Tuesday, March 5, 2019

I am obsessed with Better Things and we need more shows like it

The third season of Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things started February 28, and it’s exciting to have new episodes of the one show on tv that tells the story of a woman in her fifties. I just wish it wasn’t the only one.

Better Things means so much to me, because although I love a family drama, such as Parenthood, and also a melodrama, such as This is Us, and to a lesser degree, a comedy, such as Modern Family, those shows aren’t anything like real life. I enjoy watching Gilmore Girls with my 16-year-old daughter as well, but, let’s be honest, that is pure unadulterated fantasy of idyllic mother/daughter relations. And also, none of the above portray what life is like for women my age. No movies do it, either. It’s not news that in Hollywood, you can either be young and dewy, a mature 40-year-old plumped up with injectables, or a granny. Women in their fifties are all but invisible, unless someone wants to make a dumb joke about hot flashes.

Adlon called Better Things a comedy in an interview in The New Yorker, but though there are funny moments, I don’t think comedy is what drives the show. Each episode is like a day or a week in a life of a cool fifty-something single mother of three daughters who is also working as an actress and constantly cooking delicious looking, elaborate meals for her family and many hip friends. It’s a poetic collection of vignettes of all the things I, a 57-year-old mother of two with a sputtering career, have been going through. Oldest child heading off to college, check. Menopause, check. Aging eccentric mother, check. Colonoscopy, check. Grandma having another fender bender, check.

Created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K., who left after the second season for obvious reasons, the show draws on Adlon’s life as a single parent of three daughters whose own mother lives next to her, just like on the show.  “Sam Fox is me in a cape,” Adlon told Terry Gross in her interview for Fresh Air.

As far as I am concerned, Pamela Adlon is Pamela Adlon in a cape. She is a superhero to me because she has managed to so accurately and sensitively and dare I say, sweetly, capture the essence of what it is to be a woman in the sixth decade of life, dealing with all the stresses and irritations and yes, joys. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for something, anything, that showed a woman of my generation having the life experiences I am having, until this show came along.

Sam is so real because she doesn’t always handle challenges perfectly. Her mom, Phil, really pushes her buttons. (Fun aside: all the women in this family have traditionally male names; the daughters are Max, Frankie and Duke.)  Phil is a handful; she gardens naked, makes tactless comments and is a hoarder with some cognitive issues. Duke, the baby, says to Sam: “Mom, no offense, but you’re kind of mean to Gran.” It’s true. Sam can be out and out horrible to her mother. Towards the end of season one, Sam, with breathtaking cruelty, decides not to take Phil away for the weekend after all, just as they are exiting the driveway with suitcases in the back. As Phil briskly returns to her house, Sam sits in the car. “I suck as a daughter,” she says. “I suck as a mother.” Oh, honey, I’d like to judge but I can’t. Because I’ve been there.

And dear God, the kids. Max, the oldest, screams “I hate you” at her mom, voice shaking furiously, with realistic regularity. (The bit part of Max’s friend, the evocatively named Defiance, was played by Adlon’s oldest daughter Odessa.) Frankie is rude and has some typical middle child issues. Duke, the baby, is the sweetest, but even she, in a game of Truth or Dare, makes one friend scream “penis!” in the middle of her mother’s party, and forces another to put a Monopoly hotel in a place that a Monopoly hotel should never go. (I didn’t think that particular scene was necessary, and I’m just going to go ahead and assume that that was Louis C.K.’s doing. I will say that what I’ve seen of Season 3 has less of the sometimes gratuitous raunchiness of the first two seasons.)

So the kids do the things kids do, like announcing an immediate need for a “dress from the forties” minutes before it’s time to leave for school. Sometimes, Sam gets it right, but she also falters as a parent, because she’s human. During a party, Sam asks Frankie, “where’s your sister?” Frankie inquires “which one?” Sam’s answer, “The shitty one,” is not exactly straight from a parenting handbook. But it’s hilarious. When Frankie gets in trouble for using the boys’ bathroom, Sam is mostly annoyed that she has to interrupt her day, a day that seems to have phone sex as its main objective, and it’s Max that enlightens her that the matter needs her attention. “Mom,” says Max. “Frankie’s a boy.” Sam sinks to a bench in the kitchen, cluelessness giving way to realization.

We see Sam noticing the changes to her body, a slight thickening of the mid-section and the “I feel bad about my neck” issues that Nora Ephron elucidated in her writing years ago. Yet the physical signs that she has spent five decades on this earth are secondary to what’s really important. After Max frets that she’s been wasting time getting high and being social and doesn’t have an idea of what she’ll do with her life, Sam has the perfect response. She lets her know that she’ll figure out her purpose, but even if she doesn’t, that’s ok. “You’re still going to love your life,” she says, “because life is good.”

Adlon is at her best when she depicts the small miracles that will emerge from the chaos of daily responsibilities when you least expect them. A word of wisdom from a homeless woman, real talk with an elderly widower, a well timed fart from Phil that gets Sam out of answering Frankie’s question of why she divorced her dad.  These moments even show up for we women in our fifties. As Sam says sort of inappropriately when she gives a talk at a “Women and Girls Empowerment Day” at Frankie’s school: “We all bleed and we all suffer and the bleeding stops and we still suffer.” We exist. As the kids say, “representation matters” and we want to “feel seen.” So please put us in more tv shows.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Home renovations and life lessons from a 107-year-old

Yesterday was a little bit of a tough day for me. We are doing a necessary electrical upgrade in our 121-year-old house. We have to replace the old fashioned “knob and tube” wiring which was installed in 1900 and which is still in a good part of the house. It works fine! But apparently it’s not “up to code” according to whoever decides these things. Someday, when we want to sell our house, we will have to replace it, or no one will buy it, say all the realtors and basically everyone. Since I wanted to paint some rooms, my husband insisted that now is the time to deal with this disruptive work. I am so annoyed, because in my mind, nothing put in today will last as long as the wiring that was installed 117 years ago and still works! But what do I know?

A team of electricians is all up in my space, sporadically turning off the power and internet when I need it most. And the work they do is loud. Super distracting. The cats are scared. The electricians took out my beautiful antique brass switch plates, original to the house, and put in some gross plastic ones. Sometimes, one of them will say “uh oh” and they will all gather around, which is rather disconcerting. Today one of them got their arm stuck in a hole in the ceiling and I was very stressed out! I am a mom. And they keep going to the bathroom and talking about how much they are going to the bathroom.

So yeah, I am super cranky about my first world problems. I was grumbling about the dust until bedtime, when I read this lovely article in The New York Times about Anthony Mancinelli, a 107-year-old man who still works full time as a barber! 107! He is almost as old as my wiring. When he became a barber, barbers still did medical procedures, like treat high blood pressure with leeches and burn off warts. He drives himself to work, does his own shopping and cooking and works on his feet all day. He doesn’t take any daily medicines, and he says he feels great. He still misses his wife of 70 years,who died 14 years ago, and he visits her grave daily.

I love this man! He reminds me of Max Fisher’s barber father in Rushmore, my favorite movie of all time. I showed my daughter the article this morning, and she agrees with me that Mr. Mancinelli has discovered the secret of life. He found something he loves, and he does it every day. Today, when I was driving her to school, Violet mentioned a crossing guard who worked at her middle school and greeted her every day with a giant smile and kind words. The crossing guard not only got her safely across the street, she brightened Violet’s day and that of every other person that she saw each morning and afternoon. That’s another person, who, in my opinion, has found the secret of life. She loves her job and she spreads good will.

Thinking of her and Mr. Mancinelli, I smiled to myself all the way back from the high school drop off. I shouldn’t complain about the work being done in my house. I am lucky to have the house and the means to fix things that need to be fixed.



Wednesday, June 20, 2018

graduation blues

“Yesterday, a child came out to wonder/caught a dragonfly inside a jar/fearful when the sky was full of thunder/and tearful at the falling of a star.”


I decided to torture myself and listen to Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” That song--which has always, always made me cry--is pure utter fuel for the mess I am today.


Yesterday, my little boy had his senior prom. He attended with his lovely girlfriend of a year. Tomorrow he graduates high school.


How?


Seriously, yesterday?


Yesterday, I was a 35-year-old divorcee not that interested in children. Yesterday I met a man named Dalton Ross, nine years my junior, and like magic, we fell in love. He was full of enthusiasm, and he wanted children, and soon, we married. Quickly and easily I was pregnant, and after much morning sickness, a goodly amount of Mr. Softee, and a long labor, some of it spent walking around Washington Square Park, some of it spent watching Rushmore, my baby boy was born on July 13, 2000 at St. Luke’s Roosevelt in Manhattan.


He weighed 8 pounds 9 ounces. We named him Dale Kelly Ross. He took to the breast like a champ with his jaws of steel. He would not sleep in the crib, so I slept with him snuggled by my side. The exhaustion was epic. But that was the job, and I was committed to it.  


When Dale was 18 months old, he began running up and down the hallways and we grew out of our one-bedroom apartment on Washington Square Park. My days as a hip youngish editor about town were over. We moved out to Montclair, New Jersey so the little boy had room to grow. I never looked back.


At pre-school, he did not like to draw. He would peel the paper off the crayons. He would hand us sidewalk chalk. “Can you draw?” he’d ask. Blond curls and big brown eyes. He loved the block corner. He favored large structures. “I built the Serious Tower,” he would say. The biggest building in the world, at one time. The pre-school preferred to use recycled materials, in the tradition of Reggio-Emilia, Italy. At one point, the teacher decided the children would build sculptures from styrofoam, and she put together a museum of their creations. I took off from work that day. I knelt on the floor so we would be eye to eye, and hugged him. “It was so special to be here today, and see the sculpture museum,” I told him. “You are my little boy. You are my pride and my joy.” He nodded solemnly.


Yesterday. That was yesterday.


He sobbed into the skirt of the white suit I wore to my first day on the job at ELLEgirl. “Don’t get me dirty,” I said. “I have to go.” A month later he started kindergarten. He sat at a desk with a big lunch box looming before him, terrified. But elementary school, it was good. I lost my job and became a stay-at-home mom. I learned to drive. I tried out that whole class mom thing.  Dale made friends and he learned to play French horn and he discovered Harry Potter and chess. He won the prize for most books read; he played soccer; he learned to swim. We joined a pool club and he was on the swim team and the tennis team and I was his biggest fan.


And then, it was middle school. The boy who had spent a decade loving us unconditionally began to find us embarrassing. That’s how it goes. That’s life, right? Yesterday,  they are sobbing into your white skirt; today, they don’t want you near them.


During this period I read a post about parenting kids this age. The author used the metaphor of the wall in the swimming pool. The child swims away from the wall; that’s the natural order of things. But then, inevitably, they need the wall. Your job is to be that wall.


So, yesterday, when he was in middle school, I tried to be the wall, when I remembered what kind of parent I wanted to be. Sometimes, though, I fell down on the job. He would try my patience, as teenagers do, and I didn’t always handle it perfectly. I could have been better, yesterday. I could have been the wall. The wall is the vessel for the water that makes the pool. The wall does not complain when the swimmer moves away. The wall is silent, strong.


Yesterday, he started high school. I drove to the school to pick up his schedule before freshman year, got out of the car, and realized that my legs were shaking. Why? I was not starting high school. I was nervous for him? But it was fine. He dropped soccer and discovered a talent for running. One glorious freshman season of basketball, and then he stopped playing tennis too, and ran year round.


As the months and year moved on, he pushed us away even more. He told us almost nothing. They must separate. You raise your children to leave you. It’s the natural order of life. My husband and I left our parents. But they didn’t tell us how much it hurt.


Yesterday, it was the senior prom. That was really yesterday, not a metaphorical yesterday, but actually, yesterday, June 19, 2018. And tomorrow, that’s graduation.


Wish me luck.



Thursday, August 10, 2017

Define Job

I just read "The Selfishness of Motherhood," an opinion piece by Karen Rinaldi that ran in The New York Times. It was published last Sunday, but you know how it is. Sunday turns into Monday which turns into Tuesday which turns into Wednesday, and here it is Thursday, which seems like a good time to read The Sunday Review section.

I've been a stay-at-home parent for the past 11 years (well, mostly; I've done a smattering of freelance work), and Rinaldi's piece made me feel defensive and cranky. I felt the same way when I read non-mother Elizabeth Wurtzel's 2012 piece in The Atlantic, which ranted that motherhood isn't a job because one isn't paid for it. Wurtzel went on to say that being a stay-at-home mom is really about ruining feminism while getting your nails done and going to yoga all day long as a nanny does the heavy lifting. Grrr.

The hook for The NYT piece is a well-meaning comment from Rinaldi's mother: "Motherhood, it's the hardest job in the world. All sacrifice!" This statement stuck in Rinaldi's craw, so being a published novelist, she churned out an op-ed piece. She's a mother of two, and, she writes, "I don't believe for one second that motherhood is the hardest job in the world nor that it is a sacrifice."

Yeah, there are probably harder jobs. I can think of a few. Firefighter. Stunt person. Cleaning toilets all day. Sandhog. Pedicurist. Giving colonics. Anyone who has to deal with Trump.

But why write a whole piece that aims to prove that motherhood is not a job? It's semantics.

Parenthood is work. It requires physical and emotional and intellectual labor. True, it's unpaid.  I know what it's like to get paid, because I worked full-time as an editor and writer for 23 years; 6 of those years I was also a mother. Being paid is really awesome. Not being paid stinks. (Aside:  if a parent is not available to do the work because she/he is at a paying job, then someone has to be paid to do it. If a nanny is doing the same tasks that a parent does--it's a job because she is getting paid.)

According to Rinaldi, the purpose of the tendency to call motherhood a job is to preserve the feelings of homemakers who want to be valued. How dare those homemakers want to be valued! She says motherhood is not a job because not only does one not get paid, one does not have a boss. Um, ok. Not to get personal, but does she, a novelist, have a boss?

About a month ago I was at a very hoity toity party, where I told a woman how much I had enjoyed her daughter's memoir. She was pleased, and then asked, "Aren't you in publishing?"

"Not at the moment," I said. "I am mostly at home with my children." She looked like she wanted to murder me. "Well, that's a luxury," she said disapprovingly. I sweetly agreed, but she was done with me then. This unpleasant interaction comes to mind now, maybe because Rinaldi's piece makes me feel similarly dismissed.

I recently saw the 1970 film Diary of a Mad Housewife at Film Forum. It's a must-see if you haven't already, the story of an Upper West Side mother of two with an insufferable husband. In some ways it's dated, in others you can see how little has changed. I liked it so much I bought and devoured the novel on which the film was based. The frazzled protagonist--a liberal arts grad named Tina--does a lot of "women's work" and is dismissed by all.

I'd have more to say about this, but right now I have work to do. Unpaid work.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Uncle Jack


I want to talk about my Uncle Jack. He was my father's older brother and my godfather. They looked alike, more and more as the years went by, he and my father, with the same distinctive nose and smile. Uncle Jack always slicked back his hair with some sort of old-school hair grease, maybe a bit aggressively applied. He always made me feel that he was happy to see me. I adored him.

Uncle Jack worked nights. He drove a truck that delivered newspapers, and the depot was pretty close to our house, so on weekend mornings, he would often stop by with The Sunday New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and a bag of fresh kaiser rolls. I would ask, "Which do you want, tea or coffee?" He would make a choice, and I would promptly forget and fix him the opposite. He thought this was hilarious. He would sit and have a roll and tea/coffee,  and talk to my dad about I don't know what, but it pleased me to see them together. They really got along well.

A couple of times, he had me climb into the cab of his truck so he could "teach me how to drive." I would start it up and travel a couple of feet. "That's enough," he would say, laughing. Then he would go home to my Aunt Cathleen, who is from Ireland, and his three kids, Johnny, Patrick and Cathy. I would pore through the newspapers and get all kinds of ideas of things to do, like teen sleepaway camp in Mexico, which my parents would not allow. I also believe that these weekly deliveries are what got me interested in becoming a journalist.

Uncle Jack worked hard. I never saw him complain. Sometimes, at a family gathering at his house in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, he would emerge in his work clothes and announce that it was time for him to go to work. "Nature of the beast," he would say, smiling.

When my father died in 1991, Uncle Jack said: "Anything you need, you ask. Anything." I knew he meant it. I saw him less frequently after my father died, mainly at weddings and funerals. His son Johnny, his eldest, died of esophagus cancer in his 40s. My brother drove Uncle Jack and Aunt Cathleen from the funeral mass to the lunch, and I was in the car with them. He cried bitterly. "The son is not supposed to die before the father," he said. "That's not the way it is supposed to be."

In recent years, both Uncle Jack and Aunt Cathleen had been sick. I had plans to visit them this winter, but there was an ice storm that kept us from traveling. I feared at the time that it was my last chance to see him.

It was. Uncle Jack died yesterday.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Non-writer

Yesterday, I was mistaken for a non-writer.

I was enjoying a post-yoga brunch with some fellow students and our teacher. One student, a successful writer of books and teacher of writing, asked if we would all attend a practice run of a workshop that she is developing for non-writers.

Non-writers. I kept silent. Though she is more acquaintance than friend, we are part of the same monthly poker night and I've know her for a couple of years. Yet she does not realize that I am a writer, something I've noticed before, but never bothered to correct, which is obviously my fault, not hers. Many times, when she has talked about her projects, I've thought to chime in and say...what, exactly? That I worked as a magazine writer and editor for many years? That I have a tiny blog that I never write in? That my freelance part-time writing career has dwindled down to nothing? That I have the type of writer's block that makes Fran Leibowitz look productive? I consider myself a writer, but now there's always something more important as the day dawns. Monday: tending to a sick child. Tuesday: accompanying my mother to a chemo appointment. Wednesday: French class, followed by matinee of The Heidi Chronicles, followed by telling husband that things are really no better for women now than when Wendy Wasserstein wrote this play 25 years ago. Thursday: Yoga, then reminder that I am supposedly a writer, then laundry, then carpools, then dinner, then homework help.

Today, there's nothing that stands in the way of me writing, until 2:09, when I take my Girl Scouts to sell cookies.

In a way, I am a non-writer. I don't write. Do I bother to start again?

I thought I might write a response to a Today.com essay that a couple of friends posted to Facebook yesterday, in which one mother scoffs at another for attending to her children too "preciously," creating time capsules of each year of the child's life.  The author championed the parenting style of her own 1970's mother, who sent the kids out to play unattended so she could drink cases of Tab in peace. The author's argument is that she turned out fine, so her mother's parenting philosophy must be correct.  While I agree that Tab is delicious, I wouldn't advocate emulating my parents just because I grew up to be sort of ok. They would take my brother and me to the drive-in wearing our pajamas, and tell us to sleep in the back seat, while they watched Goodbye, Columbus and chain smoked with the windows rolled up. My brother and I thought this was a fun night out, but no parent today would do this. Our parents did what seemed right to them; my husband and I do what seems right to us. Or sometimes we make one decision and reverse ourselves. We have no idea, really, what to do with a teenager. (Don't tell our son, or we're even more screwed.)

I get very exhausted when one parent denounces what they see as a pernicious trend in parenting. I've said this before, but the people who come up with the theories of parenting are always justifying their own choices. You make your choices; I'll make mine. We have no way of knowing how our kids will turn out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bird Poop on My Excitement Dress

Violet has a tennis match in 45 minutes, so I'll make this brief. We just got back from our annual week at the Jersey Shore with my extended family. This trip has been mandatory for decades.
Activities include leisurely walks on the boardwalk, and hours at the beach huddled under an umbrella while coated in sunscreen and swathed in hats and muumuus. Some enjoy burying one's father in the sand, nightly viewings of Jeopardy, the playing of board games, trips to the water park and frequent consumption of fish followed by Kohr's brand soft custard.

On our last night, we were sitting outside the Berkeley Fish Market waiting for our table. Suddenly, a tar-like substance landed on the menu I was perusing and splashed all over my dress. Bird poop, but a bird poop darker and thicker than any I had ever seen. And more copious.

I was wearing my Excitement Dress. I should explain. Each season has its own Excitement Dress. The Excitement Dress has been recently purchased and is the one you always wear when going somewhere special. Past Excitement Dresses: a tight black mini from Betsey Johnson (1984), a pale blue lace A line mini from Jill Stuart (1994), a black mini from Comptoir des Cotonniers (2009). This year's excitement dress indicates a general death of panache in my wardrobe. I mean, things are bad. I blush to tell you it was purchased from the Hanna Anderson catalogue, is fitted through the bodice, and has a full skirt to the knee. It is red, and I've worn it at least ten times since it arrived in May. Perhaps this bird is some sort of fashion arbiter.

A nice lady told me that being pooped on by a bird is good luck. I went to the bathroom to clean up as best as I could, but I never recovered, emotionally. Sulking, I stabbed without enthusiasm at my mahi mahi, while wearing a dress covered with the excrement of some berry-consuming bird.

Soaking and stain remover did not eradicate the evidence, which is maybe for the best. I really deserve a better Excitement Dress.