Monday, March 31, 2014

I Find I Have Enough Thoughts for a Blog

I enjoy stories.  And I enjoy TV.  And one of the big disappointments of serialized television is how often the story-telling is disappointing.  I've written before about the propensity of some shows to sacrifice character to plot, which is the weekly way of being a bad story teller. But the worst have been when it was writ large -  Battlestar Galactica and Lost.  The viewer is hooked in by something the narrative tells you, repeatedly and with grand style, is really important.  But that thing was never important - it was snake oil; the first one is on the house.

Which leads me now to How I Met Your Mother, a show I started on because it seemed like a fun hangout show; comfort food, something to watch while I did the dishes.  But the longer I stayed with it, the more I appreciated (and enjoyed!) its narrative commitment. Nothing was snake oil - the clever call backs and narrative loops and, god, the smash cuts! They all served the story - the story of a grand romantic, an entertaining but unreliable narrator. Even the narrator served the narrative in that show.  And everything that happened served the same story.

There were times when I felt guilty for liking it so much.  Every time Lily made some "you're being a girl" joke to one of the guys.  And, god, Barney is a troubling character to pull for as a feminist...shoot, it's hard to pull for him if you're a decent human being.  But he was so beautifully acted by Neil Patrick Harris and he was given a backstory that made him make sense.  And not a last minute shoehorned excuse - it was organic.  It was always in vastly entertaining service to the story.

Ample spoilers follow (I mean, obviously!)

So, the internetz were abuzz for the past several months with the theory that the mother was dead and that Ted was going to end up with Robin.  And as I read that, I HATED the idea.  As I watched the finale and it grew more and more clear that this is where it was going, I though, "Dear sweet Jesus God, don't do this!'  But somewhere, with like 10 minutes to go, I realized, "this has always been the story," and I mentally slow clapped.

Every detail led up to that end - it was always going there. Forget about all the clues from the previous eight seasons (the biggest being, of course, why the mother doesn't even show up until the end game) but think of how when we finally met the mother, we meet her after the love of her life (up to then) had died.  The show was always telling us that there is no "the one," there's just this guy Ted whose belief in that romantic palaver was so integral he spent nine goddamn years unconsciously trying to convince his kids to disabuse him of that notion.  

And let's just take a moment for the other male lead - everything the show told us about Barney made it clear that romantic love wasn't going to reform him. Barney was always the guy who never got a real childhood.  Of course it would be parenthood that resolved his character arc.  It was always there.

HIMYM wasn't perfect television, but they did something bold and they did something so satisfyingly tidy. They walked in with a story, and they told it, and they were damn funny telling it.

And if you didn't like it ... well...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Let's Have Lunch - Part Bleepity-Bloop

I ended up on the elevator with a cute young couple who work together in the office down the way and who are also clearly sniffing around, wondering if that whole "don't date coworkers" thing is really more of a rule or a guideline (FYI: it's a guideline, hinging entirely on the coworkers in question).

He: What're you going to order?
She: I dunno - what's good?
He: They have really good salads.
She: Hmmm. I had a salad last night, which is really out of character for me.
He: It is?
She: Well, I gave up fried foods for Lent, and that's normally a dinnertime staple for me [charmingly self-deprecating chuckle]

(At this point, my eyes rolled so hard that I worried it was audible.  And then I felt guilty for rolling  my eyes because what skin is it off my nose if she uses the convenient bookends of Lent as an opportunity for short-term dietary improvements or even if she wants to use a craving for french fries as a call to Think of God?   It is no skin off my nose.  To each her saturated fat free own.)

He: Are you doing the whole no meat on Friday thing too?
She: (scoffing) no
He: Yeah, that part is just silly

Look, as a former Catholic and a current vegetarian, if you're not eating fish sticks and tater tots on Fridays during Lent, you are letting a real opportunity slip away.

Mmmmm….. tots!
I was going to tell them that, but then the doors opened and off they went to have a meaty lunch, free of   unhealthy fats and full of longing looks.

Tastes like dog lips!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ruminations on Absurdity

I heard this fascinating story on This American Life  about "The Meat Question." It seems that back in the early part of the 20th century, people were worried about the lack of meat since the American population was booming. A couple of dudes decided that the solution was to bring hippos to America and start farming them for meat.  There's more to the story than that. Click the link - it's pretty interesting.

Ira Glass was talking to the guy who wrote about it, a writer by the name of Jon Mooaliem.  And Ira Glass remarked that the idea was absurd.  Mooaliem said something to the effect of "I'm not disagreeing that it's absurd… but why is it absurd?"  I very smugly said to the empty passenger seat, "It's absurd because hippos are not indigenous to the United States and there are all sorts of problems that come from introducing non-indiginenous animals into an ecosystem.  I mean, obviously!"

Benedict Cumberbatch thinks I'm being ridiculous

And it was as if Jon and Ira could hear me because Mooaliem casually mentioned that almost none of the meat we eat now comes from indigenous animals. Cows, pigs and chickens were all brought here from other places.

At which point, I was stumped.  It is absurd, right? But why? Neither Ira Glass nor Jon Mooaliem could come up with a good reason.

Which brings me to last night. I found myself watching the 30 for 30 about Bo Jackson (that show is great, by the way!) and it got me to thinking about a thing I used to think about back when I was a huge Bulls fan.  You know, the 90s.  Back in those days, I ruminated that the thing Michael Jordan did was comparable to the thing great artists like Dickens or Tchaikovsky did.   You're born with huge native talent which you then hone and master until you're at the summit of your craft, a craft which brings great joy to your audiences.  They all engendered a special community among their fans.  And, I'd argue, they all elevated the soul, whatever that means.

A good Doctor (but not the BEST Doctor) meets Charles Dickens and discusses his cultural relevance
I suppose there's an argument that literature and music are More Important than sport.  Great art is something you pass on through the generations.  But doesn't that then take Martha Graham and Enrico Caruso out out of this equation (the only indigenous animal we consume is turkey… and that's like once a year)?

Michael Jordan is not as deserving of our cultural passion as Charles Dickens.  It is absurd to think he is.

But why?

When you read David Copperfield, did you say "Daaaaaaayyyyyuuuum"?
I'm not disagreeing that it is absurd to compare Michael Jordan to Charles Dickens. But why is it absurd?  And could I offer you some hippo jerky while you think about it?

I'm a vegetarian.  As such equally opposed to all the jerkies.
* Edited to add that apparently that conversation was between Alex Blumberg and Jon Mooaliem, which makes me feel bad for Alex Blumberg who has his own storied broadcast career and I'm so blithely confusing him with Ira Glass…

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Keyser Babbitt: In Which I Titularly Reference the Wrong Kevin Spacey Movie

This is a picture of my copy of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. Note that it's taped up.  And, if you can see, note that it cost .75 cents.  I think I probably took this book from my Mom's house at some point and that either she or my dear departed Dad bought it before I was even a twinkle in anyone's eye.  And I'm straight-up middle aged now!  I've been hauling this damn book around forEVER without reading it.  And I finally did.  And, honey, it was good.  I took a journey with ole George Babbitt.

Through the first part of my Babbitty journey, I found myself struck again and again by how Babbitt, this conformist upper middle-class Republican, could, but for some minor tweaks to his vernacular, fit right in at CPAC 2014.  Check it - Babbitt on religion:

Ashamed I haven't sat in more.  Fellow that's an influence in the community - shame if he doesn't take part in a real virile hustling religion.  Sort of Christianity incorporated, you might say.  But with all reverence.  Some folks might claim these Sunday School fans are undignified and unspiritual and so on.  Sure!  Always some skunk to spring things like that!  Knocking and sneering and tearing down - so much easier than building up.  But me, I certainly hand it to these magazines.  They've brought old George F Babbitt into camp, and that's the answer to the critics!  The more manly and practical a fellow is, the more he ought to lead the enterprising Christian life.
Doesn't that, despite the now pejorative connotation of "hustling," sound just like something Glen Beck might say?

I spent about 100 pages or so feeling really smug and sort of depressed about how "same as it ever was" things seem to be.  Babbitt is familiar - despite being almost 100 years old.

About 2/3 into the book, after a major shock to his system, Babbitt begins to rebel against his own conformity.  And he rebels so lamely!  This got to thinking about American Beauty, which is, albeit broadly, the same story.

But they end so differently!

At the end of Babbitt, Babbitt decides that it's all, at the ripe old age of 48, too late for him.  But he encourages his son to go for it, to live the kind of life he wants rather than what's expected of him.

At the end of American Beauty, as Lester Burnham is shuffling off his mortal coil, he realizes that life, even if you spend it conforming to social norms, is beautiful and profound and is so grateful for having been able to be alive.

Thinking about how these two things ramble through such similar territory but land so differently led me back to this post*, wherein my super smart friend, Paul, writes about how much we can get tripped up by feeling like a failure that we are not, I dunno, Tina Fey.  Or Amy Poehler.  For me it's Tina Fey or Amy Poehler.  For you it might be someone else.  

And I wonder, as I knock here at 45 with the understanding that I am unlikely to be Amy Fey, do I want to be dying Lester and embrace my life for the singular beauty that it is and has or do I want to be living(ish) Babbitt and encourage Laney to go for Tina Poehler-dom.

I lean towards the former.  Don't you?

That said, Babbitt is much, much better than American Beauty.  You should read it.  There's this part where Lewis begins a chapter like so:
It was a shame, at this worried time, to have to think about the Overbrooks.
That's the first time he mentions the Overbrooks.  But aren't you just dying to know about them?  I'll take an elegant segue like that over that fraught plastic-bag-in-the-wind monologue any day of the week.

I'm gonna go google now and see if this whole Babbitt/American Beauty thing has already been done to death.  I'm likely not nowhere near as clever as I think I am.

*Paul writes more about career and economics here than Life Writ Large.  But I've just decided to misinterpret for my own purposes. I do it allllllll the time.  :)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It's Been a While - Let's Have Lunch

I headed out at lunch today in order to pick up emergency winter supplies (bourbon and hand lotion). During my walk over to Binny's as I gingerly picked through puddles of dirty melted snow, and in between berating myself for making the rookie mistake of heading out without a hat, I reminded myself that I love Chicago and fantasized about a way to make these winters a pleasant, nest-y time.

Namely: Live downtown.  Live within a block of a Trader Joe's and a Binny's.  Live within a block of a good public elementary school.  Work exclusively from home.  Have a whole bunch of money.

Because I do none of these things, I'm pretty sure I'm doing City Living wrong.  On the plus side, so are the bajilinionty million other people who shared my miserable commute (or even worse: the Sartrean nightmare that was the Kennedy today).

(This is what we all looked like)
So at least I am in good company.

And spring is coming.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Work Work Work Work Work…With Just a Soupçon of Fear.

Every time I say the word "work" some part of brain goes here.  Let's watch because this will get a tad heavy:

The next time we're out for beers, let's talk about Mel Brooks!  I have lots of theories about how he gets away with all the ladies in lingerie and the racial humor because he is the master of knowing where to make a joke land (he always punches up). We can talk specifically about the one time he was censored.  I have what I believe is a cogent and interesting theory about that.  You'll likely agree vis a vis the cogency and interest if, you know, you've had enough beers as I'm pretty sure my cogency and interestingness is directly proportional to the alcohol consumption by my conversatin' partner..

But I come not to discuss Mel Brooks!

Yesterday, Laney and I had A Discussion about her grades* because I am, as it turns out, a grade nazi.  This is surprising to me because I had intended to be deeply chill about grades which would be perfect due to super chill reasons.  But I want Laney in Payton or Jones Prep and so I police the grades. Laney is perfectly capable of bringing home straight A's but does not for a couple of reasons which I shall delineate shortly.

Like all parents (I hope it's not just me) we're toughest on our children where we see our own failures in them.  We desperately want our babies to be better than we are mostly because we love them and want wonderful things for them but also because there's always a tiny part hoping to expiate our own sins via this process of child rearing, n'est-ce pas?  For example, I hope Laney never says "n'est-ce pas" in her own future blogging adventures.

This led me to thinking of my other baby; my poor, neglected, abandoned baby.

My book.

Doing The Work

Laney is very good about doing the work she enjoys.  And very good about doing work which isn't too trying. But as soon as it gets tedious or unpleasant, she attempts a graceful escape.

I was pretty good about doing the work when I was writing.  When Laney was taking swim lessons, I'd sequester myself apart from other parents against a wall, breathing in the chlorinated air, tuning out the sounds of happy children, tapping away at my laptop.  When Laney took her bath at night or watched Sponge Bob, I tapped away.  I squirreled away minutes and moments and then spent them over a laptop, working out the plot, tuning the characters and (mostly) playing with words and sentences until they sounded just how I wanted them to.

And then I spent about 90 minutes researching literary agents, got a couple of nibbles and when they didn't pan out, I made a graceful escape.

I like to write.  I've written before about how the idea of making a living with words is so tantalizing I can hardly bear it.  But the idea of making that real, ugh.  That's SO much work.  And who has the time?  I have a job, I have a kid, I have books to read and TV shows to watch, and I really should be working out at least 30 minutes a day.  Of course, when I was writing the book, I had a job and a kid, I read books and watched TV and worked out at least as (ir)regularly as I do now.

But I like to write.  I don't like to do the other stuff. It's tedious and trying. It's unpleasant.

Also Fear

During The Discussion, Laney offered up as a potential defense that sometimes she doesn't get all her assignments from her teacher.  I asked her why she didn't just ask him if she had all the assignments.

And that's when I figured out that she was afraid he would be mad or disappointed that she hadn't gotten the assignment during the lesson.  She'd rather risk the disappointment of the bad grade than meet him one-on-one with either a failure to grok or a failure to pay adequate attention.

I gave copies of my book to a few people and didn't hear a lot.  Now, I am fully aware that people have lives and reading an 80,000 word comic revisioning of Middlemarch in the 1990s Chicago bar scene is asking a lot.  I expect that most of the people I gave the book to just didn't have the time or a real inclination to read it and it dropped off their radar (almost dropped off mine!)

But I didn't fail to follow up because I was loathe to nag.  I just assumed that the reason I hadn't heard from people was because my book was terrible.  The piecemeal, undisciplined approach I took to writing it resulted in a piecemeal, undisciplined story that no amount of clever phrasing and inconsistent humor could save.

I imagined conversations among the people I gave my book to (who likely don't even know each other)  saying, "Oof… really missed the mark there, huh?  I expected after all this time it would be better.  Best not to say anything."

I'd rather not chase it down than hear that it wasn't good.

Lessons I am Attempting to Learn

Sometimes I smoke a cigarette.  I'll buy a pack and have one a night until it's gone and then I'll go a few weeks until I buy another pack and then have one a night until it's gone.  When Laney was littler, I hid it from her and lied about it.  But I've decided since then that she's not an idiot and I don't want to lie to her so now she knows about my occasional habit and that I fondly hope she never picks it up.  She's OK with that.

Honesty, I think, is a good habit.  But there's something to be said for "do as I do" too, isn't there?  If I want to raise a child who doesn't privilege fear and laziness over passion and accomplishment, I ought to be that person too.

But I'm so old and it's so cold…  But I guess I ought to dust it off and try.

* Laney had five A's and 3 B's, one of which was in "listening standards."  Honestly, I'd be OK with her getting a B in listening standards.  Listening standards. Jesus.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Stop! You're Not Liking it Right!

I'm reading Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt.  I like it a lot.  He reminds me of one my favorite bloggers Atrios in that he just gets to it in the most artful, expedient way possible. Check it:

"Relieved of Babbitt's bumbling and the soft grunts with which his wife expressed the sympathy she was too experienced to feel and much too experienced not to show, their bedroom settled instantly into impersonality."

Isn't that just great?  Don't you just fully grok that marriage, that Babbitt and that wife?  I'm going to spend this day in pajamas with Babbitt.  Jealous?

But I worry after my last post that you guys will think I spend my time indiscriminately liking things.  Like I'm some kind of whore with my affections!  Like I will like just any old thing.  And while it is true that I'm pretty easy to please, there are things I Don't Like.  And these things, as I've pondered them on my much improved commute times, break out pretty cleanly.  So lemme break it down:

My friend, Danno, and I have been arguing about Steppenwolf Theatre's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for fourteen years.  I am not exaggerating.  I'm right and he's wrong.  You can stop reading now if you want.

But if you're interested in the crux of the argument, I thought the play was an overwrought pile of crap which wasn't so much sexist as it was the most hostile display of misogyny I'd ever borne personal witness to in which literally every asylum inmate was there because some woman had exerted control over him. Danno thinks I'm being unforgivably anachronistic.  Danno,

This was not Mrs. Cleaver vacuuming in pearls or even Ricky spanking Lucy (!).  Upon fourteen years of ruminating, I think instead it may be a reaction to a burgeoning feminist movement where women were  beginning to demand a piece of the creative pie.  The novel was published in 1962.  The Feminine Mystique came out a year later.  Something was likely in the air and the Beats wanted to remind the world that a good woman is one who'll feed you and fuck you and then step aside while you head out to Live an Authentic Life.  There's oodles of that in On the Road.

But I haven't read Cuckoo's Nest in a billion years, so I plan a re-read soon to see if I'm right.  It was profoundly evident in the performance amongst all the flailing arms and rapidly modulating pitch that indicate capital-A Acting.

*Danno totally disagrees with me.  He may have something to say.  Danno,

I can't with the sexist stuff.  I have no patience for art or culture that advances the Majesty of Man by shitting on women.  For example, any time a character articulates another character's weakness with a joke like "Did you forget your tampons?"  Especially, not for nothing, when the character delivering the joke is a woman.  Pisses. Me. Off.

But since Likers gonna Like, allow me to point you to Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu which I just read and which featured a hilarious and interesting rumination on the nature of women as objects even in High Art.  This is something I'd never seen discussed before and the whole book had me thinking about the difference, or even if there is an inherent difference, between treating women as objects to create the Venus de Milo or treating women as objects to sell beer.  Interesting, right?

It's just not funny.  It's not edgy and it's not funny.  But purveyors of pop cultural racism and homophobia have this neat trick where if you object to the racism or the homophobia it's your problem cuz you're just just too exhaustingly over- sensitive.  In other words, the burden of sensitivity is on the object of rather than the vehicle for.  Neat, right?

You can discuss race and sexual orientation without being an asshole about it.  You can be funny talking about race and sexual orientation without being an asshole about it.  But if you're being an asshole about it, own it.  It's on you, motherfucker.

On another note: When I was a girl, I loved me some Gone With the Wind.  I can never revisit it now, though, because I will not be able to get past those happy, grateful slaves.  That's so fucked up, right?  12 Years a Slave was a great response to that.  If it wins an Oscar (and based on the movies I've seen, I think it should), those two movies should always be talked about in tandem, doncha think?

Narrative Manipulation
I have broken up with a lot of men in my life (uh… it may be worth mentioning that I have not broken up with any men recently).  But there has never been a more satisfying breakup in my life than the one I had with Glee.  I love musicals.  I loved those spunky kids breaking into song.  I loved the music and the clothes.  It was so gay and fabulous and fun.

But after a while, I just Could Not anymore.  The characters would be whatever they needed to be to advance A Very Important Lesson.  Like, is Sue Sylvester a Sociopathic Bully or is she a Pure Hearted Champion of the Intellectually Disabled?  She is both, Gleek!  Just never at the same time.  Ryan Murphy will have his shallow, bitchy cake and eat it too. I tearfully stepped away.

Honestly, I found the narrative on that show more confusing than Sponge Bob.  Shut up.  Sponge Bob is confusing.  He lives under the sea, but there's a beach!!!!!!

This is a Thing that MAKES NO SENSE:

And in the End
Did it ever occur to you that there is just absolutely not enough time in life to consume all the wonderful things there are to consume?  You will never read every great book, or watch every great TV show or see every beautiful painting.  Which begs the question: is this wonderful or depressing?  It's both, Gleek!  Like Ryan Murphy, I'll have my cake and eat it!