Sunday, February 15, 2015

Life after VD

This seems to be Auspicious and/or Celebratory Event Week, starting with Friday the 13th and running through Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Chinese New Year. The week begins with the ritual slaying of promiscuous teens by a hockey-mask-clad madman and runs all the way up through the welcoming of the year of the cloven-hooved animal of some sort. February is the shortest month but there’s a certain winter-slap-happiness about it that suggests we all desperately need a reason to celebrate.
I thought about writing a post for Valentine’s Day, but I found myself lacking anything meaningful to say. This is actually very pleasing. I admit there were years when I felt required to act cranky and embittered on February 14th because I wasn’t in a relationship and as such was expected to rail against falseness of forced romance, or something. Truth is, though, Valentine’s Day doesn’t separate the people in love from the people in loneliness; it divides us among those who enjoy these kinds of days in general and those who don’t. If you do everything heart-shaped on Valentine’s Day, you probably also do the egg-and-bunny thing at Easter, the flag-and-firework thing around Independence Day, and the last three months of the year are a madcap parade of pumpkins, pilgrims, and presents. If you’re like me, on the other hand, you might toy with making French toast on Bastille Day just for le hell of it, but you'll get the date wrong and run out of eggs and just have a peanut butter sandwich instead.
This year it seemed like more people were actually celebrating Friday the 13th than Valentine’s Day—how else can you explain the surprising number of bouquet photos posted on facebook the day before the real thing? Well, actually you can explain it: what’s the fun in getting flowers from your beloved if nobody knows they did it? Ah, there she is again: cynical, anti-romance me, who hasn’t lost her cranky, embittered edge despite not being the least bit lonely on the 14th. Yes, I spent the day with the BF and enjoyed it very much. No, I’m not going to tell you about it. You’re welcome.
There is so little in life, it seems, that is truly personal, that we don’t feel necessary to validate through external sources. Ironically, in the entire history of humanity, intimate relationships have never been solely personal; they have always fallen under the public domain. It has always been crucially important for communities, cultures, and societies to monitor, guide, and regulate the way people mate. The wedding industry has been built around the idea that what’s more important for a woman than finding a suitable partner is making sure the world knows that you are truly deserving of a suitable partner because you look good in a strapless dress.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking public celebration. There is an exhilaration and satisfaction you get from sharing an event with a lot of people, most of whom have nothing else in common with you. This is true even if the event is a made-up, misguided one—because it usually is such. A lot of my runner friends have had the experience of telling a nonrunner how much they paid to run their last marathon and then suffering incredulous looks and predictable exclamations of “Give me that money instead and you can run around the block 50 times while I give you Gatorade and cheer you on!” Yeah, because that’s so the same thing. Look, folks, you pick your silly celebrations and I’ll pick mine. You want to fill baskets with jellybeans, be my guest; I’m going to fill my spibelt with sports beans and slap a 26.2 sticker on my car because that’s my particular flowers-delivered-to-the-office way of showing off for social approval. Whatever makes life interesting, different, and fun for you is worth pursuing, even if it’s a minor irritant to others.
Communal activities can be hugely positive and can encourage a person to do things they would never have contemplated by themselves. Would I ever have run 26.2 miles if that particular distance had not been a thing? Hell, no—who would think to run anything point two?  On the other hand, communal sensibilities can also push us too hard to value things that are maybe just a little bit beside the point. Every romantic movie, book, song, or facebook meme seems to emphasize the idea that relationships are the means through which we move up through some kind of massive human ranking system. We can’t just be loved; we have to be seen being loved, and we have to be judged favorably for it.
C’est l’amour. If you’ve lived on this planet for any length of time, you know most things end up taking residence in the vast regions of middle ground. Our public lives make us part of the human race, for better and worse, so if you hate a particular social celebration like Valentine’s Day, rest assured you can still be part of the fun through scathing derision and mockery. Or you can shrug and plan a day entirely unrelated to the whole business. You don’t even have to tell anyone or post pictures about it—and, despite what social media would have you believe, it did still happen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Happily ever aftermath

Yesterday facebook was all about the fact that they should have run the ball. That point having been thoroughly and exhaustively established, today is all about Harper Lee, who I didn’t even think was still alive. Usually when this happens it means the person just died. She didn’t die; she wrote a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird depicting Scout’s adult life, and it’s about to be published. I’m half-expecting Lee to have gotten on the dystopian bandwagon, putting Scout in an arena to fight for her life. It may be a sin to kill a mockingbird, but Atticus didn’t say anything about a mockingjay.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Part of me thinks I should feel skeptical, maybe even dismayed. A good book is a work of art. Is there a “sequel” to the Mona Lisa, where we see exactly what it is she’s smiling about? While the idea is a fun one for art or writing students to play with, part of the great appeal of the original is what wasn’t painted. We don’t know why she’s smiling. That’s cool. Likewise, when I heard about Lee’s sequel, I wondered for a moment why this was even necessary. Stories, as I have often told my creative writing students, aren’t about what happens; they’re about what matters. The retrospective narrator of Mockingbird tells this story because it matters to her—it changed her life. It may change ours as well. But if all we want when we get to the end of the book is to find out what else happens to Scout, we might be missing a little of the point.

All of that said, however, I fully admit: I want to know what happens to Scout when she grows up. And Holden Caulfield, for all that he’s a bit of a prick. For that matter, I’d like to know if Rick and Ilsa ever meet up again after the war. And for the love of God, won’t someone please tell me what happens to the people on the Serenity? Yes, I, too, crave continuity. I love that a low-budget TV show with bad acting and cheesy special effects has resulted in a Klingon version of the Bible. I love that a cold war spy novel has led to a debate on whether the next “Bond girl” might actually be Bond. I love that every book these days is actually three books and four movies. I hate myself for loving this, but luckily I can escape my self-hatred on an ongoing basis.

I’m not sure why serialization seems to be more rampant than ever these days. Paradoxically, maybe the conditions that have provoked a rash of post-apocalyptic fiction have also made us desire a sense of continuity. The world is going down in flames, but we don’t want to miss a minute of the burn. Funny thing about that, too: even when the things we are seeing and reading are terrible, we don’t seem to want them to end. Lately I’ve been catching up on a lot of TV shows I missed in my cheapskate less-than-basic-cable days, and while many of them make me feel anywhere from mildly irked to outright enraged (“Why the hell is Jack Bauer the only person in the world who is ever right?”), I just can’t look away.

Part of the reason I’m watching more TV now is because it’s something that I, the BF, and the BF’s daughters can all enjoy together when they come over for dinner once or twice a week. The BF’s daughters like to watch Netflix streamed TV shows from the past few decades, and while they (and probably most of you) have already seen these shows before, it’s all new to me. Recently they were into the one about the free-spirited mother and daughter who come from old money but reject all the stodgy pomp and circumstance associated therewith. The dialogue is delivered rapid-fire in classic screwball comedy fashion, and while the characters are unbelievably annoying most of the time, the writing is smart and the actors do deliver. The BF’s daughters kept watching even when they vehemently disapproved of both the mother’s and daughter’s choice in boyfriend, and I have to say I agree with them. The free-spirited are not immune to picking smarmy bastards as mates.

Now they are onto a fantasy show whose characters are all from fairy tales, if fairy tales took an even darker turn from poison apples and cannibalistic witches to include tons of blood and gore. Some of the premises are clever—I like that Little Red Riding Hood is actually also the wolf; she’s a werewolf, see, which brings up all sorts of interesting id/ego/superego themes, or at least it does if you’ve spent too much time doing literary analysis—but a lot of the actors should check into Overactors Anonymous, and it’s often hard to keep a straight face through the dialogue. “What happened?” “The Queen ripped my heart out, found a dark spot on it, and put it back in my chest!” “You need to be more careful. You could have been killed!”

Watching TV with the BF’s daughters is made a thousand times more entertaining by their running commentary. A lot of it is deliberately crude and ridiculous—butts are frequently invoked, as are things that purportedly crawled out of said butts—but I laugh harder at their jokes than anything on the shows. The truth is I would not watch any of these shows on my own time if the girls were not watching them, but since they do, I do too—and I can’t help desperately needing to know what’s going to happen next.

It’s an odd thing about entertainment, be it on page or on screen: we want it to help us escape from reality, but we also need it to be somewhat like reality. If we can continue to view a fictional character’s day-to-day life on an ongoing basis, it becomes easier to pretend that witty repartee, magic wands, photon torpedoes and tricked-out Aston Martins are part of our day-to-day lives. So yeah, I’ll probably read Lee’s sequel. Who knows, maybe it’ll be about avian zombies—To Kill a Walkingbird—and the movie can serve additionally as a Hitchcock sequel. Now we’ll finally find out what happens when the birds go beyond Bodega Bay.