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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead. There are way more dead people, and you’re all gonna die and then you’re gonna be dead for way longer than you’re alive. Like that’s mostly what you’re ever gonna be. You’re just dead people that didn’t die yet.

This is Louis C.K.: father, writer, director, boating enthusiast, and possibly the best comedian of his generation. That’s right – comedian. As in, tells jokes for a living. But Louis C.K. is a comedian in the fullest sense of the word: not only can he make people laugh, he can make them laugh about almost anything. Death, divorce, loneliness, the deep existential sadness that just comes with being alive. And there is such comfort to be found in laughing about these things along with Louie. Watching Louis C.K., I realised for the first time what truly great comedy is. Not a distraction from the hard realities of life, but a way of bravely, cleverly, and cathartically confronting them. Joel Lovell writes in ‘GQ’ about a conversation he had with Marc Maron about Louis C.K. What Louie gives his audience, Lovell notes, is a kind of liberation: “That’s the role that C.K. plays, Maron said. The service he provides is that he knows how to guide us into and then back out of darkness.” I would add that Louie also brings us out of the darkness a little less afraid. Or, at least, a little less ashamed of our fear, and more comfortable in our human skin.

It’s impossible to write about Louie the television show without first writing about Louie the person. Louis C.K. (born Louis Szekely) is an American comedian who lives in New York City. He has been writing comedy and doing stand-up since he was in his early twenties and (now in his forties) is hailed by his peers as one of the best comedians working today. His most popular stand-up specials are “Oh My God” and “Live at the Beacon Theater” (for which he won an Emmy), and he has recently appeared in the films Blue Jasmine and American Hustle. Despite his success and busy schedule, Louie still regularly plays gigs in comedy clubs in New York. “Stand-up has always saved me,” he says. Louie is a divorced father of two, and his daughters are a huge part of his life. He often talks about his kids in his stand-up, and notes that they are the people that keep him going.

Louie (the series) began in 2010 and has just finished its fourth season. The show is written, directed, and often edited by Louie himself. Louie is also the main character in the series – episodes follow his (fictionalised) everyday life as a comedian and a father in Manhattan. Louie may be most simply described as a comedy, though it is (like Louie’s stand-up) much more complex than that. FX, in commissioning the first season of the show, allowed Louie full creative control (in exchange for a limited budget) – something that rarely happens with television. The result is a series that is constantly surprising, and always evolving. Each episode is its own complete story, and although the third and fourth seasons have begun to explore some extended plotlines, there is still a focus on segments, rather than wholes (what FX President John Landgraf calls “extended vignettes”).

Watching Louie, I never know if I’m going to laugh, squirm uncomfortably, or cry. Usually all three. Scenes can turn in ways you don’t expect: a friend admits he wants to kill himself and Louie refuses to give him a reason to live; a sexy liaison with a model turns into a trip to the emergency room and a lawsuit; a depressing stand-up gig turns into midnight breakfast with his kids in a downtown diner. Episodes are often bookended with live segments of Louie’s stand-up (Seinfeld-style) that make you laugh out loud. Then there are the warm, family moments when Louie spends time with his children; the heartbreaking moments (the quiet, sober decision to end a marriage); the awkward moments (Louie onstage in front of the wrong kind of audience); and moments of confronting honesty (the famous ‘Fat Girl’ speech from season four). Louie is artistic without ever being pretentious; there is a sense of great personal honesty in everything Louis C.K. creates, a trait that is both wonderfully creative and incredibly brave.

I really struggled to write this post. After watching his stand-up and TV series (and listening to numerous NPR conversations between Terry Gross and Louis C.K.) I have a great deal of respect for Louie – both as an artist and as a person. He is so genuine; not afraid to say what he thinks, ready to learn, and quick to admit when he is wrong. I want to be this honest in my own writing, and I also want to do Louie justice in writing about him. I want to express the effect he has had (and continues to have) on my life and my way of thinking. Louie makes me feel better about a whole spectrum of niggling worries; about failure, aging, depression, death, and about sometimes being a crap person. Louis C.K. makes me laugh at things I never thought could be funny. And, to top it all off, he can drive a boat. All of these things make Louis C.K. a great comedian, a philosopher, and – perhaps most importantly – just a really cool guy.

Louie airs on FX. The series also stars Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker as Louie’s daughters, and has featured Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and David Lynch (among many other excellent performers). A fifth season of the series seems very likely, as Louis C.K. has noted that “The show is not anywhere near over for me.”

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Almost two years ago, while working as an English teacher in South Korea, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (read about my initial experiences managing my illness here). After a few months in Australia getting my head around glucose levels and insulin injecting I moved to Cambodia. I have been living in Phnom Penh for just over a year. Below are ten tips for people with diabetes considering relocating to – or travelling in – Southeast Asia.

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Stock up on supplies

1) Stock up

Bring enough supplies (and then some) to last until your next trip back home. Glucose meters are available in Cambodia, but the selection is limited. Insulin is expensive and only comes in disposable pens. And while there are plenty of sugary treats on offer in supermarkets and convenience stores, I have had trouble finding simple jellybeans. Customs at Phnom Penh airport is incredibly laidback (the official on staff when I arrived wasn’t interested in even glancing at my year’s worth of insulin) so there is no problem carrying as much medicine as you need. The Cambodian postal system, on the other hand, is very unreliable – getting supplies sent from overseas can be a drawn-out (and sometimes ultimately unsuccessful) ordeal. Your best bet with the post is to have the package sent registered mail to a business (rather than a home address), with the phone number of someone who speaks Khmer included.

2) Back up

In my first three months of living here I had my bag stolen – inside were my glucose meter, Lantus and NovoRapid pens. I had spare pens, but the extra glucose meter I had wasn’t available in Cambodia, and so became useless once I ran out of strips. I was forced to check my sugar levels very sparingly while I waited for a replacement meter to arrive from Australia. There’s a double moral to this story: back up your diabetic supplies, and keep a tight hold of your bag while riding in a tuk-tuk.

3) The Frio Pack

I am eternally grateful for this wonder of technology. Frio Packs require no refrigeration (they are activated with water) and keep insulin at safe temperatures – even in Cambodia, where (in the hot season) the weather can sit at close to forty degrees Celsius for days. I keep one Frio Pack constantly activated for my NovoRapid (which means simply sitting it in a sink full of water every few weeks) in case I’m going out to eat. It’s also good to have a few extra Frio Packs on hand in case of power cuts (which happen fairly frequently during Cambodia’s hot season).

4) Find a doctor you can trust

I try to avoid frequent visits to the doctor, but it’s important to know where to go should something serious happen. When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I visited the International SOS Clinic and chatted to a fantastic doctor and the nursing manager about living with Type 1 diabetes here. It may be a little expensive, but the peace of mind is worth it. I also keep in touch with my wonderful diabetes educator back in Australia, and make sure I get all my checks done every time I’m home (about once a year).

5) Get used to saying: “No thanks, I can’t eat all of that rice right now.”

The management of diabetes is not very well understood in Cambodia (Type 2 is much more common than Type 1, and injecting insulin is particularly rare). Cambodian people are generally very friendly, and love to share food. When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I was still very thin, and many of my co-workers were determined to fatten me up by constantly feeding me! My polite refusals were often met with confusion, and so I did my best to explain the intricacies of living with diabetes – “I can’t have too much sugar, but I can’t have too little, either!” Being able to say ‘diabetic’ in the Cambodian language is also helpful. In Khmer diabetes is dteuk nom baem, which literally translates as ‘sweet pee’!

6) Be aware of the heat

Cambodia is hot. Really hot. Almost all of the time. It’s so consistently sweltering, in fact, that you start to forget how the weather might be affecting your blood sugar. I try to check my levels fairly regularly on really hot days, and drink lots of water. I’m also careful not to over-exercise; I find bike riding, yoga, and swimming are the best ways to stay fit (and stable) in Phnom Penh.

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Fish amok

7) Be aware of food

White rice is a staple in Southeast Asia, and it also happens to be really high in carbohydrates. Most Cambodian restaurants only serve white rice with meals, though brown rice is readily available in grocery stores. I try to cook at home as much as possible, and go easy on the rice when I’m eating out. A lot of Cambodian cooking uses palm sugar (this recipe for fish amok – the country’s national dish – calls for a tablespoon of the stuff, however I’m sure that amount is often doubled in restaurants here), and fruit shakes and coffee almost always have sugar added (whether you ask for it or not). The good news is that mango is delicious, cheap, low GI, and everywhere, as are a wide variety of other fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables.

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The rainy season

8) Look after your feet

For me, life in Phnom Penh means either wearing sandals or no shoes at all. This may be comfortable and easy (and good for showing off painted toenails), but it makes my feet much more susceptible to cuts. In the rainy season bare feet also inevitably equal wet feet – and flooded city streets are breeding grounds for all types of wonderful bacteria. I always make sure I clean my feet properly (especially after walking through puddles) and cover up any scrapes. A pedicure and foot massage every now and then is nice, too!

9) Be prepared to be unprepared

There is always an element of uncertainty (and adventure) to life in Cambodia, which can make living with diabetes tricky at times. Last week I was caught for two hours in a rainstorm that turned into a flood, resulting in me being an hour late injecting my Lantus for the day. And while travelling across the border from Cambodia to Vietnam during Khmer New Year our bus was stuck in heavy traffic. What should have been a six hour journey became an eighteen hour one, and included sleeping on the bus by the side of the road overnight. Lessons learned: keep insulin handy, and always carry extra snacks!

10) It’s really not that hard

When I first decided to move to Cambodia just a few months after my diagnosis I was a little concerned (my parents were very concerned!) about how I would go. A year on, it’s hard to remember what I was worried about. Perhaps the most important tip is this one: as long as you are careful and organised, living with Type 1 diabetes in Southeast Asia is no problem at all.

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If you have never before fantasized about the strangers you see on a bus, you begin doing so after having read Alice Munro.

-from The Nobel Prize in literature presentation speech, given by Professor Peter Englund.

This month I treated myself to a new new book (not a second-hand $2 photocopy!): a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, published by Vintage. It’s been a while since I’ve read a short story collection, and I’ve missed the experience of getting through a story in one sitting. Ever since Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature last year I have been meaning to read more of her work (I read “The View from Castle Rock” a few years ago, and heard Lauren Groff read “Axis” on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast), mostly to see what the all the fuss is about. Munro is certainly a master of her craft; she has an enviable control of language, her characters are simultaneously complex and recognisable, her plots are carefully constructed and – in a quiet, understated way – epic. I must admit that I found some of the stories at times a little dull; Munro’s style is slow and careful, not at all flashy, and my attention span has been shortened by too many TV dramas. Overall, however, Munro’s stories are insightful, moving, and beautifully written.

This collection includes six stories from various stages of Munro’s career. The first (“The Moons of Jupiter”) was originally published in 1977, and the last (“In Sight of the Lake”) in 2012. It is interesting to see how Munro’s focus has shifted across the years; “The Moons of Jupiter” is about a semi-successful writer facing the death of her father, while “In Sight of the Lake” is told from the perspective of an elderly woman losing her mind (Munro’s own grip on reality – at age 82 – is as strong as ever).

In his Nobel Prize presentation speech Peter Englund notes that “Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people … she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called The Ordinary.” Each of the stories here serves as a great example of this: Munro’s characters are housekeepers, factory workers, farmers, soldiers. Many of her characters are women (though she does not shy away from writing from male perspectives), and the ways in which female lives are connected to male ones is often described. From “The Moons of Jupiter”: “Judith moved ahead and touched Don’s arm. I knew that touch – an apology, an anxious reassurance. You touch a man that way to remind him that you are grateful, that you realize he is doing for your sake something that bores him or slightly endangers his dignity.”

Munro’s details are skilfully selected; in a two-word sentence she can convey an image or a feeling perfectly. From “Carried Away”: “He would have to go and see her. As soon as possible. Clean clothes”; “Brown-and-cream piping. Such was the end, and had to be, to her romance.” Her descriptions of southwestern Ontario are also simply yet vividly rendered; not a word is wasted. From “The Progress of Love”: “milkweed and wild carrot in the pastures, mustard rampaging in the clover, some fields creamy with the buckwheat people grew then.”

Many of these stories begin with the present and stretch back to an event from the past. In “The Progress of Love” a woman struggles to understand how the experiences of her mother have affected her own life, and in “Differently” a visit to an old home brings back memories of infidelity and lost friendship. The passing of time is an important structural and thematic aspect of Munro’s writing – a thirty page story often encompasses a lifetime, and allows for multiple perspectives and reflection. We come to understand the true nature of a person after being made privy to her life as a whole. As Englund points out, Munro “shows that our innermost self is essentially inaccessible to other people, often eluding even ourselves – until it is too late.” Looking back across a life is something of a habit of Munro’s characters; seemingly trivial moments become significant in retrospect, and the ideas of chance and fate are strongly felt, as is regret. From “Differently”: “People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.”

Human connection – and, inevitably, love – is also a recurrent them in Munro’s work. Connection with another person seems to be a key component of human happiness and in Munro’s stories characters come together in many different ways, for many different reasons. One of my favourite Munro moments of human contact – from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” – happens in a dress shop, where a saleswoman helps the main character find the perfect outfit: “She must have felt she owed this person something – that they’d been through the disaster of the green suit and the discovery of the brown dress together and that was a bond.” Romantic love features in these stories, but it is by no means lauded as a superior sort of relationship – perhaps the opposite. For Munro’s characters, happiness is often brought about through a quieter type of communion. In “Carried Away”, a man discovers that he is most content sitting in a library: “He felt his presence to be genial, reassuring, and, above all, natural. By sitting here, reading and reflecting, here instead of at home, he seemed to himself to be providing something. People could count on it.”

Peter Englund says that “If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later … you will come face to face with yourself”. For me this happened – unexpectedly – with “The Moons of Jupiter”. Upon reading this story for the first time I felt profoundly sad, without really understanding why. I think good literature can do this to you – can reach into your subconscious and touch you there, without warning, when you think you’re safe. I realised later that I related to Janet’s (the main character) anxiety about losing the people she loves the most – her father, her daughter. The idea that we must love – that we are necessarily bound to other people, that this is what makes us human – but that we also, therefore, must suffer, is painfully true. But there is beauty in this truth, and in the realisation that, as people, we are connected by it.

There was care – not a withdrawal exactly, but a care – not to feel anything much. I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive.

I think I’ve realised, after writing this post, that one of the things that makes Munro’s work so great – as in, Nobel Prize great – is the way it stays with you. And then – days, months, years later – it is there for you to remember, to relate to, and (ultimately) to be comforted by.

Alice Munro is a Canadian writer. She has published fourteen collections of short stories and one novel (Lives of Girls and Women). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in December, 2013.

This review contains spoilers.

This is the last animated series on my list of things to write about at the moment, and one that I think has not been written about enough. Unlike Adventure Time, Archer is most definitely an adults only cartoon, and one that doesn’t try to address any of life’s big questions. This series is different to anything else on television; at its core each episode of Archer is a dose of intelligent, racy, surprising, and much needed escapism.

Archer, another offering from FX (the channel responsible for Sons of Anarchy and Louie), began in 2009 and has just finished its fifth season. The series revolves around ISIS – an international spy agency with its headquarters in New York. ISIS is possibly the most ethically questionable spy agency in the history of television: across its first four seasons the organisation has been involved with the yakuza, piracy, white slavery, sexual assault, bum fights, and kidnapping the pope. The beginning of season five sees ISIS busted by the FBI for treason: apparently all of the agency’s espionage operations had thus far been carried out sans permission from the government. Malory Archer (the tough, spirit-guzzling owner of ISIS who once had an affair with the head of the KGB, voiced to sharp-tongued perfection by Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame) is forced to forfeit her agency or face a lifetime in prison. This is a move that takes the series in a very different (and very entertaining) direction. The real focus of the show (and of his own universe), is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin of Bob’s Burgers): a handsome, spoiled, narcissistic agent who is also very good in a fire-fight. All of Archer’s main characters are hilarious: Cheryl Tunt (voiced by Judy Greer, also from Arrested Development) is ISIS’s secretary, heiress to a family fortune, and the not-so-proud owner of a pet ocelot; Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is the human resources director with an extremely addictive personality; Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) is ISIS’s top female agent who simultaneously loves and hates her male counterpart, Sterling Archer; Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is the agency’s cowardly accountant; Ray Gillette (voiced by creator Adam Reed) is the team’s intelligence guru; and Dr Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the resident (mad) scientist, and is married to a Japanese anime-style hologram. Archer has also been host to its fair share of guest talent, including Jon Hamm, David Cross, Fred Armisen, Kristen Schaal, and Bryan Cranston. The big names are never the focus of an episode (as Gwilym Mumford points out in this article in The Guardian); their talent is always utilised to support the show, rather than to draw larger audiences.

I really enjoy Archer for a number of reasons, but the biggest one has to be the witty and fast-paced dialogue. Adam Reed has created a fantastic parody of the secret agent world; his goal, he notes here, was to set up “a backdrop of global espionage … and focus on the bickering.” This works extremely well: one of my favourite moments from season five is when Sterling and Lana are screaming at each other during a shoot-out about the name of a character from The Muppets. The writing is intelligent, funny, strewn with references to pop-culture, and very politically incorrect. When someone suggests forming a cartel to offload “literally … a tonne of cocaine”, Malory wonders “How hard can it be? If Mexicans can do it …”; Cheryl refers to the Yakuza as “Chinese daylight vampires”; and in perhaps the most stinging barb of the show’s love/hate relationship, a pregnant Lana responds to Sterling’s marriage proposal with: “I would rather lose the baby.”

After reading the above quotes this next statement may be somewhat hard to believe – I genuinely like all of the characters in this show. It has taken me a while to figure out why: they are all (to varying degrees) selfish, irresponsible, and insensitive. I think their likeability is generated in a number of ways: first, Archer is clearly meant as a joke; second, the characters are largely presented as products of their environment (Cheryl and Sterling, especially, were brought up surrounded by wealth but starved for affection); third, they are all very good at their jobs; and fourth – and perhaps most importantly – there is a childish sense of humour and fun about them. It is difficult not to smile at Sterling’s uncontrollable giggling over his use of the juvenile insult “Shut your dick trap”; in the same way it is hard to stay angry with kids when they are distracted by some trivial amusement. The strength of the voice acting in Archer also contributes in no small way to how an audience responds to the characters; Reed admits that H. Jon Benjamin’s skilful delivery renders Sterling much more sympathetic than he otherwise would be. It is also heartening to see a show with such a large cast of strong female characters.

Finally, Archer is aesthetically impressive. The animation is much more detailed and realistic than other cartoons (each character is based on a human model: you can see the ‘real’ cast here), and it is stylish in a way that is reminiscent of Mad Men. The show’s time period is deliberately unclear (a way of avoiding modern political issues that might result in Archer being viewed more seriously than it wants to be), but there is a 1960s influence – particularly in terms of clothing – that gives the series a touch of class.

Stylishly drawn, cleverly written, superbly voiced, and very quotable. In the end, Archer is simply great – and smart – fun. Settle down with your sense of humour, and enjoy.

Archer is created by Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) and produced by Matt Thompson, Bryan Fordney, Neal Holman, Eric Sims, and Casey Willis. A sixth season is due to air in 2015.