Archive | June, 2011

Hoarders: Obsessed

29 Jun

I can’t stop watching Hoarders. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t want to stop watching Hoarders. This isn’t an Intervention-level addiction—if you made me quit Hoarders cold turkey, I would manage, though I’d definitely feel bummed for a while. I don’t know that I’d experience much if any withdrawal, but chances are I’d latch onto another deeply compelling reality series as quickly as possible.

I’m not actually concerned with the amount of Hoarders I watch, especially given that there’s a limited supply. My bigger issue is what my obsession with Hoarders says about me. I watch each episode in horror, fascinated and disgusted by the collections these people have amassed, but yes, there is pleasure in it, too. Am I watching Hoarders the same way certain people watch NASCAR? Just as they wait for a fiery crash, am I hoping for the discovery of a mummified animal? And because I consider myself a reasonably compassionate individual, I’m forced to consider the implications of all this. Simply put, does watching a Hoarders marathon make me a bad person?

I can’t come up with a clear answer. There’s no denying that watching Hoarders is a bit like gawking at a car wreck. And saying “it’s human nature” is a cop-out: it’s also human nature to take things that aren’t ours and use violence when we feel threatened. We’re supposed to keep these impulses at bay, and a lot of us do a bang-up job. Of course, I’m not harming anyone by watching Hoarders, but I may not be giving its subjects the respect they deserve. Sure, they’ve all agreed to being on camera, but almost every one acknowledges the embarrassment of revealing the inside of their homes.

But in exchange for appearing on camera, these compulsive hoarders receive the treatment they need to move on with their lives. (It’s not always successful: as with A&E’s Intervention, the final results are in the addict’s hands.) In that way, Hoarders may be a necessary evil—if it is exploitation, it’s also a way out for people who are literally trapped in their homes. And I still feel a little crappy about it! There was a time when carnival sideshows were the only way people with certain disabilities could make ends meet. So yes, go see the “Siamese twins” and help them earn a living. But at the end of the day, you’re still just ogling the “freaks.”

Obviously none of these concerns have stopped me from watching Hoarders. In my defense, I do feel satisfied when they get their houses cleaned. It’s not all about the schadenfreude of seeing what a mess someone else has created—it’s the thrill of the classic reality television redemption story. You start off seeing how bad things can get, and then you watch in amazement as they find a light at the end of the tunnel. The difference between watching Hoarders and watching a car crash or a sideshow is that the end result is a positive one. After the horror has passed, these people (ideally) move on to a better life.

There’s also a certain level of empathy involved, and it’s taken me a while to acknowledge that. I’m not the best housekeeper myself, and while I have never lived among boxes stacked to the ceiling, I’m well aware of how things can get out of hand. Part of what makes Hoarders so scary is the fear that it could happen to us. Sometimes you reach a breaking point, or something just snaps, and suddenly you stop caring. Maybe it starts small—I know I’ve left clothes on my bed for far too long—until it becomes so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I will never get to that point (I’m posting this on the internet, so you know it’s true), but in the back of my mind, I understand how it could happen.

Maybe that’s what separates Hoarders from more exploitative entertainment—but it could just as easily be true of shows like Intervention and Obsessed as well. The act of watching someone at the lowest point of his or her life is indeed ambiguous. And I think yes, simply tuning in to judge is a pretty crappy thing to do. But if you can find that empathy and root for the person’s success, maybe it’s not so bad that you also enjoy the “real-life drama.” After all, you’re only human.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Entertainment here.

Quiet pride

26 Jun

I’m not at the Pride Parade right now. Which is maybe a little bit lame to some of you, but how much lamer would it be if I were there, sitting on the sidewalk, blogging? I went to San Francisco Pride once. It was my first summer in San Francisco, and like Halloween in the Castro, the Pride Parade was something every Bay Area transplant had to try out. Also like Halloween in the Castro, I decided that I didn’t need to go again.

I’ve spent a lot of time making excuses for not doing things like the Pride Parade, or any number of other loud, crowded activities. In fact, it’s not that complicated—I don’t like activities that are loud and crowded. I make some exceptions: San Diego Comic-Con (they pay me), big concerts (Xanax). But for the most part, I prefer the company of one or two others to EVERY GAY IN SAN FRANCISCO. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but there are certain times of the year when my choice to keep things mellow comes into question. And surely San Francisco Pride, queer person Mecca, is one of those “how can you NOT?” events.

Of course, that forces me to question my true reasons for avoiding any Pride festivities. Surely the sheer number of people and noise and potential for sweating are part of the equation, but is there not more to it than that? And yes, I’m forced to admit, there are other reasons why I prefer to feel proud in my own quiet, personal way. The first and last time I went to the Pride Parade, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. Not because I’m gay—there was never a time when I felt less like a minority. I felt out of place because I’m me. I looked around and I looked inward, and none of it made any sense to me.

I could go on a long rant about body image in the gay community, but do you really want to hear me yammer on about my ish? (Irrelevant. I don’t want to yammer on about them.) My avoidance of crowds, on a larger scale, is part distaste for sensory overload, and part a feeling that I don’t fit in. Would being a waifish twink make me more comfortable? Maybe. Probably not. I have always felt a little outside of it all (“it” used in the most general sense possible), and that’s as much a part of my identity as my Jewish heritage and penchant for reality TV competitions.

It’s frustrating, sure, but I hope it doesn’t sound like I begrudge others for their Pride experience. I am truly thankful that Pride exists at all, and that in San Francisco, queer people are encouraged to be as queer as they want to be. The more this country accepts a conventional understanding of homosexuality—slowgoing as it may be—the more we need reminders that some of us want to be freaks. I’m passionate about marriage equality, but I recognize that others dismiss it as an unnecessary heteronormative convention. It’s about choice. And I feel lucky to live in an area that embraces the full span of the queer spectrum.

I guess all of this is just to say, I’m here, I’m queer, I’m used to it. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my reluctance to participate in Pride reflects any shame or discomfort—at least not discomfort with my sexuality. I get down on myself for just about everything, but my sexual identity is, in my mind, one of the best things about me. I celebrate myself in my own way, and I encourage everyone to do the same. If the Pride Parade makes you happy, then go watch the parade. Or march, if you’re into that sort of thing. Be proud and be loud, even if your rebel yell isn’t a literal shout so much as a blog post.

Sit down or stand up

24 Jun

I went to a great comedy show at the Punch Line this week: John Mulaney, Joe Mande, and my Twitter buddy Emily Heller. I’ve always enjoyed live comedy, but my interest has definitely grown over the past few years thanks to my Twitter addiction and comedic aspirations. For a while, the positive response I got to my jokes (or, uh, humorous observations) gave me a fleeting interest in trying stand-up. I don’t know if you guys know this, but I’ve been drawn to the stage since my third grade debut in A Symbol of Hanukkah at Temple Emanuel Community Day School.

And there’s definitely something attractive about standing in front of an audience, but the more I think about it, the more unsure I am that it’s attractive enough to get me up there. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have aspirations of fame—as opposed to, you know, everyone else. But I’ve never really thought I was going to make a name for myself as a comedian, and at this point, even doing a little stand-up on the side isn’t on my agenda. Seeing people I admire do it only reinforces my doubts. It’s not anxiety—or it’s not just anxiety. At the end of the day, I’m a writer, not a performer.

Not that I don’t feel a little guilty: I had a pact with my friends Lisa and Charley to do an open mic. They’ve both gone for it (with gusto!) and I’m still nowhere near writing a set. I admire both of them for going through with it, and I hope they can forgive me for backing out. But I know how I would feel on stage. It’s the same way I have always felt on stage (Symbol of Hanukkah and small drama camp productions excluded): nervous, awkward, out of place. It’s the “out of place” that really gets to me. My neuroses are something I work daily to get past, and I’m confident I could suppress my shaky knees if it came to that. But I genuinely feel as though I don’t belong on stage, and that’s harder to overlook.

To be honest, I never really thought I was funny until relatively recently. (Relax, I’m not fishing for compliments. I know I am totally LOL-tastic at this point.) So isn’t it possible that while I feel like a writer now, I might feel like something else later? Maybe, but I doubt it. I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life, save a couple years when I mostly just wanted to eat and get my diapers changed. Writing is the only thing that always makes me happy. I don’t know where I’m going to end up or what I’m going to be doing, but I’m certain it’s going to involve writing because I can’t imagine an alternative.

Of course, it’s not like writing and stand-up comedy are mutually exclusive. They’re actually pretty damn linked. But just as I believe there are born writers, I believe there are born performers. I love to make people laugh: I live for the stars and RTs I get on Twitter. (Well, not live for, because that sounds pathetic. Let’s pretend I said “appreciate.”) But perhaps that’s my venue—not Twitter, exclusively, but the written word. While I might not get the same thrill my friends get when they tell jokes on stage, I can at least feel appreciated in a (quieter) way. It’s also worth noting I can’t bomb online, though the vicious anonymous comments I get are sufficiently ego-crushing!

None of this is probably all that surprising to people who know me in real life. But since I’ve found myself lumped into some “comedians” lists on Twitter, it seemed worth addressing. I’m not a comedian, but I’m flattered by the association. I just want to write and make you laugh and, yeah, OK, make Wikipedia’s list of notable LGBT Jews. You can hold your applause.

You’re doing it wrong

21 Jun

This isn’t a review of the season finale of AMC’s The Killing. I already wrote a review for TV.com, and this site sums up my frustrations better than I ever could. But what I wasn’t able to touch on in my piece is the way some of the critical reaction really irked me—well, not the critical reaction so much as the critical reaction to the critical reaction. Still with me?

While most critics seemed to agree that The Killing finale was a colossal disappointment, some argued that it was exactly what the series needed. Fine, we can agree to disagree. But rather than just acknowledge a difference in opinion, I saw several versions of the “You weren’t watching it right” argument. I’m not even sure it can be called an argument, but the basic idea is that the reason people (myself included) didn’t appreciate The Killing‘s season finale is that we had a faulty conception of the series. More specifically, we were too consumed with the idea of determining the identity of Rosie’s killer and missed the point entirely. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Where have I heard that before? (Outside of sex columns, that is.) Ah, yes, the contentious season finale of Lost—which, for the record, I loved. As the modern classic series approached its end and it became clear that all our burning questions weren’t going to be answered, some felt no ill will at all. Lost was always about the characters, so not knowing why women can’t have babies on the island or what the deal with Walt was or [insert your loose end of choice here] wasn’t a big deal. Others were a little more indignant: “We stuck with your roller coaster of a show for six years. You owe us some goddamn answers.” As far as I’m concerned, both sides made valid points. But nothing riled me up more than seeing critics I respected spouting the same line of bullshit: “If you’re watching Lost for the answers, you’re watching Lost wrong.”

The condescension in statements like this is obvious, but what really strikes me is the ego required. It’s “I’m right and you’re wrong” on a whole different level. If you’re convinced someone else is somehow watching a show incorrectly, you must also be sure that your manner of watching is the one, true way. How can anyone be sure of that? (I don’t even know if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse would agree on the right way to appreciate Lost.) I think this is especially galling when it comes from a critic. Expressing one’s opinion is part of the job, but suggesting that said opinion is the only valid one discounts the likely diverse views of one’s readers. It is insulting to everyone’s intelligence but one’s own. And that’s kind of dickish, right?

I also hate the way this line of reasoning limits discussion. If someone is angry over The Killing finale, telling him that he simply doesn’t get it halts the conversation. How do you respond to that? The black-and-white nature of “a right and wrong way” mentality makes it impossible to find a middle ground. Not to mention the fact that it provides an easy out. Case in point: “I loved The Killing finale because I understood what the series was trying to do all along.”

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with legitimately loving the finale! Or the Lost finale. Or any number of divisive TV episodes. I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My point is, there are always reasons to like or dislike everything, and chalking opinions up to a fundamental misunderstanding of the material is an easy and obnoxious out. Of course, this is never going to change, and there will always be critics who bug me, whether they write about TV, film, music, literature, or what have you. My goal has always been to write for a wide audience, and to sound informed without sounding like a jerk. I hope I’ve at least partially accomplished that. And if you ever hear me say that you’re watching something wrong, feel free to tell me to shove “the right way” up my ass.

Making a list, checking it twice

18 Jun

I went grocery shopping this morning because I was out of, well, everything. I used to hit up Safeway (or a more exciting supermarket) without a clear agenda: buy whatever strikes your fancy! But at some point I became the kind of person who writes out a list, and not just any list—the dullest, simplest list imaginable. I mean this isn’t even shit I need to write down. Today’s haul: plain yogurt, bananas, orange juice, frozen vegetables… I’ll spare you the rest. I surveyed my Chobani-laden bag as I left the store and I was forced to ask myself, “When did I become so boring?”

I guess the real question is, “When did I become an adult?” I fondly recall a time when I treated every grocery store excursion as a “kid in a candy store” situation. What did I buy? What didn’t I buy! I used to joke that I grabbed everything but the essentials, which wasn’t so much a joke as an accurate assessment of my purchases. Who needs milk when you can buy overpriced bottles of aloe juice? Tuna in a can is boring—go for the canned conch you’ll never eat. Instead of bananas, grab some spiky fruit you can’t figure out how to open. And remember, there’s always room for weird Japanese gelatin-based confections.

While I miss the spontaneity of my whimsical shopping adventures, I don’t exactly pine for the days when I spent $50 on a bunch of crap that was mostly inedible once the novelty wore off. I’m still not what you’d call good with money, but I’ve become way more practical and somehow that bums me out. I’m predictable. I’m calorie-conscious. I consider raspberries and nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt a treat. And yeah, part of it is dieting, but because I can’t help but overanalyze everything, I have to think about what my grocery choices mean on a larger scale. I shop the way an older person shops, with a slightly lower emphasis on bran. (Although, and don’t you fucking repeat this, I’ve gotten really into fiber.)

There are worse things than boring groceries, I guess. What really struck me about my Safeway-inspired angst was how distraught I was over feeling like an adult. I spend a lot of time reminding myself that I’m a grown-up and trying to act accordingly. I hate when people assume I’m younger than I am, or when my behavior strikes me as “very college.” But as soon as I show signs of maturity, I get all nervous, because in lots of ways, I do still want to be an idiot kid. And for some reason, I see a correlation between that and buying pepita brittle. (‘Cause, you know, kids looove pepitas.) What I’m really reacting to is the internal voice that pops up whenever I reach for something unnecessary: “No, that’s not practical. You don’t even really want it. Why spend $4 on a cracker that tastes like bird food?”

But of course, apples taste better than grapples. (Are you familiar with grapples? They are apples infused with the flavor of grapes! Their flavor can best be described as really bitter Dimetapp.) In the long-run, I am making more satisfying choices, saving money, and—ideally—avoiding hypertension. There’s nothing fun and sexy about responsibility, though. And all of this is probably just a deflection, because I don’t feel like addressing the real issue. Buying granola doesn’t make me a boring adult, but maybe feeling all tuckered out at 9 p.m. does. So tell me: am I wasting my youth, or am I just getting older? Also, is it normal to sing “Landslide” while you’re unloading your groceries?

Stop, thief!

15 Jun

I learned not to plagiarize at a young age, with the admonition, “I’ll be able to tell.” This was in middle school before everyone understood how the internet worked, and it was a lot easier to get away with stealing huge chunks of other people’s work. I never did it—first, because it offended my writerly sensibilities, and second, because I really did believe my teacher would be able to tell. The internet has made things tougher for plagiarizers, but it’s also given them much more material to choose from. So while I no longer worry about my academic papers being copied—uh, you can have them, if you really want—I now concern myself with Twitter theft.

Why steal tweets? I guess the simple answer is you’re not funny enough on your own. I have seen several of my 140-character musings copied word-for-word or tweaked slightly and posted by someone else. I’ll admit my first reaction was a swelling of pride (what’s that expression about imitation?), because being plagiarized made me feel as though I’d arrived. That initial burst of excitement was followed closely by rage: a fraud was getting credit for my work. All of this was rendered more infuriating by some of the responses I got, which could be paraphrased as, “Who cares?”

I mean, I do. But this speaks to a larger issue, the misconception that by putting something online you’re basically giving anyone license to nab it. One of my favorite bloggers, FourFour’s Rich Juzwiak, has encountered this on more than one occasion, with his expertly edited supercuts used (without credit) on major TV shows. I doubt I put as much effort into single tweets as Rich does into his videos, but they’re still my work. It’s true that 140 characters (or fewer!) isn’t much, not when compared to the incalculable number of characters in a full-length novel. (It’s not actually incalculable, but who wants to do that math?) Still, you can do a lot in a tweet, and the best tweeters do: you make a point, or you tell a joke, and if you’re lucky, it makes an impression.

In other words, size isn’t everything, but I’d guess that’s how many Twitter thieves justify their plagiarism. Is it really stealing if you’re only grabbing two sentences? This is also a culture in which people quote their favorite movies incessantly (oh, God, so incessantly), which also might encourage the belief that jokes, once shared, are in the public domain.

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but it’s something a significant portion of the internet still hasn’t taken to heart: It’s wrong to pass off someone else’s work as your own. What is common sense for some means nothing to others, as evidenced by the number of people asking me what the big deal was when I lamented my plagiarized tweets. And yes, to an outside observer, I can see how it might seem a little silly. (“Hey, I made that dick joke first!”) But my tweets, however brief or vulgar, are my writing. I value them as much as I do my blog posts, my articles, and my essays—and I expect others to show the same respect.

Nothing irks me more than the “it’s just Twitter” response, especially when it comes to the defense of a plagiarizer. Twitter is a fast-paced, constantly-updating forum, yes, but that’s all the more reason it’s important that we’re given proper credit for our work. The things we post online may last, but they’re just as likely to disappear quickly. The digital world is transitive, and that makes it easy for a thief to sneak in and steal something old just to regift it as something new. Plagiarism matters even more because tweets are, in the long-run, insubstantial. It’s tough to establish staying power or to determine authorship, which is partly why I defend my tweets with such intensity.

But what “it’s just Twitter” also disregards is how much the site means to so many aspiring writers, myself included. No, we can’t all get a TV series or a book deal out of it, but Twitter has a massive impact on our styles, our senses of humor, and yes, sometimes our careers. I never even knew I wanted to write comedy until I started getting a positive response to my Twitter, which has opened up new avenues to me professionally. It may “just” be Twitter to you, but to many of us, it’s a unique outlet for our voices. And when another person takes credit for my voice? You’re damn right I take that seriously. I think I’d be a fool not to.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Media here.

Whelmed

14 Jun

“I love what I do—I just wish I could do more of it.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said that, I probably wouldn’t care that I don’t earn as much as I’d like to. There are plenty of benefits to being a freelance writer, particularly the freedom to choose assignments and sleep in, but I’ve been craving some sort of stability for years. Of course, my fluid schedule is a luxury I’m still clutching for dear life. It’s not even that I want lazy mornings—I’ve learned to wake up at a reasonable hour with ample caffeine. I just fear too much structure. Well, that and I only like running errands when everyone else is at work. Have you gone to the grocery store at peak hours? It is the stuff of night terrors.

Lately I’ve been picking up more assignments and forcing myself to take on additional personal projects. (This blog is one of them!) It’s nice to be writing a significant amount on a daily basis, even though it does require breaks from Supernatural marathons. (I review TV, so that counts as work, too. Haters to the left.) But I’ve reached a point where I don’t know how much more to take on. I write for four separate publications—or five, I guess, now that I’m blogging a bit for the Huffington Post. Full disclosure: I’ll be crossposting some of these blogs there, so it doesn’t require any more effort, really. But please don’t spread that around. Everyone has been really impressed! Still, four publications, two Twitter accounts, and a personal blog are a lot to juggle. I’ve never missed a deadline, but I have felt my brain protest with extreme writer’s block and nonconsensual naps.

Does it sound like I’m complaining about having too much work? It probably sounds like I’m complaining most of the time. The truth is, I’m delighted to have more outlets for my writing, and I’m thrilled with the response I’ve been getting. (Yes, even the people who think I’m some sort of monster!) I just feel like I have too much to sort through mentally: a diverse to-do list of personal and professional responsibilities, various looming deadlines, and Supernatural is getting really stressful, you guys. (Lest you think I’m wasting time here, I need to catch up on the series before attending Comic-Con next month.) I seldom find myself in that middle ground between over- and underwhelmed. I’m either not working enough, not impressed with what I’m putting out, or I’ve got too much to get done, with a shrill voice in the back of my head screaming, “YOU SHOULD BE WRITING SOMETHING ELSE.”

I’m not sure what the solution to this is. Would a regular, salaried job put my mind at ease, or would I continue to vacillate between “too much” and “not enough”? I will say that being a freelance writer often reminds me of high school and college, times during which there was always something else to do. Moments of relaxation were, well, frequent, but always tinged with the knowledge that I could have (nay, should have!) been working on something for school. Now, as I sit here blogging for the sake of blogging, I’m faced with the same internal reminders that I have actual work to get done. It’s possible that one solid, well-defined gig would help on that level.

Or maybe I’d feel creatively stifled and miss my free-flowing days as a freelancer. I’m pretty sure the best thing for me to do, at least for the time being, is to enjoy this feeling of mild stress. Yeah, I have a lot to do. I can’t just dick around online all day. (Well, I can. I just have to have Microsoft Word open, too.) I’m overwhelmed by the amount I have to accomplish, but I’m also excited! LET’S DO THIS. I can write for my four publications and maybe take on another column elsewhere and blog for myself/the Huffington Post and catch up on TV shows in preparation for Comic-Con and revise my pilot script and write jokes for Twitter and clean my apartment. No problem. I just need a really good organizer.