Friday, May 18, 2018

the girls i grew up with and the women of the year(s)

My predecessor at work just had a baby; this morning I did the math and realized that she must have been in her first trimester when she left to start a freelance career. Inexplicably (or totally explicably, if you have access to my therapist’s notes from the last eight years) this revelation filled me with rage, despite the fact that she has been nothing but generous to me, and I almost never see her.

When she departed, she left a 20-page, impeccably organized legacy document with links to relevant spreadsheets. When I spoke with her on the phone the day before her due date, she said she’d had her hospital bag packed since her second trimester. She’s that kind of person, the kind who makes a brilliant plan and sticks to it. My boss often gets wistful about the good old days of her, and that doesn’t help my feelings of inadequacy.

According to my messed-up brain, my predecessor is living a better version of my life, and I’m slopping along behind, splashing in the rainwater in her footprints. Therefore she is my new arch nemesis. (Sorry, Hillary Toomey.) Never mind the fact that, if my life had gone according to plan, I never would have met AK, let alone Dash. 


In one of the best storylines, New Becky plays a woman living a posh version of Old Becky's life.
I’ve been watching the new Roseanne. There, I said it. All of Emily Nussbaum’s beefs with theshow and its dog-whistle politics are dead-on. I do think there have been smart episodes about intergenerational childrearing debates, but I also know the real reason I am into it is because of Becky and Darlene. I grew up with them; the episode where Darlene got her period hit so close to home—I worried that having my period would make me bad at gymnastics and push me toward a sexuality I didn’t want to deal with—that I literally ran into the kitchen because I couldn’t handle the white hot shame of its truth.

Fewer Beckys, more scrunchies.
I—and maybe most people? But not everyone; not AK—have a deep need to See How People Turned Out. It’s not quite nostalgia, but it’s not unrelated to nostalgia, either. It’s the appeal of Fuller House, of which I also watched a couple of episodes. I know.

The new Roseanne killed off Mark, Becky’s high school boyfriend/husband, and Fuller House killed off DJ’s husband, leaving her available to rekindle a flirtation with her boring high school boyfriend Steve. Maybe it’s telling of the shows’ differences—in social class and commitment to reality—that the tragedy in Becky’s life has left her with commitment issues and a dead-end job, whereas DJ is left with three cute kids, a career as a veterinarian, and the opportunity to rejoin an idyllic home life. Even though, in both cases, I’m pretty sure the writers killed off the husbands for casting reasons.

Fuller House has also added one character of color; you can tell because she periodically points out that the Tanners are white. That is what POC do on TV--tell white characters they're white.
But in real life, spouses do die. And on some level, life has not gone as planned for Becky, Darlene, DJ, or Stephanie. Because if you look at twenty or thirty years of almost anyone’s life, things don’t go as planned. That’s the nature of life and plans; they are at odds with each other. But I happened to grow up during a long run in my parents’ lives where things went mostly according to plan, or at least they created a successful fa├žade of stability and meritocracy, even when my dad was lying awake at night worrying about money. So I am surprised over and over again.


I walked home from high school most days with Karen Hallett, a fellow JV cheerleader who was working on a novel in creative writing class about four high school friends who grow up together and then one of them gets AIDS. I never read her draft, but—no offense to Karen Hallett—I have my suspicions about its quality.

Still, there was something about this plotline that lodged in my brain, and even now, when I’m daydreaming story premises (which I don’t do as much as I used to because adulthood/bad phone habits/ugh), I tend to come up with stories about A Group Of High School Friends And How They All Turned Out—a mix of romance and tragedy, babies and alcoholism. These are not good novels. They are not my life’s work. But they are my default, and they have a sitcom quality that pulls in threads of both Full House and Roseanne.

Michelle is like, Get me out of this scrunchy-loving backwater.
The sitcom formula is to throw disparate personalities together and have them wildly insult each other with no real threat of change to the status quo. Twenty or thirty years later, the reboots admit that the status quo has changed, even as they try to recreate the feeling that it won’t. The originals are the plans we measure ourselves against; the reboots question—ever so mildly—whether that’s a good idea.


A few weeks ago, AK and I went to a luncheon celebrating Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Women of the Year, of whom our very own Suzie Abajian was one. There were plaques and photo ops and okay pastries. There were folding chairs and apologetic whispers from Suzie: “It’s like a graduation,” she said. “Really important and wonderful, but really long.”

It wasn’t, though. The Women of the Year had not only done vital and largely unsung things for their communities. They’d also all lived interesting and winding lives, from the Chinese immigrant housewife who became an advocate for children with disabilities after her daughter was born with Down Syndrome, to the woman who siphoned food from her job as a nutritionist to feed civil rights workers in the segregated South.

Suzie, an Armenian who came to the U.S. from Syria as a tween, has a PhD in education and regularly speaks truth to power in the friendliest way possible, which helped get her elected to the South Pasadena school board. She used her time on stage to speak out against the bombing of Syria, and in favor of education.

Collectively, they were a beautiful lesson in rolling with the punches and punching back in unexpected ways. They exemplified what happens when you allow that life is not a sitcom, but you don’t let it break you.

No comments: