I’m in a hotel-seeming conference room, 360 degrees of beige, one of those inevitable rooms with jaundiced lighting, canned air, a platter of sweating cheese always, always in the corner. I am sweating, too, in the sleeves of my fake leather jacket (call it faux, darling, how vulgar), and I am listening restlessly to a prowling woman in a bright, tight dress with a bright white smile who is talking to me about synergy and personal branding and sharing my gift. Her teeth gleam, her giant diamond wedding ring gleams, as she talks about her gift and how she discovered it, unearthed the creamy pearls of self-actualization, the shining pools of a dream career and a globe-rounded existence. What is it you want from your life? she asks the medium-size crowd seated obediently, scribbling notes with damp, self-manicured hands, and now realization is sweating from my pores: I believe I am a writer who has nothing to say.
On some level, I believe it, this ultimate betrayal of my self-forged identity of Writer—always, always with a capital W. W for wondrous, w for wordsmith, w for what the fuck am I actually doing with my life? Everything has been said, isn’t that true, every thought I’ve had, a hundred, a thousand, people have had before except wittier, prettier, sooner. I am a cliché before I even put pen to paper, finger to key. There is not an original thought left in the world, and god, how many times has that exact sentence been written before? I have nothing of value to contribute, no way to peer above the din, there is no exit to this echo chamber. I am a faceless fish in a dwindling pond of ideas.
This is the great fear of my professional life, where realism and insecurity form a toxic brew that makes me yearn for complacency, for stupidity, for mediocrity. Because what if that’s the real truth? What if I am of that sad and sadly common breed that has talent, but just a little; drive, but not enough; self-awareness, but only to the degree to cause self-consciousness? What if (really, no ifs) I hold myself back because really trying hard just means I’ll fail once and for all? Do I really have any special quality at all, or am I just so eager to believe the ones who praise me that I convince myself? Or am I more qualified than I realize but so afraid of fucking up that I refuse to put myself out there? Does it even matter?
I have these insane dueling impulses in me at all times: a cringing need to stay as far from the limelight as possible and a burning desire to be recognized, feted, adored. I yearn for positive feedback, but I’m so afraid of the negative that I settle for barely rippling the pond. But maybe these are all excuses, too—maybe I simply have nothing to say, no critical analysis to give, no opinions that merit wider audience than my own reflection. I am so very scared to be wrong, to be bold, to be innovative in whatever limp, iceberg-lettuce way that’s possible these days. I am forever discontent. Which, let’s be real, is the biggest writer cliché of all.
What I need, I realize, is to stop putting the cart before the horse. Failure—the mere thought of failure—is fucking terrifying, but that’s no surprise to you or me. I have always done the easy thing, pursued the path that gets me the most praise, the most outside reinforcement. Perhaps it’s sad that only now, at 28, I’m realizing how damaging that reliance on outside forces is. But I’m also realizing (obvious, I know—should know) that I’m not the only person who’s felt this way, who’s feeling this way right now. Every single person seems more whole to outsiders than they seem to themselves—so as hard as it is for me to picture, there might be people on this earth who look at me and think I have all my shit together. So if other people can be convincing in that regard, I can be too. Eventually, maybe I’ll even be able to convince myself.
Cold War Kids have been one of my favorite bands for quite some time. They’re one of those bands that, for a non-music snob like me who still wants to retain some cred, are visible enough for people to know but haven’t ever broken into unacceptable, arena-rock popularity (see: Arcade Fire). They’re a fascinating band, both for their gorgeously complicated lyrics, rife with obscure literary references, and for their career trajectory and what it says about the nature of fame, and of the music industry, and the creative process. And now, for me, a woman in her late 20s (late!), they’re fascinating for what they say about aging.
Last night I went to see them at 9:30 Club—my third time seeing them in that venue alone. It proved to be a show unlike any of theirs I’d seen before, and, really, unlike any concert I’ve seen, period. It became immediately clear when they took the stage that something was very wrong with lead singer Nate Willett’s voice. He croaked through two songs, opting for a different key, never breaking into the distinctive falsetto that makes their songs so irresistibly repeat-worthy. And even that seemed like a struggle. After the second song, he finally addressed the crowd: “I blew out my voice,” he explained in a cracked whisper. “So we encourage participation more than ever.”
Willett plowed gamely through the set, wincing occasionally as if in pain, taking sips of water wherever he could, the bassist and guitarist extra active as if to bolster him. But the person I couldn’t take my eyes off was their keyboardist, Matt Schwartz. Last time I saw the band, Matt was just the touring keyboardist, eager as a puppy to be onstage, contributing backing vocals and shaking the occasional maraca. Before this tour, the band announced he’d been added as a full-fledged member of the group—and his new status was on full display during this show. With Willett’s voice gone, Schwartz did a surprising amount of the heavy vocal lifting. Standing on the right side of the stage, he watched Willett, front and center, and seemed to be compensating for his voice when it failed, several times singing right along with Nate, overpowering him. He had his own vocal solos on other parts, too, and even got a chance to play to the crowd, who ate it up like chocolate pudding.
It was hard not to think, standing in a crowd of teenagers (none of whom, I’m sure, shared my concerns about the integrity of my left eardrum), that we were watching a changing of the guards, so to speak—a transitioning from the original to the new generation, from the older, ailing musician to the young and vital. I thought as Willett took the stage, even before he opened his mouth, that he looked paunchy, puffy around the face. I saw for the first time that he was aging.
In the past year, the band has replaced two of its original members and added Schwartz as a fifth. Though Matt paid extreme deference to Nate, watching intently for his cues while Nate barely glanced in his direction, I imagined their backstage power struggles, the frustration Nate must feel at not being able to perform the way he wanted to, the way he used to be able to. And while Schwartz’s falsetto is nowhere near as strong, as gorgeously piercing, last night he was more Nate than Nate was.
Music critics love to talk about Cold War Kids in a kind of past tense. Always referencing their first, revered album, always musing on the rocky path they’ve followed to low-level stardom. Nate has a new band now, with the only other original member of CWK who’s still around. I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of him is now preparing to dissolve the original band and focus on something new, to accept that the vision he had of his success has not been fulfilled and he should move forward, accept that the Cold War Kids phase of his life has run its course. I wondered if I was witnessing the beginning of the end.
Even though the book has been out for more than two years and the movie for almost a month, I’ll say it anyway: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I didn’t know much about Gone Girl before I started reading it recently—the closest I’d come to reading a review was my friend Taylor telling me the first half was super slow but the second part suddenly became excellent. Still, I knew by the number of blog posts by major news outlets dedicated to the movie development that it was a Big Deal. And when I finally ponied up the $7.99 for the iBooks version, I wasn’t disappointed: The story is, if not truly great, at least extremely entertaining, full of metaphors I don’t agree with and characterizations that are so realistic they hit a little too close to home for anyone who’s ever done anything they feel even the slightest bit ashamed of. It’s a cynical lampooning of [insert overused phrase here] our current obsession with reality television—but with the stakes elevated, warped, to impossibly dangerous levels. It rolls in the pervasiveness and discomfort of gender stereotypes, the ugly typical narrative of domestic violence, the unstable American economy, the corrosive power of money over relationships—it tells everyone’s story and no one’s all at the same time. That’s the beauty of the book, right? It’s an allegory that tells the everyman/woman’s tale of falling in love and eventually realizing the story you bought into, that you committed to for life, is not the truth—but at the same time, to put it bluntly, the two main characters are also completely fucking insane.
All this is to say, I enjoyed both the book and the movie, but for different reasons. I mean, the movie—David Fincher continues to be a badass, Trent Reznor continues to crush his movie-soundtrack assignments; Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike gave incredible performances. But the movie betrays some of the book’s essential points. For instance: Movie Go never doubts—really doubts—Nick’s innocence. The minute she sees the woodshed, she just understands. Desi is so much more predatory, less a strange and misguided man than a for-now-mild-mannered rapist-in-waiting ready to pounce at the first available opportunity. And, horribly, Nick finally does resort to abuse, shoving his murderer of a wife and her “bleached-blond wedge haircut” into a wall because he can no longer stand her lies, cracking open the delicate eggshell of the twisted marital mind game that is the bedrock of Gillian Flynn’s novel.
But most damning of all is the limitations of the book-to-movie translation: Flynn’s work depends intrinsically on the persuasive, corrosive power of perspective, an aspect that, filtered through the lens of a director and the mindset of actors, was bound to be diluted. I rushed through a first reading of the book—I have to know what happens—and then luxuriated in the second, and in doing so discovered that the repeat read (as was Flynn’s intention) throws into question every aspect of the story. Who’s the more insane? Who’s the bigger asshole? Who is more convinced that he or she is really sharing the truth with us? The answer to the last question, thankfully, remains mostly unanswered, leaving the audience to know we are as much the chumps as those confused and sweaty Missouri cops.
I waited a long time to see this movie, and I’m glad I had some distance from the book (though not too much). I tried my hardest to avoid the spoilers, to resist the thinkpieces with provocative titles like “Yes, Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem.” Bottom line: It is absolutely a movie worth seeing and a book worth reading, for the fantastic acting (and the surprising charm of Tyler Perry), and the terrible, tooth-ache pleasure of seeing the marriage of two beautiful, witty people dissolve into madness.
Both book and movie end unsatisfyingly—at my screening, the woman next to me exclaimed, “Wait, really?”—but both also retain the necessary ambiguity. Meaning if you come away thinking man or woman is the true bad guy, the real bottom-line jerk, it probably says more about you than about Flynn’s or Fincher’s work. But if either (or both) has you rethinking the idea of getting married, I certainly wouldn’t blame you. Hell, I’ll weather that powdered-sugar storm with you.
Really. Actual nightmares. I watched it a day late, after dutifully ignoring spoilers all day, and my reaction was still complete and unabashed hatred. I hadn’t even been watching the last season, really, though I did catch up on a few episodes on Monday. And I have no idea why I decided to ignore my usual rule of not watching series finales lest they leave me with that icky, empty sensation I always think of as the “Sunday feeling”—the feeling you get when you know it’s the end of the weekend and all the fun is over.
But this was so much worse. There are a thousand reviews out right now, written by people much more knowledgeable and eloquent and insightful than me, about why the conclusion of a nine-year-long series basically gave a giant middle finger to its fan base. But for some reason I still can’t stop going over it in my head and wishing it had been done differently—especially after having seen the beauty of what could have been in that fan-made video that absolutely nails what I wanted from the show. That’s how it should have ended. That’s what people wanted from the show: to see Ted happy, to see him get everything his over-romantic, pedantic heart yearned for for so long. It’s a comedy, for pete’s sake. Nobody wants realism, the cold splash of water over those golden-hued dreams that were the show’s, and character’s, selling point. And for those who argue that the ending was more realistic because it shows that not even love with “the one” can last forever, I say it’s so much more unrealistic to expect it to work out between two people who were together not just once but twice and realized they wanted fundamentally different things; to think that a man who let go of the woman he thought might be the love of his life over and over again because she continually left him for her career, his best friend, and a million other reasons would still believe they could be together decades and two children later—or that he’d still want her after all that; to believe any iota of Robin’s unhappiness stemmed from the fact that she wasn’t with Ted specifically rather than envy toward her friends and the nebulous, overarching fear of dying alone.
I actually can’t believe I care so much about this, but it’s such a tragic ending to a great show, simply because of how poorly conceived and executed it was. I want to go back in time and skip the real final episode, and instead just watch the fan video that brings to life what I didn’t realize I was hoping for all along. I know that life is messy, and ugly, and sad, and there are no easy answers and no real “happy endings.” That’s why we watch television shows—to escape the dullness and unfairness of real life, to give us faith (however temporarily) in things like destiny and epic love that never wavers no matter the circumstances. It’s a shallow fantasy, but a beautiful one, and one we all need from time to time. And if Ted can’t even get his happy story, in his imaginary life that’s written for him by someone else, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
I have a friend named Sarah, whom I met in college. Sarah is very funny, highly opinionated, and a voracious consumer of pop culture. Her favorite quote (which might have even been in her Facebook profile before she exited the ‘book for good) was the classic High Fidelity line that seems to captivate so many of my peers: It’s what you like, not what you ARE like, that matters.
Spoken in the movie version by the perpetually hangdog John Cusack, it takes on the cadence of wisdom, even followed up by his next statement, “Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.” It does seem to be in many ways the fuckin’ truth these days, especially where social media is concerned. I’m still an avid Facebook user, though my newsfeed is increasingly taken up by the inanities of diet plans and an endless parade of engagement rings and photographs of gooey-faced babies. I share things most often via Facebook, partly because it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with at this point and partly because it usually results in more reactions from my friends. In the ten (!) years since I joined I’ve carefully cultivated an online persona made up of the articles and statuses I share, the comments I respond to, the photographs I post—and, of course, the things I (literally) like.
I’ve looked at many a wedding photograph, and read more than a couple of crushingly dumb but enticingly titled Thought Catalog articles—but not reacting to them means I can keep that part of my “personality” hidden. Enjoying a BuzzFeed roundup of walnuts that look like Chewbacca? Fine. Broadcasting that enjoyment to the world? I’d rather not. It doesn’t really matter what I am like in person when I’m using social media, because the platform allows me to create myself as I want—in my case, generally enthusiastic, moderately snarky, and interested in all things puppy.
The same applies to online dating, to a certain extent. The profile you fill in might ask you how you feel about religion and how strongly, how you describe yourself, and what you’re looking for in a relationship. It also asks you what music you like, what movies and TV shows and books. But it’s all a measure of how you want to seem. What will people think if you put down Gravity’s Rainbow versus 50 Shades of Grey? Game of Thrones or The Bachelor? It’s a conscious creation of yourself that goes way beyond the self-editing everyone does in person-to-person interactions, because there’s so much more lead time. Think hard, the blank questionnaire says, because potential mates will judge your answers just as harshly as you judge theirs. In the absence of presence, when the prickle of chemistry can’t be felt, What do I like? can turn into What do I wish I liked? Perhaps it can make us more honest, or at least more revealing of our inner desires. Or perhaps it all becomes shallow, when a mention of Pynchon stands in for depth like a shorthand with no good translation.
So if I saw a post like this on Facebook, would I hit the like button? Maybe. But not without thinking long and hard about how it would make me seem.
Update: Strangely enough, I wrote this without realizing Facebook’s birthday was today. The site rolled out automatically generated “look back” videos of the content each user has shared since signing up. While I’m sure it involved a vastly complicated algorithm of some kind, the events highlighted were not necessarily the ones I would have chosen. So maybe I now have two social media personalities—the one I craft for myself and the one the platform decides for me. It’s a bit of an odd feeling, I have to say.
I’ve done a few things in my life a fair number of people would consider bold. I moved halfway across the country to attend a college where I knew nobody. I’ve sung solos in choir concerts and danced atop a bar in Cancun. I hit on a hot stranger at a bar by asking the bartender to buy him a drink from me. I’ve approached celebrities to ask the asinine question, “Who are you wearing?” But here’s a confession: I’ve done all this with the knowledge that when it comes down to it, at the root of it all, I am a shy person.
It’s always been that way. As a baby, my mom tells me, I was relatively silent, content to sit in my high chair and observe my gregarious older sister as she chattered and played, gleaning my own lessons from her tumbles and triumphs. Once at family dinner at Pizza Hut—the memory is very vivid—I forgot my childish gravitas for a second and gave myself up to dancing in the aisles between tables as I joyfully chewed my Hawaiian pizza (I know), oblivious for once to the eyes of those around me. When a kindly adult the next table over complimented me on my dance I stopped immediately and ran back to my seat, so paralyzed by embarrassment I barely moved for the rest of the meal.
Now, at 27, I am mostly able to fake an outgoing personality, a skill born of necessity after a move from Canada to Texas left me floundering in the deep end of a new culture and a new set of social rules. Over many painful years I developed a style, a vocabulary, a set of interests, and a sense of humor that lets me relate to and even occasionally befriend people who truly are social creatures, for whom the idea of being the center of attention inspires excitement rather than cold sweat. I envy them their ease, their confidence that what they do and say and put out in the world will be not just accepted but celebrated. “Listen to me,” they say, “because I have something great to offer. How could anyone think otherwise?”
My shyness as a teenager was a sore spot with my mom and me; shuttled to dinner parties and barbecues, I’d sit mutely, trying to smile pleasantly, and afterward my mom would invariably comment angrily that I “looked so bored.” Here’s another confession: Publicly calling out a shy person for being shy is like a slap in the face. You will make them more self-conscious, and they will feel even more awkward, convinced now that everyone can see into the tangles of their thoughts, down deep to the inner place where they are lumbering and ugly and stupid, the least interesting person in the room. Telling a shy person to “just put yourself out there” is akin to someone who’s never picked up a cigarette advising a lifelong nicotine addict to “just stop smoking.”
I thought for a while that I had outgrown my wallflower tendencies (see the opening paragraph of this blog post). Now I happen to be dating one of those people who crave and thrive on social interaction, which for him throws my natural inclinations into sharp relief. “You’re shy,” he’s told me more than once (in private), and the first time I found myself briefly, foolishly surprised—even a little hurt. But it’s a fair assessment of the situation. I’m never going to want to audition for a reality television show or take a job that requires a lot of public speaking (though I did win a ribbon for an impromptu speech at my mom’s Toastmaster meeting once). A massive wedding that would involve me spilling the contents of my heart in front of hundreds of people? My actual nightmare. I am shy, no matter how many bold choices I make.
The desire to fade into the background can be a detriment. I don’t speak up at meetings. I sometimes hesitate to reach out to potential new friends. I often have this sinking feeling that I’m holding myself and my talents back because I’m afraid to really express them, afraid of failing or being rejected. (Is that a symptom of shyness, or a lack of confidence? In my case, likely a combination of the two.)
But it has its benefits too. My parents worried for a while when I didn’t take to speaking as quickly as my sister had—but when I felt ready, from all my observations of the people around me, I had full sentences down in a matter of days. I learned to ride a bike in the span of an afternoon. Even now I watch people around me closely and let their behaviors inform my actions. I abide by the rule that everyone loves to talk about themselves, and I’m happy to let them, using the time to assess their personality and social awareness while giving away little of myself. Being able to shut up and let others speak can be an invaluable and underrated trait, and it’s one I think I’ve gotten pretty good at.
I’ll probably always have to work on having the confidence to speak my mind to others, to stop myself from retreating to the safety of my bedroom whenever I sense a potential awkward social situation in the future. But I’ve come a long way from the silent child that way. And hey, if you ever meet me, chances are you’ll think I’m a really great listener.
For the past couple of years I’ve had the fun task of recapping Scandal for my day job. With the exception of the most recent episode, which I missed because I was in India (more on that to come!), I’ve seen all of it, and watched it grow along the way from a soapy, uneven procedural with ultra-predictable twists to a critical darling and one of the most buzzed-about shows on TV. I’ll confess Shonda Rhimes shows are generally not totally my cup of tea—I gave up on Grey’s Anatomy after the first season—and were I not recapping Scandal, I likely wouldn’t watch it regularly. But the show has sparked some interesting discussions about race and gender roles in Hollywood and politics, and it has a darkly humorous—and often just plain dark—tone that appeals to my cynical side. (Plus how can you not love the vindictive, wounded-animal rage of Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant?)
I’ve started to wonder, though, about Scandal‘s staying power. Todd VanDerWerff noted at the AV Club that Scandal keeps momentum going by raising what were from the beginning very high stakes. You’re talking about the presidency, about the fate of marriages and reputations, even occasionally about life and death. But for me, those stakes have started to lose their power. Those passionate, tortured declarations of love Fitz and Olivia are so fond of making to each other? If they want to be together so badly, Fitz could just give up the presidency, which, by the way, he didn’t actually win anyway. He outed his own affair to the press, then Olivia’s team swiftly covered for her by pinning it on one of the president’s hapless staffers, who retired to a desert island (or something), and he continues to be the president with little to no real damage to his reputation. In any case, we’re talking about just four more years of all these people’s lives before all these issues will cease to be issues, so why not just throw in the towel after one term? Where do you go when in two and a half seasons the president of the United States has impregnated one staffer, who is then murdered by his chief of staff; been outed as an adulterer; smothered a Supreme Court justice to death; and abused his power to let a known criminal who is also the mother of his erstwhile lover/campaign manager go free?
Maybe the real stakes are the fate of these people’s souls. Olivia’s team will do anything for her, the more illegal the better, sometimes at great personal cost. Abby lies to her boyfriend; Huck tortures people; Harrison wears pocket squares that don’t exactly match his tie. Olivia will do anything for Fitz—except the one thing she should do, which is let him go. Mellie, for some reason, will do anything to stay in her position, sad and largely powerless as it is. She’s hooked on the drug of future potential success, of one day having in her hands the power she wants so desperately to keep herself adjacent to. Power for these people is god and devil, the thing that gives them life as it simultaneously eats away at them. But as they hurtle toward their destruction in the form of wildly twisting plot lines, it’s hard to see how long that corrosion can be stretched out. Like the late, unlamented Hostages, which I also recapped (until I finally gave up), the concept of a president and his former staffer having an affair that dooms everyone around them to endless lies and machinations seems like one with a limited shelf life. Were any normal person subjected to the emotional (and sometimes physical) torture these characters have already endured, she’d end up catatonic in a mental institution. We’ve already had one episode of Kerry Washington doing that—and beautiful as she is, I’m less than enthused about a whole season of it.