Saturday, May 31, 2008

No Men In Sight

The young go off in search of love and find only sex. The middle-aged, having found love, search for a way to still have sex. Your friends, though, are constant. As best I can tell that is the meaning of SATC, the movie. The action begins three years after the series ended, with all four of our heroines coupled-up. How they will or will not sustain coupled happiness is the plot that shakes the cosmopolitans.

I attended a crowded matinee screening. Out of the hundred or so in the audience, I believe two were men. Whether you liked or didn't like the series, whether you do or don't think the movie was necessary or is any good, what's clear is that these characters speak loudly to a large population of women, and in this case, in a theater in suburban Pennsylvania, to a large population of women whose lives don't resemble the lives depicted on-screen. The women in the audience applauded when the previews ended and the opening bars of the theme music blared. They yelled at the screen at various points in the film. They applauded again at the end. Maybe they'd all had one or five too many cosmos before going to the theater, but either way my critical opinion matters little in the face of such adoration.

Here's what I liked best about the series, and liked best about the film: the women are allowed to grow older. They struggle a bit at first, but ultimately accept and celebrate their own middle-age. The characters are pretty much exactly my age, and they act it. I'm incredibly glad that all involved understand that no one wants to watch a 43 year-old wandering around in a tu-tu. I'm incredibly glad that the movie's triumphal close was a celebration of Sam's 50th birthday. I'm incredibly glad that these women do get what they want sometimes, but not all the time, and that their journey has been to acceptance of that realistic fact.

Here's what I didn't like about the film: because it felt like two seasons of the TV show condensed into 2.5 hours, little room remained for the male characters to be anything other than plot devices. The film also felt too long. Maybe Michael Patrick King is just so used to the pacing of the half-hour show that he didn't know what to do with the feature length, but it definitely felt too long.

It can never be 1998 again; we've all moved on. Understand that, have a pink drink or two, and you'll be happy to be reunited with Carrie and company.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex (Yay!) and the (Yay!) City (Yay!)

During its first two seasons, I wasn't a fan. It felt too frivolous, too out of touch with the reality of my life in NYC. I lived in the East Village during the entirety of the show's six-year run, and by season 3 I was a fan. After 9/11, the show became more and more serious, more and more mature, making the transition from New Economy youthful exuberance to a meditation on how to retain the romantic yearnings of youth as you, and your culture, age and change.

So yes, I've been looking forward to the movie and no, I didn't go see the showing at 12:01 this morning. I am going this afternoon, though, and after the film and a pink drink or two I'll come back and post my thoughts. Well, let me clarify: sometime before Monday I'll come back and post my thoughts. Because one never knows in advance how many pink drinks one might consume.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Next Time, We'll Talk About Religion

About once a week I have breakfast at my local neighborhood place where all the regulars spend each morning reading the paper and discussing local politics. It can get loud, and I tend to prefer peace at 7 in the morning, but it's nonetheless an occasionally fun way to start the day. This morning's conversation veered away from the local, and I spent almost an hour engaged in what I'll call a dialogue (it was really more of an argument) about judicial power. Specifically: do judges legislate from the bench?

The point of departure was the judicial decision in California to override the referendum passed by voters that outlawed gay marriage. My friend said that this was an instance of misuse of judicial powers and was in effect "legislating from the bench." I said that he only felt this way because he disagreed with the decision. The judiciary interprets the law. When we agree with the interpretation at hand, justice has been served. When we disagree, we feel that power is being abused and say things like, "That's just legislating from the bench."

I've been reading Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's engrossing account of the fracturing apart of the Democratic Party during the 1960s and the rise to power not only of Nixon, but of cultural conservatism and the Republican right. I pointed out that the very notion of judicial abuse of power was invented by Nixon's advisers as a way of turning legal and constitutional issues into moral issues. Civil rights? I'm for them, but not for legislating from the bench. Affirmative action? Good thing, but the people, not the courts, need to make these decisions. Abortion? Agree the Constitution says it's illegal or else you're legislating from the bench.

His counterargument is that courts should not be able to overturn the will of the people. If a referendum is passed, the voters want it, and it therefore must be upheld. I said that referendums must adhere to state and federal law, that courts are only ruling on points of law, not points of legislature. And around we went.

So, having spent the better part of a week immersed in the history of "positive polarization" and the conflation of the legal and the moral, I ask: am I crazy?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I Was So Much Older Then, I'm Younger Than That Now

I managed to make the holiday weekend last five days, but I'm back to my life. It's been a relatively cool and soggy spring, so the recent summer-like weather caused me to spend every minute I wasn't working in my yard or moving my office lying on my porch, watching what I now know are orioles, thrushes, blue jays, blue birds, hummingbirds, and cardinals flitter around. And also to quickly consume a couple of books.

When I was 14 I read and loved Sara Davidson's Loose Change. I'm not sure why, but I was fascinated with the 60s. I'm still not sure why, but I still am. The best thing to come of it was my discovery of Joan Didion, but that's another story. In 1977 I wanted to be a writer, go to Columbia Journalism School, write for the New York Times. I may have loved the book in part because Davidson went to CJS. I may have loved it because it told a story that took place nearly entirely within my short lifetime, although I was too young to have been a part of that story. I may have loved it because it is a piece of creative nonfiction, and although I didn't know such a genre existed such works were my favorite things to read.

I was disappointed to find that I didn't love the book this time out. In my current state of mind, sometimes I really enjoy memoirs and sometimes I just find them self-serving, solipsistic. Sometimes I want to shake the author and scream, "What makes you think you're so different?" This was my reaction to Davidson.

If you've never read the book (although the jacket claims that "over a million" copies have been sold, so maybe you have read it), Davidson describes the journeys taken by her and two of her sorority sisters from Berkeley from 1961 until the mid-1970s. She switches among points of view, weaving together three memoirs in one. "Tasha" moves to New York, becomes a gallerist, gets involved with a much older man. "Susie" marries an SDS leader, has a child, leaves her husband, becomes a nomadic hippie for a while, decides to become a doctor. Sara becomes a journalist, marries poorly, travels around the country writing about the changing times.

It's all very interesting, certainly, in a time-capsule kind of way. Davidson's thesis, though, seems to be that these women, and the 60s themselves, have somehow failed. The world hasn't been changed, and everyone's moved inward. After all the struggle for freedom the ending is newfangled domesticity; after all the moves toward feminism these women continue to define themselves through their relationships with men. After all the protests everyone has gone home to roost, in other words. It was this aspect of the book that made me want to shake Davidson.

You don't have to come of age in the middle of the Free Speech Movement to be full of youthful energy and ideas. Plenty of us graduated college feeling we could make a difference, take on the world. Plenty of us woke up to find ourselves 35 and settled into a life very different than the one we imagined as 21 year-olds. Plenty of us then feel disaffected and disconnected from our youth and need to look back and evaluate. For anyone prone to self-examination the discovery that we aren't special but normal is itself normal rather than special. We get over it and move on.

The book's subtitle is "Three Women of the 1960s," but ultimately the book felt much more like the story of three women of the 1970s, reconciling their young adulthoods with the settled adulthoods of their present. I finished Loose Change wishing Davidson had revisited these women and her own past ten or twenty years later, not only to finish telling the stories of their lives but also to finish telling the stories of their acceptance of their lives. Because Sara Davidson, here's a secret: you did change the culture. The America in which I came of age was very different, and those differences are attributable to your generation's agitation for change. You just didn't know that yet, when you were 35.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What I Didn't Watch

I was one of the five Americans who didn't watch the American Idol finale last night. I've never seen one episode of the show. I don't have any good reason to not watch it; I just don't. Sitting in a restaurant last night surrounded by people glued to the television above the bar while I focused obliviously on some really good pizza made me think about all the television I haven't watched. I didn't have a TV for most of the 1980s, so there's a good lot of it.

I've never seen a single episode of St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues, for example. Never watched Cheers, Family Ties, any of that stuff. Name a show that was popular in the 80s and I haven't seen it. While I'm admitting things I may as well confess that I also didn't watch Seinfeld; I thought it was horribly misogynistic and participated in a one-woman boycott. I've never seen even one episode of Murder, She Wrote. I recall nearly my entire college gathering to watch The Thorn Birds together in various commons rooms (yes, I'm so old that no one brought their own TVs to college) but I must have read a book instead.

I never saw any of the nighttime soaps - no Dallas, no Dynasty, no Falcon Crest. In the 1990s, once I had a TV, I did partake of their spawn: I'm talking about you, Melrose Place. Still, I managed to miss an entire generation of television. I don't regret it, but it's odd. My cultural memory jumps from early SNL straight to Party of Five with pretty much noting in between.

What did I do without a TV? I read, wrote a dissertation, worked, listened to music. I met friends for drinks or for dinner. I sat enjoying really good pizza marveling as everyone around me guffawed at The Cosby Show. I lived. I left the restaurant last night just before Idol's winner was announced. I have no idea who won, but here I am, still alive.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why I Don't Have Children

When I was 15 I went on a diet. I think I'd lost something like 20 pounds before my mother noticed. She didn't notice that I was thinner; she noticed that I was eating more fruit and that she therefore had to buy more fruit. This has become a story I've told over and over again about how self-centered my mother was.

About a month ago I noticed that my cat was looking a little thin. He's also been acting crazy for food, begging around his bowl all day, bolting the food once I give it to him. I just figured he was getting thin because he's getting older, and frankly he's always been a pig and crazed for food. I took him to the vet the other day for his annual exam and found that he'd lost three pounds in the past year. It doesn't sound like much, but he only weighed 14.5 pounds to begin with.

Naturally the vet was alarmed. Any changes in his stool? No. Increased vomiting? No. Any change in diet or amount I feed him? No. A couple hundred dollars of tests ensued. Everything came back completely normal - blood sugar, liver, kidney, pancreatic function, thyroid, all normal. As far as she could tell, there is no medical problem.

I must be inadvertently starving my cat. I'm going to feed him more for a month and take him in and see if he's gained weight. If he gains some weight, the diagnosis will be human-induced starvation. Who starves their own cat and doesn't notice? I may have to switch vets due to embarrassment.

So, the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree. I've learned not only that my cat needs more food, but also that I ultimately am my mother's daughter.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Foundation Myths

I'm a sucker for pop history, so I always greatly anticipate Tony Horwitz' books. His most recent, A Voyage Long and Strange, doesn't disappoint. A visit to Plymouth Rock leads Horwitz to contemplate the 130 years or so of exploration and colonization of the new world that took place between Columbus and the Pilgrims, and to wonder why most of us know so little about it. Horwitz retraces the steps of Coronodo, De Soto, and John Smith, a voyage of discovery of our nation's founding myths, and the ways these myths have, over the centuries, become received as "fact."

Ponce de Leon wasn't looking for a Fountain of Youth; not even the Spanish were that gullible, although they were plenty gullible, spending years and expending men and fortunes schlepping all over the heartland looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. Sir Walter Raleigh never once set foot in Virginia, although his years of flirting with Elizabeth I had netted him title to pretty much the entire east coast. Roanoke's lost colonists weren't lost so much as abandoned; their leader returned to England to get fresh supplies and manpower, but because he hitched rides on ships more interested in piracy than colonization, and because of the war with Spain that culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, it took him five years to return to the colony. At that point the colony had been abandoned, the settlers either massacred by or living with the natives.

Pocahontas may or may not have saved John Smith's life. Natives often put captives through a ritual where their life would be threatened, then dramatically saved, before adopting the captives into their tribe. Plus, Smith was a known exaggerator, Pocahontas was only ten at the time, and a similar story of near execution had been earlier been published by a Spanish conquistador. Pocahontas married John Rolfe, not John Smith. She returned to England with him, had children, enjoyed life in Tudor London. She fell ill and died a few days after they boarded a ship to return to Virginia; she's buried somewhere in Gravesend, England.

The Pilgrims didn't land on Plymouth Rock, which makes sense if you think about it for only a millisecond: who steers a wooden ship towards a rock? They weren't even called "Pilgrims" until the 19th century. Squanto and friends might have shown up to share a harvest meal with the Pilgrims, but this wouldn't have been the first Thanksgiving; that would have taken place almost a hundred years earlier, between the Spanish and the Plains Indians.

At any rate, Thanksgiving wasn't a national holiday until the Civil War, when Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November, 1863 as a day of Thanksgiving to recognize the sacrifices made for the Union. Lincoln didn't mention turkey or Pilgrims, and neither did FDR, when he moved the holiday back a week in 1939 at the urging of merchants eager to lengthen the Christmas shopping season.

There's plenty more to be learned from Horwitz' book, which I heartily recommend. I want to particularly thank him for teaching me something I've wondered during every drive through Rhode Island on my way to Provincetown: it's landlocked, so why is it called Rhode Island? Turns out Verrazzano thought the mainland was in fact Block Island. The terrain reminded him of the Greek island Rhodes. His name stuck although it was probably a good PR move in the way that Greenland was so named in the hopes of attracting settlers. Because really, would you move to Rhodeland, or Rhodia? I didn't think so.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Little Something to Evelyn Wood

I've been thinking. I haven't been posting because I haven't been home much this week, but I've been thinking nonetheless. On occasion, individuals become so associated with an activity or set of actions that their name can become shorthand for that activity. This happened on the corporate level when "Xeroxing" became synonymous with photocopying. I've come up with some shorthands that I think should enter the popular lexicon; feel free to add your own to this list.

Bukowski: to become so inebriated that you cease functioning. "I Bukowskied last night and woke up this morning wearing someone else's underwear."

Hillary: to stay in a competition well beyond the point at which the competition is over. "The fact that my ex is remarrying doesn't mean that he isn't still in love with me. When he finds out how much I've Hillaried over him, he'll come back to me."

Lohan: to morph from pert post-adolescent to scary party animal seemingly overnight. "Suzy was a straight-A student until she Lohaned."

W: to have a complete inability to recognize the mess you're making of pretty much everything. "I really did a W when I took out that fourth mortgage so I could lease an SUV."

Spitzer: to profess something publicly while doing the opposite privately. "My neighbor says she's a vegan but I've seen the McDonald's bags in her trash. Spitzer!"

Michael Jackson: someone who repeatedly has plastic surgery while pretending to not have had any work done at all. "Jennifer told me she spent last month at the shore. What a Michael Jackson."

Day Lewis: to not only make a scene in pubic, but to spit while doing so. "Bob was so Bukowskied last night he Day Lewised until he was thrown out of the bar."

Henin: the opposite of Hillarying - to quit or retire while you're ahead so that you can claim to have never lost. "This list has been fun to make, so I'm calling a Henin."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

All the Way With LBJ

Between now and the November election, PBS is airing seven of the documentaries in the American Experience Presidents Series. So far, biographies of Bush I and FDR have aired; still to come are Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. The documentary series as a whole also includes some of our 19th and earlier 20th-century Presidents, although this airing covers only those who held office between 1932 and 1992. Ranking the Presidents is a fun parlor game. Who's better, Lincoln or FDR? Who was the worst, Hoover, Buchanan, or Harding? What criteria do you use in making your decision? Google "worst US Presidents," and you'll get one set of lists by conservatives that prominently include Lyndon Johnson and Carter, another set of lists by liberals that prominently include Harding and Bush II.

I'm not sure who was the best or the worst President. In fact, I'm not sure what some of our Presidents did or did not accomplish. What were Benjamin Harrison's achievements? Who knows. I seem to recall something about tariffs, but nothing specific comes to mind. Even though I'm willing to let questions of greatness and incompetence lie in the hands of Presidential historians, I do have a favorite President, one I can't stop reading about, one I will go out of my way to talk about, one that I love better than all the others. That would be Lyndon Johnson.

In Johnson's story, I see the story of the 1960s. He came to prominence through nasty partisan backdoor politics. He was an old skool Southern Democrat, bringing home the pork, handing out the spoils, keeping everything and everyone segregated. He stood for the past of the Democratic party, for the agrarian South, for the good old boys. He hated the Kennedys but became Kennedy's Vice President. And when Kennedy was assassinated, he ended up presiding over the 60s.

He signed into law the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. He declared a war on poverty. He initiated Head Start and other social programs for the underprivileged. It was his liberalism that led to the undoing of the Democratic party and the rise of the Republican right. You can make the argument that he created Nixon and Reagan, that without Johnson's domestic policy combined with the social upheavals of the times conservatism as we know it wouldn't have come into existence.

He was undone by a war he didn't start, but that he felt compelled to finish. Vietnam undid the country, and it undid his administration. He listened to McNamara, he escalated the conflict because he was afraid to withdraw, he became reviled by the very left whose ideas of social equality he did so much to support. When he left office he withdrew to his ranch in Texas, grew a beard and long hair, hung out with his beagles. He became a hippie.

Johnson's saga is Shakespearean, filled with the unraveling of grand ambitions and the sorrows of loss and growing old. And ultimately poor Johnson was outshined even in terms of the greatness of his collapse. His successor is the President normally associated with tragedy, both Greek and Shakespearean. I can enjoy the story of Nixon's hubris and fall, but I can't love him. LBJ gets all my love.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Tribe Has Spoken

I've watched Survivor for each of its 16 seasons not because it's always good or entertaining but because I find it fascinating to see how people behave when put into a situation where they need to play a social game while starving. Social games are hard enough when played in the real world, fueled by pizza and cheese doodles. How well would I be able to influence people if I spent 39 days in a bikini, drenched by rain at least once a day, subsisting on clams and coconuts? I probably won't ever have the opportunity to answer that question based on experience, so I answer it vicariously by watching the show.

Last night's finale was unique in that each of the four remaining contestants had played a very good game. None of them was a goat, dragged along to the finals as dead weight who can't possibly win. I have no doubt that Parvarti, the winner, is a bitch in real life, but I have to give her props for her ability to lie, backstab, flirt, look good in a bikini, and persuade her victims to give her the win, all while consuming probably around 500 calories a day.

I often watch Survivor jealous that our lives can't function on this simple level. Don't like your boss? Convince an alliance of coworkers to vote him or her out of the office. Want to teach your rival a lesson? Send him or her over to Exile Island for a couple of days and plot against him or her the whole time. If life were like Survivor we could work our way through all our anger and resentments immediately and openly, simply by persuading others to share those resentments and act on them. We'd also all be thin, and look good in bikinis.

Of course, life isn't a game and doesn't feature a million-dollar prize at the end. Life isn't edited to fit into a 13-week season. Even so, I woke up this morning wishing I could go to tribal council tonight and vote someone off my island.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Word of the Weekend

The following was contained in a chain email that was forwarded to me. I think this word may be what I was looking for to describe the story of my life:

Christopher Foyle, British owner of Foyle's Bookshops, has
recently published Foyle's Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual
Words. In it he defines arcane English words currently dropped
or seldom used. Among them "Dentiloquy" (speaking through
clenched teeth) and "Latrability" (the ability to bark). One in particular needs to be returned to mainline usage:

"Kalopsia" is the condition in which things appear more
beautiful than they really are. It's like where girls (and
boys) in bars, for example, tend to look more attractive nearer
to closing time. For example: "At 1 AM the bar was high on

Sound familiar?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Birds of Hillside Avenue

My yard's ecosystem causes a chain reaction at first light each day, which was around 5 this morning. Birds start chirping, which awakens my cat, who begins purring and batting at me, which awakens my dog, who begins leaping over me to play with the cat, which makes further sleep an impossibility, at least until I get out of bed, let the dog out, and feed them both. The birds chirp through all of this, oblivious.

This is my first spring living in a house in a semi-wooded area. I've got a lot of trees here, so also a lot of birds, deer, insects, chipmunks, squirrels (even an albino squirrel), weeds, you name it. Just a lot of nature. I'm much more used to pavement. Birds are, of course, everywhere, it just feels like my yard is their ground zero. I started noticing them a month ago, with the arrival of cardinals. Here's how much I know about birds: cardinals are the only species I can tell by sight. I borrowed a bird book from a neighbor, but by the time I begin flipping through it looking for a picture the bird I'm trying to identify is gone, so I'm not even sure how many species I've got hanging out here, awakening the household each morning.

This morning featured a deafening symphony or riot, depending on your point of view, which lasted for approximately an hour, at which point it began to rain and everything quieted down. This led me to wonder two things: why do birds chirp at dawn but not all day long, or at sunset? And what do birds to when it rains?

The answer to the first question follows common sense, something I wouldn't have attributed to birds. Obviously they don't sing at night because it's dark and they don't want predators to know where they are and attack when they can't see. They chirp at dawn to let their enemies know that they've survived the night and still retain their territory, and to let their friends know that they're available for some afternoon delight. By mid-day they're busy with other things, like nesting and feeding, which are solitary pursuits. Then they go to sleep, obviously much earlier than I and obviously needing much less rest than I, otherwise they wouldn't be awake at 5 AM.

When it rains, birds hide under branches and leaves, but even if there's no cover they're ok, because their feathers are water-resistant. All they have to do is shake and the water is gone. They can fly in the rain because they have a special membrane that repels water, a sort of natural pair of goggles.

So there you have it - all the question you didn't have about birds in the first place conveniently answered for you. I'm still left with the problem of being awakened in the middle of the night, though. A crazy cat person's posse would seem to be the only solution.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Crazy Cat People

During my senior year in college I lived across the street from a small faculty apartment duplex. One of those apartments was occupied by a Spanish professor who was in Spain, on sabbatical, that year. My room was in an old inn and so was large, with two closets, a private bathroom, and a private parking lot. I was in heaven. About a month into the fall semester I began to be awakened regularly to the sounds of cats fighting and mating. I don't mean a cat or two, I mean lots of cats, going at it all night. It took about a week, but I figured out the problem: the Spanish professor had left her bathroom window open, filled her bathtub with cat food, and left her place in the care of a campus-full of feral cats.

I had moved across the street from a crazy cat lady.

Crazy cat ladies appear to be a staple of every community. Crazy cat men must exist somewhere out there, but I've never seen or heard of one. The hoarding of cats appears to be an activity that skews female, as does the hoarding of animals in general. From what I can tell the affliction begins with the feeding of feral cats, progresses to a plethora of cats in the house, and goes on from there. Cats are but a gateway drug; the hoarding of cats often leads to the hoarding of dogs as well, and on from there to farm animals.

Someone I knew back in high school has become a crazy cat lady. She discovered a stray cat in her suburban back yard and began feeding it. Of course, in short order her yard was filled every night with around 30 cats, looking for food. She thought it was cute. Her neighbors disagreed. She finally trapped and released all the cats, but remains the neighborhood pariah.

The first municipal election that I followed, back in 1995, culminated in the Board of Health's condemnation of the Democratic mayoral candidate's house. The house was filled with over 50 cats, cat food, cat urine, cat feces. Yes, she lost the election, although I thought she should have embraced her weirdness and campaigned on the "Crazy Cat Lady for Mayor" platform. You never know, it might have helped.

I take my dog to run in a park every day, but for several months this spring I was unable to use the one park where he can run leash-free because a crazy cat couple had decided to leave bedding and food for a feral cat. Naturally that cat soon turned into several cats, which led to the appearance of more food and bedding. The end result wasn't just going to be an entire feral colony, but was also the fact that my dog wouldn't run but would instead eat the cat food, search for cat feces, and roll around in the cat bedding. Park officials threw away the cat stuff three times before the crazy cat couple finally gave up.

In short, crazy cat people are everywhere. It could be that it's something that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be released. Plenty of us do hoard, if not cats then books, papers, figurines, photographs, whatever it is we stock away and call a "collection." What made me think of all this, on a fine spring day? I went through my basement yesterday looking for my pruning shears, and realized that I have boxes down there that I haven't opened in years. I don't even know what's in them, I'm just saving them. So, if you see me buying an inordinate amount of cat food, please slap me. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Brain on Wellbutrin

For the past month, I've found it increasingly difficult to get out of bed. I've also had difficulty focusing on tasks; something as minor as sending out an email sometimes paralyzes me. I was bitten by a deer tick around a month ago and thought maybe I was coming down with lyme disease, then as time went on I began thinking maybe I'd just become depressed, although I've never had this sort of depression before.

My mood started changing for no apparent reason. I'd suddenly be anxious, suddenly become hostile, then suddenly feel incredibly happy. I couldn't control these mood swings any more than I could feel like getting out of bed in the morning. Last week I finally realized what was causing this. About six weeks ago I began taking Wellbutrin to help me stop smoking, and what I was experiencing was my brain on Wellbutrin.

I tried Wellbutrin a little over a year ago, and in the month I took it my only side effect was insomnia. In fact, the insomnia was the reason I stopped. When I decided to take it again, I figured I'd have some trouble sleeping for a month or two, but that was a small price to pay for the health benefits of becoming smoke-free. When, after a couple of weeks, I didn't experience sleeplessness, I just thought I was lucky and side-effect free. When I started feeling exhausted I attributed it to the tick bite, figuring it was early lyme that just didn't show up in the blood test, and that when I go back to the doctor next week I'd test positive.

I've never before felt helpless in the face of my own emotions. When I read Darkness Visible years ago I thought, "How awful. I can't imagine something coming upon you like that." Unfortunately, I now can imagine what Styron went through. Each day I became a little more tired, each day became a little bit harder on me. Then last week I found myself at the grocery store suddenly incredibly anxious: I'd been out of the house for two hours. I needed more than anything to get home, to get into bed, to get myself away from my own life. That's when I read up on all Wellbutrin's possible side effects, and decided it was time to stop taking my daily dose.

Some good has come out of this. I've greatly reduced my nicotine intake. Despite my lethargy I've lost a bit of weight. If I weren't depressed I'd probably feel great. Hopefully I'll be back to my old self in about a week, when the medication has worked its way out of my blood. In the meantime I've learned two lessons. First, rely on willpower if at all possible and avoid medications you don't need. Second, be glad it wasn't Chantix.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reality Bytes

Awake and bored in the middle of the night, I flipped through channels to find something to put me to sleep. Rather than doing the smart thing, which would be to watch whatever was playing on one of the Discovery channels, I allowed myself to be sucked into the season premier of whatever iteration of The Real World we've reached. Seriously, what is this, Season 358? I haven't watched this show since the first Clinton administration and was sucked in because I couldn't believe how much it's changed since its 1992 debut.

This version takes place in Hollywood, and here's a brief recap of the first episode: seven telegenic strangers, most of whom are still in or just out of college, arrive at a literal television set on a backlot (the "house" is an old CBS studio), put their bags down, and begin drinking. They put on bathing suits, check out the hot tub, keep drinking. They decide to go out clubbing, drink some more, and try to negotiate who in the house will hook up with whom. We end with promos: this season of The Real World will feature drunken fights, drunken arguments, drunken sex, drunken outbursts, drunken negotiations.

When the first season aired I was 28, and I watched the show with interest. The inaugural cast was comprised mainly of people in their mid-20s, so even though I was a couple of years older I felt as if I was watching a story about my peers. My recollection of that first season didn't include one drunken antic after another, and I became interested in watching the pilot episode to see how things have changed. As it turns out you can find all of Season One on YouTube, and it's eye-opening.

The pilot focuses on Julie, who leaves a sheltered existence in Alabama to come to NYC to pursue dance. Her six roommates not only already live in New York, but all have established the beginnings of their careers. They have agreed to live in the loft together and be filmed in part as an experiment. The show unfolds not as crude entertainment but as a documentary: what are the hopes and dreams and expectations of these newly-minted adults? Will Julie survive not only in the big city but in a loft filled with roommates who are older, opinionated, incredibly different from all that she has known?

The roommates arrive at the loft and sit in a circle to get to know each other. This process involves a lengthy discussion of race and class, of the cultures in which they were raised versus the cultures in which they are living their adult lives. No one is drinking anything stronger than water. When someone's beeper goes off, Julie inadvertently offends the black roommates by making a joke about drug dealers and beepers. This doesn't lead to a drunken blow-up, not on this episode anyway, but instead to a consideration of her naivety.

Because everyone but Julie already lives in New York, they all have lives outside the loft, which means that during the season we will see them living their lives apart from each other. Cast members now come from all over the country, with no connection to the city in which filming takes place, meaning that no one knows anyone outside the house. No one has a job, no one has a career. In this episode Becky has a gig singing at some nightclub, and we see her rehearsing, and then the roommates go to the gig to support her. No alcohol, no fights, no hook-ups. The whole thing is much closer to An American Family than Girls Gone Wild. What happened to make the entire premise so different?

Perhaps the changes are due to the fact that sometime in the mid-90s The Real World became a franchise, a show in constant production and in constant rotation on MTV. A portrait of how 20-somethings live "now" loses its meaning when the "now" is constant. Plus, all those serious discussions about race and class and aspiration would get boring. Ratings were undoubtedly served by offering up a rotating cast of pretty 22 year-olds with nothing else to do but get drunk with each other. To accomplish drunken antics it's best to cast types rather than interesting individuals: throw together one ex-jock, one black dude, one innocent, one girl with emotional issues, one gay guy, one total bitch, and one random other person selected for no good reason, give them nothing to do but be together, and you're guaranteed the antics you need.

In 1992, living ones life in public meant something different than it means today. The absence of the internet meant the absence of YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, all those cheap and easy "social networking" opportunities. At heart, social networking really means creating and presenting an identity to the world, making your life in a sense public. The web allows the continuous representation of creative, social, and cultural identities, both factual and fictitious. We are now our own documentarians.

We can play a role on a networking site, we can create an identity on a blog, we can go to chat rooms and find others who are just like us, or just like who we wish we were. Those who learn to play with and construct identities at an early age find it easy to take the next step, to not only be "the girl with emotional issues," but to also play one on tv.

We really are a long way from 1992.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Today's Weather

"They" were convinced it would be raining right now, so convinced that the homepage of my local paper's website not two minutes ago stated that it's currently "Rain/47 degrees F." A simple look out the window indicates nearly full sun. A simple walk onto my back porch indicates a temperature in the mid-50s.

I haven't even finished my coffee and have already learned today's lesson. When you wake up in the morning knowing that sun will shine and birds will chirp you think nothing of it. When you wake up in the morning ready for gloom and instead find sun shining, birds chirping, trees pollenating, and flowers budding, the day feels as if it's been given to you for free.