yet this is you

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Another year older. A bit jaded, a bit worse for wear, but I can’t complain.

Portrait d’une Femme
Ezra Pound
Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind — with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that’s quite your own.
Yet this is you.

Lunchtable TV Talk: People meet… what comes next?

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With the ever-expanding variety of TV-style content available at the ready, old themes are taking on new polish. It’s no secret that storytelling is becoming more nuanced and diverse, and storytellers are becoming freer to tell their stories without the constraints of things like network TV schedules and limitations, demands for typical romantic sitcom tropes or pandering to certain audience demographics. Within this landscape, different kinds of romantic comedies are finding their “hour upon the loom of days” (cannot resist, however inappropriate the tone, an Ezra Pound reference…).

In the middle of these emotional days, I watched the widely praised little comedy, Catastrophe, which chronicles the accidental relationship borne of an accidental pregnancy resulting from a casual one-week fling. The couple decide to make a go of it, with the American half of the couple moving to London to pursue a relationship with the Irish woman he’s knocked up. I won’t heap rosy praise on it (other viewers have done this enough), but I will concede that it can be quite funny and “real” in ways that most sitcoms laboring under this premise could not be.

Given my state of mind, though, it mostly made me sad and reflective. Thinking about how people meet and what propels their relationships forward. How is it that they decide, “This is what I want. This is the person I want to be with”? It would be easy to say that the characters here chose to be together only because the woman was pregnant, neither party to the couple is particularly young and perhaps neither felt they had much to lose. The show did a good job at making the relationship feel more deliberate than that by highlighting the doubts and fears the characters felt – particularly the woman. The man seems quite sure (and reassuring) and never strays from this underlying conviction, even when friends, family and circumstance try to convince him otherwise.

Perhaps it was his commitment and willingness to work at it and to “put up or shut up”, in a sense, that struck me.

Overall, Catastrophe, despite having a few semi-crass jokes and whatnot, is sweet and gives the viewer a palette on which it creates two whole, three-dimensional adults who find themselves in a surprising situation. How people deal with the unplanned is telling.

The unplanned and unpleasant drives another surprisingly sweet (and short) sitcom, Scrotal Recall, which, despite its raunchy name, is both worth watching and not at all what you think it is. It follows (without bothering about chronology) the story of a guy who discovers he has an STI and needs to inform all his previous sex partners. The show finds its comedy not just in the awkwardness of trying to break the news (“Hey, sorry you’ve not heard from me in a year, but congrats! You may have chlamydia!”) but in the retelling of the stories that led the character to get into all these sexual situations in the first place. Bubbling along in parallel with these flashbacks is the ongoing, years-long tension between the main character and his friend/roommate (the old story about close friends of the opposite sex – one has a crush on the other but is scared to say or one of them has a relationship already so the timing is off… and the timing always seems to be off. It’s another version of Ross and Rachel but … cuter and less important to the storytelling). In fact, Vox compares the show to How I Met Your Mother without the irritating pomposity of Ted and without the sociopathic tendencies of Barney. I agree but add that it is much more relatable and less formulaic, and actually, in its own slightly bumbling way, quite sweet.

While this pair of sitcoms (both with roots in the UK) resides at the “sweet/nice” end of the spectrum, it stands to reason that there would be similarly angled sitcoms at the other end. That is, sitcoms that go against the grain, challenge one’s perception of a “relationship” or “dating” comedy. (This does not take into account recent takes on the ennui of marriage, such as Togetherness or Married, neither of which is perfect but both of which finally do away with some of the stupid/schlub husband + hot wife making fun of him trope that has long populated the mainstream TV landscape.)

Perhaps most routinely misanthropic and sometimes annoying but nevertheless funny and human is You’re the Worst, in which two young… let’s call a spade a spade here… assholes hook up after getting drunk at a wedding. They are both firmly convinced that they are not relationship material, commitment phobic and perfectly happy with a casual, no-strings setup. But most of the first season is spent making us – and them – realize that they’ve been wrong. It’s a little bit cliche when you write down the premise, but the execution makes it what it is. I honestly did not think I would like it. The advertising I saw surrounding the show struck me a lot like the Comedy Central advertising for Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. The ads made these shows look offensively bad (not in a good way), while in fact, both are genius. You’re the Worst won’t make any “genius” lists, but despite it being ages ago that I consumed the first season, I remember a few gems that pulled me in – from the Phil “Groovy” Collins v Peter Gabriel argument between the show’s leads to the “Sunday Funday” (although if I recall these were in the same episode, and I think the guy who plays Pied Piper CEO Richard in the brilliant Silicon Valley plays one of the poseur-follower idiots copying the Sunday Funday). At its heart, the show does display two people who are actually the worst (you would hate these people if you knew them in real life) but find each other, defend each other, fall in love with each other… and I suppose that things boil down to that kind of cliche. We go through life hoping to find that person we can relate to, be completely our ugly selves with and land, as someone once said to me in better times, “land in the tall grass”.

On an entirely different plane, particularly as it borrows liberally from fantasy and the grotesque rather than grounding itself in reality, Man Seeking Woman explores the dating life of a single guy after a breakup. On one of his first post-breakup outings he meets a woman who is portrayed – literally – as a troll. In another episode, he is invited to his ex-girlfriend’s party to find that she is dating Hitler. Yes, that Hitler. He is not dead and has just been hanging out/hiding out, is ancient and rolling around in a wheelchair. Each episode ups the ante with this surreal take on the world, with one equating marriage with a prison sentence – you become a useful penis in the suburbs with a drill sergeant wife – life sentence without possibility of parole. Some insights shine through the absurd concepts and visuals, even if some things go too over the top for me. The absurdity, though, almost always serves to channel some more basic truths: the concept of remaining friends with members of the opposite sex once you have moved on and how partners may have different rules for that depending on the relationship, the nature of marriage, the cocoon-like pod people that new couples become and much more along the same lines.

The Call of the Millennial – The Rebel Yell?

Apart from the aforementioned Catastrophe, which features basically middle-aged people, the other shows and television in general have been flooded with shows featuring millennials on the hunt – for fun, for sex, for love, for drugs, for something. Sometimes they don’t even know what they are looking for but find something anyway. Perhaps this aimless search is how and why these shows work. Familiar themes explored through a new lens – but with a slightly rebellious twist?

The Guarded Cocoon

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I remember, entirely without fondness, those nights in childhood when my “friends” and I thought it was a great idea to spend the night at one another’s houses. What could be better than extending the illusion bought during recess and other stolen moments of playing together that we were such great friends that spending 24+ hours together would somehow enhance the “friendship”? My own participation in this ritual and seeming rite of passage was reluctant – at the time I really thought I wanted to do it, and that if I did it, I would somehow grow accustomed to it and how awkward and uncomfortable it always was, particularly for a person like me (shy, quiet, accommodating and always aiming to please – willing to endure hell for the sake of keeping peace). And endure I did. If I once went to someone’s house, I might have been suffering in silent misery, as I often did, but if I had decided I was staying there, I stayed. The only memorable exception to this happened much later, when I was in high school. I had been invited to someone’s overnight birthday party – a girl who was friends with friends, not really my friend directly. My discomfort outweighed my sense of wanting to preserve social harmony; I went home, mostly because it was time to acknowledge that even the friends in that situation were not really my friends.

But one of the strangest scenarios in these overnight adventures were the times when you would get a kid who was like an overeager puppy – so excited to come and stay with you, talking about all the things you would do together when they got there, how you were their best friend ever… and so on. And once they were there, and darkness started to fall, they also whimpered like a little puppy away from its mother for the first time, eventually the whole thing escalating into panic attacks and tears that no one but their mother could calm. This resulted in middle-of-the-night phone calls to their parents, who promptly came to pick them up, saying, “Maybe we can try this again next year when XXXXX is a bit more socially mature.”

I imagined that those kinds of events had ended when I became an adult. Imagine my surprise to find myself in a not entirely dissimilar situation with a full-grown adult who did everything short of calling mommy on the phone to come and get him (and he might have done had his mum been in the same country). I don’t really know how to apply words to this – to describe how jarring this is or how intensely it really takes me back to that awkward place in which I spent so much of my childhood. Really looking at the whole situation, though, all the same pieces were there, and had I not wanted to buy into the illusion now as much as I did when I was a child, I would have seen, understood and never let things reach this stage. I could have set aside the eager-to-make-friends kid I had been and let my inner, overreaching “parent” take over (since, as we know, I have always been a bit of a senior citizen) and be reasonable. Yes, reasonable. I could have seen that it was the same pattern playing out – the eager puppy, full of excited plans, grand words, high and undeserved praise – all empty, really. Not that nothing had been true in the friendship – just that it was applicable in a “limited-time-only” kind of way (not unlike the KFC Double Down sandwich. HA!). That is, when we were “at recess” together or spending time in our fertile imaginations, things were beautiful. But reality is different. Long-term reality is apparently worthy of panic and backpedaling and fearful apologies that cite all the reasons why I should not feel bad, i.e. because it’s “not about X, and it’s not about Y” – but I know, because these are the first and only things mentioned, that it is exactly about and mostly about X and Y.

I am not sure that I have ever been in a weirder situation. I have been in situations that I became a part of because I wanted to believe in them even if I knew it was a foolish idea because I always hope things will be different than reality has taught me. Sometimes someone – a friend on the playground or a casual wanderer through my life’s landscape – will pique my interest enough, show just enough understanding and enthusiasm – that I set aside the doubt and step furtively into the house constructed of walls that some other person built. I did not construct these illusions – I just watched and went along with it because it seemed like such a welcome respite from everything else. Because I wanted to believe maybe the walls they built would somehow, finally, stand – and be solid.

I get something even from the failures (something positive) and reinforcement that I really need to listen only to my instinct and absolutely nothing else – but ultimately the negative outweighs the positive and is always an expensive lesson (both literally and figuratively) – sending me further into the guarded cocoon where I live out most of my days.

From Portrait d’Une Femme

Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days

-Ezra Pound

Reading the Riot Act … in poetry time

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“Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind —   with one thought less, each year.”
-Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’Une Femme

I recently used the expression “reading the Riot Act” and then felt compelled to think about it and where this expression came from. How many expressions are we using every day without really having a clear answer as to where they came from? Many months ago, I referred to “Big Brother” watching us, and, if I remember correctly, the colleague to whom I was speaking replied with something about reality TV shows. (I made sure to inform her that Big Brother comes from the must-read book, Orwell‘s 1984, and months later supplied her with a copy, which she devoured and loved.) Actually the same woman and I had a talk the other day in which she described the stereotypical (and yes, it’s totally derogatory) “Shylock”, so I mentioned “Shylock” – and again got to explain the origins of this reference (as well as the reference to the oft-cited demanding one’s pound of flesh). Oh, how much of this language and its complex web of references is attributable to Shakespeare? Okay, not Big Brother, but … the English language is practically sewn together with Shakespearean expressions and imagery.

I never consider myself that literary. I am not the kind of person, in my imagination, who makes literary references (neither the highbrow kind that only certain people will “get” nor the everyday “everyone should know this” kind – lately it seems that the only reference anyone makes that anyone gets is from pop culture rubbish “lit”). Despite this self-evaluation, I tend to find a poem or line from a poem (or at least a song) that fits to every situation. And so much of it ties into memories.

I was thinking for example of a former classmate, Frank. Someone I genuinely liked and respected, but one among several of the high school era people I knew who just decided to go away and live a life disconnected from the past. I gave a lot of thought today to how much he despised being forced to read and analyze poetry in our senior lit class. Symbolism seemed the most ludicrous thing ever. He was profoundly … almost disgusted by William Carlos Williams and the reverence our teachers afforded this guy and his red wheelbarrow and white chickens (not to be confused with the chicken that my current company dubiously had in some of its ads).

We had an assignment in which we were assigned a poet to research, and Frank was given Ezra Pound. (He could have chosen another poet but probably would not have wanted to invest the time to select one.) I distinctly recall Frank claiming that there was a reference in one of Pound’s poems that read: “the monkey screams”. Where did he get this? Perhaps from Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (“The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.”)

One year in high school we also had to analyze Pound’s “Portrait d’Une Femme” as a part of our (nerd festival, in which I participated willingly and gleefully) academic decathlon competition. At the time the poem held very little meaning for me, but over the years has assumed a bittersweet kind of importance, as I recognize in it bits of myself. Poetry and music both have a way of reaching me (and probably all people) in different ways at different times. This poem seemed so remote when I was young and had no life experience, and then suddenly, these references to being second always and yet preferring it – or the final lines: “In the slow float of differing light and deep,/No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that’s quite your own/Yet this is you.”

It simply cuts – and cuts the right way, however painful the realizations that come with it. I don’t know another way to put it. I know many people find poetry completely unrelatable, but for me, it is alive and takes on new lives each time I read it. Much like these expressions we adopt into our vernacular … and forget how they got there and maybe what they originally meant.