this is 40 this is not funny

I sat down for our date night movie expecting a respite from the mental sludge I find myself struggling under lately. Said sludge is thick, opaque and a mishmash of Important Big Things: family illness, school shootings, Republicans, hurricanes and Not As Important Smaller Things: I look tired, I want people to read my mind, my hair looks bad. Also, I am tired and my hair looks bad.

Stuff came up for me this summer just before turning 40, so I was hoping Judd Apatow and Company would get at some of those emotions in a funny and relevant way with his film “This is 40.” Being married for eight years, having young kids and retiring aged parents, being somewhat settled on paper but still feeling restless – I’ve found this time of life to be complex and compelling, fascinating and terrifying. A middle place, as its been called. I’m a parent but sometimes wish I could still be a child. I yearn for freedom and want less responsibility but realize I will only have to take on more as the years pass because of my choices and situation.

At 40, I think I have the components of what I want in life but find myself searching, and often feeling disappointed. I have been hearing many variations on the mid-life crisis theme in my own world: several friends questioning their sexuality, for example, one member of a couple becoming an extreme exercise fanatic, yet another losing a ton of weight and getting weird. I’ve heard amazing things: marathons run, television shows produced, books published. And terrible things: Cancer — every minute it seems.

So back to the movie. How was this not funny? What a hilarious time of life right?

Yes, I nudged my husband at many moments that were scripted straight from our morning and evening routines, and laughed a few times at some of the mostly mean spirited jokes and the mocking therapy speak. But it was more of a bitter laugh than a belly laugh. These people were kind of awful. And strangely, every time Apatow had an opportunity for humor he let it end on a thud with something really dark or depressing. There was so much screaming at each other (mom and dad, daughter and daughter, daughter and mom, mom and daughter’s friend, daughter’s friend’s mom and mom) that at least 3 or 4 people walked out of our screening. They couldn’t take it.

People are criticizing “This Is 40” because of the clueless White People Problems of this family. They have money and groovy Hollywood jobs that allow them lots of free time for workouts — cool offices and boutiques with neon signs and ironic employees with mustaches. They drive fancy cars, go to a lovely private school, have personal trainers and houses too large for their needs.

It is hard to feel bad for them as they “struggle” with money, when the implication is that it will all be fine. I think this is mostly a distraction from the examination of a family and its values that could have had resonance. The beautiful house and great stylist Debbie (Leslie Mann) has for her perfect Cali-boho mom look is Hollywood movie crap that won’t trust an audience to deal with real emotions and problems without gloss. It is a missed opportunity to actually examine some of the ways people live beyond their means in order to “keep up”, just as I think Debbie’s focus on her (very beautiful, bordering on perfect) looks do not do any service to the issue of women aging gracefully. Lying about her age in the doctor’s office? That’s just stupid. Who is she, my Grandma Jeannie? And all the supposed jokes about sagging breasts and hemorrhoids and gynecologists and no feeling “down there.” True, yes, but funny? Nope, not funny.

(And by the way, where the hell is the couple from “Knocked Up” and the kid? How about a mention of their whereabouts perhaps? Are they on an ashram in India or is that the next prequel/sequel?)

I think this movie really tried. Tried to be meaningful and honest by examining mid life and being in the middle place and blaming your parents and ultimately forgiving them. Trying not to be a hag (wife) or be checked out on the IPad playing Scrabble (husband) and being grateful for what you have (children, everyone in the movie). It wanted to say something about our culture’s bi-polar desires for indulgence and then self-improvement without wanting to do any really difficult, sustaining work.

And it’s bothering me because if this movie was marketed as a comedy as the trailer for it falsely did, then it at least should have been entertaining and better edited. Either that, or be a freaking documentary, with some normal looking people and the actual dullness of real life. I’m annoyed that if the tone decided upon by the director and editor was to be mostly insufferable for 2 plus hours, that that fact should have been plainly stated in the brochure: WARNING: THIS MOVIE IS NOT FUNNY. NOT WORTH IT FOR YOUR VERY RARE DATE NIGHTS.

But the real problem with this movie is a lack of true goodness in this couple you are supposed to care about and that my husband and I would want to hang out with on a double date. I wouldn’t want to have dinner with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters, because I know they’d be talking shit on us after the date. But I would like to know who her dermatologist is and who does her hair and fashion styling and how she buys all those workout clothes and pays the decorator and the housekeeper without knowing there isn’t money in the bank.

So maybe this is the point of the film. Distractions are good because they keep us from getting at the thing that’s difficult: life’s a bitch and then you turn 40 and then eventually, after a not so hilarious doctor’s office montage set to cool music by Fiona Apple and Ryan Adams, you die.

i once was a girl

I haven’t been mistaken for a girl in a while. People trying to get my attention who don’t know me call me ma’am, lady, miss, or hey you tired looking female person. I’m no girl, and most days I’m good with that.

But I very much cherish the show “Girls.” I think it’s moving and totally unexpected. The characters remind me of all the curious, honest and narcissist New Yorkers I know and love — evocative combinations of some of my most favorite people. The writing and acting are both spot on. For better or worse, this is how girls who like each other talk to each other. “Girls” perfectly showcases how being in your 20’s is an exhilarating but equally horrifying time.

The show and creator Lena Dunham have been getting some great reviews, but also getting slammed for various reasons. From nepotism to the lack of racial diversity amongst the characters, to it being depressing, to the fact that these spoiled characters need to “Get a job!” I am confused by why people seem so pissed of about the show. I don’t really want to defend myself for liking it. People who don’t want to watch it or want to complain that it only got made because of Brian Williams and David Mamet are bitter and shouldn’t watch it. But they’ll miss hearing an amazingly formed voice bend around some serious funny. I’ve listened to a lot of interviews with this girl/woman and she is a girls’ girl, in that she has an open mind and is willing to put herself out there in ballsy way. And one of the most awesome things is that she’s not on TV because she’s hot. She’s on TV because she’s smart, funny and fearless.

(Ok, so I guess I am defending it).

But really, how great was it on this most recent episode when Hannah was at the doctor and they called out her weight (and it wasn’t 111 pounds), and she said something like: “Actually, I had my belt on.” I mean, who hasn’t thought or even said that?! And the humorless doctor/nurse was perfect.

The characters are so talky and therapized and 70’s Woody Allenish! I love the way the Allison Williams character is so pretty and poised and has the good entry level job and so therefore is the responsible one making the STD and abortion appointments at the women’s clinic, and of course has the really cute doting boyfriend probably also with a great job who probably just got his first book deal or whatever at age 25. And yet, she’s unhappy and unfulfilled and annoyed with Jessa (the British one) for being so Joni Mitchell-ish and getting to wear floaty pants and floppy hats. While Jessa is miserable and caught up in her own novelistic drama that she created by being irresponsible and self absorbed? And Hannah’s job interview where she let herself get comfortable and flirty enough to make a rape joke? Cringe-worthy in the best “Louie” way.

Far from being a flip show about people who are unlikeable, I think “Girls” is really deep and emotional and trying to get to the root of what it means to be an independent person in the world, flailing around trying to figure out what you think everyone else already knows. Dunham elegantly shows us how women put up with a lot of terrible things in relationships in order to have a few pathetic grasps of good feeling that come from being desired or desirable – I’d say that’s something a lot of women can relate to. It definitely struck a chord with me.

“I almost came,” Hannah says hopefully, after having silly, disappointing sex – because that’s exactly what would have happened in that situation. She’d convince herself it was ok because he got off, and even offered her a sports drink afterwards. And then she’d go talk it over with her friends on a bench with some frozen dairy treat made from questionable chemicals. And then, the vapid friend, the one who might be in law school and still wears Juicy sweatsuits, would whip out some stupid book similar to “The Rules” and quote from it earnestly. Yep, pretty much.

I love this show because it reflects a moment in a time that is so fertile with material, but also so heinous to live through. I’m so relieved to be out of there personally, but grateful to artists/thinkers “wunder”whatevers like Lena Dunham. I’m so excited to hear more from someone this young and this good.


milks (moms i’d like to know)

On the recommendation of a fellow mother/writer BFF, last week I tucked into “Devotion,” by Dani Shapiro. A memoir of a 40ish woman with fulfilling family and career lives, she struggles with conquering extreme anxiety and questions of faith. The book poses a quandary familiar to me: how exactly, do you stop the racing? How do you feel content and not afraid that something terrible will happen to you and the ones you love?

Guided by a writer of gorgeous prose, who is also a blonde, a mom, a Jew and a yogi, (I am least four of those things), I hoped for some light and self-knowledge in terms of my own similar fears and questions about belief.

“Devotion” is nostalgic, deeply personal and edgy. Dani seems like someone I know, or should know. An enviable writer who has found the discipline and balance to produce beautiful books, she has succeeded beyond the difficult relationships of her past, and is struggling to really know herself as a mother to her son and a wife to her husband. But she is someone who searches obsessively for meaning, worries about not living up to her own expectations, or knowing what the f she’s doing.

Yes, that sounds familiar.

It felt like she was inside my head at times – or maybe that I was inside hers, while she struggled with reconciling her Orthodox Jewish background with her more recent interests in Eastern philosophies and her New England WASP hometown. And oy, the anxiety she has at the onset of the book, especially about things happening to her loved ones. What wrestling and twisting and angsting and obsessing – it felt like my brain!

This really resonated:

“Just a few months ago, Michael and Jacob had been driving home late at night from a baseball game when someone threw a glass bottle of salad dressing off an embankment. The bottle hit the roof of our car and shattered. One fraction of a second earlier, and it would have hit the windshield.

Salad dressing, I thought to myself, when Michael told me what happened. I never considered salad dressing.”

I’m having my own waking up in the middle of the night with heart palpitations situation these past few years, often drowning under the idea that this life I chose, with family, with work, with all the things I’m certain I want, is one merely of striving, of stress and of lists, big and small, of things to check off. There are moments in my day that are a constant struggle to breathe, and the desire for a free moment to just think a clear thought and make sense of all the (self-imposed) constant activity is overwhelming.

This book made me a little stressed out while I was reading it (more ways to think about bad things that can happen, yay!), but ultimately, her honesty and guidance played the role of a smarter, slightly older and definitely more established writer and cool mom person I’d like to kibitz with. One who admits, in print, “It’s cool. This is some big stuff and I’m totally freaking out too. Let’s have a book club.”

When I think about her writing in terms of being a mother and having to compartmentalize her brain into action (to-do lists!) and later reflection (making sense of it all), it made so much sense that she would search her soul, looking for religious or spiritual guidance that would provide a framework for daily life. Her writing sounds like her own therapy, and it is, but it’s so thoughtful and sharp and wistfully funny that it could never be called indulgent or self-helpy.

Dani shares her past in such a specific and intimate way, with poignant memories of her late parents in the context of belief and faith, melded with the sweetness and of her present life as a parent to her own son. There’s a nostalgia to the way she writes about her current family life that I recognize too. Sometimes when I tune in to watch myself with my children it feels like a movie or a short story I’m recording or writing for posterity. I feel hyper-awarene all the time of how sweet and fleeting raising children is, even as I try to drink in every moment with every photo, every hug, every inhale of their little children smell.

This piece I found on Dani Shapiro’s website is really relevant to the idea of what it means to be a writer and to get to a place of truth. And what it means to be a mother, and how at odds these forces can be. How honesty and working out your schpilkes on paper or online can take on a new dimension when the kids start Googling.

So thing is, I would like to be like Dani. She has the discipline and the doggedness to ask difficult questions of herself, and then write a beautiful book as she struggles to answer them, as she “climbs inside the questions.” When I think back on reading this book at this time in my life, I’ll conjure an image of her sitting at her computer and forcing herself to write every morning, and it never ever getting easier to begin. I’ll think of her doing her yoga and going to workshops and trying to sit every day. I’ll think of her trying to find a community that makes sense for her as a modern Jewish woman and an intellectual and to look for meaning in the rituals of daily life.

Dani, you’re a MILK.

friends with kids

Have you seen this movie yet? Jon Hamm and his sexy ass frat guy hotness? Awww yeah.

What? Erm. Sorry. Ok, yes. So this movie “Friends With Kids” takes place partially in a Brooklyn village neighboring mine and contains verbatim conversations I’ve overheard from my colleagues, the Brooklyn parent people. The supporting characters are exaggerated versions of folks in my world, so it’s funny, sad and cringe worthy because the behaviors are so familiar. The haggy and angry mothers bitching at the clueless or confused dads. The needy kids who don’t seem appealing because they aren’t yours. The judgment by the pre-breeder main characters of the have-breds and vice versa read like parenting blog comments come to life on screen.

The film is primarily about how people with (small) kids have a hard time keeping love and sex and even “like” in their lives after the invasion by the littles. How some couplings survive the stresses and remember why they wanted to do this, and how some simply cannot. And asks the question: can the disintegration of passion in a relationship with the addition of kids to the mix can be avoided with some type of creativity? Also, where do the kids fit into all of this? They will, after all, eventually be people someday as well.

Ironically, I wanted a break from the stresses of my own Brooklyn first world problems, so I went to see it in the middle of the day, alone. And I’ve been chewing it over ever since. The film really captures that it's difficult, impossible even, to understand what it’s like to have a family, until you do. And once you do, you can’t imagine choosing that prior life without them – even though you miss your old life desperately and kind of dread and often resent the overall scary responsibility of the day-to-day new family version. (And by “you” here I mean “me.”)

It also got me thinking about navigating friendships. Childhood friends, pre-kid friends, work friends, mommy/daddy friends, new couple friends, — so many complicated friendships emerge and disintegrate as we settle down and spread into a community.

I’ve always had a lot of friends and felt confident in my ability to nurture these relationships. It has been important to the idea of my best self that I’m a person who puts friendships first and is considerate of others’ feelings and needs. But with the complexities of small people who rely on me, demand my mental and physical short and long term focus, I’m finding certain friendship situations to be challenging.

It makes sense. We all have our own craziness going on. We are at the center of our own lives, obviously, and as empathetic as I want to be towards others, it’s my own crap I have to face when I have the time to confront it. It’s an obvious concept that everyone has some mania brewing on a given random day when you see them in an elevator. And yet, I forget.

So after a few confrontations with friends in the past few weeks, and feeling like I’ve disappointed others, I’m trying to figure out how to move through these yucky moments. I need my friends. And they need me. We are tied together by history and nostalgia and commitment, and we need to wrestle and fight to keep these bonds strong. Friends with older kids, younger kids, friends with no kids. We are all doing our best for each other.

happiness means living in the moment…and having an awesome babysitter

I’m a parent of two young kids. I love my life and am grateful for my blessings, but I wouldn’t describe myself as euphorically happy all the time. I laugh and I have genuine joy, sure, but I’m often impatient with my kids and husband, and downright grumpy and frustrated with time management and not being able to think straight. And I’m overwhelmed at times by the small and big picture components of being a mom. In other words, I feel lucky but fairly anxious the other shoe will drop any minute. So… happy? That’s an elusive and slippery conversation.

That’s why I was willing to give the book The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, a look. You’ve probably heard the name – it was a big deal a few years ago when it came out: New York Times bestseller, author appeared on Oprah, and lots of book reviews debated the right of the author to selfishly pursue a year devoted to being happy.

The premise is that author feels she should be happier, given her good marriage, two daughters, health and a satisfying career as former high-powered attorney turned bestselling author. (A real slacker!) She wants to be more satisfied, less grouchy and more grateful, so she sets out to maximize contentment by paring down her life and spiritual clutter. She researches happiness with the zeal of gold star desiring child and tenacious goal-oriented adult. She makes endless lists, charts, official sounding resolutions, checking them off one by one.

It’s easy to mock this earnestness and gag slightly at her overachieving. I was surprised at myself for even buying the book – having worked in book publishing, I am usually suspicious of these sorts of gimmicky self-help jobbies, and I sincerely doubt I’d be friends with someone who can’t figure out what she likes to do without making an Excel spreadsheet. But it’s also easy to understand and admire her tenacity in trying to make a good life better.

Ironically, I couldn’t even read one page of this damn book on our “vacation” because I had no babysitter and turns out two kids at the beach is a crazy amount of work. When we got home and went back to work, I finally had a chance to read it on the subway and at night when I wasn’t catching up on sleep from the week away. And what hit home for me the most is how money and time are the luxuries that would most make up my pursuit of happiness. If you have unlimited reserves of both and can hire someone to watch your kids while you master an intensive five day self portrait art class or even shred paper from five years of filing, you too can be happy! With the drudgery that accompanies parenting young ones, the constant cleaning and feeding and fetching, there’s honestly not much room for personal happiness, unless someone else is doing the drudgery part.

So it really bothered me that with all the details Gretchen includes in the book, down to the type of containers she purchases to keep memories of her kids’ art projects and toys, she does not once say in a clear and straightforward way that she has childcare. She has a seven-year-old and a one-year-old the year she decides to devote herself to officially pursuing happiness. And while being a better partner and parent constitute two of the 12 chapters of the book, I have to ask: Where are her kids all day while she makes scrapbooks and photo albums online, reorganizes her office and kids’ toys, and writes a novel in 30 days?

So here’s how to make your project more accessible and less enviable, at least to other parents: mention your babysitter loudly and proudly. Admit that it’s a lifesaver that she comes every day and the many nights you and your husband go to dinner parties and lectures and work events. Don’t gloss over the fact so much that money doesn’t help someone to feel happier. Go deeper there. Money probably doesn’t completely make one happy, as you do say in your chapter devoted to money, but if you have a work deadline, you certainly can’t meet it while taking your kids to the playground. You need focus to write and complete projects. And someone to take the kids to karate and fix dinner and keep that apartment organized.

A week after finishing the book, I’m away for the weekend without the kids for the first time ever. Finally, I have a minute alone without feeling guilty, and also the time to muse on happiness with a clear mind. I’m thinking back to my vacation with the kids, where I had several hyper-aware moments of “I’m happy.” My kids were belly laughing on the beach, eating sand, having pancakes for lunch. And once they were sleeping, I felt full because I knew I had worked hard to give them a fantastic time. I was so aware of their sheer joy, just being five and one, and how each new experience they were having was simply rocking their young worlds. My husband and I cracked up when we remembered what our pre-children beach vacations had been like and wondered how we possibly filled the days. And while I was tired, damn it, I was happy.

And I can say that though I had some problems with this book and wouldn’t pursue happiness in the same kind of style Gretchen did, one of her defining mantras upon completion of her project is that “The days are long, but the years are short.” I actually find this very moving, true, comforting, and spiritually in line with my exhausted contentment at the end of a full day with my kids.

So I’ll try and use that as my mantra and as a useful way to remember The Happiness Project, rather than, “I can’t wait to see my babysitter.”

kids musicians: rock star wannabes?

I was looking to hire a musician to play guitar at my son’s first birthday party. I figured it would be fun to have someone sing a Twinkle Twinkle/Wheels on the Bus/Yellow Submarine medley before we plied the kids with cake and got everyone the hell out of our house so that I could take a nap.

First I asked the teacher from the little music class baby M. goes to if she’d be interested. It’s a brand name here in Brooklyn, one of the “cool music classes” with original songs about living in the city, taking cabs, tall buildings. After many inquiries, the lead performer finally gave me a quote: 300 clams. And that just really gave me pause. Sorry, but are you Linda Evangelista, the supermodel who famously claimed not to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day? I’m talking 12 kids under five, maracas, maybe some scarves. Forty-five minutes.

One of the great things about living in New York City is that there are artists everywhere. Creative people who are shrewd and resourceful; they’re figuring out how to play music, act, write, paint – all while surviving in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Many of these folks have realized that parents will spend a ridiculous amount of money on their kids in the name of “enrichment.” That means they can ask a lot for lessons and birthday parties and people will pay it. And then they can afford to play their own music at night, go on auditions between gigs or pay rents on their studios.

If you care about music, you’re aware of how overly cheery and precious some kids’ music can be. And how smart and hilarious and deep the great stuff can be (They Might Be Giants and Gustafer Yellowgold are two bands we love listening to and watching on DVD over and over again). It’s thrilling to see the specific genius of art and music created for a young audience, how elegantly these artists get into the brains of our babies.

Our Brooklyn neighborhood is home to hipsters who project their carefully curated culture onto their kids. These are people who insist that their infants really enjoy The Clash and that their 2-year-olds prefer artisanal popsicles to those freeze pops you can buy at the drugstore. So if your toddlers dance like mad to Yo Gabba Gabba, it reinforces the fact that you, too, are still cool (all bands are excited to be booked on that show).

I am not taking myself out of this phenomenon. I took my kids to Yo Gabba Gabba Live, where I overpaid for tickets and an official Yo Gabba Gabba light stick and watched at intermission as the sponsor of the event (Kia) did a live commercial for a captive audience (of children!). To me, it was an example of Good Indie Cool Thing Gone Bad. Which happens. There’s that line when something is lovely and entertaining and then it crosses into being cheesy and compromised. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but I’d rather not overpay for it.

The irony, of course, is that kids are the most opened-minded listeners out there, especially the younger ones. My daughter could not get enough of this damned Elmo potty video when she was aged two to three, and it mortified me to death. We often think we’re providing them with this awesome, homegrown goodness when really, you could stick them in front of a video for Who Let The Dogs Out? and they would go bananas.

Thing is, I probably would have booked the $300-per-hour musician – mostly because I know the music is solid and that the people who write and teach it actually care about their product being quality. But it took two weeks for them to get back to me, likely because they were busy booking gigs. Or hate doing birthday parties. And by then, I had hired an old friend to come and entertain baby M. and friends – a super talented singer-songwriter who is now working his way up the children’s musician world ladder. He was awesome. And cheaper, almost by half. We sang Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens and some other songs I don’t remember, and clapped and then had cake. And then everyone went home, and we all took a nap.