Allez allez allez Versailles!

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I did not know what to expect from our sojourn to Versailles when we headed out on 13 July. I was not surprised that we left an hour or so later than planned, but unaware of any real consequences that might have. At this point I was learning that Frenchie’s adherence to schedules and attachment to timing was really something of national pastime, not really just an individual idiosyncrasy of hers.

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I was also surprised at how close Versailles is to Paris, so my being perplexed over a delayed departure seemed silly (although the “arriving-at-the-station-just-as-a-train-had-departed phenomenon was getting tired.)

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I knew that this was the hometown of my Frenchie, and as we rode out to Versailles and back in time somewhat for her, I thought a lot about what I would show this group of my hometown, were they ever to travel to the international destination that is Petaluma. It is hard to imagine really, I mean, their coming to Petaluma and the things I might choose to show them. Of course, Petaluma is not home to one of the world’s most famous palaces, so I might be forced to think a little harder. Though, truth be told, I think having the palace made it more challenging for Frenchie to really show us what her hometown was like, because we were all like, “Oh my god look at the palace!” the whole time.

Oh, and we were hungry.

No one wanted to admit it really, because no one wanted to be a pain in the ass, but we were hungry – and a hungry mob is an angry mob. Now we were arriving in Versailles to find out that a) we were too late to rent bicycles in town (which had been another of those plans I was unaware of) and b) restaurants were closing for their midday break… save for McDonald’s. Add to this, Frenchie really wanted to give us a peek into her life, one I know Nic and I really wanted to see. But things were not flowing smoothly. I knew that we were going to picnic. Tthe French, as you can imagine, have their own take on this. Frankly (see what I did right there?) it is actually a far superior take on a picnic than we have here in the states, because it is just so “whatever” (read easy). There is generally very little planning, whatever food is around is gathered up, and you eat somewhere outside. Viola! Picnic. I also knew that we would be seeing some fireworks as the Bastille Day fête would be on the eve of 14 Julliet in Versailles.

As we wandered around looking for a suitable place to eat like a heard of Goldilocks (not too fancy, not too expensive, not too closed, not too not-French, not too touristy, not too fast-food) we contemplated just picnicking – or at least I did because I was carrying quite a bit of weight on my back with our wine supply and wondering when the picnic was going to happen.

What I did not know was that what Frenchie had in mind was: get bikes in town, ride around and see her old house and haunts, get some lunch, ride around the palace grounds, sunset picnic, see Frenchie’s flat, meet our friend Fred (who was our neighbor in HK and a friend of Frenchie’s since school in Versailles), see fireworks and head back to Clamart.

What Frenchie did not know was: we would arrive too late for bikes in town and lunch, her pals would be worried about when they would eat, the palace (not the grounds) would be closed because it was a Monday, and the grounds would close, oh, right around sunset.

What we all would come to realize is, that regardless that “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry,” it all works out in the end.

We wandered hungrily around town before finally settling on a ‘too touristy’ place for lunch. But it was not McDonald’s, so victory was ours. I actually really enjoyed my lunch. This could have been because I was starving (see Eddie Murphy and the saltine cracker) or it is just the reality that the worst French food is pretty damn good. I had an excellent quiche and salad, which I may or may not have mentioned is something that food-wise that the French do not understand: greens and vinaigrette is all you are going to see for salad, they simply do not understand how to use and combine vegetables without creme or cheese. Still, yum. Frenchie ordered something of a classic French meal that had random animal parts and sauce. I passed on giving it a go. She loved it. Of course. This is an enduring theme of our friendship: we are a great team for sharing because we have nearly universally opposite tastes in everything. It is really both peculiar and convent.

As a funny side note, we found a dime bag of weed under the table. It was hilarious to us for some reason, and we were quite beside ourselves with laughter, and then: wait, what should we do with it? After going through no end of what ifs, like what if it were a test or a trap, or what if we put it in our pockets or our bags and forgot about it and got stopped at the airport, or what if we just said fuck it let’s smoke it and it was laced with some hideous drug we had never heard of, we left it on the table.

We would be roundly chastised for this later.

Now with our belly’s full (a hungry mob is an angry mob) we headed through town making our way circuitously to the palace. We saw where Frenchie had lived as a child. I liked thinking of her here is this town, on that balcony. I wondered if we would have been friends back then. We walked along streets she knew so well and it reminded me of the feeling I get when I retrace steps so familiar with the fresh eyes of others: it brings up a special kind of acknowledgment of certain things that have contributed to making us “us”, I suppose that is nostalgia.

As we made our way to the palace I was getting excited. Louis XIV was a rather BAMF enlightened despot and I wanted to see the place that he had envisioned that has inspired so much petty emulation by others like Peter the Great and any number of cheap Vegas McMillionaires. I would not see the castle today as it was closed, which was a bummer on one hand because, duh: BLING. But also a bit of a relief since I would have been the only one of our group who wanted to go in and so, now there was no decision to be made.

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Regardless you get a pretty real sense of the place from the outside anyhow. I have always found the story of the Dauphine (Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette pretty interesting and it was really cool to walk around and try to imagine what it was like for these kids to be ensconced in this place. And the gardens… wow.

We got bikes here and so that was one obstacle cleared, off we went.

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There are not really words for the afternoon we spent cycling around the grounds of the palace of Versailles except to say that it was pretty special.

DSC_7652Once back from our ride we decided we would have an hour or so on our one and then meet up to picnic. I was told to be back around 7:30, if memory serves, and so off I went camera in hand. In this time alone I really got to explore and have some time to move at my own pace. Being the timely individual that I am I was punctually headed back to our rendezvous when I saw Frenchie coming at me. This was unusual because, well, she was on time, early even. She was overly relieved to see me, so I knew something was up. What was up was that the park was closing. and we were going to have to get out.

Ha. I laughed, that would be funny being locked in the Palace of Versailles, wouldn’t it? As it would happen, Frenchie had already done that long ago when she had spent her summers working at the palace (helluva summer job, no?) and she “knew” a guy whose dad ran things or something… she was quite cheeky in her omission of details around said guy, so I am going to have to follow-up on that story at some point… And somehow they got locked in. Yeah, clearly more of a story there, no? Anyhow, at this point we made it out.

Phew. And in true hometown fashion, we got picked up by her mom to take us back to town.

On arriving back in town the elusive picnic was soon to be had. And in what turns out to be the French picnicking way, we rocked up to a sweet little bench and ate our food. Just like that. And it was, like the riding around the palace oddly, surprisingly, perfect.

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All along Frenchie had been trying to meet Fred and it was looking like that might not happen. But as we walked back towards the action in the town square, suddenly, it was not just Fred, but what seemed like our whole village. It was a moment that would frame so much of my summer… here I was, somewhere far away from anywhere I knew, and in the midst of the people who had, without thought or warning, helped to create my life abroad. To have friends that are like family in this way is a gift. To recognize it, all the better.

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And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.

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My First Yoga Retreat.

*** Author’s Note:  I began writing this post on July 1, two days after I came back from Mexico. But then I realized I had to do a few other things and here it sat. Until now. But hey, who doesn’t love a good flashback?

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As we rode towards the center (we thought) of Cancun, SP and I clearly felt confused. This in and of itself was confusing because we are both well travelled and SP is a native Mexican and so a simple bus ride into to town should not leave us nonplussed. As we rolled by an Outback Steakhouse I said, “Shoot me now.” This comment caught the attention of a young gringa in front of us who told us we “just had to go to the Montero Steak House because it was so authentic” with such earnestness I almost felt like she needed a hug (the restaurant appears to be German owned, for what it’s worth).

When we finally stepped off the city bus in the part of Cancun that everyone apparently thought we were trying to find we looked at each other and looked around, and had no idea what the heck was happening. Eventually we got a map and saw – to some degree – what had gone wrong. Simply wanting an easy night out, maybe a margarita, on our last night in Mexico after thirteen amazing days in Xcalak & Tulum, we had asked every wrong person where to go and thus stumbled into a Samuel Beckett-like evening of absurdity.

Walking along a weird avenue that backed up to gigantic mega-hotels with water on either side of us and not a bar or restaurant in sight, our confusion increased. Eventually we reached the part of the “Riviera” where we were told the bars and restaurants were. It was a full frontal assault of awful that nearly had us breaking into a full sprint to escape.

By the time we reached The Fiesta Americana we were just like, “Get us to an air-conditioned hotel bar away from this hideousness.” And so we found one and sat down.

But they had no food.

So we went to another restaurant in the hotel someone recommended. We sat down in a lovely little spot and ordered drinks. And then were told that the only meal option was a buffet.

Are you kidding me?

So off we went to another restaurant in the same hotel. It was Mexican. How bizarre. It was a totally odd place with super high ceilings and even more super loud mariachis. But they had food and a/c.

By the time we left we were ready to spend every last peso on a taxi home just to get out of Cancun and back to our airport hotel. I can’t really say if Cancun itself was so bad, but the Zona Hoteleria was vile, and our sensibilities were not ready for it after two weeks of bliss.

Which brings to light the point of this post: The Bliss. Our yoga retreat and entry into to said retreat were amazing. So amazing in fact, that the weirdest night I have ever had in Mexico (and I have had some doozies) could not even dispel the amazingness.

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I cannot remember my original motivation to do a yoga retreat – I have never done one before – but I do remember making the decision to do this retreat. And the decision brought up interesting (unfamiliar) feelings around my yoga life. If I were to describe my yoga practice I would use words like: disciplined, traditional, focused, quiet, solitary, consistent, serious, quiet. It is not that I am antisocial, although Veer did tell me long ago, I needed to work harder to be a part of the group – the kula. I didn’t know why it mattered at the time, like really and truly, I couldn’t understand why it mattered that I get socially involved with the group of Hong Kong Chinese women I practiced with. Everyday. For three to four hours.

When I say it like that it feels pretty ridiculous to think I needed someone to tell me I had to intentionally and meaningfully engage with a group of people I was in close contact with every single day.

But, I did.

And then years later as I continued to grow my practice and get to know new teachers, I was maintaining my practice in a very similar way. There were some people I got to know by virtue of frequent proximity, and I would go so far as to say I even had a few yoga friends. So to suddenly join a yoga retreat in Mexico with a group of people – who I may or may not really know – would definitely be categorized in the “out-of-character” file.

But I did.

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Before joining (I can hear S.P. right now saying: “Look at you, you joiner!”) the retreat (with my friend in and out of yoga, S.P.) we went to Xcalak to visit my former building managers. These are two of the more amazing people I have met in my life. I met them in the way that you meet the people who run your apartment building, but a little bit more than that. And then when they told me they were totally changing their lives and moving off the grid to a (rad) rural part of the Mayan Riviera they had a going away party, which I attended, and at which they said “Come visit! Really!”

Now people say this kind of thing a lot. And I often wonder if they really mean it, not like it is disingenuous, but more like the likelihood of future visits being, well, not that likely make it easier to say? I took a chance that they meant it. The type of people R & C are are not the type of people who would ever tell someone to come visit if they didn’t mean it. I know that now for sure if I did not before.

This meant we had five gorgeous days in a really special place that I am not really super interested in telling people about because: too special. There were great talks, perfect silences, friendly ducks, grumpy geese, clever chickens, snorkeling, Sargassum, stand up paddle boarding, cold beers, delicious food, and immeasurable generosity.

One week after finishing the school year, I could not have asked for more.

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Next we were off to Tulum for a week-long yoga retreat with a teacher I admire and know well and have grown to really trust. This, I imagine, is why I found my self there, at a yoga retreat.

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The retreat basically kicked off on the Summer Solstice, which is cool. (This also happens to be the date that the Indian government pushed the UN to adopt as International Yoga Day… a notion that if one does any amount of research upon will leave one quite… fraught.) But waking up on the Mayan Riviera for a Summer Solstice sunrise is pretty awesome regardless of any other circumstances…

And so here I was. With some people I knew. And some I did not. Joining.

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The retreat itself was very special, and as with my previous week, I am not super interested in spelling out all the more intimate ways that it was special, because it seems like something that feels more comfortable taking up residence in my own conscience. I am not sure how it would compare to other yoga retreats because I have never done a yoga retreat. I can assure you it was very (VERY) different from living in the ashram… as it should be.

We did yoga. We ate good food. There was a lot of time to relax or contemplate, or tan, or get spa treatments (I mentioned it was not like my ashram, right?)

It was gentle.

And the thing is, I think I need more gentle in my life. I do not default to gentle. I get after it. I work hard. I do lots (and lots and lots) of things. I push myself (and yeah, others too, sorry.) That is all fine, but gentle might be too. It gives you time to do different things.

I made a bunch of new friends. Real friends, who live in my neighborhood and have priorities in line with my own in lots of ways. I joined things. We rode bikes to ruins, we floated down crystal clear canals through ancient mangroves, we had warm white wine and rolled up Velveeta cheese. We laughed a lot. One of our group who attends yoga retreats regularly said that this retreat was totally unlike any she had done before because everyone at this retreat had come because of their connection to this particular teacher. She said it was a completely different feeling of community. Like I said, I cannot compare, but I can certainly agree.

This experience both changed my entire reality at home – in the yoga studio and around my neighborhood – and set the tone for my entire summer. My kula has grown and I am really glad. It is not always easy to develop community in a bustling urban situation, but, here we are. Better for it.

Namaste.

 

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We’re Number 2!

Recently, the news broke that America is no longer the fattest of the worlds “populous” nations, having been overtaken by our neighbors to the south, Mexico. I can only speculate if our uniquely American obsession with being Number 1 at everything will encourage us to reclaim the title shortly – we have all the advantages, not to mention a growing Latino population that could help us recover that top spot, sort of like how defectors from totalitarian states helped us make gains in the Olympics through the 70s & 80s…. or something (too soon?). [Don’t worry too much though, we are still tops in lots of other awesome categories like assault by rifle/shotgun/firearm, drunk neighbors, death by reptile (oooohh… Australia is gonna be mad about that one!), divorce, defense spending, as well as the highest incarceration rate & prison population, car thefts, soda & fast food consumption, teen pregnancy, lawyers, hours of television watched, plastic surgery, eating disorders (is this ironic?), school spending (this IS ironic), and every sort of personal debt…]

Anyhow, I have been thinking about this recently because I have been amazed at how much weight I was able to seamlessly gain on my return to the US… I am so grateful to be 5’10” so I can try to hide it, but still – dayum. And as one would expect, my response has been to attack my weightgain 4000 rather than just buy new clothes (which, if I did, would actually be smaller sizes than the clothes I have now that do not fit so well… bizarro.) So, it has been back to the gym and the yoga studio and eating… well, not better, because I eat really well (thanks a lot California) but eating less… which is not so fun when everything we seem to do here revolves around food and drink consumption somehow. I also have the luxury of an entire summer off so I can do this pretty easily. And I like to exercise, so win-win.

Except for one thing. It turns out that what you put in your body is a lot more important than the amount you exercise and that sucks because I would like it to work more like an energy exchange situation. Nope, that is no longer the case. It is possible that this has always been sort of true, but my mom told me a while back that after 40, it is totally true: what you eat is far more important that what you do with your body.

And man, is that one more annoying example of mother-correctness. Last week the LA Times finally got on board with this, too. Sigh.

In the end, I feel better when I exercise, and living in San Francisco, one of the nations most fit cities, I am also motivated to continue. My lifestyle also helps (I still have not replaced the car I sold when I went to Asia, so I walk everywhere) and I date a metabolic freak of nature, which is really inspiring when it is not filling me with rage watching him enjoy Ben & Jerry’s by the pint… And I am not freaked out by how I look (it is much more to do with the ill-fit of some of my nicest clothes…) but I am also not satisfied.

I am unsure if this lack of satisfaction is a good thing or not, it could be a motivating factor, or it could just be a prettier incarnation of body dysmorphia (which, by the way, seems to be something practically unavoidable to pick up if you put in time in Asia, as I did.) I do know that I keep seeing photos of myself and thinking, “Wow, that is not how I feel like I look,” and so I know I have some sort of disconnect going on. And then one of my former students posted a video from this Dove website, and I thought, “Huh. I wonder how I would describe myself…” And that was kind of weird.

How would you describe yourself? Does it match what people see? It might be a good exercise to just consider this moving forward. And while I know I will never fully embrace the body positive thing, because that is jut not my thing. I also know that, like most people, I am actually not paying that much attention to the physical details of other people – we tend to hyper-focus on ourselves, and I suppose my own little body positive effort might be to chill out about that. Maybe. For now, I am heading back to the gym for round two today.

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“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

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“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.”

I finally saw Baz Luhrmann’s production of The Great Gatsby today. Not a new film anymore, I realize, but as is the nature of my life, I tend to get caught up on my celluloid fix during the summers, and a grey San Francisco June day is the perfect time to take in a matinée. For better or for worse, when it takes so long to get around to seeing movies it is impossible to not hear the critiques, and for an American classic of this stature, you can be sure there was an abundance. First, there were the “I haven’t seen the thing and I never will” critiques. These derived from a mix of folks ranging from those who stand on principle that, in fact, you not only cannot repeat the past you should be goddamned barred from trying. Also in this group are the people who categorically find something wrong with Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jay Z. Another element of this group would be the lit crit snobs, who I think are basing their critique on someone else’s review, which makes them too derivative to really even consider here. Next there were the literary aficionados. This group saw the film, and is largely comprised of teachers (heavily weighted towards English), readers of the New Yorker (or NYT Book Review), Fitzgerald experts, and “Americanists” (yes, that is a thing.) The criticism from this group was heavy on nostalgia and loyalty to the book. Many of them talked about how it was insulting to have the symbolism so directly explained [Um, yes. Americans don’t really read anymore and so I would say that in fact they DO need this explanation.] Some of them talked about how it was too literal, other said it took to many figurative liberties. I also heard complaints about the Luhrmann’s general misunderstanding of Fitzgerald’s primary theme in the novel (arguably the corrosion/degeneration/decay/ruination/failure of the “American Dream”). Associated with the latter was the notion that the irony of the novel would be lost in a Luhrmann-like celebration of the visual and aesthetic grandeur of the time period. How can he make a pretty movie about a fucked up thing like this? 

Ummm… I think you might have missed the irony there, professor.

“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” 

Anyhow, I went in with my own biases. I have read the novel probably ten times. I read it as a high school student (mostly), and then as a more responsible university student trying to actually e as well read as I said I was, and then as a high school teacher – yes, I too “taught” the novel. In addition to my self-professed familiarity with the book, I also believe that Leo DiCaprio may be one of the most underrated actors of my generation. I mean, forgive the guy Titanic, already, will you? What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Basketball Diaries, and D’Jango Unchained? Please, that is a list of fantastic films, roles, and work. Anyhow, I suppose I am either preaching to the choir here or wasting time on deaf ears. Beyond that, I also love Baz Luhrmann. Visually, his work is amazing, even if you don’t like the movies, and I would suggest even if you don’t like his aesthetic, it should still be categorized as amazing work. Strictly Ballroom  will forever be a favorite, and judge me how you like, but I liked Moulin Rouge. So, there you have my biases. Oh, and Prada dresses & accessories for the parties? Yeah, I’m in.

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

 We have a deep-seated fascination with the “Roaring Twenties” in America. I know this as a U.S. History teacher, as well as a relatively observant human. There is something eternally compelling about a decade of such transition, tumultuous as it was. America came out of WWI looking as dapper as ever, and with the booming markets, new access to popular culture via radio, and huge cultural transitions like women’s rights (women’s suffrage, the Flapper movement, co-ed colleges) and the influence of black culture made more accessible, if not wholly acceptable, through the Harlem Renaissance, and then there was the emerging marriage of music, movies, fashion through the first generation of real American celebrities. People hold on to all these glamorous images tightly, going so far as to stylize even the worst elements of our culture, crime (organized or otherwise), racism, witch hunts (political and economic), in a way that offers pretty and sterile memories; always so much more fun to recollect. The resulting (yes, it was consequential) economic collapse even seems to be romanticized as some sort of retrospective Faustian morality tale – from which we all learned such valuable lessons. Oh. Wait….

I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Now, off of my teacher soap box and into the theater. The costumes did not disappoint, the work in that area was divine. And the party scenes were just as I would hope from a Luhrmann vehicle: palpable texture. However, the scene that got me from the start was the moment Nick walks into the Buchanan’s home. From the first time I read the book I have loved that scene; the billowing curtains veiling Daisy and Jordan, the whiteness of the space… all of it, and I loved how it was done in this film. Nick’s first party is also fabulous. The way that Gatsby was a man of mystery at once so obvious and so invisible (as Jordan said, “…I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy…”) was, if not totally original, very well done. And anyhow, it is hard to imagine that anyone who was seeing this movie would be without an idea who Gatsby was being played by, so the element of surprise was based more in style than purpose.

Beyond the little things – including wildly overdone settings – which worked by the way (the Valley of Ashes was a crazy zone of transition) I found the movie to be an effective reminder of what I remember being most compelling about the book in the first place: the simultaneous enchantment and repulsion of humanity. The amazing wealth (which was actually available to so many people during the decade Fitzgerald aimed to unveil) is tantalizing, and the way Luhrmann capitalized on Fitzgerald’s descriptions of decadence made the veneer of this wealth viscerally clear. The commodification of everything has become a way of life for modern America, but maybe at one point in time that was not the case.

The scene when Gatsby finally gets to show his home to Daisy, to demonstrate his worth to her, is also exceptionally well done in the film. Daisy’s clear intoxication by the context rather than the  characters of the home is obvious, and her consideration of Gatsby is sad. But the part that got me was when they all went swimming. For some reason the way that Lurhmann brought this scene to life made me so hugely and immediately grateful to be with someone because of the someone they are rather than the somethings they may or may not have. I am unsure why this scene made me think that, but it was immediate and in spite of luxury I could well imagine loving, I was so glad to not be those people. It was weird.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

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It reminded me of all the people I see working so hard to be Someone or Something, worried evermore that they will never be enough if they don’t go to all the right places, eat all the right food, like all the right things. You know this guy; the guy who measures his worth by Twitter followers or something, who talks about how much he likes the things that Robin Leach told us we should like back in the day because that will make him higher quality, who talks about how amazing s/he is and how much they love their life telling everyone how they “live the dream”… while they are so totally alone… at the restaurant, at the concert, at the bar… “table for 1”. That irony, being totally alone in the proverbial crowded room was the fate of Gatsby, who believed that Daisy would solve his loneliness.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Ultimately, it is hard to say if the good guys win this one. I never liked Nick in the book, I found his odd humility and warped self-image far too distracting as a narrator, and clearly the rest of the characters were loathsome, and he is pretty meh in this version as well. All my gay male friends really hate Tobey McGuire for some reason and they blame him for Nick being so lame, but I think Tobey was pretty spot on in terms of suckage, I mean, Nick is the biggest drag in the book – at least the really awful people are not conflicted by their hideous natures. Being self-conscious about it is even more annoying.

“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

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But there was always Gatsby, perhaps the last bastion of the failing American Dream – the eternal optimist in the face of certain defeat, and someone who was honest enough to understand that the measure of a man would never again be made from his character in this modern world, but only in the correctly constructed facade, regardless of the means of acquisition. Pretty things are more important I guess.

That Gatsby remained hopeful was lovely, and I like to think that he dies believing Daisy did call. I like to think this is because I too am an eternal optimist. And I left this newest version of The Great Gatsby feeling like they got it. It is different from the other versions, but the reminder that we continue to live in a world that increasingly rewards people not for the people they are, or how they have contributed to humanity, but for the spectacle they can make of themselves irrespective of the attendant costs to others or society, is both timely and important.

And maybe we should just call this movie a reminder, not a remake, and then everyone could be less of a critic and take a look at how prophetic the story actually is.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Oh – and ps: Jay Z killed it on the soundtrack. Real talk.