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Category Archives: TV & Movies

Learning to Cry

A few months ago, I shared the viral You Tube video of the woman crying about cats on a dating site. It was a spoof, of course, but it made me wonder how many such videos there are out there. And since my latest post focused on a topic partially related to teenagers, I thought I’d share today what I found when I looked.

This is both hilarious and a little scary, especially, I imagine, if you are a parent of a teenager. Because what I found was a lot of teenagers teaching other teenagers to fake cry. Many of them are aspiring actors and actresses, but many also mention fooling their parents or other adults.

There are dozens of these videos on You Tube alone, almost all of them featuring young people. I featured two that I thought were particularly funny—the goofy boy and the sulky, manipulative girl. But look at more for full effect.

* This girl wins the prize for the fastest fake crying.

* This one recommends the chemical method.

* This one notes that her method is superior since you don’t need any Vicks.

* This fellow recommends exercising the “muscle in your tear duct” so that “even a grown man can cry.”

* The music here gives a yoga feel to crying.

* And this little girl wins the prize for the youngest I could find. She has a really hard time faking, but she is determined.

Because most of these efforts come out of the acting world, there is an underlying ongoing debate about method acting (“think about something sad”) and practical aesthetics or theatrical acting (“exercise the muscle in your tear ducts” and “hold your eyes open til tears build up” or “push” or even “rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub under your eyes”).

Since the goal of most actors, whether method or otherwise, is to create authentic feeling in their audiences, this week I’m going to contemplate the relationship between artifice and authenticity. They are not simple opposites. At least not for everybody.

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated


Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.

L

* * *

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.

The Sweet Hereafter

Today’s post commemorates Mychael Danna‘s soundtrack music, but also the film it was written for, The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, and the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel and the movie, though distinct, both illuminate the aftermath of a tragic accident of a school bus and how it changes the people of a small town.

This is as wintry a tune as can be, and, though we don’t have much in the way of cold weather in Florida, I know that many are going about new semesters at school (or just another work week) in the snow or chilly rain or snappish air today. May this song make us all take a moment to remember to be careful in all our rushing around.

All of us, no matter the weather, suffer the blame game. We give it and we receive it from others and ourselves. At times designating responsibility is perfectly appropriate, but often the anger that goes along with blame masks the emotion that’s more at root and more genuine: sorrow. That old human condition is as tough as it is beautiful.

Here’s the trailer for and review of the film, and a brief interview with Russell Banks about his inspiration for the novel. And here’s an auto playlist for Mychael Danna in case you have more time for peaceful, interesting music in your day or evening.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Lately, I’ve been pretty far from my original subject matter of crying. It’s been important for me to explore other kinds of genuine emotional expression, and I’ve enjoyed my thought travels in that regard. Last night, however, simply by accident, I ended up watching the HBO documentary film There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It’s a truly tragic story that you may remember from original news reports after July 26, 2009, when Diane Schuler drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, causing a horrible traffic accident. She killed herself, her daughter, her three nieces, and the three men in the vehicle her van hit head-on, and injured her son, who was the only survivor in those two vehicles.

The case is indeed one that has no sure answers: There is no denying that Diane Schuler had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 with more undigested alcohol in her stomach. Her blood also contained THC, indicating that she’d been smoking marijuana. Her family—and the documentary—make the argument fairly convincingly that this was completely unlike her, in fact, unbelievable. Both she and one of her nieces had called her brother from the road and said that something was wrong, that she wasn’t feeling well, and she had stopped, apparently sober, to try to buy some pain relievers that the convenience store didn’t carry. They believe that she must have had some other kind of health emergency first—likely a stroke caused by an abscessed tooth. But her autopsy supposedly ruled that out even before the toxicology results came out.

Watching this film is hard, and there is no uplifting ending, so it made me think not only about suffering but about narrative, and the attractions and pitfalls of nonfiction. It’s instructive to compare the documentary, even with its clear sympathy for Diane Schuler, to the fictionalized version in Law & Order’s episode “Doped.” In that version, the police end up proving that its fictional driver had been doped with alcohol in a smoothie provided by someone else and with propofol, an anesthesia drug, in her asthma inhaler. It turns out that one of her colleagues at a large pharmaceutical company has drugged her because she intends to blow the whistle on a bad product.

The fictional TV show is very straightforwardly satisfying: the mother ends up being entirely faultless, her husband it turns out did know her well in his insistence that she didn’t drink, the bad guys are identified and punished, there is a clear explanation for why these terrible events occurred. At the end of the story, we may have sorrow, but we don’t have any questions. They’ve all been answered.

Of course, that is a TV tradition more than it is a habit of great fiction. And most great fiction leaves us with many unanswered questions. Most great fiction is more like nonfiction than TV episodes are. I need only mention Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Think of anything that William Faulkner wrote, especially that ending of Absalom! Absalom! wherein Quentin protests that he doesn’t hate the South and we are left with the same question he is—what his relationship with the South really is and will be. Great fiction doesn’t try to erase the mystery that comprises actual human experience for the sake of a tidy story.

Yet it is true that one of the great difficulties of writing creative nonfiction is that life doesn’t always follow clear paths. The debate in the Schuler case goes back and forth: Are the people who have lost people (Schuler’s brother and his wife, the families of the men killed in the other car) simply looking for a way to file this event in the “explained” file so they can move on? Are they too eager to condemn? Or are her husband and another sister-in-law in denial about what she was capable of? Lawsuits and counter-suits are being filed, and that’s tragic in itself. The whole question of how and why people respond so variously to one event floats in the air as unanswered as the cause of the accident.

For me, when a woman who is not generally much of a drinker and only smokes pot to get to sleep at night is determined to have been smashed and totally stoned at midday with a carful of children she loved, it’s easy to believe that something else was going on. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane demonstrates that she was a woman who might very well be reluctant to ask for help if she was ill and might think that she could just tough it out until she got home. She had been self-medicating her insomnia for years, and she might have self-medicated herself to death if she were in pain.

Having had that extremely painful hemorrhagic stroke in 2011, I can imagine it. I rode the bicycle a mile and a half home with my head pounding as though being repeatedly hit with a nail gun. I didn’t know what else to do, though I had a cell phone and my husband could have called for help. I am very glad that I was not driving a car at the time, and I am a person not averse to medical help, so I can imagine a person like Diane Schuler trying to ignore her situation and carry on.

Having also had more than one serious medical situation that has no clear explanation, I can also believe that something happened to Diane Schuler that her autopsy didn’t detect. If they can’t always get to the bottom of things when you’re alive to tell the tale, it seems to me that with someone dead, there is a lot that’s easily missed in the body. Once the toxicology report came in, there was no interest or motivation in pursuing anything else. Those who wanted one had an explanation, and it was that Schuler was an irresponsible drunk, in spite of all the evidence of her life to the contrary. In some ways that seems to me like a fictionalizing tendency, or I should say, an oversimplifyingly fictional one just as much as the wholesome-mother version on Law & Order.

That doesn’t mean that I am satisfied by There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. It starts out with the same optimistic tone of any whodunit. But by the end its insistence on the unknowability of what happened is appealing at an intellectual level, but devastating at an emotional one. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t know quite what to do with yourself when it’s over. I myself remain unsure whether that’s a flaw in the writing and arranging of the documentary or whether it’s realistic and good. It might feel just a little too much like life. But I know I won’t forget it.

Raised on Promises and Ruby in Paradise

For the New Year, I thought I’d come a little closer to the twenty-first century in my weekly artistic selection. I’m still twenty years away, but, hey, I am progressing. Sam Phillips’ 1991 song “Raised on Promises” is one of my favorite anthems for change and rebellion, born partly out of her own escape from a record label that insisted on marketing her as “the Christian Cyndi Lauper.”

Part of the reason it became that for me too is that it was used as music for Ruby in Paradise, an early Ashley Judd film about a young woman who slams out of her white-trash life in Tennessee and goes to Florida to find her way. When I first saw it, of course, I was living in Pennsylvania and had no idea I might end up in Florida. But I identified with the longing for escape and independence, not to mention the accent. Ashley Judd played the character with a delicate yet stubborn subtlety she’s rarely displayed since.

This artistic pairing has me thinking about new starts and about the promises we make and break (to ourselves and others). These seem like fitting contemplations for the start of 2012.

People Connections: Facebook Reprise

Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.

Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.

It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?

Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.

As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.

In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.

On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.

There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.

Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.

Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.

On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.

It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.

And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.

The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.

I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.

We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.

Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.

“A Good Day to Die”–Or Not


Little Big Man (1970) is a very funny tragedy. One of the most repeated lines in the history of movies is, of course, when Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) proclaims that “It is a good day to die.” He does this first when he sets out to fight the white man, and he says it again in this scene when he realizes that the white man cannot be defeated.

I guess race and the questioning of assumptions about it is my theme this week. I’m sure there are plenty of racial inaccuracies in this movie. Chief Dan George was himself a member of a coastal tribe from Vancouver, not from a Plains tribe, for instance, and there are no doubt elements of the depictions of Native Americans here that are questionable. The dialogue at the end of this scene might not be a “flattering” depiction, albeit it is designed to be absurdly comic.

But the film was one of the very first Westerns to center the sympathy and character development on the Native American characters. These Native Americans are not “noble savages” much less “ignoble” ones. The narrator and main character, Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman), a white man adopted as a child by the Native Americans, is a full-fledged liar, so some of this is even made light of on the surface. The movie doesn’t presume to provide a Native American first-person point of view, and Crabb’s stories have other purposes than accuracy, but his heart is in the right place, as was that of his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins.

Old Lodge Skins and his people refer to white people as “white people” and only to their tribesmen and –women—as “human beings.” When I first saw this movie, I was delighted and surprised by this reversal of the Manifest Destiny junk about whites being more human than other races of people. It was one of the first things that got me thinking about the importance of perspective.

In this scene, Old Lodge Skins finds that it is not yet his day to die after all.

Sentimental Update

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Yesterday on my way to spin class I had the radio on in the car again, and, lo and behold, the sentimental song that came on was “Close to You” sung by the Carpenters. I had to laugh because this song makes “Operator” sound completely unsentimental. The gritty scenario of the guy being dumped seems so very real next to the silly lyrics of “Close to You,” with its fantasy of a “dream come true” boy that is followed everywhere by singing birds and “all the girls in town.” Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice, but “Close to You” must be one of the worst songs ever recorded. Nonetheless, it made it to Number One on the Top Forty list in 1970, where it remained for four weeks, and it also won a Grammy.

For me this song also brought up the sinister side of over-happiness. It brings back the 1970s of The Stepford Wives, a book and movie in which men’s desire was to control and render idiotically pleasant the women in their lives through nefarious means. Even though the movie was re-made in 2004, the 1975 version was the one that emerged out of a time when women were struggling to create choices for themselves. If you think that all is well in 2011, then I refer you to the Stepford Wives organization, but at least it’s now easy to see those women as the fakey freaks they are.

On the other hand, Karen Carpenter came of age at a time when gender limitations were the norm, and these sexist norms were just being broken down. I would say that she suffered for them, died for them, even. Karen Carpenter started off as a terrific drummer, but was forced into becoming merely a vocalist. Her brother controlled their careers and chose the music they would perform, and she was forced into an unwise marriage by her mother, who forbade her to call it off at the last minute. Of course, the anorexia that killed Karen Carpenter was a complex disease including many factors. But if you have any doubt about the destructive nature of cotton-candy fake happiness instead of deeper fulfillment based on a more complex vision, take a look at these two videos: one a medley of KC playing the drums early in her career and the other of KC after the drums had been stripped from her, propped up in clothing designed to disguise her thinness and singing “Close to You” like an automaton. The songs may not make you cry, but if the comparison between the sassy early Karen and the re-packaged one doesn’t at least make you cringe, then you’re ice.

There’s a hint here, of course, about what sentimental means: there may be an element of fakery. It’s a partial definition–that’s not the only quality involved, and it may not always be involved–but the sentimental sometimes evokes our skepticism.

P.S. Please see the comments for more accurate information about the dates of the linked videos.

Stone Reader

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I’m getting ready to head up to Vermont for a week-long writing retreat. The fellow running my workshop asked us to bring along any questions we have on our minds, and this has intensified for me some issues I’ve been trying to sort out for myself since last November after my near-death experience. My questions may go beyond what my workshop leader has in mind, but I’ll likely raise them anyway.

One of them is: What does it mean to be a writer? How can I balance between what originated in me as a profound passion for its own sake and the kind of careerism that surrounds me?

In recent years, I’ve become a bit disillusioned. Some of this is no doubt sour grapes based upon poor career decisions I’ve made and the sheer difficulty of maintaining a literary publishing practice. It has never been easy to have a calling to be a literary writer. I remember reading Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold” years ago. Starting with the fact that so many young writers disappear from the magazines and journals after promising beginnings, he outlines some of the challenges writers face in keeping going.

Solotaroff wrote that essay in the 1980s, and I wonder what he would make of the challenges literary writers face today. Even though Solotaroff noted the winnowing of promising writers, he had not faced a world in which a writer’s career need be instantaneously successful (as opposed to building a following over years) or risk perishing. He wasn’t talking about a world in which writers were expected to fit writing their next novel in between Twittering, Facebooking, and blogging their way into the hearts of millions in order to get that book published. When he wrote “Writing in the Cold,” he didn’t need to address the crumbling of the publishing industry in the face of online amusements, the near-complete dominance of genre fiction in publishing, even the encroachment of genre into an academia that has become almost as corporate as the publishing world.

I was reminded of how different things are today when I watched Stone Reader, a documentary film that came out in 2002. It’s a wonderful film that tracks a guy, Mark Moskowitz, who finally reads a book he bought in 1972 but never got around to reading. Like the New York Times reviewer who first inspired him to buy it, he thinks it’s a masterpiece and sets out to read everything the author, Dow Mossman, has ever written. He can find nothing else.

So, like one of Solotaroff’s promising young writers, this one vanished from the publishing scene. The filmmaker sets out to find him and ask him why he hasn’t published anything else. Along the way he talks to various professional readers including the original book reviewer, the author’s faculty advisor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a book editor, even the famous literary critic Leslie Fiedler. In some ways, it is a book focused on reading—even the trailer notes that the film is “for anyone who has ever loved a book.”

But by the end, the film also becomes about the tenuous lives of writers. It’s a film that made me cry about the loss of talent and promise that is so common. I cried for all of us who have published only one book, and for all those talented writers who never even get that far.

Another aspect, however, might be even sadder to me, and that is the depiction of a world of conversation about books and writing that I believe is disappearing. (The NEA also believes this.) One of the negatives of Stone Reader is that everyone Moskowitz interviews is an old, white guy. It’s one sign of the antiquated nature of a passion for books. One of these men is one of my former professors at Penn State, who attended Iowa about the same time Dow Mossman did. I was rapt as I listened to Bob Downs talk about writing, about his career. Even though it’s only been about fifteen years since I finished my MFA, I felt as though I was going back in time to a completely different era, a lost world. While I’m not sorry that the literary world is more diverse now, I am sorry that it has lost a shared sense of the sacred nature of literature, of the higher, non-commercial purposes of art. We still had it in the early 1990s, and you can hear it in the old guys in the film, but I wish I would encounter more of in the literary world these days. When I do find it, in a few friends, we keep it under wraps. We should no doubt be schmoozing instead.

Not Sexy, Just Crazy

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Probably every single person who reads this will have made use of at least some of positive psychology’s tenets and recommendations at some point or another: visualize success, believe in yourself, take charge of your life, think good thoughts and good things will come. All fine to a point.

When it comes to discussions of health and illness, though, this makes me crazy. Not sexy, just plain crazy. Yes, there is much we can do to positively affect our health. No, we cannot cure illnesses with positive attitudes and wheat grass, not unless they are psychosomatic.

One of the purveyors of the idea that we can cure ourselves and defy illness is a woman named Kris Carr of Crazy, Sexy Cancer fame. This woman is a charlatan, and yet she has been trotted out by all kinds of experts as an example of a cancer patient who cured herself with her positive attitude and alternative therapies including a vegan diet. She started off with a documentary film about herself and followed that with three Crazy, Sexy Cancer books. She has become a New York Times bestseller, lectured at universities and medical schools, and, I presume, made a killing. She has a huge following as a cancer lifestyle guru.

On Carr’s website she calls her illness merely “a rare and incurable stage 4 cancer.” This sounds dire indeed and is the one and only credential that has given her the right to tell millions how to live. Yet, after the original film, we find in her work very little discussion of the cancer she has: epithelioid hemangio-endothelioma. Her focus is all on nutrition, yoga, support groups, and can-do attitude. However, H.E.A.R.D., a support group for this and other vascular cancers, notes on its webpage that, due to the variable rate of tumor growth in this cancer, “Some cases are totally asymptomatic (no adverse symptoms) for more than 15 or 20 years,” and “some cases … have been known to go into spontaneous remission.”

I don’t mean to say that receiving such a diagnosis would not be daunting and that it wasn’t a meaningful moment in Kris Carr’s life. I don’t object to her writing or making films about her experience. I have done so about my own illness experience, and I have read many truly wonderful and insightful memoirs about people’s illness and disability experiences. It is quite true that illness can be a wake-up call and can affect the life choices we make.

But for her to claim that she cured her own cancer, and for her to note that, “I created the ultimate blueprint for a healthy and happy life, and I want to share my secrets with fabulous you!” is a grotesque trickery. Her blueprint for life dumbs down illness experience and panders to the desperate masses over any kind of integrity and truth-telling. In the film, her own father tells her that he caused her cancer by putting stress on her during high school. Who can take this seriously? It is magical thinking, no matter that there are even physicians, supposed men and women of science, who participate in it.

The variable progression of Kris Carr’s disease has little if anything to do with whether or not someone takes up a macrobiotic diet and takes to meditating. It is simply a variation in the disease. If I can find this out with a few Google searches, why don’t the journalists and physicians who promote this woman bother? How can they not know that this woman is a sham? Or do they know and simply decide that her “positive” message is more important than what ails her or doesn’t? Why would that sort of misrepresentation seem worthwhile to them?

We have a strong social impetus these days to believe stories like this. It’s all part of a highly scripted “reality” TV that has nothing to do with real life and that casts us into a highly social Darwinian universe. Maybe it’s one thing when it has to do with the supposedly democratic selection of the next American Idol. Even when it’s the loonies in Landmark Forum convincing people to pay to be told that they create their own destiny, I can laugh and roll my eyes. The ideas that we live in a meritocracy and that talent rises magically to the top over the advantages of power and wealth seem to be part of the American fabric. I’m used to that.

But when they start talking about health that way, I get angry. Barbara Ehrenreich has noted about her own experience with breast cancer how she became disturbed by the constant celebration of survivors, as though they were somehow better people than the ones who died. David Rackoff, after a second type of cancer before age 50, published Half Empty with an anti-positive psychology twist, and noted, “It is the duty of society to take care of its individuals, plain and simple. We will never be healthier than our sickest member.” Years ago, in a wonderful book called Teratologies, Jackie Stacey noted how the discourse around cancer was designed to make people feel responsible for their own illnesses. As far back as 1978, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor noted how the discourses around cancer often harm patients further. So, I am not alone, but we are shouted down by the people who want us to believe that it’s all a matter of will power and positive thinking.

I have to keep repeating this to believe that it’s true: in the U.S., people believe that if you are sick it is your own damn fault. If you can’t cure your own cancer with yoga and spinach, then there’s something wrong with your character as a human being, not just your body. If you can’t cure your diabetes (my illness) with herbs and exercise, then you are weak. If you have cancer, you must have brought it on yourself. If you are obese, it is because you are lazy and worthless.

Part of this has to do with our desire to understand causation. Think of the biopic Erin Brokovich and how the title character set out to uncover the poisoning of a California community by Pacific Gas & Electric. The Chromium 6 they had allowed to leak into the ground water had caused rampant cancer. Think of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge that outlines the increased risks of cancer to those living in Utah when the A-bombs were tested. Even in terms of responsibility that has a personal (as opposed to corporate and governmental) element, think about cigarette smoking: the National Cancer Institute attributes 440,000 premature deaths a year to lung cancer and other diseases caused by smoking. There are indeed cases where blame can be cast legitimately, though in the case of individuals that may not be a helpful strategy.

One U.K. study I read, for instance, conducted on cardiac patients, showed that many of them blamed themselves for their illness, said they got what they deserved based on their bad smoking and eating habits. They even avoided medical care because of fear that doctors would be disgusted by or dismissive of them and would blame them further. Perhaps most telling, the study found that these attitudes were more common among the economically disadvantaged.

When Kris Carr suggests that you interview your doctor as you would someone you were hiring at your corporation, she breezes over the fact that many health care plans don’t allow such options. I’m all for patients being active participants in their own care, but those who don’t have top-of-the-line insurance and a ton of money in the bank can’t turn their cancer into a full-time “self-transformation” project.

Nor does her story point out that what has turned many cancers into survivable illnesses is not mainly the lifestyle stuff she promotes, but actual new or newly refined detection techniques, medical treatments, and drugs. In the hands of positivity health gurus, causation becomes a twisted story of personal overcoming.

Part of the reason we are so drawn to the overcomers among us may also be that illness has become more complicated, more long and drawn out, more chronic, the causes more complicated. With the advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the 1940s, and the development of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 60s, many long-term lethal scourges—TB, polio, mumps, measles, smallpox, chickenpox—were knocked so far back as to become almost irrelevant in most people’s lives. Nowadays the raging (yet identifiable) germ that comes out of nowhere is a rarity, and contemporary illnesses stem from vague and multiple sources. And they have more variable outcomes. The doctor has no simple cure, so the cure is put on the shoulders of the ill.

Chronically ill people also can be a long-term burden. I myself have been living with Type 1 diabetes for nearly 40 years. It’s understandable that people around me get tired of taking care of me. I get tired of taking care of myself. My illness won’t end until I’m dead, and that could be another 40 years down the road. Recently, in my different kind of medical experience—a brain hemorrhage that fortunately turned out to be benign—I had cause to think about the different kind of care I was getting. The attitude toward this acute illness was heroic and sympathetic—I got round the clock care, myriad expensive tests, a plethora of support from friends and family. But the chronic illness gets boring.

The cost of treating a major illness, whether acute or chronic, is enormous in our current medical system. (My own recent brain event cost well past $100,000, and I and my insurance providers have spent thousands on my diabetes, too.) People who are ill sometimes can’t work or otherwise contribute economically. Sometimes they can’t support themselves. As far back as 1951 (in The Social System), Talcott Parsons pointed out that because of the “privileges” of the sick role, ill people also have the “obligation” to try to get well as quickly as possible, even though Parsons notes they are not held responsible for their condition.

Also because of these privileges, there are many scam artists of an even greater severity than Kris Carr. Every now and then someone without any diagnosis whatsoever is discovered claiming (usually) cancer and putting on a show to borrow money from family and friends and collect donations in public places, including on the web. In an ironic twist, many of these, including Ashley Anne Kirilow, Ann Crall, and Dina Leone, have now been labeled as having mental illnesses rather than physical ones and are still considered in need of help.

And since the ill take so much from the healthy in the way of financial support, emotional succor, and attention, we want them to get better in miraculous ways. If we believe that people can visualize themselves healthy, then there’s a theoretical way for everyone to improve their lives. There is no limit on health—not based on wealth, not based on health insurance availability, not based on health insurers paying for needed treatments, not based on chance.

There are even many so-called political progressives who believe that we are individually in control of our health (and by association to blame if it goes bad), and I wonder how they can fail to see the radical-right implications of that. Oprah Winfrey, one of the biggest promulgators of positive psychology (and one of Kris Carr’s promoters) has also conceived of herself as a crusader for social justice. For Oprah, it seems to be all about “empowerment”—giving people tools for improving their lives. Yet, she doesn’t seem to see that taken to an extreme the implication is that if an individual can’t triumph over illness it’s a personal failure. In other words, it’s a blame-the-victim stance that doesn’t take into account the myriad circumstances that can contribute to failure. I have a great deal of respect for Oprah—anyone who could keep the country reading books for so long has my admiration—but this aspect of her storyline is a huge disappointment to me.

The crux of the fundamentally conservative layer of assumptions in positive psychology is the delusional belief that we humans can control our own fates, not just to some extent, but virtually completely. Perhaps in a world where more and more seems beyond our control, it’s understandable that some people need to feel as though we can determine at least our own bodily fates. And no doubt it’s good to do what we can do for ourselves—I exercise regularly and eat fresh foods, too. But to be a true “liberal,” even just to be a person who is not living in a dream world, we need to remember that, do what we can, illness will come. The body does not last forever. People do not always get what they deserve. It would behoove us not to condemn the truly ill and not to celebrate those who turn their triumph over illness into a claim of personal achievement.

I wish that instead, we could offer support and encouragement to ill people without offering snake oil. I wish that tales of overcoming could be tempered with honoring those who don’t overcome. I wish that the media in our culture would practice some responsibility and not promote shallow, pretty people who have turned illness not so much into insight, but into a business opportunity.

I would rather stand with the people who have died of cancer instead of remaining in spontaneous remission for seven years with no sign of a symptom anywhere. I stand with those vomiting into the basin from their chemo, who don’t look so great with their hair falling out in clumps from the brutal treatments that will extend their lives. I stand with the ones who make meaning out of their experiences and appreciate the good days they have even though they know that cancer is not a gift, that even if a person with cancer sometimes can be sexy, the disease itself never is.