Category Archives: Relationships

On Jane the Virgin and the terrible wonder of tragedy

I’ve written before about the “reality” of Jane the Virgin, which somehow always roots its soap opera shenanigans in realistic human emotion. Perhaps never have I felt that more than with the midseason finale of season three and its next-week aftermath, which kills off Jane’s still-new husband Michael and then jumps forward three years into the future. Michael’s death was shocking, yes, and well-acted, and though I cried at that episode, it was the next one that really got to me. It opens with Jane’s Alba, explaining gently but firmly, that Jane will always feel different from now on, that truly nothing will ever be the same. And yet, she says, just as firmly, Jane will once again find things to love. She’ll find beauty in her life, find a way to let the light back in. And as impossible as it seems to Jane at the time, it turns out to be true. On both counts.

The episode of Jane the Virgin that showed Michael’s death talked a lot about memories — how we form them, how we perceive them to be absolute truth thereafter, though they’re informed so much by the circumstances and the layers of years piled onto them. Some memories, the episode says, are seared into our brains as brightly as a camera flash, though the parts around them fade into the background. This, I know, is true as well.

The saddest part to me, of this new Jane reality, as well as maybe the most heartbreakingly real, is the show’s efforts to show the true weight of the trauma Jane has suffered. She is no longer nearly the same person she was when we began the journey with her, and she’s changed in a way no accidental insemination, kidnappings, and almost-deflowerings she’s experienced along the way. She’s lost Michael, the person she thought would be there with her for the rest of her life — to share her burdens, her triumphs, her milestones and frustrations — and for something as sudden as it is random. And the loss is twofold: of both Michael himself — a person with dreams and secrets and complications and unknown, untold layers — and of the Jane she was when she had him, a Jane who was complete in ways she will never be again. (Not to mention the knowledge that Mateo, young as he was, will probably never remember the man she loved and lost, who was such a big part of her life.) She has to carry, alone, the weight of every new milestone, every triumph and frustration, knowing that Michael’s life will stay frozen forever in that message on her phone, excited about buying bodega oranges, while hers continues forward, inexorably. Every moment she lives is a moment he doesn’t.

And yet. The true tragic paradox of humanity, the terrible and wondrous secret, is that our losses propel us forward, for better and for worse, for we can never know what might have been but only what is. Jane has lost her husband and her partner, and there will always be a level of guilt in forcing herself to move forward when he cannot, to let in the light and even, eventually, happiness, to realize she can still laugh and love and experience life. And (terribly, wondrously) to know that some of the things she experiences would not have come about if not for his dying: maybe even some of the most beautiful parts of her new existence. The chasm will never fill, but flowers may grow around its edges, with thorns that make you bleed and blooms that dazzle with their beauty. Jane may live the rest of her life wondering why and what if. But maybe she will also wonder at the things that have knitted together in the space between. May all of us be so lucky.

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Heartbreak and word choice: The Last Five Years

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

My day job requires me to be a massive grammar nerd. My days are filled with constant internal debates — that or which? alternate or alternative? palate or palette (or pailette??), which might seem like the seventh circle of hell to some but to me affords endless opportunities to contemplate just how nuanced and byzantine and gloriously, wonderfully confusing this language we call English is. And that’s just what I was thinking about recently when reconsidering a movie I watched a couple months ago, The Last Five Years. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on a Broadway show of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, and follows Cathy and Jamie (Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in the movie) through their meeting, marriage, and breakup. The twist: Cathy’s story starts at the end of their relationship and moves backward, while Jamie’s does the opposite; they intersect once, in the middle as they marry.

As you might have gleaned from the premise, it is a downer of a movie (though with some fun songs); you probably don’t want to watch this if you’re having one of those “I’ll be alone forever” evenings. Anyway, it wasn’t until a while after I watched the movie that I really considered its title: the last five years. See, my first real boss taught me the subtle but important difference between “last” and “past”: Most people would use them interchangeably, but she explained to me that last really means final, as in the end-all, be-all — my last days on Earth, the last unicorn, etc. Yes, the movie takes place over the course of Cathy and Jamie’s five-year relationship, so it is technically their last five years together (as well as their first) — but if Brown just wanted to convey the passage of time he could have called the show The Past Five Years. I don’t think most people even after a breakup would consider their entire relationship a slow and inexorable slide toward its bitter conclusion, so if the title were meant to convey the end of the relationship maybe it should have been called The Last Two Years, or The Last Seven Months Except That One Weekend We Went to Montauk, Because That Was Pretty Fun Still.

But when you take The Last Five Years with the full weight of that word — last — it underscores just how tragic and earth-shattering this story is for these two people. They have had their last kiss, their last lazy batch of shared Sunday bagels, their last fight that ends in tears followed by apology sex. They are divorced; their relationship is over. There’s a sense of finality that can’t be erased; something has been broken that will never be mended. It’s the kind of pain that’s as physical as it is emotional, that makes you feel like you literally might die from it, and even once enough time has passed that you start to feel better, you’ll never be the same again. “Cathy and Jamie” have died, the title says; now there’s only Cathy and Jamie, alone once again.

What a lot of heartbreak in just one letter’s difference.

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UnREAL and the lies we tell ourselves about love

This is the stuff dreams are made of. (Lifetime)

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Via Lifetime.

Yesterday a coworker of mine got engaged to her boyfriend. He surprised her with a ring at their moving-away party, and the women of my company spent a large part of today in throes of ecstasy over it. There were pictures of the ring, typed-out squeals of joy with so many exclamation points, and declarations that “even though I don’t believe in love, this convinced me.” Then this evening I finally watched the season finale of UnREAL, the fantastic Lifetime show whose tar-dark heart speaks directly to mine.

And those two events made for a fascinating juxtaposition: one a sincere display of love, one a show dedicated to exposing its fallacies, and both on some level peddling the same lace-and-roses fantasy. The showrunners of Everlasting, the reality dating show-within-a-show on UnREAL, traffic in all the trappings of love, ensuring that every ugly barb the contestants throw at one another is gauzily lit and gorgeous. But while Rachel and Quinn live every day steeped in cynicism, even they’re susceptible to the bullshit they create. Rachel has become so good at manipulating people that she manipulates herself into falling for the handsome, mercenary suitor. Quinn delights in sizing up and labeling each girl — whore, virgin, MILF — but when she lets her guard down she realizes she’s let herself get filed into the “long-suffering wifey” category. And the girls themselves, come hell or high drama and despite hard evidence of the falseness all around them, get sucked into the dream of — if not love, at least low-level fame. It’s astonishing.

But the real mind fuck, the genius trick the show pulls off, is working its magic on us. We are literally watching a television series about terrible people doing terrible things to others in the service of a terrible show we the viewers are supposed to scoff at — and yet UnREAL‘s showrunners manipulate us, through compelling television, into rooting for them. We root for Anna to win, we root for Quinn to be happy — hell, I even found myself rooting just a tiny bit for Rachel and Adam to end up on that beach together.

There’s a reason The Bachelor has run for 19 seasons, and it’s because we are inundated with these very specific fantasies of love and fulfillment, so constantly and so consistently, that they are impossible not to internalize. Even the most hardened cynic feels a prickle when listening to wedding vows; even the most avowedly anti-establishment badass would be touched by a proposal of undying love. “Will you marry me?” means will you join this club to which only I can grant you access? It means yes, I am willing to pledge myself to you legally, and thus you can be satisfied that the little question you always have, that question of am I good enough? am I desirable? has been answered, at least for now. I desire you, and thus you are desirable. And now that desire must manifest itself in bunting and china patterns and KitchenAid mixers that all, individually and collectively, must symbolize exactly who you are now that you’re attaching yourself to another person.

I’m not immune to this by any means. It’s all too easy to get me started on a tirade about the ickiness of the wedding industry, but I always cry at weddings and I secretly live for the Grand Romantic Gesture in movies. Thinking about someone proposing to me, about going through the steps of planning a wedding together…it feels thrilling and beautiful and, disturbingly, right. Disturbing because I have no idea how to separate what I want from what I am spoon-fed minute after hour after day. Like Rachel and like Quinn, I am seduced by the bullshit. I am told, “This is what you want,” and though I don’t want to want it, I do.

This isn’t to say that love doesn’t exist — even UnREAL has the glorious, albeit unconventional depiction of true love that is Quinn and Rachel. It’s just that in the fight against the tide of white satin and happily ever after, the deck is stacked so far against us that we can’t see the top. So even I, even the incredibly smart and deep-thinking women I work with, can’t help but give in.

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The F’d Up Beauty of Gone Girl (Book and Movie)

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.

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Maybe Nick Hornby was right

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.

Dedication Page: A Love Song

Lately I’ve been re-reading David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on my Metro rides, and mostly marveling, whether it’s late at night or I’m morning-cranky, at how beautiful and assured his prose is, how sly his wit, how intelligent his humor, how sneaky his emotional gut punches. I just finished the book in its entirety again last night, and on a whim flipped for the first time to the dedication page. It reads, in small italic font on an otherwise blank page: For Hugh. Hugh is Sedaris’s longtime partner, about whom he writes often and without shyness about their relationship and their respective roles in it. And seeing those words on the page, it struck me—how beautiful. How wonderful and bold a declaration that no matter how many squabbles he details within the pages of the book, how many fears he expresses that Hugh will leave him, for good, by the monkey cage at the zoo, here, in naked black and white type for a thousand or a million eyes to see, the declaration of not only his love but of their complicity in each other’s lives. Here I am, putting our private existence on display, shaped by an editor and my creative license as they may be; here I am, in the same breath, absolving and apologizing and pledging my devotion to you with these two words: For Hugh. For you.

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Reflections on the Johnny Arc from The OC Season 3

The Internet connection in my apartment is spotty at best, so when I was glued to the couch for two days during Sandy I started rewatching the one box set TV show I own: The OC. I skipped around, but I’m currently on season three, a.k.a. the season when Marissa goes to public school, meets a skinny, doe-eyed surfer named Johnny, and proceeds to completely ruin his life.

I forgot how tedious this plot line was, and also how ultimately sad. Marissa as a character always basically drove me crazy, but this was the season that really drove home how careless she was with people, even as she convinced herself she was being a selfless person. She knew Johnny for one semester of school—so maybe four or five months—and in the span of that time he lost his girlfriend, had his promising surfing career ruined when he got hit by a car, and then accidentally died while depressed and drunk on cheap tequila. Was all of that Marissa’s fault? Maybe not directly. But it’s hard not to think that he would have been better off never meeting her at all.

One of the more significant life lessons I learned is that sometimes people come into your life who are just not good for you. They take your time and your energy and your money if you’re really unlucky, they sap you of emotional strength, they attach themselves to you like human barnacles. And for whatever reason, it’s weirdly hard sometimes to realize just how bad they are for you. Maybe you feel sorry for them. Maybe you have a Mother Teresa complex and think you can “fix” them. Maybe they’re like my high school boyfriend, who was a jerk to everyone but nice to me, and I loved it because it made me feel special. Maybe they’re like my recent crush, whom I liked probably partly because he was practically bipolar in the way he acted toward me—sometimes he was the sweetest, and I felt like we had a real connection, and then he’d completely ignore me for weeks at a time.

I’ve known several people like that over the years. And for whatever reason, I let them be in my life for longer than I should have. Eventually I realized I had to cut ties, but not until I drove myself half nuts trying to deal with the drama. My old roommate, totally softhearted and a sucker for lost causes, recently went through something to that effect, but to a fairly extreme degree. I’m glad she finally realized what she needed to do. It’s never easy, and you might feel guilty—but at least you won’t end up falling off a cliff while blitzed on Cuervo, right?

Remember High School?

Yeah, I don’t miss it at all. Mine was big—my graduating class was 1,168—and it was split between grades, meaning I went to a different school for grades 9 and 10 than I did for grades 11 and 12. I had friends, I made okay grades, I did some extracurriculars and went to prom and all that jazz—but by the time college application season hit, I was practically foaming-at-the-mouth ready to go somewhere completely new, where I didn’t know a single person and could finally just be who I wanted to be.

And that’s exactly what I did.

The reason high school is on my mind tonight, when I normally try to block it out completely, is that I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a couple of friends. I’ve read that book at least four times and really love it, and the movie was, surprisingly, almost as good as the book—achingly poignant, beautifully filmed, surprisingly funny, and with a fantastic soundtrack (the credit of which, I nerdily noticed, goes to Alexandra Patsavas of The OC and Gossip Girl fame). While the story goes to some dark places, it had the odd effect of making me nostalgic for a high school experience I didn’t actually have. The main character, Charlie, goes from being a complete outcast to falling in with seemingly the only high school kids in existence who are absolutely sure of themselves, confident in their weirdness and completely un-shy about showing it. What’s more, all these kids have carved out their own little space in the social hierarchy of high school despite, perhaps, pretending to operate completely outside of it. What I wouldn’t have given to have had that faith in and knowledge of myself at that age. Hell, even now I struggle with it. But to be accepted completely and utterly for who you are even when the cracks begin to show—that is a wonderful thing.

Part of me (most of me) sees the movie as overly idealistic, a glossed-over and softly lit look back at a simpler time (nervous breakdowns and abuse aside). But part of me just clings to the feeling it evokes: that feeling that sometimes in life there are these perfect moments, these snapshots in time that come along unexpectedly but that change, even in subtle ways, how you see the world. And yes, someday they’ll just be stories you tell your kids—but remembering those moments is what reminds you why life is worth living.

This Is the Way the World Ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately. I don’t think I deal with them very well. I refused to watch the last episode of what was my favorite show for a long time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for YEARS because I didn’t want it to really be done. Once I watched the final episode, the mystery would be over. There’d be no more. The last chapter would be written. (For the record, I did the same thing with The OC.)

That’s easy enough to control. But real-life endings, sadly, are much harder to manage—and to predict. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, swirl into your life and rip it to pieces like an F5 tornado. And sometimes they sneak up on you, gradually and quietly, so that things the way you knew them are over before you even realize what’s happening. As someone who has, for my entire life, refused to do things until I’m absolutely sure I’m beyond ready, I find it totally disturbing and disorienting. And, more often than not, crushing.

But the older I get, the more I realize I can’t control everything. As terrifying as it might be to have to accept that sometimes my life will reorder itself without my consent or desire, it does nobody any good to agonize over what used to be. So I’m trying to teach myself to look at endings not as a door slamming shut in my face but rather an opportunity to head out into the hallway to check out all the other rooms I could visit. That’s a hackneyed metaphor, but you get my drift. Not that I want to be completely passive about the directions my life heads in. Another thing about getting older that’s not so bad is that I’m starting to learn more about myself and be comfortable with who I am. Lately I’ve been getting this feeling—randomly, fleetingly, but strongly—that there’s this core inside of me that’s solid and untouchable and completely mine. And no matter what city I live in or what job or relationship I have, that core is always going to be there. I am still going to be me. And I’m going to be okay.

And if the price for that knowledge is a few little wrinkles around my eyes, I will gladly pay it.

This Weekend

On Sunday, my college roommate and my other friend from college are screening the movie they made together, Not Waving but Drowning, in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s a big deal for my roomie because she’s from the Washington area—which means I got to interview her for the website. An excerpt of the interview is below; you can read the full thing (and see an adorable photo of them) here. I have such talented friends.

Tell me how the movie and your partnership first came about.

DW: The idea started my freshman year of college, when I was 19—kind of from that overwhelming feeling of being trapped and being anxious. I started writing the script after I moved to New York [after graduation]. I went through this long period of restlessness, and a lot of the characters came out of that. It was a year of writing and working on it, and it was definitely a lot of getting to know the characters. It’s kind of a collage; there were lots of little things I knew I wanted to include, so it’s more like a novel in that you spend some time with these people and in the end maybe you learn something, rather than setting things up in the first act. At times it felt urgent that I be working on it, and at times it became distant. Like the characters—they kind of wax and wane.

NE: We started working on this in 2008 or 2009, and I quit my job in April 2010 to work on it full-time. Devyn and I were both delusional and thought it would take us one year to make the movie—it’s been two years, so only twice as bad as we thought.

When did you decide to include the short, The Most Girl Part of You, at the beginning?

DW: That was something that came about while we were in beginnings of preproduction. I wasn’t super-happy with how Not Waving but Drowning began, and I’ve been a huge fan of Amy Hempel since I was in college. I was thinking about howGirl would make such a great short film, and as I was walking home listening to music and imagining it, I got excited about making it. I feel like not a lot of people see short films . . . I liked the idea of putting a short with a feature so people could see both, like it being a throwback to when you used to see a short film before a movie.

What’s the common thread between the two?

DW: I felt like adding this other story brought the whole thing to completion and made it feel more cyclical. I hate the term “coming of age,” but Girl is one transition, going from a kid to a girl, and Drowning is a second transition that I think happens at different ages for different people. [Girl] is about a child becoming a girl and having her first sexual experience. I think that transition is very obvious; we’re used to seeing that in film, and by setting that up it makes it more open to the fact that Drowning is another transition. So though these are different stories with different characters, it could have been one person. I think there are a lot of similarities between the relationships themselves, in the sense that they’re these symbiotic relationships. [InGirl], Amy relies on Big Guy to be the mouthpiece in their relationship, and then they lose each other, so there’s the idea of having to grow that other half that you relied on in the friendship. The more I analyzed it, the more I could find a lot of things that were really similar between the two.

PS: Because our Internet at home failed yesterday, this is a makeup post. I’ll be putting up two today!