2014: Latching on to the Future, Even If It Gives Me Whiplash

So I wish I was haughty enough to know the Ranier Maria Wilke quote from “Letters to a Young Poet” that I am about to reference, but God’s honest truth is I know it from Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. So I’ll let Whoopi explain instead:

While I love the sentiment and I certainly believe pursuing what your true passion is, things are a little more complicated than that. If you want to be a writer, you have to learn about things like grammar and how to structure a piece. You need to know how to outline, how to properly reference and credit outside sources, how to meet deadlines, and how to write about a topic assigned to you, not just something you think is nifty.

In other words, it is not enough to just write every day. You have to push yourself past your comfort zone, you have to study, you have to read people you admire and think about what it is specifically you admire about their work. You need to write and rewrite. You need an editor and feedback.

To put it bluntly: love and passion are not enough.

There are a lot of things to admire about last year’s critically acclaimed movie Whiplash, but what I love most about this movie is the ideology that practice and passion isn’t enough to be truly exceptional. You can be a natural talent, but without someone (albeit not necessarily someone quite as volatile as JK Simmons) pushing you into a place you didn’t know existed in you, you will never be great.

In Whiplash, a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) is at a musical conservatory trying to be one of the greatest jazz drummers in history. It isn’t enough for him to be good. He wants to be the best, and in order to be the best, you apparently have to get locked up in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with your mentor. But this movie isn’t about how terrible a monster this teacher is. Like Black Swan, The Red Shoes, and other “for the love of art” kind of movies, there is reverence for taking your craft to an obsessive level, to being pushed to the brink to see if you have the wherewithal to hang on.

In this optimistic, Millenial-driven era, we don’t pay much attention to the sacrifice that comes with truly pursuing your passion. Whiplash is not a movie intended to be a horror film about an obsessive psychopathic teacher. It is a statement film about the fact that pursuing your passion isn’t easy. Settling is much easier. You can please others, live up to expectations, or you can put yourself out there, take a giant risk, and know there is a very good chance you can end up face down feeling stupid. But there is a chance that you could accomplish something out of this world phenomenal, and you are so hungry for that chance that you are willing to accept you’re probably going to fail, but that it will be worth it.

The more I watch Orphan Black, the more I think the lead clone in this show about an experiment full of identical clones, Sarah, is in the same kind of impossible situation Teller from Whiplash is in. For her, it isn’t a love of music, but a love of her daughter that keeps her driving and pushing through a seemingly endless series of dangerous and life-threatening situations in which giving up makes so much sense, but for love, she just can’t.

This fantastic sci-fi program is relentlessly paced with Sarah and her band of clone sisters constantly working their way through and out of terrible situations. There is barely enough downtime for a dance party before the next problem arises, but the clones care so much about each other and Sarah has such passion being a mother to her daughter that they don’t care and they just keep trucking through because they don’t have another choice. She could just turn herself over to the lab that created her, but she is going to take the hard way against long odds because the slim hope of living a free life with her clone sestres and her daughter and her foster brother is worth taking a chance on your life, even if the chances she will pull it off without someone suffering is slim to none.

Many movies are structured this way. Saving Private Ryan, Snowpiercer, any sort of war or prison film, there is a culling of the herd because the simple fact of the matter is not everyone is going to make it. They know going in that is the case and the thought of living a different, theoretically better life is well worth taking the very likely chance you won’t make it to the end to see it.

The problem today though is that we focus so much on the success stories that people don’t fully understand the risks and the massive number of people out there who failed. I watch people putting themselves out there, opening themselves up for ridicule and I admire the courage, but I shake my head that they thought this plan was ever going to work.

I wanted to be a ballerina for several years. I loved ballet more than anything, I went to a performing arts school as a ballet major. I had the perfect feet for it; small with high arches, but the problem was I was too short and too muscular in build to ever possibly succeed as a professional. More importantly, I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t bad, but I would never be great, so I am grateful for the teachers and my mother and others who supported my hobby, but admitted this was simply not something I could successfully pursue. They didn’t quash my dreams, they spared me from nightmares.

The same happened in college. I was an incredibly active member of my high school speech team to the point where colleges were actively recruiting me to be on their speech teams. As a wise speech coach once told me though—“I know you love this, but here is the thing. You can do speech in college, but you can’t go pro.”

While I fell in and out of love with dance and speech, knowing they would never be anything more than hobbies, somehow I became a writer. I didn’t think it would stick, and I certainly never expected me to start a blog and voluntarily put words to page day in and day out and yet, here I am. And there are people in my life for once telling me not the reasons why I can’t do this, but the reasons why I can. It is still scary as fuck, but I just basically wrote a book this month admitting all sorts of my inner thoughts and personal stories and opinions on things and I survived. So I keep going, cause like Whoop…err..Wilke said, if you want to be a writer, write.

And even though I know I have about as much of a chance reaching the pinnacle of the writing world as I do of being a ballet dancer, I can’t seem to help myself from putting myself out there like I have over the past month. But whether or not this whole writing thing wants me or not, at least for now, I am digging my claws in. I’m ready to Latch.

Sam Smith and Disclosure know how scary an unsafe bet can be. It is horrifying and stimulating all at once and the prevailing thought is that you need more and you need to make sure that it won’t go away. It sounds possessive, but you’ve got to lock that shit up before someone else gets there. If you find that passion that seems the slightest bit attainable, you lock in and you hope to God you never have to let go.

So this is me, writing world, locking in and latching on. Cause I’ve gone through my whole life and the things that have touched me and touched others and nothing gets me more excited about the day than putting fingers to keys and trying to talk about them. I kind of hate how much I enjoy this because it means I can’t walk away without giving it a little more of a try to be a writer of something more than how a poker tournament turned out or what sports betting law went into effect.  I know what I have found and I am ready to try to knock those boundaries down, even though I am fully aware that it is going to suck a lot of the time, and in fact, it may always suck and I give up. It may take a mean as hell editor or my back against a financial wall, but now that this writing thing is shackled in my embrace, I am not letting go for at least a little while. So, we may have gone through the past together this past month, but get ready, cause I am really hoping there is a future full of this to come.

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2013: Free Blackfish, Say Something, Just Escape

In the past ten years, the popularity of documentaries has really exploded, at least amongst my peers. As someone who has been a big doc fan a long time and taken several doc classes in school, it warms my heart to see this type of movie getting attention critically and financially. While my poor classic films still get neglected, this sector of movies is growing, thriving, and getting increasingly more creative and inventive.

Here’s where you might not like what I have to say though. You need to understand that a documentary is not the news. They are under no obligation to be subjective and, in fact, very few of these mainstream documentaries are. Just because something is non-fiction does not mean it is non-agenda. These movies are basically persuasive arguments, except instead of a theme paper, they are presented cinematically.

The very first documentary, Nanook of the North, was actually very much staged and far from real. But the point wasn’t to be real, the point was to try to expose American audiences to a culture and lifestyle they weren’t familiar with.

Which brings me to Blackfish. This is an exceptionally well-made documentary about the downsides of keeping killer whales in captivity, focusing mostly on a killer whale named Tillikum, who was captured when he was a baby in 1983 and grew increasingly hostile as he aged, playing a role in the death of three different people. If you’ve seen the documentary, you leave very much feeling as though keeping orcas in captivity is a horrifying thing to do and all should be set free immediately. As a kid who saw Free Willy numerous times over, my heart broke as I watched Blackfish, but the film student in me saw how patently one-sided this argument really was.

I remember when I was obsessed with Willy I read up on Keiko the whale and learned that, after being in captivity for so long, they couldn’t exactly set Keiko free because he wouldn’t have been able to survive on his own. He wouldn’t know how to feed himself, there was no pod to take him in. Keiko got a vastly improved life as a result of the movie, but the sad truth is Keiko died of pneumonia and never fully made it out to the wild again.

When you do some digging on Blackfish, you find out that Sea World wasn’t the only one criticizing this movie. One of the trainers who died has a family that appreciates the film, but refuses to accept any funds from the film to support the foundation in their late daughter’s name. Some interviewed for the film didn’t make the final cut and weren’t told the film would be so anti-Sea World. This isn’t the filmmakers being shady, this is how documentaries get made. Think about how you design an argument. You aggregate as much information and research as you can, you pick your strongest points, and you make your case with that.

So, no, I am not being critical of Blackfish, I am just trying to explain that you are getting an argument on a subject that fits in a box, and the stuff that doesn’t fit in that box gets discarded. That box sometimes is determined before the filming begins, that box changes shape, and in the editing process that box inevitably gets smaller because movies are only so long.

Blackfish’s box is about the dangers of keeping animals in, well, a box. I don’t think anyone would argue that when something is confined versus when they are free to roam, they are going to act differently. It is not unlike when people get filmed. In documentaries, the two approaches tend to get described as “fly on the wall” vs “fly in the soup.” In the former, the documentarians do their best to remain removed from the action, creating a sense of objectivity, like they are sneaking into a situation undetected. Think about when a camera is pointed at you though. You fundamentally act differently. Maybe you smile more, maybe you hide behind another person, maybe you say or don’t say things you normally would. That is why “fly in the soup” documentarians accept this is human (and animal nature), so they insert themselves right in the middle of the action, kind of like Werner Herzog did in Grizzly Man.

While I prefer the fly on the wall documentaries on the whole, the fly in the soup mentality is one it is hard to disagree with. People and animals act differently when you constrain them. That’s why there are terms like “stir crazy” and “cabin fever”. The second you take away something from someone, they become keenly aware that, though it may not seem important in their life, it is actually a big part of it they didn’t know how much they needed it.

Orange Is the New Black is a show all about captivity and what it does to people. In the opening season, the so-called lead of the show Piper is the fish out of water, learning to adapt to a life in prison after spending the rest of her life in upper middle class suburbia. Everything is foreign, from the shower slippers to the food to how to socialize, and the opening season takes us along with Piper learning to acclimate. It seems like she doesn’t change that much as a person, but by Season 3, she is the Tillikum of this women’s prison—a danger to her fellow inmates and, more importantly, a danger to herself.

Throughout each season of the show, we see that every woman on this show is not the person in prison that they were on the outside. These women aren’t in here because of their prison behavior. They did something else in an entirely different venue of their life that ended them up in the clink, and from there it was either adapt or perish.

For some, like Taystee, the outside world is almost scarier than prison. She gets out, but she is kind of like Keiko of Free Willy fame in that she is no longer equipped to survive in the real world. It is an issue many elderly inmates who are released and have no idea what to do because they have no life to return to deal with regularly in the real world. On OITNB, the women always talk about getting out as the end goal, but let’s be real, they won’t be going back to the life they had before most of the time, so it is just a pipe dream, a hope to get them through this stretch of captivity because a crappy life on the outside is something to daydream about when you’re trapped inside something else.

It is obvious how the whales in captivity and women in prison connect. Literal captivity is pretty easy to spot. But we all allow ourselves to get trapped in things we can’t get out of on our own. A job you hate, a bad relationship you need out of, an illness you can’t recover from—all of these are a version of being locked up.

Unrequited love, while romantically endearing, is a version of captivity too. For the guy singing to Delilah, believing she is the answer to fixing his problems. Every emo kid wallows in the pain of Something Corporate’s epic rock ballad Konstantine. More recently, the unrequited love song hall of fame was gifted Great Big World’s Say Something. This song differs a little from your standard unrequited love ballads where the singer belts out that they will love this person forever no matter what.

In Say Something, the singer finally gets fed up feeling trapped and is imploring the other person to give them something, anything to go on because they are feeling claustrophobic and they need out, even if that something said to them is no. They are willing to do anything on their part, be it swallow their pride, give up their vices, or admit fault that they just weren’t good enough for you to give them a shot. But at the same time, they are really begging you to set them free from this feeling of maybe it’ll happen so they can be set free to find someone else or lead their own path elsewhere.

There is almost certainly another side to the Say Something story. A person who just doesn’t have those feelings for the person, someone who feels suffocated by the affection of someone they just want as a friend or maybe, just maybe, they are too scared to say something either. Either way, it is like Blackfish. This guy has put together his best argument to give himself one last shot at the person he loves. It is biased, it is one-sided, and it is coming from someone who wants nothing more than to be set free with or without the person he loves.

2012: May God Bless and Keep You Finding Silver Linings and Never Giving Up

Being in my 30s and not really feeling like I have my life in order is probably the single greatest cause of anxiety in my life right now. Granted, that is a big umbrella of a problem underneath which a lot of frustrations can fit, but I guess another way to frame it is like this: As a kid, I watched like 50 hours of TV a week. I have easily seen over 1,000 movies (I’ve rated over 1,200 on Letterboxd) and in all those movies I saw what I thought life was supposed to look like. I looked to my parents and their siblings and their lives looked like this. My older cousins all had lives that felt balanced and normal and possibly even a little boring.

Even in the old movies like the screwball comedies of the 1930s, people were always depicted as a little wacky or eccentric in a way that was harmless, not in a way that might need a prescription or some therapy.

We’ve really come a long way in addressing mental health in the media, but it is still something tough to talk about, understandably so, because we have decades of hiding crazy relatives form the public and people pretending to be as “normal” as they can. When I look around now though, I can find so many shows and movies in which people have flaws but are not labelled crazy. It is a relieving change of pace, and sometimes I think people are not even realizing the shift is happening.

Wes Anderson aside, there is no current director whose movies I am more excited to see than David O’ Russell.  It may seem like his interests are all over the place and no real theme to what he is doing, but I think he is taking some of the lost cinematic genres and redeeming and reinventing them. The Fighter takes boxing movies in a whole new direction. Three Kings is a movie that reinvented the war genre and became one of the first films to really tackle Desert Storm.

Then there is Silver Linings Playbook, which is a screwball comedy of the 1930s populated with characters with actual, identifiable mental issues instead of just “quirky” people. It isn’t just Bradley Cooper’s character who is struggling. His love interest played by Jennifer Lawrence has intimacy and grief issues too. The movie is very clear that these two are mentally not in a great place, but the whole supporting cast struggles too. Cooper’s mom is a classic enabler, his father clearly has obsessive compulsive disorder, and even Cooper’s best friend has some anger and resentment issues.

Most of the movie is really funny, which isn’t to say they are making fun of the mentally ill. Life is funny, even when you are struggling. If you can’t joke about the rough things in life, what can you joke about? But there are also brutally honest moments of how frustrating dealing with issues can be.

I feel for poor Bradley Cooper, who gave a remarkable performance in this movie that numerous people have labelled as a very accurate depiction of what mental illness can feel like. Hard to be up against Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln and walk away with the Oscar though. You just can’t beat that. But this movie got its fair share of awards recognition and I think part of the appeal is that in this movie no one is stigmatized, because even the characters that spent time in a mental facility seem relatively comparable to those who are deemed to be living normal lives. You know why? Because we’re all a little messed up. It is another one of those Gen X sentiments: yes, you’re a little crazy, but don’t worry, we’re all a little crazy. The fact a movie with that sentiment is being released in 2012 gives me hope that the rah rah yay for your differences mentality of the past decades that seems to willfully ignore that some of these differences are in fact mental health issues that might be improved with medication, therapy, or at least a general awareness that this isn’t just some quirk, but something that can be addressed instead of suppressed, will be a thing of the past eventually.

Parenthood is another show that peels back the façade of seemingly having your life together to reveal that none of us really do. The Braverman clan consists of the patriarch and matriarch, four adult children, and their respective families. In the early goings, there were two kids who had things together, the oldest, Adam, and the youngest, Julia, while the middle kids, Sarah and Crosby, were the lost souls of the family.

The more this show went on though, the more it became clear that every single solitary person on this show has their flaws and their problems. Adam and his wife Kristina have a kid with Asperger’s, but even the two of them as a couple are amazing because they are two of the most socially awkward nerdy people ever recorded on TV. They say dumb jokes, they freak out over silly things, and you can see that they are a little dorky without throwing a pair of suspenders and glasses on them. You love them because of this, not in spite of it, which is why this show should never be watched without an ample supply of Kleenex.

Julia and her husband Joel (who, for the record [and I think the ladies will agree] is actually perfect) is a type-A perfectionist to a fault that, when one thing in her life goes wrong, the whole thing spirals out of control. Her children, one biological and one adopted, struggle to get along. In other words, in a family of 17 people, there is not a single person who doesn’t really have some sort of issue affecting their mental health and happiness, except maybe Drew and Haddie, two children the writers never seemed to have much to give them to do. But Drew certainly seems like a sullen teen, and who knows what Haddie got up to once she headed off to college.

My mom’s family is big like the Bravermans. Her parents begat seven kids that begat 16 more and, once you throw in who married in and the great grandbabies, our family consists of around 65 people. Growing up, I thought everyone was living this wonderful life with children and the occasional hiccup related to health like a cousin who was born with a chromosome piece missing. But once people started dying and those 16 grandkids started growing up, it became clear that some may seem to have their crap together, but most of the families were putting their best faces forward at the holidays, trying to hide their issues.

Nowadays, we’ve had several deaths, several health scares, and several struggles that we just don’t pretend things are fantastic. It is kind of nice though. Our family has been tested with tragedy and we’ve come out okay. We don’t have to hide and pretend because we know they are not going to ever turn us away.

It is a love song, but when it comes to my family, Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up pretty much sums us up. The song stayed in the Billboard Top 40 for five months because, simple as it may be, the sentiment that you are going to be there for someone is such a universal sentiment. It is the kind of sentiment that can settle those anxieties and concerns that you’re a little off or a little crazy because here is someone telling you that it is okay, and, more importantly, that it will continue to be okay.

Friends express surprise when I tell them I am close with my cousins because it isn’t particularly common, but even though I hardly see them, thanks to Facebook and to us growing up and being able to admit a little more about our flaws, I am so confident they’re never giving up on me.

Like I said, Mraz wrote this as a love song, but it is a tune that I associate with my family, especially the refrain about skies being rough and still looking up. In fact, it is almost a joke with my mom and I now. “It’ll work out or get better,” she’ll say. I always ask, “How?” “I don’t know Jessica. I’m just looking up and hoping it will.”

Our family is far from perfect. In fact, we have a fair share of drama and a little division. But unlike my childhood, when we all pretended we didn’t, now we are the Bravermans or the Silver Linings Playbook cast. We have our ups and downs, some of us struggle more than others at times, but I love them even more now knowing they aren’t perfect, I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean we are ever gonna give up.

2011: Born to Be An Artist, But May Not Get Those Happy Endings

It is the most cliched film school student thing to do, call something derivative, but here is the thing: I hate Quentin Tarantino movies and I hate them because I find them completely derivative and unoriginal.

If you’re not familiar, Tarantino readily admits that years of working in a video store set him up for a life of filmmaking in which he puts iconic moments of other films in his own work. If he did this every once in a while to make a particularly salient point, it wouldn’t bother me so much, if there were not something like 90 cultural references in the span of a film that really isn’t about much of anything other than to show off how nifty it is to reference other things. Pastiche, or referencing something just for the sake of referencing it, is just one of my cinematic pet peeves.

I’ve written before about how paying homage to an era or making a point about a cultural text like in The Grand Budapest Hotel is something I am so very on board with, but every time I watch a Tarantino film, I feel like I am watching one of those videos YouTube shippers who compiled a collage of Ross and Rachel kissing. I don’t get it. If I wanted that, I would just watch Friends.

Yet, here I am about to defend a movie that was frequently labeled derivative and actually deemed “cinematic rape” by Kim Novak, who objected to its fully legal use of a memorable portion of Bernard Hermann’s score from Vertigo. But I am going to defend The Artist, a beautiful love letter to an era of cinema that gets written off as base, unwatchable, and largely forgettable.

Prior to The Artist, the last fully black and white film to win the Best Picture Oscar was The Apartment in 1960. Many people, my friends included, hear black and white, and immediately dismiss it as a movie they have no interest in. This is particularly frustrating for me, as I find the era of movie making where B&W and color films were split around 50/50 to be hands-down the best era for movies we have ever seen. It is a struggle to convince people to watch a movie like Sunset Blvd.

The Artist (and Hugo, which was released the same year) remind us that we can’t have the blockbusters of today without the silent films of the past. The mere act of creating a silent film with title cards the audience has to read is a huge deal, as it is something we as audience members are rarely expected to do. While I tend to prefer foreign films with subtitles instead of dubs, most people will take the version where their native tongue is recorded over the film itself. Spending half of your time reading when you go to the movies? Not an easy sell.

And this movie grossed over $133 million worldwide. This is why I defend it as important instead of derivative. After this, hopefully some people made an effort to check out some of the other silent film classics of the era like A Trip to the Moon, The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the beautiful Sunrise or disturbing M (Peter Lorre will always give me the heebie jeebies). It makes sure that these movies aren’t forgotten, which, given that cinema has changed so much over the past 120 years or so, is entirely possible.

Being derivative in order to write a love letter to something forgotten isn’t the only reason I have to appreciate derivative pop culture though. One of my favorite sitcoms of the past five years is a total ripoff of Friends, but what makes Happy Endings interesting is that, instead of having one wacky gal and five relatively well-adjusted people, the sextet in this show are all hilariously bizarre in their own special way. In other words, instead of saying “let’s make a show about six friends in an urban setting,” someone said, “What if the people from Friends actually were a little off their rockers?” Or, more accurately, “What would a group of friends who grew up watching shows like Friends be like?”

In the same vein as Gilmore Girls, Happy Endings is packed to the hilt with pop culture references ranging from obvious to obscure. In the opening teaser of one episode, they managed to make separate references to both Bebop and Rocksteady, so can I just a big T-U-R-T-L-E power to you, show writers? It is a new version of Friends because that life in that sitcom was so far removed from the infusion of pop culture that started with people my age. In an almost meta homage to the show, Happy Endings shows us what happens when people try to live like the people on Friends.

And while there were plenty of things that were insane about Friends, like the quality of their apartments, Happy Endings plays with that notion to an extreme level that ventures into the realm of absurdity. There are very few boundaries of what is real and makes sense, as the baseline of preposterousness in the stories is set very high very early on.

Is it a show that is derivative of another sitcom and rife with pop culture references just for the sake of pop culture references? Sort of. Thing is, I know plenty of people my age who speak almost exclusively in movie references and base their social behavior around what they see on TV. One friend even introduces me to people as, “This is my friend Jess. She talks like a Sorkin character.” There is a need for a media-saturated version of friends because in the time that show ran, our lives became saturated with mass media.

Mostly though, I just like the absolutely out there storylines, like when the gang decides to take Jazz Kwon Do classes.

I am a sucker for any excuse to shake my ass and show y’all what I am working with, so the numerous dance sequences on Happy Endings get me the same way Lady Gaga songs do. From the moment Born This Way was released, critics of Gaga and her fleet of Little Monsters cried foul, noting the song has both auditory and thematic similarities to the Madonna classic Express Yourself.

They aren’t wrong. These are both songs about empowerment, having others accept you for who you are, and setting the bar high when it comes to dating. I for one am a massive fan of both songs, but I have to side with Gaga on the need to brush up this “love yourself for who you are anthem”.

Madonna’s song makes it clear from the opening lyric, “Come on girls. Do you believe in love?” that this a song for heterosexual females. Born This Way, on the other hand sets a very different tone, letting you know, “it doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M.”

Sexuality has come a long way even from even the late 80s when Madonna was peaking, which is why there is a grandiose opening segment of the Born This Way video that very much challenges gender norms. Then, Gaga does what most songs about empowerment these days are scared to do—frame that empowerment around being treated well by a man as Madonna may suggest or by being conventionally attractive and accomplished.

Gaga tells those little monsters of her to go ahead and be monstrous and openly addresses that it is totally normal to be insecure, you just can’t let it control or, as she suggest, let it be your “religion”. This is a song about just taking what you’re given and doing your best with it, as, much as you would like to believe differently, this is the one and only option. Figure out what works for you, then do it.

That last sentence is pretty much how Madonna got her career started, so it is no wonder someone like Gaga, who is a little younger than I am would be tremendously influenced by the early 90s idea of embracing your femininity and your sexuality and flaunting it no matter how folks may judge you. I mean, she performs the entire video in her underwear if you really want to hit the point home.

So yes, she is one cone bra away from being a derivative Madonna, but unlike Tarantino, Gaga finds a way to replicate, then reinvent into something that in the current musical environment can’t even be categorized. Like Gaga would even want to be in a category. God makes no mistakes and she is on the right track, baby, born to bring a new kind of empowerment to a new group of people using the same kind of messaging as someone before her.

2010: The Good Wife, The Bad Romance, and the Ugly Truth About Break Ups

Break ups are such a weird thing. Suddenly, something you’ve grown rather attached to is gone and then there is just this weird void. Even if you are the one breaking things off, it takes a certain amount of adjusting to the new normal. Things feel out of whack for a while as you try to plug in holes where you can, move on, recalibrate.

If you’re the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, you fill that void with a new project. The kind of thing where you play the field and make a certain amount of promises to a certain number of people, and, while you may never have out and out lied, you certainly frolicked in the gray area, enjoying the array of options you had when you weren’t in a relationship. The metaphor mostly works, minus the extensive legal appearances and fees that stemmed from the origin of Facebook.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed that Fincher played this film so safe up the middle. I was expecting a social media Rashomon with the story told from Zuckerberg’s POV, then Eduardo Saverin’s, and the Winlkevii too. Instead, it is mostly from Zuckerberg’s POV as he blows up one relationship after another on his way to the top, begging us to ask the ever-cinematic question: was it worth the cost?

Really though, while Zuckerberg is the lead, Fincher purposefully makes Saverin the guy you root for as the audience and, of course, he is the guy who is going to get screwed the hardest at the end of the day. Like someone whose significant other suddenly starts ghosting them, Saverin gets the rug pulled out from under him, which is the absolute worst way for any relationship to end. With other relationships, you can prepare that the end is near, you can see how it is not going to work. Those ones where you think things are going just fine and then you get suckerpunched, even if you aren’t emotionally invested as others, it hurts twice as much.

Unless you’re Zuckerberg, whose Asperger-esque personality sees these social situations as a nuisance more than anything else. Maybe this is a cautionary tale about mixing business and friendship, but I can also see how this a warning to those of us who are willing and eager to open up to friends, boyfriends, whoever that, even though it may feel foreign, you need to stay guarded if you don’t want to end up like Saverin, looking around wonder how in the hell you got where you are in a life that bears no resemblance to the one you’ve grown comfortable with.

While The Social Network illustrates how painful having the rug pulled out from under you can be, The Good Wife gives you hope that a failed relationship may just be the start of the chapter in your life you’ve been waiting for. The premise of the show was initially that of a woman whose politician husband cheated on her, inspired by any number of real life political scandals. That woman, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), goes on to find her first real job after years of being a housewife. From there, her husband plays a role here and there, but this a show largely about Alicia and her co-workers, making for some of the most compelling television of the past five years.

In fact, her marriage is basically an afterthought of this show in the best way possible. Her husband Peter finds ways back into her life, but week in and week out this was Alicia’s story and, now entering its sixth season, The Good Wife has strayed so far from its premise, it is barely recognizable, but again it is in the best way possible. It is realistic to how break ups work. Six years removed, your life should look completely different, even if Alicia did get the rug pulled out from under her. What is particularly interesting is that Alicia hasn’t filled her holes in her life with another guy. She’s filled it with a job, new friends, and political ambitions. In other words, a dude doesn’t need to be replaced by a dude. There are plenty of ways to live a fulfilling life without necessarily having a romantic relationship.

The Good Wife does point out the sad truth of it though—this wasn’t some clean break. It is a process to work someone out of your life, to plug those holes, and sometimes you plug them with the wrong things and you have to start over again, like when you fall back on familiar habits (like Josh Charles’ character, who I miss every day).

As a female, hell, as a person, I appreciated that Alicia has moments of brilliance, moments when she has no idea what to do, but when push comes to shove, she figures it out. Getting over a break up or dealing with any major change in your life is a process, so to act like it is more than something that isn’t crying over a tub of Ben & Jerrys a couple of nights then getting yourself back out there is greatly appreciated.

And, like most of the cases the attorneys on this show deal with, there is no clear right or wrong answer. Peter’s adultery aside, there is really no other situation in which you can’t understand why the characters on this show make dubious decisions. Like any court case or any relationship, there are arguments to be made on both sides, but post break-up, you have to realize that there is a point where you might have to let go and rest your case.

That is, unless you’re really drunk at night and alone and wondering how the hell you ended up here with this hole in your heart. Which is when you need to turn your phone off, count to ten, then channel your energy into Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.

Listen, I am gonna be honest with you. I wish I could be Alicia Florrick and just get over it, but I have those moments alone at night where, with a little help of nostalgia and inebriation, you remember what used to fill that hole in your heart. It could have been a landmine about to explode, but there are those moments where the idea of filling that emptiness with something incredibly volatile sounds more appealing than just sitting there festering in the nothing.

I think that is why this song’s popularity expanded beyond just the country music audience. It appeals to the core of all of us who wants to prove we are the one more over the past relationship when, in reality, we are a tragic mess. The lyrics literally admit the landmine is preferable to nothing: “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” Cause yeah, picking up the phone is a horrible idea, but the idea of sitting there, doing nothing, and just trying to deal with it is so unbelievably rough, and if you don’t have the resources of Alicia Florrick, you eventually hit a wall or slip up.

Some might not even call it a slip up though. Sometimes you think this things you gave up on was to create something better, but after some reflection, a few glasses of wine, and some pondering over what you had and what you have, what you need may not be what is in your future. What you need could very well be in your past and, crazy as it may sound, you need it now.

2009: Beam Me Up, Liz Lemon

I wish the stereotypes about redheads weren’t true, but they are. We are sensitive, we have tempers, and we should never be put in charge of the Cincinnati Bengals offense. We are also rather stubborn, which has its ups and downs. In the pro column, I am very perseverant, I don’t back down from many fights, and I have the work ethic of an oxen, even if I think something may not be worth the work.

The downside to being stubborn is that I willfully miss out on things I may enjoy to try to prove my stubborn point. For example, I firmly believe Christopher Nolan is not particularly good at directing movie so, on principle alone, I started avoiding them. Same with Martin Scorsese. But it was only when someone really told me I should give his film Hugo a shot did I realize that I don’t categorically hate Scorsese movies. I just hate most of them.

It feels like forever ago when I discussed Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when I did, I tried to explain away my preference of the second iteration as a familial thing. I take a lot of pride in preferring the original of things. Rarely does a remake live up to the original, yet we live in a world where we are constantly remaking perfectly fine pop culture products. Jurassic World is a piece of crap compared to Jurassic Park. Because of Marvel Comics’ absurd deals with the studios, we have to get new iterations of Batman and Superman nearly annually. And it is one thing to take a foreign show like Homeland and produce it for Americans in English, but no one is going to convince me the American The Office is worth my time when the British version is so absolutely wonderful.

I don’t remember the circumstances that led me to go see the Star Trek reboot in theaters, but I was fully prepared to hate it for the sake of Nimoy, Shatner, Takai, and company. But I really couldn’t. The movie was really funny, particularly the new Kirk, Chris Pine, who, along with Channing Tatum, is pioneering an interesting brand of himbo smart humor I really appreciate. I’d seen the original Star Trek films, but what I really preferred was this one.

Really though, director JJ Abrams did the reboot right by taking some of our favorite things about the campy TV series like Bones and his saying, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a…” or the weird asocial nature of the Vulcans and finding a spot for them in the movie. Plus you have Winona Ryder in ridiculous old woman make up playing Spock’s Mom. Most impressively, they incorporate the old cast, story, and timeline into their movie, which comes off less as trying to do Star Trek better and more as a reverent ode to something we all really enjoy, even if it is kind of old.

By keeping the focus on the things that made the original great, like say Jim Kirk’s stubbornness, the movie turned out to be one of the few I was willing to shell out the money and see in theaters a second time. The second film wasn’t bad either, though the marketing plan around Benedict Cumberbatch’s role was poorly planned and executed and the fun and vigor of the ’09 movie left me whelmed at best.

Nonetheless, in a summer landscape full of franchises I continue to maintain my snotty distance from, this is one of the few I am willing to stick with. Perhaps stubbornly so.

It might surprise the poker community to hear that a TV show I was very stubborn about watching is one that actually is the source of my nickname within the poker community. It is true though. I waited until Season 3 to start watching 30 Rock. You might remember that 30 Rock and Studio 60 were actually both launched by NBC during the same season. Studio 60 was the hottest pilot of that year, so when it came time to pick sides on which sketch comedy show you were going to watch, I sided with Sorkin. Funny how TV works though. My understanding is that, while Studio 60 had bad ratings, they weren’t exactly terrible, but because it was so expensive to produce, it got the axe after one season. Meanwhile, 30 Rock wasn’t exactly raking in the eyeballs either, but because it was reasonably cheap, it stuck around on the schedule. Then it stubbornly stuck around season after season, largely because every other program was tanking on NBC, so if you displayed even the semblance of a pulse as a show, you would get renewed.

My stubbornness almost made me miss out on my televisual doppleganger, Liz Lemon. The executive producer or a half-good sketch comedy show, Lemon is a woman after my own heart who is very good at getting things done when it comes to her job, but her personal life is generally in such shambles she has to rely on advice from an NBC executive played to perfection by Alec Baldwin. I know in the political space we talk about how impossible it is for the stubborn two-party system to exist, but I always think of Jack and Liz, where Jack mostly has the right answer, but Lemon comes through time and again with something to change Jack’s stance on things too.

What is really fun about 30 Rock is how steadfast all the characters are in their life POVs, and while each gets a turn being ridiculed by others, they all have their time to shine too. If you didn’t hit a double every once in a while, you couldn’t be that stubborn about your outlook on life because, at some point, you would realize you’re batting .000 and have to re-evaluate. But Tracy has his moments, Jenna has her moments, and Jack and Liz get their moments too. They rarely compromise, but the clashing personalities butting heads creates some amazingly memorable humor and some inventive solutions to problems.

If you ever take an improv class, the first thing they’ll teach you about how to do it is to always say yes and accept the premise you are given. When you don’t have a road map of where a sketch is going, it is important to avoid conflict and be fluid with the direction your partner takes things. Tina Fey may have honed much of her comedy skills in improve troupes, but the stubborn relationship of Jack and Liz in situations where one refuses not to bend out of principle will always be the source of my favorite moments of the show.

Like Liz Lemon, I too will take things to extremes to prove a point. One of my absolute worst habits is being an anti-bandwagoner. While others are quick to jump on a bandwagon, if something I enjoy that isn’t flavored with pumpkin gets too popular, I want off and I want off now.

Such was the case with John Mayer, who was first introduced to me in the fall of 2001, shortly before his first single started getting airplay on MTV2. My friend across the hall in the dorm told me about this fun guy with an acoustic guitar and, by November, we were all fans, listening to Comfortable over and over again. We saw him in a bar on a beach in San Diego in an audience of no more than 200 people and felt so very cool when he started to get big.

Here’s where my relationship with John turned into an instance of Heartbreak Warfare. We were wholly dedicated to his first album, Inside Wants Out. We loved his acoustic guitar, live recordings, and generally unpolished feel to his songs. Then came the album most people consider Mayer’s first, Room for Squares. It featured studio-recorded, polished versions of some of my favorite Mayer tunes and, while I bought a copy, I still preferred the original.

As John Mayer proceeded up the music industry ladder, he got more money, more resources, and his albums sounded more and more produced to me. Some songs like Clarity would resonate, but most of them really didn’t feel like the Mayer I had gotten to know. Like the song Heartbreak Warfare (which I thoroughly enjoy btw), it became a destructive battle of me disliking new Mayer singles and him showing up on TV and doing increasingly douchey things, like dating Taylor Swift, making it so that I kinda hated a guy who was one of my favorite musicians in college.

I wanted more of John Mayer, but the person he had become made it perfectly clear our affair was but a phase, and I could continue on this path of badmouthing his songs and behavior, trying to point out other, newer white guys playing acoustic guitar, or I could just accept that John Mayer was never going to be my Ben Folds or Andrew McMahon. He was going to be a guy I really liked once whose songs aren’t going to dominate my life the way they used to. He is someone who simply went a different direction than I preferred he go, and I wish him well and check in on what he is doing now and again, discovering lovely songs like Heartbreak Warfare here and there. I wish I wasn’t so stubborn to not be able to accept the changes and love every album the way I did Inside Wants Out, but sometimes the least stubborn thing to do is to not force something, but to just let it be and let it go.

2008: Kanye I’m Still Free, Take a Chance on Mamma Mia

I can’t sing. I can dance, I can act, but I really can’t sing, so my career as a stage performer was over before it started. I’m tone deaf, so while I have the rhythm of the song just fine, I sound like a dying bird. Even though I cannot sing worth a lick, I am always a willing participant when my cousins and I go to karaoke during the holidays.

One year there was a guy there who had auditioned for American Idol, clearly sang incredibly well, and would get a decent amount of applause when he was on stage.

Then it was my turn. I performed The Proclaimers classic from Benny and Joon, the song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I try to sing-talk my way through these songs, kinda like Rex Harrison, but even that tipped the hand as to my lack of singing ability. But everyone loves that song, especially the chorus, so I got them involved, singing the first “Bah Duh Da” myself, then holding the mic out to indicate they sing the second one. I had a blast, and the audience seemed to enjoy it too.

Afterwards at the bar, the talented kid came up to me and asked how I managed to make the audience like my performance so much, explaining he was struggling connecting with people. Here is what I said:

“You spend most of your singing with your eyes closed or looking at the floor as you sing into the mic. I can’t sing. I know I suck, so I just own that I suck, try my hardest, and the rest of the room doesn’t feel bad at how much I can’t sing, they enjoy how terrible I am right along with me.”

Such is the case with the summer blockbuster of 2008, Mamma Mia! This musical basically had a cast of super serious actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Scarsgaard, Colin Firth, and more. Rather than spend months learning how to sing and perfecting their craft, the movie is instead celebrity karaoke, where we get to laugh with the Lady Meryl as she jumps around on a bed singing Dancing Queen in her overalls.

People malign the movie as being hokey and campy, but that is exactly the point. The mere premise is pretty absurd, too absurd to be taken seriously. Shortly before her wedding Meryl Streep’s daughter (Amanda Seyfried) sends invitations to the three guys she suspects are her father based on facts she found in her mother’s diary. All three show up to the town in Greece where they are living, calamity ensues.

In other words, it ain’t Shakespeare. And the only way this movie works is if the stars commit to the absurdity and give it their all, knowing full well it is going to sound kind of awful. They make the most of the musical talent they’ve got, and the results are hilarious, but hilarious in the same way as my karaoke performance, because the stars are in on the joke. Trust me, Pierce Brosnan knows he sounds abysmal singing SOS to Meryl, but my God does he give it an earnest try.

We get taught a lot about taking risks when there is a good chance of success, but this movie reminds us that when you put it all out there when you know you won’t really succeed, you can nonetheless end up with some fantastic results. This movie earned nearly $150 million, making it the 13th-highest grossing film of the year. It also spawned several more musical movies. Some, like Hairspray, succeeded because they actually cast incredibly adept singers and dancers, while others, like Rock of Ages, crashed and burned because both the movie and the performers were taking things way too seriously and trying very hard to be good instead of trying very hard to be themselves. What it really boils down to is that you can’t pretend to be something you’re not, even if that something you are is being really bad at something. If you don’t believe me, watch the ending credits of the movie and try to tell me these guys aren’t having the time of their life knowing full well that they look positively ridiculous.

It feels like a total 180 to transition from a fluffy musical to an incredibly serious TV show about the end of the world, but Jericho can teach some of the same lessons Mamma Mia! does, mostly that trying to be something you were but are no longer. Like older women who still dress like teenagers except you replace “older women” with “town experiencing nuclear fallout” and “teenagers” with “America”.

The whole post-apocalyptic television show thing has reached critical mass, but back in 2006, the world didn’t seem quite ready for the end-of-the-world scenario Jericho had to offer. Critically lauded with a small but incredibly dedicated audience, the show managed to stay on the air for three seasons. Unlike other shows that resorted to pandering with a new baby, an unexpected wedding, or some other ratings stunt, Jericho just kept doing its thing, letting the rest of us decide whether or not we were interested.

It isn’t just the show’s attitude when it came to production that teaches us this lesson that we have to make the most of with what we’ve got. The residents of Jericho had to reevaluate their existence every episode, resulting in a show that was an apocalyptic metaphor about growing up. Slowly but surely, life shifts from being kind of like what you’re familiar with to something completely unrecognizable, so much so, that by Season 2, the country isn’t even the United States anymore.

Along the way, characters are constantly having to be things that they normally aren’t, like doctors, nuclear experts, or school bus drivers (they found countless reasons to make star Skeet Ulrich drive a bus early on). And sure, they kind of suck, but they are the only option they’ve got, so they run with it.

Most of us will, fingers crossed, not have to experience the end of the world or a cataclysmic event in our lifetime, so we don’t necessarily have to learn rudimentary first aid or how to make something for a tracheotomy out of a Lunchable. While the circumstances we live in may be simpler, the idea of pushing yourself into the unfamiliar is much, much tougher because when push comes to shove, you don’t have to. It isn’t a matter of life and death that I figure out how to be an entertaining singer. All I really am risking is possibly missing out on the fun at cousin karaoke night.

Say what you will about Kanye West, but that guy is always willing to put himself out there. While other musicians have tried to branch out into unfamiliar territory ::cough cough Chris Gaines Garth Brooks? Cough cough:: West went out on a limb and produced what many consider to be his best album to date, 808s and Heartbreaks.

West had absolutely no need to veer from the pattern of successful rap songs that made him the star he was. It is actually impressive he had the resolve to even make an album in the wake of a painful break up with his fiancée and the death of his mother. Not only did he get his act together and make an album, he made one with a fresh and interesting sound that bore little resemblance to his previous work. In fact, in the song Heartless, he didn’t even rap, he mostly sang. He sang with the help of AutoTune, but he did sing and it is a song not about a glamorous life or the toughness of the lower class experience, it is an emotional song about the heartbreak a woman put a man through.

It is tough for someone with a reputation for being hard and tough to admit that his life fell to pieces because of a woman, but West was willing to speak the truth of his situation and take the chance it was a commercial and critical failure.

The song itself speaks to the idea of life not being the way you wanted to be anymore and trying to make the most of it. Each verse covers one of those emotions that come with a break up, the feeling that the other person will regret how good they had it, the feeling you’ll do whatever it takes to get someone back, and that feeling that you will never stop hating this person.

Kanye’s got it figured out though. When things change, you shouldn’t go back, you should move forward. You should try something new. When it comes to taking your own personal risks, heed the words of ABBA and take a chance on yourself. Or, at the very least, sing that song next time you get the karaoke call.

2007: Shrews, Dream Girls, It’s All Greek to Me

I said yesterday that I hold Studio 60 near and dear to my heart because its female lead bears more of a resemblance to my own life than most women on television, but I think even she falls into one of the major categories of pop culture girls, that which film critic Nathan Rabin terms the manic pixie dream girls, in the sense that her talent and unique personality helps Matthew Perry’s character discover his talent for writing and take his work to the next level. It isn’t about her talent. It is about how she makes him better.

Because so much of my sense of how the world works comes from watching way too many TV shows and movies, adolescent me concluded that my romances in life would be very manic pixie dream girl-esque (MPDG). As a creative and reasonably quirky chick, this was the category of pop culture where I fit in the most, though I am sure several other girls would agree there were other categories of movie and TV girls that we wish we were a little more like. Those personalities were unattainable though, because let’s be real, you can’t have more than one aspect to your personality and be a female in a popular movie or TV show. That would be cray.

Katherine Heigl knows this better than just about anyone. She made the mistake of criticizing how her character of Izzy Stevens seemed to veer way off course from the person the girl portraying her thought she would be. Then she did many, many romantic comedies, several of which were awful, but those were the kinds of roles she was offered once she got pigeon-holed into that genre.

Most notably though, Heigl got in trouble for badmouthing the Judd Apatow comedy she starred in, Knocked Up. She pointed out that her character, Alison, has to not only be the straight (wo)man in this flick, she has to be a total buzzkill the entire time too. I am not going to defend everything Heigl has done or said in her life, but when it comes to this movie, she is pretty spot on. Alison is fun in certain scenes, but from the get go she is driving her nieces to school scolding them not to do all sorts of things like Google “murder”.

Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s character is not a lovable schlub, he is a total nightmare. He has no job, no skills, no money, little personality, and truly horrible friends. I get that this is supposed to be funny and Apatow certainly portrays this man-child in a positive light as he learns to grow up a little. Meanwhile though, we don’t really know much about Alison at all. She is around to complain about Rogen being a mess, that is about it. Her sister, played by the lovely Leslie Mann, even advocates Alison nagging him until he is forced to change.

And this is a movie about how both Alison and Ben (Rogen) need to change and grow in order to be parents, which is pretty unfair. Alison has a job, friends, direction in her life and is a little uptight. Ben has no source of income, no job, no plan to either earn money or get a job, and these problems are portrayed as relatively comparable. They portray Alison and her sister as women who need to learn to be more accepting because their biggest flaw is trying to change their guys and make them something they aren’t. Essentially, they are supposed to be every sitcom wife, lovingly putting up with their husband’s flaws, only occasionally pushing them to be better.

This is a useful lesson, learning to accept people for who they are, but there is a fine line between loving a person flaws and all and settling for a person you just fundamentally don’t like. But Alison gets all sorts of crap for being uppity and thinking she is “better” than Ben. I am going to give it to you straight here: she is. She can and should do better, but instead the moral of this story is that driven successful girls are really just chicks who are snobby, complain a lot, and need to learn to settle.

Knocked Up is an example of a relationship where it seems the woman has the upper hand in the career, intelligence, and looks department, but she loves her adorable loser of a significant other because he makes her laugh. These are typically shows where the protagonist is a man though. In shows with a female protagonist, like ABC Family’s Greek, the scenario is much different. If it is an ABC Family show though, the traits are remarkably consistent. Here are the key ingredients, established by Greek, then employed in basically every show the network has come up with since then:

  1. A female lead who is smart, but not in that naturally smart sort of way. She is a girl who studied, took impeccable notes, is socially savvy, is accessibly pretty, and you just know she is that girl who has perfect handwriting.
  2. An African-American best friend who rarely has anything going on in her own life and who seems to display little to no interest in Black culture.
  3. A sibling or close friend who starts out hetero, but ends up experimenting with their sexuality
  4. A romantic interest introduced in the pilot who is always, I repeat, always smarter than her or better at what she is good at while still appreciating her smarts and talents because they are great and, more importantly, not threatening.
  5. A second romantic interest who is the exact opposite of the first guy, who brings out the girl’s spontaneous side, getting her to loosen up and channel her inner shrew-less free spirit.
  6. A love triangle that culminates in an end of Season 1 boyfriend switcharoo, but a dynamic that will continue for the duration of the series.

This is Greek, an early ABC Family foray into original programming in which the show’s female lead Casey (Spencer Grammar) juggles her love life, her important role in her sorority, her friendships, and her future and career plans. She is funny, but never the funniest. She is bright, but never the smartest. She is pretty, but not gorgeous. In other words, she is definitively above average, but never exceptional.

It is an interesting tightrope that most girls are encouraged to walk. You need to be pretty and bright and fun in a way that never makes your co-workers, your friends, and, most importantly, your boyfriends feel intimidated. While Alison in Knocked Up is supposed to enjoy the challenge of helping Ben grow up, the only time you see guys take up a challenging girl in pop culture is typically when these girls are promising but damaged, intimidating because they are so screwed up instead of because their life is so together, perhaps even more together than the guy pursuing them.

For guys who like who they are and are looking for a compatible partner, girls like Casey are the ones they are encouraged to choose. For immature guys who like living their lives with minimal changes in attitude, they need to find a shrewish girl like Alison and change her, make her learn to live a little and not give the guy a hard time. If you are a guy looking for someone to bring out the best in you though, you need a manic pixie dream girl.

The Plain White Tees ballad Hey There Delilah is an ode to the MPDG, not a song about a long distance relationship like many people think. It is actually based on a real person, Delilah DeCresenzo, who never dated the guy who wrote the song. Instead, it is a song about a girl this guy has manifested as his dream girl, the one who can make him better, fix his life, and change everything. She is Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Natalie Portman in Garden State. This bright shining light that will take your kind of crappy existence and transcend your world into something incredible.

Sounds like a whole lot of pressure, right? The funny thing about MPDGs is how they are supposedly so special they can turn a world upside down, but none of this magic is about them, it is about the effect they have on the guy who loves them. Hell, the chorus of the song pretty much sums it up: “Oh, it’s what you do to me.” Unlike the girls who need to learn to relax or the girls who are impressive in an unintimidating way, there is no rule book for how to be a MPDG because it isn’t about you at all and there is not exactly a guide book on how to make a guy think you are the one who can change his troubled existence. Full disclosure, I am one of those suckers who buys into this ridiculous trope. It isn’t like I am above it. If some dude wrote a song like this about me, I would gladly tattoo MPDG on my person and play the part. I just know it is a pretty impossible standard to set for both guys and girls.

People have written about MPDGs so much, Rabin admits he regrets ever coining the term, so rather than go into this archetype  once again, I just want to offer one final thought. What does it say about the roles females can have in pop culture that the only way you can be yourself is if you are the real life version of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, literally transforming a guy’s life from emptiness to making it real? If you’re smart, you have to act dumber. If you’re pretty, you can’t be too pretty. Be driven, but don’t be critical. That is, unless you can rock some dude’s world. Then you can be pretty much anything you want.

2006: Losing the Love of Movies, Gaining Perspective & Chasing Cars

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In college I felt very fortunate that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. While many of my friends struggled to figure things out, I started up at film school ready to become a producer or development executive. I picked up minors in business and sociology to help me understand those aspects of the industry, then I got some really fun internships, including one with a production company called Village Roadshow Pictures. The guy who ran the intern program, Fred, was a really great mentor and he taught all of us how to write something every entry-level job in Hollywood development requires: coverage.

You may not know this, but script coverage is essentially a book report. You write a page or two summarizing the plot, then offer a recommendation on the script in the comments section. If you can’t tell from the fact I churn out one of these super-long blogs each day, I’m a pretty fast writer. I’m an even faster reader, so I could read a screenplay and turn around coverage in around three hours.

Fred decided to take a chance on me and added me as one of freelancers at Village Roadshow, so in addition to my work study job at the USC Bookstore, I would read a couple of scripts for them each week. Then I picked up another client who used me to read novels over the weekend and recommend if they were worth purchasing the film rights to possibly make the movie. Before I was even out of college, I had great references, decent grades, and an in-demand skill at my disposal.

The problem was, the more time I spent in the entertainment industry, the more I realized I liked movies, but didn’t really like being in the process of making them. I can’t watch The Devil Wears Prada, for example, because it is too realistic to my experience as a Hollywood assistant to enjoy. It is a horror movie.

A story that circulates through film courses is that there once was a wonderful, thoughtful script about a boy dealing with his new step-family situation and domestic abuse. Thanks to the beauty of the development process, that movie ended up being My Stepmother Is an Alien. While there are countless times a script doctor and the development process saved a movie from itself, there are numerous other times the movie ends up not nearly as good as the screenplay would’ve indicated.

While at Village Roadshow, I was assigned a screenplay that I continue to attest is the greatest screenplay I was ever assigned as a reader. It was beautiful, clever, romantic, original, and, most importantly, lacking some stupid contrived end of the movie plot twist that came so often in the mid-aughts.

That script eventually became a movie. That movie was The Lake House.

I will tell you right now, this movie isn’t exactly great. In fact, it is barely good. That is how little a screenplay can really predict how a movie is going to turn out. Every year, the industry puts out a list called The Black List, which is a list of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. In 20112, you know what was the most popular script on the list? Draft Day. It is fascinating to go through the archives to see which scripts were believed to have incredible promise only to turn into some really stupid movies.

The Lake House isn’t stupid. For me, it still kind of works, but that is also because I have always been in love with snail mail. I love checking the mail, I loved having Japanese pen pals as a kid, and I love sending people packages. I love mail so much that as a child I became a Utah Jazz fan simply because Karl Malone’s nickname was The Mailman.

So, this movie centers around a magical mail box that lets two people separated by two years send one another love notes. The time travel logic holds up immaculately, but the real issue at the heart of this movie is that watching two lonely people exchange love letters, while wonderful in concept, lacks in execution. There is a lot of voice over as the stars, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, sit in a corner scribbling. I still have the screenplay though. I kept it since it was such a beautiful read, I didn’t have the heart to throw it away.

Seeing how movies were made and seeing the kinds of movies being made when I was out of college (reference @Stapes, @BJNemeth, and @ScotthuffNYC for the discussion of how I consider ’06 one of the worst years for movies in history), I decided the entertainment industry wasn’t for me and made plans to move back to Kentucky and go to grad school. Before I left, a friend at the management firm I worked at told me I shouldn’t give up just yet and offered to get me a gig in the writer’s room for a new TV show. Even though I liked the cast and crew associated with it and its pilot script was easily the most talked about show of the season, I passed on the offer. That show was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

You may consider me smart for leaving instead of taking a gig with a show that only lasted one season, but here is my dirty secret: I like this one season of this show better than any other season of TV Aaron Sorkin he ever created. Most of that love is because, for once, there was a female character central to the show that I could easily identify with, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). She embodied the same problems I had with Hollywood and that I would later go on to have in grad school, which is that she had little problem with how everyone else felt about religion, politics, and life, but others around her were always making such a huge deal about hers. That was the interesting thing about the right wing and religious people Sorkin writes. To them, their beliefs are not a big deal or strange, it is just who they are, not something to force on others. I wish the same could be said about either political parties today.

Yes, this show had problems with the sketch comedy show it centered on never being all that funny, and the same issues of recycled lines and plots, but it was also a show with remarkable love stories, the same industry BS I had grown to hate, and Sting playing a lute. To this day, I question my decision on that one. To think of the people I could have met, the product I could claim to have a hand in. It would be like a Hollywood movie where a country girl gets exactly the big city experience she was hoping for when she moved to California. Because Sorkin, while cynical, can always bring out the passion and enthusiasm that comes with working on something you believe in.

Between the romance between Harriet and Matt (Matthew Perry) and the fact I was back in Kentucky, the song that pretty much played on a loop that year was Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars. I had no one to lay with me, but I was at a point in my life where I didn’t really have any clue what to do and what was next. The idea of just taking a minute to lie there, waste a little time, and find something important enough in my life to just forget the world was even more romantic than Sting and the lute.

Around this time, I was searching pretty hard to find a romantic relationship in my life, and I think some of the motivation was songs like this one that make it sound like maybe, if I found someone to care about, the rest of my life, which was pretty aimless at the time, wouldn’t feel so important. A couple of years ago, a guy was explaining to me how he wouldn’t be ready to be in a relationship until the rest of his life was in order. I laughed and wondered if maybe this is a men are from Mars women are for Venus type of thing. When things are falling apart, I often see my female friends latch on to a guy, even if it is obvious that guy is bad news. Then they try to figure out the rest. Guys, meanwhile, seem to feel like that special someone is the last piece of the puzzle.

I don’t know which answer is the right one. There really isn’t a correct one when you think about it. When you are confused about where your life is going and how you’re gonna get there, I think you just try to make whatever you can work. And if you can’t figure it out right away, sometimes you just need some time to chase those cars around your head until you get the ride you need to the next destination in your life.

2005: The Grisly Truth About Mixed Tapes, Medicine & Being Special

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When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I had my own classes of undergrads I taught, as it was a teaching institution. My first year, I taught Intro to Public Speaking. My second year, I switched over to Introduction to Interpersonal Communication, which is essentially like a beginner’s guide to anthropology. A large part of the course is getting these youngsters to understand that many things that seemed natural were, in actuality, cultural constructions.

I would do this by telling my class of 24 students or so, “Raise your hand if your parents told you you were special.” In one class, all 24 did. In the other, all but the international student from China did. Humorously enough, I ended up considering her one of the more gifted kids I had by semester’s end.

I would then explain. “Do you think I am just the luckiest instructor on Earth to get a room full of special people who can all be whatever they want if they put their mind to it? Now don’t get me wrong, each of you are unique and have your own talents, but this whole notion that you are incredible and essentially lacking flaws is something that came about in the late 1970s when child psychologists started pushing what is generally referred to as the self-esteem movement.” This is what led schools to add participation into grading, general grade inflation nationwide, and those trophies everyone gets for participating because it would be unfair to single out a handful of children at being better at something than everyone else.

Meanwhile, my parents, if anything, would tell me things like, “You’re nothing special.” This wasn’t to beat down my self-esteem, it was to reiterate that you should never treat anyone like you are better than they are, even in situations where that may be the case. If I made good grades, I wouldn’t show my tests to my friends unless they asked because anything more would be bragging, and if you valued other people, if they were special to you, it would be poor form. Since I wasn’t bragging and neither would they, I ended up with a skewed sense of self too, since all those participation trophies never indicated to me if I was really as good or bad as I thought at certain activities. For example, I was well into my 20s before it dawned on me that I could probably make a living writing.

I am not saying the (possibly extreme) self-sacrifice and modesty my parents espoused is correct, but I am grateful I was raised that way instead of with excessive self-esteem, because it seems like a potentially huge societal problem. Essentially, I worry the self-esteem movement is going to produce a whole generation of Timothy Treadwells. If you’re not familiar, he is the subject of the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, which tells the story of Treadwell, who spent over a dozen summers living in the Alaskan wilderness amongst grizzly bears.

It sounds all well and good, but here is the issue: Treadwell is not a biologist, a nature preservationist, nor does he, from my research, have any formal training that would render him capable of living with bears. Much of his efforts, like the foundation he started called Grizzly People, do still aim to do good for the species, but in the movie, many actually trained experts expressed that Treadwell was harming not only himself, but the bears as well.

It is not a spoiler to say Treadwell died by getting eaten by a bear. The whole point of the movie is trying to ascertain whether Treadwell is a misunderstood soul or a mentally unstable person. What makes this documentary really remarkable is all the video footage Treadwell made during his trips. He talks to the camera about the bears, all of whom have been given the kinds of names a Care Bear would have like Snuggles or Jolly or Rowdy. As you watch, it becomes very apparent right away that Treadwell considers himself a Messianic character. He is the Lorax, he speaks for the bears.

I wonder how in 13 years no one was able to convince him that this idea is, pardon the judgment, stupid, expensive, and dangerous. But in his monologues for the camera, he seems pretty darn driven to make it happen. Drive is an important thing for a person to have, and I admire his, but his delusion about what he can really accomplish ultimately proves to be his downfall. That is the problem with the self-esteem movement. Generally telling people they are great leads to believe they can and should be great at everything, which just isn’t the case 99 percent of the time.

One of my favorite parts of the show Grey’s Anatomy was how, early on, the original group of five surgical interns are maniacally driven to pursue their career as surgeons, as this is what they have proven to excel at. It is a defining trait of any Shonda Rhimes show that most characters are unapologetically driven, especially when it comes to their careers, and especially when they are women.

On Grey’s, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is the most driven of the female cast, and Rhimes and her writing staff do some really interesting stories when Yang, who has always been expected by others to succeed and be special, doesn’t get what she wants and doesn’t know how to react. Her unwillingness to let her boyfriend help her, her shock when her friends are hurt when she puts her work ahead of them, and her disregard of people she deems lesser than, like nurses and patients, is to me a cautionary tale of being raised believing you’re special like Treadwell, but with a much more relatable outcome.

While Cristina is used to getting what she wants, the other leading ladies, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl), are much more willing to subject themselves to pain and personal suffering in an attempt to further their careers, gain the respect of their peers, or, most memorably, end up with someone they love.

When it first aired, I found Meredith’s desperate begging for Derek to pick her to be so selfish, to believe his happiness and his marriage was not as important as her getting to keep her boyfriend of a couple of months. Instead, I related to a victim of a train wreck in the very next episode who gets impaled on a pole with another patient. Even though she is young, about to get married, and has a life full of promise, life isn’t very fair and, because the other, older patient stuck on the pole with her has less serious injuries, she basically volunteers to die so the other guy can stand a chance to live.

While Meredith is the kind of self-involved person I am terrified of being and I constantly aspire to be that patient who didn’t even get to tell her fiancé goodbye before she selflessly dies, in reality, I am Izzie. Sure, I was raised to put others before myself, but like Izzie Stevens, sometimes my adoration for another person is so intense, it becomes selfish. I was too young to tell my dad that I wanted him to fight as hard as he could to stay alive, and I know you aren’t supposed to ask those who are ill to hold on, but even today I would probably beg him to keep trying. Because even though I wasn’t raised to be special, I was raised to believe if you do good, good things happen to you, like having your parents stay alive into their 80s. Let’s be honest, we all want to believe we are selfless people, but in moments of life and death, most of us are not strong enough to be silently thinking anything but this:

Once again, while TV and movies help me pinpoint my behavior, where it comes from, and how to handle it, music serves as my catharsis. When I want to take a three minute break from trying to uphold the ridiculously high standard of self-sacrifice my working class family instilled in me, I listen to a song like Jack’s Mannequin’s The Mixed Tape. Being a Xennial, I still remember the mixed tape and mixed CD days. I don’t know if younger people can really understand just how special a mixed CD could make you feel. Considering a playlist can be assembled in a matter of minutes, it lacks the personal touch of a CD, or the cassette that preceded it.

This song, from the frontman of the now-defunct Something Corporate, it is about a guy creating “a symphony of sound” for a girl, and it is so much more than dragging and dropping into Spotify. Making a mixed tape is about getting the order just perfect, making certain each song is hand-picked and hand-placed just for you. I don’t know about you, but there is no number of times my mom can tell me I am great that will ever compare to when a guy gave me a mixed tape. Because this isn’t someone forced to love you, like your parents, this is someone who picked you because they think you are special.

The songs of Something Corporate really do perfectly embody that elated, uninhibited, yet heartbreaking feeling of being love (how many times have you listened to the pop rock opus Konstantine?) Even if you aren’t Something Corporate, you probably have that band, those songs, that mixed tape that makes you feel special.

That is the difference between the self-esteem movement and truly feeling special. The former is just lip service and it sets us up for a Treadwell-like demise if we genuinely think we are supposed to get everything we want and change the world. The latter though, that feeling that someone literally can’t bear the thought of life without you or that, even though you two aren’t together anymore, someone wants to show you exactly what they think is great about you by handpicking a mixed tape for you. In the song, he knows “I’m sorry” or “take me back” isn’t enough to win someone over, to convince them what you two have is truly special you have to, “rearrange the songs again” to create something like the songs he does that, “could burn a hole in anyone,” but they did it just for one special person—you.