This is the life of illusion
Wrapped up in trouble laced with confusion
What we doing here? – Frankie Valli, “Grease is the Word”
Me, a neurotic perfectionist, being honest
A few years ago I started writing an article about the so-called Death of the Author. As of today, I still haven’t finished it. I have a tendency to overresearch my writing topics, and then not finish the articles I was planning to write about them at all. Yup, it’s a cliché, but I’m a neurotic perfectionist. And I always have been, as will also be explained later on in this blog.
But through a shared friend, I recently met up with a genuine blogging coach, and I was lucky to win free access to her online blogging course after taking one of her introductory classes. And I have to say that, since I met her, things are going great. It feels like the words are suddenly coming from straight of out of my toes (to throw in a genuine ‘Dutchism’ here). Her first piece of advice was to just start writing about who you are and why you do what you do, and take it from there. It doesn’t has to be perfect; it just has to be you. That’s what it’s all about.
So, this is me, being honest.
(Even though, if I have to be honest, I’ve always been honest. So, in that regard, this is me being even more honest, telling you what I do and why I’m doing it, and, just for this once probably, me trying to be brief while doing so.)
Anyway… Death of the Author
I guess that most of you who read this blog, which can be found on a website dedicated to ‘overpraised literature and art’, have a basic understanding of what this literary concept entails. If not: just click on this Tvtropes.org link. (I will discuss that matter further in that other blog that I still might finish someday.)
For now, it will suffice to simply explain it like this: as soon as a writer (or any other artist for that matter) sends their work out into the world, their own interpretation of said work will be no more or less valid then that of any other reader (or watcher, or listener, etc.). In other words: the author is ‘dead’.
And the author who died a rather gruesome ‘death’ for this week’s blog is Barry Gibb, who you might know from that shrilly sounding band named the Bee Gees. Why gruesome? Let me explain…
The raunchy, raw, aggressive, and vulgar show that was sanitised and tamed down
Let’s first go back to 1971, when two fellows named Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey were nostalgic for the 1950s and wrote a simple little musical named Grease. I guess practically everybody who reads this has at least heard of it.
Set in 1959, Grease follows a bunch of working-class teenagers at a fictional school named Rydell High. And some of these teenagers belong to a youth sub-culture from that era that was known as “greasers”, due to their greased-back hairstyle. Hence the musical’s name. If I have to believe Wikipedia (and several documentaries on the topic that I have seen somewhere in the past), Grease, the musical, originally was a “raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar show”. But, the US being the US, later productions of it were “sanitized” and “tamed […] down”.
I have never seen a staged version of Grease. Even though there have been several versions of it being performed here in the Netherlands. The most famous of these being the one with he-once-became-second-in-the-very-first-season-of-Idols-ever teenage heartthrob Jim Bakkum as Danny, who once sustained a concussion when he and co-player Bettina Holwerda were accidentally rolled off the stage in their stage car during the ‘Danny and Sandy at the movies’-scene.1
What I have seen (and listened to) more times than I can count, however, is Grease, the 1978 movie version, starring John Travolta as Danny and Olivia Newton John as Sandy. A very, very tamed down version of the initial stage musical, in which knives were swapped for combs, and in which the part in which Danny was wrapped in cellophane during the “Greased Lightnin’” song —a throwback to the time when teenage boys often used cellophane instead of condoms — was replaced by half a second of John Travolta rubbing plastic wrapping against his pelvis.
John Travolta’s dimple and 1990’s nostalgia
And this brings me to the 1990s (a.k.a. me between 6 and 16), when Grease, the movie, had some kind of a nostalgic revival. I vividly remember my mum and my Irish aunts occasionally pulling the record of the movie’s soundtrack from one attic or the other to swoon over the dimple in John Travolta’s chin. And my cousins, sisters, and I would then usually have the greatest fun after that, speeding up the record while playing “Sandy” to make John Travolta sound like a chipmunk. (Especially his “ajajaj”s at the end of the song are pretty hilarious at high speed.)
But most of all, I had a friend who was obsessed with this movie and pulled out the videotape every time we had a sleepover together. She even had all the dance routines down to perfection and patiently spent hours trying to teach me them as well so we could do them together. Unfortunately for her I’m a lousy dancer, but still, we had a lot of fun. And the songs were awesome, of course. We bellowed them out on her karaoke machine. I still feel sorry for her parents.
I did, however, have that slight feeling every time I watched the movie that I was missing something. That there might be something more to it that I just didn’t get. But my friend solved most of these problems for me by giving me her own theories on the matter. According to her, for example, Rizzo and Danny had gone steady once way before Danny and Sandy became an item during the ‘Summer Lovin’’-Summer. And this was why Rizzo made that strange grinning face to Danny after he chased Sandy away by being the cool guy at that bonfire thing early in the movie. Sure, I thought, then it must just be me who doesn’t get it.
Of course as an adult I found out that it wasn’t me and that the movie is simply full of plot holes. In fact: it’s a really shitty movie. I’m not going to burden you with all the details of why it’s bad in here, it’s not relevant to today’s subject, but for those who are interested: my favourite internet critic Lindsay Ellis made a vlog about it years ago that is definitely worth the watch.
“It’s got groove, it’s got meaning”
But recently I also realised that there was something about this movie I actually still really like, and that’s the opening credits:
Written by Barry Gibb and sung by Frankie Valli, this song was made especially for the movie. After they shot it. And that really shows — being the only part of the movie that’s in this peculiar cartoon style and all. But there’s just something to this part. For once, it’s the only part of the movie that shows a tiny bit of bitter historical content in regard to the 1950s, the rest of it just being the protagonists doing their things in the ‘good old days’. But more than that, I love the lyrics, which basically capture everything that has to do with the musical’s protagonists in under 4 minutes: a misunderstood and rebellious group who define themselves by the grease in their hair. It’s simple and effective. And in my opinion it’s a too perfect opening to an otherwise very flawed movie.
…and this week I killed its author…
“I don’t care if it hurts. I wanna have control. I want a perfect body. I want a perfect soul”
In the BBC series Fry’s Planet Word, Richard Curtis once explained that the power of poetry lies in the fact that it says the things we all think and feel, but manages to do so in a beautiful manner. I fully agree with this. All my life I have had a tendency to search for pretty words written by others that expressed the way I felt inside — it’s one of the reasons why I decided to study English and specialise in literature and poetry. If you have difficulty saying what’s on your mind, you can always look up how others have said it before you — even passive-aggressively post links to them on social media, nowadays. And poems and song lyrics have dragged me through any difficulty I have ever faced.
Around the time I had well reached puberty and still had the occasional Grease themed sleepover with my friend, which were now alternated with long binge-watching sessions of previously recorded episodes of ER because she decided she wanted to become a nurse (she actually is a nurse now, so that’s pretty awesome), I discovered a little song by a band named Radiohead that managed to say everything:
Puberty hit me hard. I wore thick glasses, had frizzy, unmanageable hair, was taller than most of the other girls in my class because of an early grow spurt, and my hips suddenly grew faster than any other part of my body did, which I desperately tried to cover up by hiding myself in giant hoodies and baggy trousers. Swimming suddenly was no longer fun, neither was wearing anything short for that matter. I felt ugly and awkward, and if I had to believe the kids in school —that’s exactly what I was.
In a time when all the girls around me started to get boyfriends and go on dates, I wasn’t even asked to slow dance. Most boys scared me anyway, particularly when they were in groups, because of all the mean things they would yell when I walked past them — “Fat ass” “Miss Piggy”. One of them even snuck up to me from behind once, tied his scarf around my neck and pulled it so tight that I almost passed out. It never even occurred to me that I should have reported it to the school, I just thought I deserved it somehow. But my breaking point came when they slashed the tires of my bike right before we had to set off to gym class, which was off school grounds. “Serves you right, ugly!” they laughed when they cycled past me. I skipped gym class and cried in the bathroom.
People often ask me why, with my educational background in English language and culture, I have never thought about becoming teacher. And if I have to be honest, one of the main reasons is that teenage boys still intimidate me to this very day. Even at thirty-two, walking past a group of them still makes me feel exactly like it did when I was thirteen — unsafe.
Fashion magazines were my refuge. I could spend hours sucking up very single detail in there while comparing myself to the perfect looking girls who seemed to have it all. I was utterly convinced that the only way to be happy and successful was to look like them.
It started with a stomach flu that made me lose a couple of pounds over the span of a few days. The compliments I received were amazing. I had finally gotten contact lenses in the meantime, and I noticed that people suddenly started to treat me different — nicer. It felt like I had finally found the key to being happy, to being accepted. And thus I did everything I could to keep the weight off. First by not eating anything that might contain sugar or fat, then by counting calories; I allowed myself 1000 of them a day.
And my efforts certainly paid off. I finally felt good looking enough to wear tight fitting clothes, even crop tops, and one of the boys from my class who had called me “fat ass” a year earlier passed me a note asking me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. Things were going great.
Thing went even better when I moved out of the house and started university. Without parental control I could replace dinner with rice crackers, fat free yoghurt, tangerines, and diet coke. I even held a calculator in one of my kitchen cupboards.
The thing people usually don’t get about anorexia is that it’s not just about the weight; it’s about control. For me, having control over my weight meant having control over everything else in my life. Control over my grades that were insanely good back then. Control over my dorm room that was meticulously clean and organised. Even control over my friendships, as I was convinced nobody would like me if I wouldn’t look the way I did. But being in control came at a price: I was tired and cold all the time, my body was covered in eczema, and I started getting panic attacks every time I couldn’t live up to my own expectations — hyperventilating, uncontrollable crying fits. Under all my control and perfection, I was a bigger mess than ever.
“I get by with a little help from my friends”
As I have difficulty finding a way to continue this story, let’s again use the words of others. Words from The Beatles in this case. They got this famous for a reason.
It’s often the people you least expect it from who turn out to have the biggest impact on your life. In my case, those people turned out to be a former classmate and his housemates. I moved in with them in the spring of 2003, and this turned out to be one of the best decisions in my life I have ever made. From an all-girls dorm, I went to a mixed dorm that was predominantly inhabited by boys. The place was disgustingly gross, but they came up with a solution for that: if I would clean, they would cook for me.
And very slowly, but surely, things started to get better. I started eating again. Reluctantly at first of course, “Gaby-sized portions” as my housemates would call them, but over the course of several years the calories and the weight started to become less significant.
“You know, every ounce you gained was a gain for the dorm,” former housemate Norbert once lulled into my ear after drinking two bottles of wine all by himself at a birthday party.
As of writing, I haven’t put myself on any kind of dietary restrictions for years. That is not to say that I don’t feel like an unattractive elephant every now and then, but I try not to let it get to me; there are so many things that are much more relevant than what my body looks like, I finally get that now.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands…
The biggest regret I have when looking back on my eating disorder is not even what I did to my body; it’s all the things I let myself miss out on because of what I did to it.
I skipped out on a huge class trip to Rome for example, because it meant that my classmates would see me in shorts, and that I would have to eat pasta and ice cream in front of them. I also missed out on a lot of fun parties in my first two years of university because I was too tired and cold to go to them. Not to mention the alcohol — I was well into twenty-one when I finally got drunk for the first time ever, as alcohol used to mean calories.2
I also realise now that my eating disorder often turned me into an annoying little brat, as I certainly wasn’t afraid to express my disgust on what others around me did eat. “Do you know how much calories are in there?!” “You shouldn’t eat that!” “That’s all sugar and fat! It’s so bad for you!” “Did you know that one beer contains the same amount of calories as two cheese sandwiches?” It certainly didn’t get me many new friends. In fact: I’m surprised my old friends stuck around as much as they did.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well…
Over the past few years I noticed something: the less I started to care about my body, the more many others started to care about theirs.
But things are different now. In my time, it was all about calories. Which meant I did eat a piece of pie every once in a while, I just skipped breakfast and lunch before and after that. The same goes for junk food — just add up the calories and skip something else later. (Even over ten years later, I still know most of the McDonalds’ calorie chart by heart.) Heroin chic was all the rage back then. Now, however, it’s all about ‘health’.
Superfoods… Vegan… Organic… Gluten free… Sugar free… Dairy free… Exercise… Detox… Green smoothies with spinach and avocado (yuck)…
It seems that nowadays almost everybody around me has become a self-entitled expert in nutrition. And that — I’m sorry to say this — most of these people have now turned into annoying little brats, who blatantly comment on everything I like to put into my mouth. And even worse than that are their so-called well-intended advices that are almost literally shoved down my throat on a daily basis. Apparently, I should eat more fruit for example. And why won’t I just try some oatmeal and almond milk in the morning? Or go on a detox. Why am I still not eating organic; it makes all the difference.
And it’s not just my friends; it’s the media on a whole, and social media in particular, that seems to have lost its mind. Every single time I go online, I’m bombarded with sponsored links to websites full of recipes and advices given by so-called “foodies”, or “lifestyle gurus”. Usually beaming girls in their twenties, who have no background in nutrition whatsoever but who know how to make a proper photograph and work the social media.
It was a photograph on Facebook of a glass of ‘melon-water with mint leaves’ (“My new addiction!”) that pushed me over the edge a few months ago. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I sat down and wrote an angry rant:
It got me a few likes. But even more than that it got me a lot of angry reactions, most of them through direct messaging: who was I to dictate what people could or couldn’t say or post on social media? Who was I to say that the pictures and blogs they posted about their ‘healthy’ lifestyles were, in fact, dangerous and toxic?
That evening I blocked and/or unfollowed every social media account that dealt with food in one way or the other, save for those of two of my friends who happen to be certified dieticians. Fuck that shit. I poured myself a big glass of wine, smoked a cigarette, and went on with my life.
Fuck that Green Happiness-night
That is until last Sunday evening: I was at home working on a translation when former housemate Baard suddenly approached me over the Facebook messenger app. Whether I’d seen Zondag met Lubach. It was right up my alley…
For those among you readers who don’t speak Dutch: Arjan Lubach is the Dutch equivalent of John Oliver. And Zondag met Lubach is the Dutch equivalent of Last Week Tonight. And last Sunday’s episode dealt, among others, with a not-so-little website called The Green Happiness, hosted by ‘lifestyle gurus’ Merel von Carlsburg and Tessa Moorman. Von Carlsburg and Moorman have gained a lot of followers on social media over the past couple of years, and predominantly advise their followers on ‘healthy nutrition’. A proper diet, according to them, contains lots of fruits and veggies, no sugar, no dairy and meat, and most of all: no eggs, which according to them is “the menstruation of a chicken”.
Next to making a lot of fun about how the couple often fails to use proper spelling and punctuation in their articles and books, Lubach also pointed out how nonsensical, and sometimes even downright dangerous their advices can be. How their diet, and those of many other ‘lifestyle gurus’ — like for example Rens Kroes (sister of top model Doutzen Kroes, who has her own weekly recipe column in a popular fashion magazine) — usually lacks proper nutritional value and can cause malnourishment.
Over the following days, not only was the episode a huge hit on the internet; it was the thing everybody suddenly talked about, and had their opinion on. It caused quite the stir.
It so happens that I still see my former housemates quite regularly, in fact: we usually have dinner together every Wednesday evening. It might surprise some of you by this point that I actually really enjoy cooking, but I do. I even have a Pinterest board full of recipes; some of them could even be considered ‘healthy’ or vegan. I don’t even have a problem with eating healthy, as long as it’s not exaggerated beyond means. Call it self-preservation for all I care.
With our ‘eat club’ we lately developed a trend to cook according to theme. Usually this means the food we’re cooking is from one of the two countries that are playing against one another in the football match that’s being broadcasted when we see each other. And sometimes the theme has to do with politics — on the night of the Dutch Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement referendum, for example, Baard made us a three course Ukrainian dinner and played Ukrainian Metal. It’s a lot of fun to come up with a fitting menu. And last Wednesday went accordingly, when former housemate Van Kanntelen decided on a “diet technically totally irresponsible menu”. A.k.a. ‘fuck that Green Happiness-night’.
“Grease is the word”
And this finally brings me back to Barry Gibb, and to how I ‘killed’ him: Van Kanntelen made fish&chips for dinner, following a recipe from one of Jamie Oliver’s cooking books. He used an open frying pan when deep-frying everything, and when he was done his entire kitchen was covered in a thick layer of grease. We could even skate on the floor! It was at that point that I decided to play “Grease is the Word” on my phone. I even posted a dance version of it on Facebook, accompanied by a wine-fuelled explanation of what we were doing that night.
It was meant to be all in jest. But when I got home and crawled into bed, I decided to listen to it once more. But this time I found a version on my phone’s YouTube app that had the lyrics in it, and was struck by their relevancy to what had happened that night, and to my current feelings on the entire ‘health food’ matter:
This song has been on top of my playlist for the last couple of days, in any possible version I could find. I’ve been singing it in the kitchen, I’ve been singing it in the shower, I’ve been singing it while I vacuumed the living room. It drives my boyfriend and the neighbours mad, but I’m singing it anyway. It’s been my song of the week.
So thank you, mister Gibb, for your beautiful words. I definitely couldn’t have said it better myself. Even though I know you meant something entirely different with them when you wrote them. You made my week.
And sorry for ‘killing’ you. But it just had to be done.
Pssssst… if you like this song as much as I do, then also check out this awesome version by Jessie J. which was sang at a live performance of Grease last January. Apparently this version went back to its original “raunchy” and “vulgar” roots. I hope I can watch it in full someday.
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http://www.nu.nl/achterklap/988808/jim-bakkum-gewond-bij-musical-grease.html, last checked 1 October 2016 ↩
For you American readers out there this might sound a bit strange, but let me explain: when I was young, the Dutch drinking age was sixteen. They changed it to eighteen a few years back. ↩