When the Sun Hits

PoehlerThis is and isn’t a review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

I’ve been in my current position in teacher education for nearly eight years – roughly 2,750 days, excluding weekends and breaks. I’ve been comfortable in this position for exactly zero of those days.

I’m a self-aware enough guy to have recognized this for years, even if I haven’t really been able to diagnose the problem. I mean, I’m a bouillabaisse of anxiety disorders at the best of times, but recently it’s also felt like more than that, and somehow inherently different than just garden-variety mopes (which I can usually cure with a good record on the turntable and a slug of scotch). I never felt discomfort and anxiety this acutely as either a high school teacher or Ph.D. student, and I’ve spent the last year in a fairly profound depression, only some of which is Trump-related. Of course there were challenges in my previous positions – shots to my self-esteem from students and parents and my own restless brain, and the process of researching and writing my dissertation was its own unique test of my tolerance for failure – but there was never a persistent voice haranguing me about my inadequacies like there is now.

But Amy Poehler kind of helped me figure it out.

Early in her book – part memoir, part humor – she writes about her days as a developing comic and actor, first with ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, then as one of the pivotal figures in an early incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade. She relates those times as a crucible of inspired creativity, where she met and first acted with some of comedy’s future big names (Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser) and started developing the voice (and, really, the style of comedy) that has become one of the most pervasive in 21st Century pop culture. She tells of their successes but, crucially, she doesn’t discount their failures. In fact, she goes out of her way to mention on more than one occasion that her failures outnumber her successes. At one point she says she and Fey have done “hundreds” of improv shows together and “perhaps ten were very good.” There’s some false modesty there, to be sure, but as someone who knows a little about the combustible, crash-and-burn nature of improv, I understand the feeling.

But the key (for her and, in a moment, me) seems to be this: you grow with the support of other people.

It is, as Poehler says, “easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” There’s a cushion when you fail and a team of cheerleaders when you succeed. It’s that supportive environment that enabled her to take risks as an early actor, to fail and learn and grow.

And so, for me, this:

I read most of Poehler’s book at 30,000 feet. I always have a greater propensity for sentimentality on airplanes – it’s something to do with the lack of oxygen, I think, or my discomfort at being so physically close to strangers – but as I reflected on the confidence I felt as a high school teacher and doctoral student versus how inadequate I’ve felt for the last eight years (and how it’s actually gotten worse the longer I stay where I am), Poehler’s words felt exactly right.

As a high school teacher I was lucky enough to fall into a group of veteran educators – who quickly became my friends – who were patient with me, sharing what they did in the classroom, helping me get my feet under me, and providing a constant sounding board for new ideas I wanted to try. They provided me with the helpful criticism we all need to evolve professionally – “I’m not sure that lesson will work that way; let’s try it this way instead and see what happens” – but importantly for me they weren’t stingy with the praise. They always let me know what I was doing well. They borrowed my ideas – the good ones, anyway. They asked me what I thought. They recommended me for opportunities in which they felt I would thrive. I grew the most in my early teaching experience the year I taught a class for special needs students as well as a class for honors students. Both those classes were offered to me after being recommended for them by my friends.

It’s now a well-cited statistic that roughly half the new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. I, on the other hand, felt constantly supported and validated. It was an exhausting and frustrating and wonderful time. I’d go home on Friday more tired than I’d ever been, but somehow Saturday and Sunday would recharge my batteries to get me ready to do it all over again on Monday. And my colleagues were instrumental in that. By letting me know what was working and treating my missteps as opportunities to get better, I didn’t suffer the steep learning curve so many teachers seem to feel.

I owe my career to those friends, and I’ve not shown them nearly enough gratitude for their professional generosity. Jeannie, Norb, Sharon, Mark, Richard, Marcia: thanks. And thanks again.

The same kind of thing can be said of my time in graduate school. I was expecting a confidence-shattering siege in which my ideas were briefly considered and roundly dismissed. But again, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community of people who challenged me in all the right ways while helping me understand how to leverage what I was good at. Central to this development was my adviser and eventual dissertation director, who is unique in his capacity to make you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room while still helping you strengthen your thinking. There’s nothing quite like having him read a section of your dissertation, lay a level gaze on you and say, “That’s really, really smart.” And then keep reading, as though I actually had something to say.

Which isn’t to imply that my time in grad school was one long victory narrative. There were frustrating conversations where I tried to figure out exactly how to finesse the approach my adviser seemed to want me to take (but which I wasn’t smart enough to nail) and emails with written feedback where I had to swallow my pride and just soak up the criticism, as well as torturous periods of revision where I had to constantly tamp down on the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He pushed me and challenged me and reminded me how much I still had to learn, but it was tempered with a steady stream of compliments that never left me questioning my worth.

And that, as it turns out, is the perfect transition to my current situation as a teacher educator, where questioning my worth is pretty much all I do. I see now that I’m one of those people who needs validation and support to grow. I don’t need applause 24/7 – as I mentioned above, well-meaning criticism is hugely important and I welcome the opportunity to get better by recognizing my faults – but because of my knack for self-sabotage I really don’t have a clue as to what I do well. Ask me to summarize my first eight years as a Ph.D. and you’re going to get a laundry list of failures with a single footnote that reads, “Here’s one day where I didn’t suck too bad.”

So, to turn this back around to what I’m learning about myself from Poehler’s book, I can start to source my perpetual discomfort to the nature of validation (or lack thereof) in my current position. I talk a lot to my students about how teaching isn’t the job to take if you need instant gratification, but the gratification you get as a high school teacher is U2-at-Red-Rocks level intensity compared to what I’ve experienced as a professor. In teaching, one form of validation comes from seeing your students’ development, and I could usually see the growth my high school students were demonstrating. I could see them become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. I could take a piece of their writing from August, put it alongside a piece of their writing from May, and see the difference I made. I had students who began the year as non-readers asking for book recommendations by the next summer. The other form of validation is the same in teaching as it is in every other field: simply hearing you’re doing a good job. And I have a grocery bag of notes from students (and their parents) thanking me for the investment I made in their (and their children’s) lives. It wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of each class, but I could feel pretty satisfied most of the time that I was tipping the scales in the right direction.

But now? It’s much harder to point to student success. They write learning objectives better? They really aligned that one assessment with the standard at the top of the lesson plan? The growth I see within a course is largely facile, which is no knock on the students; it’s just the nature of the work. And what about praise for my teaching, that other external support mechanism? Once a year I sit down for my annual review, I get a pat on the back for staying so busy, and that’s it for the next 364 days. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to have figured it all out by this point.  Maybe the assumption is that once you’ve worked your way up to a Ph.D. you’re beyond such earthly concerns as routine praise. But for someone like me whose default setting is, “Well, at least nothing’s on fire,” I’ve found university teaching to be a solitary, uncomfortable time where I don’t really know if I’m doing anything well at all.

I should add that I don’t necessarily think I’m unique in this. The lack of a support mechanism for faculty is, in some ways, a product of the way the university system is set up. We’re all in our offices or teaching our classes or working on our individual projects, and the kind of supportive cross-pollination I wish I had more of isn’t easy to come by when the very framework of our profession is scattered. I just think some people are better at dealing with it. They either find other ways to derive satisfaction from their work or they’re simply more confident and don’t need as much external validation. (Alternate scenario: We’re all just a bunch of seething malcontents who never give voice to our collective frustration.) But when you combine the fundamentally diffuse nature of the university with my own introverted, standoffish nature, it actually starts to make a lot of sense that support and validation would be hard to come by.

Student evaluations get their own paragraph, because end-of-semester feedback would seem to be one concrete way I could point to specific successes. These evaluations can be nice, but they’re largely too anonymous and general to be of much use. It’s like a Yelp review from a total stranger. “I learned a lot in your class” is the educational equivalent of “Your taquitos were just the right amount of crispy.” It’s fine, but what am I really supposed to do with that feedback? It’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. I’m not going to win many awards with “The readings were appropriate and not to [sic] long.”

This, too, is important: I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I may not deserve praise in the first place. If I felt like I was doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’d care too much about what anyone else thought. I’d be all, “Suck it, world,” and go about my business. But when you feel like you’re largely a garbage fire on legs, praise from other people becomes more important than perhaps it should be. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was wired in such a way that I could go about my business with little input from the rest of the world. But this particular garbage fire needs a little encouragement from time to time.

And yeah – maybe I should stop being such a ninny and ask for feedback when I need it instead of waiting for it to come to me.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk a little bit about writing, since that’s another metric of success at the university level and an additional way to receive validation and support. But that presents its own set of problems. When it comes to the research component of the professorship, all that matters is publication. You can tell me, “That’s a fine piece of writing,” but a folder of “fine pieces of writing” means absolutely zero if no one wants to publish it – which actually means that as far as the profession is concerned these aren’t “fine pieces of  writing” but are, in fact, garbage. It would be nice if man hours counted for something in terms of promotion, but unfortunately a folder of unpublished writing is useful as wallpaper for my office, but not much more.

So, if I’ve got a largely unsuccessful track record of publication (which I do) and not much validation for my teaching (which I don’t), that only leaves me with the third component of my job: professional service, as the undergraduate adviser. And that, friends, means my big contribution to the field is clerical work. Which, when I think about the people in my own life whom I want to emulate, is just too depressing to think about.

I’m drifting into gripe territory, which isn’t my intent. To be clear: I work with world-class colleagues who are all doing amazing stuff (winning awards and publishing books and making a difference for their students and all that) in a department that’s stacked with talent, and it’s their own dumb luck to have to work with someone who’s the Adam Sandler to their Daniel Day-Lewis/Jessica Chastain/pick your favorite thespian. I don’t mean for any of this to come off as a criticism of them, and it shouldn’t be read that way. I’ve tried to make clear that I situate most of this on my own (surprisingly broad) shoulders. And, of course, on the very nature of teaching at the university level. When you’re working in an environment where you have less contact with your students and your colleagues have less access to your teaching, it only makes sense that if you don’t have a pretty strong faith in your own ability you’re going to wonder if anything’s working.

So.

What’s the takeaway, then, from Poehler’s book and my midair epiphany? I don’t really know. It’s a problem without a simple solution. I’m not just going to wake up one day and suddenly feel good about my work when I’m lacking the evidence to support that feeling. A solution to this problem will be labor intensive, and who needs that in his life when he’s already got a digital stack of lesson plans to grade? But I guess I know this: I’ve either got to figure out how to muster up some personal satisfaction in what I’m doing or I need to make a more concerted effort to go somewhere or do something where I’m going to get what I feel like I’m missing.

Also, therapy.

But this, too: My dumb brain circles around to gratitude a lot of the time and how it seems as though Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and whatever the hell it is we’re supposed to do with Twitter has somehow replaced substantive acts of generosity among friends. I’m guilty of it, too, clicking the “like” button when it’s been years since I told that hypothetical person how much I (hypothetically) value him or her as a (non-hypothetical) person/friend/colleague. I think we all (me included) need to remember to show more gratitude for what we recognize in others. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall short much of the time. I’m uncomfortable with emotion and the last thing I want is to seem like the skeezy dude who overshares. But be the change you want to see in the world and all that. If I feel like my world isn’t supportive enough, what am I doing to be supportive in my world? It’s a fair question.

Poehler writes at the end of her book, “The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.”

Indeed.

Also, because this is (and isn’t) a review, Amy Poehler’s book is really, really good. You should read it.

What More Can I Say

Jay blackAs ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s.  Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?).  It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in.  We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”

But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity.  In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect.  All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst.  And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone.  But I loved it, almost from the get-go.  True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off.  I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.

I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.*  In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul.  The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids.  (Which it kind of did.  Which is good.)

All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned.  I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine.  And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).

Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album.  I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went.  Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.

In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles.  The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability.  Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe.  Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music.   Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective.  But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.”  It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.

(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)

Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old.  There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.”  And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout.  The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.

Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.

 

* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true.  Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.

A Design for Life

IMG_0955A note from the management, primarily to establish the rules of a new game in its own post that I can link to later.

A couple days ago – here – I posted my musical canon, the records I own that have shaped the listener and, in many cases, the person I am today.  In that post I said I’d eventually be discussing these albums, one at a time.  That’s still true, but that discussion will now be subsumed under a larger project I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Here it is:

My record collection is inventoried in Discogs, a terrific site that music nerds like me can use to catalog our collections and buy and sell records from dealers and other collectors.  But it also has a nifty feature in the “Random Item” search button.  Click it, and Discogs pulls up a random album from your collection.  For instance, I just clicked it, and out of the 1,600 records in my collection, Discogs pulled up Jay-Z’s 1999 masterwork, The Black Album.

My plan is to use this feature to talk about music.  Rather than simply walk through my canon, where the narrative will probably get a little samey – “Gee whiz, this is an awesome album!” – using the “Random Item” feature will generate some different types of discussion and analysis.  Some records I own because I genuinely love them.  Some I own because I’m a completist, and while I feel warmly toward them, I own them mainly to fulfill a collector’s compulsion. And then there are also some that I know less well, impulse buys or records that I purchased after enjoying a cursory listen or two online.  The point being, my experience with The Black Album will be very different from my experience with U2’s The Joshua Tree or R.E.M.’s Greenand I think that difference will result in what I hope is an engaging snapshot of popular music post-1965 through the lens of my obsession.

So I’ll click the button, give the record my undivided attention, and then see what kind of writing it generates.  Look for this – thinking optimistically here – a few times a week, when I can find the time to put the effort into it.*

First up, to prove I’m not cheating and just clicking until I get one of the albums from my canon, I’ll tackle The Black Album, a record I admire more than love.

* but, true to form, I’ll probably do it a couple times, get bored, and quit.

Hounds of Love

AnsariOne thing immediately became clear to me as I read Aziz Ansari’s excellent treatise on modern romance (titled, conveniently, Modern Romance) and it’s this: I would have had more dating success as a young man if I had had the options afforded by today’s technology.  As a shy, awkward kid with – how to put this? – “a face that is not pleasant to look at,” I wasn’t super successful with the ladies.  I was (and still am, I think) fairly proficient with words.  If I had had access to text messaging instead of the painful “date request” phone call, if I could’ve charmed from a distance with my written wit, if I’d been able to make a good physical impression via the smoke and mirrors possible in Instagram, I might have been happier as a wee lad.  I’m generally useless in social situations, especially at first, but once I warm up I can hold my own.  If I could’ve warmed up to the girls I was interested in through technology (instead of stumbling haphazardly through a gauntlet of clumsy personal interactions) I think I would have fared better.

But as I reflect on this, I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself while also failing to mention what I found most fascinating about Ansari’s book.

Modern Romance is absolutely a humor book.  For those who know and enjoy Ansari’s humor (whether with his Human Giant sketch show, his standup, his indelible role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, or his fantastic Netflix show, Master of None), you’ll quickly hear his voice come through loud and clear:

To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era?  I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible.  Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.

But while it’s unquestionably a book where Ansari gets to be laugh-out-loud funny, it increases the comedy book stakes by also being an honest-to-goodness social science text.  Ansari and his research partner, New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, spent years conducting focus group interviews and analyzing interactions with volunteers on a subreddit forum to present an illuminating view of what it’s like to date in the 2010s (in the U.S. and in other countries), and how it differs from generations past.  We get chapters dealing with the “initial ask,” online dating, international trends, the implications of technology, and so on.  Each chapter is grounded in their research and shot through with Ansari’s unmistakable humor.

While there’s certainly a wealth of information here, much of which I didn’t know (Japan is in the middle of a marriage crisis? A third of the people who got married in the first decade of the 21st Century met online?), the most striking issue the book reveals is the problem presented by having too many options.  Ansari sets this up early by discussing the interviews he conducted with older Americans, most of whom met their spouses in a very small radius.  Over 80% of those interviewed lived within 20 blocks of their future spouse, and many of them lived in the same apartment building or on the same street.  This is true of my parents, who lived four houses apart, met when they were 13, married in their early 20s, and stayed married until my mom’s death in 2011.  According to Ansari, this was a pattern repeated by many people in my parents’ generation (that is, meeting someone from your neighborhood and marrying young, not necessarily dying an early death from cancer), but it’s one that has largely disappeared.

Instead, thanks to the rise of online dating and apps like Tinder – as well as increased mobility and larger social circles brought about by social media networks – people today have dozens (and in large cities, literally hundreds) of possible mates a phone swipe away.  When you combine this with people’s increased need to find the best thing possible – Ansari very funnily recounts the tortuous process he uses just to find the best taco joint in town – it only makes sense that people are dating more and marrying less (or at least later).  Because we can now see just how many other attractive single people are out there in our vicinity, Ansari argues, people are increasingly less satisfied with their current situation in the hope that they can eventually find not just something better, but the best there is (be it taco joint, television, or spouse).

Most fascinating, Ansari reports that this isn’t really a thing in the other countries they researched.  People in those countries still largely fall in love as a result of meeting through friends or at work or in bars or clubs (although he also details the frankly horrifying verbal assaults women in Buenos Aires face on a daily basis).   This need to find the “best” seems to speak to a restlessness in the American psyche that I can’t help but think also speaks to our competitive, capitalist identity.  Doesn’t it make sense that when a country has as one of its bedrock principles the notion of upward social mobility, its people would find themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for second-best in all aspects of their lives?  We typically see this occurring in the context of economics, but in light of Ansari and Klinenberg’s work, it seems unavoidable to consider how this mindset has influenced other aspects of American culture, including dating.  Even though Ansari doesn’t make this connection himself, it’s to his book’s credit that it allows for this sort of speculation instead of merely settling for funny.

This is a rare book that’s able to mix laughs with research, and the few topics I’ve mentioned here are really just the tip of the qualitative iceberg.  Modern Romance is a fascinating read, not just as social science, but as a snapshot of America – and young Americans – at the dawn of the 21st Century.

*****

Current listening:

Dream days

The Dream Syndicate – The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)

As Close as I Came to Being Right

biggest-loser-logo
The Biggest Loser returns tonight.  I will watch it, I will enjoy it, and I will steadfastly refuse to care that I’m not supposed to do either of those things.

I understand the impulse behind naming certain things “guilty pleasures.”  We all want to think our taste is beyond reproach, that we worship at the altar of the highbrow, and that at the very least we recognize that certain entertainments have little or no redeeming social value.  To cite something as a guilty pleasure is to position oneself as someone who knows better and in the process claim a certain moral or intellectual high ground.

It’s nonsense, of course.

When it comes to entertainment, why should we feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure? The truth (for me, anyway) is that I don’t trust people who claim to only like the “right” things. Thanks to my association with a certain music festival, I’ve come into contact with folks who claim only to like Japanese musicians who create found-sound drone collages out of kitchen appliances and the subsonic echoes of beating insect wings or six-hour black-and-white films about a Romanian peasant eating a potato.  It’s like a real-life episode of Portlandia, where  the insufferably pretentious assert their superiority by claiming never to have heard of Lost, and it always smacks of an effort to hide their insecurity by trying too hard.

I do recognize, however, that the flipside is true.  A steady diet of American Idol, Maroon 5, Nicholas Sparks, and Adam Sandler will do no one any favors, and those of us who have friends who snack incessantly on junk food should logically steer them in increasingly more substantial directions.  But taking those things in moderation – and, by necessity, recognizing their flaws – is nothing to feel guilty about.

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to quickly discuss three entertainments (TV, music, and book) that some people would call guilty pleasures, but for which I make absolutely no apologies.  I like what I like, and that’s really all that should matter.

I know I’m not supposed to admit to any of the things that follow.  I have a Ph.D., and therefore should spend my days surrounded by fine art, books of philosophy, and classical music.  But I have nothing hanging on my walls, I haven’t read a philosophy book since my brief fascination with Foucalt in the late 90’s, and classical music bores me to tears.

jillian-michaels-and-bob-harperTelevision – The Biggest Loser

The perennial weight loss competition works for me for a couple reasons.  The main one is that, at its best, it’s truly inspiring.  Unlike most reality shows that seem to wallow in humiliation, Biggest Loser actually tries to make a positive difference for people, introducing them to exercise and a healthy diet (in between those annoying product-placement spots for Subway and Tupperware, which assume the contestants have all been living on Mars) and encouraging viewers in need of weight loss to make a similar change.  I mean, sure, there’s humiliation here, too, as we watch horribly obese people fall off treadmills, but on balance it does far more good than harm.

It also works because the show has chosen its trainers well.  Bob Harper is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian Michaels’ batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs.  I’m ambivalent about the most recent addition, Dolvett Quince.  He’s sort of a combination of the other two, with a penchant both for sappy platitudes and yelling.  He’s an an inoffensive character and many of the contestants seem to like him, but I’m not sure what he offers that the show didn’t already have.

There are, of course, drawbacks that I have a harder time defending.  Most problematic for me is the way the show constantly falls into a hero/victim dichotomy.  I sort of resent the clips of Bob telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if the contestants are doing it to be better parents.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you a responsible human.

On that same point, I grow tired of how the female competitors – usually mothers – are often portrayed as victims, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives have held them down and force-fed them Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout each season, Jillian or Bob or Dolvett will say something  like this to one of the women: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  Look: I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show starts, many of the women are pushing 250 pounds or more.  That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight.  They might not have had time to take care of themselves, but they sure as hell had time to stuff their faces.  I think this bothers me precisely because in most instances The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for some contestants’ obesity at their families’ feet seems like a cop-out.

All of this is to say that, even with its flaws, I have no problem supporting a show that encourages its viewers to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  Where most reality shows glorify bad behavior, The Biggest Loser asks us to live up to our potential.

ColdplayMusic – Coldplay

Ever since 2005 and the band’s appearance as the “You know how I know you’re gay?” punchline from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay has been seen as the relentlessly sappy group of effeminate Brits who give romance a bad name. Among certain music fans, their name is shorthand for cheap emotion and mass-market sentiment – the Hallmark Cards of guitar rock.

It’s not a totally undeserved reputation, but I love them anyway because, left out of that larger discussion is a really important point: they write some killer melodies.  Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, is a dynamite collection of songs that’s been overshadowed by the ubiquity of hit single “Yellow,”  and its follow-up, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of my Top Ten albums of the first decade of the 21st Century.  And yeah, some of that album has been overplayed, but seriously: listen to “Clocks” with new ears and dare to tell me it’s not an amazing song.

Those first two albums went a long way toward replacing The Smiths in my lovelorn late-20’s vocabulary, and I vividly remember singing songs like “Shiver” and “The Scientist” at top volume as a balm for another broken heart.  And maybe this is why I’m drawn to Coldplay despite their detractors: at heart, I’m just as sappy and weedy as the band.

Anyway, 2005’s X & Y isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors (although I still find “Fix You” to be almost annoyingly wonderful in its panoramic, widescreen bombast), but their last two albums, 2008’s Viva la Vida and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, have taken the admirable tack of following stylistic tangents while still incorporating some of the most hummable melodies of recent times.  It hasn’t made them more masculine, but in our testosterone-heavy culture, I’ll take a little sensitivity anyday.

Stephen KingBooks – Stephen King

I’ve written about King so much in my other blogs that I’m a little tired of my own effusiveness.  But for the benefit of new readers: Stephen King is almost solely responsible for the reader I am today.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.

I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly,why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old rear.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  Up to that point I was heavily into the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks and my reaction was this: “I’ve been reading about elves when I could have been reading this all along?  Ho-lee shit.”  Fortunately, this was in the late 80′s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order. This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who continued my literary journey.  Ellison led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who eventually got me to Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy and T.C. Boyle and most of the other writers who are my favorites to this day.

But King set me on this path, and I still feel a debt of gratitude for that.  To this day I faithfully pick up his newest book whenever it’s published, but I don’t do this out of obligation or nostalgia.  King’s very popularity leads people to lump him in with (in my opinion) less-talented writers like Sparks or Grisham, but, as with Coldplay, I think this knee-jerk reaction obviates people from actually experiencing the art.  And King, for as long as he’s been doing this, still writes terrific stories with great passion.  Not every book is a winner – I grew tired of the Dark Tower series around Book 5 and still haven’t been able to finish it, and I’m still reluctant to read From a Buick 8 because I think we can all agree that two haunted car books is two too many for anyone – but I think we’d all be lucky to maintain such consistently high quality for nearly forty years.  So, y’know, struggle manfully with the new Thomas Pynchon if you like. King’s upcoming sequel to The Shining will give me more pleasure in the long run.

One final note about all of this: liking what you like and being proud of it, as I hope I’ve shown here, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge its faults.  But it also doesn’t mean that just because it has faults that it’s not worthy of your attention.  For me, it’s more important that we have passions than that we worry overmuch what other people think of them.  And, to that end, you should feel free to make fun of me for liking any of the things I’ve written about here, just as I will make merciless fun of you for liking Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Nickelback.  It’s only fair.

*****

Current listening:
Joy big
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar (2011)

Notes on Achieving Orbit

rickygervaisstephenmerchantWhen it comes to movies and television, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington (and the subsequent travel program, An Idiot Abroad) is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais in previous posts on previous blogs, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a decent standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.  These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****
Current listening:
Love forever
Love – Forever Changes (1967)