The day Tony Soprano will not open his eyes

It’s one big memento mori, “The Sopranos.” You don’t realize it while you’re watching the series at first, because the show is so drenched in sex and food, gore and comedy, violence and pathos and banality. But death is there from the very beginning, and it’s telling you something: Just wait. It will happen to you.

The series has recently gained a whole new audience, almost 15 years after its finale on HBO. This is obviously in large part because of the recent release of “The Many Saints of Newark,” a feature film purporting to fill in some of the backstory of the lives of Tony Soprano and his kin. But the comeback is also due to something else: As the New York Times’s Willy Staley posited, younger audiences see themselves in Tony Soprano’s “combination of privilege and self-loathing,” or they see today’s America in the show’s portrayal of the ’90s era of decline and fall.

Staley says the show was prescient in a way that sheds light on our specific timeline. But I think it deals with a theme that never stopped being relevant, namely, salvation. And did I mention death?

In the very first episode, Carmela Soprano, Tony’s wife, steps into the room where Tony is getting an MRI, hoping to find the source of his inexplicable collapses. In eight lines of dialogue that provide a primer to their marriage, Tony mawkishly offers a nostalgic olive branch, and Carmela quickly escalates: “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die!” Then Tony’s body, covered only by a hospital gown, is fed into the machine.

Carmela later retracts her furious words. But where Tony is going from Episode One on—and Carmela, too—really is the central question of the show.

It is not explicitly a religious question. The church appears mainly as a cultural and aesthetic force in the lives of the show’s characters. Sin and virtue are treated as a curiosity, and even the priests are willing to help that world view limp along unchallenged, as long as they get their manigot.

In a sense, the most Catholic parts of the show are not the explicitly Catholic parts. Whether it’s the Holy Spirit (in the guise of that numinous wind that moves throughout the series) or something more amorphous, a moral force does press on the lives of the various characters, demanding their attention.

They are all constantly presented with choices: What matters more, business and efficiency or loyalty and family? When we identify what was wrong with the past, do we reject everything about it? If we see what was good about the past, may we hope to retain any of it? Once we understand why we do things, how culpable are we, and how capable are we of change? Once we realize we are wrong, how much must we give up to make things right? Anything?

Carmela is given perhaps the starkest moral choice of any of the characters (except for maybe Paulie Walnuts, with his cataclysmic vision of the Virgin Mary at the stripper’s pole): The almost prophetic psychiatrist Dr. Krakower tells Carmela, plainly and without pity, that she must leave Tony, must take no more blood money, must be an accomplice no longer.

“One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told,” he intones.

You could see this scene as the show leaving a small marker, bobbing on the surface of the water, reminding the viewer: Don’t forget, wrong is still wrong. We may be humanizing murderers in every episode, showing them eating their sloppy pepper sandwiches and struggling with their teenagers just like anyone else, but murder is still murder. Death is still death.

Carmela leaves Dr. Krakower’s office stricken. She huddles on the couch at home, pondering these things in her heart. And then she finds a priest, a good priest, who gives her a softer message. He tells her that she should find a way to live off only the legitimate parts of her husband’s income, and that is how she will find her way. But soon enough, despite some dramatic side journeys, she makes her way back into the same old patterns.

Carmela is almost an inverse of the Lady of Sorrows, who endures so many awful indignities: Carmela takes away no good from her anguish; she only suffers. She feeds everyone and cares for everyone, and everyone comes to her for comfort. She listens to everyone, and with her deep, hollow eyes she sees through everyone, and she always tells people the truth about themselves. But when it comes down to it, she has her price, and can be had for presents and jewelry.

Carmela’s insight also goes dim when there is something she doesn’t want to know. It has been her life’s work not to see that Tony was capable of killing people—including his own loved ones and relatives. Carmela’s brittle manicure and spraddle-legged gait betray the terrible tension of keeping so much horror in check within her.

Her dalliance with real estate is more than just a way to build a nest egg. It is her answer to Tony’s impending, inevitable death: to pile up money for herself and her children. She knows that throughout her whole life, she has been building with rotten materials. But she also knows she can make the sale if she keeps pushing hard enough. It’s not just the house she’s building as her own project to sell, it’s everything.

And this is how the show draws us in. It gives us the same choice: How will you hold all this knowledge in check? We’re going to show you so many things about what people are like. What will you do with the knowledge? How will you accommodate it?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. 

Image: Tony on the Subway by Alan Turkus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

What I’m watching, reading, and listening to this week

 . . . before falling asleep on the couch with a shoulder full of drool. 

WATCHING:

Moone Boy

Hilarious, delightful, insane, a teensy bit blasphemous maybe. Martin is the youngest child of a slightly terrible Irish family in the 80’s, and he and his imaginary friend, played by Chris O’Dowd, get into various ridiculous scrapes. I like Chris O’Dowd, but the imaginary friend bit is actually the weakest part of the show, I think.

The show is very Irish, so they get more digs in against the Church than we’re used to seeing, and though it’s not mean-spirited, I think they cross the line sometimes (crucifix gags, Eucharist gags). Some of the less edgy religion jokes are so funny, though, and I just love how the family clearly all love each other but kind of can’t stand each other. It’s just a very sweet, silly show that goes in some unexpected directions. A real gem. 

Here’s a clip that includes the theme song, and one of my favorite bits, where all the dads form a social group to commiserate about how awful their kids are

“Connor and Jonner Bonner, get back here!” The kid who plays the main character is so good, and so is his weird friend. Looking forward to seeing him in other things. 

We have been watching it on Amazon Prime. I believe it’s also on Hulu.

***

Mr. Inbetween

Ehh. We gave it several episodes, and I just didn’t care for it. This Australian show follows a single dad who makes his living as a hitman while caring for his disabled brother. It was billed as a dark comedy, and maybe I just brought the wrong expectations to it, but it just wasn’t landing right with me. I can’t actually remember what I didn’t like about it, which makes this less of a review and more of a request: Should I keep watching? Does it get more appealing after the first 3-4 episodes, or are they a fair representation of what the show is like? 

Here’s the trailer:

***

Better Call Saul

We’re halfway through season 5 (I think), and while I’m still consistently impressed with this show, I’m not enjoying this season as much as previous seasons. I still think it’s one of the best-crafted shows on TV — best casting, best characters, best dialogue, smartest, funniest, saddest, most realistic relationships, you name it — but some of the past seasons were just delightful, and this season feels more workmanlike, like they have a list of things they need to accomplish before the end of the season, and it’s just not as much fun. Anyway, still a better show than Breaking Bad, and that is freaking saying something. 

Here’s the Season 5 trailer:

***

READING

I’m super bored with the books I’m reading on my own, but we have some good read-alouds going:

Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren (author of Pippi Longstocking). The book is not illustrated, by the cover design of the edition we got is by the wonderful Trina Schart Hyman, who apparently got Corrie to model for her.

Very funny, very exciting, and really makes you long for adventure in the natural world. Ronia is the only child of a robber chieftain, a strong, happy, wild person, born on the night of a terrible storm, when harpies swarmed through the air and a giant bolt of lightning cleft the ancient fortress in half. Ronia has just discovered that another child, the son of a rival robber chieftain, has moved into the other side, which is separated from their living quarters by a bottomless chasm — and that the two robbers were friends as children.

It’s a very smooth, natural translation. Here’s a sample of the text, so you can see how fluid it is for reading aloud:

I’ve noted before that Lindgren is one of the few authors who is able to pull of characters who are both interesting and kind; no easy feat. The chapters are relatively short and satisfying. Has some spooky magical peril that might be too much for very sensitive kids.

We watched part of the Studio Ghibli animated series but eventually lost interest, I think partially because it actually followed the book too carefully, which made the pacing odd for screen. 

***

Saints Around the World

We’ve been reading a chapter a night after family prayers.These are mostly saints we’ve never heard of, including lots of saints from relatively recent times, and from countries that we don’t know a lot about.

The stories can be read in just a few minutes, and Hunter-Kilmer does a good job of highlighting a single theme in a way that rings true but makes you want to learn more about that saint’s life.  The illustrations are bright and dignified, but are a little odd to my eyes — they make the saints all look sort of like children, but not quite — but they seem to appeal to my kids, and the illustrator has gone to a lot of trouble to include accurate details that add to your understanding of the history.

I wish we had had this book when the kids were searching around for saints to pick for confirmation names, but in any case, it’s a great daily reminder of the neverending variety there is in the universal call to holiness, and about the universality of the Church. Highly recommended.

The tone and reading level is aimed at maybe grade 3, but the material is more than interesting enough to capture the attention of all ages; and although it doesn’t go into gory detail, it doesn’t sugarcoat the facts of martyrdom or persecution. 

***

I also read the first big chunk of Tolkein’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the kids

and stopped right after the knight’s head got chopped off, in hopes that they would be so captivated, they’d clamor for more. They did not. Oh well. 

Still haven’t seen the movie. I will admit that it’s been many years since I’ve read the book myself, and I feel like I remember the main points, but I wanted to be able to argue with smart people about it, so I wanted to brush up on it first. The upshot of this strategy is that I have neither re-read the book nor watched the movie, and now I’m too tired to do anything but fall asleep on the couch at night. Good one, Sim. 

***

LISTENING TO

Nothing. I don’t know. I need something new. I have discovered that there is one public radio show that I will absolutely not listen to no matter how desperate I am for diversion, and that show is On The Media. I’d rather be alone with my thoughts, if you can imagine such a thing. 

Hate cancel culture? You should love The Muppet Show’s content warnings

Conservative media is concerned about the Muppets.

Kermit Cancelled? Disney slaps offensive content label on the Muppet Show,” Sunday’s headline on The Daily Wire read. The Daily Mail UK scoffs: “The Muppet Show appears to be the latest victim of political correctness with new warnings over its historic content.” Is Outrage! Snowflake libs are even ruining The Muppet Show! 

They’re upset because when Disney+ re-released The Muppet Show this weekend, sixteen of the episodes came with a content warning reading:

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

As a recovering Rush Limbaugh Conservative, I understand why people are upset. Libs can’t walk three feet without tripping over something that offends them. Things that just used to be good clean fun are now crimes, and everybody’s a victim.

These are things I used to say and think. Like most pernicious ideas, they’re not entirely untrue. You can find far-left activists who really are ridiculous, who really do get offended over nothing, and who really do long to see themselves as victims — and who really do want to squash joy, crush free speech, and silence anyone who disagrees with them. My kids had an English teacher who refused to teach Moby Dick because it didn’t have any female characters and was therefore sexist. That’s just a small example. There’s a push from much more powerful people to crush things that don’t deserve crushing (sometimes cynically shielding actual offenders in the process). 

But content warnings aren’t an example of this; they’re the remedy for it.

The Daily Wire and others have referred to the addition of content warnings as part of “cancel culture.” It’s literally the opposite: Rather than refusing to broadcast the show, they’re showing it. 

Cancel culture says, “This says or implies something I don’t agree with; therefore, it must be gone.” Content warnings say, “This says or implies something you might not agree with. Here it is anyway; you decide if you want to consume it or not.” This strikes me as manifestly conservative: We report, you decide. And they can’t be accused of insensitivity, because they did warn us! Their butts are covered.

Don’t get me wrong: Disney+ is doing this because broadcasting shows makes more money than not broadcasting them.  But in practice, it’s actually the perfect balance of free speech and personal responsibility. It may be the lifeline we need to drag us out of the quagmire of actual cancel culture, which really does make good things disappear. 

That being said, conservatives have made other objections to the inclusion of content warnings. But I think they’re equally bogus. 

The first is an objection to the very fact that there are warnings at all. This is disingenuous, especially coming from conservatives. 

When my kids want to watch a movie or show I’m not familiar with, and I don’t have the time or desire to watch it with them, what do I do? I look it up. I see if it includes nudity or violence or cussing or themes that may not be appropriate for their age. This is standard practice for responsible parents. Different parents are leery of different things, but there’s nothing new or outrageous about offering a content warning so we can make reasonable decisions. Heck, I remember chortling when a Batman movie warned me it would contain “menace.” I hope so!

It’s a core principle of American conservatism that Hollyweird is trying to pervert our youngsters, and we have the right and the duty as responsible parents to know what kind of media they’re consuming and to make independent choices about that. At least in theory, content warnings are an excellent tool to help us do just that. 

Also, memories are faulty, and standards change. Most adults, especially parents, have had the experience of watching a movie or show we haven’t seen in decades, and being shocked at how — something — it is. How sexist, how violent, how racy, how racist, how crude. There are even memes about this phenomenon: Showing a beloved movie to your kids and then leaping for the remote because OH NO I FORGOT THIS SCENE. I’m old and tired, and happy to get an assist, to avoid this kind of thing. 

The second objection has to do with what kinds of things earn a warning in 2021. And this is where conservatives will have a harder time; but if they’re Christians, they probably shouldn’t.

In theory, warnings are useful to parents, left and right, to have a heads-up about content. In practice, they’re are often a little less helpful. Saying “The following may be offensive to some viewers” is about as useful as saying “The sun may rise.” (I had a kid who found owls offensive, reasons unclear.) 

But the specific warnings on the Muppet Show episodes specify that they will “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” In other words, it’s going to include a bit that makes some group of human beings look stupid or crazy or subhuman, for laughs.

I don’t have a list of the specific scenes that earned warnings (Newsweek has a list of the episodes), but I’m guessing the group of human beings are not oligarchs or mean bosses or anyone else who has power and influence. It’s almost certainly groups of people who have less power and less influence: Certain ethnic groups, maybe victims of domestic violence, being treated as if they themselves are jokes.

And this is what is actually at the core of objections against content warnings: Conservatives who are angry about the warnings want to defend punching down. They want to defend the practice of making fun of people who can’t fight back, for the sake of a joke. And they want the practice to go utterly unchallenged, even fleetingly.

This is something I’ve been trying hard to grow out of — or at least to be more consistent about, because I am a Christian. Here’s an example: I once told a funny story that hinged on a Chinese accent, and I got swatted down. I asked why my story was hurtful, when a joke involving a French accent wouldn’t be. And the answer was: Because Chinese accents get treated as evidence of stupidity and backwardness in a way that French accents do not. And that was right. I learned something, and now I’m more careful, because I’m a Christian, and I don’t want to punch down.

Being a parent, and having to think hard about what it will do to a developing young heart to see certain scenes and hear certain phrases on TV, has made me think hard about . . . well, my own heart. I’ve had to change. We’re supposed to change. We’re supposed to take it seriously when we realize we’re wounding someone. At very least, we should think it over, and not dismiss it out of hand as liberal fragility. 

I do understand that, when Disney+ or some other corporation chooses to put a warning on something, they do it inconsistently. They will warn the audience if they’re going to show something that current cultural standards finds offensive, but they don’t bat an eye over something else that’s equally offensive, but not in a popular way. 

My friends, so what? If you know better than Disney+, then good for you. It doesn’t hurt you to see a brief warning. Nobody’s preventing you from watching, and nobody’s making your mind up for you. All they’re doing is saying, “Here’s an idea; take it or leave it.” If your kids see a warning and have questions, then talk to them about what you think, and defend your take, and listen. If you just shut the conversation down and refuse to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong . . . isn’t that  . . . cancel culture? 

 

***

Image by Josh Hallett via Flicker (Creative Commons)

The Britney Spears documentary is ambiguous but not (very) exploitative

The New York Times documentary on Britney Spears isn’t about her music. It’s not even entirely about Britney Spears. “Framing Britney Spears” is largely about the media, and the people who consume it. I watched to see if the Times could thread that needle, honestly critiquing media exploitation without being exploitative itself. I’m not sure if they pulled it off. 

The Times chose to tell her story now because she is in the midst of a long legal battle with her father over her conservatorship, by which Jamie Spears together with an attorney with the Dickensian name of “Wallet” has controlled almost every aspect of his daughter’s life since 2008. Such legal arrangements are usually made for elderly or infirm people who can’t be trusted to care for themselves or their money. Spears is 39. 

It is beyond dispute that her legal situation is odd. Her father, who was largely absent through her young adulthood, petitioned for legal control of her affairs after her series of public breakdowns; but the conservatorship continues even after Spears’ celebrated comeback and lucrative residency in Las Vegas. The lawyer Wallet petitioned the court to increase his share of her earnings, arguing that the conservatorship should be considered “more of a hybrid business model.” 

In other words, she is well enough to perform and make money hand over fist, but not well enough to decide what to do with that money. (Six days after the documentary first aired, Spears won a small concession concerning investment powers; but the bulk of financial control remains in her father’s hands. Another hearing is scheduled for next month, and Spears is expected to continue petitioning the court to remove her father as conservator.)

Most Americans are familiar with Britney Spears’s story: A small-town girl with a big voice is hurtled into fame, and she soon emerges from the safe and shiny world of “The Mickey Mouse Club”and uses every means but skywriting to announce that she is now a sexy and powerful woman in control of her own destiny. The world eagerly responds by alternately slut-shaming her and demanding more details about her breasts, her virginity, her sexual conquests. 

Lit by a constant strobe of camera flashes, she has an excruciatingly public romance and rift with Justin Timberlake, marries dancer Kevin Federline, has a baby and then another baby, checks in and out of rehab, divorces, shaves her head, attacks a paparazzo with an umbrella and is involuntarily committed to psychiatric care. It is a Russian novel of a life, lurid, pathetic, savage and ridiculous, and as it plays out it is played for laughs, with the whole world apparently in on the joke of this lunatic star who can’t seem to get it together just because everyone is watching her fail. 

I remembered all the details of her coming apart, but I gasped when I saw the clip of the game show “Family Feud” in the documentary. Contestants are asked to list things that Spears had lost that year, and the crowd laughs and cheers when they offer answers like “her hair,” “her dignity,” “her marriage,” “her mind.” It is breathtakingly cruel. And I remember how those who defended her were mocked, as well. 

There is no doubt that the media—invasive and predatory tabloids, as well as allegedly respectable journalists—did their best to destroy Britney Spears for ratings. It does not appear that she ever had anyone willing and truly able to defend her, or even to be fair to her. This documentary strives mightily to do both. 

Read the rest of my review for America magazine

Image: Screenshot from “Framing Britney Spears” on Hulu

What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

What I’m watching, reading, and listening to: Over the Garden Wall, The Secret Sisters, and Joyce Cary

Oh, I have so much good stuff to recommend today. Here’s what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to:

WATCHING
Over the Garden Wall (2014) 

If you’re looking for a spooky Halloween show for your whole family, this is the one. I’m still amazed it got broadcast, because it’s so weird and beautiful and thoughtful. It’s an animated miniseries of 12 short episodes (the whole thing is under two hours), and every one is gorgeous, creepy, funny, and strangely moving, with crazy, memorable music.

Two half-brothers find themselves lost in the woods on Halloween, and as they try to make their way home, they quickly become entangled in some terrifying otherworldly business. It’s loosely inspired by The Divine Comedy, but I wouldn’t push that too far. 

Here’s the first episode (11 minutes)

Some of the characters and situations are extremely creepy, so while we did let our five-year-old watch it, she has a very high tolerance for scary stuff, and many kids under the age of nine would probably find it too scary. (Here’s a specific list of creepy stuff.) There is a lot of very silly and hilarious stuff that fixes you right up when you get creeped out. No gore, graphic violence, or sex. There is a persistent melancholy tone, but all the relationships in the show get worked out very satisfactorily, and familial love is the true theme of the miniseries, and all is restored in the end. 

This show also contains one of the most realistic depictions of a goofy little boy we’ve ever seen. We’ve come to burgle your turts! Lots of quotes and songs have become part of our family culture.

Here’s a beast costume

a Wirt costume

and a Wirt and Greg cake:

The whole thing is crowded with allusions and suggestions and portents, and you can either pursue them or just enjoy them. It originally ran on Cartoon Network in 2014. It doesn’t appear to be streaming for free anywhere right now. We bought it to stream on Amazon.

***

READING
The Moonlight by Joyce Cary (1946)

It’s criminal that Joyce Cary isn’t in every list of great English language novelists. You may have seen the movie The Horse’s Mouth based on his novel of the same name, and that’s a vastly entertaining book about a dissolute old painter intoxicated by naked women and William Blake; but The Moonlight and Charley Is My Darling are deeper waters. 

Cary originally wrote The Moonlight (as in the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, and also as in . . . moonlight) because he was so incensed by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. I haven’t read Kreutzer in a long time but, although I adore Tolstoy in general, we all know he could be a little

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i
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about women and sex and ideal love, and I recall that Kreutzer is an extreme example of this tendency. The Moonlight deals with two generations of women living through social transformations of sexual mores, and the choices they make, the hardships they can’t escape, and what it does to their souls. That makes it sound tiresome, but it’s super dramatic, but also extraordinarily true to life, very tender and funny and sometimes shockingly, horribly familiar. 

Cary is one of those authors who understands human nature very deeply, and also loves his characters very deeply, even as they allow themselves to do stupid and monstrous things. The book would be a wonderful portrayal of the interior lives of women in any case, but the fact that the author is a man makes the book extraordinary. Love, suicide, pregnancy, art, sisterhood, beauty, sex, taxes, dead sheep: this novel has it all, and it’s so fluidly and engagingly written, and always with the element I admire most: clarity.  This is my current “pluck strangers by the sleeve and try to get them to read it” book.

I always feel like I choose the wrong excerpt and turn people off books I love, so I’ll just give you the opening page, and you see what you think.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, like Jane Austen,” you are mistaken. Maybe it’s like if someone took Jane Austen characters and gave them souls. I said what I said. 

The book is hard to find, so you’ll want to go third party seller on this one!

***


LISTENING TO

The Secret Sisters

What a find! My favorite radio station, WRSI, recently played “He’s Fine” and I had to go find out who the heck that was singing. It is two sisters from Alabama, Laura and Lydia Rogers, plying that magical sibling harmony and here to make you Feel Things. Here’s “He’s Fine,” which is currently Corrie’s favorite song:

Here’s one that really knocked my socks off: “Mississippi.” It carries such a weight of old-fashioned menace — man threatening doom on a young woman — but he gets a little backstory and interior life of his own. Men like this come from somewhere.

I can’t help it, I’m going to give you the whole lyrics. 

All my life
I ain’t never been a lucky man
Saw the back of my daddy’s hand
Lost your momma to the promised land 

In my time
I’d never had a thing that’s mine
Till they handed me a baby fine
My little girl 

There’re only two things I know
I get ugly when the whiskey flows
Wanted you to know I love you so
And I would kill before I let you go 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same 

If you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same.
 
My dear one
Heard you’re whispering your plans to run
Off to marry some rich man’s son
I bet he’s never met a poor man’s gun
 
In the darkness you could not see
The drunken devil instructing me
Two bullets in a crimson sea
Now I’m certain that you’ll never be 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the sameIf you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same

Grief and sin
When the righteousness of you sets in
And the blood in my veins
begins to ramble on

Now I know we can
stand and judge the execution man
But we all have to make a trembling stand
before the sun

Maple tree
Can your branches carry me?
Before the war, before the wine
Before I stole what wasn’t mine
Can you bring my baby back to me?

 
Co-written by Faulkner, I guess. What a complex song, not only the lyrics but harmonically and structurally. Brilliant. This is a sequel to Iuka, which is from the young woman’s point of view, urging her lover to take the risk despite her father’s jealousy. (It doesn’t go well.)
 

I heard a clip of a concert where the sisters laughingly apologized for the fact that their lives were going so well now. They had sung a lot about betrayal and loneliness and grief, but then they got married and had babies, and now they sing happy songs, and who wants that?

I DO. Here is one that keeps going through my head: “Late Bloomer”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeWtjx4XAJk
 

It’s so unapologetically encouraging, very motherly, and I sure need that right now. 

And here’s one that was apparently in The Hunger Games, which I haven’t seen. Wonderful song: “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”

Even their sad songs are full of comfort and promise: (to all the girls who cry)

I just love them, that’s all. 

Okay! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

***
Images: Joyce Cary from a 1950’s Penguin book cover, via Wikipedia, fair use
Screenshot from Over the Garden Wall ep. 1 and The Secret Sisters from Rattle My Bones

What we’re reading, watching, and listening to, Sept. 2020

It’s been a while! I’m trying to make a point of keeping my oar in with stuff that has nothing to do with [gestures vaguely toward steaming heap of current events]. Here’s what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to that I can recommend to you. 

READING

Moby Dick

If you’ve never read it before, but have filed it away under “classics that people get forced to read because good literature means suffering,” then you are wrong-o. It’s a long book, yes, and some passages are insanely dense. And yeah, one of the overall themes is encountering the ineffability of God. But it’s far more accessible than you may expect, and it’s also hilarious. In the first few chapters, there’s this passage where he just goes off about how much he likes eating chicken. And it’s so exciting! And you will love Queequeg. I really, really want you to read this book, because I don’t want you to die without having met Queequeg. The chapters are fairly short, and I’m giving you permission to skim the prologue and just dive in. Read it aloud with someone!

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Here’s another book you may have been avoiding because you expect it to be stodgy and stuffy. It is not. Wharton is a luminous writer, and frequently comes up with descriptions or turns of phrase that make you stop with a gasp and go back to have the pleasure of reading it again. She is absolutely merciless not only to the society she is critiquing and exposing, but also toward her characters — all of them — because she understands them so well. This one is about a poor but lovely young woman who is running out of time to capture a rich husband so she can settle into a comfortable life of glittering wealth at the end of the 18th century in New York. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up — none of Wharton’s work is — but it’s a joy to read and a fascinating look into a very different world full of strangely familiar people. 

Here’s a passage that gives you a little taste of Wharton’s skill:

Lily had abundant energy of her own, but it was restricted by the necessity of adapting herself to her aunt’s habits. She saw that at all costs she must keep Mrs. Peniston’s favour till, as Mrs. Bart would have phrased it, she could stand on her own legs. Lily had no mind for the vagabond life of the poor relation, and to adapt herself to Mrs. Peniston she had, to some degree, to assume that lady’s passive attitude. She had fancied at first that it would be easy to draw her aunt into the whirl of her own activities, but there was a static force in Mrs. Peniston against which her niece’s efforts spent themselves in vain. To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor. She did not, indeed, expect Lily to remain equally immovable: she had all the American guardian’s indulgence for the volatility of youth.

She had indulgence also for certain other habits of her niece’s. It seemed to her natural that Lily should spend all her money on dress, and she supplemented the girl’s scanty income by occasional “handsome presents” meant to be applied to the same purpose. Lily, who was intensely practical, would have preferred a fixed allowance; but Mrs. Peniston liked the periodical recurrence of gratitude evoked by unexpected cheques, and was perhaps shrewd enough to perceive that such a method of giving kept alive in her niece a salutary sense of dependence.

Bonus book: I’m reading The Book of Three aloud to the little kids (ages 8 and 5) (with older kids pretending they’re not listening in). It’s a bit above the 5-year-old’s head, but she is more or less following along. The eight-year-old is really digging it. The story moves right along, and something exciting happens in each chapter. Taran is exactly as whiny as I remember him (it takes several books for him to move past the “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” stage, as I recall); and the style is a little bit earnestly overwrought and corny. We don’t really need eleven different reminders that Gwydion has green-flecked eyes and that his shaggy head is wolf-like. I guess it’s supposed to echo a kind of repetitive epithets in epic poems, but it doesn’t quite come off. However, the lack of subtlety make these books very appealing for the right audience, and are about salutary things like courage, patience, and loyalty, and not being deceived by appearances. If your child likes fairy tales or adventures, this is a good step up to the next level of complexity, with some magic and humor thrown in. Based loosely on Welsh mythology and ancient culture.

WATCHING:

Medium

We watched this show when it was on TV, and it’s held up pretty well so far on the re-watch (currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu). The hook is that a young mom who was interning to be a lawyer discovers that her real talent is as a psychic, so she works as a consultant to the DA, helping solve crimes by talking to the dead and seeing the invisible. Creepy and fairly intense sometimes, so probably good for high school age and up. I like Patricia Arquette’s character so much, and for some reason her sometimes appallingly wooden acting just makes her more endearing. Her husband is kind of awful, but there is a persuasive chemistry between them, and the depiction of the chaos in family life is pretty good. Good characters in general, good pacing, original stories, and a solidly entertaining show, often funny and very clever. I remember there were one or two episodes that I thought crossed a line of decency, but I forget why, so, beware.

 

My Name Is Earl

Also a show that’s holding up well since we last saw it when it was originally broadcast. (I think we’re watching it on Hulu right now.) The conceit is that a good-for-nothing trailer park dude wins the lottery, loses the winning ticket, and then against all odds finds it again, so he decides to pay back karma by making amends for all the bad things he’s done in his life. Here’s another show where the main character is one of the weaker actors, but that doesn’t really harm the show. We are showing it to high school age and up. They caught on right away that it doesn’t really matter if karma exists, because Earl’s quest to do good deeds for the people around him is good both for him and for them, and they often have a ripple effect (and he sometimes discovers that his bad deeds hurt more people than he realized). I especially enjoy Joy and Darnell (Jaime Pressly as Joy doesn’t hold back and keep herself halfway cute, the way so many American actresses will do), and his feeble-minded brother Randy is wonderful. The little motel bed scenes at the end are priceless. It’s a very funny show in general. It can be a bit raunchy and of course tasteless and occasionally a bit dark, so not for the easily offended, but contains much more sweetness and mercy than you’re used to seeing on TV.

LISTENING:

Bach’s Brandenburg concertos

When I feel bad, which is always, I will often go to Bach for some of what I suppose you’d call “centering.” Going back to the well so you remember that life is worth living and humans beings really do have a divine spark in them. Bach reminds me of Josef Ratzinger: A thoroughly civilized man, by which I mean he has used all of his strength to develop the talents God gave him and to bend what could be flaws into something in service of virtue. Or so it seems to me. But at the same time they are also men’s men, with a kind of unbending ardor that’s almost alarming when you realize the kind of blindingly brilliant force that’s being held in check. Ahem! Anyway, that’s what I hear when I listen to Bach sometimes. I usually go for the more passionate and moody solo pieces for piano or cello, but lately I’m returning to the Brandenburg concertos, which are just a pure feast. You’ll come out feeling like life is good and makes sense. 

On the other hand if you do want to feel terrible, but only for good old fashioned reasons of love and betrayal and impending death and gorgeously exhausted disgust, may I recommend Lucinda Williams’ new album, Good Souls Better Angels?

Williams is 67 years old and sounds . . . .1,067. She sounds like a star that’s starting to collapse, or a misshapen deep sea creature glowing steadily away down in the midnight zone, or a campfire that’s been smothered and doused with water and stirred with a stick, but in the morning there’s still a pale tendril of smoke coming up. Somebody get this lady a hassock so she can put up her feet, and maybe a lozenge so she can put up her larynx. Really jagged, gritty, gnarly stuff, maybe not profound but it really delivers.

Here’s “Big Black Train”

Okay, that’s it for now! How are you spending your days, that you can recommend? 

Dreamlike reviews: Hadesdown, The Ghost Keeper, and The Sopranos (again)

You know what the real thing is about being in your mid-40’s? You can do everything you used to do in your 30’s, but you cannot bounce back.

I was in Chicago at the FemCatholic Conference last weekend, and it was completely wonderful. Met Mikayla Dalton, Corita Ten Eyck, Theresa Scott, Leticia Adams, Donna Provencher, Jenne O’Neill, Aimee Murphy, and so many others in real life for the first time, and I spent lots of time with my wonderful friend Elisa Low.  And Nora Calhoun, and Hope Peregrina and Ben Zelmer, and Samantha Povlock! And Shannon Wendt and Meg Hunter-Kilmer and ARGH the woman at the Femm Health table whose name is escaping me at the moment. And so many other brilliant, interesting, driven women I admire so much. I felt so out of my league.

Anyway, now I’m lurching around like a reanimated but still desiccated mummy, dizzy and incoherent, picking ridiculous fights with people I care about, and complaining about how bad my head feels and always feels, and I just can’t seem to snap out of it. I blame feminism. And airplanes. And train madness! (I did not take a train.)

Oh, if you want to hear my talk and all the talks at the conference, you can stream and download the whole thing for $49. My speech was called “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love.” It was about . . . a lot of things.

Also, I’m sorry we haven’t put out a podcast since the middle of February. Soon, I promise! I’m sorry! You could listen to that one again if you wanted to. Sorry.

Anyway anyway, I don’t want the algorithms to forget me completely, so here are some quickie reviews of things I’m enjoying while busily burning through all my social capital:

Listening to Hadestown

My daughter Clara turned me onto this musical. Originally a New Orleans jazz-style folk opera concept album about Orpheus and Eurydice by Anaïs Mitchell (I know. Stay with me), it’s now a musical that’s premiering on Broadway this month. You guys, it’s so good. Entirely successful world building. I am a sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, but become irrationally enraged with anything that doesn’t do it justice. This one is just weird enough to work.

From The Theater Times:

[Mitchell’s] version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.

You will not believe “Why We Build the Wall” was written in 2010.

But this isn’t about politics; it’s about mankind. “Wait For Me” just about killed me.

All in all, just a fascinating, captivating, completely original work. Perfect lyrics, songs that stay with you. Such good stuff.

What I’m reading:

The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

It is not a chick book, despite what the cover might suggest if you are one of my jerk sons. I keep plucking people by the shirt sleeve and shakily asking if they’ve read this book yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about it. It did win the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which is a good start. I’m working on a review for the Catholic literary mag Dappled Things, where Morrill is fiction editor.

This is seriously brilliant lyrical writing, on a level with the best of Michael Chabon or . . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be crazy, but I keep thinking, “Edith Wharton, no, E.M. Forster, no, Faulkner . . . ”

It follows a Jewish Austrian boy with a very particular vocation that keeps pulling him back. He grows up and starts a little family, and they are so happy, until the Anschluss.

The book follows them before, during, and after the war, and I’ve just gotten up to the chapter that describes another, related love story, but an infernally inverted one. And then they all need to figure out: What is love? What is loyalty? What is forgiveness? GOSH. I haven’t finished it yet, but even if it totally mucks up the ending (which I don’t anticipate!) I’ll forgive it, for all the moments of gorgeous tragedy and piercing joy. Do not read on airplanes unless you don’t care if you get stared at for gasping audibly while you read. Wear a sweater; you’ll get chills.

And we’re watching:

Well, we’re still watching The Sopranos. This is the second time around for me, and it’s even better than I remembered. It’s so much funnier than I remembered. It’s a little scary how much more sympathy I have for Tony this time.

I also think they should have won some particular prize for the depiction of dreams.

I guess the common thread in all these things is a sort of lyrical dreamlike quality, realer than real life.

That reminds me, what movie or TV show has the best, most accurate portrayal of dreams? It’s so easy to get it wrong and overplay your hand.

Valhalla Rising, cavemen farting, Terry Pratchett giving it a shot, and me running(!)

 

I’m watching . . .

Originalos (and Valhalla Rising)

Let’s say you’ve picked out a swell movie to watch, and everyone’s ready and snuggled up on the couch, except that one kid is still washing the dishes. Still. So what do you do? You watch a few episodes of Originalos. Here’s a representative sample:

Look, I’m not proud of it. In my defense, if you saw Irene laughing that long and hard at a farting caveman, you’d probably let her watch more, too. These 3-minute episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime.

We also watched Valhalla Rising (2009, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Drive, which we loved) last night, and we’ll have a lot to say about it on this week’s podcast! (To join my super secret, super fun podcast club, see my Patreon page.) Here’s the trailer for Valhalla Rising:

Reading . . . 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Behind the curve as ever, I’m just now getting into Terry Pratchett, who played with words, and with ideas of futility, heroism, absurdity and hope, throughout 41 novels about Discworld. He died in 2015.

I did read Going Postal a few years ago, and was charmed and moved by the characters and dialogue but very confused by the plot. Guards! Guards! was much easier to follow, and very winsome and entertaining, as well as touching in parts. Looking forward to hanging around with Captain Vimes more, as well as that very, very interesting Patrician.

Guards! Guards! summary: In the human-all-too-human city of Ankh-Morpork, the canny leader of a secret society realizes that he’ll have the citizens in the palm of his hand if only he can find a champion to conquer the terrible dragon. Only there is no dragon, except for small, mostly-harmless pets. So he summons a big one. Things do not go as planned! The focus of the story is on The Watch, the ones you call when things go wrong, but you don’t really expect them to do anything. In fact, you count on them having no intention of doing something. Well, this time, they do something.

As far as I can see, this is a typical Pratchett theme: Everything has gone to hell, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Still, for whatever reason, the one guy who knows better decides to give it a shot anyway, and make a stand for what he decides to believe is the right thing to do. (Pratchett fans, do I have that right?)

Listening to . . .

The Black Keys

Also not a new find, but I’ve rediscovered the Black Keys as excellent running music. Yarr, my husband and I are doing Couch to 5K. We’re on week three, when you have to run for three minutes at a time. This is only possible if I hide the fact that I’m running from as many of my senses as possible (especially since we’re celebrating spring with hail and slippery freezing rain; and, not wanting to die, we are running inside).

Here are a few Black Keys songs with a good beat for a slow, steady run:

“Gold On the Ceiling”:

“Tighten Up”:

“Fever” is a little brisker:

“Howlin’ For You” (which comes along with a satirical sexploitation revenge fantasy movie trailer that made me laugh so hard, I almost fell off the treadmill) (warning: stupid, but R-rated):

I welcome other suggestions for running music! I’m putting together a list, because I hear there is more running coming up in this fershlugginer program.

***
Now your turn! What are you watching, reading, and listening to?

***

Pratchett graffiti image by David Skinner via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

***
Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons