Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Tag: martha’s vineyard

Nate Silver was wrong about one thing: The ocean

I’ve known Nate Silver for a long time, and spend 10 minutes in my presence and I’ll be sure to remind you of that. I finished his book last night, and it’s amazing. I wasn’t surprised at the depth of his knowledge, because no one with an Internet connection would be, but the breadth of it knocked me off my feet. We often talk about baseball and poker and politics, but he doesn’t go quoting Julius Caesar here and there. The book is a masterpiece, and like all great masterpieces, it has a flaw. I wasn’t looking for it: most of the time, I was shocked that I’ve spent time with this human, whose brain could be running America (and as of last month, is qualified to do so!). But Nate grew up in the spartan hills of central Michigan, and I grew up on an island, and got to spend my early life near the ocean at all times. That’s the other thing I’ll tell you in the first 10 minutes you’ll spend around me, without fail. Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket sucks.

In his conclusion, Nate writes:

Staring at the ocean and waiting for a flash of insight is how ideas are generated in the movies. In the real world, they rarely come to you when you are standing in place. Nor do the “big” ideas necessarily start out that way. It’s more often with small, incremental, and sometimes even accidental steps that we make progress.

I agree that small, incremental steps are how we form ideas, but they will hit you on the beach. What Nate doesn’t account for is that they have to hit you sometime, and his conclusion implies that these times are random, but the “getting inspired by staring at the ocean” isn’t contrived: It’s a real thing that happens.

Look at it this way: If you are building toward an idea, a “Eureka!” moment will come, at some point. For the same reason cloistered thinkers are encourage to take a walk in order to give their brains a chance to start putting together some puzzle pieces behind-the-scenes, looking at the ocean is one of the best ways to help you come to your magic moments. The staring-at-the-ocean “meme,” may I call it that, came from a place where staring out at the biggest feature on our planet affords us insight by bringing our own ideas down to size. And here’s the thing, the one thing I can speak for from experience: It never gets old. I can’t remember a time, growing up, when taking time at the ocean didn’t help me reorganize my thoughts in a constructive way. It may have happened, but if it did, it was rare. That was part of the magic of growing up on an island, a magic I still think and write about to an outsized degree, more than a decade later. It’s less “Lost” magic than  pure practicality: When faced with the infinite on all sides, it’s hard not to be awed by life, however contained. It’s no accident Hollywood is mere miles from the ocean. As Nate might say, it’s the single greatest tool we have to separate the signal from the noise.


My 17-year-old self and I argue and play basketball, I win

We’ll pick up my conversation with my 17-year-old self the morning after we left off, when I come downstairs for breakfast.

ME: Good morning.

17-Y-O-Me: (waves aimlessly, doesn’t take eyes from TV)

ME: Did you make coffee?

17-Y-O-Me: (looks at me like I’m crazy)

ME: Oh, right. You don’t drink coffee.

17-Y-O-Me: I’m not a pussy.

ME: Right. I forgot I felt that way.

17-Y-O-Me: Big softy now, eh?

ME: You wait until you have a 9-to-5 job.

17-Y-O-Me: I’ll never have one of those.

ME: Hey moron? (does a pointing back and forth between us to indicate yes, in fact, you will)

17-Y-O-Me: (throws remote at me, I dodge it, it hits glass front door but doesn’t break it)

ME: You idiot.

17-Y-O-Me: I’m the idiot?! You’re the one with the 9-to-5 job!

ME: It’s not that simple. And wait, are you blaming me for dodging something you threw at me?

17-Y-O-Me: Of course! You know the glass door is there!

ME: What do you want me to do, catch it?

17-Y-O-Me: Ha! Good one.

ME: Alright, that’s it. We’re playing basketball, right now. You and me. One on one.

17-Y-O-Me: (mocking) Don’t you need your coffee first?

ME: (fuming) Grab your shoes, dickwad.

(He grabs his shoes and we walk the 5 minutes to the basketball court in tense silence. I beat him handily. He’s in better shape, but not better enough, and he doesn’t use his body as well as I do. He challenges me to best two out of three but halfway through game two, which he’s losing, he starts visibly moping. He misses a jumper, and then…)

ME: What’s the problem, hair in your eyes?

17-Y-O-Me: (shoves me, I don’t lose dribble)

ME: Good defense? Where’d you learn that? (Does turnaround jumper, misses)

17-Y-O-Me: Look at Air Jordan over there! (tries running layup, goes out of control, misses wildly, ball rolls into the woods and under poison ivy. Him, instantaneously:) Your ball.

ME: I’m not getting it.

17-Y-O-Me: If I get it, it’s my ball.

ME: I’m not getting poison ivy because you suck at basketball.

17-Y-O-Me: (rage) If I get that ball, I’m taking it.

ME: If you’re taking that ball, I’m not playing anymore.

17-Y-O-Me: Fine, then I’ll just keep shooting until I win without you here.

ME: You think you can make 10 baskets by dinner?

(He attacks me, and now we’re fighting right next to the ball, rolling around in the poison ivy we were just trying to avoid. A car drives by and looks at us strangely, but we stop to both wave to indicate it’s all in fun, relatively speaking. When the car passes, we start again and kick the ball even further in and we stop, and, simultaneously:)

US: Shit.

(Looking all around us, at the plants)


ME: We should probably…

17-Y-O-Me: Go to the beach and get this stuff off of us.

ME: I’ll drive.

17-Y-O-Me: Like hell you will, grandpa.

(Ten minutes later, we’re in the car)

ME: Do you have sunscreen?

17-Y-O-Me: (chortles)

ME: I suppose you like getting sunburnt?

17-Y-O-Me: I don’t mind.

ME: That translates to “I’m too proud to put on sunscreen” in adult.

17-Y-O-Me: Oh Jesus.

ME: We going to South Beach?

17-Y-O-Me: Of course.

ME: I figured as much.

17-Y-O-Me: I love it.

ME: You would. I still like it, but I feel old there.

17-Y-O-Me: Well, I’m 17 and the ocean is the ocean.

ME: You’re looking for that girl, aren’t you?

17-Y-O-Me: (obviously lying) No!

ME: Yeah, you are. All the teenagers are at South Beach. That’s why I don’t like to go anymore. Look at it this way: If a girl was two years old when I was your age, she’s 17 now. Just think about that.

17-Y-O-Me: (pulls car over) Lambert’s Cove?*

ME: Lambert’s Cove.

17-Y-O-Me: (turns car around) I feel itchy already.

ME: Oh, don’t be such a drama queen. It wouldn’t work that fast.

17-Y-O-Me: (takes hand, rubs it all over my face) You’d better hope not.

ME: (pushes stick into neutral, he immediately puts in back in gear)

17-Y-O-Me: … (rage turns to admiration)

17-Y-O-Me: Okay, that was pretty good.

(We high five, and then some pop song comes on the radio that we both like and we blast it and start singing together.)


* This would obviously not be happening at sunset, but I mean jeez.

My 17-year-old self and I debate LeBron James

Imagine my surprise when, after writing two columns on LeBron James on Friday morning I walked into my childhood home that evening, which I thought was empty, and was confronted with my 17-year-old self watching SportsCenter, LeBron news on repeat. (Please ignore space-time continuum problems.)

ME: Hi.

17-Y-O-Me: Hey.

ME: Do you know who I am?

17-Y-O-Me: (looks me up and down) I have a guess.

ME: Okay, I can tell you do. Because, like, you’re me and we’re still pretty similar.

17-Y-O-Me: (makes show of playing with long hair) In some ways.

ME: I never would have said something like that.

17-Y-O-Me: Apparently you would have.

ME: That either. I wasn’t that aggressive.

17-Y-O-Me: Maybe you should have been.

ME: So, uh… how about LeBron?

17-Y-O-Me: It’s crazy.

ME: He looks so douchey up there. (At the moment, the highlights from the Heat Beach Party are playing and Neil Everett or Linda Cohn is screaming something. Chris Bosh is acting like a wrestler.)

17-Y-O-Me: I don’t know. He looks like he’s having fun.

ME: Douchebags can have fun too.

17-Y-O-Me: What’s wrong with having fun?

ME: Um, nothing, I suppose. But if I was a Cleveland fan, I’d be upset by this.

17-Y-O-Me: But you’re not.

ME: Yeah, but I can empathize.

17-Y-O-Me: Yeah, it sucks. But so what?

ME: Well, I mean, I have a few good friends from Cleveland…

17-Y-O-Me: Oh. What does that matter?

ME: Are you saying empathy is bad?

17-Y-O-Me: (suddenly defensive; I notice this trait from my youth) No, that’s not what I’m saying.

ME: Then what are you saying?

17-Y-O-Me: Isn’t this just kind of cool?

ME: I don’t know. It just feels so yucky.

17-Y-O-Me: Sports are yucky all the time.

ME: I suppose that’s true…

17-Y-O-Me: No really, sports are yucky all the time. Who gives a crap? They’re only sports.

ME: Funny that you say that when you’ve spent your entire life trying to learn everything possible about them.

17-Y-O-Me: (mimics entire sentence in play voice, then turns beet red in embarrassment)

ME: (ignoring it) You know what sucks for us?

17-Y-O-Me: What?

ME: All that memorization we did—who played what position for what team when, all the records and stuff—anyone can get all that off their phone now. Everyone’s a sports expert. It’s really hard to make a name for yourself.

17-Y-O-Me: We probably should have been a lawyer.

(We look straight at each other like: No way.)

ME: You know what you need? Some financial advice.

17-Y-O-Me: I make $15 an hour at Brickman’s at the moment. I’m doing just fine.

ME: I mean long-term, numbnuts.

17-Y-O-Me: Numbnuts. Real original. What are you, from Jersey?

(I pounce on the couch in a rage and we start fighting for about 30 seconds before we simultaneously yell “Glass table!” to remind each other that we risk breaking it, and we stop)

17-Y-O-Me: (sarcastically) Yeah, you’ve changed.

ME: You mean I’m stronger?

17-Y-O-Me: (turns red, doesn’t want to admit it) Whatever.

ME: Whatever.

17-Y-O-Me: (suddenly) Can you buy me beer?

ME: You don’t even know what you’re doing with that stuff.

17-Y-O-Me: Oh, and you do.

ME: You DICK! (start fighting again)

17-Y-O-Me: Glass table!

(I keep fighting, he pushes me off)

17-Y-O-Me: You know, it’s almost like you come back here to just to fight me. I mean look at you! You’re worse than I am. I’m perfectly calm, and by the time you leave you’re sitting on the couch just like me, watching ESPN over and over. It’s almost like you feel like you can’t do that in the city, when you totally can. Not my fault you can’t remember that the good things in life are simple. We island folk have it good.

ME: “We island folk.” You pretentious fuck.

17-Y-O-Me: Whatever. It’s true.

ME: Hey dickhead, I have news for you.

17-Y-O-Me: Oh yeah, what?

ME: I’ve had sex.


My friend the banker

My friend the banker taught me how to make eggs. Small pan, a spritz of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, one side and then over. Easy. But mine don’t look like his. Mine are all tapioca-yellow broken-yoke muddle, his are all golden-brown, fluffy, yokes intact. Break them and the gold runs along your plate to the margins, waiting to be curled into a piece of toast.

My friend the banker recently bought a house. A duplex, to be exact. My friend the banker is 25 years old, and not even really a banker. He works at an investment bank, though, so it’s easiest to call him that. Snappier, too. My friend the banker is a snappy dresser and snappy with zingers to toss around. It fits, like the Mini Cooper he drives with the vanity plate that you couldn’t even imagine.

I explained the problems that I outlined yesterday to my friend the banker. He was uniquely qualified to comment on my situation, having no small number of his own things in my house, due to circumstances beyond his control. At first, he said that there were some things he would like to keep for posterity, and recommended gutting the house of its items and throwing everything in an above-ground garage. Expensive, semi-sentimental, and sensible, I thought. Then my friend the banker thought about it for another minute and spoke again.

“Throw it all away,” he said.

It caused me no small amount of joy to hear that. I consider it a healthy attitude to take toward one’s early youth, especially when is looking at it in the rear-view mirror. My friend the banker is moving in with his girlfriend, and embarking on a new life entirely of his choosing. It is altogether admirable. It’s something I did once.

That conversation was two weeks ago, on a highway in Phoenix, Arizona. Last weekend, I was face-to-face with my friend the banker’s stuff. Old photos, trophies, clothes, mementos, in boxes that chirped their owners’ suggestion to throw them out over the pulsating sound of the Bose speaker upstairs.* I did not do it. It’s not because I don’t respect my friend the banker’s wishes, but because having been reminded of the power of memory through the process of clearing the clutter from my own past, I have been reminded how it changes, like the colors of a sunset.

You know that moment at dusk when everything gets lighter all of a sudden, like someone pressed rewind on the night for 30 seconds? Doesn’t the same thing happen in life? I think it does, and I don’t know if my friend the banker has gotten there yet. And if he hasn’t, I can’t deprive him the opportunity to watch, in awe and wonder, as it appears the clocks are turning backward, that 8 o’clock has become 7:45, the the world has started spinning in the opposite direction, and that things that have faded in importance for him become, against all odds, resonant once more, final, shining beacons to the past.

So I’m careful. I throw away the trash.  I’m respectful of the past, and of the future. I’m as consistent as possible. But last weekend even I was taken aback when I found a shark hand puppet that belonged to me when I was six years old, and it all came swirling back, all of it. I put it in a box and onto a shelf and, unbowed, headed back to my project, the broken yokes of old dreams all around me, trying desperately not to break any more.

* On a lighter note, the Bose iPod dock is, in the words of C.P., the sixth man of the maintenance work. That thing is out. of. control. Wizardry.

Object in motion

In the northeast corner of the country, we have salty, wet, wooden America. The ocean. Evergreens. Boats. Lobsters for those who can afford them. The Red Sox. Islands big and small.

In the southwest corner, we have dry, air conditioned America. Cactii. Immigration laws. The Suns. Pizzeria Bianco. Those little misting devices outside of restaurants to keep you from becoming a sun-dried tomato.

In the last two weeks, I have bounced between and around these two Americas (John Edwards whut) like a pinball, but instead of leaving my normal trail of destruction, I’m actually cleaning up messes. I’ve left every place better than I’ve found it, in the maintenance I’ve done on my childhood home (Massachusetts), the paint I’ve slapped on my brother’s new home (Phoenix), or the economic stimulus I’ve provided to the U.S. economy (Las Vegas).

I returned to my apartment for more than 12 hours for the first time on Sunday night, fresh off the superlatively beautiful boat ride back from M.V. I was anxious. I had a leaky faucet, a stack of recyclables that have been long ignored, and a cluttered apartment setup. After all the arranging and rearranging I had done, did I have to live this way?

Of course I didn’t. Last night, I took upon the task of gutting my apartment. Bookshelf: gone. Books: in the closet for now. Trash: deposited. Bicycle: headed to Craigslist, or West Tisbury. Guitar I never learned to play or really cared to: eat me. Dresser: justify your existence, or go home.

This all sounds like boilerplate stuff, but there’s an underlying issue.

In performing maintenance on my childhood home, I’ve brushed up against the memories of some of its fellow former occupants. Okay, “brushed up” is the most delicate way of putting it. I have, with only a slight intention, jabbed at them completely and violently, like hundreds of razor-sharp needles. This has been difficult for some people, even if I’m striving to remind them that their memories are, if not the first thing on my mind (and they could be), darn close to it.

What it comes down to is the power of things, and how those things come to define us. Of course, it’s completely up to us how we let that happen, and there is no right or wrong way. There are differing philosophies, but other people could give a hoot about my philosophy. Their way works for them. That I initially tried to argue my way out of this shows a gap in my understanding that has been rectified, if not forgiven, by the people it bothered. I believe my grand plan for that house is 99% of what everyone else’s grand plan is, but it’s the 1% that’s important in this case.

So returning home (to New York this time), to a place that’s 100% my vision… it’s too grand an opportunity to pass it up. The thing is, I wouldn’t be able to do it had I not done it in Massachusetts or Phoenix. I learn by doing, watching, tinkering. In the end and in the future, my grand projects will be limited to what’s mine unless explicitly directed otherwise. Some people don’t even trust me anymore. That’s something I’ll have to live with. I suppose we all do.

The most beautiful sight in New York

The return ticket on the admirably named SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard costs something on the order of $100 one-way. It’s worth it for the city approach alone. First, you’re hugging Long Island, with a house or two visible in the formless coastline on your left. Then the houses and terrain get bigger, more pronounced and then WHAP—there’s Connecticut on your right, beginning the gradual process of pinching you toward Manhattan, which is still invisible for about 20 minutes as the features on both sides of you grow and grow and grow. The sun is also setting to your right, its reflection off the water pointing back at you in white, then yellow, then gold, then orange, then blood orange and finally red before, in an instant, vanishing completely.

And then you see it.

Straight ahead of you, a small row of rectangular gray shapes on the horizon that takes up no more than one-twentieth of your visual panorama. But make no mistake: you’re headed right for it. You get closer and closer and it still doesn’t seem to grow but the houses on your left do, to the point you realize you’re looking at mansions, and look at all the sailboats in the water now here at dusk, and there’s “West Egg” and now “East Egg” and as the lights turn on in the June 20th night, you look for a green one, and you continue…

The lights are popping on in front of you now and suddenly the gray shapes are bigger, less rigidly rectangular and they are not all visible. You approach the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges, sailing underneath both of them against an amazing pinkblue sky. (You text your friend below and implore him to take in the views). Immediately after the Whitestone, the boat slows down, as if slammed in the face by the idea of New York, but really just because you’re in a no wake zone from here on out. The breeze is still defined, but it’s no longer relentless. It alternates hot and cool, and you have no idea—as you pass LaGuardia Airport now, under the belly of a plane—how it happens, but it’s great. After LaGuardia, there’s Riker’s Island, and you have the only view of it you ever want.

You hang a left after Riker’s, and the city is no longer in front of you: It’s vertically materializing on your right. As you face it down just beyond Astoria, you see the railroad bridge imposed upon the Triboro imposed upon the skyline. It might be the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen. And then Astoria Park passes on your left and you’re past it, and now there’s nothing between you and Manhattan and the FDR on your right and suddenly this isn’t New York but Hong Kong: A megalopolis on the water effectively using its waterways not just for function but for wonder and awe. You watch the streets pass as the sky darkens and the lights get brighter and brighter, reds and greens and the blue of the Empire State Building, which is no longer just the building you work near. It’s the symbol of a city you are, at long last, able to see with new eyes.

As it builds to a crescendo you hear a voice behind you. “Bryan, are you getting off?” Pulled from your—my—trance, I nod and head below, ready to enter the belly of the beast.

New eyes

I wanted to write a blog post on the bus today, but I didn’t know how I was going to post it, and then I got SOCKED in the face by reality, where my $74 bus ticket (up from $66, like, yesterday) includes free wireless internet. Pith in motion! Note to U.S. Airways: get on this. Though I actually kind of liked the, you know, conversation I had in its absence yesterday.

So uh yeah. The Blind Side is on. I would watch this! But there’s no sound. And I read the book.

This was my second toe-touch in Brooklyn in the last two weeks. Twelve hours and gone. The first was MVY–>NY–>The Desert. This one is the return trip. I figured that if I didn’t get out of NY at the earliest opportunity I would be stuck here. And when I typed “JFK” into the self check-in yesterday, I felt nauseated. Having tasted Not New York, I’m eager to drink it down in copious amounts. Having seen other places with new eyes, especially Phoenix, I’m eager to do the same with New York.

But I can’t. When I came back in last night, it hurt my eyes to look. It was like being forced to watch TV when you’ve been at it for 12 hours. I needed, and need a break. I need to come back with new eyes. I need to see new and exciting things to do, or at least not grow anxious by looking at the old ones. I believe, in the parlance of our times, that I need a vacation. I need to get away.

So now I’m back on the bus, traversing the same stretch of I-95 that this guy, an O’Donnell and many a Smadbeck has owned over the last decade. I used to take pride in knowing the exits by heart. Now I take pride in only caring about my destination. I’ve been told that “place” is important to me, and I believe it. I used to the think the places along the way were the story, but they’re not. As I’ve begun renovating my childhood home, I have a much better idea of what a place means when you put your own sweat into it, and the gratification of seeing your own vision come to life. Having been away for so long, it was easy to see “home” with new eyes, and set about doing what had to be done.

My apartment in Brooklyn has been another story. I’ve tried to put it together without a real vision, and have done it piecemeal and half-assed. With new eyes, all of that might change.

We’ve changed our name to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard

I just read a fascinating piece of literature at the website for the boat service I’m taking today to Martha’s Vineyard, which leaves from East 35th Street. The trip is neither cheap ($210 r/t) nor terribly convenient and promises to be, uh, “unsettling” at times, according to a friend who’s taken it. I haven’t bought Dramamine in 15 years, but the friend strongly suggested I end that streak.

Speaking of streaks, did you know that NE Fast Ferry had changed its name to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard? OMG, right? Fascinating. Fascinating enough, naturally, to warrant an entire web page “About our new name:”

Dear Guest,

Yes – we’ve changed our name.

Oh sh!t, did I not tell you? I changed mine too. It’s now Longman Harkoo.

We’ve decided to shift our company’s name from New England Fast Ferry to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard.

Why, you ask?

Eh… not really?

Two years ago we grew our organization by acquiring a ferry operation in New York called SeaStreak. We purchased it from the international vessel parent operation known as SeaContainers.

Yeah, when you were all, “Going to Martha’s Vineyard is such a rip-off!” you were right. We didn’t need all that money. But when your wife sees you brought something home from SeaContainers…

What we’ve learned since that time is that the name SeaStreak is not only well recognized in the U.S., particularly in the NY/CT/NJ area, but, it’s well known internationally as well.

The lawsuit with the Honolulu County Nudist Association, LLC, was settled out of court. (Surprisingly good lawyers over there.)

With the intention of engaging in smart marketing, we’ve decided to operate under a name that garners the most amount of recognition.

Somebody went to business school! (It was my friend Ravi!)

Like any business, we succeed when more people recognize us and choose to become our customers. The name SeaStreak will aid in that goal.

Being literally the only provider of a service doesn’t hurt, either, though I’m not sure I would take Dogpoop Ferry to enjoy those spectacular 42 hours at home. (Dogs are not allowed on the boat, by the way, “due to the length of the trip.” Not much mystery there.)

Moreover, we’ve long regretted not having the name of our travel destination within our name. New England Fast Ferry was pretty good at describing what we do, but, not so good at saying precisely where we travel to.

“And SeaStreak Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority Slip was already trademarked.”

By taking on the name SeaStreak, we now have the opportunity to add “Martha’s Vineyard” to our brand.

Look what it did for Teddy K.

Changing names is always a tricky undertaking for companies. Confusion inevitably follows.

“I swear, my office was here just yesterday.”

However, rest assured that it’s just the name that’s changed. Ownership hasn’t changed one bit, and our focus on great customer service and high quality marine transportation hasn’t changed.

Rest assured the guys who are making money hand over fist on you haven’t changed. You’ll probably need Dramamine.

Thanks for your business. We appreciate it very much.

Sadly, not as much as me, pal.

Books on Vacation

Just got an email from the wolves, who’s in Buenos Aires. Subject: “Gravity rainbow” [sic]. Body:

Take 3.
Is getting torn up faster than a Kenyan runner.

You get the point. Misra is in a park in 75-degree B.A., tearing Pynchon to pieces. I know the feeling, and it’s great. Vacation is the best time to read: you’re open to every word, and you’ve got no real time constraints. I took down 100 Years of Solitude in Australia, and it’s still the most lucid reading I’ve ever had.

I get the feeling, albeit to a much lesser extent, when I crack a novel at lunch. I used to do this all the time at my summer job when I was a teenager. I’d go to the park or the benches by the Capawock theater, pare down to a T-shirt, and let some unsuspecting novel just have it. I’d fly for a few chapters before my internal clock would go off at about 10-til, whereupon I would find a good stopping spot two or three pages away. It was so exhilarating knowing that I’d be slamming the book shut at the end of those thousand or so words.

And now the thing is that I just did this. An hour ago, I pulled out Midnight’s Children and moved over to “Secret Park,” a square-cut green space on 28th Street that’s my preferred alternative to Madison Square Park. I took off my sport jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and pinned the book to the table. Rushdie got owned. It wasn’t quite vacation, but it was something like it. I wasn’t just in India. I was in a time machine.

The Ghost Writer

I spent a good deal of yesterday doing things and feeling like I was doing nothing, so I resolved to see a movie, even if I had to do so by myself. I had to do so by myself. I figured this would be a good time to see The Ghost Writer.

I wanted to see The Ghost Writer for three reasons: it got good reviews; some college friends had recently extolled Roman Polanski’s brilliance; and because it is set on Martha’s Vineyard — or, for the purposes of this discussion, “Martha’s Vineyard.” One will never know if the film’s details about the island wouldn’t have amusingly thrashed between spot-on or just poorly researched if Polanski wasn’t effectively banned from shooting there, but obviously catching what was and wasn’t “real” was part of the film’s charm for me. It’s probably better that I went alone.

To give a quick summary: A British writer (Ewan McGregor, “The Ghost”) is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a Tony Blair-like former P.M. (Pierce Brosnan, “Adam Lang”), who is holed up for the winter on an island in the United States of America that looks a lot like Martha’s Vineyard, and shares many place names with it. The Ghost shows up, begins work on the project and discovers unexpected levels of complexity. Things happen, and he becomes part of the things, and that’s all I’ll say. It’s worth seeing, and what I’m about to say has nothing to do with that.

I will note first off that the words “Martha’s Vineyard” are neither spoken nor shown at any point during the movie; the Ghost is simply told he will be going to “an island in the States.” The very opening shot is of a passenger/car ferry that looks externally like none of the boats currently floating between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven but which opens to find an identical interior to those. The stage is set for the Royale-With-Cheese Vineyard; it’s the little things that are different. The Ghost gets to the island by 747/puddlejumper/ferry, adding an unnecessary step (puddlejumper/ferry is an either/or proposition) but one that already had me smirking for an unrelated reason: If there had been no other clue that this wasn’t really home, the color of the water alone, an unforgiving slate gray, would have been an immediate giveaway. Our water always smacks of deep blue.

The movie was actually filmed in Northern Germany, and I’ll say this: Much of the going-to and coming-from Lang’s house takes place on a road that is indistinguishable from Moshup Trail, and the adjacent beach also duplicated Aquinnah. Well played. The problem here is not simply that somehow the Ghost must re-enter a wooded wilderness (also, with its exceedingly tall, North Sea-stripped trees, not the Vineyard) before getting to Lang’s beachfront property, but that can be forgiven as another plot necessity. More urgently, the house, in its low-rise white-brick mod/70’s/Euro style, is something that doesn’t have an analog on real life-M.V. and probably never will, which isn’t to say it could never happen. If it did, the kids would be itching to party there, and would probably succeed.

The in-town shots were pretty spot-on, and a couple times I wondering if I wasn’t actually looking at B-roll footage of Edgartown. I wasn’t. The townsfolk were conspicuously without accents, and the names of places weren’t exactly spot on, nor were their locations. At one point, the Ghost asks for a map of the island, which the camera consults only fleetingly. I caught the word “Chilmark” but didn’t catch the landscape — again, it looked a little off. While the Ghost’s car laudably directs him to “Edgartown Vineyard” at one point, the ferry travels between an unnamed off-island port and the fictional town of “Old Haven.” It’s hard to know whether this is sloppiness or intentional blurring of reality due to Polanski’s inability to actually see or film the Vineyard; maybe it’s a sly way of saying his America isn’t our America, and that we’re seeing the America of his memory. The entire movie is dream-like, and this brought it to another level for me… but obviously, I was one of the few people paying attention to every last detail.

This could easily lead into a discussion of how places are represented on film, and what effect it has on the moviegoing experience. Take Spider-Man 2, for instance, which stages a critical fight scene on an imaginary elevated train in Manhattan — less New York reimagined than contempt for the audiences in the know — unlike, say, in When Harry Met Sally, when the couple departs a second-tier university on the South Side, heading to New York, and finds themselves on scenic North Lake Shore Drive, a detour of at least an hour’s worth of violent arguments. Anyone familiar with Chicago would have gotten it immediately: Dumb, but it looks really nice. Cinema is bursting with examples like these, and I think it comes down to respecting your audience. I’ve got no problem with The Ghost Writer. I liked the scavenger hunt element.

There were a couple other nice touches. One was that Jim Belushi has a bit part. He’s a well-known Vineyard guy whose brother is buried there, and to whom I sat next once at a restaurant where Belushi was known to be friends with the chef… who came and talked to my mom first. This is probably because Belushi and the chef had a long night ahead (sniff), but I didn’t know that at the time. I was damn proud of her.

The other part was when Olivia “I wrote a hit play” Williams was walking the beach under gray skies, nose scrunched, disapproving of the wind-whipped landscape of which she had become a part. “I just want to go home,” she said, with more than a hint of disgust. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, because no one else would have gotten it. The difference was that her exile wasn’t self-imposed. I, too, want to go home, but at this point home is as much Polanski’s Vineyard as it is the real one. I’ve let the real one drift away from me. The only way to stop it from going any further, I suppose, is to trap it firmly underfoot like a piece of paper pulled by the breeze.