Midsummer, 2013. I’m playing “The Last of Us”

I wrote this article about what it’s like to play “The Last of Us” the other day. It got me reminiscing.

In the article, I make a passing reference to Russia in the 1990s, and how my friend said the same thing that I had been thinking for a while: some aspects of this most cerebral and literary post-Apocalyptic fungal zombie extravaganza are exactly like living through that period (the 1990s happened to me in Kiev, Ukraine – but it wasn’t all that different).

And by “aspects” I mean “emotional aspects.” It was like going through a horrible, irreversible betrayal by a loved one, and beginning to grow suspicious of the world and what it contained – the streets, the sky, the sounds.

You stared down an alley and wondered what was going to come out of that alley. You listened for shrieks in the night. You made sure the flashlight always had batteries.

For survivors of the post-Soviet Apocalypse, “The Last of Us” is a chance to safely go back – to die and re-spawn as needed.

Of course, I don’t want to be too dramatic about it. Fungal zombies weren’t exactly chasing us through the street. No one was making shivs in the dark, to stab monsters in the neck with (no one I knew personally, anyway – your mileage may vary).

But there was that sense of the landscape gone hostile. That notion of the darkened windows across the street watching you. Sizing you up. Etc.

When people ask me to explain what’s happening in Russia right now, I usually tell them that, “Most people don’t think a society is possible unless there is a strong leader to follow. And this has lead to the development of a quasi-society. An undead society, if you will. Neither here nor there.”

And people will say, “And by strong leader, you mean Putin.”

But I mean just about anyone, really. I mean people on both sides of the ideological divide. Some city mayor who may be corrupt (“they’re all corrupt,” Russians sigh with resignation. “So it’s impossible to care.”) – but will give land and funding for a children’s hospice, when the same impulse to help out should be coming from everyone. The Duma deputy who voted in favor of a horrific law (“Because that’s party discipline!”) but is actually a very intelligent and sensitive guy we all like to joke with on Twitter. The demagogue from daytime TV who has fought tooth and nail to get victims of dodgy investment projects back in his hometown to finally receive compensation. The actress with the eyes of a poet who agitates for the regime and saves the lives of severely ill children – every day. An anti-corruption blogger whose own corruption trial proved him right. A former it-girl who blogs about hating children and fat people – and who, like Cassandra, predicts every twist and turn of Russia’s modern political narrative.

All of such people are like islands, or the staring eyes of hurricanes. They’re both the illness and the cure. They’re the reason why Russia has only a quasi-society – and said quasi-society’s best hope, just because they can make things happen. Because they believe that they can make things happen – things both good and bad.

They’re heroes – and a heroic age is always a bitch to live in.

Still, Moscow in particular has already changed quite a bit. We have “wine and zombies” parties with my friends, because we know that it has changed. We feel it in the air. Great pillars of light burst from the skies in July and stand firm on the ground. Lovers sit in the shade of towering chestnut trees. A drunken hipster is much more likely to stumble out of that dark alley. A burly security guard will help you race across the supermarket to ring up your alcohol before the magic our of 11 p.m., wherein Bentleys turn into pumpkins and getting drunk is suddenly only legal in bars. A city-wide decree resulted in new playgrounds and exercise equipment for the elderly, who are confounded by the fact that they are expected to stay in shape. The Moscow metro has not degenerated into the London Underground. The nights are full of music – some of it actually good.

I wonder if the lavish spending on Sochi 2014 will ruin all of that – this impression of the possibility of society. I wonder if the 2018 World Cup will do it instead. I wonder if nothing much will happen, and we will simply grandly waste our youth on making up extravagant stories and telling them in print and digital.

Well, we will do that either way.

look at the fun we're having

Also, something tells me I may have written my last play in a while. I don’t know if I want to write for theater crowds anymore. I want to write for mouthy boys and mouthy girls like me. I want to write for the people in their parents’ basements. The dispossessed, the perfectly cool. The gamers, in other words. And possibly the TV audiences.

There is no map I’m following as a writer. I’m following a bunch of vague notions. It’s frickin terrifying – but when it comes down to it, my theory is that people do most things for the thrill. We rarely smile when we play video games, for example. Doesn’t mean we do not love them.

“On All Fours.” (Hokay. So. Did the new “Girls” episode feature a rape scene?)

For a recap of what happened, and more, please see Amanda Hess on the subject.

This episode made a lot of people very uncomfortable, with good reason. I thought this was excellent television, because I fully believe that TV *should* make us uncomfortable. Obviously, I cringed as well.

What I took from it is a nice reminder that consent doesn’t necessarily equal great sex. The elephant in the room here is that sometimes, sex sucks. Some people are bad lovers. Others have the capacity to be good lovers, but, at one point or another, reveal themselves to be capable of seriously messed-up behavior.

Bad sex can be violating. It may not necessarily cross over into sexual assault in the legal sense, but it can be more than just unpleasant, it can be profoundly hurtful. It can leave emotional scars, physical scars, you name it.

I didn’t see a rape scene in the latest “Girls” episode, but I did see a woman clearly unhappy with how her new boyfriend was treating her. And I saw said boyfriend using her body to prove something to himself. It was very ugly, and it was very real. This stuff happens, even if people hardly ever talk about it. Who wants to admit they were treated like dirt by someone they had trusted?

The fact that Adam is an alcoholic who has just had a relapse is a crucial factor. He seems disgusted with himself, and it’s as if he is trying to make his girlfriend feel similar disgust. The scene starts with her making a few light-hearted, but somewhat critical comments about his apartment. He clearly seems insecure about having her over at his place. Insecure enough to punish her for it, in fact.

Dude, you have no idea.

Dude, you have no idea.

For me, the key to this scene comes immediately after Adam is done. His girlfriend, Natalia (a “cool girl name,” obviously) tells him that she “really didn’t like that.” What does he do? He gets sad and angry. He’s concerned about whether or not she will leave him now. It’s all about him, you see. If he gave a crap about her in that moment, he would comfort her, or at least apologize. But he isn’t thinking about her. He was trying to work on his insecurities through her, and that has failed, and all that worries him is possible rejection.

That’s the other thing about bad sex – it happens, and you can’t take it back, but there are different ways of confronting it. If your lover complains to you afterwards – something that Natalia did immediately – you listen and discuss, understanding that they just did you a favor. If your lover is in distress, you comfort them, or give them space, should they need space. You absolutely do not get to make it all about you, jackass.

Emily Heist Moss wrote that “On All Fours” was a reminder that most men are way more physically powerful than most women out there – and terrifying things happen when that power is not used for good.

For me, that has always been just another dull fact of life to contend with, but lately, I’ve been thinking about how little is actually said on the subject. We tend to gloss over the amount of trust a woman puts into them every time she allows herself to be vulnerable with a man. And in many ways, we set women up to lose. Too vigilant? She’s obviously a “psycho” then. Get hurt? Well, clearly, the bitch had it coming – stupid enough as she was to trust the wrong person.

I hate to go all “Spiderman” on you guys, but great power? Great responsibility? Hello?

I’ve lived like they live in ‘On the road’

I’ve lived like they live in “On the road.”

It’s fun, but the pain begins to add up after a while.

You can’t take solace in people envying your freedom forever.

Your teeth fall out because you clench them too many times. When you wreck your boots and go in to have them fixed, the cobbler gives you looks. At night you press your forehead against the glass and try to discern shapes in the dark – and when you do discern them, you wish you had something here on the inside with you to distract you instead.

Madness is like light from a forest fire – it’s a different story when you’re watching it advance, hear the crackle and the frightened birds. People who think of going to the movies on a Friday night as entertainment will tend to forget that. Other people’s stories are looped and fenced – with a beginning, middle, and end – and the fences leave you out. Spies deal with paperwork, the mad get puffy-faced from pills, guest-workers sweep up broken glass in the wake of the young and attractive rebels. You can afford not to know these things when you’re young, or rich – or both.

People get hurt. On the outskirts of cities, where there are stars to see in the reaches, you think you can afford to be philosophical about that sort of thing – but the reality of it always catches up with you. It’s as unsentimental as winter skin, lack of sleep, and the sign for the morgue across the road.

You keep saying that the game has gone too far, but your words are thrown back at you with full force – twisted, comical, pathetic. “This is how you cry – ah ah ah, poor me, poor little me, these are the words coming out of your lying face, liar, because it’s your nature to lie and twist around, like a squealing pig, like your mother and her mother before you.” And you know that it’s true – you do have a lying face, it has lied to you from every mirrored surface for all of these years, and now the skull underneath shows through, smiling and watchful.

You’ve stood on the trains, with your head sticking out of the window, the midnight branches reaching so close as you laughed and dodged them, and you thought that you could do it forever. Now when the scream of terror and confusion comes at night, you shush it with words about bad dreams – but you’re not nearly as good at it as you were when you were lying to yourself. “I’m so sorry – I didn’t know. If only I had known.” Yes, that’ll make it all better. If you say it long enough, the magic door in the mountain will surely crack open.

But you’re in the footnotes of history already, you’re told, and that’s supposed to make it all worthwhile.

on the road gif

I’ve lived like they live in “On the road.”

And “Eastern Promises.”

And “Revolutionary Road.”

It’s not a life.

Lisa Taddeo, cheating, power and sexy ladies!*

* – I mostly just threw in that last bit for the hysterical Google search terms that will show up in my stats. Maybe.

I have no idea who Lisa Taddeo is, first of all. The fact that I’m even blogging about her just shows you how derivative the Internet is. A friend sends a link of this Jezebel piece that’s skewering Taddeo’s Esquire piece – and I am right in that place where my stamina is too low for work and too high for just gazing out the window and muttering curses about the un-spring-like weather, so I read both. And while there’s plenty to make fun of in Taddeo’s piece (she writes sentences like “…her blond tresses cascading murderously across the tile like southern blood” – which is… No. Seriously, no. Though it might have worked without that last part about the blood, i.e., it might have worked if the editor were paying attention), there’s some to think about as well, because buried amongst Taddeo’s lulzy metaphors is kind of an important point:

Why is marriage still so important – particularly in urban, cosmopolitan America? Because a whole lot of people have fun destroying it as a concept. In fact, they have so much fun destroying it, that once it’s destroyed, they reanimate its corpse so they can quickly go to town on it again. And people who solve their own insecurity issues by challenging monogamous norms are doing it in such a way as to prop the entire institution up.

I don’t know if Taddeo is self-aware enough in her piece to understand that this is what she is effectively doing. She talks about sleeping with other people’s husbands and fiances because it places her “crudely, smilingly, on the side of the winners” – i.e., makes her feel powerful. She takes particular glee in zeroing in on the weaknesses of other people’s relationships – “every time I meet a married woman, I think about the things she does that likely annoy her husband” – because it places her in an advantageous position. It’s like engaging in long range combat from a comfortable hideout vs. going in for messy melee attacks, if I can be permitted my own lulzy metaphor for a second. It’s very, very easy to ridicule other people’s relationships, because it’s not as if you’re in them, taking damage.

Finally, Taddeo sets herself up as the hot chick who triumphs over the pathetic wives of the men she bangs – because she’s hotter and more profound and reads David Foster Wallace out loud by gleaming pools of water – which is important, because you have to examine how she gets her validation in this instance. A woman a guy risks his marriage for has to be hot by default – but only if marriage itself remains important, both as a general concept and to the guy in question. If you couldn’t give a crap about your wife finding out that you’re boning some other woman on the side – then you might as well just bone anyone! And Lisa Taddeo isn’t just anyone, dammit.

The entire premise of Taddeo’s article, the Truth about Why We Cheat, the sort of thing that Ordinary People probably Cannot Handle, has to do with a kind of languorous tug-o-war about different values we place on different things. Remove the conflict from it, and it ceases to be that interesting.

Having been the Other Woman who once upon a time wrote tedious essays about the drama and the hotness of it (I may still inflict some of them on the world if I ever write a memoir. But will make sure to get a better editor. My evil knows some bounds), I do wish that Taddeo has taken the time to self-examine a bit more, instead of merely going for a catchy turn of phrase. She talks about the death of her parents having possibly affected her, but doesn’t seem interested in the  how and why. Mostly she just revels in secret knowledge (i.e., I know I’m sleeping with your husband, bitch, and you don’t! Mwahaha!) and the fact that she is, at the very least, not the woman who’s in the kitchen alone, waiting for her husband to come back from God-knows-where, and imagining all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. It’s like being an assassin or a sorceress or something awesome like that.

If you’re afraid of losing the people you love – or loving anyone to begin with – you’re probably not going to want a relationship which is as simple and as scary as involving two people making some kind of commitment to one another, particularly if said commitment is public. If you’re afraid of growing older, grayer, saggier and increasingly sexually irrelevant – then you might, as Taddeo does, argue for “Wild Moments” in which you are the glamorous temptress, rather than a dowdy, trusting, familiar companion. If you already know, in your heart, that happiness ends – then it might as well end for everyone. You want to be the wrecking ball tearing through the house whose foundation is already rotted through. Wrecking balls don’t have feelings.

And in a nation where the media now presents images of people so flawless that they might as well be cyborgs, where mortality is rejected and acting your age, past a certain point, is seen as giving up – being a mistress or even the accidental “crumpet on the side” is probably a helluva lot more comforting than being in the thick of things. And because marriage is sacred, everyone, people all over the world, knows that you can’t just say, “I’m bored” or “I need a break” or “Something is seriously wrong here.” Well, not most of the time, anyway. Most people’s choices come down to suffering in silence or cheating on the sly.

Because I’ve been in Taddeo’s position, I can honestly say that nobody knowingly gets into such an arrangement, where you’re someone else’s secret, unless you have something to prove. I think a lot of pathologically nice people who seek approval actually crave this position from time to time – you can be the bad guy, without a whole lot of effort on your part. Knowing this, I’m actually pretty sympathetic to where Taddeo is coming from – or would be, if Taddeo took herself just a little less seriously in this piece. Once again, I get that her parents died – and I don’t know how much digging within herself a person in her position can handle. Maybe going before a national audience and laying out this stuff under the guise of “I’m going to tell you sheltered people the truth about infidelity” wasn’t such a good idea. Or maybe Taddeo just really couldn’t give a crap, dunno.

If you’re the neurotic writer sort – cheating is like living inside a novel! A bad one, maybe, but still. If you’re an Other Woman, for example, you might even run into the Man and his Official Woman in public – and then gleefully flirt with other men right then and there, only to raise your eyebrows imperiously when he confronts you about it later. “Darling,” you’ll say, imagining yourself to be Joan Crawford. “Don’t be so tediously hypocritical.” The plot will practically write itself! As someone who has lived through all that – and then ended up marrying one fine day, and having a baby on yet another fine day, I can safely say that yes, it’s the latter position that makes you more vulnerable. You have a lot more to lose. And you don’t have nearly as much time to write – let alone to condition your hair and stuff (Taddeo is all about the hair) – with a baby around.

But you make your choices in life – and you roll with them, for better or for worse. You take responsibility. You don’t blame everything on a Tom Waits song on the jukebox (for real?). Though there is comfort in knowing that someone with a reasonably crazy past has an easier time staying in and playing “Skyrim” with a baby sleeping and dreaming at their breast – or so I’ve discovered about myself, anyway. I’ve discovered I’m capable of more love than I thought I could handle – which. is. awesome.

And if you are going to go to that level of the game,  incidentally, you ought not cancel the crazy completely. I almost feel like that’s the real mistake so many couples make, and what Taddeo may essentially be writing about. I just wish she wasn’t so damn smug about it. If you’re writing about manhattans that “taste like the future,” you can’t afford to be smug.

Arnold

So I was in a bad mood – because I’m on too many drugs, because I’m paranoid about being able to choose the right hospital to give birth in, because a film synopsis is not coming along, take your pick – and then I was reminded of how much I love Arnold Schwarzenegger:

There’s been too little Schwarzenegger in my life as of late. Maybe it’s because I married a dude who’s obsessed with Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier (oh, and speaking of that – um, yeah, Cannes…). Or because getting older means, to a certain extent, letting go of past joys. Or maybe it’s the pregnancy hormones. I suppose everyone has an excuse for having too little Schwarzenegger in their lives, and mine are all good ones, but still. In times of crisis, a lack of Arnold only makes your problems worse. Don’t let it happen to you.