10 good things, 2nd week of February 2020

1. I just discovered that Jens Lekman and Annika Norlin released an album last year called Correspondence, and I listened to it last week on the way to work, and it’s all so quietly powerful in its seeming mundanity. I think my favorite song is “Forever Young, Forever Beautiful,” which has some classic Jens lyrics:

You should have seen him in his summer clothes 
The short pants that gently exposed
His calves that spoke of hidden treasures
Golden ratios, unknown pleasures

2. I consolidated books and glassware so that I could empty, dismantle, and store one of my IKEA bookshelves, creating some space that I could fill with a little dining table. Now I can eat meals at a table, not on the sofa or at my desk. The first meal was steak, asparagus, and polenta on Valentine’s Day.

3. The next day, I accompanied my Valentine to Cal Arts to hear a Master’s student there play Derek’s composition “Savino,” a piece for solo marimba and tape, that latter of which is the recording of New York State Senator Diane J. Savino’s speech in support of marriage equality given on December 2, 2009. Like the speech, Derek’s composition is beautiful, but in a very different way as it intricately punctuated Savino’s humor, wisdom, and love. I don’t have video of the Cal Arts student’s performance, but here’s the percussionist who commissioned the composition Brandon Ilaw.

4. I made a chocolate soufflé on Saturday night, and I think it came out perfectly. I’ve made chocolate souffles before, but for some reason, this was the richest, fluffiest, and it didn’t collapse. I’m not exactly sure what I did right-er this time, but I think one thing was not over stirring the batter, which tends to screw up the egg whites. The recipe is Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflé by Melissa Clark from The New York Times

I made a soufflé!

5. This article in The New Yorker: Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived—or a Fraud? I love a good high-nerd yarn, and this one is full of lies and skepticism and competing methodologies and a crotchety old French lady.

6. I wish I could have photographed the facial expression of the flummoxed woman in my AIDS Fundamentals class when I mentioned that Iowa once sentenced an HIV-positive man to 25 years in jail for not telling his sexual partner his status — even though he wore a condom and had an undetectable viral load. I thought her head was going to explode she was so appalled. He was eventually exonerated and the law was changed, but it’s still hard to believe it happened in this century.

7. I can’t stop listening to the audiobooks for Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series – an urban fantasy with werewolves, vampires, fae, and so on set in Washington’s Tri-Cities. There are definitely some things I could do without, like the weirdly stereotyped gay divorce lawyer Kyle and the narrator’s camp voice for him, but my commute hasn’t sucked for a couple weeks because I’m entertained enough.

8. These shoes I got 60% off at the Reebok outlet at the Citadel. Derek called the color “electric salmon.”

Reebok Nano 2s in "electric salmon"

9. I’ll be moderating a panel titled “Navigating Stigma and Addressing Peer Aggression, Harassment, Discrimination, and Exclusion for Queer- and Trans-Spectrum Students and Faculty” at the annual meeting of the Association of School and Programs in Public Health next month.

10. I stumbled onto the pilot of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on Hulu; Zoey suddenly hears people’s inner monologues, but only as popular songs, and usually accompanied by dance routines. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to automatically love about it, in particular Jane Levy, Skyler Astin, Alex Newell, and lots of singing and dancing. But, omg, Peter Gallagher playing Zoey’s father, who is suffering from a degenerative neurological disease that has left him unable to speak, gets to do heartbreaking stuff like this.

This dark side of suburbia is somewhat unoriginal

Originally published inLGBT Weekly

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train

In novels, I love unreliable narrators. I find the precarity of the truth titillating, even thrilling, especially as I slowly discover that what I’m reading isn’t to be trusted. I become a detective, looking for clues to what is really going on. It’s why I love Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire, Peter Cameron’s Andorra, and, in recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, turned into the excellent film directed by Joe Wright. But as great as Wright’s film is, the revelation that the narrator isn’t reliable is so much less powerful than it is in the book, because we don’t imagine her crafting the images that we see; in the book, it’s clear that every word is hers, so every lie is hers. In the adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ massive bestseller The Girl on the Train, a novel with three unreliable narrators, director Tate Taylor has a similar problem: How does he thrill us with precarity of truth? If he’s too subtle, people will be confused. If he’s too blunt … well, there’s no if. He and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson decided to be as blunt as the rock used to commit the murder at the center of the novel.

Emily Blunt (see what I did there?) plays Rachel, the titular character. She takes the train back-and-forth from the Hudson River suburbs of New York to Manhattan every day. One house she passes is occupied by beautiful Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband Scott (Luke Evans), and she imagines and fantasizes about their perfect romance. It’s pretty clear from the audience’s perspective that Megan doesn’t look too happy, and then we realize that Rachel isn’t either and, in turn, is always drunk; she keeps vodka in her water bottle, slurs her words and wobbles when she walks. And she makes many, many mistakes, like deciding to get off the train to visit her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he cheated on Rachel and with whom he now has a baby, which Rachel could never give him. Oh, they live next door to Megan and Scott. Megan looks a lot like Anna; Megan, to alleviate boredom, is a part-time nanny for Anna and Tom.

One day, Rachel is particularly drunk and decides to get off the train and stumble toward Tom and Anna’s house. Suddenly, it’s the next day, and she’s in her apartment, filthy and covered in blood and bruises. And Megan is missing. Immediately, both Rachel and everyone in the audience wonder if Rachel killed Megan, having confused her with Anna. Rachel, because she makes bad decisions both drunk and sober, decides to insert herself into the investigation, convincing Scott that Megan was having an affair with her therapist, which accidentally convinces the police that Scott might be a murderer. When Tom and Anna see Rachel hanging around, they repeatedly tell her to stay away, that she’s a crazy drunk, and so on and so forth. Flashbacks, sex scenes, plot twists ensue, and eventually the various scenes are shown in a different way, making it as clear as a bell that Rachel, Megan and Anna are all lying to themselves or have been lied to. None of it makes full sense until the last ten minutes, when the climactic revelation is accompanied by ham-handed symbolism so ridiculous the screening audience I saw it with guffawed.

To be fair, The Girl on the Train is suspenseful enough and handsomely made enough to be entertaining, in a Lifetime movie sort of way. But its themes concerning the dark side of suburbia are so obvious and so unoriginal that Lifetime seems like the only place such a film would seem shocking. Both Theroux and Evans are fine (in performance and looks), but they exists as symbols, not characters. The cold vapidity of both Bennet and Ferguson don’t create any sort of sympathy or antipathy, and Blunt’s performance of drunken clichés is so over-the-top as to be, more than not, laughable. An unreliable narrator should give you chills, not the giggles.

The Girl on the Train

Directed by Tate Taylor

Written by Erin Cressida Wilson

Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson and Justin Theroux

Rated R

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A slushy, mushy wintry mix



When I told another critic at the screening of Winter’s Tale that it was adapted from a novel many consider to be one of greatest of last quarter of 20th century, I was given a blank stare. As in: Really? Are you kidding me? I don’t know this factoid because I’ve read Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, which I honestly had never heard of before I saw advertisement for the movie. (And I like to think of myself as, if not well-read, at least aware of which great books I should have read.) I found out when I googled the movie. You certainly wouldn’t get the impression the source material was all that great from the movie, which is the first wonderfully bad, entertainingly bonkers movie I’ve seen in quite some time: Cheese masquerading as profundity, amateur-hour continuity errors, and laughably odd stunt casting.

But, you ask, was it not written, directed, and produced by Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for writing A Beautiful Mind and also wrote the great Cinderella Man? Well, yes. But this is a good time for you to remember that he also wrote Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, and I, Robot. He needs a good director to fix his screenplays, usually Ron Howard, and Goldsman certainly is not that director, let alone Ron Howard.

Here’s the story: In the winter of 1916 in New York City, Peter Lake (Colin Ferrell) is a talented, self-effacing thief running from the minions of Pearly Soames (scenery-chewing Russell Crowe), who at first seems to be a sociopathic mobster but turns out to be an actual demon. Just as Peter is about to escape from New York, his mysteriously intuitive white horse indicates that he should rob a mansion. He breaks in and discovers, befriends, and falls in love with the free-spirited, delightful, and consumptive Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, best known for playing the similar and similarly doomed Lady Sybil on Downton Abby).

Pearly finds out about Beverly after going into a fugue state and drawing a picture of her in blood, and he tries to kidnap her in order to draw Peter out. But Peter saves Beverly on his white horse, which sprouts wings when they jump off a cliff. They walk along the frozen Hudson River until they reach the Penn’s country mansion, where Beverly’s father (William Hurt) almost instantaneously accepts a poor thief as his daughter’s suitor. I guess his reasoning is: She’s dying. Does it matter?

For some mystical reason, Pearly can’t leave New York City to go after Peter unless he asks permission of Lucifer. As in the Devil. Who is played by a lazy Will Smith. Since Smith shows up pretty early, this is not a spoiler, but the shock of seeing him in this already oddball movie caused the screening audience to burst out in laughter. Other totally bizarre cast members include Kevin Duran, Norm Lewis, Graham Greene (playing, really, another wise Indian), and Oscar winners Jennifer Connolly and, most absurdly, Eva Marie Saint. Saint’s character is eight in 1916 but inexplicably still alive and working as a publishing company’s CEO in 2014, when the film’s third act takes place. Peter is also still alive, but he’s the same age as he was in 1916, still making Pearly very angry, and still friends with that white horse. Because magic.

Thematically, the film is saying something about love, destiny, selflessness, miracles, and the balance between good and evil, but even if it’s clear in Helprin’s book, Goldsman turns it all into a muddle of clichéd platitudes and simplistic swooning. His use of the green screen effects are messy and error-ridden, he uses the score to announce every emotion, and his editing is so ham-fisted that he can’t even manipulate a tear during the sad-sappy death scenes. Worse, in the one scene that Russell Crowe bears his impressive chest, it’s shaved clean. I blame Goldsman for that, too.

Winter’s Tale
Written and Directed by Akiva Goldsman
Starring Colin Ferrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Russell Crowe
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex


Gatsby is cipher

The-Great-Gatsby1Even though The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel (and I’ve read it three times) I have always been left a little cold by Gatsby himself. I didn’t fall in love with him like his obsession Daisy did, and I didn’t become utterly enamored with him like the book’s narrator Nick Carraway did. This was the case for me with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book, arguably the greatest written in English in the 20th century, in Jack Clayton and Francis Ford Coppola’s failed 1974 film with Robert Redford in the title role, and again in Baz Luhrmann’s ecstatic new adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Gatsby is cipher; not only is everything about him concealed until the end of the book (or two-thirds of the film) but everything about his character – his affect, his accent, his trappings – are an elaborate and astonishing act. He has created a palace of wealth and excitement on Long Island across the bay from his lost love, Daisy (a luminous Carey Mulligan), all to draw her to him; he charms his much poorer next door neighbor, our narrator Nick (a most excellent Tobey Maguire), because he is Daisy’s cousin; he has constructed a false life story of well-born privilege and war heroism to give him the respectability a woman like Daisy needs. And all of it is a lie except for his desperate love for Daisy, who is married to a brute of an American aristocrat, Tom Buchanan, who Joel Edgerton’s amazingly makes more fully realized than even Fitzgerald did. Tom, after all, is the only one who sees through Gatsby’s veneer, though he of course hates what is actually underneath.

Better than anyone else has in the myriad adaptations, Dicaprio manages to play Gatsby’s complexity, by acting fake and acting real in strategic succession. His charisma, both Gatsby’s and Dicaprio’s, is admittedly powerful, but perhaps because I knew how it all would end, I couldn’t quite succumb. Perhaps it’s because Gatsby encapsulates the American Dream: the capacity for reinvention, for hope, to offer the shimmering promise of wealth, and to send us on a pursuit for happiness. And for many of us, that American Dream is bunk. Gatsby, however, never gives up hope, never sees that the green light on Daisy’s dock across the bay symbolizes too much for him, that it’s not, in the end, worth it. That’s what makes him so tragic. Fitzgerald, a heartbroken drunk, wasn’t a cheerful man.

Baz Luhrmann, however, has no such affliction. His films, the best of which are Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, are, like Gatsby, tragedies. But they are ebullient, gorgeous, lush, and enrapt tragedies, full of fauvist color, baroque styling, and anachronistic music that is less an attempt at post-modern disjuncture than a manipulation of the audience’s capacity to recall the emotional resonance they feel for some songs. In this case, it’s Beyoncé and Andre 3000 covering Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” Jack White doing U2’s “Love is Blindness,” and Jay-Z, the film’s music supervisor and executive producer, throwing in such iconic songs as his “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and his, Frank Ocean’s, and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” as well as a new, but probably soon to be iconic, “100$ Bill.”

The music is combined with Luhrmann’s sets, costumes, 3-D cinematography and CGI, and the results are simply outrageous. To me, this works so well because unlike Clayton and Coppola’s dully naturalistic version, Luhrmann treats Fitzgerald’s lyrical, astonishingly beautiful language with the reverence it deserves. When Nick isn’t narrating in voiceover, Luhrmann transforms Fitzgerald’s words into indelible images bursting with almost garish color and ostentatious detail. This is the first adaptation of a Fitzgerald work that seems to be as in love with Fitzgerald’s writing as Gatsby is with Daisy. Unlike Fitzgerald, whose novel is perfectly tempered and constructed, Luhrmann makes errors of both under-emphasis and exaggeration, but the end result is still a wondrous experience, unlike anything you will see on screen this year.

The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan
Rated PG-13
In 3-D
At your local multiplex

The curse of freelance

In which I write a nasty letter to San Diego’s Office of Small Business after they absurdly demanded back taxes and fees for my tiny amount of freelance writing income…

Dear Meredith Dibden Brown:

Yesterday, I received a letter from you (at the Office of Small Business) informing me that I had to register my “business” with the City of San Diego, pay a $34 yearly fee to be registered with the City, pay an unexplained $17 fee for “zoning,” and pay $250.84 in late fees for not having registered for the three years previously. I am writing to complain about the City’s unethical behavior and to demand that all late fees be removed from my bill.

As ridiculous as it is that I have to pay $34 so that I may be allowed to earn a couple thousand dollars a year as a freelance writer and editor – yes, I’m taxed before I even earn a dime — I understand that the City’s coffers are empty after decades of incompetence and mismanagement, and someone has to pay! Why not force the victims of said incompetence and mismanagement?

That said, never informing self-employed residents that they had to register with the City and then using that lack of knowledge as way to force them to accrue late fees for three years is a gross abuse of taxation power. It is unethical and unconscionable.

I have lived in San Diego for nearly four years. I have paid my California taxes every year. I have declared myself as self-employed each year. When I called your office and asked why I was only informed now that I was supposed to register in 2006, I was told it was because the City only bothered to look for the information now. So, I am paying $250.84 because the City could not be bothered to ask the State who was declaring themselves self-employed and then to cross-reference those names with the City’s registry and then to inform those un-registered persons in a timely fashion that they owed registration fees. I am paying late fees because the City is incompetent in its collection of taxes.

Speaking of incompetence, the letter that you sent to me claims that San Diego Municipal Code §31.0110 “requires all business within its City limits to obtain a Business Tax Certificate.” This is not true. §31.0110 defines the terms of the code concerning Business Taxes. §31.0121 is the section of the code that “requires all business within its City limits to obtain a Business Tax Certificate.”

I would appreciate your swift response.


Theodore K. Gideonse

Councilmember Sherri Lightner
Mayor Jerry Sanders
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith

UPDATE: This blog post was twittered by none other than the local government editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He referenced Carl DeMaio’s opposition to the way the City is dealing with the tax, so I forwarded my letter to DeMaio. DeMaio wrote back within a couple days to say that he was hoping to create an amnesty program or make really small businesses, like mine, exempt. And: “You shouldn’t be fined for not knowing you need to register.” Lightner’s assistant wrote back to say they were looking into it.

I finally received an email back from the Office of Small Business last week. It was, to say the least, defensive. Here it is in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Gideonse:

Thank you for contacting the Office of the City Treasurer.

Section 31.0135 of the San Diego Municipal Code (SDMC) states:

The City Treasurer is not required to send a notice or bill to any person subject to the provisions of this Article, and the failure to send such notice or bill shall not affect the validity of any fee or penalty due hereunder, or the duty of such person to pay required taxes.

Hence, it is the business owner’s/independent contractor’s responsibility to register with the Office of the City Treasurer prior to commencing business. Since the Business Tax assessment is a self-reporting tax, the City is not required to send notification to new businesses stating the tax is due. However, the City does provide business owners helpful information pertaining to the Business Tax application process. This information is available at the Office of the City Treasurer downtown, the six Community Service Centers located throughout the City, and the Office of Small Business which offers business start-up seminars, including information regarding the Business Tax certification process. In addition, IRS instructions to the Schedule C inform taxpayers of the potential tax liability. The fourth paragraph of the Schedule C instructions (see attachment) state: You may be subject to state and local taxes and other requirements such as business licenses and fees. Check with your state and local governments for more information.

Section 31.0131 of the SDMC also states the City can bill retroactively for up to three years with penalties for each year that the business was in operation. In addition to the penalties for delinquent payment, all small businesses (12 employees or less) that do not register or pay their taxes pay a non-compliance surcharge of $68.00, while large businesses (13 or more employees) pay $250.00. Note: Your account was not assessed the $68.00 surcharge.

All that considered, in order to more accurately assess whether you have a tax liability with the City, please address the following questions.

1. For how long have you been filing Form Schedule C – Profit or Loss From Business? Please specify year.

2. How often do you perform these freelance writing services within the City of San Diego on an annual basis? Please specify the average number of hours accrued annually?

3. Will you be filing Form Schedule C for the 2008 & 2009 tax years to report similar activities performed within the city limits of San Diego?

I look forward to your reply so I may assist you further.


John R. Zurita
Business Tax Compliance Supervisor
Office of the City Treasurer
The City of San Diego
(619) 615-1516 (Phone)
(619) 533-3274 (Fax)

There are so many problems with Zurita’s letter, most glaring being its “you don’t know what you’re talking about, you stupid taxpayer” tone. This is how I responded:

Dear Mr. Zurita,

Thank you for your email.

As my email clearly shows, I have read the municipal code. I am well aware that your office did not break the law. But your reliance on the vague fine print of the Schedule C form is a rather disingenuous way of claiming that we were told of the law when we were clearly not. I have also read Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957), and your office should, too, since it states that punishing someone for the lack of knowledge of a municipal law for which knowledge of cannot reasonably be expected is a violation of the 14th Amendment. [Thanks, Jeff! –Ed.]

If your office actually wanted taxpayers to know about the law, it would have made sure that California tax forms clearly stated the law and it would have made sure that tax preparation software programs all collected the tax. But it did not. And the most popular, TurboTax, which I use, is made by a San Diego company, Intuit!

The law is written in such a way, and it is enforced in such a way, as to create the nonpayment of taxes in order for late fees to be accrued. So, I stand by my assertion that the tax collection behavior of your office is unethical and an abuse of taxation power.

That said, here are my answers to your questions:

1. For how long have you been filing Form Schedule C – Profit or Loss From Business? Please specify year.

I have been filing a Schedule C since 1997.

2. How often do you perform these freelance writing services within the City of San Diego on an annual basis? Please specify the average number of hours accrued annually?

Since I moved to San Diego, I have never spent more than 20 to 30 hours a year writing, editing, or teaching writing on a freelance basis. I am a full-time graduate student, and rarely make more than $20,000 a year. The only year that I made a profit from my 1099s was 2006, when I received $xxx in royalties for work done in previous years. For that year, my net profit was $xxx. In 2007, my net loss was $xxx. In 2008, my net loss was $xxx.

3. Will you be filing Form Schedule C for the 2008 & 2009 tax years to report similar activities performed within the city limits of San Diego?



Ted Gideonse

I do not expect the City to voluntarily do the right thing. I can only hope that DeMaio is able to change the policy.

UPDATE #2: I win! I win!

Dear Mr. Gideonse:

Based on the information you have provided, you do not have a tax liability with the City. Since you have stated that you have never spent more than 20-30 hours per year providing these services, you qualified for an exemption under SDMC § 31.0202 (Exceptions — Limited Duration Activities). Therefore, we have canceled Notice Number – B2009006659.

In an effort to increase Business Tax Compliance, the City of San Diego recently began utilizing data from the State Franchise Tax Board (FTB). The City presumes that a taxpayer is conducting business within its jurisdiction if the taxpayer filed a business return/form with the Franchise Tax Board and or Internal Revenue Service using a City of San Diego address. This data is an effective means for tax enforcement and is used by a majority of California municipalities. However, there are situations that arise where an income tax filer does not qualify as a business.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the receipt of the Notice of Tax Liability billing statement.

Should you have further questions, please feel free to contact me.


John R. Zurita

And by the way, he cc-ed the email to Lightner’s assistant. Ha.