Saturday, July 26, 2014

silly humans

1. a species of orthorexics

Yesterday morning a I read a New Yorker article about the Paleo lifestyle—while eating a big bowl of cereal, naturally—and for a second I contemplated trying it. But being a pseudo-vegan Paleo person would mean I could pretty much only eat avocados and things derived from coconuts. Not the worst sentence in the world, but still limiting.

Then the article—in its charming New Yorker wisdom—pointed out that Paleo, while healthy, is not really designed for a world with six billion people in it, because oats can feed more humans than mastodons can, and what is really appealing about this diet is the rules. Food rules exist in every culture and are at least as old as agriculture itself, meaning we’re hardwired to be hunter-gatherers, but also to be neurotics.

I was like, Touché, New Yorker.

Rise of the Planet of the Office Drones.
I could feel myself looking around for some food rules to jump start my sagging-if-still-mostly-healthy non-Paleo lifestyle. Coffee is my very favorite food with the possible exception of bread pudding, and it’s not really acceptable to order bread pudding with breakfast and take a quick bread pudding break in the middle of a work day. But, as with bread pudding, I think I need to cut back on coffee. It creates a mini bipolar cycle that revs me up for a while, then causes a dip that makes me feel like 1) I’m going to get more cancer and never have a baby, 2) I most certainly cannot write this grant report right now and/or 3) I’m too tired not to eat this bread pudding.

So, starting today, world, I’m going to save coffee for the following occasions:

1) writing
2) late night road trips
3) emergencies when I really need to have a better personality than I naturally do

I’m weaning off with black tea this morning, and this afternoon I hope to do some writing, so there’s an almond milk latte in my near future. How’s that for restraint?

2. gang activity

Speaking of the weird things civilization does, last night AK and I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which a virus-decimated tribe of humans camps out in San Francisco and a drug-strengthened tribe of super-apes builds beautiful tree houses in the East Bay.

I hope someone writes a dissertation on California class divisions/gentrification/racial fears as portrayed in DOTPOTA.

I could not get enough of this baby chimp.
But setting that aside, it’s ultimately a movie against tribalism, as both the human leader and Caesar, the ape leader, contemplate the definition of family. A lesser movie would have stuck with a human protagonist and let him have an awakening upon befriending a human-ish ape. This movie makes its point by having dual protagonists, beginning with the ape’s POV and not showing us a human until several scenes in. It’s probably telling that I can’t even remember the main human’s name right now.

Caesar and that guy.
Watching the movie, AK thought about Israel and Palestine. I thought about gangs. The movie has a very Father Greg-ish message, although it ends on a sad, this-war-is-too-big-for-us-to-stop note. It’s either acknowledging the reality of war (there is a point of no return) or the reality of being a prequel (we all know there will be a war), or the reality of Hollywood (war is more fun to film than peace).

As for the latter, though, part of what makes DOTPOTA great is that there is so much tension and so few battle scenes. The special effects are used more for nuanced facial expressions and eerily beautiful shots of apes swinging across the Golden Gate Bridge than for fight scenes. As I told AK, it’s the sort of screenplay I could never write, because it’s all story, minimal dialogue. Whereas my motto is, Why say in three words what you could say in seven hundred?

This blog post just reached 638.

Monday, July 21, 2014

life's a beach and then you die

I’ve never been addicted to any substances, unless you count food, in which case I’ve been in a shaky kind of recovery for thirteen years. But without belittling actual chemical dependence, I think I have an addictive personality. AK is the opposite—she can go to bed at a different time every night, and her only bad habits have more to do with a lack of good habits.

I, on the other hand, can practically feel my brain latch onto a thing—whether it’s a substance or a behavior or a thought—and go, Hey, this could be a good one! Let’s definitely eat ALL the potato chips. Let’s definitely Google ONE MORE DISEASE. The simultaneous feeling of surrender and control is intoxicating. Literally, if I understand how serotonin and dopamine work, which I quite possibly do not.

The past four years have been dramatic, and sometimes it takes me by surprise. Who me? The kid who lived in the same house for eighteen years and whose parents watched TV from exactly 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night? Other times I wonder if I’m addicted to having major tumult at three month intervals.

Maybe that’s just another way of trying to control the narrative—if I’m bringing the drama, I can stop it. If I’m to blame, I can save myself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I desperately want to stay cancer-free and adopt a kid or two and save the drama for the characters in the books I should be writing. On a day-to-day basis, I ascribe to Liz Lemon’s philosophy that the one universal human desire is to be left alone to eat a sandwich. I want my life to be calm so I can eat a sandwich.

God, I miss this show.
And yet if life is a big churning ocean, and I am a reluctant surfer—still bruised and shark-nibbled from learning how to stand up on my board—if this is the metaphor we’re working with…I have come to crave the waves. It’s not that I like them. But my body has learned how to go into a certain mode: core tensed, knees bent. And the body so easily mistakes the familiar for the good. That’s kind of what addiction is, at its heart. Sickening and exhilarating.

But there’s a more positive way to look at it too. Today my therapist reminded me that anxiety serves a purpose (he didn’t say what, but from an evolutionary standpoint, it probably has to do with staying away from bears). Mine goes haywire at times, and at other times I think I’ve conquered it. When I discover I haven’t, I get mad at myself. But I guess it’s not just pathology. It’s life.

Not a Beyonce kinda surfboard, you pervs.
At my last all-clear cancer check-up, in April, I thought: Awesome, now it’s time to get back into the thick of living before I start worrying about the next one. (Now that it’s July, I think I am already worrying a little bit.) My sense wasn’t so much that I had a smooth-sailing future, but that I needed to get back on my board and ride as many waves as I could.

It may not be totally irrelevant that despite growing up in a beach town, I’ve always been a crappy swimmer and afraid of the ocean. I’m an urban, inland kinda girl. But it’s like I’ve moved to the beach and there’s no turning back. I’ve acquired a taste for salt. But fuck, I hate how much sand is in my swimsuit.

Monday, July 07, 2014

power to the tail car

When I was in grad school we did some reading about the theory of the carnivalesque, which basically says that people in power let the peasants get a little crazy now and then to blow off steam and prevent a real revolution. Back in the day, that meant villages would host carnivals where the king would dress up as a commoner and commoners could parade around like kings. The next day they would return to their regularly scheduled program of oppression and plague.

Without going into spoiler-level detail, I think this is the idea behind Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong’s thriller about a train car loaded with the few survivors of a failed global warming fix that has left Earth frozen and uninhabitable. As you might imagine, things on the train are a little tense. Especially because the “tail car” passengers live in filth and poverty, while the folks at the front of the train spend their time going to raves and knitting in orange groves. The government mouthpiece for the train’s mysterious leader, Mr. Wilford, is a deliciously awkward Tilda Swinton. She assures them that everyone has a preordained place in the natural balance of things.

Pay no attention to our bloody visitors, children.
As you also might imagine, a scrappy group of the downtrodden decides to overthrow the one percent. Chris Evans is their predictably reluctant leader. When he mumbles his protestations, I wanted to join him—Octavia Spencer was standing nearby, and she seemed like a much more interesting choice. So are Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, father-daughter genius-outlaws (the story doesn’t waste their talent as much as it does Spencer’s).

I realize I’m making it sound like a silly movie, but it’s actually pretty great. Each car of the train is a visual design jewel. The tail car is very Jacob Riis, with its rags and bunk beds, while Mr. Wilford’s car is kind of Deco/Eames. In between there are the aforementioned orange groves, a creepy Wilford-worshipping classroom that made me think the movie was at least in part a North Korea allegory, and a sparkling walk-through aquarium. A lot of the movie feels like a nonsensical but vivid dream. A lot of it is stomach-turningly violent. I couldn’t quite decide if it was overkill, or necessary, or if I’m turning soft. I mean, how many limbs do you need to see hacked off to make a point? The world may never know.

Sure, she looks like an elementary school secretary, but she'll chop your arm off.
In addition to the carnivalesque reading and the North Korea reading, you can also look at the train as a traditional, linear plot. People move along it, each car connecting, but things get really interesting only when you bust out. It’s worth hanging in through the dreary/violent middle cars to get to the good stuff.

Friday, July 04, 2014

good books by two ‘mericans, a new zealander and an indian-british-‘merican

Happy 4th, y’all! What I have learned so far from my morning spent dodging the heat and internetting in bed is that “#merica”/“#murica” is a thing. Blink and you’ll miss a meme.

At the risk of being un-‘merican, one of my favorite books these past months was by a New Zealander. But don’t worry, I’ll eat some freedom fries to make up for it.

My May and June reading log: 

Cover of Wake. The book is as good as the cover.
Wake by Elizabeth Knox: One of the strangest and most human stories I've read in a while, this novel starts out like a zombie book (why are the residents of this New Zealand spa town gnawing each other's faces off??) and takes a turn for the existential. Elizabeth Knox is a genius at manipulating point of view, creating a story with a relaxed pace that is somehow also full of twists. The invisible monster wreaking havoc on the survivors of the initial massacre literally feeds off human misery, which is basically how evil works: hurt begets hurt, war begets war.

So what are a bunch of ordinary, peace-loving survivors to do? Bury the dead. Feed themselves. Care for each other. This is not, thankfully, a novel of heroes or even big heroic acts (though there are a couple). This is a novel in which the park ranger continues to look after her endangered birds, and the 14-year-old longs to return to his world of video games. The rules of Knox's world are somewhat ambiguous, but don't worry, things are *sort of* explained. Like all the books I love, Wake is about life, is about everything; and it does what it does with simple but sparkling language. Wake will stay with me a long time.

Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter: Great book! Long review here!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: I think I'm onto Gillian Flynn's formula: murder mystery + recent cultural history + cool abandoned places. I'm in. Dark Places is still my favorite, but Gone Girl ups the twists and turns in its portrait of a couple trying to outwit each other. It's sort of an examination of gender roles and coupledom and the media, but it doesn't have a lot that's profound to say on these topics. Still, I genuinely admire Flynn for her ambition--I can only imagine the number of 3" x 5" cards taped to her wall to plot this stuff, all while giving language and character the respect they deserve.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: One of the characters in this ensemble novel is the son of a folksinger whose big hit was a song called "The Wind Will Carry Us Apart." As one of the other characters points out, that lyric doesn't actually make any sense. And yet this story--which follows a group of artsy (if not always genuinely talented) summer camp friends over the course of decades--is essentially about how the wind (i.e., time) carries people apart and together in ways that don't always make much sense. In its own unflashy way, this is an experimental novel, butting up against the idea that fate is fated, or even the result of the choices we make. This is a novel where the guy with AIDS lives, and the healthy guy dies. Because life, if you live long enough, is full of surprises. I find that encouraging, especially on days when my doom seems laid out before me. It's not a perfect novel. Michael Cunningham and Zadie Smith and Lorrie Moore have done what Wolitzer does with more beautiful, sublime strokes. And I wasn't always sure what warranted a scene or why. But the characters became real to me, and interesting.