Cool, Calm & Contentious
This is the most personal book of essays I have ever written. And I gotta confess, I really prefer writing essays to writing novels. So far, people seem to like them pretty well and that makes me happy. (Especially people who have a difficult relationship with their mother.)(By the way, that’s my dog Hedda over there on the right. Say hi Hedda!)
Here are a couple of reviews:
“Cool, Calm & Contentious,” by Merrill Markoe
By Lisa Zeidner, Published: December 2
“Funny women sell these days,” trumpets the PR copy for Merrill Markoe’s collection of humorous essays, “Cool, Calm & Contentious.” It’s true. Tina Fey has helped usher in a new appreciation for comediennes who, amazingly, just like boys, can Write! Act! Produce! As an Emmy Award-winning former head writer for the David Letterman show, Markoe has long ago been there, done all that. But despite three previous collections of essays and four extremely funny novels, Markoe is not exactly a household name. She admits to being “haunted by the fear that the creation of Stupid Pet Tricks was going to be the only thing that would appear in her obituary.”
That would be a shame because Markoe is easily as funny as David Sedaris. She’s capable of manic riffs and the most acerbic skewering of herself and others. Still, her sheer good nature shines through. She’s Elaine on “Seinfeld” — if Elaine were actually nice, not to mention acutely self-aware.
The best essays in “Cool, Calm & Contentious” recount Markoe’s childhood with a mother so hyper-critical she makes Mommie Dearest look like Glinda the Good Witch. In “The Place, the Food, Everything Awful,” Markoe quotes at length from her mother’s travel diaries, which hysterically dismiss everything from the country of Turkey (“cheap little stores full of items from the everyday world”) to St. Mark’s Square in Venice (“in terrible taste”). Discovering these entries, Markoe says, “My lifelong problems of feeling judged by her and coming up short in all areas became both tolerable and funny.”
Indeed, Markoe theorizes in “In Praise of Crazy Mommies” that such a mother turns out to be a common ancestor of comedians — and thus a kind of gift. “For the creatively inclined, growing up under the thumb of a good old-fashioned insensitive, dismissive, difficult, or in some cases wholly unbalanced mommy can be a lot like growing up permanently enrolled in a graduate seminar in comedy.”
Markoe was born in 1948, Fey in 1970. The culture has improved some for women in those years. “I was an artist but I was still a girl,” Markoe says about herself as a young, power-tool-wielding art student. Still, it took her a while to learn that “all the messages you’d been receiving from the world at large about the best way to be a female in a relationship, which to you has meant placing love on a pedestal that rises above all else, [are] just a terrible, terrible piece of advice.”
Notoriously tight-lipped about her “rather long romantic liaison” with Letterman, (disguised here with a pseudonym — “Let’s call him Bobby”), Markoe opens up in one essay about the surreal indignities of being known as Letterman’s ex. She places him squarely in the context of the dating she did in her 20s, a pattern that will seem familiar to women of her generation: the unsatisfying encounters with brooding, indifferent, unfaithful guys; the smarmy, predatory professors; the ongoing confusion about how to balance her personal and professional life.
After so many painful romantic failures, no wonder Markoe thought she was better off hanging out with canine companions. In “The Dog Prattler,” she challenges Cesar Millan’s style of pack control with a system she calls “Flexible Cohabitation (Patent Pending).” In fact, that could be the banner for much of Markoe’s hard-won middle-aged wisdom: There’s not much you can control. Might as well protect yourself as best you can — then just try to relax, laugh, and “enjoy life’s rich pageantry as it unfolds before you.”
Merrill Markoe’s latest, “Calm Cool and Contentious,” is even more satisfying, mostly because she’s more relatable — unlike Fisher, she is not, for instance, certifiably mentally ill. She has, however, lived with craziness all her life, and escaped to tell the tales.
Markoe is unfortunately best known as David Letterman’s ex-girlfriend, though she’s a multiple Emmy winner for her work on the early years of his first “Late Night” show. We discover in this book (in an incredibly page-turning, funny, smart, biting, transparently fictionalized essay called “Bobby”) that Markoe actually left her job with Letterman in order to “work on the relationship” — which will make any fan of her wonderful writing want to scream in anguish, reach back through time and shake her very hard.
Many of the wonderful tales Markoe tells in this book fall into the category of “smart women, foolish choices,” but like Fisher, Markoe has visibly learned from her mistakes. And Markoe’s gifts for clarity and compassion elevate the incredible sharpness of her writing beyond the category of snark; “Cool, Calm and Contentious” delivers great punch lines and emotional gut-punches, often in the same sentence.
This is writing confident enough to avoid self-conscious artistry, and these chapters read like short stories in the New Yorker as often as they do sitcom scripts. Over and over, Markoe shows us (without telling us) that intimacy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires strength.
In one essay she documents and explores the tradition of crazy moms launching their offspring into careers in comedy, then in the next she describes — again, with enormous humor and truth — how growing up with her own narcissistic mom shaped the course of her life. And Markoe’s piece on a sexual assault she experienced in college is exactly right: emotionally descriptive without ever inspiring pity.
Markoe never feels sorry for herself, but she doesn’t look away from her pain either. Her writing has real kindness and generosity to it, without ever veering into Oprah territory. If you don’t have anything to learn from her, this book is still entertaining, but if you do, it’s more valuable than anything you’ll see explicitly labeled as “self-help.”