Do you like good stories? Stories that ring true? Do you like stories that revolve around girls and women taking their lives in their own hands, despite their circumstances? Do you like stories that don’t take 22 episodes to come to a climax? Do you like good actors and production teams who take their jobs seriously? Then you should definitely be watching Bomb Girls (Canadian) and My Mad Fat Diary (English). Why? Well, read on (minor risk of spoilers, as one would expect when dealing with media reviews) to find out more!
“Come on, Bets! We’ve got a war to win.”
As Canada’s men left for Europe to fight Hitler and Mussolini, its women were left the job of keeping the ever-growing war machine running. Bomb Girls tells the story of a group of women who work the same shift for Victory Munitions, a bomb-making factory in a Toronto suburb . Though they are from different backgrounds – upper class, middle class, working class, married, single, widowed, straight, gay – and have greatly differing outlooks on life, their work and the hazards that come with it lay the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect. But don’t worry, this show isn’t nearly as saccharine as that sounds. Because perhaps contrary to expectations, the writers of this show have created not the type of female friendshippy rah-rah-rah-don’t-we-just-love-being-girls characters, but actual women who make a metric ton of questionable, sometimes outright stupid choices. As we watch the fallout of these choices occur, however, we cannot help but sympathize, because the reasons for making these choices – love, lust, insecurity, xenophobia, fear, desire for social advancement, hope, patriotism – may not always be right, but they always ring true.
The characters in this show are often assholes, jackasses, and jealous shits (you know, besides being fabulous, charming, wonderful people), but this only makes you love them more. I promise. I don’t want to spoil you to death here, but my case in point is Lorna, one of the best television characters (in my opinion) ever created. And of course the show passes the Bechdel Test (which means that there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man) in nearly every scene.
It tackles social issues like (sexual) abuse, abortion, sexual double standards, expectations of masculinity, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia without being heavy-handed – not tacked onto the stories as an afterthought (“oh wait, wasn’t sexism a thing in the 1940′s? Best get some harassment in there!”), but as an integral part of the stories (when first explaining how important workplace safety is – it being a bomb factory and all – we see a young new worker get so flustered by the sexual comments made in her direction that she drops a (thankfully mostly empty) canister of explosives).
There is flawless, shiny hair, fabulous lipsticks, and amazing vintage fashion – with the added bonus that the costume and continuity folks know their stuff and have many items of clothing (and even accessories like scarves) return in several episodes, just like the characters are actual people who wear outfits more than once.
These bomb-ass characters are lonely, loving, lovely, frustrating, fabulous, fantastic, vexing, vixenish, vexatious, hell-on-wheels, hopeful, and heavenly. They will rip your heart out, drop one of their bombs on it, spread the remains on their dance floor and lindy hop all over it. And the weird thing? You’ll thank them for it.
(There are currently 12 episodes of Bomb Girls. The first 6 – season 1 – are out of DVD and available on Amazon.)
“And if anyone ever finds this diary, and reads it, and concludes that I’m crazy? They’d be spot on.”
Based on the book “My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary” by Rae Earl, this E4 series features 16-year old Rae Earl, who lives in Lincolnshire in 1996, together with her mom, her mom’s Tunisian lover, and a storage cupboard with which Rae has a very strange relationship. In addition to struggling with all the normal teenage issues – peer pressure, wanting to fit in, dealing with unrequited love and crushes, working through the sting of friends growing apart, arguments with parents, and so on – Rae is also mentally ill. We meet Rae as she is leaving the mental institution where she spent four months “locked away. Four months convincing people my finger is no longer on the self-destruct button.”
Rae writes in her diary as a coping mechanism, she counts to 10 when she panics or is about to binge, takes scalding hot showers when she can’t deal with her feelings, has suicidal thoughts, goes to therapy, can’t look at herself in the mirror, and takes a variety of antidepressants.
This show could easily have been a disaster. Instead, it’s a triumph. This, I think, is at least partially owing to the fact that the book on which it’s based is, in turn, based on a true story: a real person’s experiences growing up as a fat teenager with mental illness. As with the choices made by characters in Bomb Girls, Rae’s choices aren’t always logical or productive or healthy, but they ring true nevertheless. And because Rae is such a lovable character, even in all her bad (teenage) behavior (the viewer can’t help but cringe when Rae goes over the worst three things she’s ever said to her mom), it becomes very easy to understand where she is coming from and sympathize with her. It doesn’t take long for you to start rooting for her, and she makes us root hard. After the first episode, in which the reality of being out of the mental institution and back home has hit her hard and, on top of that, she’s had to stand in the street half naked, covering her bits with the blow-up crocodile (to name but one major event), it almost seems a miracle that Rae’s still standing.
The hits don’t stop coming Rae’s way throughout the 6-episode season, but she mostly manages to power through them, with a lot of help and support from a variety of sources, including medication. There is no shame in Rae’s pill-popping. It’s just a little thing, integrated in her pre-bed rituals. Nor is there any shame in her need for help. When she is truly in crisis, she voluntarily goes over a mental list of people she can ask for help. In this way, My Mad Fat Diary tells a story of recovery which is true, real, and powerful. Things don’t come easy to Rae after her release, just like they don’t come easy in life. But Rae and her wicked sense of humor (the introduces one of her doctors as “Dr. Nick: Expert moistener of lady-gardens”) carry on.
My Mad Fat Diary is a hilarious show, but it’s also, especially for us 30-somethings, a feast of recognition. From the tiny backpacks, crop tops, and flower-shaped belt buckles, to the AMAZING soundtrack, watching the show is like engaging in eerily real time-travel. If you add the way in which the female friendships are written (jealousy of the ‘pretty friend,’ feeling like your friend doesn’t truly understand you, undermining a friend even though you love her, and then giving up something you really wanted because you know she’s your absolute best friend and nothing could ever be more important), it can even, at times, be painfully recognizable. And even with Rae’s (very realistic, I might add) teenage hormone-induced man-loving ways, this show, too, passes the Bechdel Test on the regular.
Funny, recognizable, lovable, hopeful: those would be my key words for My Mad Fat Diary. For people in recovery of an eating disorder or self-harming behavior, like cutting, it might be too recognizable. That would be my one warning for this show. It doesn’t mince words and it shows, well, a lot. We see Rae’s scars, we see her binge, we see her burn herself with hot water. If these are things that could potentially trigger you, tread with care. But if you’re on the fence, do see if you can give it a go. I think one of the most valuable things about this show (you know, other than it being truly entertaining) is that witnessing a person (especially a young person if you yourself are a young person) going through recovery and actually getting better is an extremely powerful thing. And if you do not have any type of mental illness, the show provides a good window into what life with eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts can look like: not just the “illness” side of that life, but all the good, the amazing, the love and the strangeness of it as well.
(The first season of My Mad Fat Diary is out on DVD and available on Amazon. The series has been renewed, so there will be a second season at some point.)
Napoleon, a Victorian prostitute, and a flying piano walk into a theater, where they collide with The Beatles
That’s honestly the best description I can give of “Come Together,” a theater concert I saw in Amsterdam’s Carré Theater last night. I was given tickets to this show for my graduation and really did not know what to expect. Sure, I looked up clips on YouTube, but I still had no idea what I was getting myself into. Theater concerts have been pretty happening here over the past few years, but they’re always done by the original bands/singers in question and there are never elaborate costumes involved.
Not so with “Come Together,” which is made up of Beatles songs performed by an ensemble of excellent Danish performers, and had its first run in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. For a solid 90 minutes, they sweep you up in a drug-addled, uncomfortable, hilarious, alien, wonderful, gravity-defying smoke-filled haze of theatrics and newly-arranged, magnificently performed, musical classics. From the unsettling opening with “Yesterday,” which is sung out of its usual order, through the fantastically gothic incarnation of “Eleanor Rigby” and the contemporary rock-concert version of “All You Need Is Love,” to the intimate, tender rendition of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the audience is swept up in a wave of “I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but I am loving the shit out of it.” When the last song before intermission ended, I turned to my friend and asked “is this the Apocalypse?” To which she replied, “I think it might be.”
I hope that by now it’s become clear there is no way one can truly explain the nature of this theater concert. It is big and bold on some occasions, sparse and alien on others, yet can also be lovely, friendly, intimate. It does away with our ideas of what musical performance should look like, especially during numbers like “I Am The Walrus,” which is sung by Napoleon while he stands on a wall at a 90 degree angle to the rest of us and “Across the Universe” which is sung, bafflingly and fantastically, completely upside down by a performer floating through the darkness, suspended from his feet.
“Come Together” is a great many things (as evidenced by the fact that I’ve run out of adjectives to describe it), but it is most emphatically not a musical. There is no narrative structure. There is, most certainly, a structure to the complete performance, but is not something that can be retold. It’s a structure which builds, but which must be experienced. It is, then, perhaps most like a dream – or what I imagine a trip on certain hallucinatory drugs is like.
Here’s where I would usually link you to upcoming shows, but I’ve run into a slight snag, which is that I can’t find a performance schedule anywhere online. Their final performance in Amsterdam is tonight, so if you’re in the area I highly recommend that you contact Carré to inquire after tickets, but beyond that, I have no clue when (and if) this show will be performed again. So I’ll just send this blog post into the ether, hoping that it will one day reach someone who, like me, considers going to see this show, but has no clue what she (or he) is in for. To that person I say, go. It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand what you’re going to see. It doesn’t matter that after you’ve seen it, you still don’t truly know. But you’ll be happy you went. I promise.
I didn’t write a post in which I wistfully (or PTSD-fully, depending on the topic) look back on 2012, nor did I write a “hooray, new year, new opportunities” post. The reason for that is simple: I have a January birthday and on the 14th, I turn 30: also cause for introspection (though really, any opportunity is a good opportunity for navel-gazing if you’re me). So with this post I hope to kill two birds with one stone: look back and forecast.
I’m not going to look back on my entire twenties, however. Goodness, those were filled with some… stuff. Let’s just call it that. Stuff. Despite the stuff, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Like I said in the post in which I reflected on turning 29, wandering has been a key point of my entire twenties. Studying, graduating, traveling, working, moving, studying again, traveling, working abroad, living abroad, still more traveling, studying abroad, working, working, working, grad school, graduating again and again – summed up like this it seems quite dull, when it’s been anything but. For proof, I only have to look at my life as a 29-year old.
(One of the great things of blogging is that it becomes so easy to look back on the things you’ve done/accomplished/failed at/and so on)
As I wrote in that introspective post a year ago, I’d just finished my first term of teaching and survived my first academic talk. At the time, I was overwhelmed with the newness that had descended onto my life and terrified of the thesis-writing process that was staring me in the face. Now, I am (some of you may find this difficult to believe, but it’s true) much more composed. Life is still not without its new experiences and challenges (nor will it ever be), but I’m convinced I’ll be able to kick the ass of whatever comes my way.
In 30th year of life, I did the following:
- Despite struggles, setbacks, and near-insanity, I wrote and finished a master’s thesis and graduated almost cum laude (oh, The Infinity of Lists, you will always remain my most despised course).
- Completed my first year of teaching, successfully negotiated an almost full-time contract, and returned to work immediately after defending my thesis.
- Went surfing for the first time, with my entire family. In the North Sea. On a very cold day. With a very strong current. It was tiring and I was awful at it, but it was a great thing to do nonetheless.
- Learned that I still cry more when I’m angry than when I’m sad and I will still do so at the most inopportune moments.
- Wrote the most popular thing I have ever written. Certain parts of it were quoted on other sites and were read more than 15,000 times. If only every single one of those readers had paid me a euro, I would have been able to make a real dent in my student loan payments…
- On a whim, submitted abstracts to two completely different conferences, which were accepted by both. So in 2013 I will go to Toronto to talk about my thesis research and to England to present a paper on apocalyptic thought in Doctor Who.
- Thanks to the generosity of family and scrounging pennies whenever possible, I was able to travel to London, Newcastle and Copenhagen (for my mom and stepfather’s 12.5 year wedding anniversary) despite not making a living wage until last September.
- Lost my Oma. But this Christmas, she was with me in spirit as I laid out her nativity scene under my Christmas tree.
- Got in touch with my inner manic pixie dream girl by seeing Florence + the Machine in concert not once, but twice, and finally allowing myself to love Mumford & Sons.
- Helped organize an academic conference at which I learned so much and got to know amazing new people (and got to know the amazing people I already know a little better).
- Got called a cougar. Yes, at age 29. I think technically I’m supposed to be a puma, though both words imply things that aren’t necessarily true. I just feel like it was a landmark moment for me nonetheless.
- Discovered more worthwhile TV shows than I care to admit. Okay, I’ll admit to some. New Girl and Underemployed are both seriously underrated.
- Decided to live life deliberately, but not like that poser Thoreau who wrote as though he’d lived wild at Walden, when actually he’d drop off his laundry with his mother every fortnight (or, you know, did the grown-up New England 19th century equivalent of that).
In my 31st year of life, I am looking forward to (among many other things) travelling to Toronto for conferencing and visiting friends, running a stellar 5K at the City-Pier-City run in The Hague, and getting my teaching certification. But tonight I’ll start things off with a Mexican dinner to celebrate and, after that, a screening of my favorite musical of all time: Les Misérables.
I have a feeling 30′s going to be pretty, no matter what life tries to throw at me.
Today, I was going to write about how I like to feel in control of my life and my environment. I was going to explain to you how it’s something I crave. I was going to tell you that this is the reason I greatly dislike surprises: when I was thrown a surprise party for my 21st birthday, I spent the first three hours physically shaking on the outside and fuming on the inside.
I was going to tell you how this week, in one of my classes, we talked about the difference between “when” and “if” coming down to certainty and uncertainty, but that we, if we are in good health and feel optimistic, will feel comfortable saying “when I turn 30, I want to travel to Australia” but we prefer “if” in a sentence like “if I turn 80, I will start smoking again.” We feel comfortable even though there is no guarantee any of us will turn 30. Technically, semantically, it’s a matter of “if,” not “when.” Statistically, of course, things may look different, but that doesn’t take away the fact that none of us are, in the end, in control of our lives.
That doesn’t keep us from making plans. It shouldn’t. Unless we look ahead, plan ahead, try to make things the best they can be, for ourselves and those around us, there’s really no point to life. We need to plan and we need, up to a point, to feel like we are in control of our lives.
I’d planned to write all of this – and in a much more eloquent way, too – and then I came home from a lovely dinner with my mother, turned on my computer, and learned that 20 children and 6 adults were shot in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, we don’t know who was killed. We don’t know why. And really, there will never be a why. We may, in the coming days and weeks, learn that the shooter had mental health issues (seems to me you’d have to, if you are able to shoot 20 children between the age of 5 and 10; seems to me you have to be severely deranged), that he had problems, or maybe that he seemed like such a quiet young man. We will talk about the need for gun control. Some people may, like in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, bring up the importance of accessible and affordable mental health care. But in the end, there will never be an explanation. 20 children and 6 adults were murdered, executed in their school, their workplace, and nothing will ever sufficiently explain that fact.
Those people, too, had plans. They had hopes and dreams. Some of them probably wanted to be firemen, astronauts, movie stars, teachers, scientists. Others may have planned to spend their lives helping these aspiring firemen, astronauts, movie stars, teachers, and scientists achieve their dreams. Every day they spent in that school, every single one of them learned something new: to share, to write, to teach, to be compassionate, to work through conflict, to care, to subtract and to add, to love.
If only they’d had the amount of control over their lives and the lives of those who died by their side that we like to pretend we do – that we have to pretend we do. Sadly, they didn’t. Someone decided to use the control he had over his own life in such a destructive, basically evil way that they never stood a chance.
So what can we control? Really, only our own actions in the present moment. Right now, you can hug your children a little tighter. Right now, you can send a letter to your Congressman or Congresswoman about gun control. Right now, you can start thinking of ways we can make mental health care more accessible and less stigmatized. Right now, we can keep going to school, keep learning, keep teaching, keep loving.We keep planning, living, striving for a better world. Because what else is there?
For a variety of reasons, I’ve had poetry on my mind. It’s Sinterklaas today, which means all over the country people are currently reading satirical, mocking poems that their friends and family have written about them. Because it’s Sinterklaas, I have also asked one of my classes to write a poem in English, as part of their homework. Though we mainly work on grammar, presenting skills, summarizing and the like, so EFL skills more than creative writing, I find that doing something creative can help take the (often just a touch boring) edge off the more business-y side of English. Because these students are applied physics majors, I asked them to write their poem about something physics-related and so far the ones I’ve seen have been just as excellent and intriguing as the ones I received from students last year.
After years and years of studying literature and poetry in an academic setting (and, let’s get real here, mostly avoiding poetry because my taste is very particular), it’s been refreshing to see how technical students approach the problem (if I may call it that) of discussing a theorem or principle not in terms of science and equations, but in terms of, well, more everyday language. I’ve greatly appreciated reading the ones that were given to me yesterday and I’m sure I’ll greatly enjoy the ones I’ll get from my other two groups on Friday.
But honestly, this was just a way for me to introduce what I really came here to discuss (or rather, state), and that’s that poetry doesn’t have to be difficult. Now, as someone with a Master’s degree in literature, I should know this, but sometimes I forget because sometimes, especially as a student of literature, you are made to read poems that are so out there, so convoluted, that take so much effort to read, that one (one being me) is seized by the tendency to swear off poetry altogether. And that would be a very sad development indeed, because there’s so much great poetry out there. Anything by Maya Angelou comes to mind, Emily Dickinson (naturally), Margaret Atwood’s Circe/Mud Poems cycle, Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to her Book” (so sassy for a Puritan!), and of course Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal.” Those are some of my poetry staples.
But today, I was introduced to a new poem, written by someone I’d never heard of before: Oliver Herford. He’s listed as the “American Oscar Wilde” on Wikipedia (I highly doubt that) and seems to be mostly known for his cutting wit(ticisms) (hence, I suppose, the Oscar Wilde comparison). The poem I speak of, however, is not Wildean at all:
I HEARD A BIRD SING
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember:
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
Short, to the point, simple, clean, and hopeful. It’s really all one might want on a chilly December night.
This Saturday marked the arrival of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands. Sinterklaas, a holiday celebrated on December 5th, has long been The Netherlands’ biggest gift-giving holiday. In the weeks leading up to it, the figure of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, historically associated with the Bishop of Myra) arrives in the country and, in the nighttime, visits people’s homes to leave little presents and special seasonal treats.
I love doing the dishes. Not always, and not passionately, but overall it’s one of the constants in my life. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, when I was younger (and not even that much younger) I absolutely loathed the chore, like so many of my peers. My parents didn’t get a dishwasher until I was well into my teens, so doing the washing up was one of those things I learned young and did… I can’t be sure how often, but many times a week while growing up. When I moved out at 18, I promptly stopped doing everything my mother taught me. Sure, I’d do the washing up maybe once every few days, when things piled too high, when I ran out of plates, or when my roommates started showing their annoyance overtly, rather than in the usual-for-roommates passive-aggressive way.
I lived at home – and loathed the washing up. I lived in my first college town – and loathed the washing up. When I was 24, I moved to The Hague – and loathed the washing up. By that time I was mature enough to do it semi-regularly so as to not completely alienate the people I lived with, but I still detested every moment of it. The worst part of doing dishes, I think we can all agree, is that it’s a never-ending chore. It’s damn near Sisyphean. The minute everything is clean, you remember that dish on the kitchen table, or you pour yourself a cup of tea – a cup which you will have to clean again. On and on and on it goes.
It wasn’t until I moved into a US college dorm that I started doing my dishes as soon as I’d cooked and eaten dinner, all the time, every time. Why? I won’t say my things would get stolen, because stealing was against the honor code, but my kitchen was a very popular hangout even for people who lived elsewhere and things (especially luxuries like plates and knives) would have a tendency to get… misplaced. Most of the time they’d turn up a few months later, but meanwhile, I’d be in a bit of a pickle. And yes, things would disappear unwashed. That is not the strangest thing that happened. One time, someone stole (I’m sorry: borrowed) half a potato from my shelves. Yeah. Anyway.
When I returned home again after my year abroad, I came home with a new routine and to a new person with whom to share my kitchen. A person who, I’m sorry to say, is okay with dishes but not the best at cleaning (if you ever read this, Natalie, I still like you!). Realizing that I would always live with someone who was inept at keeping house, whether it be another person or myself, I finally reached a turning point. No one else was going to do this for me, so I would do it myself. I wouldn’t be bothered by the seemingly endless stacks of dishes. Instead, I would use their continuity as a source of comfort: if there’s one thing you can rely on (other than death and taxes), it’s that the washing-up will need to be done! All day, every day, the stack will grow with plates, cutlery, dishes, and pans, until you take action and make it go away. Dishes, no dishes, dishes, no dishes. I would start singing “it’s the ciiiiiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiife,” but perhaps that’d be one bridge too far for my casual readers.
Actually doing the washing-up can be just as meditative as accepting that it will always be a part of your life (even if you have a dishwasher, you’ll often have to rinse things). Moving the brush or sponge over the surface of a plate in a circular motion is almost as good as “wax on, wax off” (I think I’m ready for my first karate lesson, Mr Miyagi!). Your mind has time to wander or, if that’s not your thing, the kitchen is the perfect place for loudly singing along with your favorite 90′s hits and boogieing down (do try to keep splashing to a minimum).
Stock photo providers seem to agree there is something happiness inducing about washing dishes. There are many hits for searches that involve happy women doing dishes. Not quite as many as Women Laughing Alone with Salad, but still, you know, enough. Maybe stock photo providers are patriarchal to the bone ( I mean, looking at the linked article, there seems to be quite a bit of evidence for that). But maybe, just maybe, they have been trying to show all of us the truth about the washing-up: it’s as close as many of us white western folks will get to a moment of zen. Because let’s face it, the other options don’t seem to work out for us very well. Have you ever met a new-age hippie-dippy European who stuck with yoga for more than three months? All that downward-dogging just gets to be too much. So let’s give it up for the washing-up instead!