Watching “Shrill”

As I sat down to write this, an article showed up on my screen. It was titled “Help! I think my coworker’s weight is impeding her career!” The headline featured a photo of a smiling white woman with two white men standing at a distance behind her, arms folded, looking at her with a critical expression on their faces.

“Great,” I thought. “Men determining what’s best for a woman’s health AND career. Perfect.”

I did not read the article. I don’t care what it’s really about. It’s enough of an insult to read the headline, to know that the pervasive attitude about women is that their bodies belong to the world around them, that coworkers have some inherent right to make any judgement about a woman’s career. The headline reinforces the belief that weight is inherently bad, and the only factor in determining a person’s success.

The paternalism makes me ill.

Aidy Bryant is starring in a six-episode show on Hulu show called “Shrill.” It was based on a book of essays written by Lindy West, a writer, comedian and activist from Seattle.

The show, set in Portland, centers Annie, a writer with a local newspaper, a la Portland Mercury or Willamette Week. She has been on calendar duty, longing for a more substantial role in the paper. To be a “real” writer.

I went to a fat-positive watch party to take in these three hours of TV. As I was preparing for the gathering, I found myself filled with an eager anticipation I have never felt when preparing for any other outing. This group of complete strangers is arranged around the single identifying feature of being fat/plump/stout/overweight/large/solid/Falstaffian, doing activities together, sharing the experience of being outsiders among typical-sized people.

The thought of watching the show with other women who experience being fat in our culture was exciting. Finally, I could hang out with people and not pretend to be something else–to be hip or fashionable, or comfortable in a rickety chair, or  pretend not to be hungry while surveying the potluck spread. I could skip the step of looking around the room and wonder if I’m the biggest person there. It wouldn’t matter.

I wouldn’t have to see that look in the eye of that person–and there’s always at least one–who sees only the size of your thighs or the spread of your waist, and telegraphs their slender superiority. It happens less in Portland–god love ya–than in suburban Chicago, but it still happens. I’ve been judged on many things, but I can see that fat-phobe look from a mile away.

The group went to great lengths to accommodate people of size, arranging the meeting at the house of a member who has ample, comfortable seating for a dozen people, ensuring that the entry was navigable by people with mobility issues.

Just the planning phase relieved some of my typical anxiety. Imagine a gathering where you are judged solely on your personality! The day of the gathering, I was positively jubilant.

This is not normal for me. Typically, on the day of any social gathering, I have created three or four reasons I can’t go. Some are legitimate, but I could probably overcome them. The combined paralysis of some minor inconvenience with being large in a skinny world often keeps me at home.

But Saturday. Saturday, I bounced around all day with the excitement of a shaken can of soda. My family noticed. This anticipation revealed to me just how much my body, with its menopause-enhanced curvature and lifestyle-induced expansion, factored into my social anxiety. Preparing to go out is a practice of expecting judgement–explicit or implicit–about my person. Once past the initial introduction, I am powerfully charming, capably playful, and intellectually stimulating. But the judgement phase comes first, and withstanding that onslaught while maintaining my natural effervescence is emotionally draining.

Not surprisingly, “Shrill” is couched in just such an anxious mindset, its protagonist timidly asking for more out of life. While its stated objective was to show a fat woman who “was happy”, I saw a fat woman who accepted less in nearly every aspect of her life–less than a woman of intellect and drive deserves. Setting aside for a moment the convenient fiction of her job, in which she works 1) for a newspaper, 2) that maintains an actual, physical newsroom 3) on “calendar beat” she has an actual cubicle, 4) such work–and ONLY that work– financially sustains her, “Shrill” has Annie in multiple sub-par situations that she continues to just TAKE.

When we meet her, Annie is “celebrating” six months of “fucking” a guy. He texts “Fuck?” to her in the middle of a workday, she leaves her job and ends up in a nasty-ass apartment with a seedy, overgrown, paunchy, aging nerd–“norm-core Ted Kaczynski”–and she lets him fuck her. And it didn’t look like much fun for her.

Our room full of women who knew better collectively groaned in disappointment to see her getting “raw-dogged” (sex without a condom) by this clunker.

The show’s creator definitely showed a fat woman who has sex, but geez–with THIS guy? She leaves work for that shipwreck?

When his roommates (!) come home unexpectedly, he has her leave by the back door, so they won’t know who he was fucking. She tiptoes (in wooden clogs, no less) down the back steps and has to climb over a fence overgrown with bramble–except for the small portion where she has repeatedly been asked to climb to save her fuck-buddy’s reputation.

And she was just taking it?

Annie has multiple relationships that reinforce her stance of taking what she’s allowed and liking it. Her editor is brusque and insulting, though not ever directly about weight, and dismisses Annie’s requests for increased responsibility without even a glancing consideration. This egomaniacism, I have found, is typical of editors, so while abrasive, I understood it as part of the culture of the newsroom.

Put a pin in that one.

Her mother, played by Julia Sweeney in all her mincing glory, loves Annie but constantly circles back to Annie’s diet and exercise, dragging Annie into conversations that are just fat-shaming candy-coated with health concerns.

Annie encounters street-shaming as well, when she is approached by a fitness trainer who sees Annie taking a sardonic look at an ad for fitness training. The trainer assumes Annie is looking to “lose weight”, and tells her how pretty she could be. A second encounter with the same trainer later in the show reinforced the “fat people are all unhappy because they are fat and only becoming skinny will make them happy” message all of us fat people receive. Realism.

What Annie has in spades is good, enriching friendship with her roommate Fran. With the unbridled support of a female friend who gives zero fucks, Annie relaxes into the certainty of unconditional love. Fran doesn’t expect Annie to look/be/act anything other than Annie, and that relationship makes the show for me. She holds a celebration party for Annie’s first published piece. Fran and Annie together depict how women hold each other together with reciprocal emotional labor. Fran encourages Annie to pursue those things that light her up, including the body-positive pool party that is the center of the show.

Annie pursues the pool party ostensibly as a calendar item for the newspaper. Such an event actually happens in Portland every summer; The Chunky Dunk  is “a fat, QTPOC & (a)gender affirmative non-profit organization that focuses on providing safer shame-free swimming for every BODY!” When Annie and Fran arrive, the party is in full swing, its gorgeous host lounging on deck furniture so alluringly, Fran must go introduce herself. The two eventually become girlfriends, a brilliant example of Fran’s assertive natural attraction. Annie dips her toes in the water, then lounges with Fran and her future girlfriend, and eventually strips to her swimsuit and plunges into the water to perform the handstand she’s been longing to do since she was a self-conscious, pudgy child.

Reveling in the pool has made Annie late for a work bike outing mandated by her editor. When she arrives, soaked to the skin, at the joyless looping cyclists, her boss excoriates her for not being a team player, not trying hard enough, not stepping up to do her job.

Except she WAS doing her job.

His diatribe was laced with implicit fat shaming, accusing Annie of laziness for not participating in an exercise outing that had nothing to do with her work ethic. He ignored all the times she went beyond her job description to deliver something truly remarkable–like her review of the breakfast buffet at a strip club that highlighted the lives and words of the dancers–and punished her for a mistake that inadvertently insulted his values.

Annie’s discussion with the strippers provided one of the best lines of the show. When Annie asks how the women can stand doing what men tell them to do all day, one of the strippers says “Men don’t tell me what to do. I got a fat ass and big titties. I tell men what to do.” Annie later seizes on this power with her fuck-buddy, asserting her will at long last over his half-assedness.

Why she wastes her power on such trash was a source of frustration to our watch-party group, whose joy at the revelatory pool party was dashed the moment Annie reconnected with fuckboy Ryan. The whole roomful of us shouted at the screen “DON’T DO IT” when she knocked on his door again, particularly after she had spent a night with someone who really cared about her–and didn’t make her crawl out undetected the next morning.

I’m still disgusted that she went BACK to a guy who made her do that. You really think your fat ass and big titties are gonna make him a better person?

Much of my response to “Shrill” was tied up in my view of women’s power, and how we give away our lives to other people in the name of being “nice”, or inoffensive, or polite. We teach people how to treat us with what we are willing to accept; every time we say “yes” to some crappy thing someone wants to hand us, we’re saying “no” to ourselves. We’re saying we don’t deserve anything more than this crappy thing.

All women have been told to be less; to be less loud, less large, less demanding, less intelligent and articulate. For centuries, women have been fighting to get out of the shell of the limitations placed on us. Millions of women have fought their way out and are living on their own terms, an example for the rest of us.

“Shrill” demonstrates the vestigial tendency toward smallness to which many of us still aspire, both in size and in pursuing our lives. Annie is clearly more capable than just being the “calendar” person at the newspaper, and any boss worth his salt will see that and foster that ability because it makes the whole newspaper look good. But she asks for more only tentatively, with an abashed hope that the editor pounces on as weakness–because males in our society see that politeness as a vulnerability, and see only that vulnerability, and stab at that tender spot until we bleed.

Strangely enough, the show “Shrill” makes no mention of the trope of women’s voices being harsh or offensive. Aidy Bryant’s delivery is decidedly deferential at all times, even when she is asserting her will. (Bryant is, by the way, delicious in this show.) While it’s the name of the book, the title of the show has little to do with what happens in the show.

“Shrill” has funny moments, and we hollered and cheered at the pool party. It was a beautiful scene of women jiggling their thighs as they danced and joyously cannonball-ing into a pool full of women. Not a single side eye was cast, not a sneer from a skinny onlooker, no tsks or eyerolls; just women in bathing suits playing in the sun.

You know, like “regular” people get to do when they go to the pool.

Our group agreed that this pool party was better than any party we’ve ever been to; there was music, and dancing, and a bar with a live bartender (Hey there, Ayanna Berkshire! I see you!), a photo booth, that freaking deck SOFA that everyone was lounging on, and kickass inflatables everywhere. That is a fucking POOL PARTY!

Episode 104

Pool

 

The rest of the show, however, was downhill from there. Sure, Annie reunited with the deadbeat (whose mom washes and folds and puts away his clothes every week. COME ON ANNIE) on “her terms”, and she confronted her mother about her fat shaming.

But we could not get over the fact that, right when Annie is starting to build her backbone, her friends and family complain that she’s going through a “selfish phase.”

Um, what?

How could a show that purports to be about self-acceptance put a character through these shitty relationships and situations, and then just when she is starting to stand up and say “no, this isn’t acceptable,” call her “selfish”?

Way to go, creators of Shrill. You just undercut your whole message.

Annie wasn’t being selfish. When she stood up to her mother, she wasn’t being selfish. When she chose to have sex with someone other than DoucheCanoe, she wasn’t being selfish. When she didn’t tell her roommate she’d had sex with the roommate’s brother, she wasn’t being selfish.

Maybe she was awkward, and maybe she didn’t get through those moments without stepping on some toes, but to label her “selfish” just when she’s starting to stand on her own two feet–that was just too much for me.

The show has gotten a lot of attention for highlighting a fat woman. And that’s great. She’s a woman who has a job and has sex and has friends. Great.

That’s true of most of us, by the way. Fat women have jobs and sex and friends. We do. It’s true. Take a moment to absorb that, if you need to.

What we *don’t* have–and the show doesn’t address at all–is good-looking, well-fitting clothes that we could afford on a calendar-person’s salary. Much has been made about the clothes on the show, which are super cute–but had to be created for Aidy because (ahem) NONE OF THE CLOTHES SHE WORE were available in stores.

Shrill Rainbow dress

Here she is confronting the douche. See the inviting, adult living space he inhabits?

Annie, however, never struggles with finding an adorable rainbow-sequined mini-dress to wear to an office party, or fidgets with sleeves that are too tight, or has to roll her pant legs because she had to buy pants two sizes too big so she could accommodate her mid-section. That would have been a realistic thing to put in the show, and not hide behind the camera.

But the show far too easily slips back into shaming Annie for growing, for becoming more than she was, for no longer being small enough for “regulars” to accept. Despite the exuberance of the pool party, the rest of the show left me and my fellow watch-party-goers deflated and discouraged. We wanted more than a single moment in sunshine, thighs bared to the public; we wanted Annie to claim the space she needed to become more than just the calendar person, more than just some loafer’s comfort object.

She deserves more. And we deserve more. Showing a fat woman on screen, in cute clothes, at a job in a funky city, and (GASP) having sex NAKED is a start.

It’s a start, but it didn’t go nearly far enough.

 

To Make Small

I watched awards season this year with mixed feelings. I’m thrilled that “BlackkKlansman” got the attention and awards it so deserved (though I was bummed it didn’t get Oscar Best Picture), and happy, also, that a movie about a capable, powerful woman in the shadows of her husband’s success (The Wife) got so many eyeballs and kudos.

But watching Lady Gaga’s progression from wildcat/outlier/demolisher of stereotypes/embracer of oddlings to the precise silhouette of the Image of a Leading Woman was disturbing to me.

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I’m a fan of Gaga’s voice. I’m a fan of her message. I don’t love all of her music (like, I *love* Brandi Carlile and every single thing she does. And also Janelle Monae), but I admire what she does and how she does it. She’s clearly an advocate for people who feel rejected, for people whose lives are lived in shadow. She stands tall and beckons the “misfits” to her, and shares with them her courage in the face of exclusion. Bullied as a child and as a college student (come on, young adults; what are you doing?), she identifies as a fellow outcast, and has found her strength in being unique, being her wild, wacky, incredible self.

And then she does this movie. Which is fantastic–I’m sure she’s great in it. I haven’t seen it because I think Bradley Cooper looks like the raccoon he plays in Guardians of the Galaxy

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and I can’t get the image out of my head. I’m sure he’s great in it. Anyway. Gaga gets the movie and writes some songs and gets an Oscar for one of them. Those are all wonderful and I’m glad she’s got that success.

But during awards season, she was doing these weird, obsequious answers to questions about her success. It’s the “There can be 100 people in the room, and 99 don’t believe in you . . . But I had this one [as she points to Cooper] incredible talent with me” thing she said over and over, to the point where she was mocked about it at the Golden Globes. She took the jab gracefully.

I watched her give the same kind of answer about how she came to this place, and I’m thinking “Wait a minute. YOU are Lady Gaga. You really think 99 people in a room of 100 don’t ‘believe’ in you?

“I’m pretty sure about 80 of the people in a room of 100 would BEG you to be in their movie.

“I bet at least 75 people in the room would give their left arm for a little of your reflected glory.

“You have given hope to people who felt alone and unwanted. You have inspired an entire generation of young people to seek and be who they really are. In being unapologetically bizarre, you give people the courage to embrace and express their own weirdness. You wore a meat dress to an awards show less than 10 years ago.

“YOU ARE AN ICON.

“And yet it was Bradley Cooper who had the courage to believe . . . in YOU?”

I get that there was some performance to these interviews. That the character owes her success in part to his belief in her.

The character.

I am sure she admires Cooper, and by all accounts, he is responsible for all the major bits of the movie; some songwriting, directing, and acting. This was his baby, and he is due some credit. And it appears that his part in the creation of this popular movie is getting forgotten. I could see how a costar might have the urge to move the spotlight his direction. He worked hard, it was a success, and he should get credit for that.

But not for HER.

Her behavior makes my skin crawl, because it smacks of the thing women have done for eons; they make themselves small for other people. I see her trying to close those gorgeous, shimmering wings back up, wrap everything into a ball so it takes up less space just so the focus can be put on Cooper.

Lady, you wore a MEAT DRESS and got away with it. You made THIS VIDEO and became a STAR. You are an enormous, terrifying dragon of purpose and creativity whose words and voice and talent give strength and hope to complete strangers. Why are you making yourself small for someone–ANYONE else?

As much as I’m annoyed by this awards-season performance by Gaga, it has spurred me to action of my own. Merely by coincidence of timing, I came to a crossroads at my workplace. I was confronted with the realization that, in continuing to work in a part-time, entry-level position, in which all hope for advancement was smashed to smithereens at the news of an organizational budgetary crisis and resulting full-time hiring freeze, I was also confining myself to a small work situation when I want much more.

I’ve been asking for more for years, have been trying to do what I’ve done in other jobs–show your ability to do more, to learn jobs outside your narrow duties, to demonstrate your capacity to grow into more responsibility–but management has been singularly unreceptive. For four years.

So I tendered my resignation.

In this respect, I owe Lady Gaga an enormous thank you. I didn’t really see what I was doing until I saw her do it.

I have occasionally been a terrifying dragon of purpose, mostly on behalf of my daughter’s educational needs, so I know what possibilities I contain. And while there’s no meat dress in my future, I believe I can contribute more to a team than what I’m currently allowed to do.

I hope Lady Gaga is happy, whatever form she chooses for herself. I’m grateful for the reminder that I can choose my own direction. I’m grateful for my husband’s emotional and financial support. I’m secure in the knowledge that I’ve worked almost continuously since I was 14, and I’m confident I will find another position.

I just need one that will let me spread my wings.

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Twenty Years

Twenty years ago yesterday, Tim and I went on a date.

We’d gone on dates before, awkward, blushing dates where holding hands is terrifying and you’re sure all your friends are watching. In high school, we dated for six months, and went beyond those innocent hand-holding dates, but in the beginning, it was Norman Rockwell, varsity jock dates nerdy musician. It ended like many teenage relationships end, with romantic tunnel vision and a broken heart.

But in 1999, Tim drove 350 miles from Chicago to Carbondale to take me on a date. He took a day off of work, put gas in his car, stopped to buy me flowers, introduced himself to my kids, played chess with my son and giggled with my daughter, and the next night, dressed up in a jacket and tie took me on a date.

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These are 2019 flowers. Don’t be fooled.

That night changed our lives permanently, setting events in motion that we spent the better part of two decades handling/managing/overcoming. Two weeks after that date, after my ex-husband staged a terrifying freak out, I left Carbondale for good. At the university, I’d had a good job in my chosen field, I was using my degree, I was supporting myself and my kids, had great benefits, my kids were in the best school in town, and I was slowly building a support network that could take the place of my absent family of origin, but the situation with my ex became untenable.

We haven’t looked back much on that pivotal time, what with the raising and launching of three kids and moving to Oregon. Lots to look at right here in our daily lives. But that moment was a fulcrum, the balance of my past outweighed by the heft of the future. We were launched into the phase of being a blended family almost overnight. Tim proposed (in his way) on February 20 of that year. Three weeks later. We didn’t live together until a couple of years later, but we did everything together; meals and shopping and weekend outings and family gatherings. It was a lot, and it was fast.

Both of our families told us we were making bad decisions. Tim was told he going from the “frying pan into the fire,” (his ex-wife was the frying pan, and I was *much* worse), I had sinister motives ; Tim wasn’t suitable because he wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t a Christian, he wasn’t, he wasn’t, he wasn’t. We’d never last, we were wrong for each other, it was a bad match.

And then it was 20 years.

Whatever it was that compelled Tim to look for me, send me a letter, start a long-distance conversation with me and then make that effort for a date with a woman he hadn’t seen since high school was powerful stuff. Maybe he knew something in his gut I didn’t know yet. Maybe that’s just the guy he is, a locomotive chugging along to the destination at the end of the tracks.

Very little stops this guy. He’s all planning and purpose, focused on making stability happen.

That forward energy has carried us a long way from that first date. The life I had built over the last nine years was demolished in two weeks, and nothing was ever the same. It was better, fuller, richer, more challenging and, in some ways, more painful. Being woven to another person with whom you navigate a family’s route to adulthood is complex and demanding.

But I have never been alone in that struggle. I’ve always had a partner for the work of growing children into adults, and making a life with contentment.

I wasn’t content in Carbondale. I was succeeding, but I was not content. Destroying that life may have been the only way I would leave that discontent.

Twenty years ago, I went on a date with a man who was all wrong for me.

It was the best date of my life.

 

Tim sent me a mixtape (!) with this song on it when we were pen pals. It’s the first Bruce Cockburn song I ever heard, and I fell madly and permanently in love with it, and with him. It matched precisely my circumstances of that departure.

In front of a newborn moon
Pushing up its glistening dome
I kiss these departing companion
Take the next step alone
I just said goodnight to the closest thing I have to home
Oh, and the night grows sharp and hollow
As a junkie’s craving vein
And I don’t feel your touch, again

To be held in the heart of a friend is to be a king
But, the magic of a lover’s touch is what makes my spirit sing
When you’re caught up in this longing
All the beauties of the Earth don’t mean a thing
Oh, and the night grows clear and empty
As a lake of acid rain
And I don’t feel your touch, again
The last light of day crept away like a drunkard after gin
A hint of chanted prayer now whispers from the fresh night wind
To this shattered heart and soul held together by habit and skin
And this half-gnawed bone of apprehension
Buried in my brain
As I don’t feel your touch, again
                      Don’t Feel Your Touch
Bruce Cockburn

 

 

 

Grit

I just finished watching the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I enjoyed very much. It’s a pleasing fantasy, entertaining and kicky, a bopping tune with gorgeous sets and costumes in saturated, period-reminiscent colors. It’s fun to imagine my mother in those scenes, a woman of the same age as Midge, not yet married, living in Chicago with her roommate, Bunny, and working at the Chicago Daily News.

Midge’s family is wealthy. Like, wealthy-wealthy. The father is a tenured professor at Columbia University and also works at Bell Labs. Mom doesn’t work, just shops and frets about what the maid will make for dinner. Midge’s husband is the son of a wealthy-ish man who owns a clothing company, and she herself works at a fancy department store, though it’s clear she doesn’t *have* to work. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the central premise is that, upon discovering that her husband had an affair with his secretary, Midge launches an improbable–but doggedly successful–career in stand-up comedy. Much of the show is funny, but frankly, not much of the stand-up. It’s a vehicle, baby.

In fact, she has two small children she leaves with her parents while she works. There’s no discussion about it, no wringing of hands or arguments, just “leave them with Mom and Dad.” At one point, all of the adults walk out of the apartment in a rush, returning a few minutes later when they realize they left the kids in the apartment alone.

The childcare issue crossed my mind, but it wasn’t until I read a critical review of the show that I realized the thing that bothered me about it: these people have money to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. The review cited several unrealistic points about which to be skeptical, but the one that struck me the hardest is money. Midge’s mother moves to Paris–and the family doesn’t even notice until she’s been gone two weeks. There was money enough to buy a trip to Paris, for a prolonged stay, for the mother to buy herself food and household supplies and a DOG in Paris,  *and* for the household to continue as normal in her absence, a convenience purchased by employing the maid.

There was no lost income from the mother’s absence, and no one noticed that a primary caregiver had vanished. The maid, sole bearer of the truth of the mother’s absence, carried on with her duties as assigned, which clearly–however tacitly agreed upon–included caring for Midge’s children. And Midge didn’t even notice that her childcare provider was just gone.

This show is a charming petit-four, a perfectly packaged sweet morsel of conversational humor, an opportunity for the sharp-dialogue writers from Gilmore Girls to pull out their best stuff, wisecracks and side-eyes, a modern Groucho Marx without the cigar. That this is a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field is an afterthought, not central to the premise of the show. The show sails along on the pretty, crinoline swirling, charismatic Midge, whose wit and charm get her through every situation she faces, including the one incident of misogyny delivered by three boorish comics who heckle her as she takes the stage at the end of a long night–and KILLS, of course.

But what would this show look like without the wealthy family? Without all the money in the world to do whatever she wanted? Without parents with the leisure and accommodating environment to take the children all day while she works?

Without the hats and shoes and brooches and apartments in Paris?

Yes, much of entertainment is escapism. This is surely an example of a place and time into which it’s easy and delightful to fall half-asleep for a couple of hours, allowing the pointy-shoes and patriarchy to wash over you like Valium. But there’s a nagging thought that pricks at the edge of this fantasy that presents itself as almost-real; while this show is ostensibly about a woman comedian, it’s really about one thing: money. Upper East Side apartments and entire summers in the Catskills for a family of eight and that lonely, romantic apartment in Paris with the furry dachshund and childcare on demand? That only happens with money.

Midge takes risks without a single thought to the consequences for her livelihood and for her children, because she knows there will always be money available to take care of her if she fails.

The only show I’ve seen that focuses on a character who actually takes risks based on what she can afford is Jane the Virgin–and even *that* show features a wealthy boyfriend and a wealthy father, who both throw money at problems that come up in the show. Jane does have to make decisions like faking an address to get her son into a better preschool, managing transportation without a car, and losing money when she can’t work a shift as a waitress. Jane relies on her family in explicit, difficult conversations, and leans on her faith when life gets difficult, even when her rich relatives help out.

Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin and her son Mateo. I think they’re actually on a bus here!

I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Speechless, the Minnie Driver show with the first actual, honest-to-God person with a disability, her teenage son who uses a communication device, hence the title “Speechless.” The show seems to accurately portray what it’s like to manage a family who has a member with a disability. Showtime’s “The Chi,” is reportedly a realistic, gritty look at life on the South Side of Chicago. I couldn’t watch after the first episode, when the character I was most drawn to was killed on a street corner. I knew that kind of heartbreak wasn’t sustainable for me.

Abundant money is the grease that makes many plots run without a squeak, but I look at this from a writer’s perspective. What would it look like to see realistic plots, like “my oldest child had to drop out of college because we couldn’t afford to pay for it anymore, and now he’s working as a delivery guy and living at home,” or “We both work full time and can only afford one car, how do we get to work on time and still get the kids ready for school?” or “It’s the Tuesday before payday, so it’s time to roll pennies so we can buy gas”, or “my kids have no school on Monday for Kasmir Pulaski day, but I have to work–who’s going to watch them? And can I afford to pay that person?”

Somehow, those aren’t as entertaining as a well-dressed comedian who wears one of her many hats that match every outfit as she walks smartly down Fifth Avenue on her way to a gig.

And maybe that’s because when you’re trying to figure out how to put actual food on the table (not just trying to figure out what the maid will cook for you), life isn’t that kind of entertaining. There are moments of wry humor–of COURSE there’s a traffic jam on your way to the gas station when you’re running on fumes and you have to put your last two dollars in your tank to make it to work–but maybe that’s too much for people to bear. Maybe too close to home is painful.

But life when you’re poor, while the absence of money creates obstacles wealthy people don’t even know exist, isn’t solely about money. Toughness becomes more important, perseverance, pursuit of knowledge and strategy. These qualities are explored in dramas about rich people, but only to the extent that they expand a character’s power and dominance, not as survival skills.

The ability to navigate the world without the support of a wealthy family is hard-won, something to be proud of, and stories about people who have accomplished goals in those circumstances are far more interesting to me than yet another tale spun from worsted wool private school uniforms and glittering crystal chandeliers.

I’d like to think there’s a middle ground, a place in story for wild flights of fantastical plot lines still anchored in gritty reality. Ugh, how I loathe the word “gritty”, as if poverty is solely made of dirt floors and unwashed counter tops. But the word grit has power; strength, resilience, refusal to quit.

In this day of increased representation, I look forward to more stories–in print and on film–about people getting by with determination and gumption, holding their life together with bailing wire and string. Those are people I know, people whose successes and failures resonate for me.

Maybe sharing stories like these–stories most people I know have lived at one time or another–will help narrow the gap widened in the divisive last few years.

 

 

The Chicago Way

When Barack (HUSSEIN!) Obama was running for president, a number of naysayers complained that he was part of the Chicago Machine, the enormous gears of power churning within the City of Big Shoulders.

I always marveled at that assessment, because from what I could see, Mr. Obama was an outsider to Chicago politics, an unconnected nube in the University of Chicago intellectual circles who wasn’t an alderman, wasn’t a councilman, wasn’t a city attorney or even a distant relative to the Daley family. I’d lived in the reign of Richard Daley, Michael Bilandic, THE FIRST WOMAN MAYOR (who my parents hated) Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, then eventually another Richard Daley (My parents called him Richie).

Although we were suburbanites, our news came from the Chicago stations, and my mother was a native South Sider, so watching Chicago politics was a family tradition. As much as following Da Bears and the Bulls and the Cubs, we watched politics closely. You could count on three subjects being discussed at dinner; sports, religion, and politics.

I found out as an adult how corrupt politics was in the state of Illinois, the full breadth of infestation of graft and greed among the elected officials. When I saw how entrenched it was at the state level, I was working at a state university, and discussions of trials of our elected officials were mundane. Regular. Part of the every day.

Obama, however, was an outsider from Kansas, a professor, not a teamster or the owner of a trucking company or some kind of businessman who got in on the action. He seemed unconnected. I watched cautiously to see threads connecting him to traditional Chicago corruption, and I never saw anything.

When Rod Blagojevich went to prison for trying to sell off Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder, he was just the latest Illinois governor in a string of corrupt fellas who got caught at the game Chicago had mastered. Do a Google search with the words “Illinois Governors” and the first thing that pops up is “Illinois governors in prison”.

Government officials being corrupt, being caught being corrupt, and going for jail for being corrupt, while not a proud Illinois tradition, is certainly something to which Illinois natives are accustomed. We’d (they’d, since I’m now an Oregonian) like that tradition to end, and would like some common sense to take over the beleaguered state, but we have no shock at elected officials being greedy bastards who cheat the people out of true representation.

Again, while some questionable characters (Penny Pritzker? come on, man. Was she really qualified to be Secretary of Commerce? really? Or was she just a super-wealthy donor?) showed up in Mr. Obama’s administration, his time in office was scandal-free, clean as a whistle. And it had to be that way, for the first black president in this harrowingly racist country; black people historically have to be twice as good at everything to get half as far as white people.

But here we are as a country facing our most daunting task to date; what to do about the disgusting bag of sewage running the country right now. The current presidential administration has more corruption per capita than the Philippines under Marcos, the kleptocrat who set a high bar for our Cheeto in Chief to meet. I hear a lot of hand-wringing about how we should proceed, now that we are getting daily doses of indictments and sentencing to digest with our dinners. The bombshells keep going off on the west coast right about 6 p.m., and we are riveted to the news of the shitgibbon’s unraveling schemes every damned weeknight, and often twice on Fridays.

But what will we DO? They ask. We can’t INDICT him! We can’t IMPEACH him! However will we manage? So many people are claiming that impeaching or indicting him would cause too much division in the country, and we’d be rudderless in an unstable sea.

Good grief, we don’t exactly have a rudder NOW. And this asshole’s throwing chum in shark-infested waters because he’s entertained by all the sharp teeth.

Maybe this is naive. I know I’m naive about a lot of things. But listen; Illinois has been dealing with this shit for several decades. By the looks of it, Rahm Emmanuel has brought corruption back to Chicago in a big way, albeit in a better-looking package than either of the Richard Daleys. But we could learn a thing or two about carrying on after a sitting elected official is indicted and sent to prison by looking to Illinois. Did they crumble? Did they start an internecine war? Have they ceased to function altogether?

No, man. They sent that shitbag to prison, dusted off their hands and said “next!”

I believe it’s possible to get rid of the philistine in the Oval before his term is up and deal with the political fall out as a country. All legal arguments about his removal aside, and they are plenty, I think we should leverage the decades of knowledge developed by Illinoisans in handling post-indictment and imprisonment governance. Let’s give Michael Madigan a call–he’s probably the most corrupt of all Illinois politicians, but he might have some tips on how to right the ship after some greedy peckerwood takes it out for a joyride.

I have confidence that we can get through this. No more pussyfooting around, let’s get this done. Take a cue from Chicago, the City that Works, and decide we’re going to make it happen. We just need to put our shoulders to the wheel together and push, and get up tomorrow and do it all again.

Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in "The Untouchables"

one of my mom’s favorite movies because it showed “her” Chicago. For you pedants, yes, I know the quote is “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. That’s the Chicago way.” I’m using it slightly differently. Poetic license.