Up the Valley: IQ or DQ?

March 20, 2013

Is it smarter to be born stupid? Today’s column in the Star…

They say it takes all kinds to make a world. Specifically, there often seem to be two types of people in any given category. And I’ve long harbored the nagging feeling that, whichever category was best, I fell into the other one. Having just turned 55, I’ve decided it’s time to finally take stock.

For starters, there are bright, energetic morning people, and then there are groggy night-crawlers like me. An inveterate night owl, I frequently find myself spending “just five more minutes” well into the wee hours. Would I change this habit? Absolutely! I envy those who rise early each dawn to milk the chickens and who put in a full day’s work before breakfast, leaving the rest of the day free to accomplish even more. Plus, they get to smell the morning air, and watch fewer infomercials.

In another category, confident people are praised, while insecure self-doubters are referred to therapy. But isn’t a realistic knowledge of our own limitations a good thing? I’ve occasionally been over-confident, and wish someone would please remind me, for example, that I cannot — and will never be able to — use super glue without gluing my fingers together.

Of course everybody thinks thin is better than fat, although let’s talk when the nuclear winter arrives. Do I covet a metabolism that facilitates the consequence-free consumption of cheese? Of course! But I’m also less wrinkled than my skinnier friends, require fewer sweaters, and suffer less food-guilt, so let’s call this a wash. Similarly, I don’t agree that athletic is automatically better than bleacher-bound. Sure, athletes are healthier and trimmer, but we spectators suffer far fewer sprains, and have a lower incidence of skiing headlong into a tree.

Next: to be beautiful or not? I imagine that exceptional physical beauty would be a burden. The unwanted attention and do-they-love-me-for-my-looks questions, followed by years of anti-aging efforts, sound exhausting. So I’m happily sticking with so-so.

Homeowner or renter? There are arguments on both sides, but no one can seriously argue the wisdom of getting someone else to underwrite the roof over your head. And when it comes to welfare, I’ve always believed it better to avoid joining the moocher-class. But watching wily rich folks dodge taxes and sidestep underwater mansion mortgages while benefiting from taxpayer subsidies is enough to drive you onto the dole.

Career-wise, American mythology elevates the capitalist job-creator over the worker. Yet I’ve noticed that it’s my long-employed friends, with their health plans and paid vacations, who have now retired with pensions, enjoying life when so many entrepreneurs struggle.

And suddenly, we, members of stressful “elite” professions like law and medicine, often find ourselves less valued than those with practical skills, like plumbers, electricians or upholsterers. Becoming well-educated, or even well-trained, can be perceived as wasteful, with a premium placed instead on the practical knowledge of techno-gadgetry found among 20-somethings with scant work, or life, experience.

Which leads to the big question: is it better to be smart or dumb? In the past, I’ve been a high-achiever with OK IQ. But mightn’t I have been happier working at the DQ, clueless but cheerful, clumsily operating the soft-serve machine weekdays for 4.5 hours (with breaks) before rushing home to watch Honey Boo Boo? Certainly it is satisfying to write a snappy sentence. Discerning the Daily Show and the nightly news is great. But if I didn’t, would I even know what I was missing? And if we’re being honest, doesn’t it sometimes feel like certain professionally helpless people fare better — or at least with less drama — than their competent counterparts?

So to recap: in my next life, I’d like to be a reasonably attractive morning person with a speedy metabolism, below-average IQ, but still smart enough to (a) find a lifelong low-stress job with pension and benefits; and/or (b) land a smarter, solvent spouse who finds my air-headedness attractive. I would live cost-free in my mate’s house until it became necessary for me to move on to the next relationship — of which there would be an infinite supply, what with my needing rescue and all.

I would breeze through life letting other people handle all my problems — repairing my flat tires, replacing my toner cartridges and reprogramming my electronic devices. I would develop one serious marketable skill requiring only moderate effort; perhaps something I could learn at trade school or in a manual of advanced sexual techniques. I would never be called upon to pick up a check, hire an employee or pay interest to a bank. I would claim the maximum public benefits and pay the minimum possible taxes. In short, I’d be the smartest stupid person you ever met.

But would I be male or female? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

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Up the Valley: The Skinny

January 24, 2013

Explain-away unwanted weight gain, Hollywood-style. Today’s column in the Star

One of the advantages I’ve always imagined attaches to being a film star is the ability to blame unwanted, unsightly weight gain on the need to “bulk up” for a movie role.

De Niro and Streep can eat all the pasta they want, plus dessert; it’s assumed that they are simply in the midst of another miraculous physical transformation, preparing for an upcoming biopic of Pavarotti or Clooney (Rosemary), respectively. “The Oprah,” herself a film star of sorts, can not only use this particular excuse, she can reuse any pesky holdover post-production pounds as fodder for her latest cookbook, inspirational-coach-turned-TV-host spinoff, or highly rated tear-soaked primetime special. Even chubby opera singers can croon about reaching their “perfect singing weight.”

Yet it seems that Hollywood actresses continue to shrink to unprecedented, unhealthy and unattractive levels.

I had finally gotten used to the modern ideal of movie beauty: impossibly young puffy-lipped females with oversized heads bobbing above sinewy muscular frames onto which two giant breasts had been stapled. Resembling Olympic marathon runners (men’s division), their bodies displayed the benefits of long lunch-less office hours spent at the gym, with a quick stopover at the plastic surgeon’s office on the commute home.

But now the muscles seem to be disappearing, consigned to extinction along with the curvy hip and the plump bottom, leaving only bones and artificial bumps. Picture Popeye’s Olive Oyl in a D-cup.

At a recent film opening, the adorable actress Emma Stone appeared so thin and lollipop-like that comments on fan sites ranged from “OMG” and “This is frightening” to “Somebody please get that girl a sandwich.”

Contrast such actresses with their male counterparts. Other than Daniel Day-Lewis, who could clearly grow a horn if cast as a unicorn, you don’t generally see male movie stars losing weight to an alarming degree. In general, an actor’s only reason to purposefully slim down is to eliminate his gut and reveal six-pack abs, thereby increasing his odds of selection as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, or at least a guest shot on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Yet no one anticipates publication of People’s Skinniest Woman Barely Alive issue, although it would be a page-turner. It simply doesn’t matter how unhealthy actresses appear; the red carpet recap focuses on the svelte wearing a pelt, never mind the pallor.

Of course, this is old news in the fashion world, despite occasional movements to feature “healthy” models who are only slightly emaciated, as opposed to all-out anorexic. That models can appear dewy and bright-eyed despite prolonged undernourishment merely proves that they are either 12 years old, heavily medicated, or are digitally produced holograms.

What would land a normal person in an eating disorder clinic lands these girls the cover of Vogue. I’ve often wondered whether there is a special French fashion cemetery for the European variety of the fast-living gamine, where they can be efficiently stacked for all eternity, like kindling, alongside the black-clad magazine editors and chain-smoking ballerinas.

But back in Hollywood, it’s not surprising to see male actors shrink or expand, since sudden temporary weight gain is one ticket to an Oscar nod, as is playing a character who is physically or mentally challenged (see De Niro and Day-Lewis, above). The equivalent female formula requires a spectacularly glamorous actress to render herself almost unrecognizably unattractive (try serial killer or crime victim), to be imprisoned by Nazis, or to be Meryl (see Streep, above).

But what does this all mean to you and me, we unfortunate many who cannot attribute unwelcome weight gain to our film commitments? Let’s just come up with a few excuses of our own, and agree — as a community — to accept them, no questions asked.

For example, people in the wine industry might try: “My increased body mass helps me more efficiently metabolize alcohol.” Or those involved in tourism could claim a need to “be more relatable to visitors from Kansas City.” The culinarily employed already rely on the reasoning: “Well, I have to taste everything to recommend it, don’t I?” And you are welcome to use my excuse: “I am suddenly sedentary from spending so much time working on my novel.”

Actor Jonah Hill reportedly lost a great deal of weight a couple of years ago, hoping to “age up” so that industry bigwigs would stop associating him with frivolous juvenile roles. This weight loss succeeded in broadening his range of potential parts, raised his salary demands and triggered the inevitable Oscar nomination. But recently, according to photos posted on online gossip sites, he has regained much of the weight he had previously lost. Word is, Hill is bulking up for an upcoming movie role.