Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sometimes, honesty is highly appreciated. Other times, it is not. Learning to navigate this precarious line is one of my life's goals.

I first heard essayist Sloane Crosley on The Sound of Young America podcast. America's Radio Sweetheart Jesse Thorn was interviewing her about the collection of coming of age in NYC essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake.

Let me say this: She's funny. Really funny. And well-educated. Her exploits are for the most part, highly relate-able to anyone who has ever locked themselves out of their apartment, had a bad boss, searched for meaning in their name, or failed miserably in an attempt to be part of polite society. No topic is off limits, although thankfully she avoids much of the overplayed subjects of sex, baseball, and crime that others who've lived and loved in The Big Apple have previously written so well. Or at least so often.

Instead, Crosley boldly admits what all well-meaning community servants have secretly thought to themselves at one point or another: How can I put in the least amount of effort for the greatest percent of self-importance and apparent benevolence? This particular vignette recounts a stint as a volunteer in the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. We've all been there, really intending to Make a Difference! And then somewhere between unpacking boxes and giving directions to the directory...good intentions return to those who are truly pure of heart, and you find yourself calling in sick and watching a Tori Spelling marathon on Oxygen.

Reading about Crosley's internal debate over how truthfully to answer a child's question on the state of butterflies in the afterlife made me laugh, and appreciate her willingness to admit the discomfort we all feel when forced to make decisions we really wish we weren't responsible to make.

But then I got to a few essays where "names have been changed" was not enough to protect the innocent. Have you ever seen the movie "Never Been Kissed?" Watching it makes me cringe for Drew Barrymore's character so badly I get face wrinkles for days afterward. This is the same level of discomfort I felt reading as Crosley systematically picks apart a childhood friend who made the horrible mistake of including her in her bridal party. I'm not saying that I've never made fun of anyone, but I know that doing that type of thing to a person is incredibly unkind, and I like to think I'd have enough sense not to highlight my worst character flaws in a published book. But we live in a world where laughs often come at the expense of other people, and self-deprecation is a polished and ribbon-tied form of egotism. More than once Crosley laments her lack of girlfriends and place in her family's hierarchy. No one who reads this book would be shocked as to why; adventures of the Happy Healthy Well-Adjusted and Popular aren't nearly as entertaining. Well I guess I'm screwed -

Some people, like my mother for instance, choose to read romance novels set in beach towns when they want to relax. Not me. When I crave brain candy, I look for essay collections like this one. They are humorous, outrageous and at times insightful. With I Was Told There'd Be Cake in particular, there was a little bit of the predictably unpredictable, and a few times where I would have normally applauded her edginess, but couldn't because I was being beaten over the head with it.

Page 142: [Referencing the gradual forgetting of one's high school experience] "The order of life events gets fuzzy, as if it were not your own life but the life of some historical figure. Did Charles VIII get syphilis before or after he invaded Italy? Was I using tampons before or after I learned to tie a cherry stem with my tongue? I can never remember."

Oww! My head! It hurts!

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