season of Victoria, it obviously needs a review.  

P.S. If you're interested in A Portrait of Emily Price, you can get your own copy on Amazon! 
....yes, that's an affiliate link. You don't have to click on it if you don't want to. ;)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016): The First Movie Review On This Blog In Basically Forever

"There are twenty bright, highly capable Negro women in the west computing group, and we're proud to be doing our part for the country. So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses."
~Katherine Goble

The average lifespan of a raccoon in the wild is about three years, and I was going to open this post by saying that I haven't written a movie review in a coon's age, but then I thought that was probably a slight exaggeration.

In reality it's been two years and eleven months.  Um. Ahem.  (Yeah, even I couldn't believe it's been that long. I had to go back and check. And re-check.) Saving Mr. Banks was the last movie I reviewed on this blog, and if you feel like refreshing your memory, you can go here. For what it's worth, I did have a few drafts lying around that I poked at from time to time, but... yeah. I don't have much of an excuse beyond the general "well, life is busy!" Sure, life is busy. But if you want to write, you have to make time to write. 

(...I may make my next post an update on various things that have made my life busy lately, by the way.  If anyone would care to read about that. I have no intention of shoving my personal life down your throat, but I know I get curious about the lives of people whose blogs I read, so if you would find such a thing interesting, please give me a shout in the comments, because I do have a few updates that may be of interest.)

Oh, and when I started writing this post, I had also been sick for the last week and today {that is, the day I started this... in May... heh...} I am actually well enough to sit up and look at a laptop, but not well enough to go to work, and a blog post felt like a good idea since my brain is beginning to feel like little gray cells again, and not oatmeal. 

So here I am, writing about a movie that I actually saw on the big screen. WILL WONDERS NEVER CEASE.

Hidden Figures does not quiiiiiiite fit the bill of fare around here. It's a stretch to call it a period drama - my grandparents are around the ages of the characters in the film, give or take a few years, and some of the real women on whom the film was based are still alive today.  But there are pencil skirts and long-finned Cadillacs and an IBM computer that takes up an entire room... which means the movie portrays another world in the past, to some degree, so I'm letting it slide on my Historical Films radar.  (Not that that radar is particularly strict to begin with... I have a half-finished review of Sherlock's The Abominable Bride in my drafts, too. Ahem.) However, it's my blog, and my rules, and blah blah.

So here we go.  (Spoilers GALORE. Although if you didn't at least vaguely know that John Glenn successfully orbited the Earth in 1962 then maybe you need to go to back to school and stop reading movie reviews.) 

I knew I was going to love this movie from the very first present-day scene. (The opening with Katherine as a small child being a math whiz was fun, and set a good backdrop, but the movie didn't really get going until the story catapulted us into 1961.)  There were several factors - Mary's clothes. Mary's sass. Katherine and Dorothy's comebacks and bed-bath-and-beyond-done-ness with Mary's sass. Oh, and my dream car. Because yeah, that car of Dorothy's has been my dream car for YEARS. That may have been a silly reason to fall in love with the movie so quickly (especially considering I'm really not a car person... like, at ALL) but humans are weird creatures and reactions are visceral and sometimes you just KNOW you're gonna like something, you know? 

(This is a behind-the-scenes photo but I couldn't find another good shot with the car in it. :P)

Katherine Goble was one of those people I just knew I was going to like.  She's patient, she gets the job done, she deals with miles upon miles of setbacks and she just keeps pushing forward.  When she gets a position with Mr. Harrison's team, checking code for other mathematicians, and she puts her name alongside of Paul Stafford's report (rightly so, because she did just as much work as he does), he gets annoyed and refuses to let her take credit for the work she did.  And yet the next time she puts her name back again. And again. And the next time.  And every time he takes it off, destroys the cover sheet, tells her to do it over, and she doesn't get mad - she just puts her name right back the next time, and I loved that.  It's a simple gesture that says, "I know my work matters, and I know that you don't believe that it matters, but that doesn't change the fact that it does matter, and I will keep right on saying that just as long as you keep erasing it." 

Katherine isn't one to immediately speak her mind the way Mary is (getting to Mary in a second), but she makes her voice heard when it needs to be heard.  The scene where she breaks down and loses her temper at Harrison over not having access to a ladies' room is one of the most well-played scenes in the whole movie, and the following scene where a chastened Harrison knocks off the segregation signs with a crowbar and tells the dumbstruck crowd, "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color," is one of the most satisfying.  (Yeah, you probably never thought you'd see that word on this blog, but guess what, it's in the movie, and though I try to be reasonably ladylike around here, I do not skip over a good pithy statement when I see one.)

One of the things I really liked about the movie's portrayal of Katherine is that it shows her first and foremost as a mathematician.  She is also a mother, and she also has a romance (that plays out in a very lovely way and I was delighted to find that it ended very happily in real life as well), but the story is not about Katherine's struggle to balance work and home life and find her real place in the world as a working mom. She has a job, about which she's very passionate, with which she supports her three girls (and presumably her mother, who doesn't seem to work outside the home as she appears to be in her upper 70's). End of story.  When one of her daughters brings up the subject of Katherine coming home late, she simply says, matter-of-factly, that she has to be both mama and daddy since their daddy's in heaven, and that's all there is to it. And while a movie based solely on Katherine's career is not quite what this is (getting to the romantical part in a moment), I appreciated the fact that the focus wasn't detracted from the work at hand by a spin-off on the whole working-single-mother thing. (Although if someone DOES want to make a spin-off of this movie, about Katherine's personal life, I would totally watch that.) 

I was not a fan of Jim Johnson's character at first, but he definitely grew on me. I was really happy to see how he interacted with Katherine's daughters and with Katherine herself in a relatively short space of time (that is, screen time), and the proposal scene was... well, adorableness. I'm already spoiling things right and left for anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet, but I also appreciated that the romance wasn't made the focal point of the movie.  It was a sweet side note, and historically accurate since Katherine Goble really DID marry Jim Johnson (and they were married for fifty-some years!), but it wasn't the point of the movie and I was pleased by the fact that the filmmakers didn't try to divert attention from the real story at hand with a sugar-coated Hollywood romance.

Quick note on Katherine's clothes--  because clothes are my Thing and you know I couldn't *not* talk about them-- aaaaaaaah, if it weren't for the Cold War and communism and racism and sexism and lack of central air-conditioning, what I wouldn't GIVE to live in the fifties/early sixties! I loved how her styles really set her apart from the other mathematicians, aside from her obvious gender and ethnicity - the pops of color she brought to that largely black-and-white-and-grey room were very visually appealing, and I enjoyed that. I basically just want all of her dresses. Yes? Yes. Please and thank you.

Moving on to Mary.

"I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can't do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?"
~Mary Jackson

The only thing that kept Mary from being my favorite character in the movie was the fact of Katherine's existence. Seriously, if it hadn't been for Katherine Mary would have been my #1. She's hilarious, she's snarky, she gets stuff done, she has brilliant fashion sense and she's not afraid of anything.  I loved how she was constantly dressed in bright colors and sharp, clean-cut styles - it went a long way towards pinpointing her vibrant, edgy personality.

I wish Karl Zielinski, the older engineer who mentored Mary at the beginning of her assignment on the test rockets, had had a larger role in the movie, because I'd be very interested to know more of his story.  This exchange between them after Mary had identified the air-resistance problem with the wind tunnel is one of my favorites:
"Mary, a person with an engineer's mind should be an engineer. You can't be a computer the rest of your life."
"Mr. Zielinski, I'm a negro woman. I'm not gonna entertain the impossible."
"And I'm a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I'm standing beneath a spaceship that's going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?"
"I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one."

And then... she more than entertained the impossible. She went and did it. Because she is awesome.

We didn't see quite as much of Mary's relationship with her husband Levi as we did of Katherine and Jim, but I was pleasantly surprised by the realness in the portrayal of their marriage.  Again, I was afraid that we'd be treated to an angsty wrist-on-forehead agonizing on Mary's part - WHICH is more IMPORTANT? her HUSBAND and CHILDREN or her CAREER? and he will NEVER BE suPPORTIVE?!?!?!?!

While such things certainly have happened, that didn't seem to be the case with Mary and Levi, and I was happy that the movie chose to show his initial opposition to her court case (pleading her right to take night classes at the high school to become an engineer) as only the first step in their story.  By the end, he was right there beside her, and she succeeded with his full support. Whether this is actually historically accurate or not (I did buy the book on which the movie is based, and am anxious to start it soon!), it was a nice thing to see. The filmmakers could easily have set up an ending in which Mary chose the scientific path despite Levi's protests (a "nevertheless, she persisted" type of situation that necessitated her persistence past her loved ones as well as the bigotry of strangers), which would have been somewhat depressing, but instead their mutual desire to see justice served and prove wrong the people who wanted to push them back made for a really satisfying ending.

Dorothy Vaughan had a little less screen time than the other two, I thought, and perhaps that was part of what made me a little less interested in her.  Her story is still intriguing, and her quiet push for the right, though not as sassy as Mary's or bold as Katherine's way of making their voices heard, is still inspiring. I'd previously seen Octavia Spencer in a more firecracker-type role, as Minny Jackson in The Help, but I think I liked Dorothy's character almost as much. 

I felt Dorothy's relationship with Vivian Mitchell (little Amy March, all grown up!), though somewhat fictionalized (both Mrs. Mitchell and Paul Stafford were composite characters, drawn from several different people, and did not have actual real-life counterparts), hit pretty close to home even for today. "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all," Vivian tells Dorothy near the end of the movie.  "I'm sure you believe that," Dorothy replies. It's a seemingly innocent and quick exchange, but it called up so many similar conversations I've had and observed even in my own rather sheltered, white, Northeastern existence.  Sometimes bigots and racists don't come dressed in flowing white robes and pointed hoods, or goose-stepping brown uniforms with skulls and crossbones. Sometimes they're people you know, people you respect, people who think that they don't harbor any hatred in their hearts toward people who aren't just like them.  And yet the truth comes out in little snippets here and there-- "it's just the way things are" and "I don't make the rules," easily translate to, "I don't have any problem with the rules, and would rather allow an injustice to continue because I don't want the bother of admitting that the injustice goes on because of people like me." 

I was happy that Vivian's character had softened a bit by the end, though - and in keeping with the movie's use of the main characters' first names (and my own practice in this post), I'm trying to refer to her by her first name, though Dorothy always respectfully calls her Mrs. Mitchell.  She doesn't have a choice in the matter, but by the end of the film Vivian has called her Mrs. Vaughan. I'll admit to a couple of fist-pumps when that happened. :D 

As mentioned above, Paul Stafford wasn't a real person either, but I think his addition to the movie was a good storytelling choice. Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain, and though this was real life and not a fairy tale, every story needs a well-defined antagonist to let us know why the main character does not get The One Thing They Are Searching For right off the bat.  Paul's character was stuffy, narcissistic, incredibly smart, and maybe just a little too perfectly opposed to everything Katherine wanted (anyone else think he was the mind behind the separate coffee pot?).  Perhaps the mish-mashing of various people who made Katherine's job difficult was a bit heavy-handed, and Paul came across as two-dimensional at times, but again, I can't really complain. Poetic justice was served at the end when Katherine finally put her name alongside his in a report and he brought her a cup of coffee, and I for one wasn't complaining.  It feels good to see that the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest would tell us that that is what Fiction means, but it's nice to think that it's what real life means sometimes too. 

Oddly enough, this movie isn't about writing.  There's a little nod to the creative/linguistic process in the recurring shot where Katherine types up Paul's notes and relentlessly adds her own name in the byline - she did just as much of the work as he did, and deserves credit for the effort it took to tie all their joint work into a cohesive and concise narrative.  Writing is important, and yet over and over Katherine's writing is discredited because Paul won't stand for a woman's name on the title page alongside his - but the movie still isn't about writing.

Yet I felt the familiar tug of writing-inspiration while watching the movie.  That's part of the highly subjective rubric by which I determine how much I liked a movie. Did I come away from it feeling a creative itch, a wanting-to-learn-more itch, a desire to imagine what could have happened next?  Hidden Figures is based on historical fact, and the blending of fiction and real events fascinated me (in much the same way that Saving Mr. Banks did a few years ago).  I love the way the story came to life through the imagination of the filmmakers - yes, they changed a few things to make the narrative flow more smoothly, but they brought a previously poorly-recognized scientific contribution to light for so many people who might not have known about it otherwise. That, to me, might be one of the highest forms of art achievable. I don't mean to deride fantasy or pure imagination, but in my mind, to take something real and make it seem more real with the power of the right words strung together... that's a feat. That's the kind of thing I want to write.

Someday, that is, when I actually take/find/squeeze out/contrive the time and discipline to sit down and write it. 

P.S. If you're interested in purchasing a copy of Hidden Figures on Amazon, you can do so below!