Friday, February 20, 2015

Bad Romance

(Chris, season one, who would have been butt-hurt if Shandy had not picked him)

This past summer, during a month-long sinus infection, I had my husband take the baby out for a few hours while I lounged miserably on the couch, drinking cup after cup of herbal cold tea and watching television. In my search for something mind-numbing and colorful, I landed on Are You The One?, a MTV reality show in which ten men and ten women, each with a “perfect match” in the group, according to some mysterious MTV matchmaking metric, are left to live in a house in an exotic location and given the challenge to find each match by the end of the season. Each episode ends in a matching ceremony in which the couples make their best guesses as to who their “perfect match” is. Verified matches get to go to a honeymoon suite while the rest of the house works toward figuring out exactly who their perfect match is. As would be expected, drama ensues, usually when a couple with chemistry forms an early attachment, learns they are not a match, and continue to see each other. Are Your the One is hosted by Ryan Devlin, who treats the entire enterprise with palpable condescension. There's something a little dead in his eyes that reminds me of Bob Saget during his tenure as host of America's Funniest Home Videos. For some reason, this combination of challenge show, young people making alcohol-inspired pronouncements of devotion, and a host who seems to be dying inside was like catnip. I watched every episode of the first season in one day. I recently binge-watched season two and I am yet again sucked into the pursuit of true love between drunk people with tribal tattoos. 

(Layton, season 2, at a matching ceremony, wearing a classy blazer without a shirt)

As a 33 year old married mother of an infant, I am not exactly the target demographic for this show. Each episode includes ample footage of these twentysomethings (all in fantastic shape, there must have been some sort of contractual obligation to work out enough to feel confident wearing a bathing suit 75% of the time) drinking neon-colored cocktails from plastic cups (and sometimes straight from the pitcher), drunkenly professing love or at least a desire to go to the “boom boom room,” a room designated specifically for sex which also, disturbingly, has a nigh vision camera. I have never watched a show like this before with any kind of interest. My only other reality show vice is America's Next Top Model, which is at least a reality show about some sort of skill. Are You The One hits a certain kind of sweet spot: it is a game, so it involves some strategy, but it also purports to be genuinely about emotion and chemistry, even if the dialog seems like overheard conversations at a daily frat house party. Sentences such as “I'll be really butthurt if Shandy doesn't pick me tonight” are uttered with wide-eyed seriousness. Some people on the show seem alarmingly checked out, staring off in the middle distance, trailing off in mid-sentence, as though perhaps there is more than just alcohol available in their Puerto Rican mansion. 

(Ellie, season 2, is great.)

Like any MTV show, Are You The One? Is almost intentionally problematic on several fronts. In one game, women in the house were encouraged to match up a male name with a number of sex partners. The lowest number was 9. The highest 100. There were high fives all around for men whose numbers went well into the double digits. It's hard to imagine a similar response to the female contestants. When one woman has sex with two men in the house, for example, she is berated by other female members of the house for not being “real” with the men. Another woman beats herself up for “making the same mistakes” she has made before when she sleeps with somebody in the house on the first night. As much as the show seems to show us college hook-up culture among millennials, the guilt is still heavily gendered and casual sex is frowned upon by the members of the household. Also, it's interesting to note how often black women are left unmatched by the end of the series. Usually, they are singled out for being too "mouthy," which makes one wonder why some equally opinionated white women were still considered desirable

Despite the uglier aspects of the show, there is an underlying sweetness. It seems astounding that any real emotion could come out of this setup, but it does. Men with sculpted brows and perfectly smooth torsos cry in hot tubs about love. Couples who form early attachments struggle with finding that they are not a “perfect match.” Inevitably, at least one couple preserves their early attachment, refusing to “mingle.”  Other people accuse them of not "playing the game," though most of those protests are by people who want to form relationships with one of the coupled. So much naked desperation, so much begging for attention: it's hard to watch sometimes. 

I've been wondering why I enjoy this show. Even in my 20's, I would have found the premise of this show nightmarish (I can hardly get myself to go to a party with people I like: the idea of being stuck in a house with people I don't know is my personal idea of hell), so it's not wishing for my own youth.  I'd genuinely like these kids to find love. But I also wonder about the entire premise of these matchmaking exercises to begin with: can you figure out compatibility with a test at all? And can you know who you are at twenty-one enough to even know what you want from a relationship? 

I long for a reality show about introspective adults trying to find love, but perhaps it would be boring. Maybe that's too much like regular life. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Day Walk

I've given myself the assignment to take daily photographs in my little suburban gated community, a place where I've often felt drained of inspiration. I grew up in the woods, in places full of green and grass and dapples of sun and the sounds of crickets and crunching leaves and breaking branches. Now, I hear the sounds of people and cars and yard work. Our yard is a small triangle of grass which is watered, automatically, every night at seven in the months of April through September. People I don't know occasionally show up to trim the grass and cut wild branches. A tree sits at the corner of our lot, in front of our porch, and some hedges line the edges of our condo, planted in beds of rock. It is all very manicured. It's the kind of place where our individual spaces are so delineated that I feel vaguely nervous when I walk down some of the sidewalks with the baby, sidewalks that often dead-end right in front of doors, creating strange, frustrating loops.

Still, this is a beautiful place, as aggressively scrubbed of all wildness as it is. I live in Colorado, where the sky is enormous and usually blue. Though this isn't my preferred weather (I miss the damp of Vermont and Oklahoma and Arkansas, the overwhelming sound of crickets, lushness, storms), But I can see why people come here and feel more themselves, more alive. The skyline is dramatic, full of white-capped, jagged mountains and endless endless blue. Rabbits swarm our little gated community: clearly, this was once where they lived, and they've managed to keep living here despite the influx of self-contained gated communities, each one cut off from the next. But sometimes I just can't see it. I miss Vermont's gently sloping mountains and those cold, rocky rivers. I miss Southern Oklahoma, the Ouachitas in particular, damp and noisy and wild.

So I've challenged myself: look for something beautiful, anything, and take a picture of it every day. So now, I take my camera with me as I wheel the baby around the block.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Glamorous Weirdos

Recently, I've been re-watching The X-Files, the now-classic horror/sci-fi drama (and sometimes comedy) that aired from 1993 to the early 2000's. It was one of the few shows we watched as a family--my mother, stepfather, sister and I--as my mother was obsessed with aliens, bigfoot, ghosts, and various other paranormal things, all of which she believed in with a fervency that made her treat every episode as a piece of one long documentary about the invisible danger all around us.

I loved The X-Files, too, though I didn't like my mother's insistence on post X-Files searches for lights in the sky or bigfoot in the forest  (we lived in the woods, on ten acres of land, and at night, the sky was busy with stars, the woods full of strange sounds).  I didn't believe literally in that parade of monsters-of-the-week and big-eyed aliens, but I liked what they stood for: possibility. Look at how large and strange the world is, the show demanded. I needed the world to be larger than my isolated, unhappy family. I liked Mulder and Scully, too: they were a couple of glamorous, smart weirdos.

(My sister and I plus kittens)

When The X-Files first aired, I was twelve years old, living in our tiny trailer, sharing the one bedroom with my sister, our room separated only by a cloth curtain from the bathroom, where a travel toilet emanated a constant smell of urine. My parents slept in the living room, where their bed doubled as our couch. The house was full of cats and dirty laundry. We hauled jugs of water from a spring for drinking and bathing water, which was constantly running out. I was eager to escape this place, though I knew I was stuck until eighteen. There was no way to escape physically. I had run through my options many times. Running away was risky: where would I go? I had no social skills to speak of and no close friends and my mother kept us from other members of the family. Plus, if I was found by authorities, I'd simply be sent back home.

So I turned to books and television. I hid in them, planning to be only half-present until I turned eighteen and could escape. So I shifted my focus to the future. When I was an adult, how would my life look? I imagined I'd be like Scully: I'd have an exciting career and a low-level romance with a co-worker. My work and life would be dedicated to understanding what was shadowy. I liked the idea of being a detective because it meant I would spend my life making hazy things clear. I watched The X-Files and Prime Suspect and Homicide: Life on the Street for a sense of what adults did all day.

(Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect)

As we all sat on the small couch, pressed together tightly (I remember distinctly, one hot summer, feeling my mother's sticky arm against mine and looking down to see her dime-sized, puckered smallpox scar), we were in our own heads, dreaming of  completely different lives. My mother both wanted and feared some peek into the mysteries of the world. She had the strange, double belief that aliens might someday come to teach us all how to be better inhabitants of the earth and also that they might come and abduct and murder us. I don't know what was in my stepfather's head: he so rarely revealed his thoughts or hopes. My little sister was probably afraid: The X-Files gave her nightmares. I was thinking about my adult self, far in the future. I was dreaming of my way out.

Watching the X-Files as an adult, I notice how lonely Mulder and Scully seem, their family members and ex-lovers constantly disappearing or dying, their lives devoted to something that isolates them from other people. How badly we all wanted Mulder and Scully to kiss, to declare their love! This was partly because they seemed so damned alone. Poor Mulder, his desire to understand the complex conspiracies all around him blinding him to the one reality that could have made him happy. And poor Scully, full of contradictions and full of loyalty to a person who rarely seemed to see her as anything but a part of his own conspiracy drama.

(this is what comes up when you google "skeptical Scully")

The more I think about it, I realize that I looked to figures who were already much like me and my family: isolated, strange, driven people who seemed unable to function well in everyday life. I watched many shows about "regular" teen life--My So-Called Life, for example--but they never seemed possible. They seemed far more like science fiction than The X-Files. I watched them as one might watch a documentary about another culture: how strange, I thought, to go to parties, kiss boys, and have parents with jobs and houses with indoor plumbing. I could better imagine myself a detective investigating a killer cockroach infestation than I could a regular teenage girl hanging out with friends in my room. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. I'm still a little bit weird, a little bit prone to enthusiasms not shared by the general public, and a little bit antisocial. But I also like those things about myself. There was wisdom in my role models at the time. They taught me to accept my own eccentricities. The X-Files had an underlying argument: people living "regular lives" are not seeing the greater and stranger mysteries that obsessives like Mulder and Scully can see. It was a useful belief at the time for a person living at the margins.