Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A bottle in front of me...

I have a confession to make.

For months (years?), I have been pretending to be a fan of Augusten Burroughs, the wunderkind essayist and author of Dry and Running with Scissors. He's the latest in a long line of dysfunctional gay memoirists, from Oscar Wilde to Christopher Isherwood to Truman Capote to David Sedaris. Everybody I know looooves Burroughs, so I pretended I did too.

The truth is I never read him. I've scanned some of his pieces in Details and other mags, but I never sat down and read Running, Dry or his other book, Magical Thinking. But I would lie and say I had. I'm not sure why—probably because it seemed like I should have read them and I didn’t want to be called out. I figured I get to them eventually, so it was really more of a prediction than a bald-face lie, right?

Well, last weekend I found myself in a cabin in Old Lyme, Connecticut (home of the insidious Lyme tick) with no TV and a copy of Dry in my lap. I'm a firm believer in book kismet. If I see three people reading a book—unless it's Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code—I usually take it as a sign that I should pick up a copy. So I started reading Dry Saturday night and finished it Tuesday morning. (I'm a ravenous reader). It was one of the most confounding books I've ever picked up.

A follow up to Running, which details his childhood being raised by his mother's unstable therapist and molested by a thirtysomething neighbor, Dry focuses on Burroughs' alcoholism, his career as a successful advertising executive, and his affair with a devastatingly handsome crack addict.

The problem with memoirs is that they're written by the protagonist. How you feel about the character affects how you feel about the writer and, by extension, the book itself. Burroughs the subject is a self-involved jackass who callously tosses aside anyone who really cares for him in favor of a pretty face or a Dewar's and soda. Even as his best friend is dying of AIDS, he manages to refocus the event as being all about him. His sobriety does little to temper his self-involvement.

We're expected to cry a river for a guy who is rich, good-looking and wildly successful--whose drinking problem doesnt even cost him his friends or job? Somehow the greatest inequity in the the universe is that Burroughs can't have just one drink. Guess what, Augusten? We all have horrible burdens to bear; we just dont devote 300 pages to hand-wringing about it.

I would've chucked the book after 50 pages except for one thing: Burroughs is a damn good writer. His descriptions are eloquent and he has an uncanny knack for capturing modern urban life in all its vagaries. So I was torn between throwing the book in the fireplace and speed-reading through to the end.

Reading about Burroughs' dance with the bottle reminded me of how much I can't stand alcoholics—and addicts in general. I know that sounds harsh, but I've had many experiences with people in (and out) of recovery.

I lived in a group house with a woman in N.A. who would toss out glib clichés like "let go, let God" and "There's no express elevator to sobriety—you have to use the steps." She would start conversations with "You know what your problem is…?" and yell at us for not reorganizing our lives to benefit her sobriety.

Another roommate would routinely decide to go cold turkey and throw out all his pot and paraphernalia—and mine as well. (Yeah, I know—addicted to pot?!)

I even went to a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to support a friend who was in recovery. What I found was a group of people so self-involved they couldn’t even show empathy for others going through the same struggle. It's like the disease is a strange hybrid of narcissism and self-loathing and addiction is just the physical manifestation.

And it seems like AA just substitutes one addiction for another. Personally, I'd rather have the compulsion to drink than to chain-smoke and blather on endlessly about my issues with a group of people who are just waiting their turn to "share." On this, at least, Burroughs and I agree. He stops attending AA meetings halfway through the book (though he does continue to see a therapist).

The point is, Burroughs was no more likeable sober than he was drunk. He's writing this story with some clarity and distance, but he's just as solipsistic. Suffice it to say, I'm in no hurry to pick up his other works.

Side note: I'm not sure who decided AA was the one and only solution to a drinking problem. The group doesn't keep records of its success rate, but research showed that about 5% of people in AA manage to remain sober. The success rate for people who quit drinking on their own without AA? Again, 5%. Now, if AA works for you and puts you back on track, more power to you. But don’t pretend it’s the answer to everyone's problems.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Name That Tune

It's rare that I get scooped by the New York Post, but the Big Apple's pet-liner of record (I kid! I kid!) did a story yesterday on poorly-chosen pop songs used as ad jingles that I've been sitting on for months. In fact, just last night I was talking with my friend Sam about it (which furthers my hypothesis that the media is bugging my apartment.)

The piece in the Post was about how advertisers use songs to sell their products that are not always appropriate. Examples include Iggy Pop's heroin paean "Lust for Life" (used to sell Royal Caribbean cruises), The Smiths loner anthem "How Soon Is Now" (in Nissan Maxima ads) and Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz," (used to sell the very luxury car she was making fun of!).

The ad Sam and I were were discussing actually wasn't covered in the Post piece. In Subaru's spot for the B9 Tribeca SUV, other cars disintegrate as the Tribeca drives by, with Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" playing the background.

Hello? "Dust in the Wind" is one of the most depressing songs ever recorded! (Hear a sample here.) It's all about entropy and the futility of life*. Hardly the kind of ditty to encourage one to shell our major bucks for a utility vehicle. What's more, they played the chorus out of context, so when Steve Walsh sings "All they are is dust in the wind," you're made to think he's talking about Subaru's competitors, not his own dreams and aspirations. Of course, they cut the song before he gets to the line "All WE are is dust in the wind." That'd be too much of a bummer.

It particularly galls me when songs are carved up or rewritten to avoid any unpleasant sentiments. When Moby's "We Are All Made Of Stars" was used to sell Intel processors, the reworked the original chorus:
people they come together
people they fall apart
Nothing can stop us now
cuz we are all made of stars
and removed the "fall apart" reference, going right from the upbeat "people they come together" to the optimistic "nothing can stop us now." I know Moby has been selling his tunes to ad companies for years, but I didnt think he'd let them change the music.

I'm not quite sure what goes through the minds of the admen who create these commercials. Either they think nostalgia will overtake any higher brain functions (a definite likelihood) or that the disconnect will make the product stick in people's mind. It certainly worked on me and the writer at the Post.

*growing up, I remember hearing that "Dust in the Wind" was actually about Angel Dust, or some other drug. But wasn't every song in the Seventies about drugs in one way or another? Except for Eric Clapton's "Cocaine," of course--that was about the war in Vietnam.

Monday, August 01, 2005

I Can Just Hear You Getting Fatter

Y'know, I love cheesecake as much as the next guy, but spending all that extra time lifting the fork and chewing is a real drag. That's why I'm totally stoked that Burger King has introduced their new Strawberry Cheesecake Shake! Now I can get all the gooey goodness of my favorite dessert--without the mastication!

What's more, I can pair my cheesecake shake with BK's other new taste sensation, Chicken Fries! Now I can spend less time debating what to grab with my greasy, fat fingers and more time stuffing my gullet! It's win-win, baby!

Now if only would listen to my advice and come out with bacon ice cream.

What? Oh, nevermind.