Category Archives: Long-winded Conversations W/myself While Tv’s On

The television commercial from hell

Yesterday I was rolled up in a blanket watching a mildly entertaining television program when this marketing atrocity came on the air. It started off like a prescription drug commercial or something. A white, middle-aged professional walks hand in hand with his smiling eight- or nine-year-old daughter through an affluent, suburban neighborhood. She might have a backpack on. Maybe she’s got a bow in her hair. In any case it’s a pleasant father/daughter bonding stroll, perhaps to catch the school bus, UNTIL the adolescent boys in the neighborhood catch sight of this nine-year-old girl and are suddenly whipped into a sexual frenzy. They start shaking and salivating. They’re losing their GD minds over this girl. They can’t resist chasing after her—while she’s with her father, mind you—and telling her how horny they are over the picket fence line.

At this point the burrito that is my body has gone completely frozen. Is this commercial really sexualizing a young girl? But it gets worse. Through some miracle of our digital age, the girl’s body morphs into that of a labrador puppy. On a leash. Because this whole time—joke’s on us—the father has actually been walking his female puppy, not his human daughter. And the young neighborhood rapists who were harassing the father’s human daughter actually wanted to have sex with the father’s puppy, who is apparently in heat and giving off all kinds of lustful signals. Because the rapists were also dogs, all along. And then the advertising geniuses behind this blizzard of bad ideas arrive at their triumphant message: spay your pets.

I don’t know why I should object to this commercial because it hits all the notes that usually wield a positive influence on my decisions: pedophilia, bestiality, slut-shaming, and sexism. Consider the lesson learned. If I ever have a daughter I’m going to make damn sure she doesn’t walk to school wearing some revealing cardigan sweater that might provoke the carnal appetites of neighborhood males following their instincts. My little girl can’t help being sexy as hell, but I can at least put a leash on her and sew her vagina shut. That is how things work in the animal kingdom. Spay your pets, people.

A formal essay about famous frogs me

My mother is exasperated that my husband and I still haven’t made a dime from our famous photograph. “Couldn’t you at least print up some t-shirts?” she says. “You can sell them on www.turtlefrogspiderphoto.com.” I explain to her that it seems exploitative to profit off something that—for whatever reason—inspires people. It’s like selling $5 bottles of Barack Obama water on the Washington Mall. I also explain to my mother that I don’t want to abuse or overextend my 15 minutes of fame. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “If I play my cards right, I can ride this photo all the way to the top.”

My husband and I never aspired to make a full-fledged career out of the spider on top of a frog on top of a turtle that we rescued from my parents’ pool filter last August. How could anyone sustain that kind of celebrity? We never dreamed that the photo phenomenon would go as far as it did. In fact we thought it would go precisely as far as our personal blogs. But the turtle/frog/spider mutant took on a life of its own. First local website cVillain picked up the story and photo. Then it went viral on the internet. Then it went international in OK Magazine and the Daily Telegraph. Then it went epidermal with a giant back tattoo on a California woman. Then it went full circle with Brian McKenzie’s Daily Progress column. Then it went statewide with Sandy Hausman’s WVTF radio story. Here on One Star Watt I will try to prolong the story for at least another week.

All my previous fantasies about being famous involved the New York Times or the Oscars or the White House or (on bad days) the Darwin Awards, not accidental drownings. Granted, the three critters survived their ordeal, but that didn’t stop an irate Albemarle County woman from writing into the Daily Progress. According to Marlene Condon’s editorial, the photo “epitomizes the cruel impact that humans often unwittingly inflict upon the Earth’s creatures.” Since when is it cruel to go hunting for animal carcasses in your bikini? Pool filters are the middle class’s version of raccoon traps baited with Friskies cat food. And I doubt that the chipmunk living in the neon-green Funoodle on my parents’ pool patio would exchange its happy home for personal safety. But Ms. Condon alleges that “[b]y maintaining an uncovered swimming pool, people bring about the deaths of numerous kinds of wildlife that are attracted to the water but then can’t escape the consequences.” Tell that to the three creatures that are in the woods right now writing the Disney/Pixar screenplay of their lives. At least I think they are. I’m a little afraid to return to the place where my dad finally released them after the photo shoot. What if I discover three small skeletons stacked one on top of the other, delayed victims of chlorine inhalation? I would bury them in formation. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that I’m famous.

On the internet especially, I’m surprised the goodwill has endured so long. Usually it takes a much shorter time for a cyber backlash to begin. It’s a credit to the New Age websites that have featured the picture that few people make negative comments. Even the “This is clearly shopped” comments are rare. But please—if I were to Photoshop an image, it would probably be of me and Mick Jagger partying together on the island of Mustique. I have a hip, unfeeling reputation to uphold; I would never choose to be known as the woman who took a heartwarming picture which Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover’s Soul will one day option. (Call me anytime, Chicken Soup.)

But I’m not embarrassed by being the author of the picture. Fame is always cool, no matter how lame its origins. At least my mom has been really impressed with me since the photo started generating buzz. And I’ve discovered that it’s not really how you get famous that matters, but how you deal with the fame once you have it. Once it’s in your lap, do you reject it (no), freak out (no), gloat (yes), start judging your friends “pre-turtle/frog/spider” and “post-turtle/frog/spider”? Certainly. Do you become full of yourself, thinking “I can stack any three things on top of each other—magazine, turkey sandwich, remote control—and they will be transformed into high art when I take their picture?” Of course you do. In the morning I’m going to lay my bowl of yogurt on top of a cat on top of a dictionary and then sell the photo rights for a million dollars.

But at what price fame? Sometimes fame can tear a couple apart. I should know because I was engaged to my husband when I found the turtle/frog/spider and now we’re happily married. All because he remembers that I took the picture so technically I own the rights. Every time I open our freezer and see the preserved topping from our wedding cake—the sugar turtle/frog/spider that Frank Cappellino made for us—I understand that love is the turtle that holds up the frog bride and the spider groom. Or maybe the spider bride and the frog groom? Or maybe humankind? I’m determined to find a deeper message in my photo. In any case someone has his fidgety legs in someone else’s eyeball and someone else is feeling seasick and the ground seems to be constantly moving underfoot. But in a good way. In a way that says one day God will pluck us out of the pool filter of life and unleash us in heaven after having a good laugh at our expense. Or that we will simply succumb to the fumes. Or that I should apply for a photojournalism position at National Geographic Magazine.

On being a writer and being in trouble

It turns out that if you want to be a published writer, you have to steel yourself for being in trouble all the time. You want everything you write to be true and good and universally loved, but sometimes what you write is false and bad and makes people hate you.

The sense of having done something wrong in public is especially hard to grapple with when you’re used to writing for a benevolent audience made up of your parents, your close friends, and boys who find you attractive. When you graduate into the “real” world of print, suddenly every opinionated stranger is privy to your mistakes. Yet each day journalists, newspaper editors, and other prolific writers – especially nonfiction writers – expose themselves to that kind of public scrutiny. Occasionally they offend, they overlook, they eff up, but they don’t stop writing. They don’t have the luxury of hiding in the bathtub until the storm blows over because the next issue is due at the printer’s at 5 o’clock and the ink is not sympathetic to their insecurity.

These people are my heroes. Meanwhile I’m in CVS buying canned soup and I’m paranoid that everyone thinks I’m a shoplifter so I buy extra stuff in hopes that the cashier will stop accusing me with her eyes. I perpetually feel like I’m in trouble. Compound that with actually being in trouble from time to time and I’m basically someone who murders people with her words. If a woman I admire wants to take me to lunch I wonder what I’ve done wrong and then I stop eating lunch for a while because lunch reminds me of being bad. (Probably too much information.)

But the best writers learn from their mistakes, even the big mistakes. And sometimes writers have to do a little ego stroking so their pens won’t freeze up forever. If I spell a word wrong, it’s probably because it wasn’t spelled correctly in the dictionary to begin with. And if I accidentally call Dr. X a pedophile when he is really a podiatrist, maybe my artistic subconscious is tuned into some larger reality where disordered feet prance around in Winnie-the-Pooh socks and drink wine coolers and beg to have their toes painted on a merry-go-round.

I think I messed up again. And I’ll probably regret it in the morning. But morning is for apologies and night is for balls of steel and writing is for people brave enough to say they’re sorry over and over again until the sun sets once more and they can spray paint the highway overpass with bad words like they’ve been dying to do all day.

Veronica Mars, I accidentally lived your life instead of mine

I just finished watching Season 3 (the final season) of Veronica Mars. I would have watched that TV show until the lead actress Kristen Bell died of old age. I would have consumed every second of Veronica’s life until her funeral, and then I would have looked down and discovered that my own hands were all wrinkled around the remote control and my heartbeat had slowed to practically nothing and I was eating Jello in a nursing home.

Then I’d want to start Season One of my own life but the DVDs would be all scratched and time-damaged by then and anyway modern systems wouldn’t be able to play the discs due to changes in digital encoding. So apparently I’d spent my entire adult life watching someone else’s entire adult life episode-by-episode, but I wouldn’t totally regret it because Veronica was a cool and interesting person. She was a teenage detective – that’s so awesome. And while I watched her on TV, I was also a teenage detective solving crimes and helping people. But now I am accidentally an old lady and I’m burying Kristen Bell like someone will bury me soon, not long after I finish this cup of Jello.

So I don’t care if Veronica never knew my name. I don’t care if Logan Echolls was never my actual boyfriend. I followed every Mars moment. I dreamed her dreams. When Veronica solved a high school mystery, so did I. It makes sense that we would grow old and die together. If I weren’t so attached to my television set, I would throw myself into her grave.

Goodbye, Veronica. It was worth it.

I wet my bed after I saved your soul

I’m sitting at home on a Friday night watching ABC because that’s what was on when I came home and I’m too lazy to get the remote from D because he’s on the other side of the sectional couch. Friday night TV is horrible unless you’re into news magazines and/or murders committed by the least likely suspect. But 20/20 just came on and changed my life in an episode entitled “How Young Is Too Young?” I was tuning in and out until halfway through the show, when a seven-year-old, born-again Christian boy started preaching to me out of the clear blue. He had flaxen blonde hair and was wearing a coat, tie, and shiny shoes. He stood in front of his very own church congregation and delivered a sermon about Jesus in a rich Southern accent. Later he was shown wearing a sandwich board in front of an abortion clinic, shouting “Don’t kill your baby!” at women walking in the door. The newscaster asked him if he knew how babies were made. He said no. The newscaster told him she was a Buddhist and asked if she was going to hell. The boy said “Yes, unless you get saved.” The boy said he’s been saved since he was three, when he had a crisis of conscience after he disobeyed his mother. So forget you, Saint Augustine, and your stolen pear. Forget you, Thomas Merton, and your substance abuse problem. You never had to reach maturity to absorb the life experiences and spiritual wisdom that would eventually lead you to the Christian faith. You could have just gotten your redneck fathers to brainwash you with a bunch of Tollhouse cookies and a kid’s illustrated Bible. And oh yes – I found video.

People to hate on TV

Last night D & I shacked up at the Doubletree behind Sam’s Club for my birthday. [A Mitch Hedberg joke interlude: “Ah man I can’t tell you what hotel I’m staying at, but there are two trees involved. They said, Lets call this ‘something…tree’, so they had a meeting. It was quite short. ‘How about tree?’ ‘No, double tree.’ ‘Hell YEAH! Meeting adjourned!’ I had my heart set on quadruple tree. Well, we were almost there.”] I guessed that Doubletree was owned by Sam Walton, but then we arrived and I saw the tennis courts, shapely swimming pool, “Welcome Darden School” signs, and complimentary Neutrogena shampoos in the bathroom. It was a Hilton joint. The only thing it had in common with Sam’s Club were the free cookies. We watched Knocked Up on PayPerView for $10, then Conan O’Brien, who didn’t cost us anything except my already waning tolerance of Hollywood. I don’t know if it was a rerun or what, but the actress Heather Graham was Conan’s guest, and she was so insecure, giggly, needy, and clueless, that I couldn’t believe my favorite late-night host was playing along with her games.

Heather Graham appeared on set in a skintight, salmon-colored, slinky gown with major decolletage. Conan, being the chivalrous host that he is and knowing what is constantly demanded of him by these actresses with abysmal self esteem, complimented her outfit and behaved like he was nervous being in the presence of such a beautiful woman. The studio audience saw the applause cue card and whistled its approval of the babe. Heather Graham mentioned that her friend so-and-so had designed the dress. [Heather’s publicist before the show: “Conan, Heather would appreciate it if you asked her about her dress during the taping so she has the opportunity to name its designer.”] Niceties, blah-blah, Heather Graham giggle fit. Conan, realizing there is no rational segue to the next question, agreed-upon in advance through HG’s publicist, who thinks HG’s answer will make her seem lively and sexy, even though it actually makes her seem lonely and pathetic, asks “So Heather, how do you stay fit?”

“I do Pilates,” she responds. “I’m a Pilates and a yoga freak. And recently I’ve been taking up pole dancing.” Conan raises his eyebrows in the obligatory fashion and the audience hoots and claps like the sign tells them.

“Pole dancing? Really?” he asks her like he is hiding an erection under his desk, not letting on that every sexy actress that comes on his show tells him that she has a new passion for pole dancing or stripping classes as ways to stay in shape or train for new movie roles. Conan hides his boredom so well.

“Yes,” says Heather. Then she giggle-stalls while trying to remember her next line. “And I love to come home at night and put on loud, sexy music and dance around. I close the curtains and dance for hours by myself.” Cheers from the audience and more gaga looks from Conan.

“What are you wearing when you do this, if you don’t mind my asking?” says the beleaguered host.

“Oh, you know, sexy outfits,” says Heather. More applause from the studio audience, like the phrase “sexy outfits” is extremely evocative and titillating. Conan then reminds Heather, per her publicist’s instructions, that last time she was on the show she talked about playing a lesbian in a movie and how she hoped hot women would hit on her. At this point I was so disgusted and I felt so badly for Conan that I turned off the TV. I couldn’t believe that HG played the pole-dancing card AND the lesbian card. She was overeager to prove herself sexy and desirable, and she just came off as trashy and desperate.

Does anyone else have fantasies about what they might talk about with Conan if invited on his show? I’m still not sure what subjects I would broach, but here are the ones I would avoid because they are so fucking transparent:

1. My secrets for staying so slim and good-looking, with or without live pole-dancing demonstration.

2. My exciting secret life of getting lap dances at strip clubs and making out with other girls.

3. My celebrity girlfriends and our naughty sleepovers.

4. How I haven’t met the right man yet, how I actually have a hard time meeting men, and are there any available men in the audience.

5. How I was a big dork in high school.

Get over yourselves, pretty ladies. No one believes you, especially Conan, and the studio audience is just hoping that their catcalls will make it onto TV. You are lame and you are boring. Next time discuss the Iraqi War or something, an actual event from your life that’s not a contrived, sexy anecdote, or better yet, just let Conan talk. And you’re getting too old for that tedious blonde hair.

P.S. Sorry so mean. Heather, you were great in Boogie Nights.

A few generations of hair

When Jennifer brought her two-year-old daughter Harper to the nursing home to visit my grandmother, we pushed the wheelchair into the sunlit center courtyard, wound vacuum in one hand and “Co-Cola” (as they say in Georgia) in the other, and we were all cheered up by watching Harper run from plant to plant and tree to tree, poking her little fingers at bark and bloom. She swung round and round the crape myrtles until the salubrious effects of my grandmother’s Valium started to wane and we went back inside.

After they left, my grandmother pronounced the red-headed Harper “full of beans.” She said Jennifer was delightful too, but after a few beats she wondered “why such a pretty girl would do that to her hair.” Maybe she was just hair-obsessed because her own hadn’t been washed for a couple of weeks, except by a shower cap shampoo at the hospital, which just seemed to make her hair greasier. I offered to bring her some astronaut shampoo, but she really wanted a wash and set.

“Well,” I said, “I think the crimson and purple look great on Jen.” Big Wis looked at me skeptically. “And actually I saw a picture of her head shaved once. She’s one of the few people I know who can carry it off.” In her silence I became self conscious about my split ends and the rat’s nest at the back of my neck. I thought of the time in 10th grade when I tried to pierce my eyebrow with a safety pin, but my skin kept spitting out the ring, rejecting the transplant. And the belly button that got infected in 8th grade because I’d gone too deep with the needle. And the time I ran away. And my senior year of college when I dropped out for a semester, gained major lbs (could no longer fit into those Gap khakis and Talbots button-downs she loves so much), and developed some substance abuse issues. And the nails – always too short – always more obvious than the other mistakes. (Since I was a kid – “If you grow them out, I will buy you a new such and such/take you to Chucky Cheese.”) She nudged me a few times in the hospital room to stop biting.

“At least Jennifer doesn’t have tattoos,” I said. “Or piercings.”

“Yes,” said Big Wis. “That is certainly true. It could be worse.”

We try to prevent our grandparents from knowing exactly how much worse it can get. But I have decided that they like the challenge of loving us through the phases and rebellions (as long as they get to love at a distance). I think they’re proud in some way that they’re still friendly with the cool kids. Even though Big Wis came back from the nursing home salon that afternoon with a smooth grey helmet for a head instead of her natural, wild curls, I felt like she was inspired in some small way by Jennifer’s hair. Just like she was inspired by Harper’s somersaults in the grass. At any rate, I feel like it’s good for older people to see the most flagrant signs of youth. And I don’t think that it’s intolerance that makes some grandparents shake their heads at the mohawks and ripped jeans and gum-chewing on the street corner (yes, I think like a 1950s housewife sometimes – that is my secret), I think they’re just over all that stuff. They just want to meet people so put-together that looks aren’t a distraction. They don’t understand people trying to draw attention to themselves in that way. “Why would such a pretty girl do that to her hair?” was a very real question to my grandmother. She didn’t see that appearance can still be an effective translator of emotion. Especially, I think, for people who are attracted to metaphor, to poetry, and to art in general.

Later that day I explained to Big Wis that Jen had had a really tough year, and my grandmother said that she was sorry, and that she now understood the hair.

Between a quirk and a hard place

This article by Michael Hirschorn from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled Quirked Around, could easily be expanded to be an encyclopedic cultural history of the mid-90s to the present. Quirk. The word makes me shudder. The word has caused me to put down many modern novels after a page and a half. And yet quirk is so well integrated into our contemporary literary, comedic, and cinematic standards, that it’s really impossible to escape. And I’m not totally sure I’d be able to say goodbye. I read the Atlantic article on my laptop while watching Home Movie, a quirky documentary directed by the same guy who made American Movie, the quirky documentary about the sub-par, mid-Western, horror movie director Mark Borchardt. Home Movie is about a handful of eccentric characters across the United States and their bizarre homes. There’s a Louisiana man who lives on a houseboat and sells alligator heads to tourist shops. There’s a flute-playing, drum-circling couple who inhabit an underground missile launch site in Kansas. There’s a former Japanese sitcom star who looks like the Joker and lives in a treehouse in a remote Hawaiian jungle…You get the idea. It’s all very fascinating, to tell you the truth, and there’s a part of me that wishes I had “discovered” these people. I could have stolen them for a book. How could you not fall prey to the quirk, in spite of your best intentions? It reminds me of a conversation I had with my cousin Nick who lives in Brooklyn [most excellent Nick, most excellent Alice, their kickass life together with loaded guns, great captions, & NYU photo school degrees]. We were sitting in a hip neighborhood bar in Red Hook, on a street which was the last street I would expect to find a hip neighborhood bar, on a street where grizzled old men rode bikes with ancient fishing poles strapped to their backs, where the door to the bar looked like it had been built out of weathered sailing ships, and Nick said that there was no such thing as authenticity anymore. It seems like the minute you find a genuine dive bar in Brooklyn, where locals have been drinking beer for decades before the college kids started gentrifying the neighborhood, where the jukebox hasn’t been refurbished to play only Rolling Stones and David Bowie jams, you immediately make the place uncool and inauthentic just by being there. Because you secretly know you don’t belong. You are one of the enemy. The bartender who wears an eye patch because he’s actually missing an eye, and not because he thinks it’s funny to look like a pirate, should refuse you service. You don’t belong because you’re outside looking in. Suddenly you’re peering suspiciously around the bar, judging how “real” everything is, to what extent the regulars lack self-awareness, whether any drink specials involve PBR. You’re judging the other hipsters who walk in two minutes late to the new scene. YOU were there first. You discovered the place.

I’m getting way off track here. Let me try to bring this back around.

I think the problem with quirkiness is the same as the problem with finding a normal bar in Brooklyn. You’re staring too hard. You’re forcing it. You don’t need to watch an eccentric alligator herdsman to feel interested in humanity. Look in the mirror sometime. You’re special too, without having to be obsessed with styrofoam solar system dioramas or owl poop. Your novel doesn’t have to be about the train conductor with a three-legged hamster who sits on his shoulder. Your hipster bar with the hipster tennis shoes dangling from the hipster bar stools is an authentic place too. The people who are just being themselves and having real human emotions and real human lives without any bullshit, contrived quirks, are always going to be better “subjects” than the dime-a-dozen, “I have a thousand cats,” “my back is tattooed with pictures of the Rice Krispies guys,” kind of people. Before you can write great fiction, or be comfortable sitting with your friends at any bar (and I’m a long way from both), you’ve got to accept that you yourself are okay, that you yourself are a real “character,” deserving of the best and the worst beers, without all the witty, quirky accessorizing.