Different vibes

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She told me that my latest letter gave off ‘different vibes’:

“You couldn’t quite decide whether to be slightly annoyed or to embrace this emotional whirlwind. So not like you! Or at least not like the side of you you let us see. I’ve always seen you as extremely cool and composed in all situations, even somehow untouchable. Men came into your life and then left with more or less drama. But you remained self-sufficient and content to continue living your life.”

Very rarely, maybe only once or twice in a person’s life, someone will appear like a tornado – or maybe a hail of tomatoes – at least briefly throwing everything you know into disarray and drenching everything with a passata-like goo. I suppose this explains the upending of my sense of order explains the different vibes.

MUBI: Curated platform for unique films

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A few weeks ago, I finally got around to signing up for MUBI after to meaning to for the last… five years or so. When I first read about it, it was basically a streaming video-on-demand service that focused on foreign/indie/arthouse films, some quite rare, and has since become a highly curated platform where only 30 films are available at one time. In a way, of course, I would love to have more selection but at the same time, this limited selection makes me watch things I might not otherwise choose for myself and eliminates the often oppressive and crippling feeling of having too much choice. In some ways I like that it is not just a repository the way Netflix is; when a film disappears from the site, who knows when or if it will become available again? MUBI has also negotiated a few exclusivity arrangements with partners and distributors so is likely to be the only, or one of the only, platforms where you will be able to see some of these films.

So far I’ve watched about five films (I have to be in the right mood and have real focus since most films are in languages I don’t know; therefore, I must read subtitles). I love it so far, although if I were still engaging in my normal “binge” habits, I would have raced through all 30 available films in a few days and been left without content, other than the new film put up on the site each day.

I know it’s not going to be the right choice for everyone – most of my friends and family are not really into the kinds of films that typify the MUBI stream. If you’re hungry for the independent and unusual, though, it’s a great place to start and find unusual films from the world over – effortlessly.

La La La La La

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La La Land: “This year’s other best picture nominees have heart, soul and humanity. Damien Chazelle’s tawdry, dispiriting confection has none – it’s the tale of two narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest”.

On the advice of someone whose taste and opinions I trust, I decided to break my personal non-cinema-going record (hadn’t been to a cinema since June 2009) and fly to Berlin just to see a midday showing of La La Land. Let’s forget the impracticality of my impulsive leap; let’s forget the fact that, despite my multiple confirmations of getting the original-language version, the film was dubbed into German. Let’s just consider the fact that I still felt deeply saddened by the film, even if I could not understand every word that was said. (I later saw it in English to pick up the nuances and bits I’d missed.)

My trusted source, who had recommended it, felt that it was uplifting, if I may paraphrase his post-viewing thoughts, because the couple (spoiler alert), despite not ending up together in the long run, inspired each other to do great things, to follow their dreams.

As the aforementioned Guardian review points out: “They get together when their careers are failing, and spend their time sharing notes. Once they have co-mentored themselves on to the road to personal advancement, they ditch each other like a rocket’s blast-off section.”

I can see and support this interpretation logically, without putting such a negative spin on it (it is a film, meant to be entertaining in some way, after all). The ‘support’ and ‘seeing talent and beauty in each other and encouraging it’ angle is only one edge of the sword; the other is that both characters were using each other, as the Guardian suggests.

Going by how I felt after seeing it without being able to understand everything being said, I knew that my feelings were not admiring the ‘mutual support’ and the characters being who they needed to be for each other until they made it or didn’t need each other any more. At least it was not the complete feeling. I cried, felt moved, but could not pinpoint exactly what made it so deeply sad for me. I did, after all, share many of the same complaints about the film’s many shortcomings (bad singing, a lacklustre chemistry, the co-opting and simplifying of jazz as a musical genre, and blah blah blah) that the article highlights but still was able to overlook them for the sake of finding some greater meaning.

“Greater meaning”, though, all filters through the prism of your own state of mind and emotional being at the time of viewing and later reflection. Thus I was able to wring mammoth amounts of emotion from even my dubbed German viewing, but this may only be because of my own topsy-turvy emotional state at the time.

It is only now, reading this review, that I see reflected in words what I was unable to articulate: these two people (potentially ‘narcissists’, according to the article) sacrificed love for self-interest. Again, setting aside the fact that I did not necessarily find their “love” all that believable or compelling, it still ended up disposable and was easily cast aside to pursue other things.

“We can now see why these sweethearts separate. On their last night together they pledge eternal love; but they also promise to follow their dreams. For them, the latter was bound to trump the former: self-worship brooks no distractions. If, at the end, Seb seems a little lonely and Mia seems a little bored, no matter. Their final smiles indicate that both have attained what really matters: self-satisfaction.

Still, La La Land is a film for our time. With our self-nurturing, self-promotion, clicktivism, Twitterstorms, sexts and selfies, we are all narcissists now.”

And you know, that is not entirely unrealistic. Do we not meet people when things in our lives are falling apart, less than ideal, and make pledges of undying love and then somehow rebuild around them but then run far and fast as we ‘follow our dreams’?

Unfortunate Coincidence (Dorothy Parker)

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

It happens every day, and sometimes for very good reason (I even applauded the ‘leaving a relationship, forgoing love for personal goals’ move heartily in my previous post on the women of the mostly crap TV show, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce). I don’t want or need every movie (or any movie, really) to have a standard Hollywood ending wherein the couple ends up together. But when I saw the film, I needed to see (and believe) that love could be strong enough to win and could be stronger than circumstance or even self-interest.

Photo (c) 2017 Lisa Zins

Revisiting Divorce

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I cannot believe that I am writing about a show like Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce – again. I would have, when it began, sooner shot myself than watch it. And watching the first season, it was as bad as I feared. It was one of my big hate-watch shows. But in the subsequent seasons, it has sometimes knocked the wind out of its characters – shown them and their glitzy lives as being far from perfect, shown some struggles and shown the consequences of the girlfriends’ frequent poor decision making. It’s still totally unrealistic and the characters are a bunch of self-absorbed assholes. But there are tiny glimpses of realism now and then that humanize the nonsense and fluff.

And occasionally it hits some nerves. In the final episode of the latest season, messy, selfish protagonist Abby is newly entangled in an affair with a guy who is in the midst of a very fresh (as in, he has not even moved out of the house or started divorce proceedings) divorce. She tries to overlook all the warning signs, her constant string of hurts and wounds, his tendency to shut down and completely avoid her, because their connection, as she herself says, “It’s great, it’s rare, and that’s why we should stop now.” She had been through a divorce that dragged on painfully (as breaking up, particularly in a long and messily intertwined relationship, does) over the course of the first two seasons. The guy, Mike, tries to insist that he is solid and ready, but Abby knows from experience that he is wrong. She argues that everyone told her that you can write off the first full year after a divorce because you are and will be “certifiable”; she tells Mike she ‘ruined’ a man because she was so raw and not ready. Maybe the timing is wrong, they tell each other, so maybe the door is not shut forever, but for now, she has firmly closed it.

At the very end, I was relieved and uplifted, actually, by the fact that instead of chasing the man or relationship or changing her mind about closing the door, Abby has her ‘epiphany’ and runs to her former colleague and friend to enlist her help in launching a website for women their age. Not that love – or whatever – is not important – but it’s no more important than deciding you’re not taking any more shit, not going to answer to anyone else, and will not get tired of waiting while you’re being jerked around.

On Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness

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“Shy people unsettle others because they unsettle the tacit conventions of social life.”

Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness was not as great a book as I, a lifelong shy person, expected. It did not shed a lot of light on shyness and all its forms and shades – it mostly just introduced us to a slew of famous shy people and the various forms of shyness that ailed them. I expected something more informative or rigorous/scientific somehow, but oh well. Sure, there was some exploration of history, psychology and philosophy and what those disciplines have to say about shyness. But not quite enough.

A few interesting points but mostly it boils down to what I knew before (even if that seems arrogant to say; I know I don’t know everything): being shy is being shy, many people are surprised when they learn that you consider yourself shy, it is not a rare affliction, and sometimes you can fake it (i.e. fake not being shy) in certain circumstances. You never totally get rid of it, but you can tame it – it’s a strange and often mercurial beast.

It has been a swift read as a result of its brevity and lack of depth, so pleasurable and entertaining even if nothing I would necessarily recommend except for a few spots that intersect with topics and conversations I’ve touched on with different people.

Notable bits/quotes:

“Zeno founded the school of Stoicism, a philosophy of self-reliant estrangement from the world and of equanimity in the face of public approval, since status and fame were mere baubles. ‘Stoicism has qualities which foreordained for the bracing of shy souls, as if the men who framed its austere laws had prescience of our frailty,’ write Dalton in Apologia Diffidentis. ‘It is the philosophy of the individual standing by himself, as the shy must always stand, over against a world which he likes not but may not altogether shun.’”

 

“Unlike many of his compatriots, Taine did not think English reserve was the result of an obsession with rank and class that had constipated their emotional lives. It was rather, he felt, that they were brimful of feelings, which were all the more affecting for so rarely bubbling up to the surface to disturb dead-calm waters. The English expressed their passions in ways overlooked by the inattentive, but those who watched carefully could see ‘the emotions pass over these complexions, as one sees the colours change upon their meadows’.”

 

“Shyness may have its roots in human self-consciousness, but it leaves us at the mercy of our animal emotions — making us, in extremis, shake with fear, run away, and hide.”

 

“Shyness did not always have to be an inadequacy but could be a positive quality – something you were rather than something that stopped you from being who you were. Shyness’s energies are often reactive and damage-limiting…; “If you can somehow prevent your shyness from clotting into neurotic risk aversion, it can help you face the world with an added layer of gentleness and curiosity.”

 

(Society-level) shame has receded while (personal) embarrassment has grown: “Although we are more able to retain our self-respect in the face of others’ disdain, we are also more likely to feel ashamed when others might see no reason for us to be.”

 

Oh yes yes yes!: “All through history, letter writing has offered salvation for the shy.”

“A correspondence via the Royal Mail has the potential for show-growing intimacy, enhanced by a deliciously expectant wait between sending and receiving, which e-mail and text messages have since destroyed.”

 

“The Nordic countries rival Southeast Asian ones in the subtlety of their language of embarrassment. A shy Finnish historian I met once told me all the different Finnish synonyms for “embarrassed.” Nolo, the most common word, had a negative sense — for instance, in the phrase “Vähän noloa!” (How embarrassing!), “Nobody wants to be nolo,” he said, “because it also connotes being pitiful.” But there were others words, he added, that roughly tallied with embarrassment — kiusaantunut, vaivaantunut, hämillinen, hämmentynyt — which evoked a more general sense of confusion or discomfort and had a neutral or even positive meaning. Another word, myötähäpeä, the vicarious embarrassment one feels for others, what schadenfreude’s kinder cousin.”

 

(Charles) “Schulz came to believe, in a classically Minnesotan form of self-laceration, that his own inhibitions were upended narcissism. ‘Shyness,’ he wrote, ‘is the overtly self-conscious thinking that you are the only person in the world; that how you look and what you do is of any importance.’ But the lesson of Peanuts is quite the opposite. Who, after all, is a better model of humanity: Lucy van Pelt, who shouts at the world with bone-shuddering conviction, or Charlie Brown, whose shyness has made him a gentle, fair-minded stoic?”

 

“Cultures with a reputation for fostering shyness, such as the Nordic, seem to have a higher tolerance for silence than most. The Swedish ethnologist Annick Sjögren, raised in France, noticed that in her adoptive country the spoken word “weighs lightly” and is no sooner dispensed than it will “vanish into thin air”. French conversation is a rhetorical performance, detached from oneself, so one can say things without thinking, simply to enjoy the sound of the syllables on one’s tongue, without being afraid that one will be called to account for it. In Sweden, by contrast, what one says is a personal marker, and words are pondered for their meaning. Small talk is kallprata, “cold talk”, and Swedish words for the talkative, such as pratkvarnar (chatterboxes), pladdermajor (babblers), and frasmakare (phrasemongers), convey a suspicious attitude toward talking for its own sake. ‘Talking apparently never ceases to be a problem for the Swedes: a lean across an abyss,’ reflected Susan Sontag after living in Stockholm at the end of the 1960s. ‘Conversations are always in danger of running out of gas, both from the imperative of secretiveness and from the positive lure of silence. Silence is the Swedish national vice.’

The Swedish and Finnish words for shyness, blyg and ujo, carry positive associations of being unassuming and willing to listen to others. Many Finnish proverbs point to the value of choosing words carefully and not saying any more than necessary: ‘One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.’ ‘Brevity makes a good psalm.’ ‘A barking dog does not catch a hare.’ ‘One mouth, two ears.’ According to the Finnish scholars Jaakko Lehtonen and Kari Sajavaara, in an essay on ‘the silent Finn,’ the overuse among their compatriots of what linguists call backchannel behavior — nodding, eyebrow raising, saying ‘hmmmm’ while the other person is speaking — is considered intrusive and the preserve of drunks.”

 

My exact observations when I saw film in question; so few words: “The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s characters are similarly sparing with speech. They work away silently in dull jobs at supermarket checkouts or kitchen sinks and drive through the country’s backroads, chain-drinking vodka while exchanging cryptic grunts. In The Match Factory Girl (1990) thirteen minutes pass, in a film just sixty-eight minutes long, before anyone speaks. …”

“Even in the Nordic countries, silence can carry awkward or hostile subtexts, Ingmar Bergman, in his autobiography, attributes his stammering s a boy to the determination of grown-ups not to speak to a misbehaving child until the child was visibly contrite — a cold shoulder far more painful, he recalls, than the ensuing interrogation, wheedled-out confession, and ritual fetching of the carpet beater. The SWedes have a phrase for it: att tiga ihjäl (to kill by silence). Different cultures may differently assess what constitutes a healthy balance between talking and listening. But silence can be deadly in all of them.”

New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, struggled with a lifelong shyness that crippled her, was subjected to extensive electroshock therapy and nearly lobotomized. Finally found a therapist who understood her (Cawley), who did not ask her to change herself but instead encouraged her to live alone and write – embrace her nature. Learn to live with shyness.

Storr (another psych), “Like Cawley, Storr came to feel that solitariness had its uses and that salvation did not always lie in others. … The naturally solitary could find meaning in their lives by embracing this inheritance rather than simply, as Freud advocated, trying to cure make-believe with cold reason.”

Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, was famously shy and retiring and not a particularly pleasant personality. And her Moomins reflect this. “Jansson was a great admirer of the book Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle toward Self-Realization, by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney… ; …According to Horney, there are three kinds of neurotic ‘solutions’ to feeling unsafe or unloved: the expansive, the resigned, and the self-effacing. The expansive neurotics pursue mastery over others; the resigned neurotics strive for independence and self-sufficiency; and the self-effacing neurotics are conflict-phobic, criticizing themselves before others have the chance.”

“Jansson’s lesson is not that shy people should come out of their shells; it is that they should learn to become unneurotic introverts. For Moomins may sulk and skulk fleetingly, but most of the time they are neither needy nor neurotic. Their response to a problem is to think deeply and then make something — a hut, a painting, a poem, a boat carved out of bark — as a way of whittling meaning out of a terrifying world.”

The book even delves into Morrissey and his awkwardness and shyness, which, unlike many others so afflicted, managed to make his shyness work to his advantage. And what I most related to: “In this pre-internet age Morrissey relied, like many other shy British teenagers, on the marvelous efficiency of the Royal Mail and the cheapness of its second-class postage to keep in touch with his fellow human from a distance. The most intense crisis of his adolescence, he later said with his trademark blend of flippancy and dead seriousness, was when the price of stamps rose by a penny.”

And within the Morrissey section, a sub-section on Keats:

“The natural mode for the shy lover was the lyric poem: it recollected one’s embarrassment in tranquillity, at a safe distance from the beloved, and eternalized it within a classic literary form. In Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks argues that one of the great consolations of poetry, with its public articulation of intensely private feelings, is that it helps us to express embarrassment and put it to creative use, making us feel less lonely and estranged in the process. Keats, he says, was a poet particularly attuned to , and insightful about, embarrassment. He felt embarrassed by his lack of formal education, his lowly apprenticeship as an apothecary, his poetry’s poor critical reception, his height (only just over five feet tall)…”

Keats realized that “among the sane, fortifying, and consolatory powers (nature) has is the power to free us from embarrassment, to make embarrassment unthinkable.”

“Keats’s willingness to face the subject of embarrassment in his poems and other writings allowed him to turn awkwardness into ‘a human victory’.”

The keys, though, if you could even call them ‘keys’ as opposed to ‘grin-and-bear-it’ grit (just get through it) come nearer the end of the book.

When offered anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals to help, the writer concludes pretty much what always crosses my mind: “The sadness caused by shyness is real, and helping others to take the edge off that sadness is a noble aim. But taking a drug for social anxiety — for feeling stupid, boring, or unlikeable — feels like shouting at the wind, arguing with the rain. It feels like trying to find a cure for being alive.”

“All the people I have written about in this book were as shy at the end of their lives as at the start of them. They found ways to hide their shyness, channel it, finesse it, or work around it, but it never went away.”

Keep learning

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As SD the Firewall always says, “Every day’s a school day.”

I love that life hands you a whole lot of weird and random stuff to learn from and how it all interconnects in strange ways and leads to the strangest conversations. And the act – and art – of listening, conversing and being open to everything is free. And anything else is a form of arrogance. And comes at a high cost.

Sometimes what you learn is not that useful, such as learning about the existence of some weird 1980s British TV show called Auf Wiedersehen, Pet or a British cartoon called Roobarb (about a dog called Roobarb and a cat named Custard), which made me think of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls of my youth (there was a monkey called Rhubarb and a cat named Custard among those characters). Reading about Congo recently, I obviously learned about the history of Congo but it led me in a lot of different directions, from reading about the Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, who re-invented pneumatic rubber tires in 1888-89 (which led to a rubber boom and a certain kind of enslavement for Congolese citizens, despite there being no formal slavery at that time) to powerful Congolese uranium to Hutu/Tutsi conflict. In a completely different direction, I’ve learned a lot about William Blake the last two days. Then moved right along where I learned a lot about famous shy people and forms of shyness and its roots (read Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness yesterday).

At the same time, I also shared a lot of information about the Slavs (i.e. informing the aforementioned SD that the term “Slavs” refers to all Slavic people, not just former Yugoslavs).

Arrogance

Something else to learn – especially for people who are particularly arrogant – is that there is always something to learn and advice to take. I have met a couple of highly productive but extremely idiosyncratic writers. They invite you to read their writing, professionally or casually, but then cannot deal with the response or hack the editing or proofreading that inevitably follows. One writer was irrationally angry that my mother corrected his spelling – he tried to write ‘brassiere’ but had written ‘brazier’ (haha). Then another writer whose book had some riveting passages and fascinating ideas clearly must not have submitted his book for any editing or advice or even a cursory pass through spellcheck (a couple of references to “Saskwatch” rather than “Sasquatch”. And it was not about some provincial Saskatchewan amateur police force called Sask Watch) before publication.

Yes, every writer needs an editor. Period. Taking sage and experienced advice is a learning experience. Period.

What are we here for other than to learn?

On a scale of 1 to 10

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“What do you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10?”
“How annoying is it to be asked to rate something on a scale of 1 to 10?”

This is a question I have never asked, and will never ask. But it is asked frequently enough that I am used to it and respond to it.

An American friend recently told me that his Swedish ex-girlfriend constantly berated him for wanting everything to fit into this 1-to-10 rating scale. He felt fairly sure that this was a cultural difference – maybe non-Americans did not care for this stick-to-simple-numbers scale. I interrupted, “It’s not a Swedish thing; it’s a man thing.” Not that I know very many Swedish – or non-American – men who go straight to the 1-to-10 scale, but almost every American man I know uses this meaningless shorthand. He argued with me, “But women do take part – they always answer.” Again, I put a stop to it. “Yes,” I said, “They answer. They are conditioned to participate. It’s polite. The answer is something they know you will understand and expect. But think back: has a woman ever once asked you this question? Has a woman ever asked you to give anything a rating on a scale of 1 to 10?” No.

I have never asked the question; I have never met another woman who has or would ask this question. I know this is a sweeping generalization; I have no hard, scientific data backing up this claim, but women generally need more information, more detail, more nuance and more shading when they receive a value-oriented evaluation of something. Men always initiate this question, and even if women will humor them and participate by providing an answer, they don’t usually (in my experience) pose the question.

Take note.