Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Naughty Aughts

Here we are once again at the end of a decade, or at least everyone thinks it's the end of another decade. I'm of a mind that when you count out 10 of anything the tenth thing is part of the whole, which means that the decade would be 2001 through 2010, but I lost that battle at the turn of the millennium. So, the end of another decade. Naturally everyone's wondering what to call the decade about to be past. We had the swinging 60s, the go-go 80s, and so on. What were the past 10 years?

Some people are calling them the Aughts, but I find that awkward and not at all catchy. It's also not descriptive, and when naming a decade one wants at least to be descriptive. In that sense, there's really only one word that encapsulates our collective experience, only one word that will do to remind everyone what we have to show for the early years of this century. What we have to show for these years is nothing, and it's therefore only appropriate that this decade be known as the Naughts.

Let's look at our economy. We began the Naughts at the end of the tech bubble, then saw growth, then a small recession, then a huge bubble based on bad paper, then a crash. We end the decade with the stock market right about where it was in 2000, with nothing in terms of wealth accumulation to show for it all. Naught. Real estate values soared, then crashed, leaving property values either maybe where they were in 2003. Naught to show for everything, except perhaps for way too much debt. Unemployment? The job market is worse than it's been all century, so nothing doing there.

We were attacked and launched a war on terror, and for that we have gained absolutely nothing while losing thousands of lives. Billions spent in Iraq, nothing to show for it, treading water in Afghanistan, nothing to show for it. Our status abroad is no better than it was a decade ago, so we also have nothing to show for what has passed for diplomacy until recently. We've got the exact opposite of peace in the Middle East, no resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict that Clinton tried so hard to resolve before leaving office ten years ago.

Every year fewer and fewer things are manufactured in this country, but the glorious information age where everyone works at home creating ideas and even more information has morphed into everyone sitting at home looking for work while they take quizzes on Facebook. Technology has given more of us broadband and large screens on which to watch HDTV, but not much else. The delivery of information has morphed from the page to the screen, but the quality of that information hasn't increased. We've got naught to show for all our technological advances.

All in all, we have one thing and one thing only to show for the past decade of our lives, and that is the fact that we're all 10 years older. Sure, we've got silicon and Botox and collagen in abundance, for those of us with the inclination and financial resources to attempt to erase the recent past, but again that would just be making physical what is intellectually and emotionally true. At the end, we're left with nothing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Telling, and Telling, and Telling

When Augustine of Hippo was beatified he was not yet known as the father of the memoir. His contributions to the modern Church led to his sainthood, while his decision to title his book about his early life Confessions has led to our present-day glut of tell-all non-fiction. Because of St. Augustine, the generic requirements of the memoir are a descent into chaos or dissolution followed by an epiphany that leads to life being turned around and righted. Sometimes the protagonist triumphs over adversity, sometimes over his or her own self-created demons. Either way, the progression is time and again toward a happy ending.

What to do, though, if one is a serial memoirist? How many conversions can one have in one's life, after all? Augusten Burroughs solves this problem by going over the same material over and over again, hacking away at it from slightly different angles. So does Mary Knarr. Elizabeth Wurtzel solves the dilemma by developing various addictions and psychological problems. Another option is to come up with a gimmick and then write about the ways that gimmick changed one's life: have zero environmental impact for a year and write about it, live strictly according to the Bible for a year and write about it, etc.

Once upon a time, a woman droned in a cubicle in lower Manhattan feeling bored and adrift. She like to cook, though, and had heard of this new thing called blogging, so she decided to spend a year cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about it, and about her life. The end result was first a popular blog, then an entertaining book, then a movie starring Merryl Streep, and finally a book contract for more memoirs. Cleaving, Julia Powell's new work, is the result of the new career engendered by the success of her blogging experiment.

It's a book about butchering, both literally and metaphorically. Having completely butchered her marriage by entering into an obsessive affair, Powell decides to hide from the complications of her life, and perhaps work out some aggression, by apprenticing as a butcher in a Catskills meat shop. The book describes her years of butchery with intense honesty, not only about the feel and smell of meat and the techniques involved in preparing it for the grill or oven or pan, but also about her sexual proclivities and indiscretions. Confessions, indeed.

Julie and Julia was an entertaining read because of its breezy insouciance, because of Powell's ability to at once take her task seriously and with a grain (or pinch) of salt. Cleaving, on the other hand, is full of high seriousness. Meat cleaves to bone as we sometimes cleave to one another, and the only solution is to become expert at wielding a cleaver, breaking down carcasses and breaking our own and each others hearts. Relationships, marriages, are hard, no matter how much we love and are committed to each other. This is old news. Infidelity makes things harder, and can be something we learn from that brings us closer or can be something that tears us apart.

Powell is great at describing her obsession with her lover, her need for him, and at the same time her love for her husband. She is great at describing the pain this causes everyone involved. She is great at chroniciling the fevered time of chaos and loss. She's not so great at resolution, perhaps because her career as a serial memoirist requires a sequel, maybe a year spent at a processing plant to help her, you know, process. We end this installment with her still with her husband, but with her still pining for her lover, and with her husband still seeing the woman he began seeing while she was cheating on him. She claims a certain amount of happiness, but maybe it's just resignation.

In other words, Cleaving feels incomplete. It captures the descent, but not the phoenix-like rise from the ashes. It reads like a confession told not because the events led to a new understanding, but simply from a desire to confess. Although the experience of writing the book was undoubtedly cathartic for Powell, there isn't much in it for anyone else. Except, of course, some recipes, and a new understanding of why tenderloin is overpriced.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to Feel Good About Yourself in One Easy Step

There are many reasons to watch TV: to be numbed, to be entertained, to simply avoid boredom. Occasionally, television can even make us feel good about ourselves, particularly reality TV. The main benefit of watching addicts in need of an intervention, or bartender/models in need of a good slap, is to be able to lie on the couch thinking, "At least I'm not that person." For those of you in need of a good dose of superiority, I highly recommend A&E's houses of horrors, Hoarders. It's on Mondays; the second season just began this week.

If you even spend even a minute thinking that you really shouldn't be such a slob, or a moment wondering why you can't bring yourself to get rid of those jeans that don't really fit anymore, this is the show for you. At the end of the hour, you'll first maniacally clean your kitchen and bathroom, and will then lie in bed feeling good about the fact that you live in a house where you can at least find the bed. You will know that, no matter how much of a pig you think you are, you can feel good about the fact that your city codes office isn't about to condemn your property.

Monday night's show centered on Augustine, a 68 year-old living in Gretna, LA. When I think of hoarders I think of people accumulating piles of possessions, or scores of cats or dogs, but Augustine had clearly spent decades accumulating tons of trash. Her house was so full of trash the cleaning crew needed to shovel it out. She had electricity but no heat or hot water; her bathroom looked like it hadn't functioned in at least a decade. Augustine collected not only garbage and sewage but also mold, mildew, and general filth, three or four feet of it in every disgusting room of the house. By the end of the episode, 4,000 pounds had been hauled away.

Augustine had lost her dentures in the filth, so she spent the episode gumming fast food, uncooked hot dogs, and I don't know what else. She clearly suffers from at least depression and probably also some sort of antisocial disorder, and sat in a chair eating while her children and a crew cleaned things out. The upper set of her dentures were found amid the debris. Also found were the carcasses of two cats, which had apparently either been flattened by the garbage or which had expired and then been crushed. Either way, two cats died and decomposed in her "living room" and Augustine didn't notice.

Are you disgusted yet? But wait, there's more. The bathroom was a Haz Mat zone, filled with dried excrement, mold, crud. I could smell it through the TV. Since her toilet didn't work, Augustine had one of those portable toilets for the elderly in her, what, dining room? I guess the notion of "rooms" doesn't really apply, but at any rate there the toilet sat, with what appeared to be bags of feces piled up around it and tied to the arms.

Yes, this woman is clearly in need of physical and psychiatric help and yes, this is an incredibly sad story. Yes, it is perhaps wrong to film this family's plight, to televise it, and then to lie on the couch, rapt, watching it. But in the end, I will never again worry about the fact that I could definitely clean my cat's litter box a little more often. In the end, at least I'm not that person.