Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club

Who the hell is Nell Scovell anyway? This is how she structures her memoir, along the forms of that old joke about the stages of life in a Hollywood writer: Stage 1 – Who is Nell? Stage 2 – Get me Nell! Stage 3 – Get me a younger, cheaper Nell! Stage 4 – Who is Nell?

Her memoir is entertaining with a dash of practical advice for writers. She shows you her process, explains what goes into the writing of a show, either solo or in a writer’s room. She tackles the thorny issue of being the only woman in several comedy rooms and the underlying current of sexism that flows through them. Her early days included episodes for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Newhart, The Simpsons, an uncomfortable few months at Late Night with David Letterman. She moved up the ranks as a producer on Coach and Murphy Brown and still kept writing scripts, including one for Space Ghost with her buddy Joel Hodgson (of MST3 fame). Sabrina was her creation from start to finish although she left after the first season. In later years, she got wowed by Sheryl Sandberg and helped write Lean In. She also wrote some of Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner for several years. And her author’s bio ends with “Despite Blue Öyster Cult’s well-reasoned arguments, she still fears the reaper.”

Suite for Barbara Loden

The best way to sink into a rainy weekend is to watch Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda,  then read Nathalie Léger’s book that attempts to chase down the ghost of Loden, fill in the gaps, explain some of the heart-piercing gut-punching feeling you’ve just experienced by watching the film. If you’re lucky, the copy of the film you watched came with bonus features of Loden’s appearance on the Mike Douglas show hosted by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. You can safely ignore Douglas’s simpering smirk when he asks questions about her husband (Elia Kazan) helping her make this film (he didn’t) and Lennon’s comment about the perils of having a famous husband.

This article by Bérénice Reynaud contains a quote from Kazan that perfectly illustrates the challenge Loden faced. “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan, 1988, 794). This perfectly echoes the words Wanda’s husband uses in the movie when he’s trying to obtain a divorce.

But to the book itself, Nathalie Léger is supposedly working on a short entry for a film encyclopedia about Wanda. Instead, she produces this 125 page exploration to give more space to this slippery topic. It’s “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Biographical details on Loden are sketchy at best. Léger meets with the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman and tells him her difficulty in trying to piece together Barbara’s life. Wiseman’s advice? “Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.” Well, no. Instead, Léger carefully shades in her own recollections, her mother’s experience, the universal woman’s retreat into numbness to avoid the brutality of men.

Léger is at times quite funny, such as in her recounting the answer Hemingway gave to a journalist who asked what the best early training is for a writer. Léger has him answer “‘An unhappy childhood.’ How he must have sniggered as he helped himself to another Scotch.”

Léger perfectly captures what it is to be a woman. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Juxtaposed against this, she quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One find day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” Against this, an impression of Léger’s mother layered on Loden driving around in the film: “she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.”

Tracking down the film locations in Pennsylvania, Léger gets a tour of Holy Land from a young man. This is perfection:

We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinize them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man.

I’m not sure if this part was true, but Léger says she meets Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton to get his impressions of Barbara Loden, whom he knew from the Copacabana where she had danced. Mantle begins to reference Proust, Melville, and Hemingway, and Léger writes: “I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down into the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust.”

Prescription for a melancholy day: one viewing of Wanda + one reading of this book. Repeat as often as necessary.

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

It seems appropriate to read this right before the March For Our Lives rallies start taking over towns across America. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does a fantastic job laying out her argument, piece by piece, about the historical context of the 2nd Amendment.

She starts with a little personal history, about her getting caught up in a gun-buying/shooting frenzy in 1970 when her New Orleans women’s group was infiltrated by a spy who made up reports about their intentions. The group decided they needed guns to protect themselves, went on a buying spree, learned to shoot them, and discovered there were zero laws against guns in New Orleans. After giving you her bona fides, she then jumps back in time and confronts our ugly historical roots one by one.

First up, the terrorists known as the colonists, pre-Revolution Days. In fact, the Stamp Act of 1765 (the one that brought that catchy rallying cry: no taxation without representation!) was England’s way of trying to raise enough funds to cover the cost of soldiers to keep the colonists from taking more territory from the indigenous people. The 1764 Treaty of Paris signaled peace between England & France, and not long after this, King George III issued a proclamation that prohibited settlement west of the Allegheny-Appalachian mountains. To enforce this law, they needed cash and soldiers, paid for out of the Stamp Act. Fun! So our initial itch to throw off English rule came out of their trying to keep us from pillaging land further from the natives!

The 2nd Amendment is inextricably bound to the concept of militias. And what were those militias used for? Protecting colonists from attacks from Indians and later morphed into slave patrols.

This quote sums things up nicely: “The United States was founded as a capitalist state and an empire on conquered land, with capital in teh form of slaves… this was exception in the world and has remained exceptional. The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.”

Dunbar-Ortiz gets into mass shootings later in the book and of course once the book gets published it’s immediately out of date, since these events happen with more and more frequency. But she does manage to put the Vegas massacre into context with Pulse nightclub, VA Tech, etc.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Brilliant book of essays wherein various authors open their kimonos to show specifics about how much they make and what they do to pay the bills. Overwhelmingly helpful advice from the women and somewhat cagey non-disclosure from the men (Austin Kleon, Jonathan Franzen, I’m looking at you). An inspirational read that has several frank essays which gave me hope, clarity, strength, and bread crumbs to other writers I want to read (Porochista Khakpour, Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould, Meaghan O’Connell, Sarah Smarsh).

Manjula Martin not only does an excellent job curating and editing, she contributes a great essay and several interviews (favorites of which were: Roxane Gay, Richard Rodriguez, Cheryl Strayed). Actually, the Rodriguez interview was with Caille Millner, and she mentioned that he lived in the most expensive city in the country (San Francisco) and was starting to write essays about technology and the new tech billionaires. Rodriguez: “I don’t know why more writers don’t. This is the most interesting shift happening in the country right now.” But it’s not a reasonable city to live in as a writer? “Not if you don’t have rent control already. But I find it really interesting to be in a city where no one is interested in me. It’s really interesting to be in a city where no one reads. [Ed: not true!]… if nobody’s paying attention to you, the world is yours. You can go anywhere you want, observe anything you want. You’re free.”

Hmm. After some digging, I found an interview Rodriguez did in 2014 that has some troubling vibes:

BOOM: A lot of people seem very concerned about the change that those Google buses signal in San Francisco. Do you share those concerns?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, because I’ve always loved wealth. I’ve loved being around it. If I knew you were wealthy, I would have made friends with you in grammar school.

Andy Goldsworthy: Projects

I fell in love with Goldsworthy again after seeing the latest documentary about his work and so lugged this 7 lb. book home from the library to ogle the projects in slower, greater detail. So many favorites, but I think the one on the cover stands out as the one that gave me the chills when I saw it unfold (Passage, 2015, in I think Kensington, New Hampshire, commissioned by the Lewis Family Foundation, possibly at Alnoba?). Also great: the chalk stones in Sussex, the very temporary white walls in NYC gallery that flaked off the wall over a few week period (performance art!), the Coppice Room in Scotland, the Alderney Stones on an island in the English Channel (that deteriorate over time and disgorge their contents all relating to their environment). Of course I also have a preference for the works I see on a regular basis (Spire and Wood Line in the Presidio), and this weekend we popped in to see Tree Fall again (the tree wedged into the gunpowder room from the Civil War, covered in clay). Also of interest, the Boulder House in New Hampshire, also a Lewis Family Foundation commission, where a house was built around an enormous boulder. Similar to this is Stone House, at Jupiter Artland in Scotland, where a large piece of bedrock shapes the floor and the rest of the house was built to surround it. Ohio apparently has a ton of Goldsworthy projects: Torn Tree Shelter, Road, Contour 950, and Red Hill, all commissioned by Scott Mueller.  The book starts with an in-depth interview with Andy, best read after you gorge yourself on the 350+ pages of photos.

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

A book written 20-ish years ago about fear is mostly valid but contains some quaint bits, like wanting to “kill” the person who is taking too long on the pay phone ahead of you, or somehow predicting ride-shares back in 1997 (but erroneously destined for 2050) as a way of showing how much we can trust strangers.

Basically, the book is about trusting your intuition and paying attention to small things that add up to warning signs (or even big, obvious things).

He’s pretty down on the Unabomber in this, saying that Ted did it for attention (um, no), the same sin he assigns Valerie Solanas (um, double no) who he claims got her 90 minutes of fame with the movie about her life that was released. He loves quoting Ernest Becker (de Becker loves Becker for some reason)’s Denial of Death which I couldn’t get through for all the penis-envy Freudian love he gave it.

On the plus side, learned about this 1986 hijacking of a USAir plane by a disgruntled employee who shot his boss on the flight and then crashed the plane. Besides accidentally killing the president of Chevron (oops!), it also took out 3 top officials of PacBell, causing the much quoted rule that companies not allow their execs to travel together.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books

I was transported back in time with Maud Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib series, back to my nine-year-old self devouring these books with impish Betsy who aspires to be a writer, shy Tacy, and Tib the dancer. The girls make paper dolls out of catalogs that come to their Minnesota homes, dye sand to put in bottles for sale, go hiking and pretend to be beggars when they get hungry. To pick this collection of books up again after many decades and still squeeze goodness out of it is pure delight. I think I only read the first two books as a wee one, but enjoyed Over the Big Hill and Go Downtown as well, with new characters bursting onto the scene in the form of Betsy’s actor uncle, the kindly Mrs Poppy who invites Betsy to have hot chocolate in her hotel after being caught in a snowstorm, and a fourth girl—Winona—the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. Hooray for Betsy and Tacy forever!

The Blue Castle

What a fantastic novel from the author of the inimitable Anne of Green Gables series! I had no idea this book existed until it surface on a thread of recommendations. One woman said she liked this better than the Green Gables series and I have to agree—the out-loud laughs (snorts? guffaws) at Valancy’s actions to her family once she awakens from her 29 year lethargy.

When we first meet Valancy, she’s dreary and sad and tiptoes around her imperious relatives who make fun of her for being a spinster, continually bringing up transgressions she did when she was a kid (apparently she ate jam out of a jar without permission). She feels like she might have heart trouble, goes to the doctor who rushes off when he gets a phone call about his son being in an accident but who later writes her a letter saying that she only has a year to live. With this benediction, Valancy flips the table and hulks out on her family, sort of. She stops being polite and tending to their wishes, stops doing her dutiful daughter act, stops being a punchline. The dinner scene at which her family realizes something is “wrong” with her is priceless. She gives it back to them as good as she gets it, and they are shocked. When her uncle suggests that she’s forgotten the 5th commandment, she taunts him with the 9th (I had to look these up—5th is obey parents & 9th is don’t gossip about neighbors).

She hires herself out as a housekeeper to a man and his dying daughter, then proposes marriage to a supposedly evil man, Barney, who the town thinks is variously a thief, a murderer, an escaped convict. She finally begins to live, and loves life on his island in the woods. Of course he’s the author that she also loves, writing under a pseudonym; you pick that up as soon as he turns his nose up at John Foster’s book. Turns out that he’s also a millionaire! Confetti! Nothing like a happy ending with a wealthy husband.

Happy All the Time

A snackable treat from Laurie Colwin discovered by way of a Twitter thread asking for books that help to cocoon you from the world. Ostensibly about a pair of wealthy cousins, Guido and Vincent, it’s actually filled with extremely interesting women. Guido marries Holly, a woman who must go away by herself to think about his marriage proposal and later to a monastic retreat when she gets preggers. Vincent floats through life having various affairs he cares nothing for until he meets Misty, the linguist at his work. She has a job she values, has the audacity to ask her boss for a raise, and manages not to lose her head over Vincent. Ultimately it ends up as a happily ever after sap-fest but still a delightful trip for a few hours.

The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause

Germaine Greer is at her best when enraged. This is a book that any woman can appreciate, no matter what stage of life she’s in, even if just glimpsing the climacteric over the horizon as I am. Doctors pressing HRT onto older women are idiotic, the male gaze falling away is not to be missed, joy is to be found in this later cycle of life where the focus can be on oneself and not on caring for those around us. Greer castigates physicians for their feeble attempts, saying how extraordinary it is that we don’t know ANYTHING about menopause: we don’t know what is happening, why it happens, we can’t tell if it’s about to happen, is happening, or is over, we don’t know why there are symptoms for some women while others have none, we don’t know what’s related to just plain aging or why sleeping is disturbed or what a hot flush is.

Some of Greer’s rage is pure poetry:

Psychiatrists have no option but to blame people for their own suffering; admitting that unhappiness might be justified would undermine the entire rationale of medicating the mind. There can be no suggestion that feeling tired and disillusioned at fifty might be the appropriate response and that convincing yourself that you are happy and fulfilled might be self-deluding to the point of insanity. “Bringing up” children is not necessarily enjoyable; our children are not necessarily nice people and if they are it is not something we can congratulate ourselves upon.

I read this over many months, but the part freshest in my mind is the end wherein she winds up telling women to embrace themselves, care not a fig for the opinion of others, “become more abundantly” the old woman. Oh, we ruin things for the boys at the pub with our presence? So much the better. “Why not wear an invisible T-shirt that says ‘A glance from my eye can make your beer turn rancid’?” Indeed.

Wherein Amazon ups its creepiness rating

Hey Amazon, did you get what you were snooping around my blog for?

It looks like a bot or someone from Amazon’s Virginia offices discovered my content-rich site and decided to slurp it up, probably for nefarious purposes judging from their corporate behavior in other areas.

 

Silence: In the Age of Noise

Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Becky Crook, this touches on a lot of issues I have been struggling with lately: how to attain and maximize silence, how to simply sit thinking, wondering how much  technology impede us, how much of a luxury item silence is.

I was enjoying the book until a realization crept up on me. This is written by a man who has little respect for women, including his three teenage daughters whom he belittles at the beginning of the book for wanting such silly items as Louis Vuitton purses and for being teenagers who are stuck in their world of screens (phones, tablets, TVs). Kagge tosses around the usual ragtag list of powerful male minds to let you know how smart he is, how much he gets it—Pascal, Kierkegaard (for some reason specifically called out as a philosopher—does he think we’re too dumb to know this?), David Foster Wallace, Seneca, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Oliver Sacks, Wittgenstein. Beethoven and Thomas Edison get shout outs. No ladies, aside from a seven-word quote from Emily Dickinson: “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” When I think of all the women who could have been referenced who also have insightful, poetic, perfect thoughts on silence (Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, too many others), my mouth gapes. For all the talk about the Nordic world being heaven for women, it sure seems that the literary men have their heads up their asses just as much as in our world. (See also all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work).

But the worst comes in a section where he openly idolizes Elon Musk. Kagge’s adulation is stunning; he hangs on Musk’s every word, he erroneously credits Musk with inventing the idea of a reusable space shuttle (“NASA scientists were always convinced that space shuttles could only be used once, which was a tremendously expensive accepted truth that had lingered since NASA’s early days. This continued all the way up until the moment when Musk informed them that there was no reason not to build a shuttle that could be launched multiple times into space…”) which is mind-mindbogglingly incorrect. He’s so in love with Musk that he digresses into a tale about coming up with the idea to create his own publishing house while washing the dishes, much like how one of Musk’s engineers comes up with his best ideas on the toilet. Ah but, “I am not so stupid as to compare myself to Elon Musk.” Yet he is so stupid enough to worship him.

Now that I’ve released the steam from that valve, here are the parts that I did enjoy, taken with the grain of salt that I question his scholarly chops and extremely lightweight notation style.

    • Being uncomfortable with stillness and silence didn’t arrive with the television, internet or iPhones. Pascal in the 1600s said “all of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But our opportunities to be interrupted have increased dramatically. Silence is almost extinct.
    • On the subject of news, in 1984 he sails for eight months and has no access to newspapers or radio. When he gets back, he realizes that people are still talking about the same old things. “When you’ve invested a lot of time in being accessible and keeping up with what’s happening, it’s easy to conclude that it all has a certain value, even if what you have done might not be that important.”
    • “Another form of luxury is to be unavailable. To turn your back on the daily din is a privilege… You have fought your way into a position where you couldn’t care less if someone wants to contact you.” This reminds me of the NYT piece that alternately fascinated and enraged me, the rich white man who put up a blockade so he wouldn’t hear any news after the disastrous 2016 election.
    • One of my favorite philosophers, Seneca, has some great things to say about life and is quoted in this book:

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.

 

The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County

Hilarious 100+ page parody of Marin County in the 1970s, poking fun at all the stereotypes by going over the top on every page. I knew when I spotted this at Green Arcade bookstore that I was in for a real treat, and it did not disappoint.

Are you ready for carrot juice drinking yuppies who are into astrology and self discovery and yoga and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and rebellious daughters who have house parties that allow guests to park their motorcycles inside? Everyone smoking dope and riding their bike from the Sausalito ferry? Consciousness raising and macramé and a world where restaurants didn’t accept credit cards yet? There’s a VW bus and a waterbed, OF COURSE. And kids that don’t get disciplined or who join the Moonies. This perfect bit was from a guy who was looking to escape Marin and move to Indiana: “I can’t take the whole Marin head-set anymore… Natural foods. Cocaine. Woodacre. Flea markets. Pool parties… Plant stores. Kleenraw in the hummingbird feeder. Weekends at Tahoe. Vasectomies. The Fungus Faire, redwood bathtubs, mandalas, compost piles, needlepoint, burglar alarms, acupuncture, saunas, sourdough, macramé…”

Written by Cyra McFadden and wonderfully illustrated by Tom Cervenak, such as this delightful image of a sadomasochist that Kate picks up at the flea market who takes her back to his houseboat. The whole thing got me thinking about doing a similar parody for 2018 San Francisco, the techies and their “communes”, their cryptocurrency and yoga classes and Instacart and rideshares.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story

Hooray for introverts! I loved Debbie Tung’s graphic novel about how she copes with the world, recharging with alone time even at her wedding, asking her boss if she can work from home the rest of the afternoon so she can actually get work done, eventually quitting her job and embracing her inner need to work alone and on projects that are meaningful for her. We introverts get exhausted from social contact and have to recharge, and she feels alone until she stumbles onto the world of introvert blogs and finds out she’s not crazy after all, that there are millions of others just like her. After this, she gives herself permission to be herself, to turn down more invitations she doesn’t want to do. I loved the pages of her social hangover cures: comfort food, good books, favorite music, quiet time alone, warm hugs from a loved one.

Megahex

The Megahex gang is made up of a witch (Megg), her black cat (Mogg), their roommate Owl, a wizard in primary colors (red, blue), and Werewolf Jones. They spend their days smoking weed and dropping acid and playing tricks on each other, and every minute you spend reading this your mind will be spinning dizzily in this alternative universe. There’s lots of punching and smoking and puking and pooping and general mayhem. My favorite from the book was “Megg & Mogg’s horrible party” wherein Owl is drinking beer from a Foam Dome hat that has 2 cans with straws to his mouth, smoking in the yard and Werewolf Jones is chugging beer while running a weed whacker and the wizard finds a trampoline in the neighbor’s yard that Jones bounces on with the whacker still running then decides to use a cheese grater on his privates. It’s funny and terrible and you will sometimes laugh out loud but mostly you’ll feel like you’ve just inhaled some second-hand crack or weed by simply reading the bizarre tale.