Drier Times

I’m currently in a period of not drinking alcohol, an arc in a longer phase of drinking less than I used to. I don’t feel comfortable discussing this with you, which is exactly why I’m bringing it up. No one I know talks about how much they drink except the teetotalers. And when they talk about abstaining, it’s usually just to gripe about acquaintances asking them, “Well, why not?” It seems like a lot of people are imbibing these days, maybe more than they ever have before. Makes sense. Pretty typical response to the world burning.

My therapist once told me, “Shame hates the light.” So I’m gonna shine a light on this truth — I never want to have a hangover again, because they always leave me feeling very ashamed. Part of this comes from growing up Catholic and part of it comes from having an alcoholic dad. In any case, I hate how the after effects of excess alcohol make me feel about myself… like I’m a fuck-up. And I find it very annoying that “too much” looks like nothing compared to what I used to swill. Twenty years ago, a hangover was this wretched, puking, headachey thing that happened when I closed out the bar with friends, continued drinking at one of our houses afterward, smoked half a pack of cigarettes, didn’t take one sip of water, and woke up before noon for some dumb reason. God, I would probably fall asleep at the bar by midnight if I tried any of that now.

This is what a hangover looks like these days: no headache and no vomit, but I’m dead tired. Maybe I had more than two drinks the night before, or maybe I just partied a little too late (after 9:30pm). I’ll get ready for bed by 11, do my healthy nighttime ritual, go to sleep, and then wake up exactly four hours later, fuzzy and confused. Then I either don’t get back to sleep or don’t sleep enough. I feel weird, guilty, and probably a little crabby. And then that opens up the possibility that my drinking becomes someone else’s problem.

Thinking about that reminds me of this really dumb Elvis movie called Roustabout. In the scene where The King first meets his love interest, he makes a bad impression on her surly dad. They’re all rough and tumble carnies, so the mood quickly turns dicey, but then Barbara Stanwyck (the carnie matriarch) says to the grumpy dad, “Cut it out! It’s not his fault you have a hangover!” Just the way she delivers that line, with her classic no-bullshit intonation… maybe I’ll record it on my phone and play it any time someone’s a jerk to me for no good reason. Unfortunately, I have a terribly good memory for the occasions when I’ve been treated that way and have realized in hindsight that the person lashing out at me was probably hungover at the time. And that makes me as mad as a Stanwyck. So I really don’t ever wanna be that guy. Who would wanna be the angry drunk carnie dad at odds with Elvis?

If I’m gonna be a total drag, I’d rather be like Millie. Millie is a character from the ‘80s throwback teen dramedy “Freaks and Geeks,” the former best friend of protagonist Lindsay. Lindsay is a straight-A student who suddenly starts wearing her dad’s green Army jacket and hanging with the burnout crowd following an existential crisis. I was a lot like her in high school. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the good sense exhibited by her uptight pal Millie, a hyper-religious mathlete who worries about her old friend running with a bad crowd. In one of my favorite episodes, Lindsay’s freak friends convince her to throw a keg party when her parents go out of town. She’s surprised when a disapproving Millie shows up at her door. Millie enters the house and announces with stoic determination, “I’m gonna have more fun than any of you. Sober.” 

Again, the delivery on this line just kills me. The heavy-handed seriousness cracks me up, but then Millie does have a fun time! At one point she sits down at the piano and belts out “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me” backed up by resident stoner Nick. I don’t regret my own experiences with youthful partying, or that I also eschewed religion and mathleticism when I was a teen. But I’m glad I’ve come around to a place where I’m learning the joy of sober fun.

See, the thing with drinking is that it takes up so much space in a day. Once I start I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that requires extra energy. To make sure I feel okay in the morning I have to follow all these little rules about how many beverages, how late, and how do I get home? Not needing to calculate all that feels so much easier.

I do miss the flavor. I enjoy un-sweet beverages that hit my palate like a sledgehammer, and I can only drink so much coffee. I’m developing a taste for non-alcoholic spirits that are supposed to replicate the flavor of gin and whiskey. But really they just have their own weird, abrasive bite. I figure I’m going through the same process that tricks people into thinking Diet Coke and turkey burgers taste as good as the real stuff. I’ve figured out how to make a decent knock-off dirty martini. It’s fine.

And yeah, I also miss the numbing. We live in very chaotic, scary times! And it’s getting worse! Some days it’s hard to find the joy in life. Booze has this remarkable ability to instantly shift my brain to FUN mode. But the pleasant distraction doesn’t last very long unless I keep sipping.

So instead of numbing, I take long walks and meditate. I try to live in the moment, no matter how unpleasant that may be. It’s rarely as bad as worrying about the future, mourning the past, or feeling guilty because I’m hungover from three beers. It isn’t as easy for me to flip that FUN switch when I’m feeling down. But overall I feel calmer, more ready to be present for others. More than anything, I just don’t want to be a dick to anyone else. I strongly believe — both politically and spiritually — that solidarity will be our only salvation in the days to come. It’s hard to be a good comrade or loved one when you’re crabby because you numbed too much the night before. I just can’t afford that.

The Ineffable Spirit That Healed Me

COVID took my brain to a dark place. Five days after testing positive, I was sitting up in bed, bawling in a teleconference with my therapist about how I’d fallen so far behind in everything. “I feel like I’m failing miserably,” I wailed. She talked me down, saying I must tend to my health first and foremost. I agreed to post a sign next to my bed that said BARE MINIMUM in big print so I wouldn’t forget healing was more important than work. And then she told me something I desperately needed to hear. “Tara, this depression you’re feeling is a symptom of COVID. You have felt joy before, and you will feel joy again.”

I took all of her advice to heart. Whenever I felt overwhelmed over the following week, I’d look at my BARE MINIMUM sign and mind its message. When my body felt weak, I’d lie down. And on several occasions, when I needed to revisit a sense of joy from another time and place, I watched the 1987 romantic comedy Roxanne. 

Roxanne is an adaptation of the 1897 French play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Steve Martin stars as CD Barnes, chief firefighter in an idyllic mountain town called Nelson. Charming, witty, and spry, CD is beloved by neighbors, colleagues, and his best friend Dixie (Shelley Duvall). Yet romance eludes him because of his freakishly long nose. Despite his good humor, CD has little patience for anyone who mocks his face; in the opening sequence he effortlessly beats up a couple of bullying yuppie cokeheads who make fun of his schnozz. Later that same evening he meets ethereal, intellectual beauty Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), an astronomy PhD student who’s come to Nelson to study stars. CD quickly becomes smitten with her, but then she develops a big crush on his newly arrived colleague Chris. Knowing Chris fancies Roxanne too, CD helps his handsome-but-dumb friend write a passionate love letter to her. Moved by this gorgeous prose, she falls deeper for Chris, unaware that he’s just a friendly himbo. CD becomes further entrenched in this triangle, all while continuing to express his true love under another man’s name. 

During the height of my sickness, romantic comedies comforted me more than anything. Once I got through every Reese Witherspoon flick I could find, I stumbled upon Roxanne on Hulu and decided to give it another look. I watched a VHS copy of this movie repeatedly when I was a kid, but hadn’t seen it since then. I figured it was just another pop culture piece kid Tara loved that adult Tara would appreciate mainly for nostalgia’s sake. What a pleasure to discover this movie not only holds up as a classic rom com, but is much improved by the widescreen framing that so beautifully captures its picturesque scenery. (Our cropped videotape version did no justice to the cinematography.) Nelson is a real place — in Canada to be exact — and even if I’ve never been there physically, it’s become my favorite escape as I recover from the plague.

Roger Ebert’s original review of the film said it quite well — “What makes ‘Roxanne’ so wonderful is not this fairly straightforward comedy, however, but the way the movie creates a certain ineffable spirit.” It’s more than the pretty mountain vistas, the Victorian houses, Roxanne’s cascading, ringleted mane, or the agile way CD dances down the road as he sings Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”. Much of the film’s sentimental glow emanates from Steve Martin’s delightful adaptation, full of silly zingers and witty observations about love, relationships, and human flaws. What strikes me most is how truly romantic it is, in a way that reminds me of Jane Austen but from a male viewpoint. I’ve developed a crush on both CD and Steve Martin. Every time I see him immersed in writing his first love letter to Roxanne, it fills the darkest corners of my psyche with warm, honey-colored light. There’s something so pure about it.

The thing about CD (and perhaps Steve Martin, too), is that he genuinely likes women as people. It’s a rare quality in real life, maybe even rarer in fiction. It sticks out when the male protagonist has a sassy best friend like Dixie, who rolls her eyes at his nerdy jokes and gives him shit for not pursuing the woman he loves. But the way CD falls for Roxanne is even more outstanding. 

When they first meet, she comes to the fire station stark naked because her robe got caught in the locked door as she was chasing a cat who’d run out of her house. She asks CD to help her get back in, he grabs a toolbox, and they have an awkward conversation as they walk to her place. He casually jokes about her nakedness — “I notice you don’t have any tattoos. I think that’s a wise choice. I don’t think Jackie Onassis would’ve gone as far if she’d had an anchor on her arm.” Roxanne clearly thinks he’s a weirdo, but then he acrobatically swings and shimmies his way up to an open attic window to access her home. Impressive! And as she gets dressed, he instantaneously prepares a lovely cheese and crudite tray to help revive her after her misadventure. So she invites him to a glass of wine. Roxanne looks otherworldly in this scene — a statuesque queen with gorgeous, golden, mermaid hair, wearing a shimmering ivory robe. Most men would either be stunned silent or making a move. But CD just casually chitchats with her like she’s one of the guys at the firehouse. 

Then he notices Roxanne’s telescope and asks if she knows about M-31. He adds, “Now, see, I like it when they give astronomical objects names, you know, like ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Saturn’ and ‘Sea of Tranquility.’ This whole numbering thing is just too boring for us civilians.” Roxanne replies, “Do you know how many objects are up there?” CD stammers, “Well, I know it’s over fifty.” Realizing she knows more about this than he does, he becomes sheepish. She playfully says, “Well we don’t know everything, do we,” then leans over his shoulder to show him the textbook definition of a quark. And when he looks at her with deep admiration, that is the moment you see he’s falling in love. Not when she’s naked, but rather when she checks his mansplaining and teaches him something new. And the chemistry just gets better from there.

As Sam Cooke said, I don’t know much about astronomy. But I am a smart woman and the idea that a man as charming and handsome as CD would love me for my intelligence and humor enchants me in the same way Mr. Darcy does. Because as weird as his nose is, the rest of CD looks and acts like peak Steve Martin, from the silver hair to his sprightly antics to his Cary Grant impersonation. There’s a lot to love, once you get past the Pinnochio thing. 

I have a habit of revisiting pop culture pieces that comfort me over and over again. I call them my “security blankets.” I’ve seen every episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” multiple times because it’s one of my go-to shows when I want to feel better about humankind. Roxanne has become my COVID comfort. And by that I mean that I’ve had COVID, I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, it took a lot out of me, and I know I can catch it again. That’s scary. So much scares me these days. But love and joy feel eternal, and the stars will last a lot longer than me. And as long as Roxanne is there to remind me about all that, I will be at least somewhat okay.

When Seinfeld Had a Mini Abortion Arc

I’ve long believed that if we want to win true reproductive freedom for all, we must attack abortion stigma. I also believe the best way to do that is to talk about abortion like it’s the most normal thing in the world (which it is). In a past life I practiced this habit by researching and writing about television episodes that tackled this once-taboo topic. I’d often compare and contrast TV abortion stories to my own experience of terminating a pregnancy, which I consider one of the best and most obvious choices I’ve ever made. But until very recently, TV almost always treated abortion as something dark and complex by its very nature. Ever since titular sitcom character Maude decided to terminate an unplanned pregnancy in 1972 (two months before Roe became the law of the land), primetime network TV has had a complicated relationship with abortion. After anti-choice groups engaged in high-profile boycotts of Maude’s sponsors, networks refused to touch the topic for nearly a decade. In the 1980s, shows like The Facts of Life, Dynasty, and 21 Jump Street would tackle storylines around abortion, but always with the gravitas of a “very special episode.” Characters rarely went through with the deed; often they’d either decide to just have a baby or have a miscarriage-of-convenience. TV shows never seemed to treat abortion as an everyday procedure or an easy decision. Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and well into the ‘00s, those rare programs that dealt with unwanted pregnancy usually treated it as a serious moral dilemma.

Given all the research I’ve done, I’m naturally very sensitive to even the most subtle reference to reproductive choice. I’m especially fascinated by any episode that predates the rise of risqué cable series like Sex and the City. So I have no idea how I remained unaware that Seinfeld had both subtle and frank unplanned pregnancy/abortion themes in back-to-back 1994 episodes! Granted, neither story involves a pregnant character making a choice about an unplanned pregnancy. That would be entirely too much story for this classic “show about nothing.” Nevertheless I was delighted with the way these episodes talk around abortion like it’s the most natural thing that every person with a uterus should be able to access.

The first unplanned pregnancy mention (for lack of a better term) is so subtle it’s no wonder I missed it in previous viewings. In season six, episode four “The Chinese Woman,” Kramer becomes concerned about his sperm count when Elaine says he’d be better off wearing boxers instead of briefs if he’s ever interested in having a child. This sparks the following conversation:

Kramer: What would you say if I told you I never impregnated a woman?

Jerry: Really? You never slipped one past the goalie in all these years? I’m surprised, you’ve slept with a lot of women.

Kramer: A lot of women! You think maybe I’m… depleted?

Thus begins Kramer’s bizarre, chaotic attempt to become a dad. But I’m more interested in what’s implied by that dialogue. Jerry thinks it odd that his friend has never gotten someone pregnant, given the number of people he’s had sex with. And Jerry can relate; anyone familiar with the series knows he has a new girlfriend practically every week. His disbelief almost suggests that he himself has, on at least one occasion, “slipped one past the goalie.” This in itself is so unusual. At this point in TV history, unplanned pregnancies only ever pop up for one of two reasons — to announce that a character is having a baby and/or to introduce an abortion-themed plot line. But we know Jerry isn’t a father, so my curiosity leads me to wonder — what would have happened in that situation? Perhaps what’s most interesting about this moment is that this back story isn’t fleshed out only to be explained away with a miscarriage of convenience (like they did with Jaleesa on A Different World). So it opens up the possibility that one of Jerry’s girlfriends had an abortion, which I love so much! TV shows of the 1980s and ‘90s would have us believe that abortion is always this dark, heavy finale to an unpleasant surprise. But for many of us living in reality — and perhaps also the Seinfeld universe — it is oftentimes way less emotionally complicated than either a miscarriage or carrying a pregnancy to term. It might not be a very big deal at all.

I was so happy to uncover this extremely subtle reference to unplanned pregnancy. I was in no way prepared for the way more frank and funny abortion references in season six, episode five “The Couch.” The topic first arises when Jerry and Elaine visit a restaurant called Poppie’s to try their famed duck dish. As the two friends await their meal, Jerry says that if he’d stayed home that evening he would’ve eaten Pokeno’s pizza instead. Elaine bristles, telling him he shouldn’t order from there because, “the owner contributes a lot of money to those fanatical anti-abortion groups.” So when Chef Poppie visits their table, Jerry (ever the instigator) inquires what his views are on abortion. Poppie launches into an anti-choice tirade that prompts Elaine, plus all the other women in the restaurant, and even Jerry to throw down their forks and walk out.

In a seemingly unrelated story line, Jerry orders a new couch and asks the movers to take his old one to Elaine’s apartment. Elaine flirts with handsome, friendly mover Carl and the two soon go on a date. After their passionate first kiss, we next see Elaine standing at Jerry’s door shouting, “I’m in looooove!” She waltzes in gushing about her exciting new relationship, and how it’s blessedly free of pretense or games because Carl “has too much character and integrity.” As she touches up her lipstick, Jerry responds, “Uh-huh. And what is his stand on abortion?” You can practically hear Elaine’s heart plummet as she turns to Jerry with a worried expression, smearing lipstick across her cheek. 

Elaine: Well I’m sure he’s pro-choice.

Jerry: How do you know?

Elaine: Because he… well… he’s just so good-looking.

Elaine in loooove!
vs. Elaine in distress

Once Jerry has planted this seed of concern, Elaine has to know the truth. The next time she’s with Carl, she randomly mentions a “friend” who got impregnated by her “troglodytic half-brother” and had an abortion. She eyes Carl, nervously waiting for his response. He gets this faraway look in his eye and says, “You know, someday we’re gonna get enough people in the Supreme Court to change that law.” NOOO! When Elaine bursts into tears, she cries for us all. This joke may be 27+ years old, yet somehow it is still TOO SOON.

I’ve watched dozens of TV episodes that dealt with the “a-word”, and I think this little arc is far more subversive and gratifying than the more heavy-handed episodes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “The Chinese Woman” establishes that unplanned pregnancy (and implied abortion) is just a normal part of being a sexually active city dweller who’s had a lot of partners; it’s actually more surprising if that doesn’t happen at some point! And then we have “The Couch,” which frames anti-choice ideology as a flaw that cannot be overlooked. Neither of these stories engage in the tired, typical hemming and hawing about “controversy” or “respecting different points of view,” like other shows of the era that didn’t want to upset the sponsors. Rather, on the number one primetime program of the 1994-95 season, they made a big joke of how no one wants to sleep with an anti, no matter how handsome he is. Now there’s some TV abortion discourse that actually rings true to me.

And yet it’s also a crushing reminder that the Carls of the world have gotten their way! Here in 2022 there are enough people on the Supreme Court, and it’s just a matter of time before Roe goes bye-bye. I’m glad the discourse around abortion has shifted. When I stopped writing those TV reviews in 2017, I’d already seen several recent shows like Bojack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and GLOW present wonderful, hilarious abortion narratives that did not paint their protagonists as sad, broken, or ruined by their unwanted pregnancies. Team Choice has been winning hearts and minds and these popular narratives prove that. Unfortunately Team Anti has won power. Our only choice is to keep fighting for abortion access, because it is the most normal, mundane, “yada yada yada” thing every pregnant person should be able to have.

The Feelings Curse

I don’t recommend being a Highly Sensitive Person. I first heard about this personality trait from a Facebook meme, which included a checklist of questions like “Are you startled by loud noises?…Does seeing another person crying make you cry?… Do you get physically overwhelmed by confrontation?… Then you might be an HSP!” Having answered “yes” to every question, I thought, “Well this sounds fake but it definitely describes me.” And then I forgot about it. Much like social media makes too big a deal out of self-identifying as an introvert with special needs or an empath with superpowers, I figured this was just another ploy to make people obsess over themselves and seek attention on the internet. And since I do enough of that already, I discarded the notion as goofy pop psychology.

But then it turns out it’s a real thing! I learned this when talking to my last therapist, whom I did not like very much. I was trying to tell her about an annoying person I knew who bore all the traits of a borderline personality disorder but refused to seek psychological help, which got on my nerves. That’s when she asked me, “Have you ever heard the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’?”

“Oh, yeah! I’m one of those. Wait, is that a real thing?”

“Yes, and it’s a personality trait shared by as much as 30% of the population. HSP’s cannot help having strong reactions to external stimuli, that’s just part of their nervous system. But for the other 70% of the population who don’t feel that way, they often think, ‘You’re exaggerating. You’re too sensitive. You need to grow a thicker skin. There’s something wrong with you.’”

“Oh for sure. I heard that a lot when I was growing up.”

“Well there’s been some recent evidence that shows a high correlation between HSPs and people with Borderline Personalities, and the theory is that they developed that disorder because people around them constantly told them their feelings weren’t valid.” Then she stared at me through our miserable Zoom arrangement with her judgmental Karen face. And that felt like a thousand cuts on my heart, because I’m cursed with that very condition that makes some people develop personality disorders. At least I learned from an actual psychologist that HSP isn’t just some internet hokum, but I had to stop seeing that lady because her critical vibe was too much for me.

I’ve been wondering lately if being the kind of person who reacts this strongly to any sort of negative feeling from others means I should give up on the whole political organizing thing. I used to find joy in this work. That was before the pandemic, when I would usually gather with comrades in person and pick up on their body language, their unmuted reactions, their always-visible facial expressions. Now (especially since the onset of winter and Omicron) it’s a lot of Zoom, a lot of silent black boxes staring back at me. So much emptiness, not knowing how people really feel or think. It’s a lot of me filling in the blanks with my worst fears. Did I offend that person? Did I not make sense? In group settings I do lots of silly wisecracking but in the Zoom room mine is the only laughter I hear. When I hear aggravation in other people’s voices (or perhaps worse, my own), the medium seems to heighten that feeling of resentment to the point of being toxic. All told, these meetings leave me feeling very alienated and lonely.

In brighter, more physically social times, I think the best thing I bring to this socialist movement is enthusiasm. I get excited about things like canvassing and turning people out for rallies, and that deeply felt energy gets other people excited. Unfortunately I’m really bad at the other emotion that gets so many of my comrades pumped — aggression. This is the time for fighters, because there’s so much anger to harness and powerful people to blame. My husband Dan is a fighter. He loves arguing with bad people in power and other sorts of assholes. Last week at Costco he saw a shopper toss aside the city-mandated mask a store greeter had just handed to her. Dan asked if she was gonna wear it. She just shrugged so he hollered, “Then you need to get out of here!” This prompted an elderly bystander to shout, “You tell ‘em!” I was happy they got to share that moment of solidarity, but my chief emotion when I heard about this was, “Oh my god, I am SO GLAD I was not with you.” Doesn’t matter if it’s some random anti-masker or the mayor (whom Dan also regularly confronts). Doesn’t matter that they absolutely deserve the wrath. My reaction when I’m in close proximity to these situations is always the same. My heart races. I have to avert my glance. I want to run. I wish to be cooler and braver than this, but not running is my version of being brave!

There are some organizing scenarios in which being an HSP has some benefit. One is deep canvassing, a persuasion methodology I recently learned that’s all about nonjudgmental listening, storytelling, and empathy. I love doing persuasion work because unlike fighting, it flows from a place of positivity. I don’t want to tell people why they’re wrong (harsh vibes, heart racing, run!). Instead I want to say, “Here’s why we should work together” (upbeat vibes, radiance, warmth). My big feelings also help with mentoring work I’ve been doing with some Democratic Socialists of America chapters that are trying to build people power in challenging circumstances. I know how frustrating organizing in a midsize southern city can be, so I tend to approach that project with a lot of humility and compassion. I do my best to stay attuned to other organizers’ passions and gripes to help nudge them toward whatever next step they need to take.

I find both deep canvassing and mentoring satisfying. The connection and idealism I feel when I’m talking with people about shared values and the change we want to see in the world is HSP at its best. I can only imagine the positive jolt I’d get from it if it were in person. I’ve only done this work over the phone or via video conferencing. This pandemic has whittled away so much of that human connectivity by shoving it through a lot of cable and satellites. Meanwhile my sense of alienation grows. I don’t know how much more of this great imbalance I can take.

So I daydream about quitting all organizing and just doing creative stuff instead, which feels like a better use of HSP characteristics. I can just focus on cultivating a rich inner life and embrace solitude. Amateur writers don’t have to spend several hours a week on Zoom. I know I’d probably go back to feeling a lot of the hopelessness and isolation I felt before I got involved with a socialist organization, but at least I wouldn’t be so exposed to these distanced interactions that confuse and tire me. I don’t know how to bring enthusiasm anymore. How could I even expect anyone to match that energy? Aggression makes more sense in these times, but that’s not my bag. 

I feel bested by this pandemic and with that comes a sometimes overwhelming sense of failure. I know feeling that way isn’t fair to myself. It isn’t my fault my strengths aren’t suited to these times. I wish I could just be a different sort of person, but I know from experience my skin can only grow so thick.

Aleksey Savrasov “Winter Landscape” 1880 — c.1890

How to Enjoy the Holidays When the World Is on Fire

I was parked at my third red light on the most terrible road in town, the one named after the shopping mall it abuts. Whenever I’m stuck in traffic on this road (which is every time I drive it, but especially during the holidays), I engage in my favorite socialist fantasy, “What if we raptured all the cars?” Imagine just waving a magic wand, and poof! Every automobile disappears. Of course the first thing I envision is every driver falling on their ass in the middle of the pavement, which may be funny but not the most pleasant start to my daydream. So then I imagine what we’d have instead — light rail trains heading east and west on one side of the boulevard and a lovely green space along the other. Solar powered high rises would fill space once devoted to strip mall parking spaces. We’d still have stores with all the useful things we need like clothes, groceries, pet food, and hardware. But the way we get to those places would feel completely different. To live in the United States is to drive these terrible, traffic-clogged roads and navigate massive parking lots so we can access affordable goods at Target, Walmart, and Costco. And then we sit in traffic and fill the sky with exhaust from these tiny tanks we need to get us there. So what if we got rid of the tanks and used trains, or even just lived a walkable distance from the places with useful stuff? 

I sat in my car and wondered these things until the light changed to green, and then I made my escape. We’re a long way from seeing that massive infrastructural change we desperately need. I make these unpleasant pilgrimages to the useful places out of necessity. But in that moment I vowed to myself I would avoid those stores until after the new year. That’s a gift I’m giving myself this Christmas.

I hate capitalism and how it makes living here so hard, but I still manage to love the holiday season. I do this by being extremely intentional about savoring the good parts and shunning the bad. In fact, I tend to start with, “What nonsense will I refuse to entertain this Christmas?” Always at the top of the list — bad company. I don’t spend holidays with people I dislike. All this talk of “Oh no, how do I deal with my racist uncle’s Trump 2024 talk at Thanksgiving dinner?” I would simply not go to the dinner where that asshole is a guest. No judgment toward your mom or grandma or whichever maternal figure is doing the lion’s share of hosting the family gathering this year. (It is almost always the women doing everything. Don’t even get me started on that nonsense.) I get why families put up with their own jerks at the holidays, I just choose to not partake in that kind of social situation. Yes, this is a selfish choice and I stand by it 100%.

But that’s an old rule for me. And especially now that I have my own little family, I don’t even have to pretend to consider otherwise. We usually spend Christmas with just each other. This year I feel lucky this is our tradition and that we don’t have any plans to visit with distant family, because I see how massively stressed and disappointed so many folks are given the rise of the omicron variant. Now even the vaccinated have to worry about spreading this especially contagious strain of COVID to vulnerable loved ones. The safety calculus never seems to get easier, does it? If you are struggling with this pandemic development ruining your holiday plan to be with loved ones, my heart goes out to you. You deserve better.

On the other hand, if this presents a convenient excuse for you to avoid your racist Trump-loving uncle and other people you really don’t want to see, I say, “Run with it baby!” When the world is burning, we gotta take our breaks wherever we can find them. So for instance, when it is 70 degrees in December — as it has been, which is extremely disturbing — I’m gonna enjoy some long walks in the balmy breeze. So, so much bad is happening right now. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying any of the odd, unexpected benefits of an upside down yuletide season.

I love Christmastime, but I won’t lie. This one has been really tough for me. This fall I had a great job situation turn very sour. I’ve felt a growing sense of alienation as more of my human interaction has returned to Zoom. I feel depleted by the end of a long, exquisite autumn and the present nothingness of empty trees and anemic lawns. It’s like watching all the color drain out of a picture. I don’t write as often as I used to, because I’ve been too distracted by anxiety and sadness to feel any inspiration. Perhaps more than anything, I’m haunted by the fact that every one of my relationships has changed so much since the start of the pandemic. Some grew stronger, but many went the other way. It hurts my heart, especially in a season that is supposed to revolve around the warmth of human connection.

So I don’t pretend this is the most wonderful time of the year. In many ways, this Christmas really sucks. But I love my gaudy, fake tree with its garish, fatty bulbs more than ever before. One morning I was lying on the couch, feeling sad about the state of the world. My husband was leashing up the dog for a walk when he saw me reach for my phone. “No doom-scrolling,” he chided, and then he plugged in the tree lights. So I looked at its bright blue, green, red, and yellow glow instead of eyeballing the nonstop barrage of terrible news on Twitter. And I smiled. 

This year the holidays are less about other people and more about savoring the flavor of eggnog spiked with rum, eating the stinkiest cheeses, watching the silliest holiday romcoms, shopping at thrift stores, and giving myself a very long break from Zoom. I’m removing the things I dislike most about this season and making room to heal from stress and sadness. I’m thinking more about eliminating the nonsense, so I have the energy to weather bad circumstances I can’t control.

1971 Salvador Dalí Christmas Card

Community Is More Than a Friend Group

At the start of the year I established a daily meditation practice. I didn’t foresee it as a long-term habit, but rather a tool for surviving a lonely quarantine winter. In lieu of New Year’s resolutions, I decided to simply survive the pandemic, and to that end I fixed upon a few states of mind I longed to conjure — clarity, acceptance, and inner light. I often listened to the Beatles song “The Inner Light” and thought about a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode of the same name. Captain Picard experiences another man’s entire adult life during the course of a brief coma. I reflected on the George Harrison lyrics that inspired it — “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth.” I knew that to stay safe I needed to physically distance from others. The harsh January elements didn’t allow for much outdoor socializing, especially as I spent most of my daylight hours at home with a very unhappy child trying to get through remote learning. I accepted and embraced these limitations by turning my focus inward.

And for the most part I was alright. I had my family, and managed to meet up with friends for occasional walks. I didn’t really feel how much I’d lost during that quarantine winter until I began a meditation app series on relationships. In the first part you practice visualizing an ever-growing beam of light pouring out of your chest. Then you switch to seeing that beam of light shine out of a loved one’s chest. When it got to the third part of the series, I got stuck. That’s when I was supposed to see the light beam emerging from a person I only sorta know. “This is someone you feel pretty neutral about,” the teacher explained. “Maybe it’s the cashier you often see at the grocery store, or your auto repair guy.” In that moment, I could not visualize a single person other than Dylan, the lanky, mild-mannered young man from the pest control company who comes to spray our house every three months. He was literally the only non-family, non-friend acquaintance I’d seen in the flesh since before Christmas. I tried to imagine people I’d seen in virtual meetings; alas, most people on Zoom don’t have chests! In order to fully visualize someone in three dimensions, experiencing the peaceful euphoria of that expanding inner light, I could only fix upon Dylan. And that felt like too much pressure on my one neutral, in-person relationship. So I abandoned that series and went back to concentrating on my own light beam.

That experience really nailed an idea I’ve had for several years now, that community is way more than just your group of friends. It also encompasses the many people you know just in passing. Quarantine taught me that I feel more at home in my town when I’m engaging in many of these neutral relationships. As someone who is deeply introverted, I find great comfort in the idea that community includes a lot of people who will never be that close to me on an emotional level. 

I admit that until about four years ago, I’d shy away from the word “community” because I thought it meant “an obligation to hang out with a crowd of people”. The truth is, I don’t want a friend group because I don’t like being around a lot of people at the same time. That exhausts me. I enjoy an occasional party, but will probably show up early when it’s quiet and possibly pull an Irish goodbye when the crowd gets thick. I thought community meant a party every weekend, which was more than I could handle. So I assumed I was meant to be a lone wolf.

Right after we moved from Tennessee to North Carolina in 2017 — as I was struggling to reestablish myself in a totally new place — I read a very compelling installment of my friend Liza Featherstone’s advice column. In “Asking for a Friend,” Liza would answer readers’ questions about living ethically under late capitalism. In this particular edition a distraught reader explained that while they were fighting for a better world, they also worried what would happen if we don’t have a social safety net by the time they have to stop working. How would they survive at that point? (You can read the column here; TW: suicide.) Liza turned to some experts on the subject of aging, including a hospice volunteer and an anti-ageism activist. Both emphasized the importance of community for poor and working class elderly folks. As I read that I felt my hackles rise. There was that pesky c-word again, that friend group thing that had always eluded me. In that moment I began to worry what would become of hopelessly introverted me in my elder years.

And then the anti-aging activist, Ashton Applewhite, said something that’s been tattooed on my brain ever since. “I have a horror of the collective… In my ideal life, I’d live alone in a turret, entertaining a very handsome visitor now and then. But I realize I have to get over this. Community, community, community is the only way we are going to age affordably and comfortably.” And that was the moment I decided I must make an effort to connect with the people around me. Maybe we’d never be close in the way of founding an elder commune together. But surely there had to be other ways we could support and protect one another in an increasingly chaotic and self-destructive world. There was no way around it, we all need each other.

Four years and a global pandemic later, I am so grateful for the safe ways I can connect with my community and those lightweight relationships I was missing last winter. Thank goodness for vaccination. Now if I need to imagine a neutral person’s chest beam, I can think about the barista who complimented my shirt or the comrade I just met for the first time at our recent DSA outdoor meet-up. I can also experience the nosy joy of eavesdropping once more, and wonder what it meant when that young lady at the park said, “Seeing all my friends was great, but there was no wedding.” (Did someone cancel their wedding?! Who and why? Ahhh, it’s so fun to imagine even though I’ll never know!)  And while I had misgivings about my kid returning to elementary school before any of the students had been vaccinated, I get to enjoy her happier mental state and even see some of her teachers in person sometimes. I have become an ardent fan of those who usher the car lines every day.

I know most of these people will never be very close to me. But in the last four years I’ve also learned a lot about solidarity — the idea that all of us working class people share a common struggle. You can have someone’s back without being their best bud. I may not have a lot of close friends, but I’ve got comrades all over this town.

“Angel’s Paradise” Howard Finster, 1985

The Best Working Class Lady Sitcom You Never Heard Of

Decades after I moved away, I remain fascinated with the biggest, most iconic building in my hometown of Dearborn, MI — a glassy, semicircular high rise that once housed the Hyatt Regency. Back in the 1980s, traveling rock stars would stay there when their tours came through Detroit. Not that working class people like me knew much about those lux interiors. If you ask any Dearborn person over 40 what they remember most about the Hyatt, they’ll rave about the futuristic monorail that connected to  nearby Fairlane Mall. But if you ask me my main association with that strange, shimmering edifice, I’ll start singing, “Life’s not the French Riviera! Believe me, life’s not a charity ball!”

Fans know I’m referring to the theme song from 1980s workplace sitcom It’s a Living. But there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of this series before. It takes place in Above the Top, a restaurant on the highest floor of a swanky Los Angeles skyscraper. The show featured a crew of beautiful, charming waitresses juggling family, school, and their love lives while serving the clientele of a fine dining establishment. I could tell that the real-life Bonaventure Hotel — which was used in the show’s exterior shots — probably had one of those rotating rotunda restaurants, just like the Hyatt. So for me as a kid, the It’s a Living building and my town’s shiny, glass hotel were basically the same thing — the picture of mod ‘80s elegance.

The former Hyatt Regency and the famed monorail! (Detroit Free Press)
This ‘80s font gives me life (ABC Television)

And as far as kid me was concerned, adult women did not get any cooler than the waitresses from It’s a Living. For one thing they got to work in these beautiful matching low-cut gowns and heels (not at all practical for hustling on one’s feet all day, but what does an eight-year-old know about arch support?). They’d zip about their tables, spurning sleazy lounge singer Sonny’s pathetic advances, then dip into the kitchen to assemble salads and gossip. And then at the end of the shift, they’d all hang out in their fully furnished employee lounge, which completely ruined my expectations for what a break room would look like. They’d swap their beautiful waitress uniforms for extremely fashionable ‘80s attire (lots of chunky, oversized sweaters and scarves) as they exchanged zingers about each other’s boyfriends and spouses. Theirs looked like a perfectly wonderful workplace life to me, and that’s how I imagined it must be to wait tables at the fancy restaurant at the top of the Hyatt. I found their work life aspirational. 

Revisiting the series now, I realize that the waitresses’ friendships were the real heart of the series, even more than the cool clothes and cushy lounge. Regardless of the various cast changes throughout the series’ six-season run (and there were several, especially after the show’s network run got canceled and it moved to syndication), each episode began with the waitresses walking arm-in-arm into work as the bonkers amazing theme song kicked off. It’s basically a Broadway show tune, and a really great one. The lyrics are all about how this working class gig may not make you rich, but who cares as long as you’re hot and spry?

Life’s not the French Riviera

Believe me, Life’s not a charity ball.

It isn’t all a great, big bed of roses

It’s not like showbiz

But the main thing I suppose is

We’re not the people you envy

Believe me, we know we’re doing okay

We may be less than wealthy

But better yet, we’re young and healthy

And anyone who’s young and healthy knows
that that’s the way the traffic flows

We’ve no misgivings

It’s a living.

It’s weird to me that a show this fun failed on network TV. It’s a Living was a Witt/Thomas production, the same people who made The Golden Girls. I see a lot of similarities between the two shows’ sassy lady-centric vibe and frequent sex jokes. In 1980, many viewers found It’s a Living’s pilot episode too risque; when audience members freaked out over the waitresses’ frank discussion about premarital sex (young Vicki, played by Wendy Schall, is thinking about giving it up for her new beau), Proctor and Gamble pulled sponsporship. ABC kept pitting the program against megahit shows like Magnum PI, and it was cancelled after the second season. It’s a Living’s 40 original episodes found new life in syndication and the show returned with new episodes in 1985 (exactly when The Golden Girls premiered on NBC), featuring some original cast members and the same premise. 

I remember watching those new episodes every Sunday afternoon on TV 20, an absolute gem in a time slot dominated by boring pro sports. This was probably the first show I really appreciated as an ensemble, because all of the characters were so memorable. There was cranky maitre d Nancy (Marian Mercer, as the boss everyone despised), who paraded about in ridiculous floor-length evening gowns as she scolded the ladies for coming in late or shirking their responsibilities. She was in love with deadpan chef Howard (Richard Stahl), who suffered her flirting with the same withdrawn disdain he aimed at everyone. Sonny (Paul Kreppel) was still there doing his lounge act and harassing the waitresses. And so was platinum blond Cassie (Ann Jillian); both wisecracking and horny, she was a perfect combo of The Golden Girls’ Sophia and Blanche. Flaky aspiring actress Dot (Gail Edwards) returned with the original cast as well as busy law school student Jan (Barrie Youngfellow), whose sarcastic edge made her the Dorothy of the crew. Crystal Bernard joined the cast as Amy (Crystal Bernard), a naive young lady from small town Texas who brought the Rose energy. 

Season 3 cast (Lorimar Telepictures)

Much like The Golden Girls, I find It’s a Living more memorable for its bantering personalities than its plot lines. The one story I remembered quite well was a season 3 episode called “Dinner with Deedee.” In it, Jan is mortified when she has to wait on former grade school classmate Deedee (Jennifer Salt), who was always her number one academic competitor. Having narrowly beaten her rival for “Most Likely to Succeed,” Jan is embarrassed to be waiting on this woman who has since gone on to marry a wealthy, famous TV exec. She begs Cassie to take that table, then spends the rest of that night skirting past her old schoolmate. But then Jan runs into Deedee as she’s going into work the next day and lets her believe she’s become a powerful attorney. They agree to meet at the restaurant for dinner, which means Jan must enlist the help of her colleagues in pulling off this ruse.

Looking back, I think this episode stuck out for me because I didn’t know until then that anyone would look down on a service industry worker. Waiting tables was just a job like any other one, as far as my third-grade mind was concerned. What could be embarrassing about bringing people food, especially when you’re dressed to kill? The idea that any of these funny, beautiful women would feel less important than a lawyer had never occurred to me before. I remembered that Jan eventually came clean to Deedee, but her initial embarrassment was my bigger takeaway. That was my introduction to the hierarchies of traditional working class labor vs. professional managerial class jobs.

I’m pleased to say that when I recently rewatched this episode, the story deals with that tension in a pretty cool way. For instance, when Jan asks Cassie to take her table, she confesses, “I don’t want her to see that I’m doing just this.” Cassie shoots back, “What’s wrong with ‘just this’? It’s what I do.” At the end of the shift when Jan is decompressing from dodging Deedee all night, the other waitresses give her shit for behaving so ridiculously, calling her juvenile, stupid, cowardly, and short. But even though Jan is hiding the part of herself they all share in common, they still help her pretend she’s a high class customer (not a worker) when the titular dinner with Deedee finally occurs. That’s solidarity.

Perhaps that generosity from her peers is part of the reason Jan eventually admits to her former rival what she really does for a living. Or maybe it’s because Deedee turns out to be pretty cool and fun (also a great tipper, as Cassie noted the night before). Either way, the waitresses are so committed to Jan’s charade that they refuse to admit she’s their coworker even when she presses them to tell Deedee the truth. Finally Jan asks Dot, “Will you cover my shift tomorrow night?” To which Dot absentmindedly replies, “Sure, Jan.” It’s a sweet and funny moment, when Dot blows her cover because it’s just second nature to help her friend. Jan tells Deedee that she’s happy with her life, even if it’s not what she’d imagined when she was younger. And to her credit, Deedee doesn’t look down on her one bit. When she returns to dine at Above the Top the next evening, Jan insists on serving her. Cassie asks if this is about proving she has nothing to hide. Jan says, “Nope, I’m going for the tip.” Get it, girl!

I love returning to this show as an adult woman socialist. Season 3 has a bunch of great episodes, like the one where the waitresses join forces to defend Amy from a stalker, or when Cassie dates a cowboy billionaire with big McConnaughey vibes but later dumps him when he starts messing with her work life. There’s so much lady coworker solidarity! When I was a kid, I thought it would be so rad to work at the top of that glassy tower, wearing a pretty uniform, hanging in the lounge with cool coworkers I love. And I still adore those details. But now I also enjoy It’s a Living as a celebration of proletariat ladies who always have each other’s backs. We don’t get enough depictions of that in popular media.

The season 4 cast on their way up to Above the Top. Sheryl Lee Ralph joined the show as Ginger, after Ann Jillian left the program to fight breast cancer (Lorimar Telepictures)

My Car-Free, Carefree Carolinian Adventure

Remember when a bunch of us got vaccinated and our worlds blossomed anew? What a spring that was! I remember the moment in May when my daydreams about visiting art museums became plans. I decided once the National Gallery of Art fully reopened, I’d make a pilgrimage to Washington DC and seek out Marc Chagall (my quarantine obsession) in the Sculpture Garden. I’d take a full day exploring the NGA, and another full day wandering the city and writing.

Mentally I had begun working through the logistics of absconding with the family car for a four-day journey when a wild idea occurred to me — couldn’t I take a train there from Greensboro? A quick visit to the Amtrak website confirmed my desire. Hooray!! I could actually plan a big city getaway with no airplanes and minimal driving, which for me is truly living the dream. In that moment, I was just psyched to avoid city traffic and parking. But when I finally set foot on that Carolinian train bound for Alexandria, VA in late July, I wasn’t prepared for the thrill of riding the rails once more. It made me feel so young again.

I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 32 years old. I mostly used buses, trains, airplanes, and my own two feet before then. I developed a fondness for the forty-minute Wolverine train from Dearborn to Ann Arbor when I was in high school. This was how I could visit my sisters and later my boyfriend without having to beg my parents for rides. Whenever I rode back to Dearborn (near the end of the line for the route coming from Chicago), I’d sit very quietly in the smoking car while the conductor made his rounds, halfheartedly looking for any new passengers. Half the time he’d walk right past me, and once the coast was clear, I’d light a celebratory cigarette. I could use my ticket for the next trip and save myself eight bucks, which was a lot of money to a teenager in 1994.

Here in 2021, I had no intention of bilking our national rail service. I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to, since they don’t let you transfer tickets like that anymore. Also I was near the start of a route that runs from Charlotte all the way to New York’s Penn Station. The conductors checked my ticket several times, which is just one of the ways they run the tightest ship I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. They enforce a mask mandate better than any other institution I’ve encountered since the start of the pandemic, which made my ride an absolute joy from start to finish. 

My favorite part of this Amtrak experience (also a highlight from the trip as a whole) were the conductors’ departure announcements. A different gentleman spoke every time we left. The first one firmly explained the mask policy — no taking it off unless you’re actively eating or drinking — and then added, “If you do not abide by this policy we will happily escort you off the train at our earliest opportunity and the next destination will be your last.” My heart raced when I heard that. These guys are not messing. Definitely unionized, I thought. Each successive announcement reiterated the mask policy, though many would also take the time to address a particular pet peeve. One conductor addressed an incident that had just happened in my car. “Please use headphones when watching videos or listening to music on your devices. If you don’t use headphones then we all hear it, and nobody wants that.” YES, thank you, that was so annoying, I silently cheered. My favorite was the dining car attendant doing last call before his meal break. “And please don’t come into the cafe car until I’m done. Thanks! See you in an hour.” I practically swooned. Telling customers they can’t bug you during your break — what a king! Few things satisfy me more than seeing workers flex their power.

Classic Amtrak posters. Wolverine and Carolinian sadly not pictured.

The other part of the ride I enjoyed most was just the ability to get up and move around freely without turbulence or that weird feeling of hurtling through the sky. The train moves in such a smooth, straight line. It doesn’t take long for me to adjust my sense of balance. Flying, on the other hand, feels so unpleasant — the cramped quarters and dry, recycled air, the pressure in my ears, being trapped 35,000 feet in the air with people behaving in gross, obnoxious ways. Especially now we’re seeing passengers refusing to mask or behaving aggressively toward flight attendants (sometimes to the point of finding themself duct-taped to their seat), I have no interest in flying for a long time.

It was different when I was younger. My father worked for an airline, so I could get dirt cheap standby tickets anywhere they flew. In college I’d take weekend trips to visit my sister in Washington DC and always felt so confident flitting about airports with my carry-on bag, always knowing exactly where I needed to go. When I was going to school in Ann Arbor, I could’ve taken the Amtrak to Chicago but flying was always cheaper. But then one time a snowstorm hit the great lakes while I was visiting a friend for New Year’s weekend, and I got stranded at her aunt’s house in Schaumburg, IL. There was no chance of me getting a flight back to Detroit for days, so I bought one of the last tickets on the Wolverine. The train ride took about three hours longer than it was supposed to. The gaps between the cars were lined with freshly fallen snow. The door at the end of my car wouldn’t stay shut unless you really slammed it, and everyone kept walking through on their way to the cafe car. My car-mates and I got used to shouting, “Shut the door,” in unison at every newbie passerby who didn’t know the score. When the door didn’t shut it made our car twenty degrees colder, so our voices grew surlier as the trip wore on. That was definitely my least favorite Amtrak ride, but it got me home when no other mode of transport could.

I wonder where some of those “shut the door” people are now, and if they remember that strange journey through the blizzard. Unpleasant as it was, that was a very communal moment. We all worked together to keep warm. My pandemic train ride to Metro DC certainly felt more relaxed and pleasant, but I sensed a similar communal spirit. From what I could see, everyone did keep their masks up when they weren’t taking bites or sipping drinks. But more than that, I appreciated the tacit understanding that if anyone acted too foolish the conductors would haul their ass off at the next station, which is never that far away. People tend to behave better when they know those consequences are in play.

This is why I don’t mind taking eight hours to get to a place I could drive in five. And I always prefer riding to driving. I love gazing at passing scenery and letting my mind wander. From a train, you see parts of the world the road never shows you. As I meditated upon eastern North Carolina’s flat, rural expanses, I recalled that brief time in 2007 when I lived in Detroit and occasionally rode the train to work in Ann Arbor. Such a surreal journey. First you glide through these vast urban neighborhoods dotted with abandoned lots that had turned to meadows and eventually you end up in this lush green city that thrives on the University of Michigan’s $12 billion endowment. And in-between are these highly paved and increasingly desolate suburbs, including the neighborhood where I was raised. You just don’t see that steady gradation from poverty to wealth in such stark detail when you’re riding down the interstate.

Between 2007 and now, I’d been on only one Amtrak ride — in winter 2009 the Cascades route took my husband and me from Seattle to Portland, and it was by far the fanciest train I’d been on. We got to watch “The Philadelphia Story” on built-in monitors! In the age of smart devices and streaming media, I wasn’t missing those amenities on the more austere Carolinian train (though I would love to be on one of those long, scenic, western routes with the observation cars). Honestly I was thrilled when I finally noticed the electrical outlet next to my leg about three hours into the journey, so I could stop conserving my phone battery like some sad, modern-day pioneer. Once I knew I could juice up my devices, I decided this was the ultimate way to travel. I’ll take this slower, calmer, ecologically sustainable, and all around more civilized experience over flying any time.

My DC adventure was just as delightful as the ride there. I walked and took the Metro everywhere. I found Chagall’s glittering mosaic hidden in a shady corner of the Sculpture Garden, where I sat on a rock, sipped an ice coffee, and wept for a bit. I wandered Old Town Alexandria, wrote half an essay outside of a cafe, and gazed upon the Potomac. That’s where I was when I read the CDC’s admission that vaccinated people can indeed spread the virus. I sighed and mourned that fleeting month when I thought it was actually safe going to indoor public spaces unmasked. And when I later went to get mussels for dinner, I made sure to sit outside. 

I felt lucky having those four days of car-free alone time. I cannot express how peaceful an eight hour train ride is to a mom who’s spent most of the pandemic at home with a child. My perspective on travel time is so different from than I was younger. I recently found a funny journal entry from that blizzard ride through western Michigan. I guess 21-year-old me was trying to persevere when she wrote, “Wishing that I could be home sooner is like taking acid and wishing I could get to sleep. I’ll get there eventually.” If you’d told me then that in 2021 I would be elated to spend an entire train ride wearing a mask, pulling it down just long enough to sneak bites from a $6 cheese and cracker tray, I probably would’ve thought that sounded nuts. And now I cannot wait to do it again. However long it takes for the world to blossom once more, I know my rock near Marc’s mosaic is just an Amtrak + Metro ride away.

Marc Chagall “Orphée” 1969

Socialist TV Summer: Button Classic Mentality

All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!

It’s been over three weeks since I last posted here. I know because I give myself hell for failing to meet the every-other-week schedule I’ve established. “You’re screwing up, Tara!” I tell myself. “What’s your excuse? It’s not like your average day is any different than it was six months ago.” Eventually my kinder inner voice chimes in, the one who’d tell a friend they’re being too hard on themself. “You’re probably reeling from the cumulative insanity of the entire pandemic. Also, you do tons of stuff! You probably do ten times more in a day than Elon Musk does in a month. Do you think that douche gives himself a hard time about productivity?”

I don’t know how I maintained that writing schedule for the first year of the pandemic. Now I can’t. I feel lazy. But my idea of lazy is based on very high standards for myself. I’ve no doubt that rich, powerful men reward themselves for way less. Sometimes I envy the thing they’ve got that I don’t have, which I call Button Classic Mentality.

Button Classic Mentality is based on a joke from the “30 Rock” season two episode, “Succession,” in which General Electric/NBC exec Jack Donaghy learns his boss Don Geiss has chosen him as the company’s next CEO. Jack in turn selects TV writer Liz Lemon to replace himself as Head of East Coast Television and Microwave Programming. At first Liz recoils at the thought of being an exec but quickly changes her mind when Jack tells her how much it pays.

The next day Liz attends a work lunch with Jack and his peers. After a few drinks they get down to business — discussing plans for a new type of microwave start button. Jack says they’ve spent four years and $10 million on this project and need to make a decision. When Liz drunkenly comments, “I kind of like the old button,” Jack says, “Button classic — I love it.” In the background you hear the other execs make comments like “It’s hip and homey,” and “That’s fantastic.” One of the suits — a tipsy guy named Jorgenson — raises his glass for a toast and says, “Oh my god, guys, we’re crushing it!” 

I love this scene and frequently recall it when I think about talentless men failing upward. The key for them is to pretend an idea like “Button Classic” is a revolutionary concept instead of an admission of failure. Jack tells Liz, “Your first executive decision and you’ve already saved this company $2 million in future R and D.” Again, Liz hasn’t presented a new idea. If anything, she’s made it clear that the entire project was a colossal waste of money. The only thing she’s saved them is continued failure, but Jack instinctively spins this as a bold new plan. When she meets Don Geiss a couple hours later, he says, “Aren’t you the gal who pioneered the Button Classic campaign?” With one little drunken observation, Liz has now positioned herself as a bright young exec who’s already being celebrated as a victor. And for that tiny contribution, she makes a fortune compared to what she’d been getting paid, toiling night and day on her variety show.

I also love how quickly Liz aligns with her new role, even though she doubts herself at first. When Jack touts Button Classic she whispers to him, “But what if I’m wrong?” He tells her, “There is no wrong. Lemon, you just have to find subordinate you can push the blame onto. That’s why I love Jorgenson here.” Soon she’s getting even more plastered and making lewd jokes with the boys. Later, when Geiss goes into a diabetic coma after she forgets to bring him dessert, she immediately blames Jorgenson for the error. Anyone who ever assumed Liz Lemon was supposed to be a feminist role model should take a closer look at episodes like this. Liz may be a role model, but only for a type of self-serving, elite, white feminism that’s pretty ugly at its core. She knows in her heart that Button Classic is bullshit, but she’s happy to roll with it as long as it rakes in the cash and praise. And she adapts to the Machiavellian power structure in no time. This is why she and Jack get along so well despite their seemingly disparate political beliefs. 

Of course I don’t want to be a bullshitter like the execs in this episode. I don’t want to give myself credit for non-accomplishments or earn ridiculous amounts of money for spinning false victories into some bloated personal mythology. Rather it’s a healthy reminder that I accomplish more in a lazy day than these sort of people do in a whole week. So when I tell myself I “didn’t get anything done today” because I didn’t tinker with an essay, I think about those Button Classic geniuses and remember that, at minimum, I prepared meals for my family, washed a bunch of dishes, walked the dog, meditated, wrote three pages in my journal, and took a long walk, just like I do every day. I don’t get paid for any of that stuff. But if people got paid for what they do instead of how they talk, I’d be the rich guy and Elon Musk would be shopping the sales rack.

Jack teaches Liz the privileges of corporate leadership

It’s Okay That None of Us Are Alright

Georgia O’Keefe “Nature Forms — Gaspé” 1932

I’m riding through central Ohio as I write this, en route from southeast Michigan to my Carolina Piedmont home. It’s the tail end of a three-week family road trip that took us to suburban Dallas, rural Missouri, and the metro Detroit region where my husband and I grew up. I’ve seen more of my people in the past 21 days than in the past 15 months combined. If not for all those long months of quarantine, I don’t think I would’ve ever considered visiting three sets of family in one fell swoop. But in the context of a still-raging pandemic (for which my 9 year old child remains unvaccinated), it made sense. We’re not flying anywhere in the near future and we can’t make three separate road trips. So we made a big circle instead. Shockingly, I’ve felt pretty calm and contented throughout our journey. The key to enjoying this nomadic existence is being okay with the fact that none of us are alright.

I credit daily meditation for bringing me to this peaceful state of mind. Sorry, I know it might be annoying to hear that. One of my socialist friends recently “admitted” to me that he also finds meditation helpful for mental health maintenance; apparently this ancient practice has gotten a bad rap among our comrades due to corporate culture co-opting it for the sake of keeping workers docile (see Amazon warehouses installing meditation booths for unhappy laborers who really need restrooms). If you’re a very online socialist who now associates meditation with the evils capitalism, please know I’ve been unemployed since December. No boss has forced me to visualize a beam of sunlight pouring out of my chest for the sake of productivity. I just started doing it in January so I wouldn’t lose my mind from wintry solitude.

Anyway, the biggest benefit of meditation for me personally is acceptance. I don’t wish for anyone to be different than they are, because what’s the point? I can’t control that. And if their fear, confusion, or frustration following a year of quarantine causes them to behave strangely, I’m way less likely to take it personally than I did in the before times. Lord knows I have my quirks. So when I’m with company and accidentally reminisce on a memory that’s a bit too dark, or inexplicably laugh myself to tears, or have some other outsized emotional reaction, it’s okay. We’re all strange after staying away from each other for so long.

I spent a lot of time during this trip just listening to friends and family and, for the most part, I didn’t mind. I love hearing stories of other people’s lives, even if it’s just a variation on “here’s how my job got really bizarre once the pandemic hit” or “this is what we did to survive the school year from hell.” In a normal year I would’ve wanted to share more about my life, where I live, the organizing work I’ve been doing since I last saw everyone, etc. Guess I didn’t feel like reflecting on any of that. For a few weeks I was able to disconnect from my daily reality and just be present wherever I was on the road and for whomever I was with in that moment. No need to think about last week’s organizing meeting or the school year starting next month. I haven’t been thinking about my life much beyond “where should I get my next meal?”

Oh, I also notice that any concept of what was “normal” before the pandemic is now firmly relegated to the past. This became very apparent to me when I was hanging with my Michigan people. I quarantined with my mom in suburban Detroit for a couple weeks last summer, visited some friends and family in their yards and driveways. The year-ago vibe was more “anxiously awaiting some scant sense of normalcy,” like, “Oh man, isn’t this insane! It’s good to see you. Hope we figure out what the hell is going on soon and get rid of Trump.” Well he’s gone, we all got vaccinated, and we supposedly don’t have to wear masks anymore. But we also don’t know who we can trust or when this pandemic will really be over. And we can no longer deny that certain aspects of our daily lives have likely changed forever. Add to that the fact that many of us have witnessed some sort of devastating extreme weather phenomenon in the past year. We’re different people now. We may feel safer in some ways, but we’ve all been steeped in trauma. And it isn’t as if the immediate future looks stable.

But for the most part I don’t feel sad about this new reality. Five years ago I used to stay awake at night wondering what I’d do to protect my family in an increasingly chaotic world. The future I feared is now. And while I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to be alive at this precise moment in history, I’m adapting. We all are. My little family just traveled across the country with an unvaccinated child and kept her away from indoor public spaces almost the entire time. It was complicated but we made it work. I hope to get to a point where I can look back on this trip and think, “My god, what an insanely stressful time.” But at least for now I have the comfort of knowing I have learned a few things about how to keep my family safe in dangerous times.