Archive | Age Matters

The Cautious Joy of Short Term 12

Short Term 12 is a hopeful movie about seemingly hopeless lives. It shows us young people whose stories already appear permanently written—desperately so—and then suggests they still can be rewritten. It is that rarest of films: one whose very flaws teach us to accept everyone else’s. Even our own.

At its center is Grace (Brie Larson), the floor supervisor of a co-ed group home for adolescents who aren’t safe anywhere else. Scrubbed free of makeup, clad in tee shirts and jeans, and straddling the ten-speed she rides every day to work, she looks barely older than the kids she’s supervising. When she opens her mouth, though, it’s clear she is tapping into a core that only could have developed through years of hard-earned survival. The kids themselves are not so broken that they don’t still engineer scenario after scenario from which they must be rescued, if only to gauge whether someone still will. Grace and her colleagues willingly step up to those plates, cueing institutional methodology that works mostly because of their brisk, jocular kindness. One kid in particular—a scrawny-chested boy who caresses his collection of fuzzy dolls like they’re magic talismans—likes to don a cape and bolt from the institutional grounds until staff members tackle him in big bear hugs. Maybe he just runs to get hugged. So much of this film reminds us of how much we do either to get hugged or to avoid a hug lest we then feel too much.

There’s a tidiness to the plotting that doesn’t quite work. Early on, Grace discovers she’s pregnant and schedules an abortion. Soon after, Jayden (Kaitlyn Deve), the daughter of her boss’ friend, is checked onto her ward. Stonily fragile and bearing the unmistakable scars of a cutter, Jayden strikes a chord in Grace, who senses the girl’s secret is like her own. Continue Reading →

On Living Softly, and Not Carrying a Big Stick

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thug

Growing up, “soft” was an insult. The ultimate one, actually. In my family it was an umbrella term that meant out-of-shape, clueless, indolent, addled, unvigilant, prissy, overly sensitive, entitled. You were soft if you didn’t take it in the chin. Soft if you asked for a ride when you could walk. Soft if you whined “I can’t.” Soft if you couldn’t run a mile or sported a gut. Soft if you cried when you dropped your ice cream. Definitely soft if you were a tattletale.

Every usage of the word was anathema to us, and by “us,” I am referring to my dad and therefore my little sister, my mother, my myself—my father’s subjects, in other words, to whom principles came down by edict.

Soft hands meant you lacked a work ethic, the might or tenacity to do physical labor. A soft voice meant you were namby-pamby, couldn’t assert yourself. Being soft-hearted meant you were a sucker. There was a long list of what was soft, and at the top of it were the rich people in my Greater Boston town, which literally had a “wrong side of the tracks” since the Mass Pike divided the more working-class sections from the wealthier people on the Hill. The rich girls wore rugbys and braids, had sleepover parties with cutesie PJs, whispered about their crushes. The girls in my neighborhood wore tight designer jeans and feathered hair, hung out at the corner store, had boyfriends with whom they did more than hold hands long before they hit puberty.

Though gentle, Charlie Bucket was not soft, which is why he inherited the Chocolate Factory. Harriet the Spy was not soft; all you had to do was look at her work uniform and you knew she was tough as nails. In those slippers and knitted sweaters, Mister Rogers and his braying singsong was ridiculously soft. And the Beatles, oy the Beatles. With their thin voices, those fa-la-la proclamations of love—forget it. So soft. As a matter of fact, all white music was soft, except punk rock and, of course, the Stones. With their big bass lines and bigger tongues, the Rolling Stones were hard in every sense of the word. Before I even understood what sex entailed, I groked that the Beatles were the equivalent of making love and the Stones were all about fucking. Which, by definition, was not soft. Continue Reading →

My Muppet Critics

Some mornings, I go down to the coffeehouse and drink an Americano with two guys who’ve lived in my Italian-American neighborhood for 70 years. For roughly 60 of those years they’ve been best friends in the vein of Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry, Felix and Oscar. I call them the Muppet critics because they really are just like the old grumps on The Muppet Show. Whenever I hang out with these guys, they argue about everything from the true point of the Civil War to the relative merits of Godfather Part III to which of them is aging worse. Outspoken as I normally am, with them I mostly clutch my coffee and my sides since I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid everything is going to split. They’re good eggs—gruffly kind, street-smart, devoted to the neighborhood and their wives. They were protective and practical when I was going through my miserably drawn-out breakup. (“Eh, you want us to beat him up, Lise?”) They religiously watch the NY1 show on which I appear. (“Your red lipstick needs to make a comeback, doll.”) They problem-solve my issues from weird car noises to money woes to difficult colleagues. They tell amazing stories about back in the day. They pour over the newspapers and debate the major controversies of the day. Then they razz each other some more.

This morning one of them told a joke he’d heard from “a real Jewish guy.” (Our neighborhood borders on the Chasidic section of Williamsburg.) The joke went like this: Abraham and Yosef were imprisoned in the same cell for 25 years. When they were finally released, they walked out of the building, single file. Abraham walked ahead. Yosef trailed behind him, shouting, “Abraham, I forgot to tell ya….”

The gold standard, these two.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy