Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Personal Belongings That I Brought Home from Work After I Quit My Job Two Weeks Ago

Sis-Q Rollerz roller derby button

Oakland A’s button

Ugly avocado-green tape dispenser that I bought in 1981 so people would stop stealing tape dispensers off my desk

Nolan Ryan action figure

Page-Up paper holder with fake goldfish inside

8-ball keychain

Vegemite coffee mug

My grandmother’s brass letter opener with Pisces fishes on the handle

2 houseplants

6 notebooks detailing everything that happened in my last two jobs since May 2005

Post-It with the phone number of a man I like

Rusty railroad spike

Voodoo doll

Mechanical pencil

Glass jar for mixing protein shakes, with Italian sticker on it so people wouldn’t throw it in the recycling bin

Jar of Zinke Orchards almond butter

Jar of almonds

Button that says “Screw the e-book”

Button that says “Pet a Yorkipoo”

Bag of Stress Less herbs

Can of WD-40

Wonder Woman stamp

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Take This Job and Gently Put It Somewhere

 Oh, how I wanted to be Jerry Maguire. How I wanted to put a goldfish in a bag, tell the boss to shove it, right in front of the whole staff, and spirit myself and that innocent fish out of there into the open air. But of course Jerry Maguire didn’t quit; he was fired. And of course I wouldn’t put a goldfish in a bag unless it was in imminent danger.

But still, there were so many times, on so many jobs, when I wanted to make a scene and storm out the door. I wanted to shout “I quit!” and throw a sheaf of papers on the floor. Or buzz into the intercom system and sing, We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when… and walk away, all hips and swagger, giving the finger to the building on the way out.

Oh, how it has not gone like that.

I’ve quit a lot of jobs in my life, and not once have I made a scene. It’s not that I wasn’t tempted: The boss who patted my butt and tried to French-kiss me in the mailroom certainly deserved it. And the über-Christian co-workers who grumbled when I dared not to read the Bible in the lunchroom were good candidates. And as for the crazy-making, exasperating managers—I’ve worked for more than my share of those. But in spite of all that, when it came time to quit, I just couldn’t make the big exit. Instead, my quitting usually amounted to a short meeting with some paperwork exchanged, or a strained phone call with me telling my nit-picky, overbearing boss that it had been a pleasure working for her, and I’d send her a Christmas card. (I did.) In my dreams, I’m a bad-ass. But face to face—well, my mother would be proud. Good manners trump drama every time.

Except for once…almost. It was my dream job—I’d landed a gig as the manager of a riding stable, handling a small fleet of horses, teaching lessons, and greeting customers from a window cut into a very rustic tack room. There was no electricity, no running water…and, most of the time, nobody working there but me. This last bit turned out to be a problem. The owners were a young couple who fought a lot, and when they were mad at each other, they went their separate ways—often for days at a time. So, again and again, I found myself having to run the stable alone, with customers streaming in all day, and horses to be watered and rested and re-tacked, and the phone ringing, and the cash box never coming out right. It was a gigantic juggling act, way too much work for one person. And the pay was terrible.

So I started rehearsing a little talk I was going to have with the owners about this. And one day, it was the right time to do it: I won’t go into the story now—suffice it to say that my day featured a rampaging pit bull, an injured child, and a hungry chicken, and it still ranks as my Worst Day Ever, on Any Job. And when the wife-owner returned late that afternoon, mellow and dreamy after a day of hiking or shopping or whatever the hell she’d been doing all day, I was ready to shoot off like a Roman candle, and that entire speech that I’d been rehearsing flew out of my mouth at about 200 miles an hour, right in her face. I think I may have actually spat on her a little. I ended my tirade by saying that the job was not what I’d signed up for, and I didn’t even like it anymore. That last part came as a surprise even to me.

The effect wasn’t what I expected. In my rage-addled brain, I thought she’d be chagrined, that she’d admit she’d been a bad boss and had made a terrible mistake. Maybe she’d give me flowers or something; certainly a raise. But, to my surprise, her face darkened and she hissed, “If that’s the way you feel, how about if we make today your last day?” Bewildered, I said, “Fine.” She peeled a few bills out of the cashbox and handed them to me as my last day’s pay. Then we busied ourselves with putting away the tack and letting the horses out to their pasture, all in silence. Eventually, her husband arrived, and he was solicitous and kind, as he often was. Then the wife explained to him, with a fake cheery smile, that I’d decided to move on. “Gosh,” he said, “that’s too bad. Well, let’s have a drink.” Then, to my amazement, he whipped up a batch of margaritas in the RV that sat next to the tack room, and the three of us sat down in patio chairs in the dusty canyon and drank to each other’s health. We had a long, slow talk about nothing in particular. It was nice. I was reminded that I liked these people. And I felt bad about the yelling. But the die was cast, and it would have been awkward to change my mind just then. And I got the sneaking feeling that it wasn’t the first time they’d done this—that people had quit suddenly on them before, and they knew the drill.

So that was my sort-of big scene. The music didn’t swell; the crowd didn’t cheer. I drove home and tugged off my boots and took a long, hot bath. I didn’t regret quitting—I knew they’d taken advantage of me, and I was proud that I’d spoken my mind. It just wasn’t a Hollywood ending; it was…complicated. Later, I found another job that, like that one, was not simple and was not perfect. And since then, I’ve found that they’re all like that, to one degree or another—even the best ones, the ones I kept for a long time. And even in the worst ones, I still remember the look on my boss’ face when I reamed her out. And more than anything, I remember those margaritas, that quiet talk with two other human beings while the sun set over the canyon.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Book Fair: Still a Good Day

Yesterday I spent the day exhibiting my wares at the Oregon Book and Author Fair at the Jackson County Expo Fairgrounds in Central Point. This was my fifth year at the Book Fair, and 62 of us authors drove in from all over the state to do it. The day wasn’t without its challenges—the heating system in Padgham Pavilion was on the fritz, plunging the indoor temperature into the meat-locker range. And the County Expo—well, it’s a bit far off the beaten path for most book shoppers, so let’s just say the attendance was not robust. (Extra thanks to you visitors who did come.) The fair’s human-dynamo organizer, Trisha Barnes, managed to keep her composure even when her duties must have felt like herding cats, particularly when we writers all got together and set a Guinness World Record for “number of authors signing their books simultaneously.” (We pulled it off, even though we looked like a team of people assembling a 50-foot-long sandwich.)

I sold a few books, enough to pay for the table rental and the gas to get there. But, in my philosophy, book fairs aren’t about making money. They’re about getting your book in front of people, whether they buy it or not. And secondly, they’re about spending time with other authors, most of whom are in the same boat you’re in—trying to catch the wave of e-book technology without getting the wind knocked out of them, submitting their books to prize-selection committees, and learning the publishing business by the seat of their pants.

So, with a lot of time on our hands, we authors spent much of the day talking amongst ourselves. With Ken Lewis of Krill Press, I talked about Kindle vs. Nook formatting and his decision to turn away from the traditional author-agent-publisher triangle and start his own publishing house. I had a short chat with nonfiction writer Sue Lick, who posted a funny and candid recap of the fair on her blog today. I was happy to run into my tablemate from last year’s Douglas County Book Fair, novelist Bob Mayo, who wasn’t exhibiting but had made the drive down from Roseburg to see the fair. My favorite book of the day: To the Woods, horticulturalist Evelyn Hess’ award-winning memoir about her years living on 20 acres of wild land southwest of Eugene. And, with 14 of us poets exhibiting, there was plenty of time to trade poetry books, swap news, gossip, and debate the relative merits of New York Times vs. Oregonian crossword puzzles.

I also got to spend some quality time with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, whose table was next to mine. From Paulann I got a glimpse into the life of a state poet laureate—she tours like a rock star pretty much year-round, and, in spite of being a long way from home, she never lost her good cheer all through the chilly day. It made me wonder whether they stress-test candidates for Poet Laureate, much as they do with astronauts—whether they subject them to the literary equivalent of the G-force chair and the underwater space-walk simulation. I guess in a poet’s case, they’d have to coop them up with their spouse in a hotel for weeks on end, or strand them at the side of the road in a September blizzard.

After all that, while I was driving home and thawing out, I felt remarkably good. Despite having spent the day shivering and not selling as many books as I might have liked, this not-great day at the book fair was still a great day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Walking Around Talented

My friend Amie Tyler has a new blog. She e-mailed me yesterday, sweetly asking if I would mind if she put a link to my blog on hers. Being new to this blogging thing, she wasn’t sure if it was OK to do that without asking. I took the high road and did not grovel with gratitude. (“Oh, God, yes—please, please, please link to my site and I will get on a plane to wherever you are and paint your house.”)

So I toodled over to Amie’s blog, and…holy smokes, what a good blog. So far, she has just a few posts and two videos of her singing and playing guitar. (Actually she’s too shy to film herself singing, so for now it’s just audio.) Now, I’ve known Amie for 8 years or so, and I’m astonished that I didn’t know she did any of these three things: write, sing, or play guitar. And, even more astonishing, she’s excellent at all three—like bestseller good, like Shawn Colvin good. So now I’m bombarding her with embarrassing e-mails about how great she is. I already knew she was wonderful—you can’t spend two years in a book group with somebody, eating Chinese food and drinking martinis, unless you think they’re pretty wonderful. But I had no idea she had so much talent. I mean, she was sitting right there in front of me the whole time!

This makes me think about people in general, about how each of us is a walking encyclopedia of cool stuff, each a very different and very interesting universe. I’m reminded of it every time I go to an open mike where singer/songwriters are up there, strumming their guitars and doing their thing. Like poetry open mikes, those shows suffer their fair share of scratchy, tone-deaf exhibitionists. But every once in a while, somebody gets up there—usually the least likely person, the beanpole high-school girl or the smoke-smelly guy with the sailor hat—and the next thing I know, my jaw has dropped open and I’m sitting there with tears in my eyes because this person is just so damned good. This person, like my friend Amie, is just walking around every day with all that talent inside them? How is that possible? Shouldn’t it register, like some color on the spectrum? Shouldn’t they trail a stream of it as they go by?

I used to get a similar feeling when I was spending a lot of time at the assisted-living place where my dad used to live. To overcome my sick-old-folks phobia, I’d go with him down to the dining room at lunch and talk with his tablemates. I did this dozens of times, and I’m telling you, it was never, ever dull—those people were so freakin’ interesting. Once I said hello, smiled, asked where they were from, and managed to tune in to what they were saying over whatever impairment they had—a stroke, or Parkinson’s, or a tracheotomy—I was astounded to learn that these people, every one of them, had led fascinating lives. At the time, I also ran a reading group at a senior center, and it was the same way there—these people had lived all over the world, ranched inhospitable land, danced with stars, and worked in the White House. And to top it off, almost all of them had a wicked sense of humor.

It’s so easy to walk through my days, elbowing past people on the street, interacting with them at work just enough to answer a question or say hello. It’s easy to think of people as being the sum of what they say, or what I see. But sometimes something comes along, like Amie’s blog, that reminds me that each of us is a practically infinite soup of possibilities. While not every one may be to our taste, it’s pretty miraculous anyway. Bon appétit.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Poem: When I See the Heart

for Danny

Mine swallowed the dark.
Tonight it’s a blood-red velvet moon,
forgetful of the hour.

Yours is a many-limbed
med-school toy: yellow for valve,
blue aorta, rusty blood
on a wild water ride.

The surgeon is young.
The surgeon is old.
There are so many surgeons,
so much metal,
the shot clock sending its stick
around and around. Shoot,
it says. Air it out.
It says, Nothing ventured.

The heart is every little engine: the cat’s
sure flutter; the great horse
with the hammer inside;
your delicate, rushed, bone-bound
flywheel fresh from the book
of miracles. All

stop in time, watch
unwound, somber moon set
over a quiet field,
bright just hours ago.

Posted for OpenLinkNight #12, dVerse Poets Pub

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Comfort Video: Epidemic-Style

Epidemic movies, how do I love thee? For some reason, when the going gets tough, I like to curl up with a disease movie—even a bad one—where some poor schlub brings a virus back from overseas. Before long, a lot of people are red-eyed and sweaty, and a character we care about dies in a plastic tent, and some clumsy pathologist infects himself by breaking a beaker or ripping a hole in his hazmat suit. Why, oh why, is this all so entertaining? I mean, if anything like that really happened to me, I’d hate it. The insurance paperwork alone would ruin my week.

Today I saw Contagion, the latest epidemic movie, and an all-star one to boot. I fully expected to love it—I mean, it’s got Steven Soderbergh with his signature glowy lighting, and Matt Damon in his everyman mode, and scary-smart Jennifer Ehle. But I can’t decide whether I love this movie or merely like it—because it’s too good. Specifically, it’s too real, and it lacks the all-important cheese factor: There’s no villain who gets fired by the indignant president; nobody has to rappel out of a helicopter onto a heaving cargo ship. No, this one unfolds slowly, letting us get attached to the characters and creeping us out with the garbage piling up in the streets and looters overrunning a small Minnesota town. And the mysterious virus doesn’t look like some preposterous bug we’ll never get, but in fact it looks a lot like the Spanish Flu (see below), which was very real, and very, very bad. Contagion hits too close to home, which, for me, takes all the zip out of a disaster movie. This could actually happen? Not fun at all!

Here, then, are some of my favorite fun disease movies—scary-fun in some cases, and campy-fun in others.

Outbreak (1995). No disease-movie list would be complete without this cheesefest starring Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr., both of whom chew the scenery like bulimics at a buffet. It’s got everything: an infected monkey roaming the countryside, a helicopter chase, a young and wry Kevin Spacey, and a nuclear detonation. And, as a big added bonus, it’s got my former 4-H friend from Westfield, Mass., Michelle Joyner*, playing a housewife who gets infected and is then hustled off to quarantine, which, in this movie, means certain death. And we get Hoffman and Gooding trading dialog that they seem to have made up during the walk over from the makeup trailer. Not that it matters.

Quiet Killer, a.k.a. Black Death (1992). Never heard of this one? You’re not alone—it was a TV movie starring Kate Jackson at her sensible best, and it disappeared so quickly and completely that you can’t even get it on Netflix. (A “collectible” copy lists on Amazon for almost $200.) It involves a young woman who comes back sick from a trip (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and infects most of New York City with pneumonic plague, a deadly sister disease of bubonic plague. The highlight, aside from the usual pleasures of people coughing up blood and packed like sardines into hospital hallways, is epidemiologist Jackson peering into the corners tenement buildings with a flashlight and declaring in her flat Alabama accent, “This is the same disease that infected half of Europe during the Middle Ages. Haaaff.”

Children of Men (2006). Sci-fi and a disease movie? Shoot me now, ’cause I’m in heaven already. But this is a disease movie of a different stripe, with the mysterious illness long past. The story is about the disease’s aftereffect: No one on Earth can conceive children anymore. That wonderfully simple premise drives this scary plot, and no one is more scared than our reluctant hero, Clive Owen, who gets dragged through terrorist bomb-blasts, riots, and anarchy that’s hammering away at the foundations of civilization, looking all the while like he just wants to go home. This movie is right up there with Minority Report and 12 Monkeys in its depiction of an unhinged, dystopian near-future.

American Experience: Influenza 1918 (2006). Okay, this one isn’t comforting at all. It’s a genuinely frightening documentary about one of history’s worst pandemics—one so recent that my late Aunt Helen remembered it. (She was fond of saying that she didn’t know if she lost her sense of smell during the Spanish flu pandemic, or when she poured a bottle of perfume up her nose.) This flu, of course, was the mother of them all, and the prototype for many a disease-disaster movie. This was the flu that infected a third of the world’s population, killed more than 50 million people, and caused such high fevers that it turned Katherine Anne Porter’s hair white for the rest of her life. Influenza 1918 scared the socks off me, mostly because of the punchline: No one ever figured out how to cure the Spanish Flu, and then it just went away. Meaning that it could just come back.

*Double bonus: Michelle Joyner was also in Cliffhanger, where she got killed off in the first reel. She’s a rock climber who gets stuck, and Sylvester Stallone tries to rescue her on some sort of improbable zip wire, and then he drops her. The accident then haunts him through the rest of the movie. (I think that’s “haunted” he’s playing; it’s hard to tell.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Poem: Boy with a Lost Shoe

for Mason

Already she mourns the summer,
the creek riding past, waving,
looking back over its shoulder,

her son with a tentative stick
in sand, uncertain of what to draw,
his pants a bunched elastic.

Already the swings have emptied
of the pushy girls. The dogs drag
their late-day leashes home.

She brought so few raisins,
impractical apples he dropped,
bothered by bees.

Madrones gripping their leaves,
the light on its August slant—
when did the trunks go red?—

and her son has lost a shoe
somewhere in the long afternoon
and he peers for it deep

in the cold-breath blackberries
lining the path he walks
so carefully, looking back
to see if she is watching.

Posted for OpenLinkNight #8, dVerse Poets Pub

(appeared in Alehouse)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Books and the Boots

I just sized down to a smaller house. It’s a good thing—a decision, a life plan. The house I was in was too large and too expensive, and I found a smaller one that I could actually own and not rent. All good.

But along with the excitement of a new place came the thing that I’ve done a jillion times but have never mastered: moving. I always think I travel light; I don’t have that much stuff. And then I spend a couple of weeks touching every single thing I own. By about day 2, I can’t believe how much crap I’ve accumulated. If I have to look through another box of mason jars or user’s manuals or letters from the 1980s, I might actually puke.

This time, the move was largely about books—namely, getting rid of them. Unlike the poet Thomas Lux, who once said that his ambition is to have 10,000 books by the time he dies, I think it’s possible to own too many books. These days, I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t actually read much. Since I’ve become an editor and have to read all day, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for reading when I get home. My shelves are filled with books that I haven’t read or didn’t finish. I also have a lot of reference books, but that’s a habit that I’m glad to have. I think it’s good for a writer to have a copy of Royce’s Sailing Illustrated and The Atlas of American History close at hand.

So there I was a few weeks ago, going through my bookshelves and closets, packing the “keeper” stuff in banker’s boxes and tossing the “get rid of” items in big, unwieldy boxes destined for Goodwill. I loaded up one Goodwill box with about 15 horse books, along with an old velvet hard hat and three pairs of riding boots. Now I was really making progress—vestiges of my childhood were sloughing away like unwanted pounds. I’d been carrying those horse books around since the 1970s—picture books like Horse Fever and Clear Round! and Steeplechasing. I’d finally started to realize that I owned these books, but I didn’t use them, and that wasn’t right. Their intended purpose—to be read and looked at by 12-year-olds—wasn’t being fulfilled. I pictured some little girl finding them at Goodwill and going gaga over them. Or maybe her mother or grandmother would buy them for her, as my mother and grandmother did for me. They’d make some kid happy. So it was easy—into the Goodwill box they went.

But the riding boots didn’t go quite so easily. One pair was only about 10 years old, and I’d spent more than $100 on them—beautiful black knee-high field books with lace-up ankles—but they didn’t fit over my calves anymore. (I kept thinking, what fat person gave me these calves?) Another pair were my “good” cowboy boots, ornately carved in beautiful chestnut leather, that I’d nearly worn holes in when I worked at a riding stable years ago. I couldn’t even get my feet in them, they were so small. And then there were the hardest of all to part with: my beautiful brown, calf-high English jumping boots that I bought about 25 years ago, that also didn’t fit anymore. I’d bought them when I took up riding again—jumping, in particular—with a vengeance in my 20s. So many of my dreams and ambitions were embodied in those satin-smooth boots—the Olympics and the U.S. Equestrian Team; of training show jumpers and owning a ranch. I’d wanted so badly to be worthy of those boots.

I sat and looked at them for a long time, at the worn spots where the stirrups had rubbed the finish thin, and the faint bubbles of horse sweat from years past. The thing that really stung was that those dreams all went unrealized. I could never quite figure out how to make a life with horses. One thing I did figure out was that it took a lot of money. Having even one horse takes a lot of dough; having a sick one, as I did when I was a teenager, can be life-changingly expensive. My family wasn’t rich, and I found out that a catastrophic horse injury or illness can pretty much bankrupt you and force you to sell your horse. I don’t know if I could go through that heartbreak again, that guilt. I have never really come to terms with it. And that hard lesson was all wrapped up in those boots.

But I kept coming back to the fact that those beautiful jumping boots didn’t fit anymore. I knew I should pass them along to someone who would take good care of them, make good use of them. But that’s a bloody uncertain thing, sending your ambitions and visions along to another person. I steeled myself and lifted the box of boots and horse books, getting ready to take it out to the car—and I just couldn’t do it. I put it back down. Physically, it weighed maybe 10 pounds. Emotionally, it might as well have been an aircraft carrier. I had to just leave it there. I busied myself with other rooms, other closets and bookshelves. A few hours later, I went back and looked through that box—and it was transformed back into just books and a hard hat and some riding boots that some kid would be thrilled to have. Then it was easier—out to the car with it, a short drive to Goodwill, a quick handover to the nice guy at the loading dock. It was just a box with beautiful brown boots lying there, dreaming and remembering.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Poem: Crocheting in Four Steps

1. The Color

Know this: You
will end up hating it. Half-
done, the blanket will wind
through your sleep
in marled blue, horse-blanket
blue, a shower of chaff
in the barnlight,
red-flecked like the roan
you dreamed of riding. You wake
to solid white.

2. The Hook

An oar pulling the water. Pull
the face of it through, pull
the night behind you. Set
the face of it down. Rest.
Your hands must learn
the language of water, where
it ends, where the air begins,
where the dock is waiting,
stoic, hushed, a placid pole
that wants the rope.

3. The Knot

Build them alike, and they’re
an auspicious chain, as if
you never planned to pull them apart, as if
the knot were the aim and not
a mistake made over.

4. The Wool

Try not to think. The world is full
of things like this. In the morning,
you know the sheep are rising
like everyone else, and that
is living enough. At night, try not
to think of shears, or pens,
or moonlight speckled
through a ruined roof. Say
if they lived with you, you’d
take only what they brushed off
on a bush. You’d watch them
from the house,
clipping the hills like razors.
You’d never presume
to call them yours.

Posted for OpenLinkNight #5, dVerse Poets Pub

(appeared in Rattapallax)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Comfort Video, Disaster-Style

The other night I got home from work, exhausted and out of sorts. I was debating what to do with my tired-ass evening when I saw just the ticket—some cable station was showing Deep Impact at 7:00. Perfect! It’s my favorite kind of comfort video—a disaster movie. There’s something wonderfully escapist about doomsday flicks; my own troubles always seem smaller when I consider the fact that I don't have to pack my car and head for the Southern Hemisphere like those poor schlumps on the screen. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Deep Impact, or chunks of it, and that got me to thinking about other movies that I watch over and over and never get tired of. They aren’t by any means my favorite movies; strangely, most of my favorite ones (The New World, Minority Report, L.A. Confidential) are so stressful that I can’t watch them very often. No, these comfort movies are different—they may not be great cinema, but I love them and I end up putting them on again and again like a pair of warm flannel pajamas. So here are the first three comfortfests that spring to mind, starting with the aforementioned Téa Leoni classic. Now that I see these in a list, I notice that they all have very strong female leads. Apparently when I want comfort video, I also want feminism.

Deep Impact. This is the one about the comet that’s on a collision course with the Earth (not to be confused with Bruce Willis’s hamfisted Armageddon, released the same year, which starred an asteroid and Ben Affleck’s fake teeth). What I love most about Deep Impact is how we see the disaster unfolding from the viewpoint of Téa Leoni’s greenhorn TV reporter—she’s the one who shows us what’s at stake, all in the way her hands shake as she clips a microphone to her lapel, or how she chugs a martini during an awkward get-together with her father and his new wife, who are oblivious to the looming disaster. The movie also got stellar performers for the smaller parts—Maximillian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, James Cromwell, Robert Duvall. This movie’s full of good scenes, so I can tune in at any point and watch a half hour and enjoy it. But seen in its entirety (2-1/2 hours), it’s surprisingly touching—it makes me cry in all the sucker spots. The Duvall subplot is the only thing that holds on too long, and there’s a car accident in the first reel that feels completely gratuitous (you can practically hear somewhere at the script meeting saying, “If only it had a fiery crash in the first five minutes.”) And by the end, I’m always playing a game with myself—name any other good movie that Téa Leoni made. (I looked up her filmography just now. Thank goodness for Ricky Gervais’s Ghost Town.)

Contact. Confession time: I usually can’t make it past the part where they figure out the alien Rosetta Stone. And though it's not technically a disaster film, up to that point, Contact is everything I love in a movie—an ambitious sci-fi plot; the biggest discovery in the history of humans; an obsessed, socially challenged female scientist (Jodie Foster); and even Matthew McConaughey, before he got ground down to a soft powder by all those romantic comedies. Again, the best part is seeing the thrill of the story—somebody out there is trying to talk to us—through the eyes of Jodie Foster’s character. In fact, the first, crucial moment of discovery—when Foster hears that pulsing screech in her headphones—is played out in an extreme close-up of her eyes, which suddenly fly open. And then it’s all headlong, techie bliss as she throws her laptop in her old convertible and fishtails across the desert, yelling right ascension and declination numbers into her walkie-talkie to her napping crew back at the SETI lab. Later, after they crack the code on the alien transmission and figure out what the message says, they lose me with the fanatic preacher guy, and the weirdly gratifying death of Tom Skerritt, and a few clumsy forays into religion vs. science. But the charm of the movie is that it’s a love letter to the universe penned by the always upbeat Carl Sagan, who was a treasure—sort of a Gene Roddenberry for the real world.

Twister. This one is pure guilty pleasure. I know the special effects are cheesy, and houses don’t actually roll like tumbleweeds. And the way they call the benign, doughy Bill Paxton “The Extreme” makes me wonder what actor that line was originally written for. But I love the way the two women play off each other. There’s Jami Gertz, with her pretty teeth and terrified-deer eyes, playing—let’s face it—the sane one. And then there’s Helen Hunt in her wifebeater tank-top, basically playing a hyperactive ten-year old, with just a touch of oil-rig worker. And there’s poor Bill Paxton in the middle, getting smacked by both of them, and then by Mother Nature as well. He sort of saves the day, but Helen Hunt saves it too. And handsome-but-evil Cary Elwes gets his comeuppance (I like to imagine him yelling “By…your…leave!” as he’s sucked into the tornado). But of course the actual twisters are what move the movie along—pretty much one for every scene, more of them than most storm-watchers get near in a lifetime. And a special shout-out to Alan Ruck, who is sweetly memorable in everything he does, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Eureka to—again—Ghost Town.

More later.