Once upon a time . . .

The RonettesDuring my post-college, single-in-the-city years, I almost never watched TV.  Time spent alone in my Upper West Side digs meant time spent reading or listening to music—rock, classical, disco, jazz, whatever the mood called for.  A solid state Fisher stereo was all I had room for and the sound was stupendous. Pump up the volume, Graham Parker or Donna Summer, and Saturday A.M. cleaning took on a whole new beat.  My solo weeknight TV viewing largely consisted of old movies or a PBS special.  Late-night Saturday TV with friends, or a boyfriend, was another thing altogether.

It was the boyfriend who would become my husband who would eventually hook me on two of his favorite sitcoms, “Cheers” and “Seinfeld. “  I dismissed them at first—like, please, don’t waste my time. These days, late at night in bed, you can hear me laughing out loud at some of the brilliant “Seinfeld” dialogue.  I’ve seen reruns of classic episodes more than once.

When the daughter came along, there was no escaping “Sesame Street.” And why would I want to?  Only a fool could resist the charms of Elmo. Don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to see Born to Add for the delightful parody it is, though the humor of “Miami Mice” might be lost on you if you never saw Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in action. Educators may differ in their views re:  the nuances of teaching children the three R’s and where a ground-breaking show like “Sesame Street” figures into the picture, but there’s no arguing the brilliance of luring mom and dad into the clever riffs on pop culture.

In a wonderful interview with Krista Tippett, folklore/mythology scholar Maria Tatar reminds us that entertainment in days of old was of the sit-around-the-fire-and-tell-stories variety. There was interaction, and the nature of fairy tales, once they were collected and chronicled by the Brothers Grimm, began to change.  R-rated fairy tales originally narrated by and for adults softened to PG as they morphed into children’s stories. Morals crept in, and with them, the happy ending. The violence in fairy tales was surreal, burlesque, carnivalesque.

Times change, literary arts evolve, but the very undercurrent of fairy tales just won’t go away. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which my daughter lured me into watching with her) to “True Blood” to “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” (which fascinates me for its interplay among fairy tale characters caught between worlds), content adapts itself to motif.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Cinderella in Carrie Bradshaw. She even loses a shoe in one episode. And isn’t there a touch of the fairy godmother at play in handing a book contract, followed by a plum magazine job to the novice Hannah Horvath in “Girls”?  That her own self-absorption is her constant undoing can’t be helped; it’s part of the character, an anti-Cinderella who wants her dreams fulfilled but lacks the generosity of spirit inherent in a humble fairy-tale heroine.

The irony? We may think we’re watching TV to escape the real world, only to find ourselves pulled into a world more unsettling in the reality it portrays.  Yes, it’s stylized, fictionalized, often too formulaic.  But like the best of stories, a show like “Girls” gets us talking.  It’s the nature of how we live, sharing stories; it’s something children learn the minute we introduce them to bedtime books and they squeal: read it again .  .  .  and again  . .  .  and again. Or listening as carefully as they do, they stop us if we skip a line.

So when I’m propped in bed, watching “Once Upon a Time” on my iPad, the comfort of years and years of nighttime reading insinuates itself into the experience.  That I can watch episode after episode in one sitting only proves that technology strives to give us what storytellers have always known.

And when I read a comment from my dearest childhood friend in response to my daughter’s reflection on “Girls,” in an instant I’m transported to another once-upon-a-time, teendom, BFFs sitting together, any day of the week after school, tuning in to “American Bandstand.” It’s what girls did. It’s what we still do.  Even if we’re not in the same room looking at the same screen, we’re texting about it, posting on Facebook, generating conversation via blog posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m not a Hannah, Marnie, Shosh, or Jessa

SomethingSara copySometimes I can’t help identifying with TV characters. When I wasn’t even close to Carrie Bradshaw’s age, my friends and I always assigned each other friend roles (I was once comically assigned the role of Comet the dog from “Full House”—I was not happy about this).

When a TV show is based on characters my age, there’s even more reason to see myself in one of them.  I’m talking about “Girls,” the popular HBO series.

I hear a lot of girls say that “Girls” is soooo their life or they are soooo Marnies or Hannahs or whomever.  I’m sorry but since when is that something to be proud of?  Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the show week after week to see how these girls are going to fuck up their lives even further, in almost the same way I get a laugh out of watching Larry David offend everyone he’s ever known on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but that’s all it is to me—pure entertainment.  Sorry, Deborah Lippman, I like your “Girls”-inspired nail polish set but I am not a Hannah, Marnie, Shosh or Jessa, nor do I want to be.  The sad reality is I do know some girls who are like the girls of  “Girls” and I pity them. GIRLS

Lena Dunham is smart.  I’m sure she knew exactly how her show would be perceived.  How can you not compare a show about four women living in New York to its predecessor on the same pay cable network?  She’s also smart because she knew she would reach not only the audience that wants to be just like her and her characters but also the audience that appreciates a good critical commentary on her generation.  She’s got that right, too.  And with her show she becomes, unfortunately, the voice of her generation—my  generation.

I know what it feels like to enter the world at twenty-two and have it not be at all that you expected or were told it would be; hell, I even did it at the worst of economic times. Unlike a lot of my peers, a few years younger than I am, I worked my ass off to get where I am today—something that Hannah and her friends don’t really seem to have done because they don’t really do a whole lot of anything.  They bring a feeling of entitlement to new heights.  They don’t even listen to each other.  Most importantly, they make you wonder why they’re even friends—something  you never questioned on “Sex and the City” because it was always so clear that, despite their mess-ups, they were always there for each other.  On “Girls” it’s every girl for herself.

Yet there’s something keeping them all together, despite their selfish antics.  They’re BFF’s and the “forever” is real.  They’re growing up, and while sometimes that means growing apart a little, on “Girls,” it’s more about whether their friendships will survive than their relationships and whether in their grown-up lives there will be room for each other. These girls, the “Sex and the City” girls, like the rest of us in the real world, have been through so much together: break-ups, make-ups, camp, high school, college, life after college, marriage, babies and sometimes it’s just hard to let go of that connection to someone.

Lena Dunham still doesn’t want you to think you’re a Hannah, Marnie, Shosh, or Jessa though.  Let’s be clear about that. These girls are certainly not role models.  Carrie Bradshaw, on the other hand . . . a girl can never own too many pairs of shoes, and that’s a perfectly okay aspiration to have (as long as you don’t think you’ll achieve it by being a sex columnist for a cheap newspaper).

Cute?!#@Sixty

I’m standing (im)patiently in line at my local Barnes & Noble, my attention riveted by a woman at the checkout counter.  Putting aside the Blackberry she’s fiddling with while the cashier, polite and as efficient as she can be, does her best to move the transaction along, it is her pencil-cut white shorts, halfway down her narrow hips, that have me wide-eyed with wonder. “You think she knows?” asks the woman ahead of me in line.  I shake my head. “Too much multi-tasking.” Exposed black undies (in a bookstore, to boot) speak volumes about obliviousness. The woman behind me chimes in, maybe it’s a style. We are patient, curious, no cattiness here, just chit-chatting our way to the next open register.  “If it were a guy with his shorts hanging out, would we give it a second thought?” posits the woman behind me. “Should someone tell her?” asks the woman in front me, though she admits maybe she wouldn’t care if she “had a butt like hers.” Subsumed in her query is simple consideration, the kind you would give a woman who leaves a restroom with her skirt inadvertently lifted or toilet tissue stuck to her shoe.  At the same time, it is hard to resist the measuring up, woman to woman, about the same age, fifty-ish.  I nod in the direction of the register, open now to the next customer, throwing out one parting query before she heads over.  “Would you tell a guy his fly is open?” She gets my point: “If it were my son, yes I would.”

“Did she have a good body?” asks my husband when I relate the story over dinner.  He wants details. Bikinis? Lace or cotton? How low-cut?  “Not the point,” I point out.  He is relentless.  “Admit it – if she were fifty pounds overweight, the conversation would have taken a decidedly different turn.” I take a sip of wine, Jumilla, ask him to please pass the salad. He continues to bait me. I decide to indulge him.  “The point is not weight or body type.”  The hint of berries in the wine washes over my palate.  “It’s about not caring – or being aware of – how you present yourself.  It’s about being a grown woman and adopting the style of a teenager.  And yes, it’s about taste .” Or the lack of it.

The fashion police (aka my daughter) are out in full force when I reach for my denim jacket.  Didn’t I know (duh!) it’s a big no-no, denim jacket with jeans? Maybe I did (I shrug), maybe I just didn’t care. It’s a roomy jacket, vintage design, a remnant of tapestry pieced into the back.  I remember buying it, a crafts fair years ago. I had my choice of designs but this one, a tapestry of books, appealed to me most. Tongue in cheek, I think of it as my book jacket.  I have another jean-style jacket, soft green, more cropped and form-fitting, something I picked up at Anthropologie, shopping with my daughter.  I hang up the ‘book’ jacket, put on the green one. Out we go.

“Cute top,” says my friend.  H&M, I tell her, two for the price of one, a mother-daughter moment. How could I resist? “Isn’t it great,” she goes on, “that we can still dress cute at sixty?”  We are long-time yoga buddies, dressed for vinyasa (Lululemon for her, Be Present for me), minutes before class.  We are both sixty-ish, spirits (in training) in a world gone more material than ever.  Is there something of a paradox here, grown women enticed by a marketing culture that encourages us to dress like our daughters?  Is it the ‘sixty’ that gives me pause? Or the ‘cute’?   Tell my mother she looked cute in something, at any age, and she would bristle. No woman should ever be called cute, she insisted. Girls are cute. Boys are cute. Little dogs are cute (she hated cats).

There’s a photograph of my mother, long disappeared, now a picture imprinted in my mind.  It is New Year’s Eve, early1960s, and she is wearing a shimmering white sheath, silver threads running through it, a mandarin collar, hair done in the style of Elizabeth Taylor.  She took pride in the way she looked, welcomed those occasions when a little more than day make-up was required. I loved slipping into her shoes. There was one pair I borrowed (permanently), in my twenties, a sexy high-heeled mule, black suede with accents of gold leather, open toe. The base is a slight platform made of two different types of wood, and the heel is a skinny ziggurat of brass. Putting aside the sheer, original beauty of the design, the shoe reveals something about my mother’s sense of style.  Even Christian Louboutin would be impressed.

Things have a way of coming full circle. I’m walking around my house, breaking in a pair of satin pink-wisteria-orange-toned slingbacks. There is a tie-dye look to them,  summer Manolos, a smashing complement to the gorgeous pink satin dress my daughter will wear to the wedding of a good friend. It was my daughter’s idea, get mom a pair of spiffy shoes, let her borrow them. Not that she wouldn’t love them for herself, but a working girl on a budget knows her limitations, and it is indeed the thought that counts here: ever since the day she herself was granted entry into Manolo world as a rite of a passage, twenty-one years old, a gift card with the insistence that she treat herself to that special pair of shoes, she has wanted her mom to walk down the same runway. A year later, another passage, some of that graduation gelt would be put aside for another pair of Manolos, one last treat before leaving the safe haven of college for the insecurity of the real world, overworked and underpaid.  There was hesitation (should I? shouldn’t I?) but weighed against the impracticality of the purchase was the sense of self and style the shoes brought.  Act confident, I would say, you become confident. Look great, my mother would say, you feel great.

“Cute,” remarks my husband, hearing the clomp clomp before he sees me, a mismatch of Gap khaki capris and la crème de les chausseures.  He does not say a word about this maternal indulgence (collusion, he would call it, secretly amused at what it is that mothers and daughters do with, and for, each other).  Nor does he say what I know he’s thinking (yes, they’re elegantly designed, beautifully made, even if wildly overvalued).  “Don’t you think they’ll look great with jeans?” He nods, sure, whatever. Not that he wouldn’t appreciate seeing me in fitted jeans, my legs elongated by sexy tapered heels. Even better a skirt, preferably a mini. I can pull off the look, I have the legs, why not? It is the rationale of a dare, the crux of defiance. And yet, for all that it reveals, a mini skirt insists on keeping something masked. You’re making too much of this, I can hear my husband say.  You should feel good, you can still look hot. At least he doesn’t say cute.

Times change, styles (and Attitude) evolve, disappear, return.  It was a mod mod world when the mini skirt came on the scene, the lid on repression knocked off its hinges, freedom of expression in full flower.  If the mini never really left, just got pushed to the back of the closet in the decades that followed, it left its mark in the youth culture that has us in its thrall. Irony of ironies: Gap-lore has it that the iconic store was named to mark the generational gulf that existed when it opened in 1969, San Francisco becoming the first jeans-only retail outlet. Who could have predicted that it would spawn more than 3,000 stores worldwide, in essence becoming the pioneer for a way of shopping, Baby Boomers and their Gen Y offspring in adjoining dressing rooms?  Or that fashion, dominated by the monkey-see/monkey-do mentality of market forces, would become so homogenized? The chains may do a good job of making clothes affordable, but we all pay a high price in the loss of originality.

Which brings me back to my Manolos and the mini skirt. For all the mother-daughter bonding that shopping brings, my daughter has her own sense of style and I have mine. Yet somewhere between her Vans’ sneakers and my sporty Arche, her Steve Madden and my Cole Haan, there is common ground.  It may be the Stuart Weitzman pumps or Sigerson-Morrison boots we both try on. Those Gap tank tops and Banana Republic tees for everyday wear, the occasional American Eagle button-down, those French Sole ballet slippers and Victoria’s Secret leggings. But I draw the line at very low rise jeans and boots with shorts, pajama pants with the VS Pink logo and, yes, dresses or skirts that make me tug at the hem when I’m seated. Maybe it’s simply a question of taste and comfort. Or maybe it has something to do with being a little more true to the person inside the persona.  In Carolyn Heilbrun’s eloquent book, Writing a Woman’s Life, there are pithy epigraphs beginning each chapter, among my favorites this one from a poem by Maxine Kumin: “When Sleeping Beauty wakes up/she is almost fifty years old.”  It may have been Carrie Bradshaw who brought out the Cinderella, Manolo-longing in my daughter, but there’s something to be said for having a mother who knows it doesn’t take much to acquire a taste for the feel of a cashmere sweater or the suppleness of a shoe designed to last. A mother who’s been there/done that – Hippie bell bottoms, Annie Hall la-de-da trousers, fitted vamp jumpsuits – and knows that the way we dress is but one of the many ways we tell stories about ourselves.

I’m in a funky clothing store, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with my two dearest friends, one a month older than me, one almost a year younger.  We look young for our age, feel the pinch of youth even more shopping together in a store that’s as close to retro East Village hip as you can get in New Hampshire. There is everything here from glitter to linen, more low-brow than high, no brand names I recognize. We browse the racks, hold things up for each other’s approval, decide which might be worth trying on.  One of us has experienced the loss of a husband, one has never married. The one who has lost a husband, only a year ago, is trying on a new life,  cooking meals in a new home for friends old and new. No need to dress for success (telecommuting for years now) except for the occasional business trip, and I take pride in personally having helped her divest, items of clothing no longer worth keeping even for the sentimental value.  The three of us are having a ball, in and out dressing rooms, reminded of a time, just yesterday it seems, when we all lived in the place John Lennon called the center of the universe, NYC, a place only one of us still calls home (though living in an exurban town only an hour north, and going in as often as I need, sometimes makes me feel as if I never left).  The friend who is too young to be a widow tries on a baby doll top (colorful bra peeking through) and leggings. She looks fantastic, all smiles, even if uncertain whether this is the right look.  The other friend and I nod – yes yes – don’t give it a second thought.   We continue picking through the racks – everything from Cher to Grace Kelly here, both reminders in their distinct, iconic way that it is not styles, changing with each season, that define the woman so much as it is the woman who defines her style.