Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two in a Row

It was another good viewing weekend at the Bloggerboy homestead. We watched the following films on Saturday evening and Sunday morning:

Quiet Chaos (2009).  When one reads the reviews of Quiet Chaos, one has the impression that the film is about mourning, or the inability to mourn. I think that if this is the perspective you take into the film, you might be disappointed. The film has more to do with standing still (quiet) while the hectic world keeps on moving (chaos).

We first see the main character, Pietro Paladini, played by Nanni Moretti in this film directed by Antonello Grimaldi, as he and his brother save two drowning women at the beach. When he arrives home later in the day, his own wife has died suddenly in front of their house, leaving Paladini and their young daughter to fend for themselves.

Pietro has the luxury of having a position of high responsibility at a time when his company is in the process of merging with another company. He is outside the main decision-making group, and he takes time off to accompany his daughter to school. He promises to wait for her outside the school. He ends up spending every day outside the school until his daughter finally asks him to stop. The grieving is never really shown on film, except for one brief powerful scene when Paladini is alone in his car at night.  We catch glimpses of Paladini slipping up or daydreaming.  We see Paladini’s repression of and, finally, coming to terms with his grief in small and subtle sequences free of melodrama.

Instead of watching Paladini grieve, we watch what happens when he stops running and sits on a park bench or at the nearby café all day. Paladini is a master of not saying too much. He rivals Chance the Gardener in his ability to draw people’s sympathy without fully revealing what he thinks. He is always being hugged by someone, even his bosses from work. People come to visit him on his park bench.  The dialogue, even though we watched a dubbed German version, was really good. Moretti is convincing as an executive type who is a survivor but who maintains a certain honesty and decency about himself. We get to know numerous characters and their quirks during the course of the film.  There are no self-indulgent scenes with Moretti hamming it up. The other acting also is quite good, including a cameo appearance by Roman Polanski at the end.

The film shows the intricate web of relationships that come to the foreground when Paladini stops moving, the richness and depth that they provide his life. Paladini appears to have secured a top position in the post-merger firm, but at the end of the film, he also appears to have a problem with the character played by Polanski as the American taking over the firm. At the end of the film Paladini walks away from his former boss, leaving open the possibility that he will leave the firm. Paladini does not care. He has come through his mourning process and knows what his priorities are. Watching the scenes of Paladini with his daughter, I was reminded of the crisp dialogue between adults and children in J.D. Salinger’s works, some of which I reread this week after hearing of his death. Quiet Chaos is a quiet gem of a film. Somehow, the director manages to put the audience in the position of caring about what is going to happen to Paladini while Paladini doesn’t give a damn.

The Visitor (2007).   The Visitor is a film directed by Thomas McCarthy about one of the dark sides of the American Dream in a Post 9-11 world. It also is a film about mourning and what happens to people who are not able to mourn properly. You have to look long and hard for a happy end, but it is there for the professor, who manages to regain vitality in his life through his encounter with a group of illegal immigrants. The actor who plays the professor reminds me of someone I studied with, so dry and academinc that you would have a hard time thinking of him as a man with passions. He likes red wine and classical music and that's about it. His life has dried up, presumably since the untimely death of his wife. He has tenure, so he is freeloading on the system, but he is not healing and not living. Absent the events that are the film’s subject, he would spend the rest of his years making his students and colleagues miserable. Aside from one slightly melodramatic scene in the immigration office, when the professor lectures a prison guards in a private detention center, the film is perfectly-tuned and contains a powerful message about the incredible vitality and diversity the immigrants bring to America and about what we as Americans would rob ourselves of if we closed our doors to immigrants. The message is so subtle, so unobtrusive, that we forgive the brief second of the raised finger. For anyone who has admired the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass in films such as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride, her role in The Visitor alone is worth the price of admission. Hers is a face that contains all the warmth, sunshine, and sadness of the Middle East. It is too bad that she reached US fame at such a late stage in her career. She is about my age. I look forward to growing old with her.

Finally, Small Crime (2008) is, as the title indicates, a small film. It is a lighthearted crime story/love story/comedy set in a backwater Greek island that doesn’t get many tourists, just a few backpackers and nude sunbathers. The island doesn't have sand beaches.  A young police officer longing for a transfer to Athens suspects that the town drunk has been murdered by the village’s insiders. I recommend the film with no reservations. You could spend a fine Friday evening with friends, some good snacks and drinks, and Small Crime. It is not a long film, so make sure to rent another one just in case.  It is heartening to see so many independent directors and producers master the art of story-telling on film. A film does not have to be a masterpiece to deserve critical acclaim if the makers just learn how to control the typical excesses of many independent films. Small Crime avoided all of the typical traps and caused me to chuckle frequently. As an added treat, Vicky Papadopoulou, the female lead shown below, certainly gave the scenery a run for its money, and the scenery is pretty good.

Postscript:  This was the first time we were able to put the new DVD player with its HDMI cable to the test with recent films, and it worked out wonderfully.  I don't think we're getting full HD on these films, but it is very good digital quality.  It still can't beat sitting in a decent theater, but what an improvement over our prior home viewing!

Friday, January 29, 2010

My Inner Technology Geek

My inner technology geek came alive last fall. I don't know where Germany stands on the world development scale of digital TV. Most of the German broadcasters have just started producing HD-quality shows, and most shows are not yet broadcast in full HD. There are some pay TV broadcasters whose shows already have HD, but I'm not willing to pay extra for them.  2010 is supposed to be the year of the big bang for digital TV in Germany.

I've been watching the prices of Full HD TVs (1920 x 1080 pixels) come down these past years from exorbitant to unaffordable to expensive to tempting. I had hoped to wait until late 2010 to buy a new TV, but our dear old Sony Trinitron tube TV finally started to give up its ghost last October at the ripe age of 18. I was beginning to worry about fire hazards at night, even though standby was not on. The Full HD TVs came down further in price last fall to the point where they were as cheap as the old HD-Ready TVs (1280 * 720 pixels) had been a year ago. I found myself lingering at the TV section of Saturn Hansa, one of the larger German discounters, more frequently. So, I finally bought a 37" Samsung Full-HD, 100 Hz TV in late October and changed my cable subscription to digital, saving one Euro a month in the process. Mind you, as mentioned, there is hardly anything on TV that is being broadcast in Full HD, and most of the old DVDs that we watch also are in the old 4:3 format, not adjusted for HD, but I've caught a glimpse of the future, and I love it. My DVD player had broken years ago (little children with sticky fingers). Lately, we had watched DVDs on Fräulein Bloggerboy's Sony Playstation (supposed to be terrible for the DVDs). I just bought a simple DVD player that transmits in HD quality and am ready to enjoy new releases in excellent quality. I'm waiting for Blue Ray Disc players to come out with a hard disk drive to complete my system.

My transition to HD did not cost a fortune, but for someone as visually oriented as I am, this has been a sea change in viewing pleasure simply by having a larger screen for movies. I watched Hangover using our new DVD player, and the picture quality was quite good. Fräulein Bloggerboy is hooked, too. (Frau Bloggerboy and Bloggerboy Junior seem nonplussed, but then they are somewhat anti-technology types anyway.) Now all we have to do is sit back and wait for the German broadcasters to catch up with us. Why do I have the sinking feeling that they are going to want me to pay extra for HD-quality shows? I'll have to wait them out on that issue. Sooner or later, everything will be in HD. Meanwhile, I can hardly bring myself to look at the advertizing inserts in the papers. The prices keep falling, and the quality of the HD TVs keeps going up. 200 Hz will be standard in the next few months.  If only our Sony had held out just a bit longer. Oh well, I doubt anyone is going to feel sorry for me. When it comes to technology, sooner or later you just have to get on the merry-go-round, assuming you ever want to take such a ride. It's the same with computers, and, once you're on, it's hard to get off.

I have no idea how things are in the US. I know that by US standards, a 37" TV is not that big, but I also do not recall being impressed with the picture quality in many of the big TVs I saw in the US.

Update:  I was browing through this week's TV guide and found an article on HD TV.  Indeed, the cable provider for Hessen is withholding HD content from us and has no current plans to change.  The selection is limited, but six or seven broadcasters are broadcasting in HD.  Other providers are providing the content already (Baden-Württemberg) and others are negotiating with the German TV authority (more on that noble institution later) for money.  So much for the big bang in 2010.  This is aggravating.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekend Films

We went to see the White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band) last night and really liked it.  It is a wonderful black-and-white portrayal of a "sick" German village, symbolic for Prussian-led Germany, shortly before the outbreak of World War I.  The film is a bit long-winded at ca. 140 minutes, but I only felt mild exasperation once or twice as a scene took what seemed like minutes to get moving.  The composition is amazing, the child actors, superb.  The actor who played the village pastor also did a great job.  It is quite interesting to watch this modern black-and-white film after having watched so many neo-realist films recently.  I kept comparing the film to its Italian predecessors.  The whodunnit element of the film left us discussing who the criminal(s) might have been over drinks after the film, but I know that the director left this issue open intentionally.  The society was sick.  The crimes were merely a symptom of the sickness.

I also rented Toni (1935) by Jean Renoir and Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti.  Visconti worked for Renoir, and both films are regarded as precursors to Neo-Realism.  Toni uses "live sound" footage, as opposed to afterdubbing, used by most of the Italian filmmakers, clearly the better approach.  Renoir's film eschews all sentimentality and is well-told, the ending of the film echoing the beginning, as a train-load of migrant workers leaves the train station singing the same song about the trials of emigration.  Ossessione is based on James M. Cain's The Postman always Rings Twice.  Both films show the lives of simple people far from the beaten path.  Both films are centered around a romance that leads to murder.

I've occasionally complained about the length of films, but I also get exasperated at the rushed sense I have with many Hollywood productions.  I'll write more about that later.  Interesting in Weisse Band was the use of the technique, also widely-used by Italian Neo-realists, of having film time equal real time during certain scenes.  Such a technique needs to be used in small doses, otherwise you'll never get your story told, but used properly, it has a way of immersing the viewer in the film's world, similar to the way that a detailed description in a novel slows the reader down and allows him to enter the novel's world.  I think that my impatience with some of the scenes in Weisse Band was just the Hollywood side of my brain complaining.  The other side understood what was going on and tried to savor the details of the composition.  Nevertheless, the director may have overdone it a bit.  You shouldn't really feel imposed upon by such slowness.  There is a scene in Ossessione after a busy evening in the Trattoria.  The female lead falls asleep at a table full of dirty dishes after slurping a few spoons of soup.  The scene is relatively short, perhaps just a tad faster than real life, but it achieves its goal in an unobtrusive way.

This was a great film weekend.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Metric Conversion

I've used several different online converters, but this website is the first one that covers most of the conversions that I need.  We still have a lot of US recipes lying around that need to be converted to metric. When I am feeling overweight, I convert my metric weight back to pounds ... and then I feel really fat.  A great way to get motivated to cut back.  The only conversion missing that I sometimes need is area.  For those of you who are interested, there are ca. 10.764 square feet to a square meter and 2.471 acres to a hectare.  Now you're ready to survive in a metric country.   

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mid-August Lunch Revisited

I'm starting to tie together my "Italy experience" of these past weeks.  My review of Mid-August Lunch got me started on a look back at many of the Neorealist classics.  I just came across an article by Philip French at The Guardian website that helps me along:

"I recently had the pleasure and privilege of presenting a prize for the best first film shown in the 2008 London film festival to Gianni Di Gregorio. It was a pleasure because I greatly admire his gentle, perceptive comedy Mid-August Lunch (aka Pranzo di Ferragosto), and a privilege because the prize is presented by the Satyajit Ray Foundation in memory of the director I revere beyond all others. The Satyajit Ray Award has been given every year since 1996 to a film "which best captures the artistry expressed in Ray's own vision" and Di Gregorio could not have been a more appropriate recipient.

Almost 60 years ago, early in 1950, the newly married Ray, then working for an advertising agency in Calcutta, made his first visit to Europe to spend some months at the parent company's headquarters in London. 'Within three days of arriving in London, I saw De Sica's Bicycle Thieves,' he later wrote. 'I knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali – and the idea had been at the back of my mind for some time – I would make it in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors.'

On his return home, he wrote an article on "Some Italian Films I Have Seen" for the Indian Film Society Bulletin, which concluded: 'For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian film-maker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica and not DeMille should be his ideal.'"

The Ray trilogy is a perfect tie-in to Italian Neo-Realism.  To paraphrase a famous aphorism, cinema is a seamless web.
According to French and other sources, the total budget for Mid-August Lunch was less than USD 700,000.

For further reading, which I'm just beginning, I purchased a new book by Peter Bondanella:

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Film Notes

Trying to keep track of what I've been watching lately:

1.  Avatar.  Beautiful pictures, major step for 3-D, but the story and characterization are thin.

2.  Soul Kitchen. Fatih Akin's new film. Not as good as some earlier works, but entertaining & worth a view.

3.  Double Indemnity.  Nothing to add.

4.  The Unforgiven (a western with Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn!)

5.  Reality Bites (second viewing)  Generation X film with Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke & Ben Stiller.

6.  Hard Day's Night -- stayed up til 1:30 to finally see this one.  An age of innocence?

7.  Year of the Horse -- Jarmusch documentary.  Great music, but did Neil Young have to wear shorts?

8.  Smiles of a Summer Night, a Shakespearian comedy.  Who says Bergman is dull and serious?

9.  Secrets of Women.  A Bergman film that includes sex in an elevator.  Lighten up guys!

10.  Casablanca -- for the umpteenth time.  Great to watch the younger Bergman after seeing Stromboli.  What an actress.


11 & 12.  Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) and Lili Marleen (1981) by Fassbinder, each for the umpteenth time.  My soft spot for Hanna Schygulla rivals that for Ingrid Bergman.  Fassbinder's portrayals of German women are fantastic.

13.    The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Just saw it and am still digesting it.

14.  Hangover -- what you get when you watch too many films in a row.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shoe Shine (1946)

I had the great fortune to see Francois Truffaut's film 400 Blows in a movie theater near the Sorbonne early one summer afternoon when I was in my early twenties.  I stumbled out of the theater in a daze and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around in a dreamlike trance near where the film was shot.  400 Blows was one of the films that turned me into a die-hard film buff:  art that can knock your socks off if you are open to it.

I wish I had been able to see De Sica's Shoe Shine at the same age, or at least on a big screen.  It is just as good as 400 Blows, and I suspect that Truffaut borrowed heavily from Shoe Shine in making his film.  Shoe Shine is about two boys who scrape by in post-war Rome by shining shoes for GIs, who get tricked into abetting a robbery, and who have their first serious encounters with the Italian justice system.  That's really all the plot you need to know.  Sit back and enjoy the film.

One of my criteria for judging a film is whether I am still thinking about it the day after I watch it.  If I am, it's usually a good sign.  Well, it has been about a week since I saw Shoe Shine, and I'm still thinking about it; the same goes for La terra trema and Stromboli.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Few More Italian Films

As mentioned, after Stromboli (1950) I watched La terra trema [The Earth Will Shake] (1948) by Visconti. By way of short plot summary, La terra trema focuses on the brief rise and decline of a poor fishing family -- the Valastros -- in the Sicilian village of Aci Trezza. True to neorealist tendency, most of the actors, if not all, were non-professionals.  Legend has it that Aci Trezza in 1948 looked much as it did in the late 19th century, when Giovanni Verga's novel Malavoglia, upon which the film was based, was written. The film is quite long at 165 minutes.  It starts at a transition period in the Valastros family, when leadership is passed from the grandfather to the oldest grandson, 'Ntoni, 'Ntoni's father having died at sea. 'Ntoni is upset by the abusive wholesalers in the village who collude to keep the fish prices down. After trying unsuccessfully to unite the fishermen, 'Ntoni decides to buy a boat and to start processing his family's catch and cut out the middlemen. After an initial lucky start, fortune turns against the family. 'Ntoni and his family fall on hard times and, partially because of 'Ntoni's stubborn pride and refusal to adapt, partially because of local pettiness, become outcasts of sorts in Aci Trezza. The film ends at a turning point for the family, not really on a hopeful note, but at least with a sense that the worst is over for the Valastros.

It might seem odd to refer to a black and white film as "lush", but after being subjected to Rossellini's apparent refusal to devote much effort to composition in Stromboli, Visconti's compositions had me expressing amazement at several points. Whereas the photography in Stromboli leans towards over-exposure, arguably using the bright sunlight as another oppressive natural force, Many of La terra trema's beautiful compositions are enveloped in dark. The interior scenes often have only a small source of light, a lamp or a partially-opened window exposing a small portion of the screen. Shadows play an important role in the interior scenes, slightly reminiscent of German Expressionist films and the more recent film noir genre in the US. Visconti learned his trade in part from Jean Renoir. Renoir's film Toni (1935) is considered to be an important precursor to the Italian neorealist movement, and Visconti was assistant director of Toni. Furthermore, Renoir is associated with the poetic realist movement in France, which also is considered an important precursor to the US film noir. I don't want to get too bogged down with definitions and movements. The term "neorealist" is so wobbly, that I have a hard time considering Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica to be in the same camp.  On a lighter side, Visconti also does justice to the beauty of the setting with great shots of the harbour and the village under different kinds of light. He uses a much broader range of camera techniques that blend smoothly and add poetry to the film's cadence.  His fishing boat scenes also are smoother than the similar scenes in Strobmoli, which  looked much more like documentary footage.

There are so many things that I like about La terra trema, I don't know where to start. Comparing the squalor of the Valastros family with scenes from similar films about Ireland or 19th Century England, there is no air of self-pity about the family and no clear villain, no eccentric characters or air bags -- just lots of very believable characters. Even the oppressive wholesalers do not try to sabotage the Valastros' venture and are willing to allow the men to come back and work for them on their boats at the end.  That may not be much, and Visconti clearly associates the wholesalers with fascists, but the only other alternative for the family would have been starvation or emigration.  The family has a certain status in the Village at the start of the film, but are beholden to the wholesalers. Visconti does a great job of showing how the other villagers and the wholesalers react to the changes in the Valastros's status when they start their business. When it appears that the family is going to be successful, some villagers become resentful. The prospects for a good marriage for family members rise and fall with the change in status.  Hardly has the family put aside 25 barrels of sardines, and they are considered rich by their neighbors.  What really impresses me about this film is that it is neither driven by its images nor by its plot. Visconti, as with all neorealists, imposes a story on the nonprofessional actors and composes the beautiful shots, but, partially because of the length of the film, he allows the story to develop organically. It is as if you are watching the village breath. Aside from a few fight scenes there is hardly anything that one might call melodramatic about La terra trema. It is a small, big film. I have developed a great deal of respect for the Italian storytellers Visconti, Rossellini and de Sica. I look forward to delving deeper into their work and reading more background materials. I think that a filmmaker in America on a tight budget could find lots of ideas for new films by adapting the neorealist approach to North America:  Smaller stories; less melodrama.   In spite of his leftist political leanings, Visconti did not try to romanticize the poor villagers.  He acknowledges that any improvements that might come will take a long time.  Rossellini takes a similar stance towards the villagers in Stromboli.

My viewing over the New Year's holiday also included Sciuscià [Shoe Shine] (1946) and Umberto D. (1952) by de Sica, and Bellissima (1951) by Visconti. My head is reeling with images of post-war Italy. More later.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Few Italian Films

I'm overdoing it right now with films. I think I can imagine what it must be like to be an alcoholic, because I have the same unhealthy tendencies with art and the internet. I go through phases of not watching films, but then, one film and I can't stop for weeks or months. In between the films that I've mentioned here, I've seen numerous other rented films and TV movies. Fräulein Bloggerboy has turned out to be a big film buff herself, going to the theater it seems like once a week. I've seen a pretty broad range of current chick flicks thanks to her, and for that I am grateful (and try not to snicker too much when bad scenes happen). Bloggerboy Junior also can be persuaded to watch an old Western or crime film with us. Sometimes we sneak in a great film or two for them to watch, but try not to overdo it.

In the last 24 hours I watched Roberto Rossellini's Paisà (1946) and Stromboli (1950) and Luchino Visconti's La terra trema (1948) , and I read a few essays on the period and the directors.

I've always been attracted to Rossellini's post-war "docu-drama" trilogy, having seen Rome, Open City (1945) once or twice and Germany Year Zero (1948) several times.  Paisà is the second in the series, a collection of short films that basically follow the progress of the Allied forces north after their 1943 landing.  Given their documentary value, I think I've always ignored the filmmaking that went into the three films, not paying any attention to whether the music was too melodramatic or to the qualities of the acting or storyline.  Stromboli confronts a viewer like me head-on with all the underlying problems behind Rossellini's approach to filmmaking.  There is something about the way Rossellini shoots pictures that hurts my eyes.  My eyes keep wanting to force the picture to move one way or the other.  I don't know how much of this reaction is due to the constraints under which Rossellini made films (equipment, low budget) and how much is due to his self-imposed constraints or weaknesses, but my eyes are not satisfied by these films. 

Add Ingrid Bergman.  In Stromboli she plays a femme fatale named Karin.  Unable to gain passage to Argentina from an Italian refugee camp, Karin, a Lithuanian-born beauty -- from a rich family that lost everything to the Nazis -- who later hooked up with a Nazi officer to be able to enjoy life, takes up a spontaneous offer of marriage made by an Italian peasant from Stromboli who flirts with her across the barbed wire of the refugee camp.  The barbed-wire fence is a good metaphor for what Rossellini does to his viewers.  We are denied the sensuous feasting that we long for in a movie theater.  Cinema is a sensual, OK, a sexual experience.  (Pauline Kael did not write about "Losing it at the Movies" for nothing.)  Rossellini refuses to seduce us with his pictures.  He teases us with scenes of potential beauty only to move the camera to the next subject.  Of course, Ingrid Bergman breaks through the barbed wire to marry her peasant, and she seduces us throughout the film, all the while revealing the depths of her character's depravation, sometimes with only slight gestures.  Rossellini wants us to focus on what is happening to his main character ... and to reflect. 

Ingrid Bergman dominates Stromboli visually.  Not even the sea or the erupting volcano can compete, but her character is subdued by the cruelty and pettiness of the villagers, the viciousness of nature, and her own beastliness.  We lust after her but do not like her.  This is a masterful performance by Bergman.  Just as Humphrey Bogart is fascinating when he plays a bad guy, Bergman shines in her role as a woman for whom it is hard to feel pity when her frustrated husband slaps her.  The high point of the film is one of those mountain scenes that you might expect to find in a great literary work such as The Magic Mountain, when Karin flees the village using the volcano route as the volcano is still erupting.  First Karin loses her suitcase, then her purse, and then her composure.  I watched the ending scene twice to make sure that I understood at the end that she does not return to the village.  The original US version released had been so badly chopped that this was not clear.  Many critics still think she returned to the village.  It is possible that the full version that I saw, with its superimposed narration, also may steer the end in a direction that Rossellini intended to leave open.  Whatever, Karin is a changed person when she leaves the mountain.

Stromboli received terrible reviews when it originally appeared in the US.  Two of my major reference sources, including Ebert, do not list it as a major film.  On the other hand, I've come across several references to the film by noted critics claiming that it is a masterpiece.  I'm too much of an amateur to wager a final judgment on this film.  I know that I will continue to go back to watch Rossellini films, not because I "like" to watch them, but because I want to understand what he is doing and why, and because I admire his balanced, intelligent portrayal of characters and Italian society, and his attempt to develop his own film language, even if it may have failed.  As for Bergman, from the moment you first see her lying catlike on her bed in the refugee camp, to the last moment as she starts her march from the volcano, she is wonderful to watch.  Notice how she flirts with the fishermen or how she tries to seduce the village priest in order to pay her passage out of Stromboli.  With the slightest change in the angle of her head, or just a movement of her feet on the beach, she signals sexual willingness.  The next moment the camera catches her as Joan of Arc or Sister Mary, the sun shining on her hair, capable of no wrong.  Subtle, supple, sensational.  If nothing else, Stromboli is a love letter to Bergman, who was pregnant with Rossellini's child as the film was being made and whose character is pregnant at the end of the film.

I'll post about the Visconti film later.

Happy New Year, Frohes Neues Jahr, Bonne Année

Wow, I really did settle down for a long winter's nap.  Right before Christmas the batteries gave out and this Energizer Bunny came to a standstill.  I spent a peaceful, pleasant Christmas with the family here in Frankfurt.  I took two-hour naps as often as possible.  One night, I slept 14 hours straight.  As is so often the case, once you let yourself go after a period of stress, your resistance to colds diminishes.  I woke up on the 27th with the first sniffles.  I had planned a productive work week up to and including the 31st, but deep in my heart I longed for the shut-down I had initially scheduled but cancelled, the first break since January 2009.  And I got it.  I went back to bed, cancelled plans for a New Year's celebration, only sent out a few business e-mails, and slept and goofed at home the rest of the week.  There is absolutely nothing like a week or two of rest to regenerate the body and clear out the head.  Even as my cold was running its course, I could feel an inner peace and strength growing to get me ready for 2010.  All that rest also shortened the cold dramatically to the point where I should be fully-fit for work on Monday. 

2009 was a strange year, one of the few in the past decades when I found myself back in my American pattern of working through with no vacation.  The experience reinforced what I already knew, the added time spent at work is offset by reduced efficiency as your mind and body get worn down.  My plan for 2010 is for two to three weeks of low-stress "plopping" near water in the summer, plus maybe a three- to four-day bike trip along one of the German rivers, and then another quiet Christmas season with lots of naps.
As for my original blog mission statement, I've realized that simply keeping my eyes open is not enough.  It takes a conscious effort to establish and maintain priorities AND self-discipline to stick to those priorities, assuming that you decide not to revise them.  Life has a way of getting the upper hand and running you instead of you running it.  Instead of a new year's resolution, I'm posting my favorite quote from Thoreau to inspire me this year.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.

Big words, I know.  I'd rather fall on my face chasing those words than give up on them.  I'll never fully live up to them.  Mean or sublime, life is delicious.  All the best for 2010.