There are a lot of different ways to think about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, released last week. The most obvious would be as a novel, and, as a novel, it must be said: it is not very good.
I avoided reviews of GSaW before reading it, but since the headlines were inescapable I knew the general consensus was negative. This was very much a surprise as I was reading it. It was imperfect, certainly, but things would have to go off the rails pretty spectacularly to deserve being called a “mess”. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when things did go utterly off the rails in the final sections of the book.
The problem here is, as you are no doubt aware even if you too have only read headlines, that the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is racist. Rather, the problem with the story is not that he is racist, but in the discussion of how Jean Louise – who we all remember fondly as Scout Finch, and who is the actual protagonist of this book, despite getting fewer headlines – tries to come to terms with her discovery of this great failing in her father. We all were Jean Louise Finch last week, as we, too, tried to understand what could have happened to so drastically alter the most upstanding and moral figure of our childhood, who helped shape our understanding of right and wrong, who we all looked up to.
Unfortunately, though recognizing your parents as the flawed human beings they are could be a very rich topic, it is not presented well here. It takes the form of a couple of debates between characters – Jean Louise and her uncle, then Jean Louise and Atticus, and then she and her uncle again – spanning several pages, of just individual characters talking about their ideas. Even with the best of writing, this kind of philosophical argument is generally not terribly interesting to me. But these chapters of Go Set a Watchmen are not even close to the best of writing. The ideas presented are, generously, half-formed; it’s sort of like sitting too close to college freshman who are talking, about anything really. They’re also, frankly, pretty offensive; while much ink has been spilled about Atticus’ racism, Jean Louise does not come across any better; certainly not by today’s standards, anyway, although I’m certain that at the time, you could be progressive and in favor of equality while still being pretty racist. Seriously; it’s bad, you guys.
But the debate about race in Watchman, too long and poorly formed as it is, is incidental to the plot, really. Because the true struggle of the book is how Jean Louise will come out of this crisis still loving her father. And that, I think, is where Watchman actually becomes pretty interesting; it’s not successful as a novel, but it is a great case study for the writing process, and, particularly in this time of self-publishing, the importance of editors. Because, up until the end, there is a lot to like in Watchman. The talent and joy Harper Lee has in writing is impossible to ignore through most of it. And a talented editor was able to steer the book away from the thornier issues Lee was not properly addressing, to focus on the vivid recollections of Scout’s childhood, and her adventures with Jem and Dill; to enable Scout to love Atticus in the way that Jean Louise clearly wanted to, even though she couldn’t.
In the end, if you’re looking for a good book, I would not recommend Go Set a Watchman. But, if you’re interested in writing, in watching the development of a creative project, I’d say it’s a worthwhile read. I’ve got a copy you can borrow, but, even with all of it’s flaws, I’ll definitely be wanting it back.
I like just about everything on This American Life except for Ira Glass, and the reason I don’t like Ira Glass is the way he says “Of course.” He says it every episode, not to express agreement with a guest, although he may do that too; the particular “of course,” to which I’m referring comes when the show returns from commercial (or so I imagine; I, of course, listen to it online) and Ira explains what TAL is all about: “Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.” Although I did confirm the wording against a transcript of the most recent podcast, I was able to write that from memory; I am not kidding that he says it every week.
What makes the “of course,” so annoying is that, in confirming that everyone already knows the set-up of This American Life, it calls into question why they’ve included this little mid-show introduction in the first place. I mean, I get that you want to offer a little orienting for your listeners rather than just plunge them back into the middle of the story, or, more often, the beginning of a new story. And I have, theoretically, no objection to restating the This American Life thesis statement during each episode – you never know when a new listener is going to tune in. But in saying “of course,”, Ira is implying that even the newest of listeners is already familiar with the TAL mission. It’s certainly possible that This American Life has achieved the sort of cultural saturation where everyone does, in fact, know what it is even if they haven’t actually been exposed to it themselves; but there’s no need to be smug about it, Ira. And frankly, if everyone already know what you’re going to say, maybe use the time to say something else. Just imagine how much more exciting weddings would be if that happened.
It seems like a lot, I know, to dislike Ira Glass entirely on the basis of two words, even if they are two words he says over and over again. But, of course, my judgement does not rest solely on those two words; instead, for me, those two words perfectly encapsulate the sense of smugness that pervades every episode of This American Life. A show, I should probably mention, of which I would consider myself a big fan: their stories are often interesting and always well told, even as it seems like the radio counterpart of The Daily Show in its reassurance that the universal japes and ridiculous straights of life it wryly observes do not impact its audience; we, the listeners, are above all that foolishness.
An ability to pinpoint a meaningful phrase in a work came in very handy as a literature major. However, as the years have passed and I’ve grown too stupid to read a book, I’ve had to find another outlet for my critical skills. And, while television would be the most obvious target, since I spend so much time with it, it’s actually people that really allow my literature-comparing skills to shine. For example, I recently had the following conversation with a co-worker:
Me: Yeah, I have to put in my air conditioners this weekend.
Coworker: Oh, do you have someone to do that for you?
Me: [?] Uh, no? I do it myself.
Coworker: Are your air conditioners not very heavy?
Me: [??? + irritation/need to suppress ire] No, the ARE very heavy, it’s just that I’m strong enough to lift them.
Coworker: [dumb expression on her face]
We here on the blog, of course, came into this conversation already in progress; while I’ve embraced the necessity of having tedious conversations with coworkers, I make a real effort never to initiate a conversation with this particular one. Because I just can’t stand her.
To you, of course, giving the credit to the air conditioners rather than to me probably does not seem like a terrible crime against my person, certainly not worth wasting your time reading about, especially since I did in the above conversation get the implied credit for having somehow gotten ahold of the world’s only light window-unit air conditioners. In fact, you may not consider it even remotely egregious that her initial response was to utterly disregard my active statement of installation in favor of automatically assuming my incapability of said action.
I, of course, understand your point. In fact, after tamping down my rage to neutrally yet extremely informatively reset the conversation to its proper subject, I wondered if I was, perhaps, somehow overreacting to the blank stare I received in response by thinking my coworker was a dumb, stupid cow. Which then, of course, made me consider whether the overreaction hadn’t happened sooner. I mean, this a woman who once “complimented” another female coworker by telling her she looked like a secretary, and there again seemed uncomprehending when this was not greeted with thanks. I should not have been surprised by her belief that I, as a woman, am probably useless.
And that, of course, is the actual issue. Not the isolated (and, it must be remembered, very, very stupid) comment about air conditioners, but that this is only the most recent, and surely not the last, in a long line of comments betraying her weird attitude toward women. Which I initially was willing to believe due to her advanced age and being raised in a time when feminism was a new concept and something a woman wouldn’t necessarily want to be known as, until I noticed that, like a high school mean girl, none of her insensitive remarks are ever self-directed. Additionally, the negging is only a subset of her larger personality issues, which I won’t detail extensively here now at this time, but will return to later.
The point, of course, is that, as with Ira Glass, while I may be overreacting to an individual comment here or there, the much larger issue is that I just do not like this person. I don’t. And no matter how much I might try to focus on the positive or let these comments go, there will always be another one. It’s an endless if irregular flow of reminders that,the reason I don’t like her is because she sucks. And it has become unbelievably tiresome to pretend otherwise.
You, of course, are maybe wondering when this pretending took place? After all, if you are reading this, we’ve probably spent time together, and anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with me over the past entirety of my life knows that I will eventually turn any conversation to how much I don’t like someone or something about work. Here online, though, I have actually tried to avoid the topic. For one thing, it undoubtedly does not look good during a job search for a prospective employer to find an archive demonstrating an inability to get along with one’s coworkers. For a girl, I mean; a guy can write anything he wants and it’ll be fine. For another thing, I’m sure the 6 of you reading this would tire quickly of reading the very same story over and over again, even if a few of the identifying details have been changed.
But what I realized as I sat wondering whether I was overreacting to be so bothered by this very irritating conversation about air conditioners is that I don’t actually care if I am. And that I like to complain; in fact, it makes me happy to detail an excessively minor thing and say “Look, look! Look at the nonsense that exists in the world, that I have to deal with almost every day.” Because even if I didn’t, it would still happen; in fact, there have been 3 more incidences since I started writing this. If I have to bear witness to this, then my reward is that I get to talk about it. So get ready: there will be plenty more where this came from.
An interesting thing is that I tend to wake up earlier in the summer. Actually, that’s false on two counts: it’s not at all interesting, and I wake up early year-round, due to Oola’s solid understanding of breakfast-time that does not alter with the seasons. Although it does, somehow, take into account daylight savings time. But in summer, with the sun already being up and the apartment already being warm, I will *not* go back to sleep after feeding the kitten but instead get going on my day. And while it might make sense that this earlier start would lead to arriving earlier to work, what I instead do with that extra time is extend my commute. So that I get to work at the same time, but it takes much longer to get there.
I did briefly attempt to use the extra time to get myself a fancy coffee drink with the intention of sitting in the fancy coffee place and enjoying, but it turns out the early morning baristas are a slow moving bunch and any extra time I thought I’d had was whittled away as I waited in line. Instead of subjecting myself to such frustration early in the morning, I instead use the extra time to incorporate more walking into my day, but without having to call it exercise, which I would never do.
And so it was that, on Tuesday morning, I found myself at 6:45am on Newbury Street with a particular place to be but in no hurry to get there, and I thought to myself “Self, why don’t we check out the old work neighborhood?” Which, as is once again the case, is distressingly close to my new work neighborhood. I’d seen in passing that there have been a lot of changes on Brookline Avenue since last I passed that way, and actually walking down the street I experienced up close how many of the things I used to see every day gone. For one thing, the storefront with the green awning that stood empty for the entire 9 years I walked down that street is gone altogether, having been replaced either by something completely unmemorable or a Crossfit gym which, now that I’ve seen two of them, I guess are supposed to look like the unfinished and never-used home gym in your neighbor’s garage, circa 1987.
More notably, the office I worked in – on 3 different floors – has been extensively renovated, or at least it appears to be from the sidewalk; even in passing it no longer resembles its humble beginnings as a renovated parking garage. It was too early in the day for anyone to be entering or exiting the building, unless it’s maybe staffed entirely by Oompa-Loompas held captive by a new corporate overlord; either way, it looks like the sort of place where work could be done, rather than a temporary holding cell for aimlessly malevolent chaos.
The view across the street has changed considerably too. Gone is the entire building that housed a rotating selection of failed restaurants, replaced by something unmemorable or perhaps another Crossfit. The restaurants themselves were entirely unmemorable too, all except one: B.B. Wolf, which was not memorable because of the quality of the food – as a barbecue joint it was inhospitable to the vegetarians in our lunch crowd. We seldom ate there, but it did play host to a manager’s meeting where we discussed the planned upgrade to Windows NT, a meeting memorable not for its location but because it was at this meeting a tall and handsome colleague asked me what NT stood for; I wasn’t sure but supposed it could be New Technology. We agreed that made sense, even if we couldn’t quite figure out why either of us was invited to the meeting. Although it is interesting (but again, not really) to think I was with a single company from whatever preceded NT to whatever preceded Vista. And I am glad I wasn’t there for the Vista upgrade, if there was one, because if there was, I am certain it didn’t go smoothly.
Anyway. While handsomeness and the ephemeral of necessity of new technologies are always fun to think about, what makes B.B. Wolf truly memorable is an equally trivial but slightly more explosive staff interaction when the thoughts of the Admin Team, which I supervised, turned to the mystery of what B.B. Wolf might stand for.
This was an afternoon conversation, quite likely on a Friday, but definitely at the point where people begin to realize there’s more time left in the work day than they can possibly fill on their own. It may be hard to imagine such a thing now, but remember: this was in the time of Windows NT; not even Friendster had come along yet, meaning the only people you had to pass the time with during the day were those in your immediate vicinity. Unless you wanted to use the phone. Which could only make calls. And would have been corded, so you wouldn’t even have the privacy to talk with your friends about how much you didn’t want to talk to your coworkers.
So it was in these dark times that someone chanced to glance across the street and wonder aloud what the B.B. might stand for. I momentarily shared their wonder; as far as I recall, the minds behind B.B. Wolf never actually elaborated on what the double-b might mean anywhere on their menues, and while they’d probably use their website to explain the whole history of the name today (some places do just go on and ON), if they’d had a website back in the days of NT, they probably would have been some sort of short-lived yet brazen start-up instead of a short-lived barbecue restaurant of indeterminate brazenosity.
As I wondered, I recalled noticing a theme the few times I’d looked over their menu: pigs. 3 of them. Living in houses. Maybe under a constant threat of being blown down? Thus, I concluded, the B.B. must stand for Big Bad.
I did not immediately share this with my coworkers. As manager, you want to allow staff a certain amount of room to resolve issues on their own. Also, it’s important to recognize that a conversation happening in your presence is not necessarily an invitation to join in; this was their investigation, and, as manager, I didn’t want to cut it short. Particularly since the answer was so easy, the solution would be reached soon enough.
But it wasn’t. I do not remember every possible permutation they came up with for B.B., which is no doubt for the best, but I do remember they eventually settled on Bar Be. Like Bar Be Cue, but with a wolf. That makes sense, right?
It doesn’t. I mean, it’s not a completely terrible idea, by which I of course mean that I myself had briefly considered that B.B. was some kind of play on BarBecue, and had even gone so far as to fleetingly consider Bar-be-wolf might be it. Until I realized that, even for a startup, Bar-be-wolf makes no sense at all, and moved on to other possibilities before finally settling on what was undoubtedly the right answer because I turned out to be right about the NT thing.
The Admin Team, though, wasn’t moving on. Once Bar-Be-Wolf came up, they stopped considering other possibilities in favor of discussing among themselves how that had to be correct. In the surest sign they considered the matter resolved, they made motions toward getting back to work.
I was torn. As manager, it’s great to have a staff that can be productive without urging. As a human being, there is no greater frustration than people deciding to be wrong, particularly when their decision to be wrong makes them happy. What could I do? I’m sure I had other options, but in the end, I did this:
OH MY GOD, IT’S BIG BAD! IT STANDS FOR BIG BAD! GET IT? BIG BAD WOLF? FuuuuuUUUCK.
Before anything else, I am a human being. And, even in the days before the internet, it was important to let people know when they were acting like idiots, even if you had to do it in person.
Jurassic World has gotten some mixed reviews, and rightfully so: some really annoying shit happens before the dinosaurs show up and start eating people. Why anyone would think a child running away from a dinosaur would be more dramatic if said child were sad about his parents impending divorce is beyond me; in a movie like this, the bulk of the drama should be coming from the dinosaurs. And, to be fair, once they show up, everyone you’d hope does actually get killed, so I still give it a thumbs up. But, if you want to make a dinosaur movie but feel like you need something more than a child narrowly escaping the literal jaws of death, here are a few divorce alternatives for upping the drama:
1.Make it Class Trip day at Jurassic World!
More kids makes more suspense. Plus, the teacher could get eaten; since the only real hero who dies in the current Jurassic World is a brontosaurus, this would add a few actual stakes to the story while also allowing the shy and quiet transfer student in the class to step up and shepherd the rest of the class to safety with his or her heretofore unknown leadership skills.
2. Make the older sibling a teenaged girl!
If we’ve learned anything in the past three years, it’s that all you need to avert the apocalypse is a spunky brunette teenaged girl. (Okay, there’s a boy in that last poster, but he’s very attractive, so I’ll allow it.) Imagine how effective she’s be if, instead of being from an impoverished district and having only her own cunning to help her survive, she had actual high tech weapons at her disposal! Dinosaurs running amok? Easy peasey lemon squeezy. WHICH BOY IS SHE GOING TO TAKE TO THE PROM?
3. Have the parents actually be divorced!
What better place for a weekend dad to take his estranged and slightly resentful children to assure them that they’ll always be a family? Nothing brings together broken families like dinosaurs. Plus, in the sequel, we can watch them go to family therapy to deal with the trauma of having been hunted by dinosaurs, as well as the survivor’s guilt of having seen so many others perish. Not to mention the lawsuit as the mother sues for sole custody after the father so recklessly endangered her children. Good times.
4. Have the siblings be identical twins!
Okay, this one is not quite as fully fleshed out as the others – which, in fairness, set a pretty high bar. But there must be a way for a movie whose entire premise is cloning genetic material to incorporate identical twins: they’re nature’s clones! Plus, they could do that thing where it looks like they’re standing next to each other, but it turns out one of them is actually just a reflection of the other. But which one? The dinosaur would never figure it out! Or would she?
I believe I went on record not too long ago as in favor of the chaos and temporary societal breakdown that tend to accompany your larger winter storms; however, in light of this particular winter, in which storm followed storm followed storm, I’d like to amend my previous support to make it fully clear that my enjoyment stems from the temporary nature of the suspension of civility, of knowing that, no matter how dark it is, day will follow. This past winter, with its seemingly endless snowfall, which, last I checked, was still not entirely melted, proved too much even for my hardy constitution, which can’t help but rise to a challenge it knows it can win, and instead of taking joy in the conquering of elements, I too reached a point where I found myself to be conquered by them.
It happened toward the end of February. Prior to that I had also been not enjoying the mercurial turn of events so much, but I did recognize that I was getting through the season relatively unscathed. Yes, my evening commute was twice as long as it should have been, but I boarded the bus early enough in its run that it never passed me without picking up; I didn’t have to connect to another bus, or pick up children, or get to a second job. All I had to do was get to my house, put on pajamas and have the kitten stretch out over my legs, and it turns out that I can all of that just as easily at 6pm as I can at 5pm.
Despite my relatively easy travels, I did notice, on those days when traffic was too backed up and it wasn’t actively snowing or terribly windy, how much more sense it makes to be able to walk home rather than drive. Certainly, exposure to the elements is not my favorite thing, and I have in the past noticed with some dispirit how foot traffic is often reduced to single file in the snow, as all who follow fill only the footsteps of the first intrepid soul to pass that way, rather than attempt to widen the narrow trail that has been broken. Dispirit, and lack of charity, for I do the very same thing.
But, the extreme conditions of this terrible winter turned this inconvenience into a most unlikely source of camaraderie, a first as the usual brutish claiming of right-of-way was replaced by a delicate consideration of the rights and needs of fellow travelers. Instead of just brushing past one another as we would when the entire width of the sidewalk was at our feet, pedestrians seemed to be stepping aside whenever possible – sometimes even when the approaching fellow was as many as 5 houses away! – with a wry smile that acknowledged we were all in this together. In return, we received genuine thanks from the person given the right of way. On the rare occasions that I had to venture more than a few blocks out of doors, I felt not just my usual elation at conquering the elements (or at least putting up a very noble fight), but a sense of community and kinship that tends to be missing when my primary interest in my fellow pedestrians is finding out if they’re saying something stupid.
However the pleasures of foot traffic were enhanced by the inclement weather, the inclementness, as stated, was such that, more often than not, I eschewed that fellowship newly found for the exasperating inconvenience of a bus that provided me nearly door-to-door service from my home to work, and then eventually back again.
Before I go any further in my story, I want to state clearly that the MBTA and all employed by such have my 100% support and admiration for the way they operated this past winter. The underfunding chickens would have come home to roost eventually, and I believe the agency dealt with their premature arrival with determination and genuine effort to do the best they could, to keep operations running to the degree that would best serve riders while still minding the safety of their drivers. Yes: sometimes, that best service was a massive inconvenience, as I will go on to illustrate shortly; but, overall, I believe, in facing a spectacular challenge, the T did an admirable job. It’s just that, in lionizing David, we often forget that Goliath killed a LOT of people before being hit by that slingshot. [In case this tortured analogy is not clear, Goliath is the winter, and the T was slain. And, as is the case in any story, Charlie Baker is a jerk.]
So! Like I said – generally, I was unperturbed by the extreme weather and traffic conditions of the winter. Until early one morning, when I was packing up my lunch for the day and happened to notice that my sweet kitten, the incomparable Oola Belle, had gotten a little bit of pee on the floor outside the litter box. Usually she’s neater about that sort of thing, but of far greater concern than having to clean up a little bit of cat pee – which is actually barely a concern at all – was that this particular bit of cat pee was bright pink. Which is of very great concern indeed because, if you don’t have a cat or any experience with their urine, I will tell you that pink means blood. And no matter the season, you do not want to discover that your kitten is peeing blood.
At this point, I will remind that all of this happened several months ago, and Oola Belle is now 100% recovered. And, though I am happy every day that my kitten remains in good health and good spirits, on the morning of said discovery, I was not happy at all. In fact, I was quite upset. Blood in urine is not good for anyone’s kitten, but it’s particularly a problem for my kitten because she’s mine and I love her the most. In addition to which, Oola had had this problem before, and it turned out to be a chronic condition, for which she now eats a special prescription food. And though I appreciate the symmetry, pointed out by my pal Derbs, that I would happen to end up with a pet that, like me, needs a special diet because of her malfunctioning innards, the reappearance of blood meant that the special diet in this case was failing, that her condition was getting worse, and that I was going to lose my lovingly fractious kitten after only 4 years together.
Again, it didn’t actually mean any of that. But it’s hard, at 6:50 in the morning, after weeks of unrelenting darkness and cold, to think of anything but the worst, so it was in this frame of mind that I headed out to the bus stop. A few minutes late, since I had to stop to wipe up the blood of my dying kitten (not dying), give her kisses on her sweet little head for probably the last time (not even close to the last time – in fact, I kissed her sweet little face this morning! She pretended like she didn’t care, but I was undeterred by her lack of interest), and trucked my way through 7 feet of snow, to arrive at the stop just as the bus was, technically speaking, pulling away from the curb, but since there was still so much snow in the road, it was actually impossible to tell where the sidewalk ended and the road began.
Missing the bus would mean waiting 20+ minutes for the next one, that + being an entirely unpredictable variable due to the inclement conditions previously mentioned; alternately, I could continue to trudge through 7 feet of snow to the next nearest bus route, a mile in the cold to be dropped off so far from my destination that I’d have to trudge even further just to arrive at a place that I loathe. Not to mention that my cat was (totally not) dying, and I’d have to spend the rest of my life with(out) her. There was a lot riding on my catching the bus, is what I’m saying, although I would not have put it so drolly at the time.
So I began the nearly impossible task of running through the narrow rut of unevenly packed snow to catch the bus before if fully pulled away. And, for a moment, luck was on my side; I got to the bus, and knocked on the closed doors. The driver turned his head. We made eye contact, my eyes undoubtedly filled with a mix of gratitude at his impending kindness, and despair at my impending loss. And then, firmly, he shook his head. “No.”
I will point out that, in the time it took him to shake his head, and make the accompanying hand gesture that I should step away from the bus, that he could just as easily have opened the doors to let me board. Or he could have done that when he still wasn’t driving away and I said “Can you open the door?” Probably not nicely; I mean, my cat was (not) dying, and I was for some reason about to miss the bus even though it was right in front of me; that sort of stress really comes through in my voice. And I knew that the driver had a schedule to keep to, even though he had no hope whatsoever of keeping it. But he also had the option to let me on the bus; the option, and the ability. The graciousness of pedestrians, which I had come to expect, did not extend to drivers. Given the opportunity to help, he chose not to. And I, as would any reasonable person faced with the frustration of an unreasonable asshole who doesn’t even care that your cat is (totally not even) dying, screamed loud and profane, and, helpless to do otherwise, lashed out and punched the bus.
Immediately, I regretted this. I mean, instantaneously. Which is difficult to convey in writing; but the moment for you, between reading “bus” and “immediately”, brief though it surely was, did not exist between my fist hitting the bus and my realizing what a dumb fucking thing that was to do. It hurt. So. MUCH. Like, to a degree I would not have thought possible. Which is not to say that I’ve ever spent any time imagining what it would be like to punch a bus, but if I had, I’m sure I would have thought that I’d do at least a little bit of damage to the vehicle. It was shocking to realize how wrong I was, especially about something I’d never even believed to begin with.
Had I been less occupied with the stunning pain that had, somewhat amazingly, completely defused my anger, I might have taken a moment to note that the bus proved to be as unyielding as its driver. Instead, fully occupied, I could only notice that the immediacy of the pain had been paired with a simultaneous swelling and purpling of my knuckles. Not for the first time, I thought how smart I’ve always been to wear cheap jewelry as the ring on my swollen and no longer flexible finger was adjustable and could be removed easily, intact, and with a minimum of pain.
The rest of my commute was uneventful – I trudged through the snow, in the way of my elders, and eventually arrived at work. I made an appointment with the vet, who didn’t seem alarmed by Oola’s condition, which made me think she may not have been dying after all (she wasn’t!). And the next day, on the way to the vet, I discovered that, when you’re lugging a pet carrier through the snow, everyone will cede the right of way to you.
A new trend that I’m not a particular fan of, or potentially a well-established trend that I’ve only just begun to encounter and am not a particular fan of, is for the cost of a ticket to a book-reading by a celebrity to include a copy of the book. I’m not opposed to the selling of books per se, nor even to the inflated cost of a ticket to these particular readings; however, just because I’m interested in hearing what a particular actor I enjoy has to say about things doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to own a copy of their book. Especially if they’ve written a children’s book. While I do want to hear what successful people can share about their creative process, so that I can know specifically what I should be doing when I’m not doing it, I don’t want my bookshelf to look like I read nothing but celebrity memoirs. Which is why, in addition to generally avoiding celebrity book events, I also never invite anyone over to my house.
Last week, though, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket to see Nick Offerman read from his new book at the Wilbur mostly, I think, because I just found out on Wednesday that he was reading on Friday and the pressure of last-minute decision-making overrode my natural aversions. The event was interesting; Mr. Offerman is an engaging speaker with an interesting perspective and a laugh as ridiculous as it is divine.
After the reading, Mr. Offerman opened the floor to questions, and was met immediately not with questions but with a single word, shouted again and again by the audience: mustache. It wasn’t entirely a surprise; when he first took the stage, his face seemed empty without the iconic Ron Swanson mustache. I was taken aback to see his face so naked, and though initially I mourned the loss of Ron Swanson from the world, I was quickly won over by the similarly staunch and intelligent, though infinitely more ribald, Mr. Offerman.
In response to the audience, Mr. Offerman explained that he, a character actor, would be unable to play a new character if people only ever saw him as Ron Swanson. Thus, as beloved as the mustache may have been, it must now belong to the ages. As much as much sense as that makes, though, that we should learn to draw a distinction between the man and the character he portrayed, it does call into question the photo used for the cover of the book, which, now that I can tell the difference, is much more Ron Swanson than Nick Offerman.
As I said, I’m not opposed to the selling of books, and at this particular point, Ron Swanson will probably move more product than Nick Offerman. And probably, too, the cover was shot while the final season of Parks & Recreation was filming. But still; while I would never have cause to question Nick Offerman’s integrity (seriously: you should hear him talk about how much he loves his wife), I just wish he had used a picture of himself.
After the Q&A, there was to be a book signing. And though I enjoyed the idea of telling the erstwhile Ron Swanson that I am a librarian, the theater was so ill-prepared to organize the audience into a formation that would allow any single person to get his or her book signed while also not being an unbelievable fire hazard, that I decided my best course of action would be to head home.
And because last Friday felt like summer, unlike the deep autumn in which we find ourselves lo these several days later, I decided to walk. I know; I’m a damn hero over here. A hero who sees no reason to spend $2.10 to go two stops on the Red Line. Thrift is a virtue, I understand, and virtue is its own reward. Which makes it all the more amazing that on this walk I received the greatest possible gift when I found myself slightly alongside a couple engaging in perhaps the most awkward romantic banter in history. The topic, obviously, was mailboxes.
It may seem, especially when inebriated, which I desperately hope this couple was, that the mailbox presents no end of possibilities for romantic conversation. I mean, when you have key players like “box,” “slot,” “sign for delivery,” and “insufficient postage” doing the heavy lifting for you, the wit practically writes itself. And yet, despite this cornucopia of material, this fair woman, who hopefully was drunk, lost her grip on the topic in a terrible way but tried desperately to keep up with it by announcing that isn’t it so weird that no one ever steals from mailboxes?
As a practical person not generally given to romance, I would probably not have been swept up in her desperate whimsy and instead replied that it’s not, because they do. In fact, it’s a federal offense to mess with someone’s mail, and it probably wouldn’t carry a five-year penalty if no one ever did it. Which would have been unfortunate, as I believe pointing out that the drunken person trying so hard to impress you that they’ll say something unbelievably stupid just said something unbelievably stupid is what the kids call a mood killer.
On the other hand, though, sometimes a topic is so egregious that such a killing would be a mercy. Because even though her young man tried valiantly to engage, or at least not to dash the conversation altogether, it did not get better. On the contrary, it got so much worse that it was thrilling. Desperate to course correct, the woman announced that they just don’t HAVE mailboxes where she’s from.
I didn’t fully hear the rest of what said for two reasons. The first was that, when presented with an intellectual puzzle, I need to make an attempt to solve it, however feeble. Where could a person be from that doesn’t have mailboxes? The most obvious answer is another planet, and this young woman was some sort of intergalactic spy. Which is encouraging to think of, that at least this particular alien race is so poor at fitting in amongst us that any possible invasion would have to be several years away.
However, their conversation continued and turned to the delivery of packages – because they were talking on their DATE about PACKAGES; and not in the sexy way. I assume, while I was marveling, it was put forth that, though the mailbox itself is impervious to theft, not every delivery will fit within said box and must then be left completely unguarded on a person’s porch, tempting any thief who might pass by with its vulnerability,causing her to reveal that on her home planet, packages are simply left with neighbors. Which means she lives in a place without mailboxes, but people are always home during the day. So, alien home world, or, just as likely, trailer park.
The main distraction, though, was that I am, like, 1 billion percent sure that I know guy who was on this amazingly awkward date. A former co-worker, I believe, with whom I was not particularly friends with but knew a number of people who thought well of him. By which I of course mean thought he was cute.
I have to say, here in the honesty of the internet, that I did not see it. Which, as with other things that are particularly beloved that I don’t get, I chose not to comment on. Not out of preservation in this case, but simply because I am very much in favor of finding people attractive, in general; that I may not agree in a specific case is irrelevant to the larger cause, which is one that I think should be celebrated in all its forms.
So my relationship with this gentleman is tenuous; we know each other well enough to recognize and say hello, but not well enough for us ever to laughingly reminisce about that time I saw him on a date with an alien female who wouldn’t stop talking about mailboxes, and he was gamely trying to go along with it. It’s not a memory he and I will share, which is sad, because it is one I will treasure forever.
You may have noticed over the years that I am not a person who likes a lot of things. I have definitely noticed over the years that people often do not take kindly to my disliking something that they do enjoy. In an attempt to lessen any potential ire of these sensitive people, I have over the years developed a two-pronged approach to disliking things:
- Rather than implying that any particular thing is of poor quality, I instead frame my dislike in terms of my own reaction; i.e. “I didn’t like that,” instead of “That was TERRIBLE;”
- If the thing in question seems to be particularly beloved despite my own negative reaction to its unimpeachable quality, I just don’t bring it up.
Prong number two is why I never mentioned that I kind of hate The Incredibles.
I should clarify – I don’t hate The Incredibles. It’s fun movie, it presented a fresh take on both animation and the superhero genre that made both a little more grown up, and it brought attention to the very real dangers a cape poses to crime-fighters, attention that was, unlike the chapter in my 10th grade health textbook on the hazards of platform shoes, intentionally funny.
So I enjoyed The Incredibles. I applauded along with the rest of the theater when it ended, and I even voluntarily watched it a second time at a friend’s house, deliberately selecting it over other available dvds. And both times, though, while enjoying it, there were little things, minor, certainly, but constantly niggling at the back of my head that there was something, maybe, just a touch anti-intellectual about the film. Nothing to get all het up about, for sure, but still – something wasn’t entirely right with me.
And then I read this review of Tomorrowland, that mentions that Brad Bird, behind both T-land and The Incredibles, is a devotee of Ayn Rand, and suddenly I understood that, at least in this case, the problem isn’t actually me.
My understanding of the Randian philosophy is by no means thorough, as far as I can tell it’s basically the same philosophy of a frustrated high school mean girl who doesn’t understand why she’s not more popular since she’s clearly so much smarter, prettier, and just plain better than everyone else. And even though I’m sure I’m missing some of the nuances I can absolutely see how that would appeal to a certain segment of the population who constantly find themselves thwarted by their own inability to succeed entirely on their own merit or to motivate others to act on their clearly superior behalf.
In The Incredibles this comes across less high school than juvenile, as young Dash laments that everyone being special means that no one is. It’s smart of the movie to give this line to the youngest character capable of speech, since it is exactly the kind of thing you might hear from a four year-old who hates the new baby because now he won’t be the center of attention anymore.
But The Incredibles doesn’t dismiss this as the baseless and bratty whining it is; instead, it doubles down by having Syndrome, the bad guy, reveal that this is exactly his dastardly plan – to make everyday fools just as powerful as the Supers, to make everyone special so that no one will be.
I don’t want to dwell on the fact that this, in addition to being kind of a weird message for a children’s movie, is utter horseshit, both because you already know that and because I have another point to make. But I do think we should take a moment to acknowledge that this is utter horseshit. Because it is. Talent and ability are not zero-sum games; if I were a funny, talented writer, that wouldn’t preclude anyone else from being either funny or talented or both. And I’m sure that most people accepted this as merely a critique of the everybody-gets-a-trophy culture of the mid-aughts, I find the implication that some people are inherently less than other people offensive, in order, as a Jewish person, as a woman, and, somewhat surprisingly, as a vegetarian.
But what really troubles me about this message is that Syndrome – and, let me just say how irritating it is that none of these characters have actual names, although I’m sure it’s part of a deeper commentary on identity; but anyway: Syndrome’s ability to create these gadgets that will give everyone powers should actually be pretty impressive. It demonstrates innovative thinking, impressive skill, and probably years of dedicated study. Sure, he’s turned these talents toward the dark side, a phrase the movie really should have coined, but the real dastardly part of his plan is not that he’s willing to actually murder people (who, sure, are cartoons) in order to make himself appear the hero, but that he’s going to share his amazing gizmos with the world, that his technology will benefit others.
And I should admit that I probably know only slightly more about comic books and superheroes than I do about Ayn Rand; I watched Amazing Spiderman and the Superfriends or Justice League or some other cartoon as a kid with my brother, who was a big fan of comics, but back in the ’80s when it really wasn’t cool; and I’ve seen some of the movie adaptations of this millennia, although I tapped out when they started to be overrun by bombast because, for real: they’re grown-ups in costumes! Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
So, what I know about comics is they have very much a love-hate relationship with technology: Batman has the Batcave and Batmobile and a Batbelt filled with Batgadgets to help him defeat his similarly geared-up foes; and, whereas technology saved Tony Stark’s life and made him Iron Man, it also lead to whatever The Dude and Mickey Rourke’s characters wanted in the first two movies. Even the Hulk, who’s is literally turned into a monster by exposure to gamma rays (maybe that was Godzilla?) still manages to find a way to use his enhanced strength to help people. The technology itself is neutral; it’s the application of that technology that makes it good or evil. But there’s really no good technology in The Incredibles: the supers have their powers, and the bad guys have gadgets. In the world of The Incredibles, Iron Man would be a villain, and Buzz Lightyear would never have gotten to fly because he’s just a toy.
Finally, let’s consider that the little boy who becomes Syndrome becomes Syndrome because, it is heavily implied, he is repeatedly blown-off by Mr. Incredible. I can’t find a clip to link to, so maybe I’m not remembering 100% correctly, but as I recall, Mr. Incredible is not, as you might expect of a hero, concerned for the safety of the young child who is in a dangerous situation and only wants to help; instead, he is exasperated by the nuisance posed by this little pretender, emphasis on little because, again, he is just a child. Sure, Future Syndrome should have had access to some other positive reinforcement that being rejected by his hero wouldn’t necessarily lead to a life of utter villainy. And sure, again, this was primarily viewed as a reaction against the coddling of young children, which can only lead to confidence for those with ridiculous dreams, which we, as a society, must stand firm against. And sure, Mr. Incredible was in kind of a hurry to get to his own wedding. But you know what? If the entire world calls you Mr. Incredible, and they’re not being ironic, you don’t get to be a dick to children.
Also? It probably has nothing to do with the influence of Ayn Rand, but Jack-Jack’s power doesn’t make any sense.