Monday, January 28, 2008

Do You Sudoku?

When I asked my husband Warren what he wanted for Christmas last December, I expected his typical sweet-but-infuriating answer: "I want you, baby."  We fall into our routine -- Me:  "You already have me."  He: "Then I have what I want."  Then I say be serious and he says he is serious and we go around like a co-dependent Abbott and Costello until I give up and secretly swear to get him underwear.  This time, however, Warren had a different answer:  "I want brain games."  "Brain games?"  I ask.  "Yeah. Something to keep me sharp."  Okay.  He wants to keep his edge -- that I can respect. So I go in search of brain games and come home with crosswords, books actually entitled "Brain Games," and, you guessed it, Sudoku.  I never thought much of Sudoku -- I sized it up as just another craze that would go the way of "Where's Waldo?" or "The Magic Eye."  I tried it once or twice in my LA Times, but could never get into it.  It reminded me of those irritating, little plastic number puzzles that were (and still are) popular party favors for kids, but even more annoying because Sudoku numbers don't slide around or make cool clicking noises.  But when I read the forward of the handy-dandy purse-sized "White Belt Sudoku" book, I realized I never understood the rules of Sudoku.  So, after years of ignoring this pop culture phenomenon and knowing my mommy brain could also use some "sharpening," I, too, sudoku'd.

For those who don't know (all three of you), the object of sudoku is to fill in every row, column and 3x3 box with each of the numbers 1-9 exactly once.  I knew about the rows and columns, but the box info was new to me and obviously crucial.  So I tried a puzzle armed with proper instructions and it was like a shot of adrenaline to my brain -- I instantly loved Sudoku.  This shouldn't have surprised me as it did -- I've always been a puzzle person.  Give me a pencil and some good light and I'll cross words and connect the dots with the best of them.  But no puzzle had captivated me so immediately and completely as Sudoku and I started to wonder why.

I went through all of the obvious reasons -- it's simple, it's quick, everyone likes the feeling of building towards something and getting something right.   As Will Shortz, current king of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle (r.i.p. Eugene T. Maleska!), says in his introduction to "The Joy of Sudoku": 

"Sudoku... can be easy, moderate, or hard...  And the amount of time needed to solve one -- generally between 10 and 30 minutes, for most people for most puzzles -- is about perfect in order to feed a daily addiction.  If sudoku took less time, it wouldn't pose enough challenge, and if it took more, you might lose interest...  Like crosswords, sudoku puzzles have blank squares that are inviting to fill in.  It's said nature abhors a vacuum.  We as human beings seem to have a natural compulsion to fill up empty spaces... Sudoku also provides an appealing rhythm of solving.  Generally, the first few numbers are easy to enter.  Then... you may get stymied and maybe a bit frustrated.  Once you make the critical breakthrough (or breakthroughs), though, the final numbers can come quickly, giving you a rush and a heady sense of achievement -- often tempting you to start another sudoku immediately.  Hence the addictiveness of sudoku, which is the "crack cocaine" of puzzles."

So was that the answer?  Was Sudoku merely puzzle crack and I its latest strawberry?  Yes, I was addicted and yes, I always want to solve another one right away, but I still sensed there was something deeper going on with Sudoku and its massive, worldwide and lasting appeal.

As I thought further, I realized there was something inherently democratic about sudoku -- most everyone at every age can count from 1-9 and it takes little to no money to get into sudoku -- there are plenty of free puzzles online and in newspapers.  But there is still more to it than ease and price, more to it than simplicity and the quick high of achievement -- Sudoku manages to challenge those who attempt it to bring out the best within themselves.  

How, you may ask, does a grid half-filled with numbers manage to guide us to a nearly (or sometimes complete) transcendent experience?  Well, think of the skills involved in solving Sudoku -- first and foremost, you need patience and perseverance.   Once you get the initial rush of numbers pencilled in, as Shortz points out, there is a moment where it seems the puzzle is impossible to solve.  You search and search and search for another number but you can't seem to come up with anything.  You are as lost as Newt Gingrich at a Wu Tang concert.

It is when you are lost like this in your Sudoku that you must rely on logic.  Every number has its own place in Sudoku and even when you feel like taking a stab and guessing, logically you know the best strategy is to employ discipline and find the only number that can fit in a certain place.  Too often in our every day lives we abandon logic for ease or comfort or short cuts  (think of how we act in traffic -- honking and lane-switching does not get us to our destination any faster though it gives us the illusion it does).  Sudoku does not allow you to ditch logic without consequences -- like having to start the puzzle all over again when you get a double number because on the whole, short cuts don't work in Sudoku.  Which leads us to discipline.  Sometimes when you can find no possible next move, you have to suck it up and scan every row and every column and every box counting from 1 to 9 until you find the number to build on.

This process, while challenging, is also calming, even meditative.  I Sudoku before I go to bed because unlike a book, magazine or crossword, Sudoku allows my mind to clear itself of everything but Sudoku.  Sudoku requires a kind of concentration that words do not command.  You can't rely on your memory the way you do with words because the variables are digits and they have no meaning except an unexpectedly pure one -- they are the tools in service of your brain's (or dare I say mind's?) ability to think in, around and outside the box.  No puns, tricks or double entendres to sort out -- just numbers and the holes to fill with them.  And, although it seems contradictory to everything I just said, Sudoku also relies on intuition.  I can't tell you how many times I look at the same line of numbers again and again and again and then all of a sudden I see something.  What makes the difference?  Once you start to get into the rhythm of a sudoku puzzle, into the heart and soul of it, the logic, patience, discipline and meditation all converge and damn if the puzzle doesn't start to reveal itself to you.  Under normal circumstances, I think this is where I would lose most people.  But fortunately since most people do Sudoku, you know what I'm talking about!  (You know you do!)

Sudoku, lastly, is a cyclical puzzle.  Even though it appears to be a linear game of method and elimination, the mental process of solving it is similar to the one we have when we approach anything new in life.  You first think, this is exciting, I can do this, it's a piece of red velvet cake.  Then you hit a wall, you think this is impossible, I want to give up, why did I start this in the first place.  Then, because of your perseverance, discipline and intuition, you find a way to power through and then you think, wow, I got through it.  And that's how we learn and how we grow.

Kind of a lot for a little puzzle, huh?  Well, don't take my word for it -- test it out.  You can start with the puzzle above.  It may not seem like it, but Sudoku is more than just a "brain game" -- it's a life game.  On a subconscious level, we want to reaffirm our life process in everything we encounter, even in the seemingly little nothing puzzles we do to pass the time at the dentist's office.  This, I think, is what Sudoku has captured.  And every time we do one of these puzzles we are saying, "We can be patient.  We can persevere.  We can problem solve.  We can use logic and intuition.  We can learn and we can grow."  Why?  Because we can Sudoku!

Deep Pop.  We love it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"If You're A Bird, I'm A Bird": Why We Love Romantic Movies

FROM 4/14/2006:  Did anyone see "The Notebook" when it came out in 2004?  You know, the romance movie based on the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same title?  Well, I didn't, and a cursory look at the box office receipts tells me at $81 million domestic, I might be alone.  Its apparent success, coupled with its fundamental romantic core, destined this movie to have a never-ending cable shelf life akin to that of a Twinkie in a bomb shelter.  No matter when you turn on your TV, somewhere, on some channel, you're likely to find "The Notebook" or one of its romantic brethren serving up a comforting and familiar (if sometimes stale) taste.

This is how "The Notebook" and I crossed paths, during a 4am channel surf brought on by a wakening wave of nausea from my nascent pregnancy (six weeks in, it's rock and roll.)  My husband Warren was back to sleep quickly -- I was wide awake, hoping to find something on TV that I'd seen before, something I had a shorthand with, something pop and easy that would lull me back to a happy, nausea-free slumber.  But instead, I found "The Notebook," not quite at its beginning but close enough for what I assumed was a standard romantic movie.  It was the BOY MEETS GIRL scene.  I made a mental note of it and kept flipping channels.  Nothing but bad police dramas, action movies, and lite cable porn which made me wonder for a second if there was an expectant father out there looking to be lulled, too.  (The cable universe, I noted, was much better prepared for such an occasion.  James Brown knew what he was talking with "It's A Man's Man's Man's World.")  So, true to gender stereotyping, I passed up "Busty Cops 2" and flipped back to "The Notebook."

What plays before me is pleasant enough.  Rachel McAdams -- the young actress who I like from "Mean Girls" -- does well as the female lead.  She is convincing as a 1940s rich, Southern girl.  Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, I only know form his annoying performance in "Remember The Titans," so I wondered how far I'd get with this romance since one half of said romantic couple wasn't appealing to me.  But as Gosling's character grew on McAdams' character, so did Gosling grow on me.  The clincher came about halfway through the BOY MEETS GIRL dance -- Gosling and McAdams are out on a lake and McAdams looks at the birds and starts talking about how she feels like a bird and wants Gosling to be one, too.  He then turns to her and wins over her, me and every other living soul watching in a late-night nausea-induced stupor when he says... "If you're a bird, I'm a bird."  Now, nakedly put out of context, I realize that line can sound nausea-inducing on its own.  But the intention behind it in the movie -- the intention to love wholly and completely in a transformative manner -- well, this is what makes it one of the many amazing and surprisingly deep moments "The Notebook" has to offer.

The movie then gets even better -- it turns out that all of this young folks "first blush of love" stuff is being told in flashback.  In the present, James Garner is reading to Gena Rowlands from the titular "Notebook" as they spend the day in an old folks' home.  It takes a millisecond of thought to realize they are the aged version of the young couple -- this isn't a spoiler, it really is that obvious -- even though the movie is cloying about it for some time.  Which, somehow, is liberating to me.  I already know the young'uns end up "happily ever after" -- what I don't know is why we are spending time with them as old folks if that's truly the case.  I reason that obviously there is going to be something new told about their love story in the present but I didn't know "what" or "how" and this ultimately hooks me deeply into "The Notebook."  

By the end of the movie, the "why" had tears falling from my face.  I was trying to be quiet for Warren, but I failed, caught up in an uncontrollable volley of sniff and sob.  Warren groggily asked if everything was okay.  I choked out a quick, "Yes.  The.  Movie."  He went back to sleep as I muzzled up and thought about the final moments of "The Notebook" where Rowlands and Garner completely earned the right to call themselves the World's Best "Romeo and Juliet": Geriatric Division.

Though the ending is admittedly another recycling of Shakespeare (and who knows where old Willy boy got it from) it was the IDEA behind the old lovers that moved me -- the same IDEA behind the young lovers -- WE LIVE FOR LOVE.  We only feel complete with true love and at our cores, we strive to have our duality become unity and romance is the vehicle of that driving force.  The Gosling/Garner character has dedicated his life to love and because of that he and McAdams/Rowlands are able to connect against all odds, financial, familial, medical or otherwise.  This IDEA was so well captured by this movie it's no wonder it connected to so many people.  And it's no wonder why I blubbered.

A few days later in an unrelated conversation with Warren (about the deterioration of his first marriage of all things), I asked him if he thought things were good between us.  He replied, "Yes, very good, though I was worried the other night."  I asked which night and he said when he saw me crying so hard over "The Notebook," he wondered if I was crying over some long lost love and felt like I'd made a mistake in my life.  This made me laugh -- why couldn't I just be crying that hard over the movie?  Especially considering the extra shot of hormonal imbalance involved?  He admitted his paranoia, which is why he didn't bring it up in the moment.  

I asked him if he'd ever seen "The Notebook" and he said he'd seen bits here and there on cable (further proof of my "Twinkie" theory).  He saw many of the same surface things I saw in the movie -- romantic cliches (rich girl/poor boy; missed communications, etc.) and obvious plotting -- but to him they were just that.  To me those were things "done right" and executed with the intention of awakening the romantic nature within the viewer and connecting us to love's transformative power.  I argue to Warren that this is the very function of romance in movies (and in life) -- it's supposed to move and overwhelm us, to bring us to tears and cause us to go beyond ourselves to express a "larger than life" type of love.  Warren agreed the parts with the old couple impressed him, especially when Rowlands had an attack of dementia that made her forget Garner after he spent the whole movie laboring to bring her back to him.  Even still, Warren found the last moments of the movie, where Garner and Rowlands die holding hands as birds soar over the lake, sappy and overdone.

Me?  I found those same moments to be deeply moving and significant.  Not because I fantasize about having such a romance myself (maybe this was Warren's worry -- that I might be angling for a murder-suicide pact as a 50th anniversary gift) but because I loved the idea behind it.  Now I wish I'd remembered to remind Warren during this talk of another moment that happened during that 4-6am night/morning/"Notebook" viewing.  After I'd calmed myself and dried my tears, I woke Warren up once more to kiss him and say I love you.  He mumbled, "I love you, too, baby" and kissed me back.  The we finally fell asleep holding hands as the birds outside our window began chirping in a new day.

Deep Pop.  We love it.

3:10 To Yuma - A Potboiler With Purpose

So it's Saturday night -- "date night" for me and my husband Warren.  But because we have a 13-month old son, "dating"means scrounging up whatever time we have after The King has deigned to sleep.  King Xavier reigned until 10:30pm, getting us off to a very late start on our date night (anyone with a kid knows that 10:30 is no longer the start but the end of an evening.  Lame, yes, but it's all there in the parenting contract -- read the fine print).  We were supposed to watch "Juno" but I was so tired I secretly wanted to watch a movie I had little interest in so I could fall asleep and not care, but also get the credit for selfless compromise.  So if I throw "27 Dresses" into the mix next week, what can he say other than "pass the popcorn"?  (Knowing Warren though, he can say a lot -- I'm still reeling from his "Sweet Home, Alabama" commentary from six years ago -- a movie I dragged him to early in our courtship.  As a professional comedian though, his screeds are FUNNY.  And deserved.)  Anyway, I assumed because "3:10 To Yuma" is a remake of an old potboiler western it would be easy to zone out on -- as they were moving cattle or whatever, I'd be counting sheep.  Little did I know how engrossing the movie would be on a pop level (tense action, slick violence, cool bad guy lines like "even bad men love their mamas") as well as a deeper level (good v. evil, heroism, devotion to family, camaraderie, transcendence).

To be truthful, when we finished watching my first and only thought was "cool movie." But, seeing as how I was on a "date," I decided to have the post-movie "So what did you think?" conversation.   I thought it would go,  Me: "I liked it."  Him: "Yeah, me, too. Good acting.  Cool setpieces."  Me: "Yeah.  Love you, good night."  Instead, my husband took a beat, reflected, and as he began to speak the deeper levels of the movie were revealed to me. Warren surmised that Ben Wade (Russell Crowe's charismatic bad guy) started off the movie believing he was "rotten as hell" and willing to kill anyone in his way including members of his own gang, but his ultimate respect for his captor Dan Evans (brilliantly played by Christian Bale with a desperate, feral morality) caused him to recognize the potential goodness in himself, so much so that he metaphorically murders his bad side and honors Dan by getting on the 3:10 to Yuma (a train to prison) instead of taking the easy road of escape.  The ending also implies that Wade will be a free man again, but will he be a free man who forms a new blood-thirsty, soulless gang, or will he be a man who becomes a loving father and husband like Dan?  I think he'll lean towards the latter because the Ben Wade who gets on the train is at least willing to take the implied journey to rehabilitation and redemption.  Or will it be a stop gap and lead him to a life like Clint Eastwood's William Muny in "Unforgiven"?
(If you haven't seen "Unforgiven" or it's been a while, I recommend checking it out -- it's a fantastic thematic companion piece to "3:10 to Yuma.")  Either way, the concept that being true to your heart (as Dan was) can influence even the coldest of killers (Ben) to search for his own elevates the movie for all viewers, even those (like myself) who were not initially looking beyond its slickly satisfying pop surface.

Warren then broke down the subtext of the father-son relationship between Ben Wade and his right-hand henchman Charlie Prince, who is effectively played by Ben Foster as a 19th-Century Terminator (Robert Patrick's T-1000, please, not Schwarzenegger) and juxtaposed it to the overt, pop father-son relationship between Dan Evans and 14-year-old William (Logan Lerman of the defunct WB's "Jack And Bobby").  Among all of Warren's insightful, scholarly musings (always nice to be reminded how bright your spouse is, even at 1am when you kind of want him to shut up and let you sleep), I managed to point out the unrequited homosexual undertones of Charlie Prince's attachment to Ben Wade (elegantly expressed at the time as"Um, I think there was a gay thing happening in there, too").  Warren trumped me again by informing me that dynamic is a typical staple in many westerns and the documentary "The Celluloid Closet" devotes a large segment to gay subtext in oaters.

As Warren continued to support his thoughts with specifics within scenes and spot-on dialogue quotes (I only remembered the slick stuff like the "mamas" line quoted above), I realized I really didn't "see" "3:10 to Yuma" and that I should watch it and probably every western I ever saw at least once more (with the exception of "Unforgiven" which I managed to "get" when I first saw it in 1992 and in subsequent cable viewings).  Because, probably more than every once in a while, you can lift the top off a potboiler and see something's actually cooking.  

Deep Pop.  We love it.