Book Review: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

August 14, 2015 Leave a comment

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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (2015), edited by Meghan Daum

A collection of essays from writers explaining their paths to childlessness. Some stayed on the path their whole lives, some tried and failed to conceive and ran out the clock, some found childlessness thrust upon them late in life and accepted it with contentment, or even relief. The essays were all interesting, if a bit navel-gazey, and generally a lot of the same.

There are a lot of repeated justifications on offer. Again and again we read that someone is a writer at his or her core and could not produce if children demanded attention nearby. Maybe, but these 12-hour writing binges of which they speak seem a bit romanticized. And were the toilet to overflow during that time, wouldn’t they still step away to deal with it? I guess that doesn’t happen every day. Many of them are teachers (because so many writers are also teachers–being a writer is not, it turns out, the prescription for a financially stable life) and write about how they feel confident they are touching lives and creating legacies through their profession instead of through reproduction, and I buy that argument.

So many of them, especially the teachers, enthuse about how much they love children, how precious their students and nieces and nephews and friends’ kids are to them. How they prefer the company of children to the company of adults. The women write about having to fight the stigma of being a childless woman–being told they are cold, selfish, etc.–but they contribute to the stigma by protesting so vehemently.

I think only Tim Kreider, in “The End of the Line,” comes right out and says he hates children and everything associated with them. He writes with a lot of dark humor, some of which lands and some of which does not, but I liked his essay overall because he brought some interesting philosophy into it. Some of the more intellectual essays (Kreider’s, Lionel Shriver’s) delve into fear of death, and present not having children as fighting against an innate impulse to breed, although, disappointingly, nobody gets deeply anthropological. It would have made a nice change of pace to have one or two essays really looking at the topic from that perspective. I recently read Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, a similar collection of essays except they’re all about being fat, and there were a wide range of perspectives in that collection that I appreciated more after reading this.

Other repeated themes are dysfunctional childhoods, and chronic mental or emotional disorders. These writers chose to remain childless, and in some cases, single, to avoid continuing destructive patterns or introducing another person into an unstable environment. Elliott Holt writes how she could not subject a child to her recurring depression, but that having a dog works to get her out of bed in the morning. I could not agree more! The dog represents the perfect level of responsibility for someone prone to depression or narcissism or interiority.

For this category of the childless (childfree, if that’s how you prefer it), nobody puts it better than Danielle Henderson, in “Save Yourself”:

I negotiate the terms of my life every day and work hard to maintain an emotional status quo that I had to create from scratch. That’s hard to do with a child in tow.

An interesting read, though maybe not to be read all at once.

A New Challenge

July 29, 2015 2 comments

I’m working full time but not overtime, making a livable wage and taking on new tasks, the type that fall by the wayside when one’s life is in a constant state of stress and upheaval. I.e. my last two years.

Anyway, I’m trying to start exercising regularly and in earnest. My new office is located next door to our university fitness center, which is a major motivator. I’ve been walking the track (about 5000 steps or a full-length podcast) twice a week and I’m getting into swimming. (That’s right—last fall I learned to swim! Finally!) I’d like to do an activity like that 2-3 times a week, just to improve my cardiovascular health, strength, and stamina.

I also need to eat better. Please understand, this is not a promise to “eat healthy.” Such a sweeping reform is surely beyond my emotional or culinary capabilities at this time. I just need to concentrate on balancing my meals a bit better, as recommended by Michelle Obama. The government has abandoned the food pyramid of my youth and now ask us to arrange our meals according to the proportions shown on this plate graphic.

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That quarter-to-third which constitutes the vegetable portion of the meal is routinely ignored in my meal-taking. So, in the interest of taking a significant but achievable step, I am attempting to put something (even if not always in that proportion) in that vegetable spot every day, for the next 30 days. Making this my…

30 days of vegetables

I hasten to add that I will be eating many things in addition to the vegetables: carbs, red meat, candy, processed garbage. And I will be taking baby steps by having a serving of vegetables once every day, not every meal. (Does anyone eat a vegetable at breakfast? I seriously doubt it.)

For accountability, here is photo documentation.

Day 1: Wed. July 29: Sad Desk Salad

sad desk salad2

Comprised of: kale, carrots, bacon bits, croutons, ranch dressing

I finished it, not including a couple of the more mangled-looking carrots. And this was my whole lunch, everybody. Then a meeting next door broke up, and a department director came in and said, “There’s cookies over there, you guys,” and I ran to get one and they were all oatmeal raisin!

The only thing keeping me going is the knowledge that the Mac and Gold truck hits my neighborhood tonight! I will deserve it.

Let’s see how the next 30 days go.

Categories: Uncategorized

Book Reviews: Winter Nonfiction

June 1, 2015 2 comments

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (2012)

This is a collection of columns Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame) wrote anonymously for Dear Sugar between 2010 and 2012. What’s so great for me about Strayed’s writing—this is present in Wild (both book and movie) as well as saturating all the responses she gave in the Dear Sugar column—is her intense, humane feminism.

In one letter to Sugar, a man writes in about being torn between a “crazy” ex and her best friend, and the weird romantic triangle that has sprung up amongst them. (Looking at its placement online, the question appears to be the first one that Strayed answered, taking over for the original Sugar.) In her response, Strayed lays out the situation for him as things he knows, things he knows he doesn’t know, and things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know, the most important of which is that neither of these women are the right choice for him at this time. But she also diverges briefly to interrogate his description of his ex:

How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? Do they eventually go on to birth babies and care for their elderly parents and scramble up gigantic pans of eggs on Sunday mornings for oodles of lounge-abouts who later have the nerve to inquire about what’s for dinner or is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?

However, she also ends by promising the letter’s writer, “You are loved.” The crazy ex-girlfriends interlude is a scolding, but not a mean-spirited one. She wants everyone to learn. If you believe what she has written (I do), Strayed has seen in her life more than her own share of horrors, but she has made peace and wants others to make theirs. If she is a bit precious about the way she expresses this, I’m OK with that.

Because she can also write like a motherfucker.

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Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology (2005)

A collection of nonfiction essays about being fat and the attendant issues: self-esteem, politics, health, sex, etc. I’m a comfortable fatty myself, and I picked it up warily, but I found it to be mostly a good read overall.

Here’s what you need to know: in one of the earliest essays—I believe it’s Natalie Kusz’s “On Being Invisible”—the author recalls a group of women having a meal together and a thin woman declaring that she’d eaten too much, that her midsection was growing out of control (pinching it between her fingers to demonstrate), and that no man would ever want her if she continued. A much larger woman was part of the group and asked, reasonably, “so I guess no man wants me, either?” The thin woman deflected, saying she didn’t know her friend was looking to date. This is one of the many illustrative stories included in this collection that demonstrate the ways that fat people are minimized by others; they are treated as though they are failing, lacking, unfinished, unworthy people, people who don’t have (couldn’t possibly have) other struggles, other thoughts, other priorities in their lives that take precedence over their weight and their appearance.

If that anecdote, or my reading of it, doesn’t resonate with you—if it seems petty or self-indulgent—I would not recommend picking up this book, because everything this book wants to say is detailed in incidences like this one.

The ones that meant the least to me were the ones about the nagging of hunger and the shock of crash diets, about the shame cycle of losing and gaining. That has never been what we might call my personal fat experience. I liked the ones about people who were striving to meet emotional, intellectual, and even physical goals that had nothing to do with weight or size; the people who have accepted themselves as large people and live appropriately large lives. Pam Houston’s “Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing” was lovely and well-written. Cheryl Peck’s “Queen of the Gym” described a similar revelation I had at the gym one day: if I’m the fattest person here, I’m doing something right. I’m also fine with the ones where a fat person attempts to be cool with themselves, such as editor Donna Jarrell’s selection “Fat Lady Nuding,” in which she reluctantly attends a nudist New Year’s Eve party. They are all stories about how we can be interesting, multi-faceted men and women, but most people, when they look at us, think they know something fundamental about us: that person hates themselves and wants to lose weight. But then sometimes they are not thinking that; sometimes we are thinking that they think that. It’s all very complicated.

Those are the best stories from inside the fat cave. Some others come at it from different angles: journalistic, medical, psychological. Sarah Fenske’s selection is fairly outrageous: a journalist, she meets with some men who habitually pick up fat women in bars to sleep with them and then compare notes about who bagged the biggest hog and talk about how gross it was. She successfully walks the fine line between showing how absolutely odious they are, but also how pathetic they are, and how damaged in their own ways.

Atul Gawande, a major name in the medical humanities, is always worth reading; here, he profiles a man who has surgery to correct his morbid obesity, and Gawande shows the continuing battle beyond the surgery. A book about fatness cannot not include a story about the damage that can be wrought upon a body by it, and Gawande is one of the most impartial observers we have to write about it. From another angle—a fundamentally judgmental one—there is Irvin Yalom’s “Fat Lady,” about a shrink who struggles with the fact that he hates his overweight patient. And I hated him at first, for this, but over time, as his patient labors to lose weight, and he labors to connect with her, something pretty moving comes out of it.

The biggest names in the collection are David Sedaris and Anne Lamott, but both of their selections are forgettable. I knew from them being public figures that neither is an overweight person. Lamott’s essay suggests that she has grappled with bulimia, and is beautifully-written, as she does, but not particularly incisive about the trials of fatness.

 

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Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film (2015)

A memoir/book of personal essays by comedian Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend traces Oswalt’s rise as a young comedian and his filmic education in the independent moviehouses of L.A. I enjoyed the book, but I have to quibble with a major component of it: the characterization of Oswalt’s compulsive moviegoing as an “addiction”—and he uses the word literally, and not flippantly—is really not an apt one, at least as far as he dissects it. He lives a functional life while it is going on. He claims that relationships are damaged—he describes losing at least one girlfriend—but if there are any substantive personal losses that he incurred, he does not share that. His career thrives during this period, whether or not he feels he is working at the height of his creative powers. And when he decides he needs to “get out of the dark” (figuratively and literally), he just does.

I see movies compulsively, the way Oswalt details in the book. His era was the 1990s, so he was checking off titles of the movies he’d seen in books, while I’ve used the internet. I download lists of movies to see (the AFIs, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, etc.) and track my progress in painstakingly nerdy spreadsheets. [True story: my boyfriend Mike has a movie room, which is to say a room in his apartment that is entirely filled up with shelves, boxes, and crates of DVDs, videos, and Blu-rays. He feels vaguely embarrassed about this and joked often with me at the start of our relationship that when I saw the manifestation of his obsession I would be disturbed and probably run away. I responded by showing him my movie-tracking spreadsheets.]

To wit:

movies to see spreadsheet image

Anyway, my point is that you can want to check things off lists and still be OK. Certainly, we should not compare ourselves to people who agonize, wither, and sometimes die over real addictions.

Looking past that, it was really a great read. The book is funny-ish, but not typical of your average comedian memoir because Oswalt has got grander ambitions, and strives for poignancy first. He also has a grander vocabulary than most comedians and shows it off grandly. This bothered me more at the beginning than later, so either it started out somewhat overwritten and then settled down, or I just got used to it.

The behind-the-scenes of the entertainment world is quite satisfying in some places and less so in others. He does not write much at all about King of Queens, which is fine with me as I do not care about it, but if that’s what you’re looking for, take note. He also tells some unflattering stories about famous people but gallantly refuses to identify them, which irritated me every time. Maybe I wanted him not to draw attention to the fact that he is not identifying them—or maybe to just go ahead and identify them, because one bad story in a Patton Oswalt memoir is not going to ruin anyone’s career, and probably everyone on the internet already knows anyway.

On the positive side, the establishment of the Largo as an alt-comedy mecca is given a lot of ink, and is one of the best parts of the book. He writes about it with reverence for its place in the field, with nostalgia, with warmth. The story of Oswalt staging live readings of The Day the Clown Cried is also a terrific little anecdote about trying something creative to launch a career (and also as a process tale about entertainment and copyright infringement). And personally I loved the entire Down Periscope section, both as an insider’s account of how that particular flop came to be, and also for Oswalt’s unembarrassed observations about his own naive aspirations. I read a celebrity memoir for just that kind of thing.

Movie Review: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

May 16, 2015 5 comments

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This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

After finishing both the Wolf Hall miniseries on PBS, and the two books from which it was adapted (Booker Prize winners both, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel), which I read pretty much in tandem with, or just ahead of, the miniseries, I decided to really overwhelm myself with some Tudor mythology. I rewatched the fantastic 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII (directed by Alexander Korda). Other interested parties should know that, in addition to being on DVD, the film streams at Hulu (with a Hulu Plus subscription) and for absolute free at archive.org.

The movie is the story of a former king of England, Henry VIII, the one we know had six wives in succession. This movie opens on the day of death of Anne Boleyn, wife #2, and continues through wife #6, showing how the different women drifted in and out of Henry’s life, how they pleased and disappointed him in their own unique ways, and how Henry, powerful as he was, never managed to marry a good woman and keep her. I love this movie, because I’m completely in the bag for any story set amidst the Tudors, especially the larger-than-life Henry and his iconic daughter Elizabeth I (who makes only small cameos in this film). (Well, that’s why we needed Cate Blanchett.)

The film is overall a bit sunnier in appearance than more modern palace intrigue films; the vogue now is to film inside cramped spaces lit by a single candle so everyone and everything is in shadow and we can understand how brutal it all was. The action is mostly concentrated inside, so we don’t get any jousts, though there are choreographed dances and a wrestling match. The relationships are the feature and the draw. But further, there is something odd and beautiful in the narrative structure that even after this, my third or perhaps fourth watch, I can’t quite put my finger on.

The story unspools strangely. The first scene (after the titles which give the viewer a brief orientation in Henry’s marital history) is an unlikely one: a gaggle of women, seamstresses or embroiderers, giggling over Henry’s bed and speculating what it must be like to sleep with a king. A double-edged sword it is, really, as indicated by this particular, a day when Anne Boleyn will be executed for treason, and when, once the death is verified, Jane Seymour will marry into her place. Being married to a powerful man means also being vulnerable to the man’s power.

In the first few minutes, we also get to meet the townies who are settling into the bleachers, primed and ready to watch Boleyn’s death, and an English and a French executioner posturing over who is more qualified to behead a queen. Then courtier Thomas Culpepper goes to fetch Jane at the king’s behest, and the two of them run, childishly, from one end of the palace to the other, to return to him. The odd playfulness of the moment renders it almost dreamlike. Certainly, it does not adhere to any sort of standard biographical film template (which may not have even existed at the time).

Anne, played by Merle Oberon, floats languorously through her few scenes, getting prepped for her death in the Tower (“will the cap hold my hair, when—when—“) and speaking philosophically about her death, all while seeming tragic and scared. The film draws a direct parallel from Anne to Jane by having Anne remark ironically (literally from atop her beheading block), “It’s a lovely day,” and then cutting to Jane, peering out a window and feigning cheerfulness: “What a lovely day!”

Henry finally appears something like 10 minutes into the movie, his voice knifing through the chatter of his servants, his stance in the doorway imperious. He barks at his advisors, but also lasciviously nibbles at the neck of Jane (played by Wendy Barrie) when she comes in. He’s a huge man and boorish, but also graceful and emotional. Though the Oscars were barely in their adolescence when The Private Life of Henry VIII came out, it did manage to claim a nomination for Best Picture and a win, Best Actor for Charles Laughton, who—Damian Lewis be damned!—is my quintessential Henry VIII, red hair or no.

We get another parallel here—a chilling one, where the film cuts from the man hammering away at the chopping block where Anne will lose her head to Henry, pressed up against the grating of his palace window, rhythmically tapping, impatient for the act to be done, the barbaric act he has put into motion.

Henry VIII: “Consider it [marrying for a fourth time]? I would consider it a victory of optimism over experience!”

Poor Jane Seymour is dispatched with quickly, as she was in real life, and the largest portion of the movie deals with Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). Fifth chronologically, she is second of the ambitious schemers, Boleyn being the first. She manipulates her way into Henry’s favor, secures herself the queenhood, but continues to carry on with Culpepper, to the detriment of everyone.

My favorite of the wives is the fourth, Anne of Cleves, the oddest of odd ducks, an awkward but intelligent German noblewoman who agrees to be married to the great king, but then talks him out of consummating it, ensuring herself a favorable annulment settlement and status as the “King’s Beloved Sister” that she would retain for her natural life. The scene where Henry and Anne spend their wedding night playing cards is a classic—she beats him soundly, and Henry stalks out of the chamber, where multiple noblemen and statesmen are waiting to hear of the de-virgining, and are instead met with the interrogation, “Anybody got some money? Somebody get some money!” Anne turns out, improbably, to be a confidant for Henry. It can’t be an accident that this great role went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife (and future Bride of Frankenstein).

henry and anne

The women are a great draw in this movie, but the true star here is the gruff, plump Laughton, virile in his character’s youth but increasingly grizzled as the years and wives wear on. (Those ever-changing embroidered initials over Henry’s bed mark time passed and new vows said.) Henry does awful things, and allows awful things to be done in his name; he is far from a pure soul. (The movie seems to want to position Culpepper, played by Robert Donat, in this role. It doesn’t really succeed at that, especially because his part in the Katherine Howard affair is never resolved in the movie.) But when Henry gloats and beams over his newborn son, he seems like a good man, just one stuck in a difficult situation. The character’s increasing age also brings increasing sympathy, and late in the film he describes feeling more peaceful, less inclined to fight and wage war over territory. Not really a factually correct facet of Henry’s history, but narratively, so very satisfying.

Remember When 30 Rock Nailed Its Final Season?

March 6, 2015 Leave a comment

I complained recently about one of my favorite shows, Parks and Recreation, going off the rails in its final season by taking its natural positivity and detonating it into continual happy endings so excessive they seemed like the promises you read in chain emails.

Now I want to remember a show that did pull off a kick-ass final season by pushing its characters into new directions (which they somehow rendered inevitable). That show is 30 Rock.

30 Rock - Season 7

30 Rock was renewed for its 7th season in 2012 with the understanding that its 13 episodes would be it for the show. This is, incidentally, the same arrangement that Parks and Recreation got for its final season, which was also its seventh. Perhaps 30 Rock was thinking further ahead; a lot of the plotlines that pay off in season 7 were set up in season 6. Of course, you could say the same about Parks and Recreation. Basically, both shows seem to have had the exact same advantages and disadvantages, and while Parks and Rec provided a sweaty, dubious final season, 30 Rock’s was concise, heartwarming, surprising (and still funny!).

Read more…

Parks and Recreation’s Final Season Was Not Its Greatest Ever

February 24, 2015 1 comment

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Tonight is the series finale of one of my favorite shows of all time, Parks and Recreation. Yesterday, Wired online posted this article by Eric Thurm: Why Parks and Recreation’s Final Season Was its Best Ever

I agree with the article that the 2-years jump executed by the final season was a good decision, creatively, allowing us to skip over both Leslie’s pregnancy and early baby years, and the adjustment period for her National Parks Service job. I also agree “Leslie and Ron” was the strongest episode of the season thusfar. And then we part ways.

The article opines that the season is a winner because it proves that change is happy and inevitable.

That’s what this last season of Parks and Rec has realized—it’s a celebration of beginnings in addition to endings, of the idea that there are always possibilities, even if those end up leading you back to the same people (kind of like a wedding!). … All the show needed to end on a high note was to allow all of its characters the chance to renew their vows.

The show has always embraced change, not just in this last season, but more importantly, the article overlooks a key point: the beginnings and opportunities that have been offered to these characters this season have vaulted the show far past its celebrated idealism, straight into la-la fantasyland. The show, always generous and warm, but also always grounded in a recognizable reality, has turned into the last moments of Grease, when Sandy and Danny’s car just takes off and flies into the air.

grease flying car

Read more…

The Hulu Algorithm Runs Wild

January 5, 2015 Leave a comment

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First post of the new year! An attempt to begin to post regularly again.

A couple weeks ago, I fell asleep with Hulu playing an episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. When an episode is finished playing, Hulu will jump to playing something else its algorithm feels is tangentially related. Checking my history the following morning, I learned of the string of shows that played while I slumbered:

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: Amy Adams, Nick Offerman, Foo Fighters
You know when you put something on the TV to sleep to (if you’re like me, and you sleep to a playing television, even though everyone including medical professionals tells you it is the worst idea), and you’re out so quickly you’re like, I don’t remember seeing a SECOND of that. I was especially interested in both Offerman (whose new Netflix special I’ve only half-watched so far) and the Foo Fighters (whose Sonic Highways I’ve seen the majority of at my boyfriend’s house, and it’s excellent). Needless to say, I didn’t make it to any of those men, nor to Amy Adams, nor even to any first-quarter comedy sketches or recurring bits.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: Ben Stiller, Brie Larson, Damon Wayans
The initial jump, to another episode of the same show I willfully chose. Good start. I don’t really care about these guests at all. Brie Larson is a promising actress, but she’s promoting a sexy-student role in The Gambler, which I think is probably beneath her.

Late Night With Seth Meyers: Christoph Waltz, Uzo Aduba, Greg Warren
This is a strange trio of guests. Greg Warren is either the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “long snapper” (REALLY? That’s a position? Is Wikipedia punking me?) or the stand-up comedian. The comedian is a more likely candidate for a late-night guest, though my boyfriend tells me Seth Meyers is a fan of the old black-and-yellow. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I rarely watch Meyers’s show. Though I have affection for Meyers as a writer and as a personality, the show’s comedy bits rarely land, especially when Fred Armisen is behind them. The only real contribution the show has made to culture so far is Second Chance Theater.

Saturday Night Live: Amy Adams, One Direction
Already watched this when it aired live. It was a strong episode. Mike disappeared for the last 30 minutes, and later asked what he missed. I enjoyed recapping for him the lady singers sketch, ending on, “and then they all turned back into raccoons.” He laughed a lot.

Jimmy Kimmel Live: Mel Brooks, Christine Baranski
That’s a pretty good roster, but I don’t care at all about Kimmel.

The View: Friday, December 19, 2014
Here’s where the first wild turn takes place. I never watch this show. I’ve seen clips here and there and it’s sort of odious. Regardless of who is on the panel at the time, they all talk over each other and terrify their guests with scattered aggression.

Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder Taylor, “Breaking Dad”
This is some kind of mom-friendly variety show produced by a division of Nickelodeon called Nickmom (logline: “motherfunny”) (NO). In the capsule pic for this episode, the titular star is wearing pigtails, her mouth hanging open as if the screenshot has caught her in some kind of rant, or possibly just to indicate that she is a vulgar-but-lovable girl in the Sarah Silverman mold. Moms all over deserve better.

breaking dad

GMA Live: Thursday, July 31, 2014
Directly from the Hulu description: “Web-only extension of “Good Morning America” goes backstage after the broadcast. From pop-culture news to trending topics and lifestyle tips, GMA’s all-star team discusses the hottest stories of the day.” They apparently quit doing this, because this July episode is the most recent one listed.

Liars All (2013)
Some random thriller which enjoyed such a limited release that neither Metacritic nor Rotten Tomatoes displays any critical reviews of the film whatsoever. Rotten Tomatoes users felt that it was 21% worth liking.

And then I woke up.

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