Sunday, September 19, 2021

My Boring Life

Every year, my college girlfriend and I exchange birthday greetings. It's our version of Christmas cards. She, of course, carved out a "normal" life - marriage, motherhood, a successful career, and a healthy outlook on life. Me? Not so much. I am divorced. I have no children. My parents are both dead and I was estranged from each when they died. I do not talk to either of my sisters, so I basically have no family. I have not been on a "real" date in, I don't know, 3 years? 4 years? When I do "date" it is usually by paying women to have dinner, you know, just for ~ companionship ~ (which makes me feel like even more of a loser). My career has stalled out. I have no opportunity for advancement and yet, I don't have a readily marketable skill set that would allow me to find another job. It is a pretty grim tableau. Of course, the below is just the sanitized version, you know, the version that leaves out the really ugly and messy parts in favor of just making my life sound boring and mundane as opposed to hopeless: 

I think 50 hit much harder than 40, which really did not seem like a big deal at the time or in retrospect. I guess I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how I became so … boring. I gave up fast food, junk food, red meat, and alcohol. My wardrobe is either suits/ties or UA/Nike workout clothing. I eat the daily recommended allowance of fruits and vegetables. I go to bed by 9 pm. I have cats and am happiest watching old Columbo reruns. I cut coupons. It’s just not the life I envisioned having and I now understand why researchers say depression peaks in middle age. You’re old enough to feel regret for all the things you didn’t do and scared shitless that time is running out to do the things you want to.

The worst part, if I'm being really honest, is that I know that time is running out and yet, I seem completely unmotivated/unwilling to change any of this.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Scale Never Lies To Me

I weigh myself every Saturday. It is a sterile accounting of calories consumed versus calories burned. If the former is greater than the latter, the number is higher than the week before. If the latter is greater than the former, the number is lower. There is something comforting in this cold math. The scale does not care how your day was, if your boss was a jerk, whether you skipped a work out, or put that pint of ice cream in the grocery cart. Those excuses are reserved for the lies we tell ourselves when we do not like what we see. It also does not care if you ran that extra lap, did that extra push up, or ate that extra vegetable. Those are the things we quietly pat ourselves on the back for doing and when the number is one we like, encourages us to do more of. 

 

There is a reason the weight loss industry (sorry, I think it’s now referred to as the “wellness” industry) is a multi-billion dollar a year business. It sells cheap fixes to people who either do not have the time or the inclination to do the boring work of eating right and exercising. That is literally all you have to do. But instead of the Occam’s Razor, most people prefer baroque, Rube Goldberg solutions that inevitably fail.  


Want my advice? Have your daily step count look something like this: 



Should you walk 10,000 steps a day? The science is iffy, but is it bad to do it? No. Eat that daily recommended allowance of fruits and vegetables (my favorites are grapes, oranges, and apples for the former and red pepper, carrots, onions, and avocado for the latter). Opt for lean proteins (I can't bring myself to eat tofu, sorry, or ~ plant based ~ meat fakes, so I just stick to chicken and pork. I gave up red meat last year.) Don't drink alcohol (sorry!) or soda (sugar water). Drink lots of water. Don't smoke. Avoid the snack aisle at all costs. Everything in that aisle is literally designed to be addictive and it's all bad for you. Limit the sweets. WORK OUT. Not some breezy amble in the hallway for 5 minutes. Get moving. Sweat. Find work outs that are that sweet spot of challenging and fun that you will be excited to do. Stop making excuses for not working out. And finally, do not get discouraged if that cold math on the scale is not always to your liking. This is not about dieting, it is about making a lifestyle change and committing to it. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Book Review - Americanon

 What does it mean to be an American? We might think of ideas like a melting pot or middle class values, apple pie or baseball. But being “American” is also a brand, one that has been assiduously cultivated from the founding of our nation and continues to this day. The belief in education, hard work, and thrift. That wealth is obtainable to anyone willing to work hard. The power of positive thinking. These ideas and others are central to Americanon, where Jess McHugh curates nearly 250 years of writing into a tidy thirteen book bibliography explaining our nation’s definition of itself. 

But contrary to the book’s subtitle that it is an “unexpected” survey of American history, McHugh focuses on blockbuster best sellers that sold in the millions or tens of millions (and in at least one case, more than 100 million!) marketed to and bought by the predominant class of people (white, protestant) that have, by and large, controlled our nation since its founding. In other words, focusing on the imprint Noah Webster and his speller and dictionary have had for 200 years, the folksy aphorisms attributed to Ben Franklin that still inform our work ethic or that a generation of wives and mothers wore out their copies of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, is unsurprising.

 

These books as well as others like The McGuffey Readers, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and Catherine Beecher’s A Handbook to American Womanhood, may seem like relics to our forgotten, horse-and-buggy past, but as McHugh shows, they not only formed the scaffolding upon which we hang our national identity, they are still with us today. Franklin’s quip that “early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” and its implicit suggestion that clean living is a means of success finds purchase in self-help books like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The McGuffey Readers, first published in the 1820s to teach Bible-based lessons to school-age children, are still used today by home-schoolers who have turned their backs on secular education.


Americanon can also be seen as a running commentary on our nation as it evolved from agrarian to industrial. For example, Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home arose as fortunes were being accumulated in the early part of the 20th century. To be sure, it was targeted to (and to some extent targeted at) high society, but for Americans who believed that great wealth was obtainable by dint of their own effort, it offered a press-your-nose-against-the-window aspirational view of a possible future. Ultimately, the concepts Post espoused on polite company trickled down into popular culture and are now so pervasive that anytime social rules are needed for something like whether to turn your cell phone off at dinner, Post’s name is immediately associated with it even though she’s been dead for more than 60 years.

 

As McHugh journeys closer to our current day, we see the blending of advertising and aspiration in the form of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and Dale Carnegie’s (nee Carnagey) How to Win Friends and Influence People. That Crocker was conjured out of thin air, like something out of Mad Men, to exemplify the perfect housewife while Carnegie, was truly self-made, are just two sides of the same coin. Each trafficked in the dreams and insecurities of their readers. Crocker represented what was expected of housewives in the 1940s and 1950s, whose mission as wife and mother was met by putting food on the kitchen table. Carnegie’s “fake it ‘till you make it” leitmotif with heavy doses of self-affirmation would be adopted by traveling salesmen and CEOs alike for decades to come.

 

But implicit in these and other Americanon books is that not reaching these goals is entirely your own fault, thus creating the vicious cycle that has spawned an entire self-help movement that is now so big, the New York Times devotes a separate bestseller list to them. McHugh combs the General Mills archives, plucking heartbreaking letters written by women to Betty Crocker - who they thought was a real person - expressing their anxieties about their marriages and whether they were failing as wives and mothers if they did not meet some just-out-of-reach ideal. It does not take much to draw a straight line from these letters to the current day “mommy wars” and back and forth over whether (or how) women can “have it all.”

 

Of course, myth making is part and parcel of the American experience. Whether or not George Washington actually chopped down that cherry tree is less important than the underlying message that story sent – do not lie. McHugh’s authors were no different. You may never eat a meal where you have to know which fork to pick up for the salad course, but courtesy and manners matter. If you want someone to swipe right on your dating profile, you need to know the difference between “your” and “you’re” - something 18th and 19th century writers like Beecher, Webster, and Franklin would surely approve of.


If there was a missed opportunity in Americanon it was in using the book’s tenth chapter as a broader survey of modern self-help works by people like Covey and Louise Hay that mostly reinforced what McHugh already said. That real estate would have been better served focusing on books that have helped flip our nation’s narrative. For example, McHugh points out that Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask drew a bright line between conventional, heterosexual behavior (good) and homosexual behavior (bad) thereby tagging millions of Americans as deviants. So too Beecher’s attitudes toward other women, who she championed when it came to education but spoke out against publicly when the topic was suffrage. Surely there was an opportunity to highlight how books like Letter From Birmingham Jail, Silent Spring, and Fear of Flying elevated the voices of the disenfranchised and dispossessed and nudged our own understanding of being an American in a more just direction.

 

And this is not to say that the foundational beliefs these authors instilled in us are bad. Individualism and risk taking have informed the lives of everyone from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. Post’s elevation of etiquette is the lubricant that greases our every social interaction. A cottage industry of cook books has sprouted in Crocker’s wake and expanded the field well beyond expecting a stay-at-home mom to do all the work. But there is also a dark side to our nation’s credo of self-reliance. As McHugh points out, a devotee of Hay’s power of positive thinking? Donald J. Trump.


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 




Friday, August 13, 2021

TV Review - Kevin Can F*** Himself

As someone who stayed in a bad marriage long past its expiration date, a scene from the second episode of AMC’s recently-concluded first season of Kevin Can F*** Himself hit hard. Allison McRoberts, a liquor store clerk whose dream of moving out of a rundown part of her blue color hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts and into a planned community of granite counter tops and manicured lawns was snuffed out when she learned her husband Kevin had drained their joint savings account, gives a thinly veiled explanation of her plot to kill Kevin to a barely-paying-attention librarian. As Allison finishes describing her protagonist moving on to a life of morning outings to the local café for scones and coffee while reading a book, the librarian looks up and asks simply “why doesn’t she just leave him?” 

It is a question anyone in a failed marriage contemplates, but Kevin is, albeit in an unconventional way, more than a story about a shitty marriage, it is about the abuse one partner heaps on another when societal norms deem it acceptable to do so. Kevin (the show) and Kevin (the husband) are modeled on familiar sitcom tropes like Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens. Kevin is a stereotypical “Masshole” – a 35-year-old man/boy who worships at the altar of New England sports (a Wade Boggs photo by the front door, Tom Brady look-alikes at his birthday party, vanquishing a former New York Ranger in an eating contest to defend the honor of the Boston Bruins, etc.) has never met a chicken wing he did not want to eat, or a responsibility he could not avoid.

When the show focuses on his point of view, it is punctuated in bright colors and laugh tracks, with his equally dim best friend (and next door neighbor) Neil and gruff, always-in-a-barca-lounger dad Pete, acting as a sort of greek chorus of white male privilege affirming every outrageous thing that comes out of Kevin’s mouth. Allison is of course the wet blanket, a nagging mother figure cum wife who is the butt of every joke and the voice of reason constantly shot down by the men and Neil’s sister Patty, a sort of “guy’s girl” who joins in the pile on.

As viewers who have seen versions of this type of man portrayed on television over and over, Kevin conditions us to see the humor in Kevin’s behavior but it is only when the camera shifts to Allison’s drab, single camera, no-laugh-track point of view that the emotional cost of his conduct is fully realized. There, Kevin is not the hero of every story, but rather, the villain, a narcissist whose ego leaves no room for his put-upon wife whose treatment borders on emotional abuse, no matter how firmly she tries to eye roll it all away. 

When Patty tells Allison that Kevin has squandered the savings she so diligently squirreled away, thereby crushing Allison’s dream of a better future, she has her “breaking bad” moment and decides that Kevin must die. But as the season goes on, we realize that Kevin never suffers any consequences for his actions while Allison is always getting hit with the shrapnel. To take one example, as Kevin and Neil are preparing their “famous” chili, Allison messes with them, artificially creating a fight that leaves the two men competing instead of collaborating. But instead of chalking up a small win, she simply creates a new problem for herself. Not only does Kevin need a new partner (her) but he must now one-up his competitor by slow roasting a whole pig. When Allison can no longer deal with Kevin and gets the two to reconcile, Kevin marches off, leaving her to deal with the dead animal’s now charred remains. In another episode, Allison uses Kevin’s car for a road trip, but when she does not answer his constant texts and phone calls, he reports the car stolen, leaving Allison to deal with the cops who pull her over.

In sitcom world, Kevin’s behavior might be laughed off as an unenlightened man’s perverse way of showing love, but in her world, it is effectively a death sentence – a needy, controlling man who will never let her out of his grasp and she, with less than $200 to her name and limited job options, will never escape. It is a grim tableau effectively painted in the show’s first few episodes, but having established the human stakes involved, it felt as through the writers lost the thread. When I watch TV, I am usually on the lookout for fat that could be trimmed, storylines that could be tightened, and general padding that if shorn away would make the show better, but with Kevin I had the opposite reaction. It felt as though too much was being packed into its eight episodes for the various story lines to be given the room they needed to develop.

For example, Patty, as it turns out, is not so different than Allison. She stews over Kevin and Neil’s unearned position within their social circle, but she responds to it not by plotting their murders, but into a down-low hustle as the local area pain pill dealer thanks to a hook up at the pharmacy. And as Allison and Patty start appreciating the similar situations they find themselves in (Patty’s romantic life, such that it is, is an antiseptic relationship with a boyfriend whose idea of a good time is sitting on the couch nibbling on salad while watching shows saved on his TiVo) they go from frenemies to besties.

While their evolving friendship is nicely framed, it is in service to the rest of a story that feels rushed, mostly by taking the one thing out of Allison’s hands that should have been valued the most – her agency. Instead of going through with her plan to make Kevin’s death look like an accidental overdose by slipping Oxycontin into his food, a series of events (which again, happen rapidly) force her to rely on Nick, a local criminal who is leaning on Patty to keep sourcing him drugs even though her connection is in jail, to do the deed for her. In the meantime, Patty dumps her limp boyfriend and becomes involved with Tammy, the police detective investigating the local drug scene, while Allison reconnects with Sam, a former flame who has moved back to the area with his wife.

If your head is spinning that is understandable. It is A LOT to pack into what are effectively only five episodes and it shows. Crucially, Allison trades reliance on one man for two even though the show wants to lean into female allyship. She will forever be beholden to Nick as his co-conspirator in her husband’s murder and becomes dependent on Sam for emotional and financial support by starting an affair with him and also taking a job at the diner he owns. A ten, or twelve episode order might have provided more opportunity to flesh out these story lines; instead, they felt more like plot device than character development.

Finally, the show lost sight of the more important (and I would argue, compelling) elements it established in the first place: of male privilege, the emotional burdens women carry and how those things are perceived depending on whose story is being told. Ultimately, it landed right where it began. When Nick strikes out on his own and decides to fulfill the hit earlier than Allison expected, Kevin shoots him dead with a gun Allison had stolen when she and Patty traveled out of state earlier in the season and then hid in the backyard. Kevin is hailed as a hero and turns his newfound minor celebrity into a run for Mayor with a grim-faced Allison as his reluctant partner. Instead of being a cri de couer for female empowerment, Kevin reinforced the status quo.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Complete Succession Season 2 Power Rankings

Links to the episode-by-episode Succession Season Two Power Rankings:

The Summer Palace

The Vaulter

Hunting 

Safe Room 

Tern Haven

Argestes 

Return

Dundee

DC

This Is Not For Tears


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

 

 

 


 






Succession Power Rankings - The Summer Palace

This week on Succession … Logan hosts the family. Shiv gets an offer. Connor places a bid. And now, the Power Rankings:


1. Logan Roy: When you are, in the words of your wayward number one son, “the man, the myth, the legend” single-handedly holding up one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, it is easy to understand why you might be reluctant to cash in your chips instead of fighting a hostile takeover. What is the use of all the trappings of wealth and power - the private investigators, the honeytrap hookers, the Senate cock sucks eager to do your bidding - if you are just going to putter around a $200 million retreat for your remaining days? Sure, you’ve lost a few miles off your fastball and Kendall handed Sandy and Stewy a bunch of oppo they can leak to the press, but taking an eleven-digit golden parachute and fucking off to an easy retirement is not your jam. No, you’re a fighter. Whether it’s a contractor chiseling you on some renovations or a rival trying to buy your company, you don’t back down, you don’t compromise. You’re going to fuck them on the business and bleed them dry, and if that doesn’t work, you’re going to send men to kill their pets and fuck their wives and it will never end. *That* is who you are. 


2. Shiv Roy: Are we really having this conversation? Apparently. Sure, the CV is thin on corporate experience and your politics are not exactly simpatico with dad’s right wing noise machine, but given the chance to toss out an elevator pitch of your vision for Waystar Royco, you hit it out of the park. Might this simply be another head game your dad is playing to keep everyone off balance? Perhaps. But you’re the only one he made an offer to, so for now, you’re sitting in the catbird seat.


3. Sandy Furness and Stewy Hosseini: You’ve lost the element of surprise and Ken left you at the altar, but you’ve got deep pockets, lots of useful intel, and spite, and that ain’t nothing. Logan is wounded and the bench isn’t that deep. If you can keep the pressure on and convince some risk-averse shareholders that sticking with the Roys is actually the more dangerous route, you may well pull this off. 


4. Roman Roy: You’re … what’s the word … glib? ballsy? shameless? sociopathic? enough to sit in front of a roomful of reporters and pretend like you don’t know why and are not to blame for that satellite blowing up on the launch pad but bullshitting can only get you so far. When Logan gave you a chance to sketch out your plans for the company’s future, you barfed out a bunch of nonsensical corporate buzzwords but offered nothing tangible or concrete. Your older brother is going to be on a short leash and between his betrayal and lingering drug problem, he is unlikely to threaten you. Your older sister has not spent a minute inside the company tent and is at least feigning support for your move up the corporate ladder, but process of elimination is not a great strategy for reaching the top. 


5. Kendall Roy: We all process loss differently, but it’s pretty clear you could have used a few more days in that Icelandic spa to wash away the memory of driving your car off a bridge, watching your passenger struggle (and fail) to escape, and then fleeing the scene to avoid responsibility. Having your siblings kick the crap out of you is no fun, but Logan has welcomed you back into the fold, even if it is just to be his messenger boy. You’re at sea, wobbly, and out of sorts; to add insult to injury, Jess is nowhere to be found and Greg is doing a *terrible* job sourcing you coke. 


6. Colin: There are two things the Roys value in their employees - discretion and efficiency. You sir, crushed both. First, you swept up the mess (dead body) Kendall left behind in England - “death by misadventure” is all anyone will remember of poor Andrew Dodds. Then, with the dispassion of a Vulcan, you walked Ken through just enough details to let him know there was nothing to worry about without once betraying any judgment of his action. 


7. Tom Wambsgans: You won’t be slipping on the Big Trousers in the C suite anytime soon, but chair of Global News is not a bad consolation prize. One problem. If you thought burying corporate misdeeds in parks and cruises was messy, you’re now in a “two contender, one chair” situation with Cyd Peach while your wife just passed you in the left hand lane on a rocket ride to the job you thought she wanted you to have. 


8. Gerri Kellman: The next CEO could be anyone. It could be you. Well, you or a stuffed shirt. It won’t be you, but you’re fine.


9. Karolina: You literally had one job. You might think a PR executive is supposed to come up with a quippy line Kendall can regurgitate on camera to a cable news talking head or on the phone with institutional investors (“I saw their plan, dad’s plan was better”) but when you work for the Roy family, it is far more important to track down Jess because KENDALL NEEDS A STRAIGHTENER FOR GOD’S SAKES but instead, you farmed out that assignment to Greg, to predictable results (see below).


10. Cousin Greg: Handing Kendall some stepped on park coke that might destroy his septum is a dangerous game, Mr. Hirsch. If you plan on sticking around the Power Rankings for Season 2, you need to up your game. 


Not Ranked: Connor Roy. Marcia Roy. Willa. Jamie Laird. The penthouses during Fashion Week. Ragnor Magnusson. Napoleon’s Penis. A bag of raccoons. The silica mud treatment. Stewy’s friend card. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

No One Gives A Shit About You If You're 50

If the last year has taught me anything, it is that if you fall within a very narrow demographic slice of the population no one gives a shit about you. 50 year old, white collar professional in good health without kids? You might as well not even exist. You are not quite old enough to be considered "high risk" for COVID and therefore do not get to the front of the line for the vaccine but you are also not quite young enough to gamble that if you do get COVID, it won't kill you. If you earn a comfortable six figure salary, you earn too much money to get any government "stimulus" and without kids, you do not get the ancillary benefits layered on top. You are just expected to deal with it. Work from home full time, manage your mental health needs even though you are literally shut in for a year, take care of your home, your pets, and yourself, all while restricting your out-of-home activities to the grocery store or doctor's appointments, it is all on you. Literally, no one cares. But hey, if you smoke or got diabetes because your diet sucks and you never exercise, TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE. WE REWARD YOUR BAD BEHAVIOR! 

I don't have family within 3 hours of me and those that I do, I do not talk to. I don't have close friends who could take care of my cats if I got really sick and was hospitalized. And even when I did become eligible for the COVID vaccine, it does not matter, The State of New Jersey is a shit show in terms of getting an appointment. The two options on offer are staying up half the night when CVS "drops" its appointments (because why?) which is impossible for me b/c I also work a full time job OR drive 200 miles (round trip) to Atlantic City, which appears to be the only mass vaccination location with actual appointments available b/c hey, I can just take 2 days off of work to drive 3+ hours for a stupid shot. 

It is really maddening to go through this. I have followed the rules. I have been cautious. I have sheltered in my home for more than a year now and all I want is this stupid fucking vaccine and in the year of our lord 2021, the idiots who run my state cannot do the basic work to make that happen. It is fucking pathetic. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Thinking You Might Have Cancer Is Scary

 It all started with a passing, but worrying reference on a CT scan I had done because of lingering pain in my lower abdomen. The test was taken to rule out a hernia (which it did), but it also noted the following: “PANCREAS: There is a 5 mm focal low density in the body of the pancreas as seen on series 2 image 39. Orthogonal images are more suggestive of a fatty cleft than a focal lesion.” 

Oh. There are lots of different kinds of cancer, but one of the ones you *really* do not want is pancreatic and here I had in front of me a medical report that was at best equivocal about that possibility. The radiologist recommended an ultrasound be taken in six months. On a separate, but parallel track, I was due for a colonoscopy (I had turned 50 a month earlier) and when I showed the report to the gastroenterologist, he prescribed an MRI instead, explaining that an ultrasound was unlikely to resolve the question of what was on my pancreas because the sound waves used in the test would probably bounce off my stomach (which is in front of the pancreas, who knew?). I had to get through the colonoscopy first (which I did, and it was clean) and then wanted to wait a few weeks so my right arm didn’t turn into a pin cushion (both the colonoscopy and MRI require IVs).


Obviously, this weighed quite heavily on me. It was not enough that I had spent months in almost complete isolation during a pandemic, had been trying to juggle working from home with being at home (not as easy as you would think) and my general struggles with depression and anxiety, now I had to worry about a ticking time bomb in my body that could end things entirely. Add to that a succession of snow storms over the span of about 3 weeks that dropped a total of more than two feet of snow in front of my house and I was really at my wits end. I started having trouble sleeping, was anxious all the time, had what felt like were hours-long panic attacks, and all the while, just tried to keep my shit together and my driveway clear (ha ha). This stress, along with COVID, finally hit my waistline - I put on 5 pounds in about 2 weeks bingeing on sweets and not working out as much as I should. It was at the lowest point in what has felt like almost a year of one long, ongoing low point. 


When I opened my gmail account this morning, there was an email from the gastroenterologist notifying me that the report was in. I nervously opened it. It did not start well: “At the site of the questioned abnormality, there is a 3 mm focus of intrinsic signal abnormality which is isotense to the adjacent fat on T1 and T2-weighted images.” (Uh-oh, this doesn’t sound good). It went on: “It demonstrates suppression of signal on the T1 fat-saturated sequence.” (Heart pumping faster). And still more: “It is hyper intense (yikes!) on the in phase sequence with a rim of low signal on the out of phase sequence.” At this point, I assumed the worst because hey, there was a lot of verbiage that did not sound very promising and then, the kicker: “These findings are consistent with a small fatty cleft in the pancreatic parenchyma. There is no pancreatic mass or cyst.” (emphasis mine). EXHALE and then, a feeling of relief. 


I have spent the last four months unsure whether a lesion was growing on my pancreas that might kill me and now I know there is not. It is an odd feeling to not have this hanging over my head anymore. In the movies, the character would embrace ~ a new lease on life ~ but now, I just want my stupid COVID vaccine so I can get back to my normal level of grumpiness, not the dark hole I have been in for almost a year.  


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Movie Review - I Used To Go Here

As the title implies, I Used to Go Here is a coming-of-age story in reverse. The movie opens on Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs) a mid-thirtysomething author who is having a really bad day - her first book has just been published to middling sales and a canceled book tour. To add insult to injury, her fiancé recently called off their wedding while her best friend is about to have a baby. Relief appears to come in the form of an invitation from her former professor (and mentor) David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement) to travel from Chicago downstate to Carbondale to do a book reading for his creative writing students. 

Yes, the setup is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but the ensuing hour-plus of this tidy, 82-minute film is not without its charms. At first, Kate gets a modest boost of self-esteem in the form of a graduate assistant assigned to shepherd her around town (complete with an itinerary!), a fawning reunion with Kirkpatrick, and a modest-sized auditorium of students who dutifully applaud her work. Of course, this ego boost is temporary and Kate’s perceived inadequacies rush back to the surface and focus the rest of the movie. 


Kate’s lodgings (a B&B run by a prickly older woman) are across the street from the group home she shared as an undergraduate 15 years ago and still houses creative writers. Her former room even has those glow-in-the-dark stars we all remember from college still affixed to the ceiling, their luminescence long ago snuffed out (METAPHOR ALERT). The room is now used by Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a cheeky, if a bit introverted student who shares the house with two other students, Tall Brandon (self-explanatory) and Animal (never explained). 


The beats follow as you might expect. Kirkpatrick, who Kate knew as an idealist whose work had just been published, is now jaded and middle-aged, in an unhealthy marriage, and carrying on an affair with Hugo’s girlfriend April (Hannah Marks). Kirkpatrick offers Kate a temporary teaching position while trying to sell her on the benefits of a low-pressure job while acknowledging that few of the students he teaches will ever make it as writers. On the other end of the spectrum, Kate critiques April’s work as being out of step with what publishers are looking for (at one point admonishing April that one word poetry titles are out of vogue). Kate thinks she is being helpful in offering suggestions that sound to April like trimming her sails to satisfy unseen New York editors. No, April tells Kate, she plans on starting her own press and publishing her work without all that interference. 


These two set-ups frame that tricky time in life - Kate is still young enough to chart a new course but has enough adulthood under her belt to recognize the risks inherent in starting over as you get older. She rolls her eyes at April’s bravado, seeing it as naivete, but also views Kirkpatrick as someone who settled, gave up on his dreams and became a cliche. This generational tension is at the heart of the movie but is never quite fleshed out enough to make the viewing experience wholly satisfying. Kate falls in with the kids in the writer’s retreat, getting relationship advice as they scroll her ex’s Instagram feed and spending a care-free afternoon at a local lake high on marijuana edibles. Hugo compliments a college-era essay she wrote about the untimely death of her brother, but she poo-poos it, noting that publishers are not interested in personal essays anymore. 


And therein lies the tension Kate must grapple with. She compromised her ideals in the service of achieving a goal - becoming a published author - but in doing so, produced average work that did not resonate with the book-buying public. Kate’s last hope, a favorable review in the New York Times, comes to naught. Her book is criticized as amateurish and maudlin. At the same time, she must admit the truth about her failed engagement. The story she wants to tell is of being betrayed by her fiancé but the opposite is true. She knew she did not want to marry her boyfriend and yet, was prepared to go through with it, the implication being that as a woman ~ of a certain age ~ it was expected. Instead of owning her shit, Kate has been looking for scapegoats to blame. 


Jacobs carries the movie nicely as a woman on the edge of aging out of twee adorkableness with a winning cast of supporting characters striking that right note of youthful idealism tinged with being exposed to capital “A” adults behaving badly. Fifteen years on from graduation, they see someone who has achieved what they think is professional success but still has to sleep on a couch because she lost her key to the B&B. Further up the chain, Kirkpatrick is sleeping with one of their own and Hugo’s mom (who appears basically out of nowhere) is a divorcee who spends lonely nights watching You Tube videos of people passing out on roller coasters while cooking souffles at 1:30 in the morning. 


In the end, everything gets wrapped in a neat little bow. April calling out Kate as a hypocrite after learning Kate slept with Hugo (which you could see coming a mile away) is the light bulb moment that sends Kate on a different path - away from settling for a low rent gig as a visiting professor in a sleepy little college town, accepting a compliment about her book while acknowledging it could have been better, and back to the world of adulthood that includes her friend going into premature labor. It is a bittersweet note appropriate to someone closing in on 40, uncertain of her future but ready for the challenge the next chapter in life presents.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Year In Books

I'm not blogging much anymore, but here is the list of books I read in 2020. My list this year is far smaller than years past, largely owing to the fact that libraries were closed for months and I had to <gasp> buy books for the first time in as long as I can remember. It made me more judicious in what I read and, by extension, more satisfied overall with the content. When the pandemic hit, I had two books out from the library, The Splendid and the Vile and 1774, The Long Year of Revolution. That turned out to be good luck as I was not rushed through either book, each of which was long and were enjoyed without feeling like I had to race through either one. The list after that is made up of books I bought and (mostly) enjoyed. The Hardhat Riot took an interesting counter take to the image of the late 60s as a time of hippie love and popular support for ending the war in Vietnam, arguing instead that the Silent Majority was both not-so-silent and also the more traditional view at the time - that America should see through its obligation in Vietnam and also cleaved the Democratic Party, beginning to hive off the white, ethnic, working class voters who would ultimately become so-called Reagan Democrats. I was less impressed with The Biggest Bluff, a book about Maria Konnikova's transition to being a high stakes Texas No Limit Hold 'Em poker player. The book felt dated as the poker rush has now crested and unrealistic in that a novice would not have the benefit of what is akin to a grandmaster at the game (in her case a guy named Erik Seidel) to coach them. Also absent was Konnikova's sharp eye in her prior books (both of which I LOVED) for the grift, the hustle, the way psychology is leveraged against people. There were some empty calories too, like the oral history of The Office and Lindy West's pithy Shit, Actually, where she skewers movies with her acerbic wit. I think we all needed some empty calories in 2020, so, no shame in my game. 

1. The End Is Always Near, Dan Carlin

2. Have You Eaten Grandma?, Gyles Brandreth

3. Medallion Status, John Hodgman 

4. The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani

5. Disney’s Land, Richard Snow

6. Blowout, Rachel Maddow

7. The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson

8. 1774, The Long Year of Revolution, Mary Beth Norton

9. The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson

10. The Office, The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, Andy Greene

11. The Big Goodbye, Sam Wasson

12. The Hardhat Riot, David Kuhn

13. Rome 1960, David Marinass

14. Reaganland, Rick Perlstein

15. The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova

16. This Isn’t Happening, Steven Hyden

17. Shit, Actually, Lindy West

18. The 99% Invisible City, Roman Mars

19. Countdown 1945, Chris Wallace


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