Archive | May, 2011

Tina Fey’s Bossypants

31 May

To best enjoy Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants: 1. Have a couple of margaritas. 2. Be a female, 3. aged 40-ish, 4. who’s well-educated and career-minded, 5. with a kid or two. Now, these are general guidelines, and you can slide on one or two of these requirements, but don’t skip the margaritas (that’s just good policy.) It’s not that readers who don’t fit this description won’t enjoy Bossypants. It is funny as hell, and Fey doesn’t skimp on anecdotes from her stints at Second City, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Anyone will respond to those segments. But there is a reflective tone to the memoir which I think adult women in particular will relate to, as Fey examines how her experiences as a young woman and later as a mother shaped (and continue to shape) her ambitions, neuroses and successes.

Fey’s initial stories about her working-class upbringing and time spent in the trenches of the service industry humanize her enough that we’re willing to follow her when she turns her attention to the challenges of celebrity. She relates these stories by paying particular attention to anxieties most women will recognize. For example, I’ve never had to endure a professional photo shoot for a glossy magazine (and that’s really okay with me), but Fey describes the experience with such frankness and humor that anyone who’s ever had her picture taken will feel reassured.

“Somebody will put up a makeshift wall by holding a full-length mirror next to an open loft window, and you will strip down naked. You must not look in that mirror at your doughy legs and flat feet, for today is all about dreams and illusions, and unfiltered natural daylight is the enemy or dreams.

When you inevitably can’t fit into a garment, the stylist’s assistant will be sent in to help you. The stylist’s assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot’s Wife.

…at this point in time her job is to stuff a middle-aged woman’s bare ass crack into a Prada dress and zip it up. In my case, Esther and I are always mutually frustrated when zipping up the tiny dress. Esther is disgusted by my dimply flesh and her low status. I’m annoyed that her tiny hands lack the strength to get Pandora’s plague back into the box.”

Fey never shies from the fact that being a woman has shaped her experiences and successes. She’s up front about her feminism, but she’s not a cookie-cutter feminist. She challenges women to resist victimhood and plunge on with their ambitions, even in the face of sexism. One particularly funny segment of Bossypants details Amy Poehler’s arrival at SNL and exposes the sometimes subtle, unspoken sexism of the entertainment (in particular the comedy) industry:

“Amy (Poehler) was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start. There were always a lot of noisy “comedy bits” going on in that room. Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’.

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her in and in a faux-squeamish voice said, ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it!’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’

…With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

I can’t say I love Fey’s advice to women facing workplace sexism, however:

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. …

If the answer is yes, you have a more difficult road ahead of you … don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go ‘Over! Under! Through!’ and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

I agree that trusting our own competence is definitely the most valuable response to sexism in the long-run, but sometimes (as Poehler demonstrates) calling others out on their assumptions is valuable and lets people know you’re not showing up just to ferry their coffee.

If you get a chance, I recommend supplementing Bossypants with Rosanne Barr’s recent article in New York Magazine. Both women discuss sexism in the entertainment industry, but Barr’s response is both more strident and more potent. Perhaps Barr’s unwillingness to compromise as a writer, actress and comedian (and ultimately as the boss of her own show) cleared a somewhat smoother path for the Tina Feys, Amy Poehlers and Kristin Wiigs of the next generation.

Fey’s comic timing and original point-of-view are fantastic, and I giggled through most of Bossypants, but long-form prose isn’t exactly her strong suit. Transitions tend to be slight or non-existent, her chapters tend to end abruptly, and her organization is inconsistent. It’s clear Fey spends most of her time writing short sketches and screenplays, as the book’s funniest moments are the lists like “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter,” which includes hopes such as:

“May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.”

and

“And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister,
Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends,
For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.”

Charmingly, Fey isn’t afraid to expose her own insecurities in the interest of honest reflection, and it’s these insecurities which resonate throughout Bossypants. But I believe the specificity of Fey’s point-of-view prevented even open-minded Mr. Irises from enjoying even the funniest bits I read aloud to him. He’s not a nearly-40-year-old woman writer, terrified of having her picture taken, with a working-class background and young daughter, for example – hence my recommended-reader qualifications. Perhaps I should have plied him with margaritas first? Nah. I think I’ll keep both the margaritas and Bossypants to myself (or share them with my girls.) After all, he has Woody Allen.

You Seem To Be On Fire

21 May

If you have been watching my Twitter feed, you may have noticed I’ve been fighting with my work-in-progress and so far it’s winning. Ugh. Thus — no new post this week. No worries, I’m working on it. In the meantime, my latest piece “You Seem To Be On Fire” is up at Smartly Chicago, if you’d care to have a look. Back with something super-amazingly-fantastic ASAP — well, maybe.

Weekly Round Up

10 May

While I wrestle my newest post-in-progress into submission, I thought I’d share some of the most intriguing/thoughtful bits of webby goodness I’ve come across this week. Some newish, some older, in no particular order:


First, I’m hosting the Downtown Throwdown Poetry Slam and Coffee Binge at Blackbird Cafe in Valparaiso on June 3rd. Click through for details, and then tell me you’re coming to read, ’cause I really want you to.

Second, Meet Laurie LaGrone at Fooleryland. Ms. LaGrone writes terrifically smart, funny pieces for Smartly.com (among other things) and her blog has way more.

Next, if you’re into positive sexuality, I give you Violet Blue, author, editor, educator. Her racy site is not appropriate for those under 18 or easily offended, but awesome for everyone else. I particularly enjoyed her recent podcast, How to Flirt With Geeks. (No, I’m not flirting with anyone, Mr. Irises. You’re the only geek for me.)

Also, I discovered the results of the Women in America study, released by the White House in March. It’s a lengthy PDF, but well-organized and pretty clear. Worth a look.

Finally, this is not new but it’s wonderful: the It Gets Better Project, founded by sexuality columnist Dan Savage, works to send positive reinforcement and hope to young LGBTs. Take the pledge, make a video, tell everyone you can.

Smiling at Strangers

5 May

2000irises: Smiling at Strangers

This piece originally appeared on Smartly Chicago:

Smiling at Strangers

At 21, with just $600 in my pocket and the full wind of naïve bravado at my back, I moved to London alone. This dumb fearlessness served me quite well in London, but not without cost. London aged me, taught me fear, and gave shape to my own limitations in a way I’ve been working to undo ever since.

One night, about 11 pm, I was walking the 2 ½ miles from SoHo back to the hotel in Paddington where I lived and worked, when I was approached by an elderly man. I walked the same route several times a week, and by then I knew to be alert and careful: walk purposefully, head up, never make eye contact. Never, ever smile at strangers. Aside from the plentiful homeless, no one ever said a word to me on the street. I was justifiably leery when the man stopped me, but he only handed me a bloom – just the bloom – of a small red carnation and said “Cheer up, love, night’s still young.” Then he smiled and continued on his way. I cradled that flower in my hand all the way back to my tiny room. I hoped it would live for a while, but you know it didn’t.

As soon as the man spoke to me, I realized I’d been walking about London for months with a fierce, cold expression on my face. This ferocity ran so counter to my ordinary cheerful, friendly nature that it disturbed me. I had to consider if my love of London was really worth such a sacrifice.

This transformation began as soon as I arrived in London. Fresh off the airplane, I settled into a window seat on the Tube with my considerable luggage flowered around me. I donned my earphones and cued up my portable CD player (cutting edge technology in 1994.) A man took the seat across from me. As he sat down, I looked up and smiled – just a polite “hello” smile. He smiled back, and I looked out the window.

A moment later, he tapped my arm and smiled at me again – a huge, inviting grin. I smiled weakly, nodded, and pointedly went back to looking out the window. A few minutes later he tapped me yet again and smiled. This time I didn’t respond, but I knew he was staring at me, grinning like an idiot. I hoped he would get off the train soon. Then he touched my knee. I frowned and shoved his hand away.

I resigned myself to hauling my luggage off at the next stop to wait for the next train. When we slowed for the station, I stood up, but he stood too. Then he leaned down and kissed my cheek. I was too astonished to react. I just stood there, horrified, frozen. Finally, another man realized what was happening. He shouted “Hey!” and loverboy dashed off. This was the moment I realized I might have gotten in over my head.

You would think I’d have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t. All over London, men reacted very differently to me than any American man ever had. While, thank God, no one else ever touched me, I’m not used to drawing strangers’ attention, and it took me far too long to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was smiling at strangers.

Perhaps I overcompensated then, disconnecting from others completely in exchange for an imagined invisibility. The old man made me realize I wasn’t invisible at all – just afraid and angry: angry at myself for having been naïve, angry at the world for being dangerous for women. I wanted independence so badly that I fooled myself into believing I was invincible, and when I realized that wasn’t true, I mourned.

I still miss my stupid moxie, the beautiful illusion that I could do anything at all – the same necessary, optimistic lie we still teach our daughters. I would get on that plane to London again in a heartbeat, but if I did so now, I would have to take my fear with me. Heavy luggage indeed.

photo by d’n’c

Swamplandia!

3 May

2000irises: A review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Mr. Irises and I have a longstanding tradition which I never thought was unusual until I mentioned it to friends. We read books aloud to each other. I don’t know when we started doing this, probably over 15 years ago, and I can’t say how many books we’ve shared. Many. We read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud. All seven Harry Potter books. The Chronicles of Narnia. So many more: The Blind Assassin, Tender is the Night, Love In The Time of Cholera, The Secret History, The Keep, etc. I can’t possibly remember them all. Over the past few years, though, we’ve become very spotty about reading together – small children can be so inconvenient. (Stop scowling. That was a joke.) In any case, we kept promising to get back to reading aloud. A little over a month ago we decided to give it another go and chose Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. What a fantastic book to come back to.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtrees: a strange, insulated family living on an isolated island in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Everglades. The Bigtrees have owned and operated the Swamplandia! alligator-wrestling theme park for two generations, but when its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, dies of ovarian cancer, the park falls on hard times. That’s just the beginning. What follows is the tale of a fractured family, founded on a manufactured history, struggling to survive as their self-delusions unravel.

The book is primarily told through the recollections of Ava Bigtree, who is 13 at the time of the story. She’s been so thoroughly insulated from the mainland that the only “ordinary” people she has ever met are the service people and tourists who come to Swamplandia!. She aspires to the magnificent strength and bravery of her mother, Hilola, and after her mother dies, Ava takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin. However, a scrappy 13-year-old who understands alligators far better than she understands people is an extraordinarily vulnerable person. She shows amazing courage, but her blind faith is a terrible liability.

We also spend a good deal of time with Ava’s older brother, Kiwi – a 17-year-old who only wants to escape the confines of the island and go to school like a normal teenager. He reads voraciously and counts himself a genius, but when he defects to the mainland, he learns the hard way just how little he knows. Like Ava, Kiwi has no idea how to interact with other people. As he discovers just how much of his family’s life is a fiction, he becomes more even devoted to them while scrabbling for his own independence.

Other characters in Swamplandia! include the third Bigtree sibling: Osceola, a 16-year-old with a predilection for interludes with ghosts; Sawtooth Bigtree, the aged patriarch; Samuel (Chief) Bigtree, Sawtooth’s fervently delusional son who has raised his children to be fiercely loyal to their family and proud of their home; and The Bird Man, a spectral figure who ostensibly controls the avian life of the swamp. And Russell describes that swamp with such throbbing detail that it too becomes a quasi-sentient being, pulsing with life, both sustaining and treacherous.

Russell writes so beautifully that at twenty-nine, she’s already been singled out by The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker for her prodigious talent. Have a look at Swamplandia!’s opening sentences:

“Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one – to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.”

Swamplandia! is thoroughly original, magical, and deeply suspenseful. Unfortunately, it highlighted one of the perils of reading aloud – it’s impossible to read a whole book quickly, especially when the writing is this rich. One can’t stay up all night, plunging desperately through chapter after chapter. After weeks of mounting tension, though, Mr. Irises and I finally caved in to the pressure and spent three hours straight reading the harrowing last 80 pages, desperate to reach the resolution. It didn’t disappoint. It’s already won the Bard Fiction Prize, and I think we can expect to see this book on more of 2011’s short lists of best fiction. Read it and tell me what you think.

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