One of the greatest disappointments of my early adulthood was the tragic and distressing realization that, at 24 years old, I was older than the angsty but attractive Gen-Xers in my favorite movie as a teenager, Reality Bites. Although nearly ten years younger than those characters, myself teetering on the Gen X/Y cusp, as a misunderstood fifteen year-old I looked to their hapless attempts at post-collegiate life and romance with envy. I couldn’t wait to be the frustrated creative pixie who would be lured by the well-dressed executive yuppie but ultimately choose my grungy, tortured, goateed musician best friend to fall in love with. I wanted their idiosyncrasies, their irreverent fun and games, I wanted ever third line my friends and I uttered to be a clever sound-byte (“You are a master at the art of time suckage.” “This girl is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” “He’s the reason Cliff’s Notes were invented.”). I didn’t know it at the time, but my role-models may have been the country’s first hipsters.

When I was 19, I chopped off all my hair to replicate Winona Ryder’s ‘do (and found out it didn’t suit me, at 19, at all, despite my current coif). I bought vintage dresses and clunky shoes. I tried to fill my brain with as much esoteric pop-culture as I could get my hands on (not easy for a kid growing up without cable television). When I was 20, I found my first unwashed musician to crush on and rejoiced. When I was 22, I got a real job where I was overworked and under-appreciated by my ego-driven boss. I had dramatic friends, aimless friends and gay friends. I was on the right track to living the life of my bemused idols!

Quickly, though, I got caught up in the right track and where it was leading me. With the job, the friends, and another ill-fated relationship with a musician, time moved quickly. One day I woke up and had turned 24. I was old. I was past the rule-book that Ben Stiller had directed for me, essentially left to my own devices from here on in. Panic.

I’ll admit that as time went on and my adult life took shape, I gave up caring about those fauxhemian ideals that Reality Bites inspired. I created new ideals and discovered that (while I will likely always harbor a favoritism towards dirty-ish musicians) I am happy to have moved on into a more satisfying, self-actualized life than that in which I left Lelaina Pierce. I don’t have it in me to live as dramatically as 23 year old Winona, Ethan, Janeane, Steve or Ben did. Nor do I want to.

But I’d be lying if I said that I’m entirely immune to the allure of the sensational lives that movies and TV present. We may all know better than to expect a dreamy ending… but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is entirely willing to abandon that dream. I may have gotten past expectations of Julia’s “I want the fairy-tale,” declaration when it comes to lurve and romance, there’s still something in the day-to-day that glimpses a sense of the drama that lives only on the Big Screen and Boob Tube.

Drama may be too strong of a word. The quirks of cinematic stories are supposed to be attractive. That’s why we cast beautiful people, even in ugly roles, and why too many people smoke cigarettes. Case in point: my all-nighter dinner of choice during my senior year of college was a bag of microwave popcorn and 3, sometimes 4, cans of Diet Coke. Yes, low-fat popcorn, and yes, diet soda, but a healthy dinner it was not. But look at me! I was just steps away from calling Cheez Doodles and Diet Coke dinner, a la, yes, Reality Bites! O, the glamour!

Beyond ill advised, nutritionally void meal choices, there really is an air of movie magic in certain situations. The other day, I had plans to see a friend and catch up on the last few months—tumultuous months for me, delightfully love-stricken months for her. As the work day was winding down, I looked forward to the evening’s plans and was surprised at what image my tumultuous head conjured up: I saw my friend and I at a delightfully chic cafe, dramatically light with vague and soft lighting filtering through a frosted window, as we sat across from each other at strategically placed angles. The din of the restaurant’s other patrons was muffled as our conversation overflowed with a balance of emotion, humor, sympathy and confidence. There’d probably be some sweet score swelling at the particularly poignant parts of our chat.

Then—POP! Like in a cartoon, the bubble of imagination burst as I realized that what I was considering was not a likely reality. It was what my evening would look like if I were living in my own New York-in-2011, 30 year-old single gal version of Reality Bites. Or, worse, some toned down and less extravagant downtown Sex In The City (perish the thought!). But you know what? Our evening was delightfully cinematic—low lighting, attractive ‘extras,’ indulgent food, smart cocktails and inspiring heart-to-heart . In fact, we even managed to swap a few clever sound-bytes.

Two weeks ago, I had a most fabulous girls’ night out — six dear friends and I gathered to see a powerful Adele concert at the Beacon Theater, we had pre-show beers, post-show wine and cheese, and hours of chatting, dancing, singing, revelry and — dare I say it, bonding. The night’s confabulations hit upon careers, friendships, family, lifestyles, hair styles, love, vacation destinations, the French language, movies, aspirations and relationships. It was the kind of night that Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers and Nicole Holofcener dream of.

Keen observers might notice that this exact line of thinking is the antithesis of what Fear Of Syndication stands for. After all, this blog tries its best to abide by its log-line: The dramatic tales of an anti-drama Brooklyn gal. So why the veneration for Silver Screen imagery? How could I subscribe to that? In a way, I was surprised to see how fast I clung to movie-made beliefs. But then again, since the days when Reality Bites was looping on my VCR and leading through my career in the film industry, I’ve held on to a love of the cinematic life. I may not need the drama (although often it feels like drama needs me), but at the end of the day, everything is better with the right lighting and good sound design.

You know that over-used and abused quote, “You are the hero of your own story”? I’ll be damned if it’s not true… or, at least, mostly true. We may not always be the hero of our stories, but we are the protagonists. I was able to stop rueing the fact that my life is not a mid-90s ‘slacker’ movie because I no longer want that to be my story. I’ve realized that I don’t want my life to resemble any one movie, or even any one genre. The past year has brought me into a romantic comedy, a painful drama, a frightening horror, an empowering against-all-odds tale and, yes, even a chick flick. Every day, the opening credits roll. And the days play out one by one, ultimately amassing into some Divine Comedy.

Yes, I learned the definition of the word irony from Reality Bites. And, thankfully, like Lelaine Pierce, I know it when I see it.

x

No Woman No Cry

22 November, 2010

Part I

When I was younger, I’d often join my mother and older sister on the couch on what was usually a cold Sunday night to watch the Hallmark Hall-of-Fame weep-a-thon movies that CBS would air to counter-program the sports on other networks. The movies could never hold my attention the whole way through, which was fine, since their plots and formulas were easy enough to anticipate. There were a few favorite templates that were regurgitated with a rotating cast of middle-aged TV actresses: the lonely social worker who fights for custody of orphaned crack baby, the long-lost relative who must care for baby orphaned by war, a host of unrequited love scenarios littered with semi-political but non-offensive themes. They all shared the main idea of Woman Must Fight the System To Do Good Or Fall In Love. My mom and sister seemed partial to the orphaned baby custody movies; a good thing, since there was no shortage of them.

I would float in and out of the family room as they sat huddled on the couch, my mom often with lesson plans sitting forgotten in her lap, as their eyebrows turned towards the heavens with sympathy for the poor orphaned baby and the plight of the woman who wanted to save her. I’d sit and watch for five minutes, and, being a snarky 14 or 15 year old, I’d mutter “Cheesy” or “Lame” at some inopportune time, eliciting glares from my mom and sister. I’d glare back and get up off the couch and continue to wander the house as I put off doing homework. I did like to go back and (silently) watch the end of the movie, just to find out if the woman was successful in her quest to keep the baby, or if the state or the negligent relatives from the backwoods got custody (the movies were always based on true stories, so they said, and there was no telling which outcome would triumph).

Towards the end of the last commercial break before the movie’s gripping conclusion, I’d pop down on the step between the kitchen and family room and try to keep my mouth shut. No matter the fate of the poor orphaned baby and well-intentioned savior, my mom and sister would end the night with tears streaming down their faces, silently weeping over the heartwarming/tragic outcome of the movie. I sat entirely unaffected, and would break the silence of the closing credits by hypothetically asking why the protagonist didn’t just do this thing or that to help her case.

My comments were not exactly welcomed by the tearful lot on the couch. Four wet, angry eyes would stare at me. More often than not, one of them would cry “Don’t you have a heart?!” or “Do you have any feelings?!” or “Where is your soul?!” (I think it was my sister who muttered that last one, through a kind of half-assed sniveling.) Of course, there’s not much to say in reply to something like that. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I’d usually endeavor to reason my way out of it, explaining to them that yes, I have a heart/soul/feelings, but it was all Hollywood make-believe and there’s no reason to cry at an actress, on a set, in front of a crew and a camera.

This always elicited one word of response:

Cynic.

It’s a word that’s stuck with me a long time, and often not by my own designation. It seems some people think that “doesn’t cry at Hallmark movies” also implies “lacks the capacity for emotion.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I am sentimental to a fault, embrace nostalgia and everything it stands for, and harbor as many romantic notions as the next gal, if not more.

I felt for a while like people saw me walking around with my own scarlet letter emblazoned on my aura – a big fat c – and so I’ve decided to redefine the notion for myself:

cynic |ˈsinik| noun – One who is more emotionally moved by reality rather than scripted fare.

(and yes, I fully appreciate that that definition is, in itself, quite cynical.)

My PowerBook's dictionary application segues nicely into Part II.

Part II

The older I get, the more I cry. This makes me very happy. I think I may have cried once or twice in college, and have a distinct memory of tears running down my cheeks when I received a card from my sister while I was studying abroad in London (the same sister who accused me of not having a soul). I know I’ve been moved by plays and performances and felt my cheeks grow hot and a lump in my throat swell. I’ve wept as I watched movies at home on my couch – everything from Jim Sheridan’s woeful In America to Sydney Pollack’s hopeful (the way I see it) The Way We Were (for some reason, most movies with Redford and even the hint of romance can inspire my tear ducts). I considered crying at the final episode of one my favorite TV shows (decided against it, but was impressed with myself for entertaining the possibility). I sobbed when my beloved bicycle was stolen. I bawled during an emotional, depressed breakdown. I’ve had arguments with bosses that have left me sniveling in a darkened bathroom stall. My voice has been known to shake and tears have been known to well when I fight with someone I love, and those tears undoubtedly fall when it’s time for apologies and make-ups. I’ve often curled up in a ball on my bed and let my cheeks grow damp during times I’ve felt alone. My eyes even watered when I watched the lucky passengers walk on the wings of the downed plane in the Hudson. (Take that, Hallmark – reality makes me cry.) I list “introspection” as a hobby – make no mistake, I am acutely aware of my feelings.

Yet there’s one thing that has never caused a single tear to roll down my cheek:   Men.

This has recently proved problematic.

Sometimes, it feels like all of the necessary components are there for a good cry: emotional pain and despondency + the sting of rejection + loneliness + bittersweet memories + confusion, but they all = lump in my throat, at best. If only it were as easy as washing someone out of our hair! With very clean hair but a messy heart, how I’ve longed for the catharsis of crying. But, oh, the frustration when that cry refuses to come out!

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that I do associate a degree of pride with this 100% tear-free record; but it’s a pride that’s inextricably tied to my title of cynic. It feels, sometimes, like the pride of a fool, like someone who doesn’t know enough to understand that they actually should be affected. And sometimes, it feels that to cry is the only way to give a dead relationship its due respect. Not every relationship deserves such respect, of course, nor does every guy who’s ever hurt my feelings deserve my tears – but when the emotional anguish quotient (EAQ?) reaches a certain level, crying seems like the best way to rid my core of the icky, frustrated feelings that are overwhelming it. At those moments, though, tears are magically nowhere to be found.

Thinking back now to a few months ago, while I was facing a rather high EAQ with decidedly dry eyes, it feels as though I was trapped in a room filled with thick, gray smoke, and was forced to rely on a slight draft for ventilation, since I lacked the ability to open a window. My lungs are still recovering.

I’ve never felt like I’ve fought or denied my true feelings; I’ve never suppressed a cry for fear of letting someone get to me. My big bad secret is that a lot of people get to me. My emotional well is certainly not empty – it just often feels so far from flowing over. I’ve tried to piggy-back on to other cries for other reasons, to throw in a sob or two for him, that jerk, whoever he may be, but that seems to be the trick to turn off the waterworks. (I get frustrated when I can’t fool my subconscious.)

There’s little left to do but wait for the reservoir to fill, for the seas to surge. Perhaps I’ve yet to experience a lurve profound enough to warrant tears, or perhaps I need to keep working on forever lowering the rather substantial walls I’ve built around my vulnerable li’l heart.

Until then, maybe I’ll just take to chopping onions for catharsis.

 

x

For a few years now, when romance manages to find its way to me through the muck and mire of my maligned stars, it always seems to happen in the late fall (with very few exceptions). Romance, of course, is a pretty broad term, and could be further expanded to denote “any happening which results in me having a story about a guy.” But we’ll go with it, and perhaps consider revising the use of the word “guy” there…

November 2010 has fallen right in line with the past few years, bringing with it something that could turn out to be a relationfling and/or relationthing and is certainly a much-needed distraction. But the planets must be aligning in amorous trajectories; take a look at the romantic opportunities that have come my way!

Exhibit #1:  “A Very Nice Man Of Love”

Yesterday, I received this email in my junk mail folder. How dare you, Spam Filter, censor this message and endeavor to deprive me of “true love Matter’s A Lot.”??

How Are you today? And How About your Health? I Hope you Are fine
Well, My Name Is Miss Lizy Weah, I am looking for A Very Nice Man Of Love,
Caring, Honest, Matured, Understanding, And Of Good Character, then
After Going to your Profile on google. I Pick Interest In you, So I Will Like
you to Write Me On My E-mail Address ( lizyweah@hotmail.com )
for Me to tell you More About My Self, And As Well Give you My Pictures
Because Am really Looking for A Serious Relationship With you.Remember
that Age,Distance,Color,language,or Religion Doesn’t Matter,but true
love Matter’s A Lot .My Address Is ( lizyweah@hotmail.com ).
Thanks
Yours New Friend
Lizy.

Oh, my. Where to start? The grammar alone has provided a few hours’ worth of entertainment for a geek like me, as capitalization issues haven’t seen this much action since e.e. cummings unknowingly created beat-twee (a new coinage by yours truly. I think it could have some staying power… thoughts?). Then, of course, there’s the content itself: the random and blatant plea for love. She Pick Interest In me, based on the falsity that public profiles as such even exist on Google. What strikes me is the fact that unlike so many other messages that wind up in the junk mail folder, Lizy here hasn’t bothered to ask for money (not outright, anyway), nor is she pushing illegal pharmaceutical knock-offs. She just wants A Serious Relationship With me. There’s a commercial on the air lately that says that 1 in 5 relationships these days begin online. Perhaps if Lizy is flexible enough (and it seems she just might be) to include “gender” to her list of things that Don’t Matter, she can become more than just Mines New Friend. (Internet protocol might dictate that I should have deleted her email address from my copying-and-pasting of her message, but, let’s face it, spam is spam and love is cruel that way.)

Exhibit #2: But what percentage of relationships start on the subway?

After a laaaaaaaaate night last night with some new old friends who seemingly have bionic livers, I boarded the subway this morning rather bleary-eyed for my weekly head-shrinking session. The fastest way to the Upper West Side office is to hop 3 different trains (fastest, of course, only if they come in rapid succession, which maybe happens half the time). Having begun on the F local, I took the A express and transferred again to the C local for the last 3 stops of the journey. I took an end seat on the old hard plastic gray bench of the C train, next to a portly black woman, probably around 40 years old, very neatly dressed in a black wool coat and a scarf that had something sparkly on it. Being hungover and significantly sleep-deprived, I noted this, but needed to concentrate my attention on my iPhone sudoku game, in which I was embarrassing myself by needing an extra 4 minutes from my usual time to complete the puzzle. Ubiquitous little white earbuds fed soothing indie pop into my head and also functioned as anti-social attention-blockers.

“Excuse me,” the woman with the sparkly scarf said.

I turned to look at her, and considered removing my MTA-issued scowl the way some people might remove a hat upon walking inside. (I think I decided against it.) Still, I made eye contact as a response to her request for attention.

“Would you like to exchange phone numbers?” she quietly and rather politely inquired.

Confused, I immediately gave her the benefit of the doubt that the music I was listening to had obstructed what she had really said. I tried to run through a few alternates of what she could have spoken, but all I could come up with was “Maybe she said, ‘Do  you want to exchange phones?’ because she sees mine and it clearly has a fun sudoku game on it.” But I wanted to exchange phones even less than I wanted to exchange phone numbers.

So I shook my head “no.”

She gave a slight nod, then said “OK.”

She turned her gaze to straight ahead, and I returned to the game I was losing to myself.

Was she, like Lizy, simply looking for Love wherever she might find it? Could she have had any other motivation in asking for my phone number? Is it that she simply wanted a new friend to play sudoku with? Is there a vacancy for puffy-eyed, scowl-wearing brunettes in her life that she’s trying to fill? Does my very aura seem so interesting and attractive that she simply needed to see me again? Was she conducting a social experiment, and I’m going to read about my response in “New York” Magazine next month? Did she like the way I smelled? (Thank you, cloak of body spray, for obscuring last night’s debauchery.) Should I have exchanged numbers just because that was the most random thing that might happen to me for a while? (Last time I embraced something because it was entirely random, I wound up on a nationally syndicated TV talkshow. No, irony of that happening to this blogger is not lost.) Should I have agreed to it because now I’ll never know what she really wanted with me? I hope I didn’t just throw away the winning lottery ticket.

Exhibit #3: A low-key 1st-and-a-half date in which, thankfully, no declarations of love were made.

I wonder if I should tell this new-guy-of-note that he is facing major competition for my affection, but the fact that he at least belongs to the gender that I am attracted to is situating as the forerunner of this race. Last night, we sat through a ridiculously bad-but-free movie that was filled with unnecessary nudity and sex scenes – plenty awkward for a 1st-and-a-half date, as you can’t help but wonder if you’ll ever know that kind of intimacy with the fellow sitting next to you, and what it might be like. Still, it was nice that we thought the same snarky and cynical thoughts about the action on screen, freely commenting on them to each other, and whispering “Me too!” throughout the film. Sarcasm is often the best riposte to sexiness.

To protect against second-rate piracy of the second-rate film, the people who organized the screening held everyone’s cell phone for the movie, which was rather totalitarian and useless, seeing as how lame the movie was (there’s nothing one could get from the two-hour movie that they couldn’t have gotten from watching the two-minute trailer). But the cell phone requisition made meeting up with my date in the crowded theater a bit of a to-do, as I sent no less than four text messages instructing him on how to find me, then revising that plan, then revising the revision, then changing the plan altogether. That was before I realized I could hand over my cell phone, get seats and then just wait for him in the lobby – we ultimately met up without a hitch.

The highlight of the movie-going experience was when someone in the audience shouted “Get her a doctor!” We thought that she had somehow managed to get really into the movie, and was shouting to the apathetic characters on screen – but it quickly became apparent that there was someone in the audience who required urgent medical attention. A theater full of would-be do-gooder New Yorkers, myself and my date included, jumped to their feet and reached into their purses and pockets… but since everyone’s cell phone had been confiscated, no one was able to call for help.

Cell phones: They’re not just for sub-par film piracy anymore.

They’re for receiving email love propositions, exchanging phone numbers with random women on the subway, and, yes, legitimate and necessary communication – such as making calls to 911.  Cell phones now seem as integral to my love life as the falling leaves and imminent winter.

x

On Loneliness

4 December, 2009

A few weeks ago, while having a casual conversation about the nature of confused yet platonic relationships, a friend remarked “Everybody’s lonely.” He offered this without irony, without sadness, simply assuming that this is a fact, an integral part of the human condition, as natural and non-negotiable as needing oxygen to breathe, as certain as death and taxes. Our conversation twisted and turned from there, as conversations in bars tend to do, but later that night, at home alone in bed, those two words floated back into my head. “Everybody’s lonely.”

Of course, this is nothing new to me. I’ve held hands with loneliness long enough that, at times, I view the world in degrees of disconnect rather than love, connection, partnership or camaraderie. But something about how my friend had said it – was it his tone? his off-handedness? his confidence? – rang in my ears. Perhaps, too, that phrase resonated with me because this friend, in describing “everybody,” was really allowing me a small glimpse into his own emotional core… and it looked a lot like mine. I fell asleep thinking that try as we might, loneliness never truly leaves us.

A week or two later, I enjoyed the type of evening where being with someone made me feel safe – if only temporarily – from the long arms and tight grasp of the immeasurable beast called loneliness. I spent the next few days thinking that, even if we are destined to each be lonely, the relatively small moments of connection really do make the rest of the ride more palatable. Feeling confident about my prospects for a more tenable future, then, loneliness seemed like a harmless yet permanent mark that maybe we’re all just born to wear, but not endure.

Sandwiched in between then and now, I saw the new film “A Single Man,” a visual delicacy directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, exercising his right to the American dream. I won’t weigh this blog down with a review, but the movie can essentially be broken down as follows:
Act I: We all die alone.
Act II: We may not necessarily go through life alone, but we still all die alone.
Act III: We all die alo – wait – wait, do we? Maybe not! Maybe there’s hope after a – oh, no, no, we do still all die alone.

My initial reaction, as I’d seen the movie through confident and relatively sanguine eyes, was “Well, no need to be so depressing!” I would’ve gladly endured an ounce of Hollywood’s conventional optimism to not have the ending of the film so absolute, so final in its commentary on the solitude of death.

As hours passed and I digested the film and what it had to say, my friend’s small comment floated back into my conscious mind, and the past few weeks came full circle and secured by something that felt like a rock solid truth: Everybody’s lonely.

My friends in confused yet platonic relationships are lonely. Hell, all of my friends are lonely. My coworkers and customers are lonely. Bar-stool philosophers are lonely. Tom Ford is lonely. I’m lonely, too.

Sometimes, we cling to this – there is an odd safety in holding on to loneliness – it crushes you slowly, which is often preferable to the acute pinch of heartache. Most of the time, we search for a distraction, or we try to cope together – something akin to huddling together to stave off the cold, rather than giving up and lying prostrate, waiting to be consumed by that thing we’re all afraid of.

I don’t write strictly of the Single Condition. There are hundreds of social and emotional units by which to measure loneliness and/or its more positive sibling, satisfaction. And while I don’t believe we can ever fulfill all of those measures, I also don’t believe that loneliness is something we’re all destined to suffer with. Like aging, indeed, like death and taxes, it’s true that loneliness will eternally ride with us through life. But I see a virtue in that, a kind of reassurance that no matter what we are or who we’re with, we’ll always be searching for something more, not to replace what we’ve got, but to add to and enhance it.

Many years ago, I discovered the difference between being lonely and being alone. To me, it’s similar to the relationship between being alive and living. Being lonely, being alive – these are the permanent conditions. Being alone, like living, is not guaranteed, but exists in moments that come and go, come and go. Just as we are not always really living, we are not always alone.

I’m still learning to understand how everyone deals with their own loneliness. What do my sisters’ boyfriends offer them that my sisters have chosen them as their partners? Why does an old flame seemingly derive so much pleasure from being alone? What safety does a friend find in setting impossible criteria for her potential mate? Does having more options, more lovers, more stories result in being less lonely? What type of relationship do I need to find in order to keep my own loneliness-demons at bay?

So is the best we can hope for to trudge towards that lonely death hand-in-hand, to share the awkward journey? Maybe. But if we endeavor to fill our lives with happy things – people we like, fulfilling hobbies, pursuit of a satisfying career, faith in something – anything, good books, real cinema, every now and then an indulgent movie, polka-dot dresses and matching shoes, music in its myriad shapes and sounds, someone who makes us feel wanted, someone who makes us feel loved, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, George Clooney – we may come to understand that to tame the loneliness monster is not to fight it, but to live with it.

PS: Another cute new movie recently out, “Up In The Air,” has Mr. Clooney reminding us, again, that everyone dies alone – except, he offers cheekily – for “the people in the cult, with the sneakers and the Kool-Aid. They didn’t die alone.” Food for thought. Thanks, George.