What Makes Us Girls

Young girls mature into women under the male gaze. This probably feels like intense scrutiny, how much so and what influence this has on ego development will vary widely, but this isn’t an experience men have with anything close to the same degree or frequency. Lana del Rey writes from the perspective of someone affected by an especially piercing male gaze. This is my interpretation.

Watch me in the swimming pool, watch me in the classroom, bathroom, slipping on my red dress, putting on my make-up

The lyrics partly stand out because I know my niece is a fan. For Christmas, she got me a copy of Honeymoon. It felt a little odd to get a CD with a Parental Advisory Explicit Content warning on the cover from my fifteen-year-old niece, but I love that she’s a fan. Because Lana del Rey’s song lyrics I find troubling don’t offend me, they don’t make me like her less, and they don’t make me think she would be a bad influence on my niece. Her lyrics aren’t misogynist, they wouldn’t be if I wrote them; they reflect the misogyny still influencing us. They’re insights, whether through characters, her author persona, or her personal reflections, into how misogyny potentially affects young women.

The last track of Born to Die particularly makes me think of my niece listening, “This is What Makes Us Girls.”

Sweet sixteen and we had arrived, walking down the street as they whistle hi hi

They feel they’ve “arrived” at the age of sixteen and the confirmation of their arrival is being cat-called on the street. But the line I find haunting is: running from the cops in our bright bikini tops, screaming ‘get us while we’re hot, get us while we’re hot.’

Get us
While we’re hot

They’re running from cops but the subtext is hard to ignore. They’re perceiving of themselves as objects under men’s gazes, being wanted gotten, aware, already, that these same men think of them as having a brief shelf life of ‘being hot.” What makes them girls is this common experience. I hope my niece grows up with that influence feeling less pronounced, but I don’t see any drawback in her being exposed to honest writing from someone who seems to have grown into a woman with that influence pronounced. It can only broaden her life perspective and if she does identify it will help her feel less alone. My niece is probably never going to choose to share with Uncle Greg her experience of becoming a woman under the male gaze and it’s not a subject I can broach with her, but she knows I like Lana del Rey, so maybe she thinks her uncle Greg gets it. Maybe one day she’ll read this blog and know I’m on her side.

David Foster Wallace: Where an Obsession Begins

I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.

9. Infinite Jest

I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?

7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men

This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.

6.The Broom of the System

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.

5. Girl with Curious Hair

This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.

The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.

3. Consider the Lobster

Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.

2. Oblivion

The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.

Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”

(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)

“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”

(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”

Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.

1. The Pale King

Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”

There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”

If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.

How Obama’s Blackness Led to Trump

The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy has a subtitle different from the one I gave to it as I was reading, which I used as the title of this post. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency is the real subtitle, but I think that’s only because the book came out in 2011.

The book begins with the feeling in the country that the election of our first black president signaled the end or at least the beginning of the end of racism in America. Then it suggests that race influenced how Obama was perceived and evaluated and the author presents this as happening on both sides. From the introduction:

Racial liberals supported Obama more than they would have backed an ideologically similar white candidate while racial conservatives opposed Obama more than they would have opposed an ideologically similar white candidate.

At one point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, Obama launched an anticipatory attack on McCain, by preparing the public for a racialized line of attack from McCain. Including they would remind voters not to forget he was black. Randall Kennedy criticized that: “If you are going to indict someone for the social crime of racial wrongdoing, you should be careful about doing so, which means identifying with specificity the misconduct to which you object. Obama did not do that.” The author also credits McCain. “McCain’s record on racial matters is considerably less impressive than what one would like to see in a leading American statesman. Running for the presidency, however, and to the dismay of allies, McCain imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability.”

Randall Kennedy’s ability to objectively analyze all angles comes through clearly in his in-depth look at the case of Gates, the black Harvard professor neighbors reported for trying to break into his own home, July 16th, 2009. Gates reacted strongly to being approached, feeling his blackness was the cause, which was unfair to the police officer, Crowley, responding to the call. Although Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. [This is the author’s opinion but I agree. Police officers are trained to control situations for public safety but need to recognize instances when their presence is the instigating factor in a volatile situation and defuse that situation by exiting the scene. Gate’s reaction was extreme but understandable. So let him yell at you, let him yell about your mother. It’s not personal.] Kennedy called the beer summit that followed “lamentable,” but thought Obama’s response was fair. “The first black president must simultaneously address supporters who will be tempted to see racial bias in opposition—whether or not bias is actually present—and detractors who will be tempted to see opportunism in all complaints against racial prejudice—whether or not the complaints are justified. Obama seeks to appease the latter more than the former. He is deeply hesitant to claim that a criticism of him is in any way racially discriminatory. He is keenly attentive to the reality that racial discrimination is often hard to identify clearly and that the very effort to make the identification is often politically costly.”

He follows this case with the simple, generic case of a black customer in a store being treated rudely by a white cashier. Couldn’t the white cashier be dealing with personal issues or just a jackass to everybody? Of course. Couldn’t the white cashier, maybe, be a closet racist who treats black people rudely but hides his or her tracks? Also of course. “The problem, though, is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves. Many who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not.”

As I said, this book came out in 2011, so the author never connects any of this to the rise of Trump but everything about it felt predictive of the 2016 election outcome. I think Obama had little to do with that, but our response to Obama, to his blackness, had a lot to do with it. Obama was just doing his hard job of being president, reading his daily briefings and making the best decisions he could for the country. And the vast majority of Americans aren’t racist and didn’t evaluate Obama based on his blackness. What I do think happened is people in agreement with Obama pointed at those opposed by finding the few whose criticisms were racially based and lumping them together. Meanwhile those with legitimate criticisms of Obama sincerely believed that his supporters were missing what was going wrong because they were overly sensitive to his blackness. All of this set the stage for Trump’s rise.

Obama avoided the fate of other black leaders, like Al Sharpton, who developed a reputation of always making everything about race, which creates an aggressive-cried-wolf perception among people. This racial sensitivity fatigue leads to the wrong-headedness of believing everyone else’s racial sensitivity couldn’t be sincere but must be the result of “political correctness” going too far, which led to misreading Trump’s racist and hateful, and essentially dull, rhetoric as refreshing. We were ready for a black president and we were ready for a woman president. What we couldn’t handle was a black president followed by a woman president. That was going too far.

The title of the post is provocative because these are disheartening times, for me and many. Those who think we’re overreacting to Trump’s presidency will criticize it, I imagine, but to be clear, all I said is that this subtitle for this book came to my mind. Nowhere have I ever suggested Trump voters are racist. That’s absurd. I don’t lump Trump voters all together and hope Trump supporters don’t lump all of us in protest of Trump together. In a close election myriad factors swung the result. This reaction to the perception that racial sensitivity is political correctness going too far is one of those factors that did swing this election. As Van Jones said on election night, “I know it’s not just about race, there is more going on than that, but race is here too and we got to talk about it.”

The Stigma of Suicide (A Pale King Metaphor)

We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.

David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.

From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.

The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)

I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.

These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/the-bridge-thoughts-on-suicide/

Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.

h

By the Discretion of the Judge

Apparently our judges get a great deal of discretion during sentencing. This went viral when a judge recently reduced the sentence of a convicted rapist to three months in jail. People were justifiably appalled, but according to the research Jon Krakauer did for his book Missoula, judges have this discretion in rapes where there is no accompanying physical injury to not require convicted rapists serve any jail time at all. This obscenely ignores the emotional trauma of being the victim of a rape. And is really just obscene enough to stand without comment.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, also by Jon Krakauer, included an incident that occurred when Pat Tillman was nineteen. It turned out to be a regrettable moment in his life that he used to motivate himself to be a better person, which he successfully accomplished, so I don’t love describing it with him gone. Long story shortened from the book, he basically put a younger kid in the hospital and knocked teeth out and was still at it when cops dragged him off the kid. He was no bully. He mistakenly thought a friend of his was being bullied by a group, so he picked out the biggest guy from the group he could find and started fighting him. As happens with vigilante justice, he misread the situation completely and had actually picked out a guy who wasn’t even in the group. (Besides not realizing his friend had actually approached and antagonized the group first.) He could have been convicted of felony assault which would have cost him his scholarship to ASU but the judge reduced the charges to a misdemeanor.

A friend of the boy Pat Tillman beat up, Erin Clarke’s comments are worth copying out: “At the time I didn’t agree with the sentence at all. It seemed like the judge was more worried about Pat losing his scholarship than what happened to Darin.”

Later she heard on the radio Pat Tillman had been killed: “I remember the air being sucked out of my lungs. He was the first person I knew who had died in the war, and that morning the war suddenly became very real to me. What I take from Pat Tillman is that you are not who you are at your worst moment. After what Pat did to Darin, it seems like he really turned his life around and became quite an honorable person. That judge held Pat’s future in her hands. She had the power to send him down one path or another, and she decided to make what turned out to be a really good decision. She said ‘I’m going to believe in you—I’m going to believe you’re going to take this opportunity and do the best you possibly can with it.’ And you know what? It sounds like that’s what he did. I don’t think there are many people on this planet who would have done as well with that kind of second chance.”

I couldn’t agree with everything she said more because I know what a heroic and honorable life Pat Tillman lived. But the judge made what turned out to be a really good decision. The last sentence of her statement might be cynical but is probably accurate. How many people take these second chances and do good with them and how many shake off a close call but continue to live with huge entitlement issues? If the Stanford rapist turns out to do something wonderful and selfless with the rest of his life we might all say his judge made what turned out to be a good decision, but none of us think he’s a very likely candidate for living an especially honorable life.

So what are judges going by? Pat Tillman’s judge believed in him, but what’s her track record? Maybe she just believes in the good in everyone that comes before her and gets burned by most people on the planet. What did the judge see in the Stanford rapist? Maybe he felt pity for a young man who enjoyed cooking out and having prime rib, just like the judge does, but doesn’t anymore since what happened. Whereas a young man who cooks out and has hamburgers and hot dogs like most of the population of the country the judge wouldn’t relate to as well and therefore wouldn’t have his empathy invoked.

My two problems are we all like the idea of second chances for people. In fact, we’re rather obsessed with people making it on their second chance. But second chances after minimal or no consequences for the initial mistake probably don’t show improved behavior as often as we like to think. My second problem is I’ve lost a lot of faith in our judicial system. I grew up believing judges were impartial, which meant purely objective, above making decisions based on partisan leanings. I’m rather embarrassed that I held onto that as long as I did since learning it at age eight, probably. In the same book, I learned Bush’s 2000 election was helped along by a 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court on a Florida recount decision. Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the five, had stated on several occasions she was eager to retire and didn’t want a Democrat to nominate her successor. That doesn’t prove she didn’t cast an impartial vote but, like I said, I’ve lost faith in the impartiality of our judicial system.

I suppose this blog would be better if I could end with an answer to it, but I don’t have one. Maybe one problem is the huge swings in sentencing. A person can get from no jail time to twenty years in jail for a conviction of rape. Maybe judges shouldn’t get that much discretion. Maybe we should be more clear that court TV isn’t court at all. Court TV is third-party arbitration. These TV personalities have all the discretion in the world and most kids and probably a lot of adults think that’s court, which it’s not. Maybe we should do close studies on how judge’s discretion correlates with race or gender. I know not everything is about race and gender but a lot still is about race and gender.

There might also be a sense that what happened to the victim of a rape or an assault can’t be undone. What’s about to happen to the person convicted of the crime can be done or undone, right then by the judge. Presumably judges get to be judges because they’re capable of handling that pressure moment fairly but maybe we’re terrible at deciding who gets to be our judges. Maybe there’s too much inconsistency. Maybe we don’t give enough consideration to how these instances of light sentencing leave victims feeling victimized again. And not just the specific victim but anyone who’s been victimized and people who worry about being victimized in a society where people convicted can receive such light sentences. That may explain why the Stanford rapist case went viral. People weren’t reacting to how that didn’t seem fair. They were reacting to how that wasn’t fair based on circumstances in their own lives, either traumas of their pasts or their biggest fears.

Where Men Win Glory: Reviewed

So many tragic missteps led up to the completely avoidable death of this great man. Not even so much the actual fratricide because that tragedy commonly befalls soldiers in wars and I can’t begin to fathom the mixture of confusion and fear and adrenaline that must go on during a fire fight. More upsetting and easily preventable were the decisions before combat took place: splitting the group, forcing them to make a destination for no tangible reason. Then all the misinformation about what happened intentionally spread by lies of omission. This seems to be the practice of this age. They know the truth is eventually going to get out, but they withhold it and let the lies and the misinformation do the work they need done. Then by the time the true story breaks, it’s too late to have the effect they worried about it having. (Which is partly the fault of the media and, let’s face it, us, which includes me, for sure.)

Somehow one of the slights that really bugged me that didn’t get much page time was his very clearly stating his final wishes weren’t to involve a chaplain or a military service. Those were his religious beliefs and they were ignored and not just ignored but openly disparaged by that one guy, whose name I don’t recall now after finishing the book.

But what’s cool is this story, as maddening as it was to read many details, is more than anything about an inspiring person in Pat Tillman. I only knew going in that he gave up his football career to join the Army, but there were so many additional little things you discover about him reading this book that you admire and can then emulate moving forward in your own life.

Anomalisa: Achingly Beautiful, at times Dull: Such is Life

Review/Analysis includes spoilers but no ending spoilers.

On a business trip from LA, Michael Stone arrives at the airport in Cincinnati, a city with a zoo, featured as being zoo-sized, and chili one has to try, it only takes an hour to have chili.

Everyone has the same voice. Everyone has the same face, except these aren’t faces, quite, they’re masks. Everyone wears the same mask. Michael checks into the Fregoli hotel before a convention where he will lecture on his book: How May I Help You Help Them? About genuine interaction with people and how it can boost sales.

After a call home to his wife and son, whose voices are the same, he calls up an old girlfriend in town, also with the same voice. (The voice of Tom Noonan, who played “Sammy” in Charlie Kaufman’s last movie, and my personal favorite movie of all time, Synecdoche, New York.) They meet in the hotel bar. He left her inexplicably eleven years ago, she wants to know why, but his answers are vague about psychological problems, of his, which quickly turn to accusations of how she changed. She storms off. Back in his room, he catches a unique voice in the hall and chases down Lisa, a woman in town with a friend to hear him speak. The three have drinks. Lisa stands aside on the way back up to the room and it’s Emily, the woman with the same face, same voice, who is on Michael’s arm, but he invites Lisa into his room for a night cap.

Lisa goes but argues that everyone usually likes her friend, Emily. Why does he like her? He thinks she’s extraordinary. Why? “I don’t know, yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.”

During a long intimate talk the word “anomaly” comes up, a word she learned when she read his book. “I feel like an anomaly,” she says. “Before I knew there was a word for it, it made me feel bad to be different, but now I kind of like it. Sometimes.”

They spend the night together, which includes some of the most graphic sex you’ve ever seen in a movie. Something about the intimacy between two animated puppets making love is flat shocking. But in the morning, Michael finds fault in how Lisa eats, her fork taps her teeth, she talks with her mouth open. Her unique voice starts to morph into that other voice that is everyone else’s but his.

Unless you have handy knowledge of the catalogue of psychological ailments or did a google search on your phone you probably missed, as I did, that the name of the hotel, Fregoli, is also the name of the actual condition Michael Stone has, where he can’t differentiate people. The clever set up of the movie, though, is that we identify with the world Michael Stone sees, in the beginning. The cab driver going on and on about how much there is to see in Cincinatti. The bell hop’s rehearsed chat on the elevator ride up to his room. But really it’s Michael Stone who’s missing the sincerity in these exchanges. The cab driver does know about his city’s unique charm, the chili is cinnamon and chocolate flavored and served over pasta. The bell hop’s body language demonstrates real care in how Michael’s flight went. “You’re safe now,” he tells him.

Everything in the movie is there for a reason. When Michael orders room service he gets the salmon and a salad, but the same voice he always hears reads back to him the dish with all its flourishes and sauces. There is a depth to the world Michael is missing. But this is the world we’re also missing. Michael hears a fresh voice and meets Lisa and we’re as glad as he is for something unique. In the morning, after their night of intimate connection, we learn what isn’t a surprise, Lisa’s voice morphs into that everyone but him voice because this wasn’t a surreal world where everyone has the same face and voice, this was a character failing to maintain connections with people’s unique selves, with the depth present in the world.

Why is Lisa so surprised Michael shows interest in her? Everyone usually likes Emily, she says, because Emily appears to be like everyone else. We look for that conformity, for people wearing those familiar masks, and then want to peer past them and find individuality. When this stops working, when we fail to find individuality, we see nothing but masks and blame the world for not containing the individuality we’re failing to find. The failure is ours, as it clearly is Michael Stone’s.

The difference between humans and sheep is sheep don’t go around accusing the other sheep of being sheep. We are all unique snowflakes. You are but so is everyone else, but like snowflakes we have to look awfully close to find out we’re different because we’re mostly all the same. What we tend to forget, what Michael Stone forgot, is that our sameness is as much a part of the beauty of being human as our individuality is.

In the line I quoted above Lisa says it made her feel bad to be different until she found out there was a word for it. Her individuality needed to relate to the community outside of it. Then she could like being different, but only sometimes. Because she still had that desire to fit in.

The Arrogance of Science

I caught a link that a study over five decades has demonstrated that spanking kids is bad. I didn’t click it. My reaction was that I thought we’d known that for around three decades. Then it clicked that just a few days ago I quietly ignored a conversation where two people were saying they got spanked, growing up, and turned out fine. I always wonder what people think of as fine when they say that. Don’t people consider that they might have turned out better or gone through less struggle to get to fine if this treatment science has demonstrated is counterproductive to development hadn’t happened to them? They might just be protecting their parents who were not abusive or even unfair, who were just raising their kids as best they could in an age when scientific study about the negative effects of spanking weren’t available. But that’s not who they’re defending with what they say, they’re defending the practice of spanking after science has demonstrated that practice as both ineffective and harmful.

People have trouble recognizing that their own experience is anecdotal. People also have trouble accepting that something they long believed to be true or a useful practice is false or a waste of time or counterproductive. So science is vilified. Science is viewed as this oppressive decider of things, who should mind its own business. Science is arrogant. Actually science is a way of learning about the world that is so eager to get to the truth that it will never insist it’s right. Science only comes up with theories that explain the world…maybe. Maybe some next thing will come along to explain it better. Science is constantly trying to learn. That seems the opposite of arrogant.

I read in Quiet, a nonfiction book about introverts, by Susan Cain, that people commonly believe by making some show of anger, yelling or punching something or stomping a foot, they’re “releasing” their anger and that it helps the anger “escape,” but science has good evidence this isn’t true. It feels true because during the time we’re yelling the anger dissipates but anger dissipates due to time passing. Our understandable releases of frustration have actually kept us feeling angry longer. People hear this and often get angry because most of us, at least sometimes, react this way to getting angry and don’t like science coming along and telling us our reactions are counterproductive, but science isn’t telling us that. Science is simply supplying us with good information we can choose to use to improve our lives. The author then added that these studies about anger have been repeated over and over because the results continue to be questioned. This means that the response of science to people who respond to science with “shut up, that can’t be true,” isn’t to say, “you shut up, you can’t be true.” Science just responds with, Okay, maybe that study was flawed, let’s run it again.

That is maybe why a five-decades long study about spanking children was undertaken. People still don’t believe it’s ineffective/harmful, so let’s collect more evidence to get a clear answer because this is important. I found the same thing when researching how harmful caricatures of Native Americans as team mascots are to everyone. The sight of Chief Wahoo makes people less sensitive to all minority groups. People adamantly oppose this finding, because it’s uncomfortable to people who want to keep wearing their hats and jerseys and jackets. So science ran it again and again and again. They keep finding the same result and people keep refusing to believe it. Who’s arrogant?

Arrogance isn’t why people refuse change in instances like these. Arrogance is the shield they put up so they can refuse the change. The resistance to change comes from wanting to hold onto something they value. I was slow to come on board with the Chief Wahoo caricature as harmful for an understandable reason. My dad drew Chief Wahoo on a poster and took me to a game. I held the poster up and cheered. That’s a great memory I have of my dad and it’s tied in with my love, as a kid, for that baseball team, but I wouldn’t be honoring the memory of my dad by using that memory to override scientific study demonstrating the harmful effects of that caricature. My dad would want me to openly speak out against that team name and mascot. I actually think of my dad every time I do.

Integrating Sadness and Joy

Inside Out, the Pixar movie, made quite an impression. I would almost call watching it an experience similar to watching Synecdoche, New York or perhaps more appropriately Charlie Kaufman’s other movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two metaphors seemed at work in the story. Sadness and Joy were separated from the control center of the brain of a young girl recently having moved to a new city. Sadness kept touching core memories and making the girl sad while not able to access joy, Joy being on a journey through the girl’s mind back to the control center.

I struggled watching because Joy, in the form of an upbeat Amy Poehler, being inaccessible didn’t work for me as a metaphor. Joy can be elusive but joy inaccessible felt like a metaphor for depression not specific to the circumstances of a kid moving and feeling homesick but general illness needing medical treatment. I know, it’s a Pixar movie. The opening ten minutes of Up aside, Pixar wasn’t going to crush me. Joy would make it back. Still, watching a young girl go through an hour of the movie with joy inaccessible didn’t feel good and it didn’t not feel good in a way that felt good, either.

The girl’s realization that joy and sadness, rather than opposites on a spectrum, are somehow linked didn’t feel good in a way that did feel good. The epiphany she felt made me full on cry, which rarely happens to me watching movies. That metaphor spoke to me. This is something loss has taught me. Coupled with the intense pain of missing someone are the treasured memories that are the reason you miss them. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if brain physiology uncovered evidence that feelings of sadness and joy both show as the same area of the brain being stimulated.

There was some mystery regarding why sitting down with a pizza and a Pixar movie after a day of work turned into an event. Over the phone, my sister and I were unable to get to the bottom of it. Then I dreamed two nights later that I was visiting my sister in Seattle and she got panicky upset about our mother, who as I’ve shared here before, with permission, has liver cancer. I told her in the dream, panicky myself about wanting my sister to feel better, “It’s like that movie, Inside Out, we have to accept sadness as a part of joy.”

Compiling A Rereading List I Hope Not to Get to Soon

*Overshare warning. First a quick note on oversharing. Oversharing isn’t really a thing. As a writer, I’m used to putting stuff out there and I’ve gotten comfortable doing it; it no longer scares me. I probably put stuff out there that other people wouldn’t be comfortable putting out there, but labeling something “oversharing” is essentially suggesting there’s a consensus on what’s appropriate to share and that people are rude for not complying. Utter nonsense, if you think about it, but I also appreciate people stopping by and reading this blog and I’m not here trying to shock anyone or make them uncomfortable and sorry that they stopped by.

Some of you know my mother has survived lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and an eye melanoma over the course of more than a decade, all with surgical cures. She now has cancer in her liver and surgery isn’t currently an option. She is benefitting from some incredible improvements in how cancer is treated. Her daughters have been out from Florida and Seattle, respectively, twice and all her grandchildren once and she was feeling well enough to enjoy being with them. We have good reason to be optimistic about much more to come, but having lost one parent, already, I’ve been preparing a mental list of books to reread should the day come I need to grieve for another.

1. Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut

As I recall, this was a partly whacky science fiction romp with some touching moments, as well. A boy and his parents were on, I think, probably, Titan? the moon/planet and were set to leave but the son was nowhere to be found at liftoff. He must have been a bit of a misanthropist because he decided to stay alone, rather than return with them to Earth, but he called out and thanked his parents for “the gift of life.”

2. The Stranger, by Albert Camus

This is the novel with the famous first line: “Mother died today.” The Stranger’s not for everyone, but it’s so short, it’s not much of a time investment, I highly recommend reading it. I’m sure I’ve read it a half dozen times and loved it every time.

3. The Life and Times of Michael K., by J.M. Coetzee

I was reading this book about a man who had to carry his ailing mother in a wheelbarrow converted into a carriage across a somehow or other collapsing country right when a moment I’ll never forget happened. My mom and I were at a park for a family reunion and she had to get to a restroom. We had to traverse a maze of sidewalks to get to whichever pavilion included one. We decided to cross a patch of uneven grass, and this was soon after she had her cancerous eye removed, so I stayed close to her side to catch her if she fell, and all the weight of the much more dire circumstances of Michael K. getting his mother across a ravaged country and all the emotion from reading that book hit me in that relatively mundane moment of guiding my mom to that pavilion. (The grass wasn’t even that uneven!) That was a great lesson in the power of fiction. After she died, Michael K. started barely subsisting off the land and burying himself in progressively deeper holes. I forget how it ended. I’ll find out hopefully no time soon.

4. The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan

This has to be the most misunderstood book ever written; except I have no idea what anyone else thinks about it. I would call it the greatest mood book I’ve ever read. By coincidence I read it shortly after my dad died. These children lose their parents but don’t exactly get what’s happened to them and continue to live in their house without anyone knowing. So they unravel, they regress. They’re children still in need of being raised, but the book evokes a feeling even adults of any age relate to at the prospect or at the event of losing their parents: What the hell next and why? These books I hope not to reread anytime soon might sound bleak but that’s where fiction can help us most, I think. More uplifting books will hopefully be added to the list but books some people might think of as depressing can also be uplifting in the experience of connection they offer to the more painful elements embedded in the mystery of life as a human being.

5. Letters Home, by Rex Jones

This one will be a maybe. Listening to my grandparents fantasize about the love they had waiting for my infant mother, as I read their WWII letters and turned them into the book, gave my relationship to her as a son new perspective. To contemplate her being given that unconditional love, which she then passed on to me, was one of a number of profound mind blowers working on Letters Home gave me. That part will/would be tough to get through, but from past experience, I believe grief is an agonizing process that leads to being able to enjoy, again, to rediscover, those eternal moments of joy with a passed loved one. So I’ll be able to read Letters Home and enjoy it even if she’s gone.