Netflix Nearly Ruined My Life

Books serve as a window into different worlds, time periods and lives, and provide endless hours of entertainment and escape.

When I was a young child, books held a great mystery that I could not wait to unravel.

I remember the Bookmobile coming to our suburban-Pittsburgh neighborhood, and the excitement of checking out picture books. I recall the thrill of applying for my first library card (and bank account, on the same day), as soon as I could write my own name. And I have a fond memory of the first book my mom bought just for me; it was shaped like a sleeping cat.

Over the years, books have provided company during quiet afternoons, comfort in stressful times, unexpected knowledge and endless delights.

Movies provide much of the same pleasure, but in the past, they were less tenable and required advance planning.

Trips to the movies, for a family of eight, were rare. Birthday party outings to theaters were special.

We anxiously waited the once-yearly TV broadcasts of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “The Wizard of Oz.”  My mother let us stay up late when old Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields films ran. My siblings and I watched “Bozo’s Circus” during lunchtime (what kid didn’t love hearing, “Let’s go over the Bozo buckets?”), “Dudley Do-Right” cartoons on Saturday mornings and “Laugh-In” on Monday nights.

photo-2But with Netflix, it’s all too easy to watch movies and TV shows anywhere, any time. And, recently I got sucked in to the abyss.

Perhaps I should blame my 13-year-old daughter. She’s the one who showed me how easy it is to order films on an iPad. And, she introduced me to a TV series I wouldn’t have watched otherwise.

In an effort to retain any shard of respect you readers may have for me, I won’t mention the name of the program. Let’s just say it’s about people much younger than me, whose lives I really shouldn’t care about.

Here’s what happened: During a recent road trip, I watched several episodes of that show with Pea. It gave us an activity to share and something to discuss afterwards, and those of you with teenage daughters may understand that is no easy feat.

While traveling together, Pea and I watched the last five or six episodes of the show’s six-season run, and I was left with many questions.

“It’s too complicated,” she said, with the patience of a teenager. “You’re just going to have to start at the beginning.” So, she showed me how to watch the show on my iPad.

Soon, I had it streaming when I was cooking, answering emails and lying in bed (my husband travels for work every week). At the gym, I could watch an entire episode during one workout on the elliptical, instead of covering 45 pages of a novel.

I became far involved with characters that had literally nothing in common with me.

Now, I might add that during this period, the escape was welcome. Those who know me well would agree that the past year has been more than a little challenging for my family. While my husband and I are still married, gainfully employed and well-housed, we have experienced unparalleled stress and sadness related to several loved ones.

So, perhaps a few months’ “vacation” into these other lives was just what the doctor ordered.

But the price was too high, as l stopped reading. My stash of unopened New Yorker, Sunday New York Times magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and Kenyon Review publications piled up. My email queue contained more than 2,000 messages. I stopped looking for French-class assignments in Le Monde. I barely touched the assigned readings for my two book clubs, and went to meetings unprepared (definitely not my style).

I tried to skip several episodes of the program, but that left too many holes in the continuing saga. So, I rushed forward, feeling a burning pressure to complete the series before my life was totally upended. “Okay, just four more episodes, and then I can finish this month’s book club reading,” I told myself.

However, the book selection totaled about 450 pages, and there weren’t enough hours in the day – after work and family obligations – to tackle them.

Last Tuesday night, as we discussed Lent at the dinner table,  Pea announced she was giving up junk food. She asked what I had chosen, and it dawned on me that banning Netflix shows on the iPad would provide much-needed respite.

So, I stayed up late that night, finishing the show’s last two episodes. I did feel a sense of accomplishment and great relief when I turned off the iPad that night. And I was more than happy to say good-bye to those self-indulged characters.

The next day, I started reading a great book at the gym, and I have several more queued up. A new day is dawning.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 10 March 2014
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Keeping Out the Ks: Exercising the Mommy Veto

It’s hard to avoid hearing about the Ks. In supermarket checkout lines, their faces, boobs and butts festoon magazine covers, with headlines screaming about sex tapes, cheating, divorces and drugs.

photo-24This “famous for being famous” family has (or had?) a reality show on TV. Talk show hosts joke about the dad’s plastic-looking plastic surgery results, the mom’s pretty much everything, the older girls’ weddings, the days-long marriage and the “directionally” named baby.

Like many Americans, my middle-school-age daughter can’t seem to divert her eyes.

In all fairness, I know precious little about this blended family. I have never seen the reality show and don’t read the tabloids. However, I’ve heard enough to believe that the girls have nothing to offer my daughter, and couldn’t possibly serve as positive role models. So, after Pea quoted the show one too many times, I banned it.

Yes, I exercised the “Mommy Veto.”

We all know that mothers, as top executives of the household, hold this power. It comes in handy when absolute reason won’t work, when a vote has taken place and mom is in the minority or when we just inherently know that a course of action is wrong.

This is also known as the “Because I said so” or “Because I’m the mom” argument.

I have used the veto to negate our family’s democratic process on several occasions (“we all voted and decided the next vacation should be at Disneyland”) and I have employed it to ban plenty of activities, from playing violent video games to attending sleepovers to wearing sweatpants to school.

Keeping out the Ks was a bit harder. Aside from the possibility of watching at someone else’s house, Pea has access to Netflix and YouTube on TVs, computers and even an iPad.

Now, let me take a moment to state that if you have no idea what show or family I am discussing, no worries. I barely know who they are myself.

And, because I don’t want to bolster my reasoning with actual facts, which would require my watching the show, I need to trust my gut and just say no.

I think my daughter – who is still quite sweet and compliant – really has stayed away from the TV program. At least she stopped mentioning the family, primarily because I said she couldn’t even utter the last name in our home or around me.

That “around me” took on new meaning when I found myself in Los Angeles with Pea and her friend Smiley not long ago. Like many visitors to the area, they were on the lookout for stars, and mentioned several they hoped to meet.

photo-23When the “K” name came up, I took advantage of the “teaching moment.” “Honestly, girls, why would you want to see them? They are famous for all the wrong reasons. They don’t actually do anything. They haven’t contributed to society in a positive way.”

The girls tried to argue the girls’ virtues, and, after gaining no ground, took a new tack. “The younger two are okay,” Smiley avowed. “Those girls didn’t ask to be famous. They don’t want to do the show. They volunteer at an animal shelter. Their dad [that Olympian whose last name starts with a J] hates doing the show, too.”

I listened to Smiley and Pea, and replied, “Those ‘J’ girls are about your age, so they should be working on their educations, not out partying. They should do something worthwhile with their lives, and if I see them, I’ll tell them just that.”

Pea was aghast, and screamed, “Mom, you wouldn’t!”

My reply: “Oh, you’d better believe I would. I would have no problem setting those girls straight.”

At this point, while the conversation was all in fun for me, I’m not sure Pea and Smiley thought I was joking.

Which is why they both panicked a bit, the next afternoon, when they spotted a lanky teenage girl walking towards us in Studio City’s quaint shopping district.

“That’s one of the J girls,” Smiley whispered. “I know it is. She’s with her friend [whomever].”

The fact that Pea also recognized the girl, and knew of the friend, set off an internal alarm. I made a mental “We’ll discuss this later” note.

So, yes, there I was, face to face with the celebrity I had banned from my house and my daughter’s vocabulary, the same girl I had promised to “set straight.”

Both Pea and Smiley stopped dead in their tracks, and looked at me quite nervously. “You aren’t going to say anything, are you?” Smiley asked.

“Of course I will,” I challenged. “I’m going to give her the ‘what-what.’ “ Pea was praying, almost visibly, that I was bluffing.

We smiled at the gorgeous girl and her buddy, and watched as they entered the store we had just exited.

After the girls in my charge calmed down, Smiley announced, “I’m going in to ask for a photo. She’s really nice; I’m sure she’ll say yes.”

“If she agrees, I’ll take the photo,” I offered.

“Please, please don’t say anything to her,” Pea begged.

I kept up the charade a little longer. “Maybe I’ll just suggest she get a real job when she’s older.”

Of course, the very sweet-seeming 15-year-old “J girl” agreed to a photo. And, after seeing her up close, all I could utter was,  “Wow, you have amazingly beautiful eyes.”

We’ll see if Pea takes me seriously the next time I make a threat. Meanwhile, the show, the magazines, and both the K and J words remain on the banned list. Why? Because I’m the mom.

–Linda Williams Rorem, 28 Oct. 2013
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50 Shades of Embarrassment

After the plane reached its cruising altitude last week, I fired up the iPad and dove into my book club’s current selection. I had started the novel poolside the prior day, so knew the direction it was heading, but when I reached the potential “contract” between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, I started feeling a bit uncomfortable.

My unease was heightened by the fact that I was seated next to an elderly couple that was – along with their friends across the aisle, one of whom was breathing oxygen through a nasal tube – headed to the Northwest for an Alaskan cruise. The very sensibly dressed husband and wife at my side were eating sandwiches they had packed for the flight, and both were rushing to finish James Michener’s Alaska before landing in Seattle.

I’m not one for small talk on planes – I see them as mini vacations in themselves – so I generally give myself permission to keep my nose in whatever book I’m devouring. This time, as I read Ana’s thoughts on hard and soft limits with Mr. Grey, I was grateful that I hadn’t brought along a paperback with a tell-tale cover. However, just in case, every time the sweet woman next to me turned to take in the view out the window, I tilted my e-reader just a little to the right.

Those who know me well, and even those who know me just a little, will understand my discomfort and note the irony of my reading Fifty Shades of Grey. One of my college majors was literature – you know, writing papers on Chaucer, DeFoe and Hardy – and I’ve never opened anything by Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele, or with Fabio on the cover.

During my adult life, I’ve participated in several book clubs, and have always looked forward to monthly discussions of “real” literature (oh, and also the food, wine, gossip and general girlfriend time). Most of my friends and colleagues probably consider me a serious reader.

And yet, in the past few years, I’ve raced through the Twilight, Hunger Games and Stieg Larsson series, so I guess that even in my rapidly advancing age, I’m capable of change – or at least flexibility. Apparently, by relishing these popular, decidedly un-literary tomes, I’ve joined a new breed of “mommy readers.” And, like millions of others in this new demographic, I’m enjoying a book that’s widely considered “mommy porn.”

To enlighten the handful of you who have not heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s the story of a virginal, soon-to-graduate college student who strikes up a relationship with a late-20s gazillionaire, who has a taste for eroticism and contracts the sexual novice to become his “submissive” for a three-month period. The troubled, yet handsome and very adept protagonist has a penchant for BDSM – a term that’s not part of my everyday vernacular.

Apparently segments of British author E. L. James’ book started appearing with the title Master of the Universe on a Twilight-related “fan-fiction” website a while back. After concerns of copyright infringement and the book’s sexual nature, James started publishing the series on her own site, FiftyShades.com.

About a year ago, an Australian “virtual publisher” released the trilogy’s first volume, Fifty Shades of Grey, as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback. Through word of mouth and “viral marketing,” the book’s popularity snowballed, and this spring, Vantage Books reportedly paid James a seven-figure advance for the publishing rights.

In April, TIME Magazine listed James as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and as of this week, James’ trilogy holds the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller lists for “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction,” “Paperback Trade Fiction,” “E-Book Fiction” and “Combined Hardcover & Paperback Fiction.”

The series is being translated into some 30 languages, a movie is in the works and it has provided fodder for Dr. Drew on The Today Show and the 82-year-old Barbara Walters on The View. It even received the popular-culture stamp of approval via a Saturday Night Live parody.

To be clear, the book is not for the faint of heart or sexually reserved. It is very graphic and steps well beyond the bedroom boundaries most of us keep. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey has been banned – so far – by public libraries in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, but perhaps that only adds to its allure.

And while the content is titillating, to say the least, the writing is far from high brow. I’ve heard many women voice the same assessment as Huffington Post writer Julie Gerstenblatt, who recently noted, “I thought it was awfully written and yet I couldn’t put it down.”

The good news is that adult women who rarely pick up books are now reading voraciously. And, as someone who would love to write a novel someday, I’m all for the publishing industry’s survival.

Here in the Seattle area – where much of the books’ activity takes place – Shades of Grey has become Topic A among moms at the gym, the grocery store, charity league meetings and dinner parties.

The phenomenon has spread across the nation. In fact, last week an LA-area friend posted a Facebook photo indicating that a dozen or so of her book club members tackled a 50 Shades discussion with cold beverages in a hot tub. Now that’s a meeting I would have liked.

As for my own book club, our tastes have recently ranged from The Help to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We advocate a low-pressure approach – understanding that most of us juggle zillions of obligations – and stress attendance and fun over book completion. And so, over the past few weeks, when I have run into my fellow book clubbers in public, conversations have taken place in hushed tones: “Are you reading it?”; “How far are you?”; and “I couldn’t put it down, and now I’m finishing the third book.”

In truth, I haven’t found much inspiration from the book. I am, and always will be, a somewhat prude Midwesterner at heart (just ask some of my former boyfriends). I don’t dream about Christian Grey, and I certainly don’t fantasize about cheating on my husband of 21 years.

And, yet, I’m still reading – mostly on the elliptical at the gym – and I’m determined to finish the book before my club’s meeting.  Maybe that’s the point: because my book club and just about every other 30-plus woman in America is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve given myself permission to do so, too. And, really, what’s the harm in that?

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 21 May 2012
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