Friday, July 3, 2015

It's Always Something

So, a couple weeks ago, I was walking down the hall at the senior community where I work, and I heard a resident upstairs on the 4th floor playing The Way We Were on the piano. I stopped to listen, and it made me smile, because she was playing very methodically, perhaps a little woodenly, and it reminded me of Lisa Loopner's performance of the same song in Gilda Radner's Broadway show, Gilda Radner: Live From New York.

It tickled me to think of Lisa Loopner hammering away at a piano in Assisted Living, so I searched for a clip of her performing the song to post on Facebook. The clip I found had a comment attached noting that the film of her show was directed by Mike Nichols, and also pointed out that she's sitting on a giant phone book while playing the piano. I realized that while I have (and know by heart) the album recorded from her show, I'd never SEEN any of it. I didn't realize there was a filmed version out there. I bought it immediately.

And then last Sunday, after going to an all-you-can-eat crawfish boil in the rain and realizing that those beers we washed the crawdads down with tasted pretty good, we got some more and came home to drink them. I suggested we watch my DVD of Gilda Live which had just arrived a few days earlier.

Oh, it was so funny and sweet and sad, because she's not with us anymore. Watching her play Judy Miller and Roseanne Roseannadanna and Candy Slice at the Winter Garden Theatre just makes you wonder what she'd be doing now if she was alive.

It also made me think back to 1989 and what a pivotal year it was for me. It was really an incredibly formative year, kicked off in a lot of ways by Gilda's death.

I had just finished 10th grade and was looking forward to a summer filled with floating around my parents' pool with a thick book and a bag of candy, wandering the streets at night with my friend Mrs. Schmenkman, eating potato chips and making ludicrous plans for adventures we'd never get to carry out in our boring little town. My world was only as big as the confines of our village, sometimes expanded to include visiting family in Binghamton or New Jersey, or once in 8th grade, Niagara Falls, Canada, the only spontaneous trip I've ever known my parents to take. Things are different now with the internet, but back then, the only way you could get a glimpse of the greater world was to travel, or though the limited TV, newspapers or magazines that came to our area. (Example- my grandmother had MTV long before we did. Our local cable company was of a Christian bent and thought music videos were immoral.)

On May 20th, Gilda Radner died. She'd battled and overcome ovarian cancer, only to
succumb to it when it reared its ugly head again. I was truly saddened by this- I had been allowed to stay up and watch Saturday Night Live when she was on the show and I felt such a connection to this funny, adorable, frizzy-haired, sad-eyed lady. I had Gilda Radner paper dolls. I'd read It's Always Something, her autobiography. My mother let me buy the issue of Glamour magazine that featured a cover story on her life. Up until then, my magazine reading had been limited to Cricket, Seventeen and the occasional Life magazine Year in Review.

Besides mourning my lovely Gilda, the magazine opened my eyes to a new world. Glamour was much more of a feminist publication back then; it wasn't the Kardashian-Kontrolled rag it is now. There was coverage and commentary on current events, particularly how they affected the lives of women. They had their annual Women of the Year awards, which weren't just awarded to actresses and models, but to scientists and politicians and lawyers and innovators and activists.

There was a lot going on in the world to notice then:  the Ayatollah Khomeini- the closest thing my
generation had to a comic villain- died and was violently mourned. Students protestors in Tiananman Square were shot at- my mind reeled at the famous photo of the man standing in front of the tanks with his grocery bags in his hands. The Berlin Wall was breached and finally torn down. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil. Ted Bundy was executed. Women's rights were being attacked again,  thanks to the conservatives that Reagan had ushered in with him. The Central Park Jogger was brutally attacked and raped- a woman named Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote an editorial piece in Glamour about how we were all the Central Park Jogger and we needed to stand up for each other as women, no matter how different we all may be. I
remember that photo of the jogger's bloody sneakers- just regular old Nikes like anyone else had. It was a sobering realization that there were people out there who liked to hurt women; I was now in the ranks of women, which meant that there were people who'd want to hurt me simply for the fact that I was female.

It was about the time that I realized I wanted something more than what my small town had to offer. I wanted something different from what most of the girls I knew aspired to, something different from what people expected me to want.  I wasn't meant to be one of those people who stayed in the same place they grew up for the rest of their lives.  I wasn't going to marry someone I'd grown up with, settle down in my hometown, work whatever job I could find, have babies and run into my classmates at our kids' t-ball games. I wanted to see new places, meet people different from me, learn about and try new things that I had no access to in rural Steuben County. I wanted adventures and experiences. I knew I wanted a different path, but I didn't know just what yet.

And then in 1989, I discovered Murphy Brown and I found my idol. I was absolutely entranced by Murphy- she wasn't anything like any other woman on TV and I loved it. She was smart and not ashamed of her intelligence and refused to play it down to make men feel more comfortable around her. She was tough and not afraid to stand up for herself or others. She didn't care about the things other female sitcom characters did- she wasn't looking for a man to complete her; she was fine on her own, and in fact, preferred it that way. She didn't give a shit about decorating or housekeeping. She loved her work and didn't see a problem with devoting herself to it.
She was dry and sardonic and sarcastic and wonderfully funny. She interviewed fascinating and infuriating people. She was extraordinarily well traveled and at ease in the world of powerful men. She forced her way into a club that didn't allow women. She called people out for perpetuating stereotypes and misogyny. And to top it off, she was effortlessly gorgeous and smartly dressed. So many of the female characters on TV and in movies at that time seemed to demonstrate that you had to sacrifice style for smarts. Murphy showed you could be whatever the hell you wanted to be. Candace Bergen, the actress who played Murphy described the character best:

"a complex, original, endearing, feisty, take-no-prisoners woman. And more surprisingly, a woman who cared not a whit what others thought of her. There was not an ounce of submission, not a drop of passivity, no suggestion of shrivel. Murphy was fierce and principled. She had passion- especially for her work, where she gave no quarter. We all wanted to be her." *

I wanted to be her. Not necessarily a journalist, news anchor or TV reporter. I just wanted to be like Murphy Brown. I wanted to be fiercely independent, unapologetic, proud and capable. I wanted a career that excited and energized me. I wanted a life lived on my own terms.

When you're a little kid, people are always asking you what you want to be when you grow up. Back in my childhood days, if you were a little girl and didn't have a different answer at the ready, it was assumed you wanted to be a wife and a mommy. There is nothing wrong with women who want to be wives and mothers. It IS wrong to assume that every little girl wants only that and to disregard any suggestions to the contrary. If you did state a desire to do something ambitious, folks usually laughed indulgently and nodded knowingly, implying that you might think this way now when you're small and don't know any better, but inevitably you'll change your mind. I got this reaction a lot when I told people I wanted to be the first female president of the United States of the America.

But almost no one asks you WHO you want to be when you grow up. No one asks what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want for yourself, where you see yourself as a grown-up. At 16, aware for the first time really of the greater world around me, I was getting an idea of who I wanted to be. When I pictured what I would be like as an adult back then, I was a lot like Murphy Brown. I had glamorous long hair, exquisitely tailored suits, sensible heels. I spent most of my time in
my office, but I went home late at night to a spacious loft apartment with fantastic city-views, decked out in dark, modern furniture. I had a pet cat, and an equally successful boyfriend who wore pin-striped suits who would visit me and drink martinis in my elegant apartment, but didn't live there and went home to his own place when the evening was over so I could have my space to myself. I was principled, powerful, successful, driven, serious when necessary but funny when I wanted to be. Above all, I was passionate about my work, which was left kind of vague in these fantasies, except they involved me striding purposefully through hallways in my sensible heels. (It's become harder and harder to find attractive shoes with heels that you could run for a bus in but are not frumpy. Heels have become ridiculously high in the past couple years, and it's my theory that these higher heels are a subconscious design intended to keep women incapacitated. Remember that commercial with the women playing basketball in pumps? Imagine doing that in today's 4,5, or 6- inch-heeled pumps with the extra platform in the toe box that makes it look like you're wearing high-heeled Kleenex boxes on your feet.)

Not all of that fantasy came true- there were modifications and changes that had to be made as I left 16 and moved into my 20s, 30s, and then 40s where I am today. I have three dogs, not a cat. I live in a 151-year-old farmhouse in the Finger Lakes, not a lofty penthouse in an unnamed metropolis. My furniture is decidedly not modern. I rarely wear suits or heels to work, although I do walk very quickly with purposeful strides through the halls. My husband doesn't wear suits often either, and he lives in our house with me. (Although I do insist on having space that's just mine in our own home.) But truthfully, those are minor details; the important parts are the same. Someone on social media not too long ago posed the question of what you thought it would be like if your childhood self met your grown-up self. Would she be pleased or disappointed with how you turned out? I think I'd be pretty happy with adult me.

Because the other truth I've learned is that you don't have to be one kind of woman. You can take the
best of an acerbic, fierce, passionate character like Murphy Brown and combine that with the goofy, endearing sweetness of someone like Gilda Radner. You can be serious and funny. You can be a goddamn boss at your job and also enjoy singing songs about Walter Cronkite thinking you farted in his office. You can relish the predicability of your daily routines and also do joyous, adventurous stuff like watch the Independence Day fireworks from a paddleboard in the middle of the lake at night. I think my 16-year-old self would find that pretty cool.

Interestingly, the night we watched Gilda, Live just happened to be her birthday.
She would've been 69 years old.

Happy birthday, my lovely American Gilda. Thanks for being such a great role model.

*Quote from Candace Bergen's autobiography, A Fine Romance.

1 comment:

  1. I know, Gilda and Murphy/Candace are heroes of mine too :)