Julie and Julia, and the Lure of the Self-Imposed Challenge
Just recently I saw the movie Julie and Julia, and the similarity of Julie’s self-challenge to my own (recently, my Summer Movie Watch and more broadly, my 30 before 30 list) prompted me to think about the impulse towards self-improvement.
I think age—Julie was in her late twenties when she embarked on her project, just as I am now—was a crucial component of both projects. There’s a certain amount of stasis associated with being a grown-up. At 14, I thought I might grow up to be a travel writer—why not? At 14, you can do anything. At 18, I effectively crossed that off the possibility list by being too chicken to major in writing, choosing instead to major in literature and spending the next four years passively reading instead of actively writing. No idea at that point what I thought I would do when I graduated—that’s part of the dodge of college, that you have four years to put off thinking about that.
Fast forwarding a bit, I’m in the waning days of my 20s and on what might be called a career track. (Early on the track, way early. But on it.) I’m in a stable relationship. Conceivably, my life will not change except by small margins over the next five to ten years. It would be easy in that case for me not to change for the next five to ten years. For a compulsive self-improver, that is not OK.
Julie and Julia, and my summer of movies, after the jump.
So, I set these personal challenges. I have a movie-to-see list. I have a to-be-read list. I have a file of ideas for academic work that I’ll theoretically do during off-times. And I have the 30 before 30 list. Setting these kinds of goals for myself can be a lot of fun; I had a great time coming up with stuff to put on 30 before 30. It’s also enjoyable to be in the midst of a personal challenge—even a silly one, like my Summer Movie Watch. It was definitely a conversation builder. “So, I watched The Birth of a Nation this morning.” It was also fun to imagine what it would feel like to have finished the challenge, to have watched almost a hundred iconic movies in one summer, to be able to mark Raging Bull, The Godfather, High Noon, Schindler’s List, et al on the big cosmic ‘Seen it’ list. (Yes, my life is almost completely categorized by lists.)
But there is a side to these kinds of challenges that you don’t know if you haven’t embarked upon one yourself. Sometimes it’s all about have new and incredible experiences—I saw incredible movies like The Lives of Others and Sullivan’s Travels—but sometimes, and probably more frequently, the challenge was a grind. I watched an average of one movie a day this summer, but it’s not like I was just lounging in front of my favorites, glassy-eyed and dozing, viewing Mean Girls for the eleven-thousandth time. Some days I didn’t feel like watching a movie, but I especially didn’t feel like watching a new movie, or one that held no real attraction for me. I pouted, I groaned, I sat dazed and full of hatred in front of Wings of Desire. I watched 12,187 minutes’ worth of film this summer, over 200 hours, and they weren’t all happy ones.
I made Jeremy experience this with me on one of the last days of the challenge, when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had expressed some interest in the movie and sat down to watch it with me; however, he found the first 15 or 20 minutes extremely slow-going and made some noise about abandoning it. I told him that I had sustained myself through so many of these movies, that he should commit to just this one, to challenge himself. Like a champ, he stuck it out for the 2 hours 28 minutes and then walked away, declaring it the worst movie he’d ever seen. And he likes the Underworld series.
So it was with some interest that I visited Julie Powell’s blog, the Julie-Julia Project, after seeing the movie. I had felt a real connection with the character (whom all the critics label whiny and self-obsessed), the frustration that drove her to begin her project and the ambivalence she felt while she worked through it—the desire to just finish it, dammit, regardless of how horrible it might get during the rough patches in the middle.
Julie’s blog entry for September 22 vividly portrays the rough patch:
Guilt has reached the saturation point. There is no time when I am not neglecting something important – my job, my husband, my family, my Project.
And again in October:
My friends, I confess to backsliding. I have committed the sins of sloth and indolence; at least, I must have, although I can’t remember a time in the past month when I haven’t been running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Because I am failing on all fronts. In the past week I have failed as a secretary, as a tenant, as a housekeeper, as a wife, as a daughter, as a cook, and, dear readers, as a blogger. I have insufficiently cleaned ovens and had my deposit taken away from me. I have disturbed my family that loves me by moving into a hellhole of an apartment. I have produced substandard briefings. I have quailed before the thought of cooking and, God forgive me, ordered Domino’s pizza instead.
With a month left to go, she writes about a feeling I also know well—getting too comfortable too soon, pretending that 80% done is done.
Lately, I feel like I have too many supportive people in my life. Everyone’s always all, “Julie, you work too hard….” “Julie, don’t worry about the cooking, you’re doing great…” “Come out and relax…” “Let me buy you dinner, you deserve it….” That’s all well and good, but what I really need, for the next month anyway, is a drill sergeant, or at least a really tough personal trainer, someone to just keep yelling in my ear, “COOK, you piece of shit! What’s wrong with you, you lazy f**king bastard – COOOOOKKKK!!!!”
But throughout the blog, she also earns moments of happiness.
It’s a good kind of dessert for that sort of thing – simple, custardy, not very refined. The pralin is sprinkled on top, sort of like sprinkles on ice cream. It’s sweet and light and –huzzah – not soup.
This French cooking thing really seems to be a full time job. But man-o-man, it’s a job I’d sure love to get paid to do. Especially on days like this. Sorry. Nights.
By one am we are in bed, French eggs churning in our bellies, due to awake in five and a half hours. I’m f**king exhausted. But happy. Those eggs are what the Julie/Julia Project is all about. I daresay they’re the one thing in my life lately that has worked out just perfectly.
I recently discovered another web-based blogger challenge called Beating Ryan Reynolds: a guy named Tim Reid who wants to harness his jealousy of actor Ryan Reynolds into a training regimen that will improve his marathon time, and hopefully allow him to beat the marathon time of...Ryan Reynolds.
There’s a dark side to this kind of obsessive goal-setting, of course. I mentioned above how little critics tended to enjoy Julie Powell, even as interpreted by the adorable Amy Adams. My own Jeremy was subjected to a number of rants he didn’t care at all about, on the subject of the necessity of heroism in Spider-Man 2, on the ham-fisted Christian messages in Ben-Hur, on the archetypal sexism massively present in MASH and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Future entry!) Probably Tim Reid’s wife is hearing a lot of grumbling right now (she is, after all, mostly responsible for his challenge).
Still, some days you have the pleasant discovery that 12 Angry Men is wonderful, or your backbreaking labor results in a delicious dish called Oeufs en Croustades a la Bearnaise. And that’s what you’ll remember when the hard part is over.