BED CRUMBS | elaine may's headshot is literally just an iphone selfie
|Carrie Courogen||May 10, 2019|
The world is probably maybe definitely actual hell, but, uh, happy Mother's Day weekend? If you like this holiday: cool, good for you. If your usual base level of crummy and kind of weird and a little angry feelings about it has skyrocketed this week as it comes on the heels of Georgia's passing of an utterly horrific abortion law, welcome. I've got a lot of THOUGHTS and FEELS and FEEL BETTER LAUGHTER in store for you.
I went long on moms and medium on Elaine May and, honestly, this might be my most personally on-brand newsletter yet? (Probably would be more so if I hid the feels below in sarcasm to mask my insecurities, but alas. I'll get it right next time.) Sorry, but it do be like that sometimes. Happy reading!
(ps anyone who sends this to my mom is a cop.)
thanks sorry love u bye,
SOME THOUGHTS I HAVE BEEN THINKING
that "it takes a village to raise a child" thing was made for tacky embroideries but damnit if it isn't true anyway
I had a dream about my childhood nanny the other week. It was the kind of dream you wake from in a confused daze, unsure for a moment where you are in time and space and uncertain if what just transpired was a memory, pure fiction, or maybe a little bit of both. It was one of those dreams that immediately lacks detail the second it's over — you remember more how you felt than what actually happened — leaving you desperately clawing for more information. Come back, I said silently. Come back.
Maureen was a slight, bird-like woman in her 50s with two grown children and a Scottish accent that still lingered after 20 years in America, if only, I'm sure, to add extra snap to her sharp wit. From the ages of two to nine, I spent more time at her house than at my own — five days a week, morning until evening. When I was school aged, hers was the house the bus dropped me off at in the afternoon. When I think about my earliest summers, I remember exploring the woods surrounding her backyard, scampering off and coming back with scratched-up legs and baskets of foraged berries to be met with band aids and praise for curiosity in equal amount. She taught me how to read and helped me with my homework and she made me take naps even when I didn’t want to. She let me be a child, but spoke to me like an adult. When I tell people I’ve been an old soul my whole life, I often point to Maureen — her extensive collection of Abba and Fleetwood Mac CDs, her bookshelf stuffed full of classics (if memory serves me correctly, she introduced me to Little Women early, which, like, fuck yeah), the black and white movies we watched in lieu of Nickelodeon — and say it's all because of her.
The summer before fourth grade, we moved two hours away to a town I spent the rest of my adolescence calling home. Maureen-less, I buried any feelings of sadness or fears of abandonment by reveling in my newfound freedom as a latchkey kid. It didn't take long for our brief trips to visit to grow further and farther between, sometimes separated by entire years. When she sent me a high school graduation gift, I was surprised; I hadn’t seen her since I was maybe 14. More years passed. The last time I saw Maureen, I was 21.
I thought a lot about Maureen this week. It seemed eerily on the nose that her appearance in a dream came in peak Mother’s Day season, all too obvious that I couldn't ignore it. I hate this time of year, the way the world suddenly appears to be a sea of daughters with their perfect mothers, drowning me in jealousy and sadness about my lifelong terse, complicated relationship with mine. Few parent-child relationships are actually perfect, but this time of year, it’s (selfishly) harder to ignore the fact that many have it worse than me and only see those who have it better.
You should always reach out to a person you love when you’re thinking of them, this I know to be true. Countless times, though, I’ve let anxiety and doubt get in the way, worried people will think of me as clingy or desperate or obnoxious if I so much as breathe in their direction. I’ll type out a text and erase it, pick up the phone and put it down again 8 million times, finally work up the nerve to call and whisper “please don’t pick up, please don’t pick up,” then hang up when it goes to voicemail. There are so many things I’ve left unsaid because of this. I'm so tired of doing that, of getting caught up in a loop of never-ending what-ifs that turn into should haves.
I found her number within moments on White Pages one afternoon this week, and by that evening, over the course of a long walk from the World Trade Center to 14th Street, had decided I was going to call.
It was terrifying, of course. What if I was calling at a bad time? What if she was in poor health and I didn't know? What if this was too random or it had been too long and what if she was mad at me for being the shitty kid that never calls? But, after about 10 minutes, all the rustiness fell away and I felt myself let go of the breath I had been holding and it all just felt right. It felt nice to talk, as an adult, to a woman who raised me as a child. I remember saying thank you a lot. Maybe too much, but is there such a thing? It was almost as if those long gaps didn’t even happen; I was only reminded of them when we hung up, an hour passing like 10 minutes. I innately started to sign off with the same quick “love you" I say to all my closest people before catching myself and nervously stammering a simple “goodbye” instead.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few years about that it takes a village thing. Many insist the parents who raise you are the people who have the most influence over who you will be, but I just can’t wrap my head around that. Because I just know it isn’t true.
Every Mother’s Day, when I’m feeling sad about not having the kind of mother I'd wish for, I am reminded of all the other mothers I’ve had growing up — and today, even — who have had just as much, if not more, of an impact on my life. There have been countless women like Maureen who, in their own ways, have stepped in to be the mothers I’ve wanted and needed, coloring in different parts of my life that were lacking.
I’ve been thinking about how we’re inextricably linked, these women and me. I didn’t ask for some of them. Some of them didn’t ask for me. Some I’ve known my whole life, some for a small chunk in the middle of it, some for the last few. Some are too young to actually be my mom and some are too old. Some of them are childless and some have children of their own, but take me under their wing anyway. Somewhere our paths crossed, and that's what makes the difference.
There are no Mother's Day cards for these women. There are no cards for the women who listen to me vomit up all my fears and frustrations roughly a million times a month and never tell me to get over it and grow up. There are none for the woman who will sit on a kitchen floor late at night and share her most vivid and her most learned-from stories, along with her wine. There are no cards for the woman who taught me about life during pre-dawn runs years after she got done teaching me math. There are no cards for the women who drive me home or track my Ubers when it gets late or insist I spend the night. No cards for the women who, above all else, believe in and see something in me, even when I can’t see it myself.
What I’m trying to say is that there are women who have done the not always easy task of giving me values and having my back, women who have laughed with me and cried with me and made me feel less scared and alone, women who have told me the straight up no bullshit truth, even when I don’t want to hear it, women who have not only stood by my side as I made mistakes, but let me know it was okay to make mistakes, women who loved me not because they had to, but because they just did. There are women who did all these things and more for me, all these things that mothers do. And there are no cards for them, and it makes me so frustrated, because even though they didn’t make who I am physically, they shaped who I am with their hearts and minds instead.
I don’t know if I will have children of my own. My mother loves to say "wait until you're a parent and you'll understand," but I don't know if that will happen. It's not that I don't want to be one; it's more like the weight of climate change seems to be sort of making the decision for me. It’s hard to make a case for bringing more children into a world where devastating climate catastrophe appears almost unquestionably imminent. I hope I have some bonus daughters one day, though. I hope I can pass along some of the things my bonus moms have given me. I'd really like that.
STUFF I LISTENED TO
“Nichols and May at Work” - Mike Nichols and Elaine May
From about the age of 12 until the age of 21, I was intensely preoccupied with precisely two interests: comedy and classic films. (As you can assume, I was extremely cool with people my own age.) Somewhere around eighth grade, deep in an improv stan hole, I discovered the brilliance of Elaine May. This is the OG, I thought with admiration and awe, tracing an imaginary line from the path she forged in comedy, largely all alone, to women like Tina Fey, who were carrying her torch of caustic wit forward, while wishing I knew more. (Indeed, I have been on my bullshit for a long time.)
In the days before the days of streaming, May’s films were next to impossible to find. The local library system’s classic film collection bested Blockbuster's but still only had Heaven Can Wait and The Birdcage — but they had a host of Nichols and May CDs, all of which I borrowed and was promptly hooked by. I was drawn to their did-they-or-didn't-they chemistry, ate up the way their form of comedy was the kind that made me feel smart and slightly more adult every time I laughed.
Among the recent renewed interest in May’s life and legacy (and the fact that her headshot for her now-Tony nominated role in The Waverly Gallery is literally a lo-res iPhone selfie; iconic, truly), my brain became the "ah shit here we go again" meme as I fall down this rabbit hole, and you know what? I don't hate it! This is a stan newsletter now, baby! So on that note, I will end this blurb with two things:
1. This week, I found that my long-standing theory that listening to this take of Nichols and May breaking repeatedly as they workshop a mother-son bit is an instant mood boost, there to temporarily heal any anger (of which there has been plenty this week) and take me from crying to laughing to laughing so hard I'm crying, which is always a win.
2. Someone please let me write a book about or at least longass profile of Elaine May!!! I’m manifesting this right here, right now. Speaking it into existence. Thanks! Bye!
STUFF I READ
I Can’t Have Enough Mothers - Gillian Jacobs
You’d think I’d be desensitized to the ~feels~ after reading this essay about the importance of bonus moms (something that is, weirdly, rarely talked about) so many times, but nope! They are still very much there!
STUFF I WATCHED
In The Spirit (1990)
On Monday, the Costume Institute and Anna Wintour asked excessively wealthy celebrities, and thereby the rest of us plebes on the internet, to contemplate camp. The day before, I watched Marlo Thomas and Elaine May in the 1990 film In The Spirit (I told you I’m in a spiral!), which I’m certain can be defined as such.
In her definitive essay Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag noted some choice qualities of something with a camp sensibility: “a seriousness that fails”; “a state of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing”; “it’s good because it’s awful.”
Written by and co-starring May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, In The Spirit is good because it’s a little bit awful. It’s the kind of slapstick film so emblematic of its time that you watch today with a sort of bewilderment that it had that cast (Peter Falk and Olympia Dukakis also star), was actually released in theaters, and yet you’ve likely never heard of it. The script bounces from Odd Couple-style comedy to murder mystery to physical buddy comedy. You can, more often than not, see what it was seriously aiming to achieve, but narrowly missed. There’s a cheesy voiceover. The version available on Amazon Prime is cut for full screen TV and has jarring cuts where commercial breaks would be.
And yet, it’s good because it’s sometimes laughably bad, and when it isn’t laughably bad, it’s laughable because it’s just plain funny. Intended jokes fall flat often, but Thomas and May playing intensely exaggerated versions of themselves ends up being humorous without even trying, the former’s unending cheery disposition set up against the latter’s cutting deadpan terrifically, right down to every shot that bounces from sunny smile to withering stare. It’s subversive, in a way — the New Yorker’s trusted film critic Richard Brody aptly described it as “a story of women living in fear of men, in dependence on men, in the absence of men, and the exaggerated, frenetic behavior of its protagonists suggests a lifetime of enforced role-playing that then gives way to some calculated role-playing in an effort to save their lives.”
I still say it’s camp. And it’s delightful.
friendly reminder that if you missed any previous emails, you can read the archive here.
okay that's it that's the end thanks bye