Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bring Back the True Meaning of Halloween

If Christmas isn't about presents ("let's put the Christ back into Christmas"), then Halloween isn't about costumes. Or haunted houses. Or scary movies.

It's about candy.

You'd never know that from watching TV. Case in point: last night's episode of "Modern Family." I watched the Dunphys orchestrate the sort of elaborate trick-or-treating scenario that could only come from a sitcom writer's mind. I won't even try to explain, because it won't sound particularly funny, but suffice to say that after the neighborhood kids rang Phil & Claire's doorbell, a mini-horror movie was enacted for their benefit, which took close to 30 seconds. Sorry, this transaction should last no longer than 5.

That's what Halloween is, a carefully disguised transaction in which one person cons another person to give them something, preferably a Heath Bar, for free. This should take as little time as possible so the thief can move on to their next victim.

When I was a kid, there was a house in our neighborhood that was well-known for its spooky antics. Never went there. Not because I was a scaredy-cat but because who had that kind of time to waste. My goal every year was to make it up and down both sides of the four major streets of our subdivision--approximately 150 houses--in the three hours alloted for plundering. I never came close, but each successive year, I honed my technique. First, I substituted running for walking; then I started skipping sidewalks--toddlers are the ultimate traffic jam--and started racing straight across lawns. If my dad were dead, he'd be rolling in his grave, because we weren't even allowed to play on our own grass.

I paid zero attention to my costume, throwing on a sheet or overalls (look, I'm a bum!) at the last minute. You know why? Because my mom was no Martha Stewart and it didn't matter anyway. I got the same pack of Sweet-Tarts as the more elaborately outfitted. All I cared about was my pillowcase, and the way it felt as it accumulated weight from house to house, and the way all that candy looked spread out on the living room floor as I divided it into piles. Come to mama, Sugar Daddy.

Lately, Halloween celebrations have grown more and more elaborate, because Wal-Mart needs to sell more junk and grown-ups need another excuse to get drunk. There's even a movement to, shudder, turn the holiday all healthy by forcing kids to count the calories in those mini-Snickers. Are you kidding me? That's like giving a 5-year-old a Christmas present that says you've donated the cost of his gift to charity. It goes against nature.

What I want to know is, where's Glenn Beck when you need him? Where's the movement to stop this desecration of one our most sacred rituals? Let's stop with the parties and the insistence that everyone must play dress up and get rid of those giant black cat inflatables the size of SUVs. It's time to get back to Halloween's basic, core value.

It's time to put the candy back in Halloween. Pass the Heath Bars, please.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One Degree of Separation

The Snow Birds, aka my parents, called from their new perch in Florida, ostensibly to see if our home had been obliterated by The Overhyped Wind Storm of 2010, but mostly to gloat about the temperature in The Villages--the kind of retirement hub where old people go to drink, play golf, or drink while playing golf. "It's already 80 degrees by the time we take our morning walk," they boasted.

If they had rung me up two days prior, I would have counter-attacked with a report of our glorious Indian Summer weather. But it's supposed to be 48 degrees tomorrow, which, when engaging in combat with The Villages, is akin to bringing a letter opener to a knife fight. I confessed to them that I'd already caved and turned the furnace on last week, when our fallow thermostat registered 66 degrees.

"Sixty-six? That's what we set our heat at," my dad replied. "No, it's at 67," my mom corrected. "One degree makes a big difference." No, four more degrees would make a big difference, which is where I set our heat.

Who are these people? If there weren't some compelling physical evidence to suggest otherwise, I'd swear I was adopted.

I used to think my dad was just being cheap in keeping our house a frigid 65 throughout my entire childhood, given that our electric bills used to top $300/month, a hefty sum back in the day. How do I know this? Because electric bills were all the menfolk in our neighborhood ever talked about, the way I imagine pioneers used to gather and discuss the "Indian problem." Dad went so far as to convert the house from electricity to gas, which he claimed was not only less expensive but a "warmer heat," the way people in Phoenix try to con the rest of us that 105 is a perfectly pleasant "dry heat." Me and my purple fingernails weren't buying it. Sixty-five is 65.

My mom's motives were more mysterious. She either towed the party line because a) she'd been raised by nuns, who taught her that suffering was next to godliness or b) she'd been brainwashed by my dad. Lately I've come to realize that in truth, it seems both these creatures actually consider 67 a comfortable indoor temperature. I can't believe that I share their DNA, me the girl who's never warm enough until she's too hot.

Here's my philosophy regarding indoor temperature: it should pass the outerwear test. Allow me to explain. You don't expect to wear a coat indoors, do you? That's sort of the whole point of heat, yes? So why would you set your thermostat at, for the sake of argument, 67 degrees, when that's totally light jacket weather? See my point--67 flunks the outerwear test.

The Snow Birds, I understand, apply a different standard, which is that a little frostbite won't kill you. That's why, come December, when the folks migrate back up north and we all gather at the family homestead for the holidays, I'll be packing a hat and scarf.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Super Sad Untrue Story

Ask James Frey what happens when a non-fiction writer sneaks a little fiction into his true-life story. Nothing short of the Wrath of Oprah shall descend upon ye. But what about when a novelist borrows from fiction and passes it off as real experience?

A couple of weeks ago, author Gary Shteyngart paid a visit to my local indie bookstore, the Book Cellar, to read from his latest novel,
Super Sad True Love Story, that, I'll admit, I had no intention of purchasing. Partly because my bookshelves are overcrowded, partly because I'm on a budget, and mostly because I'm annoyed by everyone on the New Yorker's 20 under 40 list. Dude's already got enough going for him, I figured. He didn't need my 26 bucks to further feed his ego.

But then he was so damned charming. During the Q&A portion of his appearance, he regaled us with the sort of anecdotes that English majors dream about, when we're not picturing ourselves as Jane Austen heroines.

He talked about his students at Columbia, with their OMGs and LOLs, and the way they're slowly dismantling the English language. (This is catnip to people over the age of 30 who attempt to work words like "aspersion" into their conversation.) He contrasted this with an elderly woman he ran into on the street, and the way she described the weather as "blustery." Who uses words like that anymore, besides Chicago's meteorologists, who constantly cast about for ways to distinguish one windy day from another? I couldn't get blustery out of my head for days.

I was utterly smitten by Shteyngart. You know what comes next. I bought the book.

Super Sad is a quick read, not because it's simple but because it's such a wickedly funny and entertaining satire, set in the not-too-distant future America. As science-fiction goes, it's not much of a reach to picture a world where people rely on their "apparat" (imagine a 20th generation iPhone) for pretty much everything in life, including downloading other people's credit ratings and personality and "fuckability" scores.

I was reading along at a pretty good clip when page 304 brought me to a halt. Shteyngart's lead character, Lenny Abramov, narrates: "A month ago, mid-October, a gust of autumnal wind kicked its way down Grand Street. A co-op woman, old, tired, Jewish, fake drops of jade spread across the little sacks of her bosom, looked up at the pending wind and said one word: 'Blustery.' Just one word, a word meaning no more than 'a period of time characterized by strong winds,' but it caught me unaware, it reminded me of how language was once used, its precision and simplicity, its capacity for recall. Not cold, not chilled, blustery."

Wait. A. Minute.

These were, if not the exact words Shteyngart had used in the Q&A, then a very close approximation. Particularly the whole precision part. I was taken aback.

It's common for novelists to borrow bits of their own lives and work them into their fictions, "write what you know" being a common mantra in any creative writing class. And maybe that's what happened here. Shteyngart really did run into some old Jewish lady on the street and she really did say "blustery." Maybe he's loved this little random exchange for years and finally found the perfect way to insert it into one of his books, with some added imagined details. I don't begrudge him that.

But. During the Q&A, I could swear Shteyngart said this interaction had taken place recently, though perhaps I'm misremembering--we non-fiction writers tend to do that. Minimally he made it seem as though this anecdote were being recalled on the spot, his particular response to a particular question, when clearly it was already a well-formulated, previously thought-out tale. At best he's like every other celebrity talk show guest, who appears to be having a spontaneous conversation with the host, but in reality is just trotting out material agreed upon with the show's producer. I suppose this is what happens on any press tour--be it to promote a book or a movie--you prepare your schtick in advance. You can't be fresh every night. And no one would be the wiser, assuming they never get to page 304.

At worst, he never heard a woman say "blustery." Lenny did. Shteyngart was so enamored with the lovely scene he created, he decided to make it part of his own experience, passing off something as real that never happened outside his own imagination.

Whatever the scenario, the result is the same: I feel lied to. What once seem genuine and off the cuff now strikes me as practiced and studied. Was anything he said representative of Gary Shteyngart, or merely "Gary Shteyngart," too charming to be true?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Year of the Mistress

By the time the fourth or fifth Chilean (you say Chee-LAY-un, I say CHILL-ay-un) miner emerged from the rescue tube looking none the worse for wear--seriously, I was expecting ZZ Top and got Javier Bardem--let's face it, the only drama left was whether the wife and mistress of Miner 21 (??) would both show up to greet their man. Spoiler alert (can you spoil something that already happened?): the wife stayed home. Cat fight averted. Damn. You know every news anchor was dying to see these women throw down.

I found this angle of the story surprising for two reasons: For starters, who knew miners had time for mistresses? I mean, whenever anyone complains about how hard their job is, you can bet someone will whip out this chestnut, "It's not like you work in a coal mine." (Can you say that to a gold miner? Is there added prestige to digging for precious metal?) Point being that mining is a pretty taxing gig. But apparently not so taxing that a dude can't juggle a senorita on the side.

What really struck me, though, was that for once, the media seems to have used the term "mistress" appropriately.

I'm not sure what 2010 is in China--the Year of the Dog or the Year of Lead-Poisoned Toys? But in the U.S., it's most definitely been the Year of the Mistress. Surely you all remember Tiger Woods' parade of paramours. Or the tattooed freak show Jesse James apparently preferred to Sandra Bullock. This past week alone gifted us with the Miner and his gal pal and David Arquette and Jasmine Something-or-Other.

The thing is, apart from the Miner's side dish, none of these women are, strictly and grammatically speaking, mistresses.

Mistress implies long-term. Mistress implies an actual relationship (read: more than sex). Mistress is Hepburn and Tracy, Charles and Camilla. Not Tiger and Jaimee With Two E's. (How much you wanna bet she also dots the "i" with a heart?)

In the case of Katharine Hepburn, mistress meant for all intents and purposes being married to a man who was unable to divorce his wife. In the case of Charles and Camilla, mistress meant choosing love over British law. (Taking a mistress is pretty much standard operating procedure for royals, who historically were forced into marriages of convenience. Well, not so much any more, after Chuck & Di's spectacular flame out.) Stability, semi-permanence and a dash of respectability--those are the calling cards of a true mistress. She's more than just a lover, more than a casual affair, more than a one-night or two-night (sorry Jasmine) stand.

I know that holding "Inside Edition" to Oxford English standards is kind of like expecting two-year-olds to recite Shakespeare, still I'm curious as to why "mistress" became the default choice in describing JamiEE, et al. Granted the alternatives--slut, tramp, strumpet, harlot, whore--sound a bit harsh and smack of moral judgment. But what's so wrong with that? Explain to me why we're so concerned with offending the sensibilities of women whose sole purpose in life seems to be having sex with other women's husbands.

"Mistress" soft pedals the reality of the situation. Why should it? Are we worried that "slut" or "tramp" will set back feminism? I'd say these women are doing a fairly good job of that themselves. Does "harlot" somehow not portray them as enough of a victim? Good, because they're not. Back in the Dark Ages, mistress was one of the few ways for a woman to get ahead. Today, we've got plenty of other options--like education and employment. Is it troublesome that these women get labeled "whore," while Tiger, Jesse & Co. face fewer verbal repercussions? I might have agreed if the word "douche" had not made such a spectacular comeback.

I know that in this post-Sex and the City world, women's sexuality is meant to be celebrated, not criticized. I'm not suggesting that we brand these women with a scarlet "H" for "Ho" or that we lock them up in chastity belts. What I am suggesting is that we stop making them sound better than they are.

Last week there was a lot of buzz on the Internet regarding "The Social Network" and the dearth of positive female role models to be found not just in the country's #1 movie, but in the origin story of Facebook itself. There were plenty of co-eds willing to sleep with and get drunk and high with Mark Zuckerberg and pals once they hit it big. To write complicated computer code? Not so much. Commentators pondered, Where were all the girl geeks? Almost as an answer, we got word of the Duke student who based her thesis paper on a rating system of the various attributes of the guys she had sex with. That's what young women are doing instead of founding Facebook.

And what of the next generation? I look at Miley Cyrus, alas a role model for a fair number of tweens, who seems to equate womanhood with stripper poles. Seriously, that's the message that we want sent to little girls, that this is how you prove you're all grown up? How about going to college and becoming the first female president?

What I'm seeing in this year of the mistress is a broader societal trend of a lot of women, young and not so young, equating power and maturity with sex. Or at least the women who bombard our TV sets and Internet websites, which is what passes for reality these days. So when the talk show circuit tags JaimEE and Jasmine with "mistress" instead of "self-esteem train wreck," they're doing a huge disservice to the rest of us. It sounds so glamourous and sophisticated, "mistress," like you're the lady of the mansion. Except that you're not. There's nothing powerful about having meaningless sex with the CEO of Google or the world's greatest golfer or the entire Duke lacrosse team. Especially if it's keeping you from becoming Google's CEO or a great golfer yourself.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A Bone to Pick With Dr. Oz

Not that I believe everything I see or hear on TV, but Dr. Mehmet Oz comes with some pretty hefty credentials. Aside from being Oprah-approved, he's the vice-chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University. In case we didn't know that, he wears hospital scrubs on his wildly successful nationally-syndicated talk show.

So when Dr. Oz, as opposed to Rachael Ray, recommends anti-aging skin care techniques, I sit up and listen. What is the new wonder vitamin or food that will keep me glowing?

Which is why I have a bone, the ulna let's say, to pick with what happened on his show yesterday. After scaring the crap out of me with digitized images of how a dewy young woman eventually morphs into the Wicked Witch of Middle Age, he called upon a dermatologist (female, in her 50s, so relatable) to run through the top three tips to younger looking skin. The first two were no brainers--sunscreen and moisturizer. The third pissed me off.

The skin doctor, who clearly avails herself of her own services, noted that while plastic surgery isn't for everyone, guess what is? Fillers! These injections of collagen, or whatever, were placed alongside Oil of Olay as a tool every woman should have in her arsenal to "age gracefully."

Um, no. Fillers are a cosmetic, not medical, treatment. While I would argue that women have as much right to them as men have to Viagra (essentially both treatments deal with self esteem, not health, issues), the insurance industry doesn't agree. If you want fillers--which, in my opinion, make most women look like someone took a bicycle pump to their cheeks--you're going to have to shell out thousands of your own dollars to pay for ongoing injections.

I imagine surgeons, along with other rich people, don't view thousands of dollars as a significant expense, which is why Dr. Oz didn't blink when the subject of fillers was raised. He probably knows lots of people (ie, colleagues' wives) who routinely plump their faces. But that kind of money is a big deal to me, pretty much everyone I know, and I'm guessing the vast majority of Dr. Oz's viewers. Which leaves us poor folk (read, the middle class) with two rock-and-a-hard-place choices: 1) go broke trying to turn back the clock or 2) look old. It says much about the times we live in when bankruptcy is preferable to wrinkles.

I'm not holding Dr. Oz accountable for our youth- and celebrity-obsessed culture. For that I blame "Access Hollywood." Here's my problem with Dr. Oz: Much of his show is built around busting myths. The other day, for example, he floored me with the information that the female bladder is no smaller than the male's--contrary to evidence presented in lines at public restrooms--with actual bladders as props to prove his point. But in allowing the dermatologist to talk about fillers, he legitimized their use as a viable component of an everyday skin care regimen, which they're not. That's a huge disservice to viewers, who come to him for their daily dose of common sense.

Here's the vicious cycle he's promoting: Wealthy celebrities--who can afford fillers, surgery and soft-focus lighting--are held up as the beauty standard for all of us women who can't. (To say nothing of their personal chefs, personal trainers and personal hair and make-up artists.) Yes, if you're Demi Moore, 50 certainly is the new 30. If you're Jane Smith, elementary school teacher or administrative assistant, not so much. Yet poor Jane will compare herself to and be compared with Demi and found lacking.

I expect this kind of crap from the women of "The View," who are out and proud when it comes to extolling the virtuies of Botox, never mind that they're all paid seven-figure salaries. I don't expect it from Dr. Oz. If you're going to provide straight talk about bladders, you should do the same about wrinkles. And the truth about wrinkles is that most of us are stuck with them.

I'm furrowing my brow as I type. You know how I combat those crevices? Bangs.