Taste, Sexism, and Eat Pray Love

Forgive me. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to title this post, so I just panicked and put keywords.
Eat Pray Love

Oh my.

It’s been exactly one year since my last post. What has become of me? I have some ideas, but will save those for a later time. First, I want to write about Elizabeth Gilbert. In my first post, I mentioned that I loved her even though I’d never read her books. Like all Americans alive in 2006, I’d heard of her wildly successful book Eat, Pray, Love. While I didn’t think about it much, I had an unspoken aversion to reading the book. I hadn’t read reviews of it nor did I have much of an idea of what it was about. I simply knew that reading and enjoying that book had the potential to permanently exile me from the ranks of cool people. (I’d yet to realize I was already banished back in 2001, the time when I began suffering a crippling earnestness from which I’ve yet to recover. Being cool means either not giving a fuck or at least convincing others that you don’t give a fuck, and unfortunately I give SO MANY fucks. All the fucks in fact.)

Years later, I heard Gilbert interviewed on a podcast. Then I saw her TED talk. Then I heard her interviewed again and again. And wouldn’t you know, I developed a crush on her, swept away by her unique ability to deliver insight with charm. It made me question why I’d written off her book in the first place. Short answer: snobbery. I’d decided that a book popular enough to be made into a movie featuring Julia Roberts wasn’t worth my time.

We’re all guilty of this kind of snobbery now and then. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson explores the dynamics of taste, using Celine Dion as the subject of study.* He points to sociological research showing that matters of taste are associated with one’s demographics more than anything else. The music you enjoy is influenced more by your social status – think class, race, culture – than your finely tuned musical ear or your value as a human. Many of us believe our tastes to be reflections of our identities. It’s one of the first things we latch onto in adolescence to figure out who we are and how we’d officially like to be viewed by the world. An artist is embraced only if s/he is deemed acceptable to the social group in which we wish to belong. On the flip side, we reject other artists as a means of dissociating ourselves from undesirable groups.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this is what I was doing. It wasn’t that I was rejecting Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t reject a book I hadn’t read. Instead, I was drawing a line to distinguish myself from my tasteless peers in the hopes that I might trick a few people into thinking that I’m special. Digging a little deeper, however, I realized that it wasn’t just that the book was popular. It also had to do with the fact that it was primarily popular among women. The crown jewel of Oprah’s Book Club. I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that in fact, deep down my aversion to this book had links to a kind of douchey sexism. One of my inner voices is apparently a dude bro named Chad (oh no, maybe he secretly trolls women online and likes Mike Huckabee!) I’m always surprised to catch myself being a bad feminist, but there I was listening to the Chad in my head saying something awful like, “That’s a book for housewives, not serious people.”

Firstly, when did Chad confuse me for a serious person? Secondly, how have I failed to purge my brain of hang-ups about housewives? I mean, housewives, seriously? That amorphous group that serves as the go-to lady punching bag, although it can be argued that group has expanded to encompass mothers generally (for example).  Why would it ever even occur to me to think about what housewives are or are not doing, much less use them as a potential point of comparison to my own life? I may as well wonder what the singers of One Direction read in their free time as they have about as much of an influence on my life.

So I got over it and finally read Eat, Pray, Love this year. Given my love for her public speaking and my increasing acceptance of my place on the social hierarchy, I was prepared to fully eat/pray/love it!  And well…I did! Kind of! Mostly! (Sarah, you can’t just ramble on about how you’re getting over your snobbery and then not love this book! Come on!)

It’s certainly an enjoyable read with plenty of engaging stories and lessons, especially if you lean towards my brand of hippie woo woo. (In other words, if you are the kind of person who can’t bring herself to believe in psychics but desperately wants to be proven wrong about it. Or I suppose, if you just straight up believe in psychics, then this is the book for you). The spiritual element of the book will be enough to turn off a great many people, particularly serious people. We’ve already established that I’m not one of those, so my only real complaint was the weird feeling it left me once I stopped reading. It gave me an unsettled impression that Elizabeth Gilbert is somehow both the most and least relatable person I’ve encountered. Reading her feels like a long-overdue conversation with your best friend whose life just so happens to be governed by cosmic laws unknown to the rest of humanity. Magic seems to follow her around. It’s not even that she paints a picture of the perfect life all the time, but the book reads like fiction more than a memoir. It’s easy to be skeptical of the fairytale magic of her stories. Really, Elizabeth, you expect me to believe you’re magic?

Then again, I can also interpret it in a different, more generous way – magic happens to Elizabeth Gilbert because she recognizes it and invites it in for tea. She figures out how to take her experiences, both good and bad, and turn them into a broader narrative with a message of hope. She’s kind of a badass that way. I like that interpretation and what it does for my spirit, so I’ll run with it. I recommend the book to those who’d self-identify as spiritual seekers, those interested in traveling who need some inspiration to go for it, and those going through relationship turmoil.

*To fall in love with Celine Dion within five minutes, click here.



Singing Praises: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

For years now, podcasts have been my favorite source of entertainment. It started with NPR. In my attempt to get news from folks who weren’t yelling at their microphones, I stumbled upon the radio show This American Life. Once I got my first iPod and figured out that I could listen to this program anywhere, anytime, it was all over for me. Music took a back seat. All I wanted was the storytelling, witty banter, and intelligent discussions that belong to the world of podcasts.

If it made sense at all for radio hosts to have groupies, I’d be one. Given the choice between a dinner date with Ira Glass or Channing Tatum, I’d probably choose Ira.

Ira Glass Photo By Brighterorange (Taken by user (Tom Murphy VII).) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Channing Tatum Photo By Gage Skidmore (Channing Tatum) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/6851538032/

My knowledge of podcasting is minimal, but I assume that there are many busy little bees behind the scenes that contribute to a show’s success. Even so, the host can make or break a show. Of all the hosts I listen to, Jesse Thorn is my favorite. Please indulge me while I geek out about him and try to untangle what it is that makes him such a gifted interviewer.  According to Wikipedia, Jesse does lots of things, but I’m going to focus on his role as the producer and host of the radio show/podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (formerly The Sound of Young America).

First of all, boy does his homework, and it shows in the depth of knowledge he brings with him to each interview. To hear him talk about films from the 70s, obscure comedy references, the history of hip hop or whathaveyou, you’d swear he was someone with a few more decades under his belt as opposed to a thirty-something whippersnapper.

But it’s not just that he knows the facts backwards and forwards, which he does; it’s also the level of insight that he adds to the discussion. He’s skilled at getting both the show’s guests and its listeners to look at a piece of art or cultural phenomenon in a new way. His guests make comments like, “You know, I never thought about it like that, but you’re right,” all the time. Don’t believe me? In no universe would I have the gumption to cull through a ton of old episodes to find examples. I’m a fan, but not that kind of fan. All I had to do was listen to a couple of recent episodes, and bam, the perfect example just fell into my lap.
From the interview with Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman):

Jesse:      I think one of the special things about Pee-wee as a character, especially for kids or for people who feel connected to their childhoods, is that Pee-wee is kind of a self-interested jerk a lot of the time, and he is also…an open-hearted, wonder-eyed dreamer of the absolute best kind. And that is kind of an essential quality of childhood that rarely gets recognized in children’s entertainment. If you’re lucky, you might get the wonder…

Paul:        I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you and just say one thing because I think you just clarified something for me that’s never really been clear before. People always go, “What do you think is the attraction of Pee-wee Herman? Why do people like Pee-wee Herman?” And I always say, “I have no idea,” which is true…I don’t want to think about that because it’s not fun for me. That takes all the fun out of what I do if I gotta dissect it very much…But I think you just came up with something very interesting that I never really thought about…I think most people have the same qualities you just discussed. Most people are dichotomies. Most people are really nice, good-hearted and snarky at the same time…And you’re absolutely right, I can’t argue at all against that Pee-wee Herman has this wonderful heart and is also totally snarky and selfish. And I wouldn’t disagree with you that those are…things that we can attribute to kids, but I would also certainly argue that…we don’t really grow out of that when we get older, when we become adults and even older adults. We still have all that. Maybe I’m not a good example because I’m Pee-wee Herman, but I find myself all the time as…my adult older self feeling really righteous and great and sweet and then on a dime, I’m a nightmare and feel snarky and angry and fed up with stuff. That may be what people like about Pee-wee Herman is that that’s sort of worn on the sleeve.

See how he got to the core of what makes Pee-wee Herman great, which then sparked a delightful series of observations from Pee-wee himself?  Jesse rules at this.  Also important, however, is the sincerity he shows when interviewing. With each and every interview, you get the impression that Jesse is a huge fan of his guests and their work. And it’s so lovely because you can tell that they feel it and appreciate it. I often picture them giving him a big hug when it’s over.

Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make about this show – its guests. Often my favorite episodes are those featuring people who aren’t on my radar. As with the interview with Paul Reubens, many of the guests are people you recognize but have only a limited idea of who they are or what they do. On the show, you get to see a whole new side of them and whatever it is that they’re passionate about. Two of my favorite episodes are:

1 – The interview with Bootsy Collins back when it was still The Sound of Young America. I can’t help but quote Bootsy a little bit to give you a taste of just how magnificent he is:

“I went out looking for two things…the star bass, which I call the Space Bass, and the star glasses…I used to draw ‘em all the time at school, star glasses on the stick man and he had a star guitar…I never knew that would wind up bein’ me, but…when George gave me opportunity to do a solo thing I was like, man I can’t look like anybody else…I wanna see through stars…I wanna not only see through stars, I wanna have star glasses on that are like mirrors so when the kids look at me in my face they see themselves. So this was a whole concept that I kinda had dreamed up.”

If that doesn’t make you fall in love with Bootsy, I suggest you get your heart examined. It appears to be defective.

Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins; By Juanbobadilla (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 – The interview with the man inside Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, and Dave LaMattina the co-director of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

Big Bird

Photo By KUHT [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll refrain from more quotes because I’ve gone on too long already. Why are you still reading this? Get thee to Bullseye: http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/bullseye

And check out the other fabulous podcasts from Maximum Fun such as:

Judge John Hodgman

Jordan, Jessi, Go!

One Bad Mother

High five Jesse.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/3943348739/ Photo Credit: Alex Erde

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/3943348739/
By Alex Erde from London, United States [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Featured Image Bullseye logo; Source: maximumfun.org