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.

 

Babies

A couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with a four year old when I went to his house for dinner. I was purportedly there to hang out with his parents, but secretly, my plan was to play with him. I even brought my own toys.

And play we did, with his brand-new Superman toy, trying to work a puzzle, and a rousing game of Candyland, which he won handily–twice. He showed me how he lights the Menorah, and then whispered in my hear that we should buy a Christmas tree. He played physically, doing cartwheels when he was happy, climbing on the couch and onto me while we were talking, then nestled warmly into the crook of my arm while we read a Richard Scarry book just before bed. We even sang a song. It was heaven.

His parents are great–smart and funny and great company and good conversation. I really like them. I may hang out with them again sometime, even if they don’t bring their son. But the sheer pleasure of being with that boy, with his unrestrained joy and curiosity, his growing awareness of the world and his fresh view of life, cannot be matched.

So far removed now from raising my own children, I had forgotten the sensory experience of being around kids, and the Candyland playdate reminded me of the submersion of parenting, the child-bubble of the early years. I know sometimes I desperately wanted out, but because of my daughter’s fraught medical condition, I purposely reveled in the physicality of child rearing, knowing how fleeting that time can be.

Teaching piano allowed me to spend time with young minds for a while, and it was exciting to be part of them learning something completely new and challenging. But the teacher role isn’t like the playmate role, as I was reminded during Candyland. With this kid, I could just be a kid myself, and it was such fun.

My role as a baby cuddler at the hospital has been one method of getting a baby fix while waiting for my own kids to be old enoughThomasMattSophia to contemplate becoming parents. It’s not fair to put pressure on them for something *I* want, so I go up to the hospital and wrap my arms around little beings for a couple of hours.

About a month ago, I ran into a friend I used to work with, who has just moved into my neighborhood–and is pregnant with twins. And today, a close friend, who also lives three minutes away, just found out SHE is having twins.

My cup seriously runneth over.

While they will never be as important to me as my children, the idea of getting to be part of a passel of new lives is thrilling. I’m imagining the blankets I might sew for them, and spending time with the babies under the guise of giving the parents a break, and the toys, when they’re old enough, and books we’ll read, songs and games. Who knows, maybe a little piano here and there.

 

 

To a Favorite Performer

My affection for Merideth Kaye Clark is well documented; her performance of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” in its precise instrumentation and note-for-note interpretation that somehow flies on its own wings was an absolute joy to behold. I had the good fortune of interviewing her a couple of years ago, and found her warmth and enthusiasm infectious.

She is playing Portland Center Stage this winter, for the second time, in a creation suited to her native abilities and personality. “A Christmas Memory/Winter Song” is custom-fitted to Clark’s voice and dynamic performance, her radiating charm and lofting soprano.

It’s time, however, for more than a few brief lines for her co-star, Leif Norby.

Norby first crept across my radar in “The Vibrator Play,” a show about a late 19th century doctor who used an electronic device to help women release tension. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. Norby’s character was a stern, austere man, with a rigid (oh please) carriage and little humor. He believed his work to be medicinal, and the play, situated firmly in the mores of the era, addressed only women’s sexuality as something to be “treated”, not celebrated or, you know, normal. I was struck then by his physical appropriateness for the role, with his sharp features and dignified comportment. He looked every bit the 19th century physician.

He popped up again in other productions, each time sliding in and out of focus as his character commandeered his appearance; he disappeared into a pioneer in “The Oregon Trail,” a shuffling drug dealer in “Wild and Reckless,” and John Astor in the two-season epic “Astoria.”

It was usually his voice that gave him away, that tenor, clear like a stream, breaking through whatever was happening onstage. In this production, his voice is used in multiple modes; in the deep South reminiscence of Truman Capote’s childhood friend and their holiday traditions (“A Christmas Memory”), in the personal wintertime stories he tells, and as a soloist on some of the songs, harmony on others.

Again, his voice cuts through like light. Clark’s voice, clear and light in its own right, is made for Broadway, for cabaret singing, for faithfully and beautifully bringing to life familiar songs. Norby, as my husband said, is an actor who sings; despite his role as attendant to the music portion, he is, rather, the star of the show.

As he reads the Capote story, he turns into Capote, sometimes as the boy in the story, sometimes as the adult looking back on the boy in the story. Norby infuses the story with a winsome gentleness, longing for the simplicity of pecan gathering and making fruitcakes for far-flung friends. His best friend in the story, a middle-aged cousin who lived in the same house as he did for a while. The purity of their love for each other, the sheer enjoyment of being together and planning their secret treat making, are the losses Capote feels so keenly. Norby brings out that vein of sorrow with his frank performance, and the result is 30-plus minutes of audience members both lost in the story and gathering around their own childhood memories with wistful affection.

It is a brilliant move to have Norby transition from storyteller to singer in the second half, because his voice has brought such feeling to the surface, the listener tracks the sound like stitches of thread. The whole night is a story of trying to revisit lost loved ones, straining to recall the once-felt loving warmth of being with family. It’s an ache, this show, a wish for comfort on a cold and lonely winter’s night.

And it’s that longing that Norby conveys so succinctly with the timbre of his voice, his wry smile and humble demeanor. Whatever character he plays, he brings a genuineness, a frankness, and in this intimate setting with personal stories about Christmas, it’s especially affecting.

The clip below shows Norby’s tremulous tenor, but it is his performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” that melted hearts, and this clip gives hints as to why. Despite having a higher register than Lightfoot, Norby gives the song a sweet candor, as if he’s singing directly to the one he loves, sitting in their living room.

I’m glad to have had so many opportunities to see Leif Norby onstage, and to see the range of people he is capable of becoming. But I’ll always hold this performance dear, as it shows the quality Norby brings to his work, the candor and compassion that rings through every character.

And if you have the chance, do go see this show.

Socks and Sandals, or Things I Would Never Have Done When I Lived in the Midwest

My acrylic socks make my feet snug and happy inside my Keen sandals. When it rains later today, I’ll change into waterproof shoes, but right now I’m enjoying the delicious embrace of webbed shoes.

img_20181128_0710124162

There’s a bunch of stuff I have done in Oregon that I would never even have considered while living in the Midwest. Setting aside the coastal-state things I’ve done, all of which were not an option living in the land-locked state of Illinois (do you REALLY consider Great Lakes states to be coastal?), and living near actual mountains (as opposed to landfill hills onto which industrious skiers have pumped manufactured snow) I’ve enjoyed an array of Oregon-centric behaviors.

Let’s go.

–Ugly shoes. I gave up heels the moment I set foot in Oregon, because there were so many examples of ugly shoes on every corner, I felt released from expectations of stylishness. Keen sandals are popular, as are Bierkenstocks and Naots. I honestly thought Bierkenstocks were only worn by hippies, but maybe that’s right after all. I can’t think of a city with a more vibrant, self-sustaining hippy lifestyle. To be fair, I had trended toward ugly shoes before, but on many occasions, I really *tried* to wear stylish shoes. Shoes with heels. Now, I only wear shoes that are seriously comfortable.

–Socks with sandals. It just feels so damned good.

–Wearing a jacket–not a coat–in December. I’m not sure I even have a coat anymore. It’s only layers here, thin layers of acrylic and wool. A cute knit cap and a scarf are all I need to stay warm. It’s amazing what the world is like without significant wind chill. I no longer live in a place where the air hurts my face. I mean, we actually had a weather alert about stagnant air; no wind. Some people were greatly affected.

I’m not joking.

–Putting on tire chains. It may seem backwards that I never used tire chains while living in the snowy Midwest, but I’ve covered this before; it’s about hills and salt here. Oh, and curves. Curves while you’re driving downhill changing lanes to find your badly marked exit.

–Dancing. Many, many times. With Tim, by myself, in groups and in classes. I am sure this was available in Chicago, but not in the suburbs where I lived. I would never have felt free enough to go dancing in the suburbs; “going dancing” was about pickup bars, mating rituals, activities that constrain a person’s movements for a specific purpose. Dancing in Portland has made me free.

–Drinking with friends. For the same reasons that dancing was off limits in suburban Chicago for an plus-sized middle-aged married mother of three, so too was going out drinking. The presumption in bars always seemed to be that people went there to find someone to hook up with. Granted, my sample size is small, given that I didn’t frequent bars because even incidental visits felt so creepy and uncomfortable that I was wont to repeat the experience. But the mood in Portland bars is decidedly different. Most of the ones I’ve been to are simply a place for friends to hang out and talk and drink. That’s it. Kinda what I’d imagine pubs are like in Ireland. This kind of going out drinking I really enjoy. In fact, I’m going out for drinks this weekend with one of my closest friends, who drove to our last meeting barefoot. But that’s a different story.

–Yoga. Yes, there was yoga in Chicagoland, but I still never tried it until I came here. It’s difficult to explain to people who have not experienced life in the suburbs, but the culture is so controlled, so unnaturally conformist that it’s difficult to explore proscribed interests. Deviation from the norm was punished. Know the restraining bolt that kept R2D2 from wandering off? Like that, only with heavily imposed social cues; cold shoulders, gossip, laughter concealed behind judgmental glances, isolation. In Portland, yoga has been a necessary component of self-calming, of loosening my own emotional strictures through muscular release. Getting into your body and out of your brain is a theme of my Portland experiences.

–Getting lost. I’ve got a strong sense of direction, but . . . wow. Portland has some fucked up streets. They curve and become suddenly one way and change names, then the name changes back two miles later. One-way streets are plentiful and unpredictable. There is one road that’s reliably straight, and the rest present myriad challenges. I have actually gotten lost here due to the weirdo, accidental street layout, and lack of sun by which to navigate. Hard to know which way is north at any given time.

–Compassionate driving. Used to be I’d get annoyed with other drivers’ bad behavior, as I saw them as aggressive and selfish. But in Portland, partly because of the whack-ass streets, I’ve been much more forgiving. The other component, however, is that I’ve received such compassion from other Portland drivers. Chicagoans, it’s the weirdest thing: you know those stop lights at ramps onto highways, the ones designed to pace out the merging traffic? People in Oregon actually STOP at those! They take turns! And stop signs, too. Plus! Drivers in Oregon stop for pedestrians! Can you believe it? It’s like the life of a person walking into the street actually matters. I’m stunned every time I see it. And so, so grateful. This kind of experience is not 100% perfect, because dicks exist in every state, but take my word for it; it’s way better here than Chicago.

–Talk to strangers. Yeah, it’s part of my job, so I can switch into and out of community-center mode, but I like talking to strangers here. I’ve learned so much from people I just happen to strike up conversations with. More accurately, people who have struck up conversations with me. Some have become close friends. I’m still as introverty as ever, but I am open to the option of talking to people on the street. At the coffee shop. In the produce market. At the bookstore.

–Hiking in the rain. I used to exercise in bad weather before, but it was a badge of honor to go out in 7F temps for a workout. Rain in the Midwest is different from the rain we get here; these raindrops aren’t potentially deadly. In Chicago, rain comes down in sheets or buckets or pellets, or sometimes all three. It hurt. Here, rain is mostly gentle drips from an over-soaked sponge. I do miss thunderstorms, and the wild tempests that would rip through hot summer days, but I have learned that not all rain is equal.

–Leaving my house without makeup or a bra. I would not have contemplated such action in Chicago, but here, I do it regularly. I mean, I still “dress up” for work out of some residual habit, but there is absolutely no panic or shame involved when I don’t. I’m just a person doing my thing, encountering all the other people doing their things, and if the way I look causes someone distress, they’re going to have to deal with it. On their own. Maybe try yoga or something.

Portland isn’t perfect and Chicagoland wasn’t evil, but these differences have led to a change in how I interact with my fellow people.

Not long after I moved here, someone I encountered in passing said she was leaving Portland because it was too “cliquish.” I’ve watched carefully for that behavior, afraid I was too smitten to see the city clearly. In my experience, Portland isn’t so much cliquish as it is a city made of individuals pursuing the things that make them happy, and pursuing those things with extreme focus. Those individuals get together with other individuals focusing on the same happy-making things, and the rest of the world disappears. It’s the same for the makers of music that I’ve met, and the woodworkers, farmers and writers; for them, all that exists is this thing they are doing and the like-thinkers they know.

Maybe that was her definition of a clique, I don’t know. I see cliques are existing simply as a societal structure in which you get to tell other people they’re inferior. That was the whole currency of the Chicago suburbs; groups of people who felt superior and got together to exclude others. Golf clubs and sports fans, PTAs and Rotary Clubs. The specificity of the exclusion was sewn into the fabric of the culture.

I have found Portland’s mishmashed fabric to have been sewn from threads found dangling from trees or woven lovingly from alpaca wool or recycled plastic, different colors and textures and lengths. It’s a whack-a-doodle piece of fabric, to be sure, but it’s made out of pure earnestness and passion. And it’s a lot easier here to feel like myself, to explore what pieces I want to take into myself and what I want to leave out. It’s easier to see me without being surrounded by mannequins.

Better put my nerdy duck shoes on; looks pretty damp out there.