Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hairy Houdini and Other Reflections from Housesitting

I should write a book about this.

What is story? It's easy to get too compartmentalized with regards to story, like saying that books and movies are different from journalism and different from what happens when you come home from work and tell your spouse about your day. These are all stories, my friends, and the best and most interesting stories are ones in which unexpected things happen.

I housesit a lot, which suits me because I don't mind getting paid to read and work at someone else's house. Yes, there's more to it than that like watering plants, walking dogs, and the like, but it's just a lifestyle change for a temporary amount of time. I used to say that it was easy money. 

Past tense.

Because things happen when I housesit, and I guess looking back, weird things have always happened to me while housesitting. There was the time that the fire alarm beeped due to low battery which freaked out the little dogs resulting in one pooping all over the bed and the other running through it. Yeah, that was fun. And then there was the time when I took the trash out on a summer night and the door locked behind me so I had to traverse barefoot around the woods to get through the back door which I knew I had left unlocked. And then there was the snowy night when at 9pm someone was repeatedly ringing the doorbell. In the past, however, these have been just funny stories that I share around a campfire. 

But why do we read books? And what's the difference in reading a book around the campfire as opposed to telling stories around the campfire? 

I'm currently housesitting for Hairy Houdini. Yes, this dog waits until I'm not home to find the one place in the fence where he can somehow sneak through. On day one of my stay, the neighbor called because he'd gotten out so I had done as much fence repair as I could. Aside from pooping in the house, the rest of the stay has gone on uneventfully. Yesterday I was home all day, had a bit of a book-hangover as I'd stayed up until about 1am finishing Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and I started The Road by Cormac McCarthy after writing a few articles and grading for my online class. I thought the most unpleasant the day got was when I stepped in one of the yard's land mines, but then the next door neighbor got home and told me about Hairy Houdini getting out. After some conversation, I discerned that he's still been getting out, but she's been putting him back in the yard. We both mended the fence after some trouble-shooting, and then I went to dinner. In the hour and a half I was gone, Houdini got out of the yard 4 times. Yeah, um, I've since placed a long two-by-four in that gap so that he doesn't keep jumping that corner of the fence. We'll see if it works. 

But this isn't nearly as interesting of a story as two weeks ago when I was housesitting for a different family and the neighbors called the cops on me. Evidently dogs don't like when the fire alarm beeps due to low battery. I've already mentioned what ensued a few years ago when it happened, but this time I awoke to find the dogs sleeping outside without even entertaining the thought of going inside for breakfast. I only had a little bit of time before church started, so I ran outside, found a latter that was, of course, covered in spiderwebs and since it's early still, the spiders were moving along nicely on those webs killing and eating moths, etc. Gross. So I found a broom, brushed them off, carried the ladder inside the house aaaaaaaand it wasn't tall enough. Of course. So I took the ladder back outside (the spiderwebs were all re-built by mid afternoon), and tried to think of another option that didn't involve calling the homeowner's brother at 7:30 in the morning. Then I remembered that there was a sliding ladder alongside the other side of the house. I evicted the spiders again, and then realized that the ladder was too long to weed through the narrow hallways of the house to get to the master bedroom. Ta-da: I removed the window screen and led it through the window. This is when the neighbors called the police, because it's not natural for a stranger in a polka-dotted dress to be leading a ladder through a window at 7:45 on Sunday morning. After a dangerous climb and replacing a battery that was so far out of my reach that I couldn't even look at it as I did it, I accomplished the goal, replaced the screen and the ladder, and rushed off to be late for church, passing the police cars on my way out of the neighborhood. It wasn't until later that I realized that 1) I could have called the fire department to change it for me, or 2) that there was a curtained screen door around the corner in the master bedroom, so I could have gone through the screen door instead of removing the window screen. Oh, well. 

Maybe I've told these stories too many times by now, but isn't that indicative of a good story? The details, now, have been gone over so many times that I won't forget them. It's told in the traditions of The Iliad or The Odyssey, verbal and with memory, not altogether different from written versions of those same stories. And here these housesitting stories are now written down, too.

Kristen Kauffman, housesitter
Average duties: walking and feeding dogs, watering plants, running out garbage barrels, checking the mail, and doing the dishes and the laundry at end of stay.

Additional duties: Washing floors and furniture that have been pooped or barfed on, picking up pieces of lamps that have been chewed, mending fences, fixing fire alarms, fixing windows, transporting animals from neighbor's house down the block back to home, calling the Humane Society, receiving calls from Animal Control and the Police Department, and escorting uninvited crazy neighbors from inside the house.

Will charge extra for: items been chewed beyond repair such as phone cords and shoes. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jury Duty Meets The Thin Man

Other jurors hate me -or I guess to be more accurate they love me, because by saying that I want to be selected, they don't have to be. Today, I had jury duty and there I was, the cheerful prospective member with my journal and my vending machine coffee, bright-eyed and nerding-out about the possibility to exhibit my Sherlockian skills.

Yes, I did seriously think that.

I opened my journal to even write that thought down when the gentleman next to me commented on my being left-handed. He's left-handed, too, so we talked about hating pencils, 3-ring binders, and my penchant for fountain pens as I smear ink far less than with a gel-pen or a ball-point pen. Then I caught myself confessing: "And, as you can imagine, my left hand is stronger, so when I use the typewriter, you can always tell which letters are on the left side because I press the letters harder and the ink is darker because-" I was about to explain the technique of keys and typewriter ribbons, but seeing he was older (I would learn later that was 64), I said instead, "Well, you know."

"Say," he replied, "That would be a really interesting detective clue; you know, the detective reads the finished paper and then knows that the criminal was right or left handed depending on how strong the ink is for those letters."

"Ooh, I should write that down," I replied. "I could use that." And therein led to confessing my deep, dark secret: not only am I a writer, but I actually want to be selected for this jury. So when the Jury Commissioner led us through our rights and expectations, she reached one point that said, "You may not do any personal investigation, including visiting any of the places involved in this case, using Internet maps or Google Earth, talking to any possible witnesses, or creating your own demonstrations or reenactments of the events which are the subject of this case." He chuckled and raised an eyebrow at me. 

I hereby declare that I, Kristen Marie Kauffman, will not attempt to be Sherlock Holmes, that I do not have high-functioning Aspergers, I don't have a French accent like Hercule Poirot, and I do not arrive uninvited to people's homes like Miss Marple. 

I did, however, refrain from getting the mystery novel out of my purse, and I said nothing of having recently finished reading The Thin Man or having watched the movie last night. Suffice to say, I may be like Myrna Loy, though, and may coyly be more observant and smarter than I look. 

Did I get selected? Yes, I'm supposed to report back next Wednesday. What case am I on? I can't tell you that part, silly. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Film Adaptations

I'm not gonna lie: I usually hate book to film adaptations. It's not merely the obvious I-can-imagine-it-so-much-better problem, but the omission and reshuffling of plot points. The amalgams of characters. The simplification of driving questions. *sigh Really, people?

Perhaps the films I've been the most disappointed with claim to be Wuthering Heights. I don't know what book they opened, but the book I read had passion and an undying love, albeit crazy and vengeful. Cathy, though careless, was graceful. Heathcliff, though crazy, loved Cathy so much that it controlled the rest of his life (and his children's lives). This is classic Romantic Era drama: the heroes make really stupid mistakes but still manage to be noble. Nobility, however, has evaded cinema; The 1939 Laurence Olivier version ended with Cathy dying, cutting out half of the plot. The 1970 Timothy Dalton version made my fall asleep, and the 1992 Ralph Fiennes version seemed to cut only my favorite lines from the book but portrayed Heathcliff as certifiably crazy and Cathy as a manipulative wench. Come on, people.

To be fair, I haven't seen the 2011 version or the 2009 Tom Hardy version, though admittedly I'm dragging my feet on seeing them because as long as I haven't seen them, they might actually be good. (I'm secretly hoping they are.)

But I have been surprised recently.
My first surprise was Life of Pi.  At first I had zero intention on
seeing it, especially when I found out it was going to be in 3D -typically a craze reserved for capes, flying webs, explosions, and robots supposed to be intelligent but reassure us that they're not via juvenile humor. Since the book didn't contain any of these, why should I see it in 
3D and thus encourage studio makers to participate in stories with no plot? Beyond that, I loved the book so much that I didn't want my memory to be replaced by a bad adaptation. 

But when someone whose opinion I respect said not only that it was good but that it was loyal to the book, Okay, I'm in. I just watched it again the day before yesterday and I was reminded with its loyalty. While Ang Lee reshuffled a few minor details, the main points are there, and he actually (dare I say) enhanced the plot by making the Author's
Note into it's own storyline. Brilliant. And through that Author's Note, the powerful and story-changing end really sings. Reluctantly I went to see it in 3D and was reminded that this is why we see movies in this novelty: it's not enough to carry the film (as superhero, action, and children's movies often depend on), but it is enough to enhance the plot and to make the images breathtaking. It was worth it. And with Ang Lee's gorgeous design style, is it possible that I like the movie even more than the book? Nah. Because even the beautiful movie omitted graceful lines such as: "That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?"Another: "If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?" Yet another and possibly my favorite: "If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

But one movie was able to capture the narration that I felt was omitted in the previous likable 
adaptation: The Great Gatsby was a very pleasant surprise. Baz Luhrmann has given us movies like Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, movies that -though I love them- start with fast-paced high adrenaline and then chill out, movies with loud, pumping music, and climaxes that surprise me in spiteful contrast to their beginnings. I've also noticed that Luhrmann loves characters who run and characters who shout. I know that we as writers need the main character to want something desperately for the tension to be interesting, but there's only so much running and shouting you can observe before it's a clear pattern. That was what the trailer portrayed: running and shouting. Great. Then it came out and I brought to the theater a class of excited, fidgety high schoolers after a half
They dressed up in 20's dresses and feathers, I nerded out about wanting to marry the handsome Mr. DiCaprio (if you're one of my readers, sir, send me an email *wink), and though I swore I would reserve my expectations, I had high ones. The movie met them, pleasantly, and (again, dare I say) exceeded them. I think this could be the most loyal book to film adaptation that I've ever seen. (Gasp.) It was well-paced and genuine, the narration was graceful without being stilted, and while the music involves hip-hop, it's roots are Gershwin. I loved it. Does that come through? I'm being sarcastic, because I realize my review is a stellar one, but it was so much more involved than the 1974 Robert Redford version omitted almost all of Gatsby's backstory. Not only did Luhrmann include, well, everything except for a few infinitesimally minor scenes and one minor character, but he also did so much research that it couldn't help but to be inspired. In fact, Luhrmann and his wife said in the New York Times the week before the movie premiered that the research was almost more fun than shooting the movie. I think I would agree with that. One more thing: I was likewise reserved when I heard that Gatsby was going to be in 3D, and, well, again there are no tights or capes or idiotic robots in the book so I was reluctant to indulge. However, I was pleasantly surprised. While I forgot about halfway through that I was watching a 3D film, there were certain green light scenes that were awe-inspiring.

So go see these fabulous films. I've seen Gatsby in the theater thrice, now. These films are why they adapt books into film. Movies like Wuthering Heights, on the other hand...