Disaster Preparedness: a memoir


Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky, published by Riverhead Books

Editor's Note: David Cazares is an editor for MPR News who happens to love both jazz and reading. Earlier this week he gave us his take on the Grammys; today he shares his thoughts on the new memoir by Heather Havrilesky. You can look forward to seeing more of his commentaries on the State of the Arts blog in the weeks and months to come.

We live in a society where having enough is never enough.

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At an early age, many of us realize that we're mere mortals, outcasts of an in-crowd with better looks, brains, athletic prowess -- and the functional families and popularity we lack. They live in fancier houses, drive better cars, wear nicer clothes and have better relationships.

Ordinary people have no chance of keeping up with the Joneses. But that doesn't stop them from trying, even if the wasted time and effort makes them walking disasters.

Heather Havrilesky offers us a look at the disappointments of a real life with Disaster Preparedness, a memoir that describes her middle-class childhood in Durham, N.C. during the 1970s and 80s, and her neurotic journey to grown-up status.

Havrilesky, a staff critic at (the iPad newspaper) The Daily and a former television critic for Salon, is well-known for her spot-on deconstructions of the Mad Men television series, in which she takes no prisoners in detailing a character's flaws.

At first glance, her own story might be perceived as an unremarkable and less-biting tale of personal and emotional duress. But a careless reader might miss how Havrilesky's struggles resonate with real people struggling with their own imperfect lives.

In sometimes agonizing detail, she offers readers a window to the numbness of suburban life, her dysfunctional family, her parent's troubled marriage and divorce, and her bumbling but not uncommon journey to find love. She writes with an adult's hindsight but also employs the voice of a child and teenager.

Irreverent, funny, self-deprecating, her stories show how the path to understanding is filled with pitfalls and disasters, often of our own making. We're all screwed up and in need of therapy. But most of us, she writes, haven't worked it out because we're not honest with ourselves.

In describing the pathetic life of Lance, her assistant manager at Barney's Ice Cream, a guy who wanted to be a songwriter but still lived with his parents, she writes, "this was before shows like American Idol brought a teeming universe of deluded, largely untalented wannabes to the public's attention.

"It had never occurred to me that there were scores of people just like Lance, who had big dreams that would never come true, and they didn't even know it."

As an adult, Havrilesky seems to doubt if her own dreams would ever come true, even when - after a series of mostly good-for-nothing boyfriends - she finds true love. Even now, with two children, she sometimes wonders why she can't "be the relaxed, organized career mom instead of some harried, slovenly zombie."

The answer is that she was never intended to be. Angst-ridden and conflicted, she is human, still struggling to keep up with her own life, let alone the Joneses. And that's OK.

These days, it seems that to really be somebody, one has to be -- or at least appear -- larger than ordinary life.

From the celebrities and entertainers the public can't seem to get enough of, to victims of tragedy, politicians, business tycoons, talk show hosts and realty TV participants desperate to show all their warts, the message is clear: only those whose history, antics or misfortune make for a spectacle are worthy of an audience's attention.

Like car wrecks, many of these personalities are just a head-turning mess that we really don't want to see.

But even if they don't say something extraordinary about the times we live in, the stories of real people can be remarkable and worthy when they prompt us to look inward at our own flawed and complicated existence.

- David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.