Saturday
Oct182014

BuzzFeed, Myers-Briggs, and the Typology of a Generation

I am away at an academic conference today, so I would like to introduce you to Gabe Gunnink, a 2014 Calvin grad who is now teaching middle school English and Spanish in Grand Rapids. This essay originally appeared on September 20 on the Postcalvin, an alumni blog for Calvin grads in their 20s. During the month of September, the Postcalvin’s regular bloggers (all 28 of them!) wrote on the theme “millennials in thirty things.” The idea was to meditate on the quintessential stuff of daily millennial life. For more hilarious, poignant, and trenchant insights on being a young adult, please visit the blog and discover some wonderful young writers. -- Debra  

 

By Gabe Gunnink

Confession: I have never taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Neither have I taken the StrengthsFinder evaluation nor any IQ assessment. The closest I’ve come to placing my identity under a multiple-choice microscope was an aptitude test I completed in high school. It told me I should be an animal trainer. I now work with middle school children, so maybe I should be taking these things more seriously.

But, for whatever reason, I have not felt the desire to encode my sense of self into an acronym or all-telling digit. Apparently, it’s another of my abnormalities, because the Myers-Briggs test is administered to around 1.5 million individuals annually from Fortune 500 employees to self-concept starved college students to most Lord of the Rings characters (thanks to BuzzFeed). However, the quest for them all seems to be the same: to find themselves and (in the darkness) bind themselves into one cohesive sense of self.

In this way, the Myers-Briggs has captured in a jargony, statistical fashion the primary aim of our generation: self-discovery. We millennials are an identity-hungry bunch and are endlessly goaded by a string of new, you-centric slogans: “Be Yourself,” “Live Your Life,” “Do You,” “YOLO,” and far too many more.

Now, I don’t want to oppose some of the ideological foundations of these messages. In truth, I feel that freedom and self-understanding are important principles and that these mantras are certainly improvements on those that could be applied to other eras and cultures: “Be Your Husband’s,” “Live Your Caste,” “Do Eunuch,” “You Only Languish Once.”

However, these continual calls to self-being have caused us millennials to become at times aggressively ourselves, busting out of boxes and popping out of closets more frequently and fervently than any generation before in an effort to break down walls and achieve the openness necessary to become fully “you.” But, as we step out into the open air of uninhibited self-discovery, we hesitate. It turns out that our relationship with boxes is more complicated than we realized.

In reality, while millennials so vocally oppose being put in boxes, we simultaneously stick labels to ourselves like we’re a political radical’s bumper: ESFP, flexitarian, demisexual, Libertarian, White (non-Hispanic), Pisces, Trekkie, etc. There’s something about the gleam of labels that we can’t resist in our manic attempts to “do you.”

Truly, there appears to be no end to the supply of boxes we can step into, from the big, refrigerator-sized boxes of ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation to the smallest, most obscure boxes imaginable. For example, BuzzFeed offers to answer “What Country Music Cliché Are You?” while Seventeen asks, “What Movie Couple Are You?” and Cosmopolitan really just goes big and claims to divine “What Kind of Female Are You?” in just six simple, man-centric questions. Thus, I would argue that we are the first generation to make a full-fledged hobby of self-discovery.

In the past week alone, I have discovered which kind of diva, which Rocky Horror Picture Show character, and which half of Ariana Grande’s face I am! And, I actually felt surprisingly self-accomplished upon receiving some of the answers. (Yes, I am a “flawless diva,” thank you very much!)

But we don’t stop there. Instead, we post the results to our Facebook page and wait for our friends to append comments revealing whether they do or do not share our spirit animal, or we linger at the dining hall having surprisingly serious conversations about which flower we are as a nearby group of men’s cross country runners chuckle a few feet away. In this way, for perhaps the first time in human history, self-discovery has become an end in and of itself.

That said, I don’t think that it has ceased being a means. In fact, beneath all of the type testing and celebrity twin finding, I think there lies a realization that first-semester-of-Spanish-class adjectives aren’t enough. It’s not enough to introduce myself, saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I am tall and nice and athletic and extroverted.” We need labels to do some of the talking for us. Somehow, breaking out the boxes and saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I’m a proud Ravenclaw vegetarian with a tendency toward Monica-from-Friends-spirited lovers!” seems to lend greater depth and texture to who I am.

But I think there’s a greater reason millennials are going a little crazy with the label-maker, and it’s that no matter how many times we’re told to “be yourself,” “live your life,” or “do you,” we realize that ultimately “doing you” can be a lonely calling. Being unique loses its luster quickly. Thus, the best thing that labels give us is a sense of belonging. When we put ourselves into boxes, we realize that we’re not alone there. Instead, we find ourselves among our fellow INTPers, our District 4 kinsfolk, or our Green Party counterparts. We find ourselves dissolved into community.

So, I doubt that we millennials will end our flagrant fight for individuality or cease our incessant self-discovery. However, I do hope that we plot a new destination for this quest and take up a new mantra. I hope that we use self-discovery not as a path to acronyms or actor crushes but rather as a means to community. And finally, I hope that we begin to focus less on “doing you” and finally dwell a bit more on “doing us.”

 

Friday
Oct032014

Now What Do We Do on Fall Saturdays?

I would like to point out that the University of Michigan ranks among the top 15 finest universities in the world. Academically. We are talking about academics here. As an alum, I feel obliged to establish this fact at the outset.

Now we can talk about football. Perhaps you have heard about the incident last Saturday during the Michigan-Minnesota game (final score: we do not speak of it), in which quarterback Shane Morris took a hard hit to the head, staggered around, was escorted off the field, and then, a few plays later, to the astonishment of the fans, was sent back into the game for one play. Why none of the coaches or sideline trainer-medical types saw him wobble, or evaluated him for concussion before sending him back out (with an injured ankle, too)—no one can explain, and these mysteries have accelerated the slow, painful implosion of the Michigan football program’s reputation, and maybe the program.

The president of the university is attempting to salvage a situation that was exacerbated by delayed and dissembling communications from the athletic division. Meanwhile, Go-Blue pundits are hoping for the imminent departure not only of head coach Brady Hoke but also athletic director David Brandon, who is increasingly depicted as a mustache-twirling villain. In fact, “departure” may be too mild a term for what may happen to these guys and members of their staff. As my husband keeps telling me, this is Michigan football we’re talking about, and the villagers are sprinting out to their toolsheds for pitchforks and torches. At the very least, Michigan students staged an old-fashioned sit-in Tuesday on President Schlissel’s lawn, calling for Brandon’s removal.

Can Michigan football be saved? Maybe. But I wonder, honestly, if this is just another tremor in a major cultural shift. I wonder if we are witnessing the end of an age, not just for Michigan but for football at all levels. The NFL grapples with mounting evidence about the long-lasting effects of repeated head injuries. And just this week, three high school players dieddied—from head injuries suffered, at least allegedly, from football-related impacts.

Maybe we shouldn’t bother to try saving football. Maybe we should just let it go.

I realize this is easy for me to say because, although I enjoy watching Michigan football on fall Saturdays, my life would hardly change if it all went away. In fact, after the Michigan-Notre Dame game on September 6 (final score: we do not speak of it) my Saturdays seem to have opened up this fall, and I’m happily filling up those four hours a week with gardening, reading, laundry, and (well, to be honest) more paper grading.         

However, football is so embedded in American culture, it will not be easy for many others to extricate it from their lives. So with patriotic altruism for my fellow Americans, I have been thinking about possible substitutes for football, substitutes that might serve many of the same important cultural needs.

Some modest proposals, then, organized by the cultural need they could fulfill.

The need for festive, tribal competition
How about eliminating the football part and concentrating only on the marching bands? Crowds could gather in big stadiums and watch marching bands from rival schools compete. We could easily repurpose the commentators, the television broadcast technicians, the whole commercial apparatus. We could import judges from all those TV competition shows. Marching band smack-downs would still involve plenty of color and noise, crowd cheering, trash talking—and no one gets hurt. Well, at least if we can eliminate the hazing and corruption that already beset top university marching band programs. Oh well. Maybe with more attention and popularity, band program troubles will be better monitored! Anyway, imagine what this would do for K-12 school band programs. Competitive parents would be starting their kids on clarinet at age 3!

The need to grill meat communally
You laugh, but according to Michael Pollan’s latest book Cooked (which I heartily recommend—it’s fascinating), the human need to get together and grill meat is both ancient and cross-cultural. In the section of the book on American Southern barbeque, Pollan considers the origins of meat-grilling in ancient sacrificial rituals, citing the careful attention to meat-roasting in Homer’s epics and the Old Testament as well as his reading in the anthropological research on food practices. Pollan writes:

Quite apart from its spiritual significance, the ritual sacrifice had three worldly purposes, purposes that will seem familiar to anyone who has cooked at a barbeque:

To regulate the potentially savage business of eating meat.

To bring people together in a community.

And to support and elevate the priestly class in charge of it.

So if the football tailgate party dies, we will obviously need a substitute to satisfy our need for meat-intensive Dionysian rituals. I’m going to suggest that we return meat-grilling to its religious roots and start holding gigantic barbeques after church every week in the fall. The more granola churches like mine, with our high percentage of vegetarians, will have to provide options, of course. But even those who eat the bean burgers can feel their primitive human impulses sated when they inhale the smell of bratwurst.

The need to watch people engage in violent contact
I have already championed the idea of bringing back jousting—sort of like football distilled down to nothing but crashes and injuries, except with horses. Sadly, the competitive jousting show didn’t last, but we might still be able to learn something from the competitors. A number of them were theatrical jousters, making a living on the Renaissance Faire circuit. What if we were to switch to theatrical football? All the tackles and runs and even the interceptions would be choreographed, and no one would really get hurt. Suddenly, high school theater geeks would be popular, because they would be good at sports, because they are good at acting! In fact, if this idea caught on, we could even add musical numbers.

The need to dress men in exaggeratedly manly outfits—huge shoulders, tight pants
I would not be surprised, should football fade into memory, if we experienced a corresponding increase in the number of people attending comic-con events just to see men in superhero outfits.

The need for an excuse to get drunk
No problem here. Americans already use almost every holiday for this purpose.

The need for an excuse to have people over to watch a big screen
No problem. We already have Downton Abbey. Oh fine. Or The Ultimate Fighter.

The need for an excuse to snooze in front of the TV
There’s always golf, which also goes on for hours and involves hundreds of ads.

I’m not claiming this will be easy. But I have faith that American culture will survive somehow even if the Age of Football is coming to an end. Meanwhile, my undergrad and grad-school alma maters are playing each other today (Michigan vs. Rutgers). I could regard this as a surefire win for me either way, but I’m still more loyal to Michigan. So I’m predicting right now that whatever the final score may be, I will not speak of it.

Friday
Sep192014

Mighty Deeds

“There’s a lot of down time between the mighty deeds of God.”

I heard myself saying this to my friend Sharon over pancakes yesterday. We were talking about her church’s efforts to discern where God is taking them next. They were weathering some discouraging developments along the way, and even for people who have seen God’s unmistakable workings in the past, God’s laugh-aloud, no-doubt-about-it mighty deeds—even then, sometimes you wonder… what’s taking so long this time? And what are we waiting for, exactly? We live so much of our lives between promise and deliverance, those long cloudy stretches of hope and doubt.

It was time, for both our sakes, to recount what I had seen the day before.

First we have to go back twenty years, to when our mutual friends Trevor and Linda moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, after graduating seminary. Long, difficult years followed, years of trying a lot of hopeful but ultimately unsuccessful ministry strategies. Finally they experienced a turning point and slowly a vision came into focus. Today, New City Kids is an innovative, savvy ministry that transforms the lives of teens and kids through the power of the Holy Spirit and a lot of fantastically creative people. It’s a kids’ after-school program, a teen mentoring program, a training ground for leadership and hopeful futures, and a lot besides. I won’t say more; you can read all about it on their website. New City Kids was a long, slow miracle. But that’s what it has become.

For the last few years, however, Trevor and Linda have felt for a number of reasons that they should move to Grand Rapids, leaving the Jersey City site in the hands of their capable staff. But what would they do when they got here? Where would they live? How could they serve here? Years went by before anything became clear. The Spirit’s guidance? The Lord’s leading? Where was it? For a long time, it seemed there was a whole lot of silence.

Last year, finally, it started to seem possible that they could replicate the New City Kids program here in Grand Rapids, and let this site become a greenhouse for additional sites. The ministry could “multiply,” as they say in the biz. Great, but lots of things had to fall into place, funding primarily. And staff. And a site. And community buy-in. And a place for their family to live. And a school for the children. More waiting. Too much silence.

“Why does God tell us things only on a need-to-know basis?” That was another question I asked Sharon over pancakes.

The first question that was answered for Trevor and Linda, after months of consternation, was where they would live. Long story, but here’s the short of it: they bought the house next door. Yes. Ron and I have not lived in the same state with these people in twenty-two years, and this summer they moved into the house next door to us.

Next came, in rapid succession: seed funding for New City Kids Grand Rapids, a terrific core staff, the eager cooperation of school administrators, and a perfect site in a neighborhood where the need is great. Trevor found the site by meeting with all kinds of people, by visiting high schools, and by walking neighborhoods. One day he walked into a church, cold, and explained the ministry to the staff. They wanted in. It felt right.

It was the church where I grew up.

So that’s where I was the night before the pancakes: I was helping New City Kids Grand Rapids audition teens for jobs as tutors, recreation teachers, and performing arts teachers. There were forty teens present for this, the second audition day, and none of them know how to do this work yet. That’s the point. A dozen of them will get hired here, and they will get mentoring and training and become leaders.

And it will all happen in this old church that I love. Before the other night, I hadn’t been in the building for twenty-five years. The congregation of Alpine Avenue Christian Reformed Church sold the building around 1990 when their pastor of thirty years died of cancer. (This was when I was away at grad school.) The neighborhood had changed, and the congregation knew they were not equipped to minister there anymore. So they merged with another congregation and sold the building to a group ready to do urban ministry. I hadn’t heard a thing about the new congregation since.

I wondered what it would feel like to return. And then I turned the corner onto Alpine Avenue: same steeple spotted from blocks away. Same old reddish bricks and gold-and-green windows. But doesn’t it seem smaller? More compact somehow? And now there’s an accessible entrance ramp to the familiar old door. Still, I remember this feeling of entering here, turning right, pounding down the basement stairs.

We gathered in the basement, to me the site of potlucks and senior gatherings, women gossiping in the kitchen, after-church receptions on special occasions, sugary cake and coffee. Instead, there was Trevor and his staff on a freshly built platform, against freshly painted walls, playing drums and keyboards and bass guitar, leading a bunch of teens in a rap about the parts of speech. “This is how we teach kids at New City,” he told the teens, to the beat of the drums.

A couple hours later, after we finished our work with the teens, I took a solitary walk around the building. There’s the consistory room where I professed my faith before the elders, an occasion, as I recall, of great gentleness and blessing. The solemn, black-and-white portraits of previous CRC pastors had been removed, of course. It was now an adult education room.

In the upstairs hallway, more familiar rooms. That choir room, with its wall of closets for robes (empty) and that same old carpet with the gray-and-maroon swirly pattern, probably selected by a women’s committee in 1946. At the end of the hall, that big classroom with all the windows where we learned our catechism. The old green carpet and yellow, molded-plastic chair-desks were gone. It was now a youth room in classic style: garish colors and thrift-store couches.  

I passed through hallways and doorways and stairwells, amazed at how these old spaces came back to me, the feeling of moving through them. I still find myself here in my dreams occasionally; I know every corner and turn.

Then I went into the sanctuary. That’s where it all hit me hard. Anyone observing me might have guessed that I was tearing up because of the disrepair. That wasn’t it. Actually, things looked pretty good. The organ had been removed, the floor looked rough, some seat cushions were gone and all of them were worn thin. But all that beautiful old wood still shone, and those windows let in the same warm light.

I felt overwhelmed because… this is where I learned the faith. Everything most important to me started here. Such gratitude, and such sadness, because things change. So many people gone, so many ghosts, a whole world that I loved slipped away, all present to me for an instant in the emptiness of this silent room.

It felt to me, in that moment, that the ongoing life of my old congregation had been a mighty deed, in its own busy and ordinary way. I don’t know what’s been going on in this building in the past twenty-five years. Wonderful things, I hope, perhaps small and mostly unnoticeable to outsiders, perhaps a miracle or two.

But I do know that something new is beginning in that basement now, and I believe that more mighty deeds are coming.

 

If you would like to support New City Kids as a volunteer or donor, please visit the website. You will find ideas for getting involved in either the Jersey City and Grand Rapids ministries.

 

Friday
Sep052014

Ye Olden Reality TV

I suppose we Medieval & Renaissance geeks get our fair share of thrills in popular culture. The Lord of the Rings movies alone have given us as much clashing armor and flowing gownery as we could ever wish—not to mention horseflesh—but then there are some deliciously entertaining TV series, too. The short-lived but marvelously rich Camelot on Starz network, for example. Or the irresistible, hopelessly cheesy, BBC-made Merlin. Or, more recently, the castle-intrigue drama The White Queen, also from the BBC, based on Philippa Gregory’s historical novels. (With that last one, though, a quibble: good dresses, not enough horses.)

It never occurred to me to feel any tragic deprivation. But now I understand that until 2012, we M&R geeks were shockingly under-resourced in one crucial pop culture genre: reality TV.

I only discovered this a few weeks ago. I was searching on YouTube for videos of jousting I could show to my British literature students, hoping maybe for a clip from a Renaissance Faire or something. Instead I came upon … well, it was just too good to believe. A trailer for the The History Channel show Full Metal Jousting.

 

I know! Isn’t it wonderful?

Yes, they really joust! None of this Renaissance Faire theatrical choreography crap: pfuh! This is the real deal. Sixteen beefy guys with a glint in the eye and a fire in the belly suit up in 80 pounds of bristling steel armor, climb onto 1800-pound horses (they need a “ground crew” and a set of steps to get this far), and gallop at each other with 11-foot wooden lances at 30 miles per hour.

So that means about 2000 pounds focused in a 1.5-inch diameter lance tip … let’s see, multiply mass by acceleration… carry the one… yeah. That’s gonna hurt.

Whose lunatic idea was this? Well, here’s where we delve into some of the stranger subcultures of North America. The show’s creator is Shane Adams, an intelligent and civilized person who was a professional theatrical jouster and then shifted to competitive jousting—yes, it’s a thing—and won the world championship. He and some other competitive jousters wanted to “take full-contact jousting to the next level” and make it a professional arena sport like Mixed Martial Arts or bull riding. Adams thought this show could do for jousting what The Ultimate Fighter did for MMA (evidently MMA is definitely a thing).

Adams’ idea was to take sixteen guys who were not professional competitive jousters and train them how to do it, then have them compete for a cash prize and the baddest bragging rights in modern times.

The number one requirement for contestants was excellent horse riding skills. Actually, that was number two. Number one was being crazy. But riding skills was next. And then a fondness for pain. And then competitive spirit. Adams would teach them the rest, with the help of two trainers (one of whom is named “Ripper”).

Jousting in historical fashion, it turns out, is extremely difficult and more technical than you might guess. The goal is to lower the lance at just the right moment to hit a metal target on the other guy’s shoulder about the size of a license plate. A hit is worth 1 point. If you break your lance into splinters: 5 points. If you unhorse the other guy: 10 points. Managing the lance is awkward, the target is small, you’re galloping on a bouncy horse, you’re wearing 80 pounds of armor, you can barely see, and the hits feel like a car crash.

So who on earth would do this? Back to those strange subcultures. Among the contestants were five theatrical jousters, an Olympic caliber show jumper, an ex-marine, a riding trainer, and the world champion steer wrestler—a sweet-spirited man named “Rope” who used his home ranch’s website to blog his experience and “give a running commentary … of what the Father showed me while I was on the show.” Yes, he means God.

With all that going for it, you are perhaps wondering why you have not also heard of this show. Well, I am sorry to report that it was cancelled after one season.

I know. Isn’t it terrible?

They did what they could. The History Channel got the show’s premier, in February of 2012, covered in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, which referred to jousting as “the preferred extreme sport of badasses of yore.” And the show did garner some fans. One writer for The Guardian named it his “TV programme of the year” for its “glorious stupidity” and “brilliant, unreconstructed, gormless fun.” Word about the show reached down to the deeper layers of the geekosphere, to the horsey sites and armory sites and medieval geek sites. An LGBT pop culture site had a story on the one gay competitor. Even so—and despite a Facebook fan site whose sole purpose seems to have been petitioning the History Channel to renew—it was all over in one season.

Sigh.

By my estimation, three main things went wrong.

One: how are you going to find yet another passel of sixteen insane and equestrianishly qualified people to risk tooth loss and permanent skeletal damage? The prize was only $100,000. As Adams says, violent contact sports are part of “North American culture” and some people enjoy getting hit, there’s no explaining why. But a mere hundred grand is not worth it.  

Two: jousting matches consist of eight passes lasting only a minute or two each. So most of each episode has to be filled with footage of training regimens, which, admittedly, start to get a little repetitive.

Third, and I mean this seriously: they underplayed the horses. Watching people do something dangerous and technically skillful is all the more fascinating when this endeavor requires the cooperative partnership of a large animal. We did not spend enough time on the show getting to know the horses. As I explored websites looking for background on the show, the most interesting thing I discovered was a horsey site in which Shane Adams went on with great energy and affection about the horses on the show, all of which he trained himself.

And so, alas, like everything else adored by M&R geeks, this show exists in the past. You can, if you wish, purchase DVDs of Full Metal Jousting. You can, if you wish, look up the matches and scores on Wikipedia. Unfortunately—and this may be another problem for its future as an extreme sport—jousting stats are not all that captivating.  

Despite the disappointments we all face in the ever-churning, fickle world of reality TV, we can acknowledge at least one good outcome. We at last have the answer to a very important question about football, that other violent sport now harassed and criticized by those who lament our American thirst for gladiatorial blood. The question is this: Do we only love football for the violence? Well, we might think of Full Metal Jousting as an experiment in which football is effectively reduced to just the hits—with horses! And this did not, in the end, appeal. So perhaps we do not love football only for its brutality. In fact, compared to jousting, football seems more like ballet.

One other possible outcome. I met a woman last week who runs an equestrian therapy program. I told her about the show, and we wondered together whether jousting might also be used as a form of therapy, perhaps for the testosterone-excess challenged? Perhaps it could even be a ministry?

You know, Mark Driscoll may need a fresh start soon. Maybe he should look into it.

Friday
Aug222014

The Big Book of What She Really Thinks

I have loved Roz Chast’s cartoons since one of my college friends introduced me back in the 1980s to Chast’s quietly twisted portrayals of ordinary neuroses and domestic absurdities. Chast specializes in boring people, living room couches, potted plants—yet somehow she cuts life on the bias and makes thought-provoking curlicues out of the clippings. A typical cartoon: a glum-looking guy standing in a room, with the caption: “Never the experiment. Always the control.” Or a series of frames under the heading “Lifetime Achievement Awards,” containing figures with captions like “Recognized for never missing a 6-month dental checkup since 1948.”  

Chast has established a long and successful career on the foundation of the standalone cartoon format—a remarkable achievement. Publishing her cartoons mainly in The New Yorker since 1978, her odometer for that publication alone reads over 1200 cartoons. All those years spent reducing—as she might put it—“human fads and foibles” down to their cartoonish essence prepared her perhaps better than most prose authors for that most difficult of challenges: the memoir.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a graphic memoir about a topic highly resistant to humor: the decline and death of elderly parents. Chast details the last difficult chapters of her parents’ lives, a period during which she had to grapple not only with the bewildering challenges of elder care but also with a deep love for her parents streaked to the core with exasperation and hurt. Her story reads at once as entirely particular and startlingly universal.

The main narrative begins in 2001, when her parents are already 89 years old and can no longer make the trip to visit Chast and her family in Connecticut. So the daughter returns for the first time in over a decade to her parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, the same apartment where she grew up and which she hated even as a child. We follow in detail the parents’ decline in their home, Chast’s difficulties moving them to assisted living, and their last illnesses and deaths.

I flew through this book, not only because one can read pretty fast with all those pictures, or because I have reached the daughter-caregiver stage myself and thus can “relate,” but mostly because I was amazed anew at the deeply affecting power of the graphic narrative medium: to convey character concisely, to arrange materials effectively, and to modulate tone.

Chast spares nothing in her truthful depiction of her parents, both born in 1912 to Russian immigrants whose cups of suffering overflowed. Her father taught high school French and Spanish and her mother was an elementary school assistant principal, and both displayed the typical frugality and hoarding instincts of their generation. With just a few panels, some characteristic phrases, and several page-long episodes (as when Chast unearths a disgusting, forty-year-old oven mitt, and Mom comments: “Why waste your money? That one still works.”), we are quickly immersed in this world and we know these people. Dad, with his food neuroses, chronic anxiety, and gentle demeanor. Mom, who bosses everyone around, is always right, and, when crossed, delivers a “blast from Chast!” These two entirely dependent on each other: “Codependent? Of course we’re codependent!” “Thank God!”

As Chast portrays situations that anyone with older parents can recognize—a fall that leads to hospitalization, arguments over moving out of the home, agonizing decisions about facilities—she deftly interweaves the main narrative events with other material, timing the interludes to create emotional contour. We learn early on about her grandparents’ stories, for example, but Chast saves the bitterest truths about her own childhood until much later in the book. We only read about a series of terrible nannies and the depth of Chast’s childhood fear of her mother once her father has died and Chast is left to work through her anger and hurt as her mother’s life ebbs away.

During this sequence, as she recalls how she learned to cope with her mother’s dominating personality and angry outbursts, Chast draws a picture of herself as a child: “I learned to keep my head down…” the caption reads. In the next frame, the caption continues: “…and my thoughts to myself.” Beneath is a drawing of a book called “The Big Book of What I Really Think.” Behold the birth of the writer.   

That Chast was able, all these years, to keep hold of what she really thinks is exactly what readers appreciate—because she’s able to say what we’re thinking, too. Most bracingly affecting to me in this memoir are Chast’s frank portrayals of her own inner turmoils. Early on, she depicts herself in total denial, cheerfully imagining that her parents would die in their sleep and she’d “never have to deal.” Much later, she admits that her beloved father, brought to stay at her house while her mother was in the hospital, drove her to the limit with his “chatterbox” tendencies, a result of his senile dementia. In several places, Chast puts real numbers on elder care costs, laments how her parents’ lifetime “scrimpings” are gushing away in “a Niagara Falls of expense at the end,” confesses to thinking about how this will mean less money left to her—and then hates herself for thinking that.

After a hospital stay, when Chast has at last reunited her parents back at their apartment, she inserts a self-depiction in which her own crazed face is surrounded by thought bubbles linked with arrows in a circle—to depict how she was going round and round with guilt and self-justification for leaving them alone and returning to her own family. No prose account could depict the hopeless guilt and desperate self-preservation of a caregiving daughter as simply and immediately as this cartoon.Another in the "Am I a bad daughter" series.

This all sounds very grim, but in fact the book is often funny, sometimes hilarious, as Chast uses cartoon techniques to zip momentarily into absurdity or to follow a silly scenario to its end. Neatly summing up her parents’ hypochondria and paranoia, for example, is a single page entitled “The Wheel of Doom.” At the center are hazardous activities, such as sitting too close to the TV, and these are surrounded by a wheel of dire results, such as gangrene or choking, which are then surrounded by doom-ridden ends, mostly death, all surrounded by microtales of woe: “A lump, then dead.”

Chast manages to be use humor frequently while neither trivializing anyone’s pain nor lapsing into dark brooding. Instead, she masterfully deploys all her expressive tools to create the fitting tone for the moment. I felt a familiar sinking feeling when I turned the page to the chapter entitled “The Old Apartment” and realized that we had reached the point where Chast would—shudder—have to clean out the apartment where her parents had lived for forty-eight years. After a few pages of narrative with drawings, Chast switches to actual photos of junk-filled rooms and puzzling ancient artifacts. One photo is captioned “Why was there a drawer of jar lids?” Anyone who has been in Chast’s position will nod with recognition.

Chast handles the most difficult moments in this story with a lovely gentleness. She follows the moment of her father’s death with a page containing only a sweet photograph of herself as a child with him. The following two pages contain no drawings at all, only her characteristic hand lettering as she describes the next harrowing twenty-four hours with her just-widowed mother. The final pages of the book contain a dozen simple crosshatch drawings of her mother in her last hours, Chast’s familiar cartoon style set aside for the sake of a more somber artistic study.

Good memoirs should be honest, revealing, and full of engaging particulars. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant fully delivers, but gains even greater power from Chast’s signature cartoon style, skillfully adapted to tell this story. Readers who love Chast’s eye for the absurd and her preoccupation with anxieties will find that meeting her parents in these pages explains a great deal. We get a detailed portrait of crazy, but an equally compelling story of love. Perhaps that’s what her fans have adored about Chast all along: beneath the wit and wackiness there has always been, at heart, a clear-eyed understanding of human weakness, met with an abiding compassion.