Posts tagged ‘writing’

June 11, 2019

#150) How not to complain #9: If you’re going to hit the one percent, you’d better kill the one percent

In Margaret Grace Myers’ article for the Cut, “I Babysit for the One Percent”, she has given herself an unenviable task: convincing the reader that her take on economic inequality is different from those of everyone else who has weighed in on the subject. Sadly, she does not pull it off. Like David Hopkins, who told us to be nice to nerds by insulting non-nerds, Myers isn’t going to convert anyone to the other side. Her railings against the wealthy won’t start any conversations at parties in Park Avenue penthouses about how zillionaires can empathize with those less fortunate.

Often times, stories about the rich tend to follow one of two directions: the shocking expose of what goes on behind closed doors of affluent homes or “I thought that the ______ family were going to be total assholes, but they’re just like me!” If you eschew either of those narratives, you may find yourself with shapeless, forgettable work, as Myers has done: a collection of vague grievances with no real evolution. Readers don’t always need Learn Something, but Myers is not an interesting enough writer or protagonist to abandon the framework of the familiar and still be effective.

Why doesn’t Myers get us emotionally invested in the disconnect between her lifestyle and those of her clients? Her examples of conspicuous consumption aren’t as outrageous as she thinks they are (a wall-mounted television screen! Think of all the children who could be fed!) Her comments on home furnishings – which, granted, scream “white people” – nevertheless leave you wondering why “sectionals in muted tones with one elegant blanket thrown just so” strike such a nerve with her.

Just as Myers doesn’t give us enough reason to hate the Goliaths that “hang big photographs of the ocean” on the walls and have “bottles of sparkling and still” (how European!) water in their fridges, her David doesn’t make us want to be more “woke.” Myers writes, “I am picky enough to only take jobs where I think the child or children will be asleep….to do the actual work of caring for children….is, frankly, not worth it for me.” When she says, “I know I am very lucky in the grand scheme of things money-wise”, it plays less as genuine gratitude and more like an attempt to convince us she is not being resentful. If Myers was doggedly struggling toward a goal – like Rudy sweating it out in the steel mill and at community college – we might buy into her story arc, but we never get the sense that her clients, simply by being rich, are keeping her from following her dreams. It apparently never occurs to her to try to use any of the 1% as role models for building a better life. Sure, some of them may have had advantages that Myers didn’t; some of them may have come into their wealth unethically. Myers doesn’t seem to think there’s any chance that any of the 1% may have actually earned it.

There is one memorable anecdote: Myers describes waiting in a lobby for almost an hour, unable to connect with her client, a mom who “had forgotten her cell phone somewhere and didn’t have the intercom set up correctly.” Yes, we would all like to have the luxury of being absent-minded without consequences and one guesses that had the mom been the one kept waiting, she would not have handled it as diplomatically as Myers was forced to. More in-the-trenches examples of the reality of the income gap would have helped Myers make her points more convincingly.

Myers’ article concludes with an irony that is likely unintended. “I know that I spend much more time thinking about these people than they do about me,” she says as she describes a mother whom she had seen a few weeks earlier introducing herself as if for the first time. “I am just a being in their home…a body, a transaction.” While Myers apparently feels she deserves more than anonymity in the eyes of the one percent, she is fine with being a faceless voice in the chorus of the haters. 

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February 16, 2019

#149) Movie review: “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

Three months ago, if someone had asked me about Lee Israel, I would have said, “Who’s he?” When I saw the preview for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, a biopic of literary forger Lenore Carol “Lee” Israel starring Melissa McCarthy, I thought, “Maybe if I’m stuck on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that’s running late and they’re showing this movie, I’ll watch it.” Recently, I found myself on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that was running late and they were showing this movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a film that should not work. It is about an obscure person, it’s slowly paced, lacks a marquis cast and has no main characters under the age of 40. I can’t imagine why anyone thought America would be interested in Lee Israel (and judging by the fact that as of this writing, the film is yet to make up its $10 million price tag at the box office, America isn’t.) Yet despite all of its apparent liablities, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” delivers – a success as unlikely as the idea of a dowdy Jewish alcoholic lesbian has-been writer becoming a con artist.

In 1991, Lee Israel is a struggling Manhattan biographer. While she had some success in the past, she seen as unfashionable, outdated and unwilling to play the game, in particular by her agent (Jane Curtin). She is reduced to selling used books to pay for her cat’s medications; at the store, insult is added to injury when she sees that her biography of Estee Lauder is being sold in the clearance section.

A chance discovery of a long-lost Fanny Brice letter at a research library becomes a lightbulb moment for Israel. Stealing the letter, she takes it home, rolls it into her typewriter, adds her own post script and sells the new version to a collector. Before long, Israel is forging and selling letters allegedly written by the likes of Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, who was known to sarcastically ask, “Can you ever forgive me?” following her alcohol-fueled outbursts.

McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lee Israel is a big reason why “Can You Ever Forgive Me” works. It’s been said that American actors are afraid of playing unlikeable characters. Not McCarthy: Lee Israel is not only unlikeable; she’s also boring. Unlike Frank Abagnale, Leo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can”, Israel is not charming, elegant or witty. The key is that McCarthy, director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty aren’t trying to get us to like Lee Israel. The script gives Lee multiple chances to take the high road and she never does. What the movie accomplishes is making her real: someone whose grudges, moods and lack of social graces, however unappealing, are still relatable. Haven’t we all, at one point, resented the successes of others who might not be as skilled but know how to ingratiate themselves to the right people at the right time?

For all McCarthy brings to it, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is not a one-woman show. Opposite her is Richard E. Grant, whose performance as Jack Hock earned him a best supporting actor nod. The decision to make Hock a roguish Brit (his real life counterpart was American) might feel gimmicky, but Grant gives the character depth. Below his gaudy exterior is a quick and sharp wit; below that is resignation. Perhaps Grant’s Hock grew up having to repress his homosexuality before enjoying liberation in the post Stonewall Riots era as a young man, only to then have to live under the threat of AIDS, which takes the lives of many of his friends. His bond with Israel stems not just from loneliness but a shared sense of loss of fleeting success and happiness.

The other main female character, shy bookstore owner and autograph buyer Anna (Dolly Wells) is a fictitious creation, but still a key part of the story: through her we see Lee’s struggle to let herself let others in. At first, Wells seems to play Anna as a typical wallflower, but the performance is more nuanced. Anna doesn’t want to hide behind her books; like Lee, she yearns to connect with others but doesn’t know how. Whereas Lee is embittered by having lost recognition and respect for what she feels are no good reasons, Anna has always lived in the shadows and can barely get herself to ask for acknowledgement.

The loneliness of Lee, Jack and Anna is compounded by another character in the movie: New York City. The New York of this film is not the den of iniquity of “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy” but rather a perpetually gray, snowy place that ignores its citizens who toil and sacrifice to make ends meet. Lee and Jack’s corner bar of choice is a respite from the cold but not particularly inviting in any other way. The warmth of Lee’s agent’s brownstone is superficial, bought by her pandering to popular tastes and telling people what they want to hear.

The film does have a few minor shortcomings. Does a film that largely avoids cliches really need a cat to show us that Lee lacks meaningful human relationships? Also, some of the plot seems convenient: after the FBI sends out alerts about Lee, wouldn’t her buyers be suspicious when the quirky Englishman suddenly shows up wanting to sell the same type of memorabilia? Perhaps they don’t want to believe the worst about Lee; perhaps 1991 was a more innocent time; whatever the reason, they seem only mildly concerned about what would probably be a giant red flag today.

These points aside, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” exceeded my expectations by more than any movie I’ve seen in a while. No, it’s not for all tastes, but for those who might be a little tired of origin stories, remakes and sequels, it hits the spot. Lee Israel might not have been a noble protagonist, but I wouldn’t have minded sitting next to her on a JetBlue flight that’s running late.

 

 

February 4, 2019

#148) How not to complain #8: Sorry Jeff Pearlman, the Patriots are not the problem

Hey, Jeff, how’s it going. Fellow tribesman sports geek David Lockeretz here. Complaining is in our blood, but when you called Super Bowl LIII the worst ever, was your intent to show the NFL how it can improve or were you just upset that the Patriots won? I get that you’re a New Yorker and I’m a Bostonian, so there are certain sportsball issues on which we will not see eye to eye, but calling Super Bowl LIIII the worst ever is a charge that is hard to back up objectively.

Let’s start with the margin of victory. At 10 points, the margin in LIII was below the historical average of 13.9. Yes, it was the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever – but it was close, something that cannot be said for many Super Bowls. It was only the second Super Bowl ever (after XXXIX*) to enter the fourth quarter tied, keeping the David vs. Goliath storyline intact. No, the game wasn’t particularly elegant, but by your own admission, Super Bowl XV, the game that turned you into a fan, was “technically poor.”

Yes, there was a blown call in the Saints/Rams NFC championship game. Why weren’t the Saints able to put the game away after jumping out to a 13-0 lead? Why did Drew Brees throw an interception in overtime? If the NFL is scripted, wouldn’t the refs have done everything they could do stage a Brees/Brady Super Bowl? If The Rams Didn’t Belong In The Super Bowl Because The Refs Blew The Call, isn’t it karma that the Pats won? Sports will always have a human element and humans aren’t perfect.

Moving on to the half time show. I’m no Maroon 5 fan, but was their performance really the “lamest…in modern memory?” Jeff, were you on the edge of your seat for Coldplay? Did the Who’s 2010 performance make you beeline to the local record store to get “Tommy” on vinyl? Is it a Good Thing that “many musicians made it clear…that they would no longer support the league’s entertainment efforts”?

Which brings us to the issue of race. You write, “This is the NFL trying to convince us (via advertisements featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches) that the whole Colin Kaepernick thing never happened; that — hey! — we love when blacks speak out, just as long as it doesn’t affect our image or our profits.” True perhaps – but would a 41-38 Kansas City win over New Orleans magically have made everyone suddenly see eye to eye on anthem protests and come together like the people in Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad? I’d bet a GE dishwasher that had African-American quarterback Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl for the Chiefs, the NFL brass would have found a way to make his moment about themselves and how much they love diversity. The Patriots’ successes and the NFL’s woes are independent.

I’m not asking you or anyone else to love that the Patriots won yet again. To borrow an adage that used to be said of the Yankees (*cough* before they started sucking *cough*), rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for Brad Pitt to get the girl or Bill Gates to win the lottery. But why make yourself just a generic voice in the Patriot haters crowd? Maybe you just need to blow off steam. Understandable. But if you’re looking for meaningful change in the NFL fan experience to come from your deconstruction of Super Bowl LIII, you will be as disappointed as everyone west of the New York state line.

*I decided to take the high road by not pointing out that XXXIX was another New England victory.

January 1, 2019

#144) Language court 2018: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 44th annual list of banished words

It’s been difficult to wrap my head around the optics of this year’s list of banished words. I dare say, I’ve had to grapple to see why the crusty thought leaders at Lake Superior State University importantly feel that we should eschew some words while ghosting others (how did “_____ for days” dodge this year’s list?) Maybe they’re legally drunk or maybe it’s a collusion. Either way I can’t help feeling as if they’ve abused their platform.

Nevertheless, it’s time to litigate this year’s accoutrements.

Wheelhouse

Charges: “Irritating, has become a cliché…awkward word to use in the 21st century. Most people have never seen a wheelhouse.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Maybe I was just more anti-social than usual this year but I didn’t notice any particular overuse of this word.

In the books

Charges: “It seems as if everyone’s party is in the books…and…there for friends to view on social media.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The phrase may be somewhat cliché, but overuse of it didn’t come to a boiling point in 2018, at least not that I saw.

Wrap my head around

Charges: “Impossible to do and makes no sense.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Wrap your head around that, Linda of Bloomington, MN.

Platform

Charges: “People use it as an excuse to rant…step down from the platform already.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Indeed, the term “platform” does tend to glorify or legitimize crazy people and their rants. Not that I would know anything about ranting.

Collusion

Charges: “We all need to collude on getting rid of this word.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Like the Rosa Parks card, people tend to play this one too easily when confronted with an outcome not to their liking.

OTUS family of acronyms such as POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS

Charges: “Overused, useless word for the President…”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). Maybe I’m just tired of political drama, but I’d be happy to see this acronym go. When I talk about the Supreme Court, I shouldn’t have to add “OTUS” to clarify that I’m not referring to the Seychelles. I also have to ask, am I the only one who can’t hear the words FLOTUS and SCOTUS without thinking of fetus and scrotum respectively? I am? Oh well, guess I didn’t mature as much as I thought I did in ’18.

Ghosting

Charges: “No need to bring the paranormal into the equation.”

Verdict: Not guilty. This word badly wants to become trendy but in the context of this court, “Ghosting” is the delinquent who dabbles in petty crime to impress the older kids but really just needs to go back home to the suburbs and let Mom and Dad ground him. (Or her – I shouldn’t assume gender.)

Yeet

Charges: Vigorously throw or toss (possible origins in onomatopoeia as a sound made either by the thrower or the throw-ee?) “If I hear one more freshman say ‘yeet’ I might just yeet myself out a window.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). This could be argued as entrapment – “yeet” is a word that one is likely to find only when shamelessly wasting time on the internet or hunting for memes, as my, uh…friends…do. Still, entrapment or not, the verdict stands and will not be yeeted out.

Litigate

Charges: “Appropriated by politicians and journalists for any manner of controversy in the public sphere.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Personally I’d rather have seen “appropriated” get banished.

Grapple

Charges: “People who struggle with ideas and issues now grapple with them.”

Verdict: Not guilty.

Eschew

Charges: “Nobody ever actually says this word out loud, they just write it for filler.”

Verdict: Gesundheit! Not guilty.

Crusty

Charges: “This has become a popular insult. It’s disgusting and it’s weird.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Oh, it’s disgusting and weird all right, but not pouplar enough to merit a felonious conviction.

Optics

Charges: “The trendy way to say appearance.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Like “Giving me life” and “Nothingburger” from years past, a slap on the wrist will probably fix this.

Legally drunk

Charges: “People who are ticketed for drunk driving are actually “illegally drunk.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Save this one for the real courts to figure out.

Thought leader

Charges: “How can someone hold a thought-lead, much less even lead by thought?”

Verdict: Not guilty. While the term smacks of self-importance, it was not used widely enough to be prohibitively annoying.

Importantly

Charges: “Totally unnecessary when ‘important’ is sufficient.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Mark Twain supposedly said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Technically “importantly” is an adverb, but I’m sure Twain would be happy to see it go.

Accoutrements

Charges: “Hard to spell…anachronistic.”

Verdict: Not guilty. With spelling pretty much a lost art these days, having a few words that require people to think when their guess is out of the range of auto-correct might not be a bad thing.

Most important election of our time

Charges: “Not that we haven’t had six or seven back to back most important elections of our time.”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). To use another quote attributed to Twain: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Whether one is a political junkie or a proud ignoramus such as myself, it’s simply physically impossible for every election to be the most important of our time. Yes, it’s understandable to get emotionally caught up in elections, especially as they become more and more acrimonious. Deep breaths, folks.

Well, now that this year’s verdicts are in the books, what say you?

December 28, 2018

#143) How not to complain #7: Yes, we suck, but…

It’s no secret that the United States of America isn’t perfect. That said, I find that the “I’ve Been To 53,000 Countries And This Is What America Is Doing Wrong” trope has run its course. It’s one thing to bring up meaningful ways in which the U.S. can learn from the rest of the world, but some of the stuff I’ve seen just makes me wonder how much time the authors have on their hands. (Yes, I realize the pot just called the kettle black). Case in point: “The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre” by Joe Pinsker.

I have to admit, the title piqued my interest. The government is shut down, wildfires have recently decimated California and the problem is The Way American Parents Think About Chores? Not knowing whether to expect tongue in cheek or unintentional comedy, I climbed aboard.

As it turns out, Pinsker cites some valid, sane points. One quote is from Arizona State University psychologist Suniya Luthar: “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks his clothes up off the floor…are you saying…you’re owed something just for taking care of your stuff?” Says New York Times finance columnist Ron Lieber: “Chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation… Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

Fair enough, but where the article runs out of gas is the comparison to other countries, to which only the last three paragraphs are devoted. Thus, the piece falls into a rut I’ve found to be common to this sort of content (which, I’ll admit, I’ve probably spent more time reading than I should). Many authors seem to enjoy describing how the American way of doing something sucks more than analyzing why the other country is better and what can be learned from it.

In the latter part of the piece, Pinsker only cites one source: anthropology professor David Lancy, who argues that parents should harness kids’ natural desire to help out once they start showing it (18 months) before they learn to want something in exchange (6-7 years). There are no examples of this idea at work in other countries and its effects. How has parents not giving kids an allowance for doing chores in Agrabah made it a better country?

To be sure, Pinsker did capture my attention, if only because his premise was one that I simply wouldn’t have considered on my own. That being said, I’m not quite ready to email his article to all the mom bloggers that I know. Call it my white privilege or indifference but if Pinsker’s goal was to get me whipped up in a lather about what American kids do for an allowance, he was a few bullet points short.

 

November 20, 2017

#134) How well do you know social media’s newest whipping boy? Take this quiz and find out!

“He deserves to be beaten up in a strip club parking lot, while Bukowski rolls by in a limo and does not notice.”

So went one of many comments about the poetry of 26-year old Collin Andrew Yost, “the most hated poet in Portland.” Since August, when a Twitter user went viral by shaming Yost (“this guy is a PUBLISHED author”) the poet has become a scapegoat for all things hipster. But is the backlash deserved?

To help answer that question, D-Theory presents this interactive quiz. In the spirit of  “Heavy Metal Lyric or Bible Verse” or “Florida, Not Florida” we ask you: are the following the words of the “laureate of American lowlife” Charles Bukowski or Collin Andrew Yost, the literary Rebecca Black of the PNW?

#1)

I am a broken

banjo

I am a telephone wire

strung up in

Toledo, Ohio

#2)

I remember when

I thought sleeping away

half of the day

was a waste of living.

Now I roll out of bed

at a quarter after one

glad I killed

some time

dying.

#3)

Poetry is decaying.

We have slaughtered it.

You are not poetry.

If more than four lines

Loses your attention

Then you are not deserving

Of these thoughts.

#4)

She gave me a lipstick diary

of all her past lovers and

I can’t seem to shake the taste

from my tongue.

#5)

we are always asked

to understand the other person’s

view point

no matter how

out-dated

foolish or

obnoxious.

#6)

the family stinks of Christ

and the American Stock Exchange.

#7)

She’s the pills you’re not supposed

to mix with alcohol.

I’d dodge a bullet for her.

#8)

Van Gogh cut off his ear

gave it to

a prostitute

who flung it away in

extreme

disgust.

Van, whores don’t want

ears

they want

money.

#9)

Our education system tells us

that we can all be

big-ass winners.

it hasn’t told us

about the gutters

or the suicides.

#10)

She plants lipstick stains on my skin like

C-4 ready to blow open my ribcage and

free my heart.

August 18, 2017

#132) Book review: “Getting Stoned with the Savages” by J. Maarten Troost

Having enjoyed “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” by J. Maarten Troost, when I found its sequel, “Getting Stoned with Savages” at a thrift store, I felt confident the book would be a good return on a one dollar investment, especially since I had a long plane trip coming up. Indeed, my investment was returned – but not by as much as I would have liked. Despite some good moments, like many sequels, “Savages” is basically a less potent rehashing of the original. Upon returning from my trip, still twenty pages from the end, having forgotten that I’d placed the book in a different pocket of my suitcase from where I usually store reading material, thought that I’d left it at the hotel. When I found it, I was mildly relieved, but certainly wouldn’t have been heartbroken about missing the last twenty pages.

At the beginning of “Savages” Troost and his wife Sylvia find themselves leaving the U.S. for the South Pacific. The Troost of “Savages”, however, is a different protagonist from that of “Cannibals”: while his Kiribati voyage was basically done on a whim, born from lack of direction, his trip to Vanuatu (changed from Fiji after the coup of 2000) was a conscious decision. After having lived in utter deprivation for two years in Kiribati, the Troosts found that despite its material comforts, life in Washington, D.C. was pretty much empty. “Savages” is at its best when it describes that disconnect in a way that is alternately poignant (“I couldn’t recall the last time I had really savored something–a book, a sunset, a fine meal. It was as if the sensory overload that is American life had somehow lead to a sensory deprivation, a gilded weariness, where everything is permitted and nothing is appreciated…”) and humorous (“While…finding a decomposing pig in your yard is not an ideal way to begin one’s day, I found that beginning each new day in Washington, as I did, with the shocking blast of an alarm clock buzzer, shortly to be followed by a frantic race to the office, where I would be greeted by…ninety-two new messages, of which thirty-seven were alleged to be urgent…well, I found that such a day stinks too.”)

Within twenty-four hours of the Troosts’ arrival on Vanuatu, their island nostalgia is shattered as a seemingly care-free drive along country roads turns into an ordeal when their jeep gets stuck in the mud. But while this would seem to be a set-up for a humorous “the grass isn’t always greener” story, “Savages” soon runs out of gas, sorely missing the fish out of water element that made “Cannibals” work. That’s not to say that life on Vanuatu (and later Fiji, where the Troosts move after the dust settles from the coup) is all fun and games – they endure a cyclone and lose their backyard to a mudslide – but Troost fails to give these incidents much bite. Yes, we are rooting for him, but only because he’s the Good Guy in some abstract sense, not because he’s particularly interesting or charismatic. While the Troost of “Cannibals” had to fight a daily battle for survival, the Troost of “Savages” has time to explore and delve into the history of the area, but fails to make it very interesting. Maybe I’m just one of the typical, non-intellectually-curious Americans that made Troost glad to leave the U.S. but this book didn’t make me want to frantically google information about the history of relations between India and Fiji or the impact that French colonists from New Caledonia have had on Vanuatu.

That’s not to say that “Savages” doesn’t have its flashes of brilliance. Troost’s send-up of the writing style of Captain James Cook rivals the funniest bits from “Cannibals” and when he plays the “silly Americans” card he at least does it with some humor: “Apparently, while we had been living abroad, someone had sent a missive to all Western women under the age of twenty-five: Put a large tattoo above your butt.” Other times he shrewdly backs out, allowing unintentional American humor to speak for itself: “So that works out to about $415 a square foot. We’re roughly at $375 where we live. I bought a house last month that I plan on flipping when it gets to $400.” Ironically, the book also delves a lot more into cannibalism than “Sex Lives of Cannibals”: Troost devotes a chapter to a trek to one of Vanuatu’s remote “kastom” (“custom” – where traditions remain unchanged over millennia) islands where the locals still “eat the man.”

Sadly, its bright spots notwithstanding, I took about twice as long to get through “Savages” as I did the 40-pages longer “Cannibals.” My copy’s fate will likely see it re-donated to a thrift store where someone else can decide if they want to make a one dollar investment.

 

 

May 15, 2017

#129) Book review: “Kasher in the Rye” by Moshe Kasher

You couldn’t make someone like Moshe Kasher up if you tried. Long before he became  a standup comic, guest star on “The League” and “Drunk History”, a writer and Mr. Natasha Leggero, he was, to quote his own description of his memoir, “A white boy from Oakland who became a drug addict, criminal, mental patient and then turned 16.” Thankfully, he recovered and not only lived to tell the tale, but did so in a way that is both moving and humorous.

Not surprisingly, the Moshe Kasher of “Kasher in the Rye” is a Holden Caulfield for our times. Add to that the libido of Alex Portnoy, a David Sedaris-esque attraction to depraved characters and two divorced deaf parents on opposite sides of the country and you begin to get a sense of what to expect.

Whether Kasher was one of the few white students at an inner city Oakland school or the only resident of an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn who didn’t read Yiddish, he was an outsider. “Somewhere along the line, I figured the more I made people laugh, the less of a loser I would be,” he notes. He thrived in the role of class clown until his poor grades caused the school to decide that he had a learning disability. “A fat teacher/clinician combo meal of a woman approached me in class and pulled me aside with the private solemnity of an army officiant charged with delivering the heartbreaking condolences to the next of kin…’You learn differently than other students. Everyone learns differently and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people learn better with their ears.’ As she talked, she pointed to her ears just in case I wasn’t aware of what an ear was.”

Embarrassed by having to go to “the retarded portable”, Kasher sought recognition by the other school misfits. “I breathed a deep sigh of relief when they took me in. These were the first people in my life who weren’t asking me what was wrong with me. They didn’t give a fuck.” Kasher felt a similar relief the first time he got high: “Before I got high, I had no idea that’s what had been wrong the whole time. It wasn’t that I had deaf parents…that I was fat and retarded or crazy, angry, Jewish or anything else. I just needed to get high…parents and shrinks never tell you that you will forget all the reasons you had to hate yourself. They don’t tell you that shit because then everyone will want to get high.”

The constant search for that high caused Kasher to lie, steal and fight his way to rock bottom, described in a way that is both disturbing and insightful. “Temptation stacked against prudence….temptation conquers. That’s how it should work. How it actually does work is much scarier…when the thought to take a hit, hit, I simply forgot I was planning on quitting. I just forgot…no struggle. How are you supposed to combat that?”

Yet Kasher manages to infuse the story of his downward spiral with a wealth of humor, however dark it may be. “Cisco was for real men. Cisco was my favorite. A lethal sort of synthetic bum wine, it was made out of a combination of distilled Now and Laters, Ajax, and broken dreams. People called it Liquid Crack. I called it dinner.” En route to running up a phone sex bill in the thousands of dollars: “I ejaculated to both Trinidad and Tobago. I brought rivers of cum to drought-addled islands. I e-JAH-culated onto Rastafarian marijuana fields.” On his enrollment in an alternative high school: “Literally, the entire student body…with one notable, adorable, Jewish exception, was straight up retarded…some were just mildly retarded…with enough smarts to make you wonder, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ and then you’d see them picking their nose in front of a cute girl and you’d think, ‘Ahhh! Of course!'”

“Kasher in the Rye” shares with its namesake the idea that even the most pain-in-the-ass,  unsympathetic adolescent male is still human, with emotions, wants and needs. Is it the responsibility of society, family and school to accommodate them or is it up to the individual? Kasher leaves the question open-ended, focusing on what worked for him, declining to speculate about what might work for others. One could argue that this book’s very existence, along with the reclaimed life of its author, shows that investing in troubled youth can pay off, no matter how long the odds may seem.

January 2, 2017

#122) Language court 2017: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 42nd annual list of banished words

on-fleek

(Well, are you?)

New Years Day means different things to different people. For some folks, it’s the first day without alcohol, tobacco or child pornography. For others, it’s the day they have to start remembering to write a new number in the “date” field on their personal checks. For nerds such as the court, by which I mean myself, it’s the release of Lake Superior State University’s eagerly awaited list of words and expressions that are “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness.” I often find vindication in seeing phrases that annoy the estrogen out of me singled out on these lists (surely I can’t be the only one who wants to sack-tap anyone who says ‘curated’ – from the 2015 list – or ‘break the internet’ from 2016) and I’ve even gone so far as to make my own (after the response I got, I decided it would be better to let LSSU do the dirty work).

In that spirit, I ask that you dock your selfie drone and focus on this historic town hall meeting in the echo chamber as we guesstimate how many of the 831 items on Lake Superior State University’s 42nd annual listicle of banished words are true bete noires and how many are mere simply post-truths.

YOU, SIR

Charges: “Hails from a far more civilized era when duels were the likely outcome of disagreements.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court has found that while those who use this expression tend to think they are more droll than they actually are, it is not ubiquitous enough to warrant punishment.

FOCUS

Charges: “Overused when concentrate and look at would be fine.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that when looked at in the context of….ooh, shiny!

BETE NOIRE

Charges: Being a pretentious synonym for “pet peeve.”

Verdict: Not guilty; the prosecution didn’t even seem to care that much about this one. Note: the court apologizes for not being able to figure out how to create the accent circumflex that goes over the first “e” in “bete” in the WordPress platform.

TOWN HALL MEETING

Charges: Being a misnomer (“Candidates seldom debate in town halls anymore.”)

Verdict: Not guilty; given the election cycle we just witnessed, what we call our debates is the least of our problems.

POST-TRUTH

Charges: Being a trendy way of describing how politicians and others have been able to get people to ignore facts.

Verdict: Guilty. Just as Capone’s tax evasion and O.J.’s memorabilia hijinks stood in for more significant crimes, we are happy to set up “post-truth” as a fall guy for all of the other annoying “post-” expressions that inundate pop culture: “post-punk”, “post-hardcore”, “post-Sasha Fierce”, “post-Freddy Got Fingered” et. al.

GUESSTIMATE

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that prosecuting this chronic low-level offender will be more trouble than it’s worth.

831

Charges: Shorthand for “I love you” – 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. “Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s  love.”

Verdict: Not guilty. If this one survives until 2018, it will only be from hipsters using it ironically, which may prompt the case to be reopened.

HISTORIC

Charges: Being “thrown around far too much.”

Verdict: Guilty. The court hopes that this verdict serves to inspire those in attendance to avoid hyperbole and find more creative adjectives.

MANICURED

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The word does have a sort of real-estate-salesman-y feel to it but has not been overused to the point of being divorced from its original meaning.

ECHO CHAMBER

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty (for now). Like its accomplice “confirmation bias” this is a reasonably concise way of describing a clearly valid concept.

ON FLEEK

Charges: “Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.”

Verdict: Guilty. The fact that as a society we find eyebrows important enough to nickname is bad enough; worse is that this phrase is already on track to become inescapable and will cause adults to embarrass themselves when using it in the name of hipness, such as Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol.

BIGLY

Charges: Being used by Donald Trump

Verdict: Not guilty. This is the aspect of the pending Trump presidency that we’re going to get upset about?

GHOST

Charges: Being slang for abruptly ending communication, especially on social media

Verdict: Not guilty. Even the prosecution has its doubt: “Is it rejection angst, or is this word really as overused as word-banishment nominators contend?”

DADBOD

Charges: “Empowering dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.”

Verdict: Guilty. This word (“the flabby opposite of a chiseled male ideal”) isn’t the one who actually robbed the bank; it was just slower than the ring leader (“dad joke”) in running to escape the word police after the alarm was tripped.

LISTICLE

Charges: A portmanteau of “list” and “article.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The problem is the item itself, not what we call it.

“GET YOUR DANDRUFF UP…”

Charges: Unknown.

Verdict: Not guilty.

SELFIE DRONE

Charges: Breaking new ground in selfies by tasking a drone to enable new angles (“How can this end badly?”)

Verdict: Not guilty. As with “Listicle” there is a difference between a truly annoying, overused expression and simply naming something that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

FRANKENFRUIT

Charges: Being “another food group co-opted by ‘frankenfood’.”

Verdict: Guilty. People have a right to get their dandruff up about genetically modified organisms, but words such as “frankenfruit” that are intended to scare people into ortheorexia nervosa instead might scare some of them straight to McDonald’s.

DISRUPTION

Charges: This classic Van Halen guitar solo is charged with inspiring would-be guitarists at music stores across the country to butcher it while trying out instruments, thus making a…oh, sorry, I thought you said “Eruption.” “Disruption” is charged with “bumping into other over-used synonyms for change.”

Verdict: Not guilty. There can never be enough synonyms for “change.”

As for “that/those/dat ____, tho”, “I’m just going to leave this here” and “[no words]”: consider this a warning.

What say you, sir?

November 30, 2016

#121) Book review: “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”

It’s hard not to have one’s interest piqued by a book with a title such as “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” but it also begs the question of whether the rest of the book will live up to that promise. Thankfully in the case of J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue of two years on Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-uh-bahss), the answer is yes.

“Sex Lives” combines two related themes – fish out of water; American attempts to “civilize” the savages but ends up learning from them – and throws in a welcome shot of self-deprecation. Granted, the effectiveness of self-deprecation depends on how deeply the self is willing to deprecate, but Troost’s humor is believable. While he occasionally makes his writing skill and deep insights part of the story, for the most part he keeps it real. In the mid 1990s, before his Tarawa odyssey, Troost, having recently completed graduate school, finds himself professionally and emotionally adrift. “Job offers were not forthcoming, most likely because I didn’t apply for any jobs…Instead I went to Cuba….One may wonder how an unemployed ex-graduate student…could afford a trip to Cuba…in an act of colossal misjudgement, American Express had agreed to give me a credit card.” En route to Tarawa, Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia stop at Johnson Atoll, a desert island with a long and infamous history of U.S. nuclear testing. “It is tempting to dash off a page or two and expound upon the philosophical implications of Johnson Atoll….for writers more ambitious than I this would be like catnip,” Troost notes. “However….I was not struck by any profound ruminations. My thoughts were more along the lines of Could someone please close the fucking door before we all turn into mutants?”

The dichotomy of lofty ideals and mundane reality is an ongoing theme of “Sex Lives.” Many well meaning white Europeans and Americans have had big plans for Kiribati, including Sylvia, who is hired as a country director for the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati Office. Her job is to educate the natives; one way she does so is to produce “message oriented plays on the importance of green, leafy vegetables and the proper treatment of diarrhea, among other topics not typically explored on Broadway.” Meanwhile, the islanders, with their “if it ain’t broke” attitude view these outsiders (I-Matangs) with a mix of amusement and resentment. It doesn’t take Troost long to understand their perspective. While he’s shocked at how complacent the I-Kiribati are about rampant disease, an infant mortality rate of almost 10% and an average life expectancy of 52 (men) and 55 (women) he also notes that “the greatest beneficiaries of I-Matang aid were the I-Matangs themselves.” On editing a feasibility study about farming on the island, he says, “It must have looked like a sensible thing to do over an espresso in Rome. Of course, how one transports perishable vegetables from an island that lacks electricity and refrigerators was never quite addressed…” When a team of anti-smoking specialists try to educate the I-Kiribati about the tobacco industry’s evil plans: “The moment these sullen but healthy Western people departed [the I-Kiribati] opened up their tins of Irish tobacco and rolled their cigarettes with pandanus leaves and had a good laugh as they began an evening of serious drinking…the 1996 figures on causes of morbidity in Kiribati…included 99,000 cases of influenza…15,000 cases of diarrhea…and 44 new cases of leprosy…no one lived long enough to be mortally embraced by lung cancer or emphysema.”

Another dichotomy is the two faces of life on Kiribati: “[a] visceral form of bipolar disorder. There is the ecstatic high, when you find yourself swept away in a lagoonside maneaba [meeting house] rumbling to the frenzied singing and dancing of hundreds of rapturous islanders. And there are the crushing lows, when you succumb to a listless depression, brought about by the unyielding heat, sporadic sickness, pitiless isolation, food shortages…” For a Westerner used to modern comforts and conveniences, Kiribati is a culture shock, but as Maarten and Sylvia adjust to life on Tarawa, their perspective about necessity and priorities change.  As Sylvia’s contract ends, they consider staying longer. “Once I aspired to be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times,” Troost muses. “Now I aspired to open a coconut with the same panache as the I-Kiribati.”

Lessons not withstanding, Troost isn’t out to make us pick between the simplicity of island life and the complexity of the modern world as much as he is to find comedy in the differences between the two. When he decides that he simply must get a hold of the New Yorker to read about the Monica Lewinsky scandal (“I often found myself approaching other I-Matangs. ‘I’ll trade you my December 1978 Scientific American – it’s about this new thing called computers – for your March 1986 Newsweek’“) the resulting phone call is on par with Peter Sellers’ conversation with the Russian premier in “Dr. Strangelove.” “There are no street names, there’s only one street here,” Troost tries to explain to the befuddled woman in the New Yorker’s international subscriptions department.

As for the literal promise of the title, there’s not much in the way of sex or cannibalism, but “Sex Lives” provides consistent mental stimulation and entertainment nonetheless. It’s the type of book of which I wish Bill Bryson and his ilk would write more: intellectually engaging without being ponderous; dryly humorous without being too arch. No, this book didn’t make me want to vacation in Kiribati any time soon but that’s not Troost’s goal. His goal is to find life, culture and humor in a place that many will go their whole lives without ever realizing exists and he succeeds.