Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Notes on a Scandal

I received Notes on a Scandal as a white elephant gift for Christmas. Turns out, it was the opposite of a useless white elephant (a black mouse?)--it's a beautifully written psychological case study. I loved it because it's not really about what it is ostensibly about--a forty-ish woman having an illicit affair with an under-age student; rather, it narrates the sometimes subtle, always disturbing socio-pathology of a controlling, narcissistic, messiah-complected personality.

It's brilliant.

What's amazing to me is that someone read this book and saw movie potential in it. I haven't seen the movie, but the story is so acutely internal--there are literally NO explosions!--that I cannot even fathom how a movie translation would do it justice. (I hear it does, though.)

Barbara Covett (her name, and the names of other major characters, represent intentional literary allusions) is the intensely observant, randomly opinionated, pedantic first-person narrator who nurtures a scary, subversive friendship with a younger woman. Whether or not Barbara is a repressed lesbian is totally beside the point. She becomes obsessed with her younger colleague, the alluring Bathsheba Hart, who joins the faculty at a small private English school as a pottery instructor.

With cool certainty, Barbara describes their inevitable friendship as "spiritual recognition," and she waits patiently for what she anticipates will be an "uncommon intimacy." She observes precise and intimate details of Sheba's body, mannerisms, and relationships; she becomes jealous when Sheba develops a close friendship with another woman.

Zoe Heller develops her protagonist with a subtlety that makes you know, without realizing why you know it, that Barbara is creepily malevolent to Shakespearean proportions. For example, Barbara describes Sheba's friend Sue Hodge as

the sort of woman who wears Lady-Lite panty liners every day of the month, as if there is nothing her body secretes that she doesn't think vile enough to be captured in cotton wool, wrapped in paper bags, and thrust far, far down at the bottom of the wastepaper bin. (I've been in the staff toilet after her and I know.)

Self-deception and self-righteousness cloud Barbara's narrative about her friend's illicit entanglement as she manipulates every fact and every rumor to strengthen the ties of her predatory friendship with Sheba. But Heller develops Barbara's character through her relationships with other characters as well, and through Barbara's own subtle self-revelations. "According to my notes," Barbara writes, "Sheba had no further contact with Connolly after the disastrous H.C. encounter until a couple of weeks into spring term."

According to her notes? Creepy!

Barbara never misses an opportunity for a caustic observation, and her sociopathology ultimately costs her any chance for true intimacy. Early in the book, in two abstruse and easily overlooked paragraphs, Barbara describes a close friendship that had ended abruptly and mysteriously. It's such a subtle hint at a history of social and personal dysfunction that every time the friend's name comes up later in Barbara's
Notes about her new friend's troubles, many readers won't connect the dots of pathology unless they re-read the forgotten episode on page 36.

This book is the fictional version of The Sociopath Next Door: it's both brilliant and disturbing. One review quoted on the back cover suggested that the perfection of Heller's voicing of Barbara's subtly malevolent sociopathology was literary ventriloquism. It makes me wonder how Heller acquired such penetrating insight into Machiavellian psychology. Hmmmmm?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Clever and Heartwarming TV Ad. Not.

Have you seen the Leona's TV commercial? It's sort of disturbing in a Why-is-this-restaurant-endorsing-felony-assault kind of way.

It goes something like this:

Heading: Leona's Clever and Heartwarming Anecdote #328

A Leona's spokesman starts telling the clever and heartwarming story of the Leona's waitress who encountered a rude drunk and handled him with aplomb and tiny bit of brutality.

Rude Drunk Guy tosses his credit card and the check on the floor and tells the waitress, "You're so stupid you probably don't even know how to run the card through the card reader. Let me know if you need me to show you how to do it."

This pisses off the waitress, who punches the guy in the face and knocks his glasses flying.

The on-camera spokesman is all chuckles and avuncular head-shaking at the feisty waitress' spunk--as though she had cleverly one-upped the guy instead of committing an actual crime.

Then he continued the heartwarming anecdote, which someone in an advertising agency somewhere felt would be exactly the thing to bring in new customers to the restaurant: "I was upset," the waitress said, "because when I hit him, I felt that didn't hit him hard enough -- so I hit him again." More chuckling and sympathetic head nodding from the spokesman and his colleagues.

And the television audience is left wondering: WTF? How is this story supposed to bring customers into the restaurant? Are they specifically trying to increase the solve-your-problems-with-hitting crowd? Or are they just trying to discourage rude drunks from thinking "Ah! Leona's!" when they have a hankering for mediocre Italian food?

It makes me wonder, if they don't like you, are they going to send the busboys out to key your car?

Please, enlighten me if you understand this better than I do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Update: Grand Social Experiment

The Peevies embarked upon a Grand Social Experiment (GSE) back in January, in which we pledged to Not Buy Stuff for One Year. Here's what I've noticed:

I spend less time arguing and debating with my kids about whether or not I will take them to Game Stop or Target or the Mall or Barnes and Noble or Chico's. In fact, I spend zero time arguing about these things, and that last one--well, that's me not arguing with myself about going there.

When we're in Target--to pick up a birthday gift for a friend, or paper towels, or bath soap--I don't have kids nagging me to buy them clothes, games, accessories, Pokemon cards, baseball cards, and sports equipment. We buy what we came for, and we leave without spending money on things we don't really need.

However, when I'm in Target alone, I still find myself wandering down the candle and candle accessory aisle, coveting a box of tea lights or an ocean-breeze-scented pillar candle. I think about my living room wall, still decorated with the Christmasy holly and berry wreath, and I yearn for a spring-themed wreath to take its place. I love bringing home a cute new top for M. Peevie, or a sports-themed t-shirt for the boys, just because. But a pledge is a pledge.

I have allowed myself the sweet luxury of buying fresh flowers at Trader Joe's to brighten up the house. I rationalize it with the assertion that I'm not really buying "stuff" I don't need, stuff which clutters my house and fills boxes and which will eventually end up in a landfill. They're organic! I'm helping the Earth, not hurting it. And in a week or two, when I throw them out, my house will be no more cluttered than it was before.

The hardest part of our Experiment for Mr. Peevie is not buying spontaneous little gifts for the kids, like books and music; and the rare book or CD for himself.

C. Peevie does not seem to struggle much with the boundaries of the GSE, probably because he's more interested in buying food than stuff, and food is not off-limits. If we did a social experiment that involved not eating fast food, or not eating out--that would prove to be a challenge for him.

When we entered the challenge, he had been saving for an electronic game system, and he resigned himself to not being able to buy it for another whole year. Within a month of starting the experiment, he decided he didn't really want it after all--which is kind of a beautiful thing.

A. Peevie, who was the first young Peevie to get on board with the program, asserts that it's not too difficult for him to not buy stuff--but he has had several short periods of covetous despair over certain DS games.

M. Peevie has focused all of her stuff-buying energy on pursuing the purchase of a big-girl desk for her room. She has been coping with a small plastic toddler desk, but has recently mounted a campaign to graduate to a student-size desk. She asked if the desk was included in the purchasing moratorium, and I told her no, because buying a desk is not a clutter issue or an impulse purchase, but an anticipated step in her growing up and exchanging her toddler-sized accessories for surroundings that suit her school-age size.

A few days later she said to me, "Mom, I'm going on strike."

"Really," I said. "What does that mean?"

"It means I'm not going to do any more of my chores until I get a bigger desk," she said.

"I think you need to get a job so you can buy yourself a desk," I said, trying to get rid of her while I watched 24.

She poked her head back in my room briefly. "Mom, come see me at the commercial," she said. "I have a job idea." When I checked on her a few minutes later, she told me she was going to get a paper route with her friend Jahaylia. We agreed that if she could earn and save enough money for half of the cost of the desk, that Mr. Peevie and I would crack open our own piggy bank and figure out how to pay for the other half.

She's already there. Time to smash the pig.

So far, the GSE has been effective at putting a stop to mindless consumerism and at reducing-- but not eliminating--our frequent urges to buy things just because we can and not because we need them. I drive past Chico's four times a day, and my head still turns involuntarily to register the colors and styles in the storefront windows. On the other hand, I went to the mall to exchange a Christmas present sweater for a new top to wear to the fancy dinner dance that weekend -- but I walked out empty-handed because nothing caught my eye.

I don't know what it all means. We're only two month into the GSE, and so far, it looks like I'm the one who is having the hardest time with it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Yet Another Fire in the Peevie Homestead

I was feeling miserable with the head cold from hell, and had considerately taken myself to bed. I gave C. Peevie instructions on finishing up dinner: wash, pierce, butter, and wrap the potatoes in foil and put in oven. Remove foil-wrapped rib packs from oven, carefully dump into roasting pan, cover with BBQ sauce, and return to oven. Simple enough, right?

All was well--except for, you know, the fever, congestion like a brick behind my nose and eyes, and prodigious amounts of snot emigrating from my nasal passages--until C. Peevie's friend Lil' Biscuit walked into my room and said, "Um, C. Peevie wanted me to let you know that the oven is on fire."

Most normal parents, I assume, would immediately leap out of bed and race to the scene of the conflagration. Not me. I have a high tolerance for domestic contretemps. I laid there, pondering whether or not this was God's way of putting me out of my mucus-filled misery, and then I asked, "Are there actual flames, or are you exaggerating?"

"Well," said Lil' Biscuit, "There were flames, but I think C. Peevie put them out. And then I kind of thought I was going to die from smoke inhalation."

"Crap," I thought as I pulled my plague-infested self out of bed. "I better check it out."

Sure enough, the entire first floor was filled with smoke. I felt my way to the kitchen and found C. Peevie waving away the smoke that still billowed from the oven.

"I turned the oven off," he announced. "I think the rib juices caught fire. I threw a cup of water on them."

"You threw water on a grease fire?" I asked, extremely unsupportively.

"It's not grease," he said, "It's just meat juice."

"And what's 'meat juice' made of?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Oops. I was remembering what you did when we had that fire in the bathroom."

Well, it all worked out without the help of the Chicago Fire Department or a trip to the emergency room. Which in my world means it barely even counts as an incident.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sticks and Stones

Recently Stephen Colbert (I think, or maybe it was Jon Stewart) made the politically incorrect statement that we need the word "retarded." We can't let stupid, self-serving politicians and linguistically hyper-sensitive word-nazis take our most useful adjectives away from us. It just wouldn't be right.

Across the spectrum, actor John C. McGinley, spokesperson for the National Down Syndrome Society said on Huffington Post that using the words "retard" and "retarded" is offensive, hurtful and demeaning to members of the special needs community. It "belittles people with special needs," he believes.

McGinley suggests that the way we know that "retard" is an "instrument of hurt" is that it is never used as a compliment. He neglected to point out that this is also true of the colorful epithets "stupid," "dickwad," "ass-hat," or "crusty batch of nature"--but that doesn't mean there isn't a time and a place to use those words.

He compares the R-word, as he calls it, to nigger, kike and faggot. He says that the second way we know that we shouldn't use it is by asking

would the circumstances allow for substituting the N-word instead? Could the R-word just as easily be replaced by any number of pejorative slurs that would serve the same purpose? The answer to both these hypotheticals is; not in a million years!

This argument contains a logical fallacy: it presumes the conclusion, that "retard" is a pejorative slur in the same way that "nigger" is a pejorative slur. It's not, in the same way that the word "cripple" is not necessarily a pejorative slur. It can be used that way; but its use does not automatically presume aspersion against paraplegics. The word "nigger" is always, by definition and common usage, a slur against black people. The word "retard," on the other hand, has been in common use to mean a person, thing, or behavior that is backward, laughable, stupid, nonsensical or indefensible.

I submit that using the word "retard" about someone who is not mentally challenged but who is merely speaking or behaving in a stupid way, who is willfully ignorant, only disparages the insultee. The meaning and scope of the word should be judged by its context and intent.

About a year ago Jon Stewart used the word "retard" on his show, and a parent of a mentally disabled child wrote in to complain about it. She was articulate and civil; and her comment sparked a discussion that went on for 71 pages, over the course of a month. Another correspondent on the message board, also parenting a mentally disabled child, wrote, "Words are just words: you can choose to be offended, and you can choose to not be offended."

Who's right?

No one except school-age bullies uses the word "retarded" to disparage people with mental disabilities--not even Rush Limbaugh. It's unnecessary and a little bit retarded for Mr. McGinley and others to campaign to have the word excised from our collective vocabulary. It's ridiculous and exploitative for Sarah Palin to call for Rahm Emmanuel's resignation because he used the word--especially when she defends Limbaugh using it in exactly the same way.

The Green Room Bottom Line: some words offend some people; and we should choose our words, and especially our insults, carefully.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Good Kids, Good Books

We started reading to our kids when they were tiny. We'd take turns sitting in the rocking chair with a baby on our lap, and we'd read Goodnight Moon if it was get-sleepy time, or But Not the Hippopotamus ("serious silliness for all ages") if it was get-rowdy time. I'm so happy that all three of my kids have developed into serious readers, the kind of kids who read on their own and who feel sad if they don't have a book to read.

C. Peevie has become a fan of Agatha Christie (whom I love) and Martha Grimes (who Mr. Peevie loves but I could never get into). I still read to him occasionally, and C. Peevie laughs at my mispronunciation of the occasional French phrases in Murder on the Orient Express.

He recently finished And Then There Were None by Dame Christie. "Mom!" he said, "that book is awesome! I can't believe how good it was!" I remembered having the same reaction. Every time.

A. Peevie introduced me to Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. He chose it for his book report, and when he finished it, he declared, "That's one of my favorite books now!"

"What did you like about it, A.?" I asked him.

"I like how the old man kept on trying and trying and trying to catch the fish," he said. "I admired his...," he searched for the right word.

"Perseverence?" I suggested?

"Yes," he said. "What does that mean again?"

"It means you keep on trying, and you don't give up," I said.

"Yeah," he agreed. "I admired his perseverence."

M. Peevie is going for more modern, but still excellent choices: the Alanna series, by Tamora Pierce. Most nights she and Mr. Peevie hunker down in her room, and he reads to her, interrupted every 90 seconds or so by her questions, comments and exclamations.

But she also loved Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (all three of the kids did), and has started on the other titles in the Time Quintet. She's also enjoying C.S. Lewis' Narnia series with me, although it's taking us awhile to get through The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I love raising readers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Emotional Maturity

The other day I posted a hilarious (to me) true story about a conversation between C. Peevie and myself. Mr. Peevie mentioned it at dinner, and before long we were all laughing and joking about hair cancer.

"It's not funny!" C. Peevie. Long beat. "People are dying."*

*"People are dying" is what the drunk lady said to C. Peevie and his peeps when they were joking around on the El. It has become a Peevie household catchphrase.

"I can't believe you put that in your blog!" C. Peevie continued. "You are NOT going to heaven."

Later, C. Peevie and I were sitting on the couch. "I'm mad about your blog post," he said.

"Really?" I asked, cluelessly. "Why?"

"Because now everyone is going to think I'm really stupid," he said. "I was kidding when I said 'hair cancer.'"

"Sweetie," I said, "No one who knows you thinks you're dumb. And the other four people who read my blog don't matter."

"Well, I don't like it," he said. "It really made me mad." I looked at him. He was serious. I knew I had blown it.

"Honey," I said carefully, "I'm sorry. I invaded your privacy by writing about our conversation, and I'm sorry. I'll take the whole post down if you want, or I'll put in a disclaimer that says you were kidding about hair cancer. I'm really sorry." I believe that sincere apologies should include the words "I'm sorry" at least three times, plus offer a real fix.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, but didn't say anything. "C. Peevie," I said, "I'll make it right, and I won't do it again. Do you want me to take the post down? Or," I suggested, thinking win-win, "you could leave a comment."

He said he'd think about it, but that I didn't need to delete the post. I promised that I would do better at respecting his privacy from now on, and would only post about him with his permission. This might seriously curtail my blogging material, but it's worth it to remain on speaking terms with my teenager.

Meanwhile, how about the emotional maturity of that boy? Only 14 years old, and yet able to come to me, express his feelings when I have seriously offended him, and work toward reconciliation and mutually acceptable boundaries. I have known since he was very little that he is gifted with an emotional intelligence quotient greater than that of most adults, but this awareness and maturity still have the power to astonish me.

C. Peevie is my hero.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Little Rant About Fair Wages

I check Craig's List almost every day for writing jobs. I've found many good leads there, a few of which turned into paying projects.

But sometimes what I see there cranks up my irritability to PMS levels. For example: This ad for a customer service process documenter for a downtown IT company requires a fastidious, skilled and detail-oriented writer who can generate well-written reports based upon the data she collects, and who can also interact comfortably and professionally with customers on the phone.

They are paying minimum wage ($8 per hour) for this communication maven--which basically means that they're looking for someone just out of high school. A Starbucks barista makes more than that ($8.80 per hour). So does a receptionist ($9.18 - $12.46 per hour), a clerical assistant (up to $12.33 per hour), and a babysitter who is still in high school ($10 per hour). The IT company probably pays more per hour for its janitor.

What is up with employers not valuing a skill that most college graduates don't even have? If someone who pours coffee, taps a calculator, answers the phone, cleans toilets, or watches TV while your kids sleep makes more than what you want to pay your writer, then, let's be honest, you are not really seeking a candidate with "exceptional writing skills."

Phew. All-righty, then. I feel better.