Nov 29

“The Holdovers”: New Holiday Film Is Special

If there’s a theater movie I’ve enjoyed more than The Holdovers this past year, I don’t remember it.  And I’m not the only one praising this story that on varying levels—but not heavy-handedly or without humor—involves issues of grief, loneliness, secrets, anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.  A sampling of critical reviews:

  • Johnny OleksinskiNew York Post :  “…the warmest cinematic experience you’ll have all year.”
  • Leonard Maltin: “…the year’s best movie to date.”
  • Jackson Weaver, CBC: “…best movie of the year.”
  • Peter Travers, ABC News: “…has all the makings of a new holiday classic.”
  • Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “…the closest thing we’ve had to a new holiday classic in quite some time.”
  • Brian Truit, USA Today: eighth of 20 “best Christmas movies ever.”

Currently at 96% approval from Rotten Tomatoes critics, the following is the site’s description:

From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Here’s a preview:

THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS

Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “There is something so relatable, so deeply human about their pain and their circumstances — there’s a startling honesty in the kaleidoscope of emotions they all are experiencing at any given time.”

Oliver Jones, Observer: “None of these characters ask for sympathy, but command it nonetheless.”

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “…three broken misfits lifting each other up.”

THE STORY

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com:

Hollywood has a long history of stories of ‘makeshift families that learn something,’ but then why does ‘The Holdovers’ feel so fresh? It’s probably because it’s been so long since one of these stories felt this true. Payne and his team recognize the clichés of this life lesson, but they embed them with truths that will always be timeless. Everyone has that unexpected friendship or even mentorship with someone who forever altered their direction in life. And everyone has that young person who has shocked them out of their stasis, either through revealing what they have become or failed to be. ‘The Holdovers’ is a consistently smart, funny movie about people who are easy to root for and like the ones we know. Its greatest accomplishment is not how easy it is to see yourself in Paul, Angus, or Mary. It’s that you will in all three.

Nick Schager, The Daily Beast: “…a story about the lies we tell ourselves (for good and ill) and the reality of our not-so-dissimilar human conditions. Moreover, both looking forward and behind, it’s a film that grasps that everything has been done before and that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and that what bolsters and binds us most of all is compassion for ourselves, each other, and the histories we can never truly escape and are always free to leave behind.”

Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter: “Both teacher and student discover secrets about the other that prove traumatic and therapeutic at the same time.”

CONCLUSIONS

Oliver Jones, Observer: “When it’s over, the chill it leaves in your spine is destined to last nearly as long as the smile on your face.”

Max Weiss, Baltimore Magazine: “Wry, funny (with some zingers that will stay with you long after the film is over), and closely observed, The Holdovers is my kind of Christmas film.”

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…gets us there with honesty rather than sweetness.”

Nov 22

Fat Phobia and Activism: Seven Memoirs by Women

Below are seven memoirs by women who address issues of fat phobia and fat acceptance and the various feelings and attitudes they engender. “Fat,” by the way, in the parlance of most fat activists, is meant to be a relatively neutral word. It replaces such words as “overweight,” which carries more judgment.

I. Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017)

Gay self-describes as “super morbidly obese.” In Hunger she makes connections between being gang raped at 12 and her ensuing desire to build a body that would avert further assault.

But, as with most childhood defense mechanisms having origins in trauma, it no longer serves her so well. Not exactly at peace, Gay states, “I’ve told my parents many times that I’m as over being raped as I’ll ever be. It’s 30 years later. It’s not fine, but I’ve dealt with it. I’ve gone to therapy, I have worked through those issues. But I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome the ways in which I was treated for daring to be fat” (Sarah Rose Etter, Vice).

Actress Melissa McCarthy is just one of the featured subjects in this essay collection. Megan Garber, The Atlantic: “…McCarthy embodies the conflicting messages American culture sends to fat people—and fat women, in particular: You’re contributing to a nationwide health epidemic, but also love yourself! Because you’re beautiful just as you are.”

III. Gabourey Sidibe, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (2017)

Sidibe is another actress who’s been targeted with fat phobia. One notable quote: “It seems as though if I cured cancer and won a Nobel Prize someone would say, “Sure, cancer sucks and I’m glad there’s a cure, but her body is just disgusting. She needs to spend less time in the science lab and more time in the gym!”

IV. Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (2016)

West, whose memoir was adapted into the series Shrill, states: “To be shrill is to reach above your station; to abandon your duty to soothe and please; in short, to be heard.”

“For me, the process of embodying confidence was less about convincing myself of my own worth and more about rejecting and unlearning what society had hammered into me.”

V. Jes Baker, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living (2015)

“We don’t need to stop using the word ‘fat,’ states the author in The Huffington Post, “we need to stop the hatred that our world connects with the word ‘fat.’ So I use it, because I have decided that it’s my word now. And the more I use it positively, the more stigma I smash.”

VI. Mika Brzezinski, Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction–and My Own (2013)

Brzezinski made a deal with her best friend Diane Smith. The latter, perceived as “fat” and unhealthy by Brzezinski, would strive to lose a desired goal of 75 pounds; the former, who has struggled with eating disorders and has been perceived as “skinny” and unhealthy by Smith, would try to gain 10. And they would write this book about their experiences.

While Smith is against shaming people by calling them “fat,” Brzezinski is an advocate for naming it more often. Controversial!

VII. Lesley Kinzel, Two Whole Cakes: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body (2012)

One of the myths that fat activists face is that they disapprove of people trying to lose weight. On the contrary, Kinzel, for example, just wants people’s decisions, whatever they are, “to come from a place of self-love, and not self-loathing.”

Nov 08

Books About Dying: Five Selections

Five important books about the topics of dying, living well before dying, and living well while dying.

I. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When humanitarian Mary Anne Schwalbe was living with terminal cancer, her son Will came up with an unusual idea for an activity for them, which is chronicled in this memoir.

II. Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes theSting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim

From the publisher’s blurb: “As painful as it is to lose a loved one, Exit Laughing shows us that in times of grief, humor can help us with coping and even healing.”

In this collection, various authors tell true stories about dying and loss. For example: “…Amy Ferris explains how her mother’s dementia led to a permanent ban from an airline…Bonnie Garvin even manages to find a heavy dose of dark humor in her parents’ three unsuccessful attempts at a double suicide.”

III. Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich addresses our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and various medical crazes and procedures.

San Francisco Review of Books: “That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with ‘DNR’ (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit.”

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary and are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

IV. The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler

The Art of Dying Well follows Butler’s previous Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

In a piece Butler adapted from Knocking on Heaven’s Door (The Ultimate End-of-Life Plan), the author states:

Why don’t we die the way we say we want to die? In part because we say we want good deaths but act as if we won’t die at all. In part because advanced lifesaving technologies have erased the once-bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. In part because saying ‘Just shoot me’ is not a plan. Above all, we’ve forgotten what our ancestors knew: that preparing for a ‘good death’ is not a quickie process to save for the panicked ambulance ride to the emergency room. The decisions we make and refuse to make long before we die help determine our pathway to the final reckoning.

V. The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

The author of The Unwinding of the Miracle, the most personal of these books about dying, died at the age of 42 from advanced colon cancer. (You can read the obituary her husband Josh wrote about Yip-Williams’s incredible life here.)

Kirkus Reviews“: “Along the way, the author considers a fundamental question: Is it more courageous to keep struggling (trying new meds and procedures, seeing new specialists) or to surrender to the inevitable? Eventually, she realizes, she will have to do the latter, and she enters hospice care.”

Nov 01

Intersex Detailed: “Every Body,” “Born Both,” “Orchids”

Two films and one book presented below are good places to learn more about intersex, otherwise known as the “I” in LGBTQIA+. “Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” (Intersex Society of North America).

I. Every Body (2023)

You can stream this now at Prime Video. The trailer’s below:

“‘Every Body’ is a moving, fascinating look at a too-often-ignored subset of the world’s population, filled with empathy and understanding but also a cool, analytical anger about what history has put them through. The subject is intersex people, the slightly-more-than one percent of individuals who were born with a condition that complicated the state’s ability to identify them with one of the only two options listed on hospital paperwork: female or male” (Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com).

Directed by Julia Cohen, this new documentary features three out and accomplished intersex individuals, Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel, and River Gallo.

In addition, in order to help illustrate the point that children should not be forced into a particular gender identity, there is also the tragic story of David Reimer (1965-2004). Reimer, born a male twin, received a botched circumcision at an early age and was then raised as a girl on the wrongheaded advice of psychologist/sexologist John Money (1921-2006).

II. Born Both: An Intersex Life (2017) by Hida Viloria

Viloria, an activist and Latinx lesbian, who uses pronouns s/he and he/r, states the following in he/r memoir Born Both:

I was raised as a girl but discovered at a young age that my body looked different. Having endured an often turbulent home life as a kid, there were many times when I felt scared and alone, especially given my attraction to girls. But unlike most people in the first world who are born intersex–meaning they have genitals, reproductive organs, hormones, and/or chromosomal patterns that do not fit standard definitions of male or female–I grew up in the body I was born with because my parents did not have my sex characteristics surgically altered at birth.

Regarding the practice of IGM, or intersex genital mutilation, Viloria advocates against this misguided approach still performed by some doctors and chosen by some parents (HuffPost ).

In an interview with Ariel Gore (Psychology Today) Viloria answered a question about what mental health professionals can do to help clients. Interphobia, including the view that being intersex is a medical disorder, is cited along with internalized interphobia as factors to be particularly conscious of, along with the need to understand that people born this way “can feel good about our sexuality, our bodies, and about being intersex in general, especially when given the right to decide for ourselves who we are…”

III. Orchids: My Intersex Adventure (2010) 

“I’m part male and I’m part female—and I’m a hermaphrodite.” So says Phoebe Hart, the subject of her own documentary, which she made with her sister Bonnie, also intersex.

Their condition is defined by Hart as a developmental disorder, “a biological state whereby a person’s reproductive organs, genitalia and/or chromosomes transcend the binary male-female divide.” It should be noted, however, that the term hermaphroditism is no longer a preferred one in the intersex community as “it implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility” (Intersex Society of North America).

Hart’s specific condition is one of the subtypes of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Her body is chromosomally male but unresponsive to testosterone; thus, she developed as female.

Oct 11

Friendship Breakups: Another Kind of Heartbreak

When friendships work, it’s a great thing. When they don’t, friendship breakups can occur. Consider Amy Poehler‘s viewpoint: “Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good kick them to the curb and the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.”

Of course, being on the dumped side of friendship breakups can be quite painful. Unfortunately, it happens a lot.

In her review of Irene S. Levines 2009 Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, psychologist Diana Zuckerman noted: “We don’t expect to marry our elementary school sweethearts, and it is equally rare for our best friends from childhood to be there for us forever.”

Similarly, later-formed friendships don’t always last either. As the subtitle to Jennifer Senior‘s fantastic article “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” states, The older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them.

Senior admits to undergoing a phenomenon she calls “a Great Pandemic Friendship Reckoning,” which she believes most people have experienced as well. (She’d been interested in this topic pre-COVID too.) “You lose friends to marriage, to parenthood, to politics—even when you share the same politics. (Political obsessions are a big, underdiscussed friendship-ender in my view, and they seem to only deepen with age.) You lose friends to success, to failure, to flukish strokes of good or ill luck. (Envy, dear God—it’s the mother of all unspeakables in a friendship, the lulu of all shames.)”

Not to mention, she adds, the three other huge events that can alienate friends: moving, divorce, and death.

But these were your friends! Shouldn’t you be able to survive the rough stuff and move on? “These life changes and upheavals don’t just consume your friends’ time and attention. They often reveal unseemly characterological truths about the people you love most, behaviors and traits you previously hadn’t imagined possible…”

The bottom line, of course, is that whether friendships drift apart or come crashing down, hurt and heartbreak are involved. So how can this be prevented?

The problem is that when it comes to friendship, we are ritual-deficient, nearly devoid of rites that force us together. Emily Langan, a Wheaton College professor of communication, argues that we need them. Friendship anniversaries. Regular road trips. Sunday-night phone calls, annual gatherings at the same rental house, whatever it takes. ‘We’re not in the habit of elevating the practices of friendship,’ she says. ‘But they should be similar to what we do for other relationships.’