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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Another Post that Begins with "When I Was a Kid"

When I was a kid I watched a lot of sitcoms. New ones, reruns, old ones on Nick at Nite. When people complain now about how kids don't spend any time outside while my generation totally did I just laugh and laugh. During summer vacation I had the TV schedule memorized. Infomercials until two or three in the afternoon followed by the likes of Perfect Strangers, Small Wonder, Dobie Gillis, Leave it to Beaver, My Two Dads, its bizarre prequel My Three Sons, and the strange dual male fantasy of being married to a woman who was magic and having a horse that can talk to you.

This doesn't even count the countless Nickelodeon game shows and a little crush on a gal named Moira "Mo" Quirk.

As far as I can tell, there are essentially two plots to all sitcoms that involve dads. As a dad myself I've been reflecting on these. The first one is the dad who refuses to be "spontaneous" on the family vacation. On this one our sitcom family is going on a very special trip to a destination location, whichever one paid the most money to the network. 

Dad, generally a buffoon who can't manage to dress himself for vacation without tucking his underwear into his fanny pack, has somehow learned to read and write well enough to design an itinerary covering every second of the vacation to an exaggerated effect. You guys he has planned this down to the very minute. "Here is when we take bathroom breaks," he mugs. The audience laughs. The child actors barter more of their fleeting days of cuteness to fund real-life parents' high lifestyle by rolling their eyes and saying "daaad." Their on-set tutor telling them about things like school dances like they are post-apocalyptic survivors being heralded on the days when Coca-Cola came streaming out of a fountain into a 64-oz-cup labeled "Big Dog."

The poor family, including its level-headed wife who in real life would have married this man again and again just to further savor the delight of divorcing him, struggles under this new-found dictatorship until mutiny ensues! After learning a valuable lesson, Dad throws out the itinerary and decides to have fun. Stock footage of people going on roller-coasters or whatever ensues.

That one's a good one. The real zinger, though, is the "mid-life crisis" episode. In this one our hapless dad, apparently after killing a kind of tipping point's worth of brain cells from all the noxious chemicals in the garage - that sanctuary from his beautiful and patient and generally perfect wife and children who rarely commit crimes worse than skipping school - decides that he's just getting too old. What follows is a new red car, a black leather jacket and some out-of-date sunglasses. You guys. Dad is so pathetic. Look at him try to capture just a moment of the bliss of youth. How dare he, after toiling daily at a job that basically defines ambivalence, enjoy a cool breeze in what hair he has left? Dad is happy and this just Will. Not. Do.

Tut-tut, Dad. The only thing left is to mock this shell of a human being for the folly of gazing into that inescapable maw of mortality and, for a brief moment, balking. The children are embarrassed. The wife just smiles at the camera, dazzling the live-studio-audience with her ironic dimples. The uncle who lives this life all of the time briefly sees in his brother's wrinkled visage an image of himself before quickly drowning it in bourbon so cheap and toxic that his doctor will someday publish a paper that will put him on the map in certain circles. He will dedicate his speeches at the cool doctor conferences in this uncle's memory before showing slide after slide of degrading human tissue.

Dad inevitably wrecks the car. His new bald-man ponytail gets caught in the seatbelt and scalps him. The shiny red convertible is a metaphor for his hubris, the wings of icarus, melting before his eyes along with any hopes or dreams he'd held on to thus far. As with the vacation episode, Dad is humbled to the dirt. His family hugs him. Why have dreams, they say together as the audience awwwws, when you can have mediocrity?

Happiness, dear Dad, is having one (1) best friend who is somehow the only person on earth who is a bigger loser than yourself. It is having sarcastic children who speak entirely in banter. It is in never striving to be anything more than the lowest common denominator of your imagined TV audience. If they have given up, your script-writer tells you at the beginning of every episode, then who are you to imagine anything more?

Do not be Dad! Dare to dream, reader! Snatch moments where you can! Write a blog and promote it half-heartedly! Update it sporadically and generally use it as a platform for berating people who are really just doing their best to keep their heads above water for not reading it!

Also, read or do not read The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, I honestly can't tell you either way! In it Nora is 37, a school teacher who wanted to be an artist, a single woman who only dreamed of being a mother, a verbose narrator telling us her side of everything with lots of little barbs and jabs along the way. She refers to herself constantly as "The Woman Upstairs" which I found to be rather convenient given the title of the book. I don't know. She seems more like a teenager who just started reading Vonnegut and is mad about stuff. She uses big words because it's the easiest way to ensure that everyone knows she's smarter than they are.

She meets a family: a mother, father, and son, and falls in love with all of them in different ways. In the woman, she finds a best friend, in the boy, the perfect son she wishes she could have, in the father, a hapless pathetic man who tucks his underwear into his fanny pack (JK HE'S ACTUALLY VERY HANDSOME AND CHARMING).

Now that I think about it I didn't like this book very much. I know women my age (which is about how old Nora is) who are just starting to be in a place where they want to settle down and start a family after a successful start to a career and some life experiences, yet Nora believes herself to be half-dead and useless to society other than being a predictable matron rocking her chair in the second-floor window. I dunno. I liked it while I was reading it. There are some powerful insights, and some good quotes:
“I always thought I'd get farther. I'd like to blame the world for what I've failed to do, but the failure - the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit - is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me. I thought for so long, forever, that I was strong enough -- or I misunderstood what strength was."
But listen. My favorite books leave me wanting to keep spending time with the characters, see what happens next, and what happens after that. In the end, though, we don't know what Nora is going to do next, the ending is open. Does she throw out the itinerary and ride the rollercoaster? Or does she see the beauty in what her life has become, regardless of what she imagined it to be? Honestly, I don't care. If finding out means spending any more time in Nora's head, I'm going to have to pass.