Bob Mondello’s Favorite Films of 2014

While listening to this year-end NPR story on the drive from my father’s home in Virginia to my mother’s in New Bern, North Carolina, I became so engrossed in it that I missed an exit. By the time I realized I was headed down the wrong highway, I was an hour off course.

Here’s the list of Bob Mondello’s favorites in American and foreign cinema (and the directors) for this past year, culled from the radio story. These are in the order in which he presented them, but beginning with the documentary Citizenfour the list seemed less ordered by preference and more about just being a favorite and well worth one’s time. He also declared ten an arbitrary number for a list, and so presented more than that number. I included the country of origin, as defined by the primary language of the film, if not English and documentaries are marked with an asterisk. Many of these have already been released in 2014 as DVDs and on Google Play and Amazon. Enjoy and happy movie-going in 2015!

  1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  2. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
  4. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
  5. Citizenfour (*) (Laura Poitras)
  6. Selma (Ava Duvernay)
  7. Leviathon Russia (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  8. Two Days, One Night Belgium (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
  9. Force Majeure Sweden (Ruben Östlund)
  10. Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs)
  11. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
  12. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
  13. The Lunchbox India (Ritesh Batra)
  14. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
  15. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
  16. The Dog (*) (François Keraudren, Allison Berg)
  17. Stranger by the Lake France (Alain Guiraudie)
  18. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  19. Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams)

The High Road

It’s been 3 months since a friend and colleague passed away after a long and brave battle with cancer. I think of him often, in part because his office is a few doors down the hallway from mine, but mostly because he was a memorable guy.  He was someone who faced what I considered at the time an unimaginable hardship: going through a divorce while simultaneously exploring treatments in a battle to extend his life, while at the same time trying to spend every living moment he could with his young daughter.  It would be a heartbreaking story if it were not for the positive influence he had on a great number of people in both his personal and professional life. I never heard him speak ill of anyone, although I’m sure he did as all humans do. Such is life. I rarely found his focus to be on himself, although undoubtedly there were moments – even long stretches – of selfishness. Such is life. It’s only natural (and I think beneficial) to remember only the good things about someone we admired and respected after they have died, but that isn’t to say that in hindsight we need to think of our friends as perfect. That would be cheating them of being human.

When I was having a tough time, whether at home or at work, he was someone I could rely on to help me see the light, so to speak, and to focus on what really mattered.  There were days he would take a walk with me (this all before his diagnosis) to get me to open up my chest and just to breathe. He would remind me of what was important, not by dispensing advice, but by asking me simple questions, like how my kids were doing.

He’s the kind of guy one would say took the high road. And coincidentally, that was the name of the road he lived on; it’s more than a convenient metaphor, though. There are any number of difficulties one finds in an hour, a day, a month, a year. Most of these are petty, many uncontrollable or unforeseen, but they all weigh on us in different ways at different times. I feel days when I can glide past the difficulty of my marriage ending, which on so many days feels like grieving for a lost one, with the ease, and as much pain, as smacking a biting mosquito. There are days when the kids are not with me, when something like buying a gallon of milk triggers a longing to see my children that feels like I’m being gutted with a dull knife. Life is a dream, but an imperfect one. That’s the sum of what I learned from the brief time in this world I was able to know JJ. Accept things for what they are in the moment, know that there is another day when things will not be so dire and, most importantly, take the high road. To do the right thing, as it is said, is a simple ethic. There have been many around me lately, JJ included, who have helped me understand how to live by that ethic, and for that I am grateful beyond words.

Back in the Groove of Things

It’s been a while, and like anything in life that you leave dormant for a year, or more, you come back to it not only with a fresh outlook, but also a slew of experience and change. The life-altering, introspection-inducing, gut-wrenching, resilience-building, soul-crushing, spirit-lifting kind of changes that come from being in the midst of one’s life, a father, an employee or just someone trying to make his way in the world.

The middle of 2014 has found me living as a single-father, separated and likely soon to be divorced from my wife of nine years. I am happily and gainfully employed, in a strange — in a foreign kind of way — state of affairs. Physically, I’m living in a nice new two bedroom apartment that is well-furnished and filled with personal effects, yet strangely like living in someone else’s home, or a nice extended stay hotel. The kids seem relatively happy here, but it is always a guessing game as to what is really churning and shaping in the mind of a child. Mentally, I’m all over the place, as is to be expected; there are days of feeling content with the universe and my place in it, days when tears constantly well up in my eyes, clouding my vision and sapping — almost literally — my energy, hours filled with clarity and gratitude, and long stretches of time when I feel like I’m in a state of drifting, weightless limbo. And that may account for just a few days, in a cycle and range of emotions that, for the most part, are unique and indescribable.

So why now? For one, expression is part of healing. It is one among a proven set of factors in determining one’s state of happiness (more on that topic in a future post). It also fills some time, provides some relief via distraction from what ails one and leads one down paths to simple conclusions and reasonable insights; and those help one do more than cope. They aid in understanding and rationalizing a state of affairs, invigorating and motivating one to accept the way things are and can even provide surprise and delight about friendships, family and what is really important in life.

Decision Day — The FastDiet

You might not yet heard of the diet craze that spread across Great Britain this year, but an article in the New York Times caught my attention. The FastDiet as it’s called, is based on the idea that our evolutionary history was one of feast and famine, and this routine is what kept us alive, alert and disease free enough to evolve. Rather, to evolve into the over-calorie consuming bovine grazers that we have become, but is not at the root of our physiology. That’s the root idea, but if you want to get the full picture you should buy the book, The FastDiet, Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting. You can also visit the site to find out more.

The FastDiet
The FastDiet

The long and short of it is this: after reading the New York Times article, and buying the inexpensive (less than $10) Kindle edition on Amazon, I decided to give it a try. Not because of the weight loss component, as much as the energy and mood and health benefits of following a calorie-restricted diet. Now, as the book points out, there are a lot of calorie-restrictive diet options out there. But this is simply built on simple science, and that is what I found so compelling. I know from my own medical history that while I’m generally lean, I am carrying around a layer of fat in my mid-section — an indication of unhealthy fat surrounding vital organs and a leading indicator of pre-diabetes — and that I’m what is called “TOFI” — thin on outside fat on inside. Time for a life change.

Again, for the science it’s better to consult the book than to read this amateur blog post. But the reasons for signing up for this regimen are mine, and pretty easy to define:

  • The logic of it was the first thing that appealed to me. It’s not about denial, it’s just about some basic controls on eating a couple of days a week, with profound impact on habits the other 5 days. It seemed to be a natural transition based on the here and now, my present goals and my general outlook. So I was particularly receptive to the idea, you could say.
  • I was as interested in the mood enhancement, and re-learning the joys of food, in variety and taste. This is a major component of change in my life as my children grow older and my relationship with my wife enters its second decade. I want to feel better, have a better and more positive outlook. Part of this is psychological, part is physical. It has become a major priority in my life. I don’t want to just live a long life, I want to live a rewarding one filled with positivity and happiness. Do I think this is a panacea of some kind? Of course not, but positive change in any direction is a good thing.
  • In addition to lower colesterol and cancer-fighting benefits, the side effect is weight loss and a better physique. I want to get to a better place in body and soul.

Like with anything, keeping records or a diary (I word I’ve always detested) of some kind helps drive motivation. I’ve started with my 2 fasting days a week being Mondays and Thursdays. It should be pointed out that by fasting you simply reduce your calorie intake to between 500-600 calories on the fast-days, so it’s not a starvation plan. That’s a small breakfast and a light healthy meal, lots of black coffee, weak black tea and water. And what is meant to happen is that the fasting 2 days a week drives better eating habits, in quantity and quality, on the other 5 days a week. And the light at the end of the tunnel on those rougher Mondays and Thursdays is that you’re only a short day away from satisfying, healthy meals.

So we’ll see how it goes.

Central Texas Gardener – Propagating Cacti and Other Plants from Cuttings

One of the pleasures of my weekend (usually when the kids are out of the house) is Jamaican coffee and Central Texas Gardener on KLRU.

A few weeks ago while biking back from a haircut at Byrd’s, I stopped at curbside gardens and empty lots in Zilker and Barton Hills to snap off cacti to see if I could root them for the ground. I also found a large agave which had been putting out daughter plants. Given how scarred and cut back it was from groundskeepers hacking at the surrounding grass with weed whackers, I felt like it was okay to dig them up and find them a safer home.

After leaving the plants out in the open air for a few days – the cacti longer – in order to callus the cutting, I stuck the cuttings in perlite. The agaves already had young roots so I just popped them in a mix of 1 part sand to 3 parts potting mix, with a handful of the perlite tossed in for the hell of it. While we were away, the perlite got too moist from the rainwater, and a few of the catci rotted, but most I just stuck back in mottled shade on the back deck to dry them out. When more rains were on the horizon, one afternoon before a storm, I stuck the tray in my shed next to a window, and frankly forgot about them for a couple of weeks. This morning I was pleased to see that the plants have all sprouted roots, just as easy as the guest host from East Austin Succulents said it would be. I also cut rosemary from a neighbor’s plant, stuck them in water in a shaded window, and when back from vacation, here they were with roots.

agave rooting - leaf growth
These agave were stuck directly into soil, and small leaves at the base are starting to grow.

Here is the pear cactus:

pear cactus rooting in perlite
After drying the cutting so it formed a callus, I just placed it in a recycled container filled with perlite.

A good reminder tip from the show is to wear work gloves when handling cactus (duh, but I tried it without and yes, was chewing spines out of my fingertips). Check out the perlite, clinging to the growing roots.

cactus cutting roots
Lots of strong, new roots and a healthy green color after a long while out of soil, with little water.

For this skinny cactus tip that I snapped off of a large, overgrown plant, I just let it rest on the top of the perlite to dry out the wound to a callus.

cactus cuttings on perlite
I just tossed it on top of the perlite to dry it out, so that the wound would form a callus. According to the show, you can leave these out for weeks out of soil, and I had no problem doing so.

And when I went to check out the callus, I found these:

cactus cutting new roots
The cactus starting rooting just resting on the perlite. It could not have been less efffort.

The tray I got from the recycling plastic pot bins at The Great Outdoors on South Congress on the side of their parking lot. I also got the perlite there as well, as these nice, natural colored large glazed pots that were sold at dirt cheap clearance. For those I’m going to do pots of succulents. Contact me on Twitter @jeffersonb if you want me to send a magazine story on how to do stacked pots (or strawberry pots) that I have in PDF format. If you’re interested in the gardener’s boots, she was wearing L.L.Bean.

Great Outdoors Austin glazed pots
These glazed pots were deeply discounted (I think I paid $48 for all four pots) and I’m going to grow succulents in them. I’ll set the smaller pot into the larger, to create some height.

Incidentally, we ran into these guys, who had a segment on their home garden on the show, while having dinner with the kids at the delicious Komé Sushi. They have a great blog post (and great blog, The Grackle, in general) on propogating rosemary, maybe inspired by one of the other segments on the show they were in.

Sweeping the Sleaze

Inspired by an email from my colleague Joel, a developer, I decided to remove the annoying, unused button clutter for social media sharing from each blog post. Sure, you can still follow me on Twitter, but I agree with the author of this article that

If you provide excellent content, social media users will take the time to read and talk about it in their networks. That’s what you really want. You don’t want a cheap thumbs up, you want your readers to talk about your content with their own voice.

I figure you all –  and by you all I mean probably my Dad and maybe a few Internet stragglers who ended up here somehow – can figure out how to cut-and-paste a link into Facebook or Twitter or anything else that strikes your fancy. Because at the end of the day,

The less noise, the less begging, the less secondary advertisement means the easier it is to focus, and the more likely it is that people will actually read your content.

So thanks for reading this, you.  It feels good to clean up.

Friends Arriving

David at Rothbury
David at Rothbury, July 4, 2008

Very excited to see Colette and David arrive from Los Angeles today, for a long weekend in Austin. Most excited to go with them as guests of Caroline and KLRU to see Radiohead tape an episode of Austin City Limits. David and Colette were in our circle of folks who made the trip to Rothbury, Michigan for Rothbury Music Festival, so it will be a reunion of sorts. Today is a lazy day with a lots of sun, but a chilly wind out of the north. Quite a difference from yesterdays warm day in the 80s.

Tomorrow is the 84th Zilker Park Kite Festival. We jokingly refer to it as “People Fest” given the experience last year in which thousands upon thousands of people stood in Zilker Park, with absolutely no wind whatsoever. Just a line of food concessions and not much else going on.


Circuit of the Americas
Rendering of the future Austin F1 track

Was lucky to meet a few of the guys from Circuit of the Americas this week, again at ACL Live (for a taping of the Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars). They are incredibly pumped up for the upcoming Formula 1 race this Fall, and the more I learn about it, and the swirl of parties and events surrounding it, the more I’m looking forward to the whole F1 racing world coming to Austin.


What have I been doing with my life? Clearly nothing that involves updating my blog. According to the New York Times, we have the Facebook to blame for this. All the kids are off blogs and onto the Facebook. It’s the drug of choice. It’s normally difficult to keep up, but I’m feeling practically adolescent with my lack of authoring.

The family is in a new home. Now if we can just get the bathroom sinks delivered from the factory, I can stop having to explain that the beard I’ve grown is a matter of function. No bathroom sink means no shaving. I can’t bring myself to shave in the shower. Too big of a project and I have too many other projects on my plate. Like deciding whether or not I like Helvetica for the address label on the new mailbox. Or obsessively employing geometry in my (to this point successful) hanging of perfectly level and spaced artwork.

The neighborhood is great. I can count among my neighbors some new friends, and they seem to enjoy making good margaritas. They seem to enjoy making babies, too, which means the kids have other kids their age to play with. It’s a long way from the days of driving forty-five minutes across Los Angeles to eat a hot dog and have a beer. And as the summer days and Texas heat rapidly approach, it’s nice to know we’re just a hop, skip and a jump (did I just write something that hokey?) away from the cool waters of Barton Spring Pool.

I hear the girl talking to her dolls. My coffee is getting cold, so it’s time to chug it down, hug the wife and get on with another great day in Austin.

I suppose you'd call this an official site.