Google Analytics

Monday, August 31, 2009

Julie vs. Julia: The generation gap

“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook”
Julia Childs

“Butter makes life worth living,” sounds like something Julia Child would have and should have said but that is my sentiment and how I have always felt about butter even though I cannot claim to be a Julia Child fan. That is, not until I met my wife. It was my wife who helped me discover the joys of Julia’s recipes and the fact that someone else in this world felt the same way I did about butter and for much longer than I have been alive. Needless to say that my wife is a huge Julia fan and I became one after sampling some of her wondrous fare in my wife’s most talented and capable hands (I secretly believe my wife is a better cook). Thought, I do have to admit that Julia had me at butter. So, as you would expect, we set out this past weekend to watch Nora Ephron’s new movie. We had been told that Julie & Julia is both a glowing tribute and a shallow disservice to Julia Child, depending on who we spoke with, so we decided to find out for ourselves.

Overall, I really enjoyed Julie & Julia. I think the word that best describes the film is delightful. Light, fun, funny and poignant at times and Meryl Streep’s portrayal, even if seemingly a little exaggerated and hyperbolic, was spot on and very memorable. No doubt Ms. Streep will be garnering her thirteenth Oscar nod in short time. I left the theater feeling rather happy with life and also rather hungry. However, there was one particular facet of the film that caught my attention and really got me thinking. It had to do with the stark contrast between the two generations that were portrayed by the two characters. I am not sure if this was intentional or an unintended consequence of simply presenting the two stories, in an honest way, but nonetheless it turned out to be a fascinating and eye opening comparison on all the things society seems to have lost in just about one generation. To begin with I found Julie Powell, and her character portrayed by Amy Adams (of Junebug and Doubt fame), not only shallow but whiny, annoying and I don’t know how else to say put this, but down-market. On the other hand, I felt Meryl Streep’s, Julia, was stoic, elegant and a woman of depth and great substance. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Julie who, in my mind, personified a telling commentary on our generation, complained about absolutely every aspect of her life. She just never seemed to be able to see the bright or light side of her life, in any aspect. From the beginning, with her move from Brooklyn to a new apartment in Queens, she complains about how the kitchen is too small. Then there is her crappy job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where she describes herself as a “government drone, and a soulless bureaucratic goon.” Her job entails talking with the surviving relatives of 9/11 and helping them navigate through the city’s bureaucratic maze, and answering questions about proposed re-development plans. Albeit she sits in a small crammed cubicle and probably does not get paid anything close to Wall Street wages but surely the nobility of what she does every day, the lives she touches in a meaningful way, make up for all or some of that? But I guess that is not nearly enough for Julie, as she finds nothing but fault and negativity with her profession. Then as if we have not yet been shocked enough by her seeming shallowness we are introduced to her friends. They are even more vapid and vacuous than Julie, which one would not have thought possible. But there is one other explanation for this, which my wife pointed out to me. Julie’s friends are portrayed as even more wrapped up in their own self-indulgence and self-pity so that we are able to relate to Julie by thinking her a little less inane by comparison. Thank god for small consolations.

With regards to her great challenge, the premise of her blog - taking on the whopping 536 recipes in 365 days while still keeping her day job, one cannot help but feel (and hope) that perhaps this might be a noble cause after all. She has admitted to the audience that she has never finished anything she started before and plans to make this her first completed endeavour. And she talks about how the whole process of getting to know Julia Child, in the bargain, is making her a better person, thereby benefiting not only her perspective on life, but her relationships with people that matter. This is all splendid and one begins to feel some sense of redemption for our generation that is until you realise that her primary and only motivation seems to be notoriety and cash. When readers comments start to pour in on her blog posts, and she is beginning to get noticed we see the real Julie step from behind the shadows of the words and thoughts on her blog that almost have us fooled. The other telling note is that every time she has a meltdown (which are quite frequent) and is ready to give up, her husband eggs her on, not by words of comfort or a gentle push to finish what she has started but by telling her either to cheat (as nobody will ever be the wiser) or how fame and celebrity are just around the corner.

We then get to contrast all the above to Julia Child, whose motivations seem to be completely the opposite. She discovers cooking, or more like it discovers her, while she looks for things to do to fill her time while her husband is posted in France. She finds that it is a great way to express her larger than life personality in a completely male dominated society and also, a way to fit in, in distant, foreign lands. She has to work five times as hard as any man in her generation would for everything she achieves. Julia even has to fight to take her Cordon Bleu exam, in a male dominated chef’s world, where women are frowned upon. Never at any point during her many trials and tribulations do we feel like her efforts and motivations are a way for her to be famous or make a fortune. You also never see her whine about anything. When we find out that her greatest sadness is that she will always remain childless, it’s a heartwrenching, poignant moment in the movie. And when her cookbook and life’s work is rejected, her answer is to hold her head up high, and re-write the whole thing to make it better. Even with seemingly insurmountable odds, we never see Julia cower. Nor do we witness her lay on the floor, kicking, screaming and crying, while shouting at her husband, the way Julie does every time the stuffing falls out of a chicken or one of her sauces burn. Julia’s world continues stoically just as often as Julie’s falls apart for the slightest of reasons or seemingly none at all.

It made me think how differently we approach life today, even when it comes to the simplest things. We rarely see the joie de vivre that is so present in Julia’s world, despite arguably greater odds, in Julie’s world. I don’t think that life got much harder. Certainly, the challenges we face are different, but I am talking about the manner in which we choose to face and overcome those challenges. If Julie is telling of our generation’s attitude to life, then it feels like we make life much harder on ourselves, and that our success and happiness have become equated squarely with fame and fortune. So I urge you to go and watch this movie, to be delighted and feel famished but also to consider these thoughts. If you agree with me, then you will also feel that we have lost much over the last generation and that there is a lot left to be desired.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Toys R Not Us

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”

George. E. Woodberry 

On our godson James’ fifth birthday we sent him a Transformer toy, which had been his secret birthday wish. I had to scour the city’s toy stores to find Optimus Prime, which I believed to be the gold standard in transformers, being the leader of the Autobots, which are the good robots. However, there seemed to have been a run on this toy in New York City because store after store I left empty handed. Finally, when I could take no more disappointment or thronging crowds, I bought Bumblebee, the second most famous transformer (and the only other one I knew). As I prepared to leave the store, partly dejected, and partly elated because this was the last crowded store I would have to visit, out of the farthest corner of my eye, all the way across the store I saw it. It was Optimus Prime and seemingly the last one in this store and quite possibly in the city of New York, sitting on a shelf on which he did not belong. It was fate. I walked over, grabbed it and ran to the cashier before any one of the million screaming kids noticed my precious find. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a journey filled with great frustration, not just for five year old James, but also for his father, Roger, and his godfather.

One day after we shipped the toy, we got a thank you call from an elated James. Exactly 24 hours after that I got a distress call from his mother. She told me that the boy and now his father had driven themselves to distraction trying to transform the simple little toy from the current shape to the semi truck that it is supposed to become. Of course, at first I laughed, but when she told me that she had just sent James’s dad off to have a shower to cool off, after he had been trying to transform the toy rather unsuccessfully for over an hour, I knew she was quite serious. I laughed again, but this time because I knew that I would need precisely ten minutes with Optimus to accomplish the task, even if Dad was not able to make any headway. Luckily for little James, the wait for the final transformation would not be a long one, as we were due to visit them the following week. At this point Roger, now cooled off, got on the phone to hear me laugh and taunt him by telling him how I would only need a mere few minutes to ‘not disappoint’ his son. Roger also laughed, saying I had no idea how complicated this toy was. He proceeded to bet me $100 that I would not be able to complete the simple transformation in forty-five minutes, leave alone the ten that I felt I needed. Mano-a-machine - we had a bet.

Oh how I laughed silently on the plane ride in, as I thought about my easy $100. I almost started to feel bad about taking money from James’ father, who had just resigned from his job a few months earlier and remained unemployed. Almost. Roger and James picked us up at the airport and of course the first thing we discussed was how I was about to take some money from our host. He seemed pretty confident that I was going to be paying him. All this while poor little James was rapidly losing interest in his un-transformable birthday present, which seemed to have been completely taken over by Dad and his Uncle Nik’s obsession. When we reached the house, I greeted mom and godson number two and went straight to the task at hand. I sat down at the kitchen table, Optimus Prime in hand, and decided to take a stab before lunch. I was supremely confident that I would finish much before the waffles came off the waffle iron, perhaps even before the batter had been fully spread. This was it, the moment when all those years my mother said I wasted by not reading a book and playing with various action figures instead, was going to come to fruition. This is the day I had been training for.
For the first five minutes it was just Optimus Prime and me, in that kitchen, in that house and in all of California. We stared hard into each other’s eyes and knew that there would be only ONE left standing. I twisted, I turned, I bent and I clicked and felt I was making rapid progress, much to Roger’s dismay, and James’s glee. However, Roger continued to hold fast that I would not be able to complete the task, no matter the extent of my early progress. I had solved the Rubik's cube when I was barely ten, and three years before that I had fixed a digital clock on my parents’ fridge in Hong Kong after my Dad, the handyman and three electricians had failed. I was not about to let some plastic Hasbro-been get the better of me. I swear it felt like just fifteen minutes had transpired when Roger sounded the bell, but my forty-five minutes were up and Optimus Prime was no closer to looking like a semi-truck than he was when I started. I stared in disbelief, even as Roger said, “I told you it was impossible” and our young godson looked like he now had not one, but two inept male role models in his life. Both defeated by none other than Optimus Prime, who was not even a Decepticon, the evil robots.
I do not exaggerate when I say that this thing was a beast. I tried the entire four days that we were in California, setting aside at least an hour each day to transform my new nemesis. I came really, really close. So close that only one piece would not fit, but the point is that I was unable to complete transforming a toy that said in bright, bold letters on the box for “For Age: 4 yrs +”. As for the instructions, they were about as helpful as a blind person giving directions. I want to know who Hasbro has hired to create these new toy Transformers, I have a feeling they are either nuclear physicists of rocket scientists. I am a pretty intelligent guy, as is Roger and we are both toy obsessed and mechanically minded, but neither of us could transform this little plastic toy robot, so what chance will little five year olds have I wonder? I guess all that is left to say is that the cheque is in the mail.