Archive for June, 2015

June 28, 2015

#96) For whom the Belle tolls

Belle Gibson may have a smooth complexion, but she is definitely the Scarface of the millennial generation. The Australian lifestyle blogger and social media magnate has achieved a meteoric rise and fall in the time that most of us 40-somethings take to figure out how to get our five CD changer to play the disc we want. Since launching her app, “The Whole Pantry” in 2013, Gibson has taken millions across the globe on a ride, in the process making Jenny McCarthy look like an old woman wobbling to the park to feed the ducks.

The story is a reboot of Scarface, perfectly detailed for today. An attractive young woman is stricken with multiple devastating cancers. Failed by the medical establishment, she instead cures herself with diet and exercise, shares her experiences and becomes a social media hero overnight. A substantial portion of the millions in sales from “The Whole Pantry” app and its companion cookbook go to charity. The app is even slated to be bundled on the new Apple Watch. Another savvy millennial makes good.

Only problem: none of it is real.

Perhaps Gibson should have heeded Mark Twain’s advice that “If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Inconsistencies in her various interviews, blog entries and Instagram posts started raising eyebrows. Doubt spread among her loyal legions like, pardon the simile, cancers. Not only Gibson’s diagnoses but also her date of birth have been called into question. Many of the charities to which she reportedly donated have claimed not to have seen a dime. Gibson now faces the possibility of jail time for fraud and even worse, the wrath of social media.

Why does any of this matter? Quite possibly it doesn’t, but it’s still interesting. In a broad sense, it speaks to the hidden dangers of early success and how we all need heroes but when they get too big for their britches, we want to strike them down. Specifically it shows how the internet, social media in particular, speeds up the process of celebrity rises and falls. It proves how cyberspace can make someone who we haven’t met in person sometimes seem more real, engaging and exciting than the people whom we actually know in the flesh. It’s a cautionary tale for those who use social media as a business tool, also proving just how powerful the lure of online recognition can be. For the consumer, whether it’s time or money that they invest, it’s a reminder that not everything on the internet is true.

I’m not psychic but I predict the story of Belle Gibson won’t last too long. We will move onto something new and her story will ultimately be a mere footnote, along with those of Richard Heene, James Frey and Milli Vanilli. Still, her 15 minutes of fame did give us some whole food for thought. Tony Montana ain’t got nothin’ on her.

June 17, 2015

#95) When parodies fail: Why I’m not “wild” about “Rabid”

Having deconstructed a memoir of which I only read about a third, I’ll now try my hand analyzing a book where save for a few snatches of the Amazon preview, I’ve read none.

I understand why “Rabid”, a parody of Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir “Wild”, exists. Over-saturation is the mother of parody and for the last few years, it’s been hard to escape “Wild” or the throngs of adoring (rabid, if you will) Cheryl Strayed fans and their blog posts about how her book changed their life. That said, author Libby Zangle’s attempt to send-up Strayed doesn’t work. How can I tell that after having only read a few paragraphs? Those few paragraphs are unfunny, predictable and full of jealousy. Just as one can watch a trailer for a movie and think “No way”, it doesn’t take Nostradamus to divine, even from a short sample, that this book is basically a self-indulgent rant. Its shortcomings provide instruction in how to and how not to make effective parody.

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, at the heart of every great parody is an affection or at least an empathy for its subject. The goal of “This is Spinal Tap” was not to make the audience hate hair metal or overblown progressive rock; when “Eat It” made Weird Al Yankovic a household name the idea was never that we should burn copies of “Thriller.”

Zangle’s writing has virtually no empathy and plenty of resentment toward Cheryl Strayed. To hear Zangle tell it, it’s almost as if Strayed’s self-destruction following her mother’s death was part of a master plan; fodder for a future best-selling memoir. In Chapter 2, “Does every tragic heroine have to do heroin?” Zangle finds herself in a dingy motel room, much as Strayed did on the night before she set off on the Pacific Crest Trail. Zangle gathers her hike inventory: “There was a red compression sack…one Nalgene bottle and one Gatorade bottle…There was a large syringe for shooting up heroin. Just kidding. The syringe was for backwashing my water filter.”

Despite her condescending attitude toward “Wild”, Zangle has obviously gone to lengths to replicate Strayed’s writing. The first lines of “Wild”: “The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.” “Rabid”: “The trees were tall. They were actually taller than me. Probably taller than most humans I have met…[b]ut…they actually looked small because of this funny thing called perspective…” While watching “Spinal Tap”, you get the sense that Reiner, Guest, McKean, Shearer et. al really had fun creating the down-on-their-luck, over the hill rock band. By contrast, Zangle comes off as the loner sitting at home on prom night writing in her journal about how much she hates the vapid popular girls who are dancing with the football players while really wanting nothing more than to be one of them.

Is “Wild” perfect? No; neither the memoir or its author are perfect, but to geek out on “Wild” as a how-not-to book is to miss its point. Of course Cheryl Strayed did a million things wrong, from her substance abuse to her lack of preparation for the trip. She lived to tell and has shared her experiences in a way that while sometimes is weightier and more ponderous than necessary has nevertheless connected with readers worldwide. Meanwhile Zangle remains a low-to-the-ground target, going for obvious laughs without making any kind of personal investment.

Perhaps there’s room for an effective parody of “Wild”–one which would respect Strayed’s journey while gently ribbing her self-seriousness. Perhaps Zangle will evolve as a writer and create more enjoyable parodies; hell, maybe I’ll even read one of them someday. If there’s more to “Rabid” than the Amazon preview, I’ll eat crow, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck…

June 11, 2015

#94) Loving the hater: an open letter to the Thrillist’s Dave Infante


Dear Dave,

First of all, nice job on the name.

Second, a little more explanation: having recently turned twenty-one and noting the world’s desperate shortage of over-wrought musings on hitting an age-related milestone, my original plan was to write a post in which I would share my deep wisdom with my eager fan base a la Lena Dunham. That said, I have been known to be easily distracted and when [squirrel!] I came across your article on why you hate IPAs, I decided to respond.

A little over five years ago, three letters changed my life: I, P and A. Having cut my teeth on heavier beers such as Sam Adams, Guinness, Bass and Newcastle, I found that the presence of hops and other citrus-type flavors in India Pale Ales, ingredients that originally were designed to keep beer pure on its long journey from England to India where it served as rations for soldiers, gave them body without the heaviness of the aforementioned labels. I’ve probably tried over 100 different IPAs and am always looking forward to my next one. Each has its own character; some try too hard and some don’t try had enough; some taste too much like Pilsners but I drink every glass to the last drop; it feels fundamentally wrong to let even a milliliter of the stuff go to waste.

That said, I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to hate. You’re entitled to your opinion and while I may be on the popular side of this one, more often than not I’m left shaking my head about why folks seem to flock to something [cough Stella Artois cough] whose appeal I couldn’t see if my life depended on it. In other words: though we come down on different sides on the IPA issue, I feel your pain.

You don’t just hate the beverage itself; you hate the attitude of those who drink it. Mustachioed home brewers who until recently had no idea what an IPA was are trying to shove their latest creation down your throat; you can’t spend two minutes online without stumbling on someone’s IPA blog; your favorite dive bar now has Green Flash, Point the Way and Stone Ruination instead of Mickey’s and the local liquor store has a big vinyl banner reading “We Sell Craft Beer” pinned up above the prostitute passed out in the doorway.

For my part, it does feel a little weird to see people jumping on the IPA train. The beer’s rise in popularity has led to a saturation of the market and in some ways I miss when it was niche. Yes, it’s fun to geek out about ABV and IBUs, but I can’t help feeling as if most of these folks will move onto something even more millennial when they get the chance.

Yet in a way that could be a source of comfort for you. In the immortal words of Tower of Power, what is hip today might become passe. Whether it does, there’s nothing wrong with you for not liking IPAs, just like there’s nothing wrong with me for not watching “Mad Men”, not listening to John Legend and not reading “50 Shades of Gray” or “Twilight.” The fact that I’m on the popular side of the IPA conversation is pure luck.