The Best Things I’ve Spent Money on This Year

Okay, so by this year, I mean 1/1/19 to present. As I may have previously mentioned, I took a really prolonged break from spending money so that I could (successfully!) pay off ALL of my credit card debt. I also refinanced my student loans and got a lower interest rate on my car loan, so despite the fact that I absolutely was not making a living wage, I managed to kick some serious financial ass. I would not have been able to do any of this without my amazing husband and my in-laws—they’re so supportive and generous.

The crazy thing is, I went through and tallied up what I spent on everything on this list, and it’s roughly equivalent to what I spent on copays and medication for the year. Not trying to be controversh, but I shouldn’t be able to get an enormous tattoo, furniture, and an iPhone for less money than basic healthcare. In the spirit of that sentiment, please join DSA and consider volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign /end rant.

It’s also worth mentioning that a couple of the things mentioned below are from truly evil corporations that I, as a feminist socialist, do not want to continue supporting. Disengaging with major retailers is hard work, and participating in capitalism at all means that we all have the “damn’d spot*” on our hands. Next year, I hope this list is all small businesses and sustainable retailers, but all I can do is try my best. So without further ado, here are the purchases I made last year that were absolutely worth every penny:

iPhone 11

Owning this device has kind of ruined my life, to be honest. I was already pretty addicted to my phone, but the size of this screen and sleekness of the device have me hooked. The best feature, by far, is the fact that I can more easily do the New York Times crossword on this screen, which is truly the only thing I care about in this life. And I have to admit, I love the facial recognition. I know Apple is probably conspiring with the government and stealing my identity or whatever, but the level of convenience of opening things with Face ID is…almost worth it? Saying this really feels like the Chrissy Teigen tweet about Airpods, don’t cancel me.

Casetify Phone Case

This thing is indestructible, and comes in about a billion designs. I, of course, went with the sunflower pattern. I got a discount code from a podcast for 20% off, but I’d absolutely pay full price for another one.

AirPods

I finally did it. I caved and bought AirPods. I was going to buy them through Apple, but I found the same ones on Amazon for considerably cheaper (I bought this silicone protective case too). I…love them. I can’t believe I didn’t buy them sooner.

Magnetic Car Mount

A lot of phone shit, I know. but I’ve tried every type of car mount on the market, and this is by a mile the best. The magnet is super strong, and you can just stick it inside your case so you don’t have a big ugly sticker on the back. The best part is, for only $6, it’s a 2-pack, so you can give one to your significant other. My husband is still rocking an iPhone 6+, but the gear’s ready for him whenever he decides to upgrade.

The Comfiest Cardigan

Target has really been coming thruuuu with cute clothes and décor lately. This cardigan, from their A New Day line, is legitimately the coziest garment I own. I love it so much, I went back for another one.

The Best Earrings in the Game

Okay, so I’m wildly biased, because creator and entrepreneur Shelly Harper is my cousin, but damned if I don’t love her work. She is a fucking artist. Harp Designs is a woman-owned, woman-made brand out of Oakland, CA, and it makes the jewelry at retailers like Madewell look like an absolute lil’ bitch. Everything she makes is outstanding, but these earrings are so fun that I had to have them in gold and silver.

A Kitchen Table

The pub table in my kitchen had been rickety for a while, but for the ~$100 I paid for it, it certainly served its purpose. Helping my mother shop for her new home, I stumbled across this beauty, basically a dupe of my old table, except cuter, and I simply had to have it. It could be a little sturdier, but to its credit, I built it, so…

Savage Lovecast Magnum Edition

IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO ME, OKAY! I’m done with podcast ads, they’ve been my undoing! This podcast is my must-listen of my week, and I respect Dan so much for evolving and growing and doing everything in his power to get progressive ideas into the mainstream dialogue. Nobody’s perfect, but I’ve never not enjoyed an episode of this show. I also subscribed to Slate Plus for Dear Prudence and Stitcher Premium for Groceries, and I have zero regrets (except for the fact that Stitcher is quite possibly the ugliest, least user-friendly app on the planet). The Stitcher subscription won’t last, but ad-free podcasts were absolutely the highlight of 2019 for me.

Netflix & Hulu (no commercials!) Subscriptions

To be fair, I’ve had these for a lot longer than a year, but when you’re trying to live that homebody life and save money, these services are indispensable! We got rid of cable about a year ago, so this is the only way I can keep up with my programmes. For the combined total of $20.98/month, I get more TV than I could ever find the time to consume. Beautiful.

Monthly Charitable Donations

I’ve been donating $5/month to the ACLU & Planned Parenthood since the day after the 2016 election. It’s not much, but the number of donors to these organizations is often as important a metric as the amount donated. Planned Parenthood is an organization which is particularly near and dear to my heart, and from whose services I have personally benefitted. I also give to WERS, which is the local radio station out of Emerson College, because independent radio is important, and for my money, it’s the only radio station in the Greater Boston Area that plays anything I’d ever want to listen to.

A Tattoo

Hell yeah. So, here’s the story from A to Z—when I was 21, and towards the end of my last pre-husband relationship, I impulsively got a matching tattoo of (gag) Minnie Mouse on my ribs with my ex-boyfriend. That was in July…we broke up in November. So, for nearly 7 years, I’ve been living with this incredibly stupid-looking reminder of the guy I started dating when I was 18. No shade to him—I truly hope he’s living his best life, he’s a great guy—but it also seems psycho to have this permanently etched on my body. So, I put out some feelers on Facebook (I know…) and my friend Lauren hipped me to her shop. After perusing the various portfolios of the recommended shops, Famous Tattoos in Dartmouth won out. It’s clean, not too far away, and the work speaks for itself. Cut to a few months later—it was the best body art experience of my life. Ryan Vidinha is incredibly talented and so skillful with the tattoo needles. I sat for a cumulative 6 hours between two sessions, and he made it an absolute pleasure. And SO REASONABLY PRICED for what he was able to accomplish. My shop 4 life. Having a beautiful piece of art in place of what used to be an embarrassing blemish is so freeing. Best money I’ve ever spent.

Oh, and I got another tattoo, whilst I was on vacation in Florida. Gaze upon it. Apparently I wore the exact same outfit to both.

img_3544

Laser Tattoo Removal

I know, I just got an enormous cover-up tattoo. Why wouldn’t I just do the same in this case? Look, I tried. Because of the placement of my wrist tattoo, and how heavily the line-work was done, it’d be nearly impossible to do a cover-up that wasn’t giant and blobby to cover the black. Luckily, I discovered Disappearing Inc. Utter pros. Tattoo removal is a long, expensive process, and I’m so lucky to have Jenna as my technician. The tattoo is 3 stars (from the corner of the pages of Harry Potter, I truly was an absolute dumb bitch as a youth) and they’re so poorly done. They never healed correctly. I’ve cringed looking at them for years, and I’m so excited to see them slowly fade away. Read up on how tattoo removal works—it’s nuts and fascinating!

So it’s been a wrap-wrap-wrap up, a 12-month wrap-up. Thanks for tuning in!

*You know a bitch got out her 1973 edition of the Riverside Shakespeare to make sure she typed that correctly. Act V, scene i of MacBeth, my fave play 4 life.

Shout Out Sunday 1.26.20

So, as you can tell by the title, this is…very late. As I was about to hit “post,” I heard the tragic news of Kobe Bryant’s passing (I talk more about that later) and it felt strange not to address it in some way. This ended up in limbo, but as a measure of accountability to myself, I’m forging ahead.

Good morning, good morning! It’s great to stay up late! Good morning, good morning, to you! Embarrassingly, I know this song from Retta’s instagram stories and not, you know, Singing in the Rain. I think I might have to do a classic movie deep-dive, since there are so many I haven’t seen!

  1. I bought myself a late Christmas gift. Chelseas can have a little purse, as a treat. My honest review is that, while this bag is very cute, it has the same issue as my other little Kate Spade…I just carry too much gd stuff. It’s a great buy for anyone who doesn’t carry around a Kindle, a notebook-sized planner, and a makeup kit everywhere they go. I honestly need to just wheel around an old-lady grocery cart.
  2. I just booked myself my first ever lash lift & tint! Granted, I have to wait until March 21st, because that’s literally the first open Saturday appointment they had, but alas. I’ve wanted to try this for so long, since I have straight, stubby lashes and wear a TON of mascara. Depending on how it goes and if I like the facility, I might try extensions. I know it’s a bit shallow, but 2020 is the year of going for it.
  3. On the note of “going for it,” I’m going to New York City in April to see not one, but TWO Broadway shows! This is a bucket-list item for me, big time. My amazing friend Annie, with whom I roomed at Oxford, planned the whole thing. The only finger-lifting I had to do was pressing the Pay button on Venmo. We’ll be seeing Hadestown and Six. I’m excited for both, but anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with British royal history, especially Henry VIII.
  4. The store was out of Burt’s Bees Micellar Water yesterday, so I grabbed this one to try. Will report back if I like it!
  5. Finally joined DSA. No war but class war!
  6. This video of a couple making traditional tofu for Chinese New Year is currently my favorite thing on the internet. It should be prescribed as an anti-anxiety medication.
  7. Unsurprisingly, my life-long dream is to be a Jeopardy! contestant. Should I just go for it?? I registered for the online test years ago and then FORGOT TO TAKE IT (this was many years before Adderall blessed my executive functioning skills). Maybe this time, I’ll get lucky…

On quite another note…

This might be kind of strange or glib to toss at the end of a post like this, but I just heard the news about Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna’s tragic death and I’m crushed. I am not a basketball fan by any stretch, but to see such a young man and his child die so senselessly would affect anyone with a heart. My thoughts are very much with Vanessa and their family, and with the families of anyone who loses a child.

I had a death in my family on December 10th, the first one in years, the first one that really hit home, and I have not quite figured out this unmanageable thing, grief. As a lifelong atheist, I have no promise of eventual reunion or comfort in the notion of a “better place.” There’s just pain, pain that doesn’t fade, pain that feels like a physical weight on my chest. With no warning, I am overcome at random intervals with the sickening creep of grief. But I’m lucky. The person I loved and lost lived a long life, and had been suffering and ill for a long time. His death was in many ways a mercy. The greatest irony of our existence is that, eventually, we all must learn to live with death in order to survive.

Until next week,

Chels

 

The Horrible, the Miserable, and the Difficult: Julie Klausner’s Difficult People and Contemporary Jewish Humor

What can I say? A year has passed, and I’m nostalgic for school. This was my final grad school paper, the first one a professor said I should revise and submit for publication. Validate me, oh tiny audience! Oh, and another one of my papers actually did get published. You can read it here.

***

The Horrible, the Miserable, and the Difficult: Julie Klausner’s Difficult People and Contemporary Jewish Humor

I know—a Jew in comedy. How will I ever defy the odds and make it?

—Billy Epstein (“Devil’s Three-Way” 00:04:04-7)

Julie and Billy, two angry native New Yorkers, rush through crowded streets of Manhattan on their way to see a matinee of Annie on Broadway, spitting barbs at clueless tourists along the way. When they arrive, they are horrified to discover that the role of Annie will be played by an understudy. As Julie tells the young girl sitting in front of her, “An understudy is like a fancy word for ‘disappointment’” (“Library Water” 00:03:09). Just prior to this, Difficult People’s lead character, Julie Kessler, makes a crack about beloved president, FDR, also a character in the musical, letting millions of Jews die in the Holocaust (00:00:58). The shocking darkness of this statement, spoken in the doorway of a theatre, sets the tone for the entire series—every moment is suffocated with bitterness, mockery, and cultural references and somehow, it’s hilarious.

Few opening sequences more succinctly encapsulate the essence of a television show like the “Library Water” pilot episode of Difficult People; from the very first moments, the series positions itself as witty, critical, a little cruel, pop-culture obsessed, and very Jewish. Difficult People, created by comedian and writer, Julie Klausner, enjoyed a brief run of twenty-eight episodes on the streaming platform, Hulu, from 2015 to 2017. For stars Klausner and Billy Eichner, the series was the culmination of over a decade of striving for success in show business, something that the series’ main characters, Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, do to diminishing returns. Their efforts to become famous, doomed at every turn, mirror a century of their Jewish predecessors’ striving to achieve stardom and assimilate themselves into mainstream culture through performance—from Jakie Rabinowitz becoming Jack Robin to Robert Zimmerman adopting the stage name Bob Dylan, Jews have used the entertainment industry as a conduit for their talent and stories to shine. And shine they have—particularly in the comedy and broadcast television arenas. But that rise to stardom has often come with a price tag—forsaking meaningful media representations of Jewish culture in order to appeal more broadly to mass audiences.

In the current political landscape, one eerily similar to the one depicted in anti-Semitic, turn-of-the-century satirical cartoons, one of the most resounding conservative, Fox News-esque dog whistles is that Jews control the media (would that it were so). Setting aside the founding of Hollywood and the creation of all the cool superheroes, the idea that Jews possess total control of popular culture and are subliminally encouraging goyim to, one supposes, forsake their beloved Savior, is patently absurd, at least to any person whose ability to think critically outweighs his bigotry. Jewish humor texts handle this pre-/mis-conception playfully, at once acknowledging the disproportionate presence of Jews in media—as Wisse writes, “Estimates of the proportion of Jewish professionals in U.S. comedy sometimes [run] as high as 80 percent” (No Joke 12)—and the lingering presence of anti-Semitism in the industry and beyond. The epigraph to this essay is a line spoken by character Billy at an audition for a movie role, and it’s one of the many ways that Difficult People and other Jewish-created series grapple with the imbalance in the industry and the troubling inability of many television shows to “get it right” when depicting Jews and the Jewish experience.

David Zurawik’s book, The Jews of Prime Time, provides an overview and exploration of prime time Jewish television series beginning in 1949 and extending to the early 2000s. The central question of the text is whether television portrayals of Jews can ever accurately reflect the Jewish experience. Zurawik interrogates the preponderance of Jewish producers and writers deeming certain piece of Jewish media “too Jewish” for television, a phenomenon he refers to as “surplus visibility,” or the disdain of minority groups to be exposed via media representation (6). Difficult People responds to this problematic trend in television by exalting all things Jewish (even as it mocks them). Nothing is “too Jewish” for Difficult People, unless Julie and Billy themselves deem it so (Rucchel’s frequent visits to Israel or wearing yarmulkes outside of shul, for instance). Julie and Billy are proudly Jewish, if keenly aware of Judaism’s flaws. Difficult People can exist because visibly, unabashedly Jewish predecessors like Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce had long before challenged the whitewashing in show business.

Sarah Blacher Cohen attributes the revival of Jewish ethnic pride in the entertainment industry in the 1950s and ‘60s with the foundation of the state of Israel and “a profound grief for the loss of their fellow Jews in the Holocaust” (8). Difficult People as discussed, certainly takes up this mantle. At one point in the series, Julie exclaims, “Nobody’s more Jewish than I am, Arthur! I mean, culturally” (“Unplugged” 00:05:32-5). The quotation, meant to be about her entrée into the Jewish media elite, could also stand as a second tagline to the series (the tagline of Difficult People is “All the Rage,” a double-entendre about the show’s cultural savviness, relevance, and the main characters’ anger at and disenchantment with the state of things). Central to Difficult People is the idea that Julie and Billy are not just difficult—they are different from everyone else. Their biting wit and cultural heritage set them apart from the world outside of show business, a world they see, rightfully so, as one where Jews can excel and be recognized for their trademark dark humor. For Julie and Billy, humor heals, even as they experience the consequences of their often cruel, targeted jokes (they get kicked off of the set of Watch What Happens Live for their tweets mocking host Andy Cohen and guest Chelsea Handler, two fellow Jews in media, in the episode “Pledge Week”).

Comedian Lenny Bruce, one of the most famous figures in discussions of Jewish stand-up comedy, had a particular obsession with differentiating between Jews and gentiles—his famous “Jewish or goyish?” monologue would be recreated in the 2017 Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The in-joke is that everything hip and “with it” is Jewish, even if it truly isn’t (jazz musicians Count Basie and Ray Charles, for instance). To be designated “Jewish” is to be of intellectual and cultural merit; to be deemed “goyish” is a slight (he refers to trailer parks as “so goyish Jews won’t go near them” [Hoberman 222]). The superiority of Jewish intellect has its roots in media as far back as the days of radio serials and remains a hallmark of contemporary Jewish comedy. Woody Allen would play this concept for a laugh in Annie Hall (Annie, a Wisconsin-born WASP who fails to match Coney Island’s own Alvy Singer intellectually, actually progresses in analysis, where Alvy’s neuroses keep him paying a psychiatrist for fifteen years); Difficult People paints Jewish intellect as an invaluable virtue. For instance, when Billy finally lands an agent, one who isn’t Jewish, his friends and show business contacts see this as a massive indictment (“The Courage of a Soldier”).

Billy and Julie’s preoccupation with success in show business, and that preoccupation’s connection to their cultural Judaism, gives Difficult People its life. In season one’s Yom Kippur episode of Difficult People, “The Courage of a Soldier,” Billy interrupts a tense family meal by shouting,

I just don’t understand when everything got so…Jewish! It’s fine, it’s just not who we were as kids. I mean, we didn’t even fast when we were kids. (00:10:00-07)

When his brother Garry reminds him that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, Billy replies:

You know what the holiest day of the year is for me? The Golden Globes. I don’t care about the blessings. I care about the SAG Awards, and no one cares about those. Show business, Garry. That’s what I care about. (00:10:13-29)

His niece Tal, deadpan, replies, “That’s the most Jewish thing I’ve ever heard” (00:10:30). This outburst, and Tal’s earnest comment, exposes what, for Billy at least, is an unbreakable link between cultural Judaism and the entertainment industry.

Having situated Difficult People in a long lineage of Jewish contributions to show business and humor, this exploration merits a discussion of what exactly Jewish comedy is and how it appears in contemporary entertainment. Jeremy Dauber’s book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, takes on the task of defining Jewish humor, something critics have long struggled to exactly capture. His two primary criteria are that “Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews” (xii, emphasis in original) and that it “must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence” (xiii, emphasis in original). Difficult People certainly meets these two conditions, but it also contends with almost all of the “seven major conceptual rubrics” (xiv) that Dauber provides as a means of evaluating Jewish humor, from the Talmud and the Torah to Rickles and Reiner. For the purposes of this discussion, four of Dauber’s rubrics will be particularly relevant, namely that “Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism,” it is “a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms,” it is “bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play,” and it is “vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed” (xiv, emphasis in original). These threads, as well as representations of Jewish stereotypes (the schlemiel, schlimazel, and the overbearing mother) and the Jewish penchant for self-deprecating humor and liberal politics run throughout Difficult People like connective tissue. Difficult People not only gleefully participates in these tropes—its inclusivity of those that are other, even amid vitriolic streams of insults, makes a larger point. Sure, Jewish comedy must indeed be witty, dark, controversial, vulgar, and a whole slew of other adjectives that have long been used to describe it. But it must also serve the higher purpose of lovingly (or, tough-lovingly) elevating both Jewish culture and that of other marginalized communities.

“Medium-talent, Jewish bitch!” Freudian self-deprecation and switcheroo anti-Semitism

In season two opener, “Unplugged” (which guest stars the iconic Sandra Bernhard and culminates in Julie being blackballed from working in television by the Jewish media elite), Arthur walks in on Julie fixing her hair in the mirror. “Medium-talent, Jewish bitch!” she yells at her reflection. Arthur Tack, her WASP boyfriend, replies, “Stop yelling at yourself in the mirror, it confuses the dogs” (00:04:21-25). Julie clarifies that she was not talking to herself (rather, she is jealous of the success of a peer) but Arthur’s confusion makes sense; throughout the series, Julie (and her mother, Marilyn—more on that later) takes cheap shots at herself—her body (“Ever since I gained my Freshman 1,500” [“Passover Bump” 00:00:47-9]), her floundering career (“I’m tired of watching everyone around me ascend to stardom as I atrophy and wither” [“Unplugged” 00:04:44]), and her codependent relationship with her mother (she joins AA to learn coping skills for her “addiction” to her mother in “Code Change”). For Julie, there is no greater target than Julie, which widens the already vast chasm between her self-loathing and her over-inflated self-confidence in her performance ability. Self-deprecating humor, often ironic, as it springs from the mouths of successful performers, is part and parcel of Jewish humor at large. As Sarah Blacher Cohen recalls, Freud claims, “self-mockery was the most distinguishing feature of Jewish humor” (4). Several instances of self-loathing in the series are so extreme as to appear anti-Semitic—another issue with which Difficult People must contend.

Apart from the Nazi paraphernalia uncovered at the end of “Unplugged,” the season two episode “Italian Piñata” has the most explicit moments of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-loathing. Julie and Billy venture to New Jersey to escape the throngs of newly out young people on Coming Out Day, celebrated annually on the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. While at the bar, they are mistaken by fellow patrons for Italians, an ethnic group commonly associated with the area. Billy goes along with it to get a date with a hot guy; Julie goes along with it because the Italian girls appreciate her vulgar sense of humor and connect with her in a way other women never had. When her New Jersey Italian friends ask the newly-dubbed “Giuliana” to exercise her trademark wit and tell them a funny story, she responds, “Uh, I could tell you a funny story about my food and weight issues” (00:15:15). When they stare back at her with disgusted bewilderment (the implication being that Italians have far healthier relationships to food), she replies, “I mean, um, where’s my fuckin’ head? My Jewish neighbor’s food and weight issues” (00:15:21-24). The women all begin to laugh hysterically at her (masked) insecurities, one shouting out, “Those fuckin’ Jews!” (00:15:30). Julie pauses briefly to consider the anti-Semitic outburst, but continues with her story. The women eat it up—one demands, “Tell us more stories about your dumb Jewish neighbor!” (00:15:48). Although this moment, on its face, is deeply offensive (and unfortunately, from the experience of this writer, eerily authentic), it bears noting that the three actors playing the Italian women are Jewish themselves—the scene is an identity-swapping farce straight out of Shakespeare. Difficult People tackles the borderline anti-Semitic self-deprecation in Jewish comedy head-on, calling attention to the absurdity of the trope by putting the insults and epithets in the mouths of Jews-playing-Italians. Without context, the statements are shocking, but given the context of the actors’ Jewish heritage, the scene winks at the audience as if to say, “We can get away with saying this, but you can’t.”

High shul dropouts: secular Judaism, difficult Israel, troublemaking dybbuks

Difficult People indeed “gets away with” a lot of racy and inappropriate material. Though Difficult People aligns itself as a Jewish text in its opening sequence, it is not long before the main characters complicate the show’s identity. Shortly into the first episode, “Library Water,” Billy and Julie have the following exchange:

BILLY. What’s more of a turn-off—veganism or Judaica?

JULIE. Oh, I don’t know. Judaica.

BILLY. Yes! Yes. If I was going out with a guy and there was a big clay mezuzah hanging outside his place, I’d be like, “Is a circumcised experience worth it?”

JULIE. Is that anti-Semitic of us or is that not possible because we’re Jewish?

BILLY. Oh, it’s possible. (00:07:36-56)

The series, which so loudly and proudly proclaims itself as Jewish, has the liberty of making critical (or, as they put it in the above scene, “anti-Semitic”) jabs at the aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture that they find problematic or inconsistent with 21st century values. Though neither Billy nor Julie identifies as atheist (the season 1 episode “Premium Membership” makes this very clear), neither attends synagogue or observes Jewish holidays out of anything other than a sense of obligation and guilt. Only a few scenes in the series take place inside a synagogue, one of which opens with the line, “I swear to God, if I go to synagogue and I don’t make a show business connection, I’m gonna fucking kill myself with a chain saw” (“Unplugged” 00:07:33-37). Billy and Julie credit their dark senses of humor and intellect, which are essential components of who they are, to their Jewish background while poking fun at the religion’s fetish for suffering. The following exchange, which, ironically, takes place inside a Christian church, sums up the show’s overall “take” on religion:

BILLY. Wait, what’s the opposite of endorphins?

JULIE. Judaism. (“Code Change” 00:00:17-20)

Rucchel Epstein, the show’s most observant Jew and Billy’s sister-in-law, is hardly a poster-girl for the religious: When a Christian couple moves into her very Jewish neighborhood, she yells from her porch, “Hey, you Christmas celebrators! Stop creepy crawling and get out of our neighborhood!” (“Code Change” 00:05:51-6) When Billy apologizes to the neighbors and asserts, “Jews, we’re the same as you!” Rucchel fires back, “No. We’ve suffered a lot more” (00:05:59-00:06:03). It’s not only Rucchel that feels compelled to belabor the historical suffering of the Jewish people. During the scene that introduces Marilyn Kessler, Julie’s mother, Marilyn pesters Julie, “Did you get that article I sent you about Palestine? Because I’m about to resend it” (“Library Water” 00:07:25). In season two, Marilyn creates a video will (with the help of Tina Fey), to ensure that none of her money or belongings accidentally get donated to a pro-Palestinian charity (“Unplugged”). Difficult People, a half-hour Hulu comedy, hardly has the resources to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the show acknowledges multiple times that this complex issue affects and is part of daily Jewish-American life. Though the show’s engagement with the touchy subject of Israel is tongue-in-cheek—“[My brother’s] wife went to Israel [for Christmas] because of course she did” (“Difficult Christmas” 00:00:40-1)—the show fulfills its responsibility to, to paraphrase Dauber, reflect contemporary and historical Jewish life (xiii).

Perhaps the most absurdist portrayal of the Jewish difference is the episode “Code Change” in which Billy’s brother Garry, played by Fred Armisen, volunteers for the Israeli army (which summarily rejects him before he makes it past the Tel Aviv airport) and then hides in his own basement for a month to avoid the shame of failure. Rucchel, Garry’s wife, disturbed by the noises she hears coming from the basement, initially suspects her new gentile neighbors of anti-Semitic harassment before determining that there is a dybbuk in her home. Because her husband is “in Israel,” Rucchel enlists Billy to help with her problem insisting that he “back me up while I scream at those goyim until they go back to Marblehead. They could have guns! Or Polo mallets” (00:05:37-44). Rucchel’s suspicion regarding her new neighbors, “the first gentiles ever to live on Feldshuh Lane” (00:05:25) is silly, but the fact that “Code Change” was written and filmed following the election of Donald Trump, a time that saw a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Jews perpetrated by members of the president-elect’s racist, anti-Semitic base of supporters, to some degree justifies Rucchel’s concern. In this way, Difficult People calls attention to the crisis of anti-Semitic hate crimes, a serious and, in the wake of the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, deadly problem facing American Jews without sacrificing the show’s comedic spirit. In order to get Rucchel to stop screaming at the goyim, Billy inspects the basement, discovers Garry, and, in a gesture to protect his brother’s pride, convinces Rucchel that she has a Yiddish demon living downstairs. Billy and Rucchel plan an exorcism for the day Garry is set to return from Israel—unfortunately, the “creepy-crawling” gentiles choose this moment to meet their new neighbors, as Rucchel is shouting in Yiddish in a circle of Jewish men they’d conned into helping with the exorcism by catfishing them on the Jewish dating app “J-Swipe” (00:20:05). Billy repeats his “Jews, we’re the same as you” sentiment, but the scene heavily implies that Jews, in fact, are not the same as gentiles, and that the two groups’ experiences are incomparable. Obviously, the episode mocks Rucchel for her superstitions, but it participates in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” trope found in the resolutions of many Jewish comedies, like forbear Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“Schlemiel, schlimazel”: Good Garry, Bad Larrys

The defeatist portrayal of Jewish characters on television is hardly a new phenomenon, but has shifted significantly over the last several decades. As Hoberman wittily indicates in Entertaining America, during the 1960s film boom, “roughly between…Barbra Streisand’s appearances in Funny Girl and The Way We Were” (220), representations of Jews on film skyrocketed, and with them, depictions of the schlemiel character, the anti-hero and everyman to whom everyone could relate (223). Hoberman continues, “If the schlemiel was a new American everyman, so the Jewish condition was understood to be universal” (223). The schlemiel archetype has roots far beyond the explosion of Jewish representation in 1960s film; as Ruth Wisse writes about the historical schlemiel character, “the fool may be the only morally sane man” (“The Schlemiel” 4), and that notion certainly comes to bear with Difficult People’s recurring character Garry, Billy’s brother, who exemplifies the archetype. Wisse continues,

Vulnerable, ineffectual in his efforts at self-advancement and self-preservation, [the fool] emerged as the archetypal Jew, especially in his capacity of potential victim. Since Jewry’s attitudes toward its own frailty were complex and contradictory, the schlemiel was sometimes berated for his foolish weakness, and elsewhere exalted for his hard inner strength. (5)

Garry is thoroughly cowed by his domineering wife—when he attempts to stand up to her verbal abuse, at Billy’s suggestion, Rucchel throws him out of the house (“Blade Stallion”). He comes to live with Billy and proves himself to be shockingly inept at the bachelor lifestyle. Other characters play this sexual ineptitude for a joke; talking to Garry’s wife Rucchel, Billy says:

BILLY. Oh, please, Rucchel. My parents hated you. You know that. They were just happy that Garry could lose his virginity.

RUCCHEL. Exactly. I took one for the team. (“Code Change” 00:09:21-8)

Garry’s manhood is a punching bag throughout the series, but never once does the series question his inherent goodness. Garry is a hardworking business owner who provides for his family and can always be relied upon to help family and friends. When Billy finds him in his own basement after his rejection from the Israeli army, he remarks, “You’re living down here? This is like Room if that abuser had kept kosher! (“Code Change” 00:10:58-00:11:01) Garry, if somewhat stupidly, sacrifices his own comfort in order to make his wife and children proud.

GARRY. I’m scheduled to come home soon, so if I could pull it off I have, you know, one of those really great, like, heroes’ welcomes. You ever see those YouTube videos of soldiers coming home and those dogs don’t even consider biting them? I want that with Rucchel. (“Code Change” 00:11:17-25)

His desire for a “heroes’ welcome” home from Israel does, to some degree, stem from his fear of his (admittedly terrifying) wife, but also from a place of love. His moral strength, it seems, comes from his weakness in more practical, quotidian matters.

While Garry exemplifies the schlemiel stereotype, Billy and Julie more squarely fall into the schlimazel category. Billy and Julie’s mishegas is reminiscent of that of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s iconic (fictionalized) Larry David—every effort, well- or ill-intentioned, ends in failure and cringe-worthy awkwardness. As Dauber writes,

The distinction between the schlemiel and the schlimazel has lent itself to all sorts of characterization…There’s not so much to say about the schlimazel, except to note that as the kind of avatar for Jewish misfortune, his troubles are always writ small…The schlimazel’s only option, his only power, is the right to complain. (214)

Despite their constant kvetching, Julie and Billy (like the rich and famous Larry David of Curb) exist in a space of immense privilege. They are both Manhattanites in show business, either, like Julie, unemployed and supported by her mother and boyfriend or, like Billy, underemployed as a waiter and barely able to perform in his menial role. Though they live in relative ease, their every move complicates their lives further. In “The Courage of a Soldier,” Billy and Julie sing the Curb theme song as the episode ends, both an acknowledgment of yet another failed show business endeavor and a nod to the structural similarities between Difficult People and Curb. As Julie laments during “Difficult Christmas,” “Why can’t things be easier for us, you know? Why do we have to be miserable all the time?” (00:01:10-4) This moment recalls the salient and oft repeated quotation from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

I feel that life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable. Those are the two categories. You know, the horrible would be like, um, I don’t know, terminal cases…and the miserable is everyone else. So when you go through life, you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because you’re very lucky to be miserable. (00:36:47-00:37:08)

Perhaps if Alvy Singer had met Billy and Julie, he’d feel compelled to add a third category to his taxonomy of humanity: the difficult (Julie and Billy, of course, would hate this—the show mocks Woody Allen constantly). The difficult are the schlimazels, those who are miserable as a result of their own actions, rather than simply the hands of fate. The difficult are the centers of their own universes, around which everyone else must orbit.

A Show About Me: Marilyn, Rucchel, and the difficult issue of Jewish motherhood

In the opening sequence of the season 3 episode, “Code Change,” Julie explains, “The problem is, if my mom calls me when phone is dead, she gets mad she can’t reach me and it activates the guilt sequence” (00:00:07-14). As Martha A. Ravits writes in her article, “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture,” the Jewish mother has long been portrayed in media as “a nagging guardian of ethnic identity and the embodiment of its worst traits” (3). Ravits’s article traces the roots of the overbearing Jewish mother stereotype back to its roots in misogynist male writing during second-wave feminism in the United States, and feminism’s ongoing failure to adequately combat it. As Ravits writes,

Whether the Jewish mother is represented as protecting her children or demanding their loyalty, she is seen as exceeding prescribed boundaries, as being excessive. Her claims to affection, her voicing of opinions, her expressions of maternal worry are perceived as threatening in part because she acts as a free agent, not as a subordinate female according to mainstream cultural ideals. Even when she is represented as self-effacing, cast as the martyr, she is interpreted as being manipulative or passive-aggressive, secretly striving to impose her will on others. (4)

This passage merits quotation at length because it illuminates the central tension present in Jewish maternal representation—its threat to masculinity and social norms. The Jewish mother stereotype allows male writers to deflect their own misogyny and troubled relationships with their Jewish-American identities (Ravits 6), but in doing so, these writers reveal their own fear of women’s power. The Jewish mother is too powerful—therefore she must be ridiculed and contained.

Marilyn Kessler’s presence in Difficult People at once affirms and disrupts the Jewish mother stereotype. Marilyn has all the hallmarks of the stereotype—an obsession with weight (especially Julie’s), suspicion and contempt for Julie’s gentile boyfriend, and the beleaguered martyr complex one expects of an archetype so embedded in contemporary popular culture. But Marilyn is (ironically) a celebrated, successful, independently wealthy therapist. She has the delusional self-importance of a cast member of the Real Housewives franchise (in the episode “Carter,” she does become Countess Luann’s television therapist, but proves too good at her job to remain on the conflict-driven program). Marilyn maintains tyrannical control over her household (the series references but never introduces Mr. Kessler). While she does hold an unhealthy amount of sway over Julie’s emotions, leading Julie to seek treatment to cope with this (“Code Change”), her love for her daughter is obvious, if filtered through Marilyn’s unchecked narcissism. In the season one episode, “Premium Membership,” she stages a musical celebrating her own accomplishments with her patients under the guise that it is “art therapy,” which she titles, “Me! A Show About Me.” Marilyn may, on the surface, be the stereotypical, overbearing Jewish mother, but her constant successes belie such stringent categorization. Whether she is surge-pricing her therapy patients during the holidays (“Difficult Christmas”) or being offered a book deal (“Rabbitversary”), Marilyn’s indefatigable self-confidence, delusional or otherwise, reads feminist.

Rucchel Epstein, though she exists in vastly different circumstances as Marilyn (she lives in a modest home in a Jewish neighborhood in Queens with her schlemiel of a husband, Garry, and their two daughters, Renée and Tal), is most certainly overbearing as Jewish mother archetypes are wont to be, but she takes the persona to a comic extreme. Rucchel says whatever she wants, whenever she wants (her speech is riddled with insults and profanity) and is undoubtedly the leader of her own home. She transforms her home into a deeply observant Jewish one, to an absurd degree (she is, indeed, a “nagging guardian of ethnic identity”). For instance, while Rucchel exorcises a dybbuk from her home (“Code Change”), Marilyn skips fasting during Yom Kippur because it is “uncomfortable” (“The Courage of a Soldier”). While Marilyn gleefully anticipates Christmas or “suicide season,” a boon for her therapy practice (“Difficult Christmas”), Rucchel takes continuing education Yiddish poetry classes (“Blade Stallion”). She is the constant butt of jokes about being “too Jewish” and out of touch with contemporary social norms, something frequently attributed to the Jewish mother stereotype (Ravits 6). Rucchel’s presence in the series both engages with the stereotype at its most negative and proves exactly what Ravits attempts to in her article: Jewish women are powerful.

LGBT Jew: Difficult Representation

If women’s issues are at the forefront of the consciousness of the Difficult People writing staff, so are issues of LGBTQ rights and identity. The season two episode of Difficult People, “Italian Piñata,” begins:

JULIE. Ah, Stonewall. Judy Garland died. The cops raided the place. Gays, trans people, and drag queens were in no mood to be fucked with and began to riot.

BILLY. And thanks to their sacrifice I am now free to be out, proud, and know at any given moment where the power bottoms are within a five-mile radius. (00:00:00-17)

Though this exchange happens well into a series that proclaims itself as LGBTQ-friendly (if not unfriendly to straight, white cis-people), it perfectly captures Difficult People’s overall attitude toward LGBTQ history. First, Julie sets the joke up by proudly recalling the legendary 1969 incident at Stonewall, a landmark moment for the queer community, and Billy provides the punch line, that queer activists endured violence and riots to secure Billy’s rights, which he now uses to have anonymous sex via Grindr. In moments like this one, throughout the series, Difficult People uses its platform (streaming service in the U.S., its territories, and Japan) to both elevate LGBTQ folks (half the cast is queer) and call out the ways in which even avowed queer allies fail.

Difficult People ascribes to no illusions, nor does it place any minority figure on a pedestal. On Difficult People, queer people are people, just like anyone else, and as such, are deeply flawed (Lola, the trans waitress who works with Billy, played by Jewish, trans actor Shakina Nayfack, is a 9/11 truther, for instance). Characters often accuse Billy himself, an out gay man, of homophobia:

JULIE. Oh, that’s right, ‘cause you hate other gay guys.

BILLY. No I do not hate other gay people—yes, I do. I get very homophobic when I go to my gym. (“Library Water” 00:07:54-00:08:01)

As discussed in the season two episode, “Italian Piñata,” much of Billy’s frustration surrounding gay culture is his own lack of ability to strictly meet a gay “type.” Billy’s “otherness” in his own community mirrors the “otherness” Jewish characters feel throughout the series, like Rucchel’s exorcism in “Code Change,” or Julie’s neighbor’s WiFi network named “Hitler Had Some Good Ideas” in “Unplugged.” Queer characters on Difficult People also often engage in oppression one-upmanship. When Billy complains about Coming Out Day customers at work, Lola shouts, “Check your privilege, faggot. And I can say that, because I was one (“Italian Piñata” 00:01:49-53). Later in the series, Lola shouts, “I swear, if I have to hear one more cis person complain about their life I’m gonna kill myself” (“Passover Bump” 00:02:29-30). Difficult People’s queer characters are often the mouthpieces for the series’ most offensive lines—Billy quips, “I’m sorry NAMBLA doesn’t have a ‘Ones to Watch’ section in their monthly newsletter that you could use as a press clipping” (“Library Water” 00:12:56-00:13:01) at his flamboyant coworker Matthew—just as its Jewish characters often have the sternest words against Jewish culture. Difficult People is not precious about its representations of queer characters as shows like Modern Family can be—Difficult People exposes the worst attributes of humankind, which, ironically, unify it.

The Punchline

Difficult People, though short-lived, though hidden behind the Hulu paywall, though limited to the United States, is a vital text to anyone studying contemporary Jewish comedy. It is a post-postmodern text—Difficult People replaces the shrugging shoulders of Woody Allen and Larry David with characters whose earnestness and desire to succeed cannot be beaten down by their successive failures. Series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tackle Jewish comedy even more directly, but Maisel is set in the past, a fantasy of what greater female inclusivity in the industry may have looked like—Difficult People exists in the present (much of it was written and filmed during and after the 2016 election cycle) and therefore must contend with issues as they stand today and the real and present dangers facing American Jews, women, and the LGBTQ community. Difficult People is a Seinfeld of the Twitter age—its schlimazel leads must tackle the fallout from their own shandes with a healthy dose of online harassment. Though one can hardly call the cast racially diverse (aside from standout performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Derrick Baskin, Difficult People exists in the same whitewashed New York as Lena Dunham’s Girls) Difficult People widens the scope of criticism and exploration beyond just Jewish issues in society—its approach is intersectional. As Chametzky writes:

Jewish jokes and humorous stories flourish when traditions are changing or being undermined, when life is precarious…or when the spectacle of human folly or vanity unfolds daily to the perceptive observer. (311)

Difficult People, its humor, and its play at the expense of and in the defense of marginalized communities stands out for exactly this reason; in contemporary America, long-held traditions are changing and bigoted assumptions and attitudes are being held in contempt. Billy and Julie exemplify “human folly and vanity,” and it is the series’ honest portrayal of these negative attributes that makes it so relatable (and so funny). Difficult People exists at a cultural moment of much upheaval and turmoil; as the saying goes, art imitates life.

 

Works Cited

Allen, Woody, director. Annie Hall. United Artists, 1977.

“Blade Stallion.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 5, 26 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/cbf58254-8aae-418c-bfb2-10811f8a29a4.

“Code Change.” Difficult People, season 3, episode 4, 8 August 2017. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/0a83d6c8-e4be-45be-97e0-4c2f166ef4fc.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, editor. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Wayne State UP, 1987.

“The Courage of a Soldier.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 4, 19 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/51df0c1d-1001-4bdc-a69a-dca3c60bc072.

Dauber, Jeremy Asher. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. Norton, 2017.

David, Larry, creator. Curb Your Enthusiasm. HBO Entertainment, 2011.

“Difficult Christmas.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 8, 16 Sept. 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/a92d1475-7aed-4ae1-8c61-7c2ad2e725b4.

Hoberman, J. and Jeffrey Shandler, et al. Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. Princeton UP, 2003.

“Italian Pinata.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 3, 19 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/adda2da0-b5dc-4a8b-9e24-070535e2c4d1.

“Jewish Humor.” Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. Edited by Jules Chametsky, Norton, 2001.

“Library Water.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 1, 5 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/7bb2016a-f651-4f43-be0e-b46e09212036.

“Passover Bump.” Difficult People, season 3, episode 1, 8 August 2017. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/ed8af0a0-e293-4727-94b7-cd66e6efa2b2.

“Pledge Week.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 3, 12 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/3d25ea2c-07f7-4522-b5fa-9c912a60e3c7.

“Premium Membership.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 7, 9 Sept 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/96094e1a-8324-498e-8299-e6c6c739446a.

Ravits, Martha A. “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture.” MELUS, vol. 25, no. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 3-31. Accessed Nov. 21, 2018.

“Unplugged.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 1, 12 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/d8e3a8bd-b0d8-4850-9dbc-da042dc76fc5.

Wisse, Ruth R. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Princeton UP, 2013.

Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago UP, 1971.

Zurawik, David. The Jews of Prime Time. Brandeis, UP, 2003.

Shout Out Sunday 10.27.19

Good day, sunshines! It’s been quite some time since I’ve done one of these…most of these are leftover from about a month ago, so bear with me. I have been psychotically busy. I just picked up a part-time job that starts this Wednesday and I’m kind of freaking out about it. Side hustle culture will put my entire generation into an early grave. But it’s one step closer to a career doing what I love, so…worth it?

Anyway, here’s this week’s list!

Screen Shot 2019-10-27 at 9.47.07 AM.png
follow lyz here
  1. First and foremost, the great Bowen Yang is now a cast member on SNL. This is basically the only good thing that’s happened since the 2016 election. Listen to his podcast, Las Culturistas.
  2. I’m watching Succession because I hate being left out of the conversation! That theme song…
  3. I started taking horse-riding lessons at Fairfield Farm in Rochester and I’m completely in love! I’m counting down the days until I get to ride Eagle again. Riding him was one of the most therapeutic and calming experiences I’ve ever had. I’m still a little bit afraid (not of falling off, just of the fact that he’s a thousand-pound beast), but I truly think I’ve found a new passion. Oh, and it might just be good for my ADHD
  4. And on that note, can I buy this helmet or is it too soon?
  5. My therapist hipped me to ADDitude—it’s a really great resource for those of us struggling with ADHD, especially those of us who struggled for years and years without a diagnosis. Since I began treatment for ADHD, I’ve gained so much perspective about my life and my choices. I’m not ready for any big changes, but I am starting to feel glimmers of hope. Unfortunately, the two best things for ADHD are exercise and a well-balanced diet, so I’m probably screwed.
  6. Also, is it extra for me to get this initial necklace with the letters “ADHD”?
  7. I’m booking a tattoo at Famous Tattoos in Dartmouth (kind of a hike but I’ll travel for quality!) These are my reference photos (it’ll be on my ribs, covering up a horrible tattoo I got at 21, matching with my ex):found on Pinterest--gorgeous tattoo I'm using as a reference photo.sunflower tattoo
  8. Tutoring the Transcendentalists today, and all I can think about is the part of Amanda Palmer’s book where she discusses Thoreau’s mom bringing him doughnuts out at Walden. Solitude and self-reliance, my butt (I know those are Emerson chapters…come at me, bro).
  9. This is Us and The Resident are back for new seasons, so I’ll be crying even more than usual.
  10. So, I’ve talked about natural deodorant on here before, but I swear I’ve finally found THE one. Native deodorant in Lilac & White Tea which of course, I now realize, is a limited seasonal scent (thus why it was the only one at Target when I bought it). I wanted to love Myro (which is also now available at Target) but it just doesn’t work as well as Native does. And Native has started making a bunch of different new products, which I can’t wait to try out. We’ve been using Burt’s Bees toothpaste, but when we run out I’ll definitely give Native’s a try!

Okay. I did it. I actually published a blog post. See you next week!

Shout Out Sunday 9.22.19

Last week was rushed and short so this will be a mega-post! Or should I say a “Mega Thee Stallion” post? A lot of cool shit is going on this week, or in some cases, has been going on for ages and my dumb ass is just discovering it! Without further ado, let’s get into it!

Image result for mandy moore when i wasn't watching
source: the atlantic
  1. Cameron Esposito wrote a beautiful piece for Modern Love, and also her book is now available for pre-order!
  2. Speaking of books I can’t wait to read, JOSH GONDELMAN’S BOOK IS OUT.
  3. I’m currently reading A Visit from the Goon Squad and just finished The Wedding Party.
  4. MANDY MOORE PUT OUT A NEW SONG. Listen to “When I Wasn’t Watching.”
  5. Also, Brittany Freaking Howard put out a solo album!
  6. I’m going to a quinceañera today and I’m wearing this dress.
  7. 100% making this bag. I already have the supplies in my Amazon cart.
  8. I started listening to the Reply Guys podcast and Julia & Kate are a joy! Everyone needs more feminist, leftist talk in their lives. I also finally started listening to Las Culturistas (I run a Bowen Yang Stan Household) and it has quickly become my favorite podcast. Also, CONGRATS to Bowen on joining the cast of SNL!
  9. Betty Gilpin on WTF with Marc Maron goes deep.
  10. I am undone by this popsicle mold. Everything should be daisies.
  11. I know this is a WEIRD one, but I’m team cottage cheese > yogurt every day. This brand is delicious and the strawberry chia is extremely my shit.
  12. Of course I started watching Derry Girls.
  13. Did you read the Lauren Duca takedown piece? Honestly a bummer. Here’s the rebuttal. Is it bad that I still want to read her book?
  14. I wanna see Hustlers.
  15. Someone PLEASE buy me this coat, for the love of god.
  16. My therapist keeps recommending meditation before bed…should I try Calm or is that too podcast-y?
  17. How did I…just…get into Megan Thee Stallion? “W.A.B” ruined me.
  18. Have I introduced you to my Twitter crush?
  19. I’m tutoring “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” today and, honestly, when’s the last time you read a late medieval poem? Get on that.
  20. It’s Bi Visibility Day/Week/Month (depending on your source) and it’s really, really important. Here’s some reading material to get you prepped! (Also, I’ve been wearing this necklace a little bit extra lately…)

Song of the week:Never Really Over” by Katy Perry

Okay, actually this has been the song of my WHOLE SUMMER. A truly underappreciated bop!

 

And with that, I leave you, my dearest loves. Until next week!

 

Words Wednesday

I promised I would do a weekly post and here I am doing a weekly post, goddamnit! I wrote this in the fog of a panic attack back in December, so TW mental illness and suicidal ideation. I feel like a different person today. I hardly recognize this person. That’s the thing about mental illness—it disfigures your self-conception. I hope that anyone reading this who suffers from mental illness feels a little less alone today.

The Time I Had a Full Panic Attack Because I Couldn’t Finish the New York Times Crossword

As I write this, dear reader, that “time” is today. It is a Sunday in December 2018. This morning, around 9:00 am, I did what I routinely do on a Sunday morning. I awoke, checked Twitter from bed, got up, made myself a cold brew with oat milk, and sat down to do the New York Times crossword under a cozy blanket on my living room couch. Our living room couch is a faux-leather sectional that I acquired just prior to my wedding. It’s covered in tiny tears from my cat’s claws and worn spots where my husband often falls asleep instead of going to his studio to work. When I ordered the couch from Bob’s Discount Furniture, I chose the model with the L-shape on the right side, so that it would be on my side, and I could treat it like a Victorian fainting couch. Every day I get to sit with my legs up, stretched out in extreme comfort while my husband sits upright, which I justify by reminding myself that white, heterosexual men have enough in this world.

On this particular Sunday, I took my medication on time instead of forgetting about it until the late afternoon, as I am wont to do. I threw in a probiotic for good measure. Things were looking up. That is, until I opened my MacBook and the Google Chrome browser to the New York Times crossword section, which is my homepage. I am, you see, what absolutely no one calls a cruciverbalist. Crossword puzzles are my lodestar in a chaotic and dark world. When I worked in an office during my graduate school internship, I often spent my entire shift trying to solve every Monday and Tuesday puzzle in the entire archive, including the one from the day I was born (a Monday, at 3:11 pm, with the sun in Leo and the moon in Sagittarius). I wowed my young coworkers with my talent, for you see, the children of today do not read, and thus do not possess the vast store of utterly useless knowledge of a person who grew up before computers were an affordable household necessity. At the time of this writing, I have completed 411 puzzles.

But on this day, I was challenged. Will Shortz, longtime editor of the crossword, and Luke Vaughn, its creator, mocked me from my screen. Such clues as “2003 Economics Nobelist Robert” and “Traveling from coast to coast, maybe” seemed opaque, unsolvable. As I look at the long list of clues now, they seem fairly obvious, and some were. “Aladdin villain?” Jafar. Any millennial would know that. “Barbara and Jenna, to Jeb?” Anyone alive during the Bush administration remembers the First Daughters, the nieces of the then-governor of Florida, who may or may not be responsible for Al Gore, winner of the popular vote, not moving himself and Tipper into the White House in January 2001. Fun fact about Jeb Bush—he was the 43rd governor of Florida while his brother was the 43rd President of the United States. His wife’s name is Columba. Remember what I said about useless knowledge?

The answer to “Zoroastrianism’s sacred text” was a vital answer. It would unlock the bottom middle section, but how was I to know this? Norwood Public Schools taught ancient history for one year, sixth grade, and I don’t recall the Zoroastrians coming up. “Waterloo’s home?” A fool would know that Waterloo is in Belgium. Who hadn’t studied Napoleon’s infamous battle? But only four letters was I given. About a third of the way into the puzzle, I began to feel a shortness of breath. My chest began to heave. I stared blankly at the screen, a sea of white squares, waiting to be filled. I started questioning my very existence. The Sunday puzzle is typically the most difficult of the week, though I find that the Times pulls some nasty tricks on Thursdays, and occasionally Saturdays. I cursed myself. How could I not remember that Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club? Sure, I hadn’t read The Joy Luck Club, but I recall it being around during my childhood. I may have even had a copy at one point, purchased at one of my local library’s many semi-annual book sales. 

Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt useless, incompetent. Why had I gone to graduate school? What good was a Master’s Degree if I couldn’t solve a crossword puzzle? I’d grown up playing the 1981 version Genus Edition of Trivial Pursuit, created years before the Berlin Wall fell. I did the Boston Globe crossword, in pen, on the T with my father. All of those years of driving truly trivial knowledge into my formative brain were for naught. I decided to cut my losses and look up about five of the 242 answers so that I could fill in the puzzle. Its completion status would soothe me. I screwed up the last clue, misspelling Bissau, the “West African capital” in question, but it didn’t matter. I corrected myself, closed out of the puzzle, and tried to soothe my worry that I was experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

I decided to open the Saturday puzzle, which I’d skipped the day before. Perhaps a slightly easier puzzle would ease my suffering. It now stands incomplete with only 13 clues solved. With tears in my eyes, the panic rising, I turned to the Friday. I made even less progress. The only answer I knew with absolute certainty was that Noth was the Chris from The Good Wife. Further devastated, I opened the Thursday, which I hadn’t completed. The clues all looked like gibberish. I closed the browser entirely and set the computer aside, afraid that in my rage I might snap it in two. I opened my phone, fired off a few angry tweets about the Sunday puzzle, as my friend Katie, sole champion of my Twitter account, was a crossword enthusiast herself, and might understand my distress. Moments later, I decided to write this very essay, in the hopes it might be cathartic. 

But this essay is not about crosswords. It is about triggers. It is about the internalization of inadequacy, fear, and self-loathing. It is a fable about living with bipolar disorder—the mood swings loom. At the first sign of an obstacle, I break down. There was a synonym for “obstacle” that I wanted to use in the previous sentence, but in my mental exhaustion, I can’t find it in the recesses of my mind. I am certain that my tenuous emotional state is responsible for my utter inability to solve this week’s earlier puzzles. My whole life, I have been a ticking time bomb of irrational reactions to quotidian life. When I was in middle school, I misplaced my Go-Gos CD (Beauty and the Beat, obvs), and, failing to uncover it in my bedroom, spent an hour on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. Not because I needed to listen to the Go-Gos (though “Lust to Love” was my absolute jam), but because I was a failure. I had failed to keep my room organized. I was worthless. I couldn’t keep track of my own belongings. If I couldn’t locate something as mundane as a CD, how could I graduate high school? How could I ever find love, or employment? 

Fifteen years later, as recently as last June, I’d spend nearly an hour on the phone with a dear friend, in hysterics, because I felt that a phone interview had gone poorly. If I couldn’t get hired at Starbucks, how could I ever hope to earn a stable living? How could I ever have a child if I couldn’t lift myself above the poverty line? How could I ever be independent? I threatened to kill myself between sobs and gulps of air. I wanted out of this world because I was incapable of succeeding. It almost torpedoed the friendship. My husband later found me on the bathroom floor, retching into the toilet, and had to physically lift me up. My legs trembled as I slowly walked to the living room, red-faced and tear-stained. The worst part of this whole story is that I got hired (though in a slightly lower position), less than a week later. 

A few weeks ago, I called the suicide hotline for the first time. It had been after a particularly tough shift at work, at a job I hated with every fiber of my being, despite loving all of my coworkers. I had been up since 3:30 am to make it to work by 4:30. At the very end of my shift, an incredibly blunt and assertive coworker pulled me aside to criticize something I had done. I don’t even remember what she said. The day had been relentlessly busy. I had been having a low-grade panic attack for hours. Upon hearing her words, I burst into tears. I don’t even remember leaving, or the first 10 minutes of my commute home. I sobbed and sobbed, and the suicidal ideation crept back into my mind. I contemplated admitting myself into the emergency room, feeling I needed a babysitter to ensure that I wouldn’t harm myself. I frantically called my husband at work and asked for his advice. He told me to drive to his parents’ house, but I insisted that I didn’t want them to see me in such a state. Knowing that, regardless, I’d need to drive at least 20 minutes to get to the ER, I looked up the number for the LifeLine, while driving, and called. 

I was patched to the Boston Samaritans, which I mistook for the Good Samaritan hospital not far from my house. In between sobs, I asked her what would happen if I admitted myself. Would they keep me overnight? Would they confiscate my phone? I had to open my store the next morning. I couldn’t let my team down. Their success was more important to me than my own life. The sweet girl with the soothing voice on the other end of the phone didn’t have an answer for me, but she listened and offered her support. She implored me to pull over, thinking it unsafe for me to be driving in such a state. I pulled into the Stop N Shop parking lot in Stoughton and talked to her until I regained my normal breathing pace and my tears had subsided into more gentle sniffling and sobs. I promised her that my house was minutes down the road, and that I wouldn’t do anything to harm myself on the way or once I arrived. She arranged a check-up phone call for later that night, which was a brilliant tactic. The call was an obligation, a plan, something I needed to be around for. I made it home, sat on my couch, and watched Schitt’s Creek, a perfect television show, until my husband came home. I think I ate Cheez-Its. 

I am pleased to say that, despite my panic attack this morning, I have not considered killing myself even once. Today. Even though I’m crying writing about this, it all feels like progress. L’appel du vide still lives and breathes in the back of my mind, but it floats through my mind in ephemeral wisps, instead of planting, its roots spreading through me, poisoning my thoughts. Perhaps the call of death has subsided because I found a new (low-paying, but stable) job in an office environment. Something I can be proud of. I quit my service job as soon as I got the offer from the new one, and the week off allowed me to finish my last paper of graduate school, a twenty-page opus on Jewish comedy and the series Difficult People, the two most precious things in my world. In a week, I went from fantasizing about driving my car off of a highway overpass to earning a Master’s Degree and splurging on a new business-casual wardrobe from Madewell, J. Crew, and Everlane. My best friend came home for the holidays and we saw The Favourite before drinking way too much rosé, talking about sex toys, and crying about love. For the first time in my life, despite the fact that my car payment is now ten days overdue, I feel like an adult. Or something approximating one. But with my condition, that could change at any moment, and it terrifies me. 

I still plan on doing tomorrow’s puzzle. The Monday is always the easiest (my best time is five minutes and seven seconds). When the upbeat piano riff plays, a sense of accomplishment will wash over me, because I will have achieved something small, but meaningful. And honestly, until the medication I’m taking truly takes effect, if indeed it does, small victories like washing and folding my laundry on the same day, or finishing a particularly challenging crossword, will have to be enough to sustain me.

P.S. The word for “obstacle” that I had wanted to use was “adversity.” The fog does clear eventually.

Words Wednesday

Because y’all asked for another weekly feature, right? Every Wednesday, I’m going to share a piece of creative writing—raw and unedited, unless otherwise specified.

This week’s piece is “Carey,” a short story (vignette? sketch?) I wrote a little over a year ago while I was in grad school. It’s just the bones of an idea, but the point of sharing is to keep myself accountable and keep myself writing, even if what I share is full-on trash. Story time!

Carey

The cuckoo clock that Carey had so lovingly restored during a longer stint of sobriety ticked and tocked with distracting purpose. Mae had vivid fantasies of ripping it from the wall and dismantling it in a field, like the scene in Office Space, but she knew that Carey needed the reminder of his potential. Every tick was a second further from the most recent nightmare.

He was sober now, a month, and Mae regretted how easily irritated she became in his constant presence. Not that she preferred his expensive, cocaine-fueled dalliances with other women, but at least then she’d had some alone time to write. The bastard was effusive and charming after a few drinks, but sober Carey tended to be sullen and serious. Fucking became lovemaking, toying around with his guitars became the grave act of composition instead of a diversion. He was, at that moment, in the parlor with his nylon-string acoustic, composing something that sounded identical to Van Halen’s “Spanish Fly,” but Mae didn’t dare tell him. He abhorred what he called “cock rock,” preferring the soulfulness of obscure, esoteric, experimental bands. Mae liked Van Halen—in fact, her guilty pleasure was listening to Top 40 on the radio whenever she wasn’t chauffeuring Carey around, being subjected to his postmodernist jazz, or whatever.

“Do you want me to make dinner?” she asked, hoping the suggestion would persuade him to eat something and put some weight on his increasingly gaunt frame.

“Uh, yeah. Whatever’s fine,” he mumbled back, uninterested. “I’m not super hungry.”

“Just pick a…a food genre,” she replied, frustrated. “An ingredient. Something.”

“How about…stir-fry?” he offered, not looking up to meet her gaze.

“Sure,” Mae sighed, relieved he’d answered at all. “Stir-fry. I’ll get right on that.” She washed the skillet she’d left dirty by the kitchen sink before drying it with a dishcloth one of Carey’s relatives had given them after their wedding.

The warm water streaming from the faucet felt luxurious on her worn hands. She caught her reflection in the kitchen window, and suppressed a small smile. She looked quite beautiful—she always looked most beautiful when she was tired. Exhaustion softened her severe features and smoothed the lines around her eyes. Her nude lipstick looked faint, as though it had been kissed off, and thick black-rimmed glasses magnified her large, storm-grey eyes. Her hair, which typically hung with the weight of a funeral shroud, was swept back by a kerchief to cascade down her back. In these rare moments she felt like a match for Carey.

Carey had the sort of magnetic charm that made him irresistible in the face of his faults. Even as he lied, cheated, absconded with her money, the chipped front tooth of his crooked smile was apology enough. He was a scrawny six feet, and every inch of him was dear to her. She’d been cautioned by friends and family not to marry him, especially so young, but she had a sick fascination with his deviant nature; she was unshakably attracted to the dirty, disheveled, dishwater hair that framed his face, the patches of unkempt stubble that adorned his strong jaw. He spoke softly, in a voice almost sweetly feminine, that had begun to grow gravelly from years of smoking. His bony appendages were covered in tattoos, but her favorite would always be the cluster of mayflowers above his heart, a tribute to her he’d had inked when they were barely more than children. He’d always called her “Mayflower,” and that pet name, unlike their bodies, had not yet begun to grow old.

Carey was 33 now, but looked younger. He had the unaffected manner of someone who’d never committed to anything long enough to gain expertise. Well, anything but her. The only trustworthy thing he’d ever said was that he loved her, and she believed him without a single lingering doubt. The dysfunction between them was intoxicating—a therapist might have urged that they separate, but their bond was a foregone conclusion. They both got high on the misery they inflicted upon each other. He wrote songs about it. She wrote stories. He went off the wagon, cleaned up his act, and did something excessively grand, like build her an armoire. She’d resolve to kick him out, or kill him, but one look into his smoldering dark eyes, and she’d fall into his arms, then he, to his knees.

They’d been living off a modest trust that Carey’s deceased parents had left him, though its funds were dwindling after years of relative indolence. Mae, for her part, had gone to school and always kept a job; Carey had barely scraped through with an undergraduate degree in Psychology, which he’d promptly abandoned as readily as he resolved to skip graduation. Carey was smart—smart enough to get by on looks, charm, and the nine lives he’d apparently been granted by good works in a past life. He had Mae, sometimes a servant, sometimes a concubine, always his wife—conservative in her daily activities, Mae came completely unhinged in the bedroom, performing whatever fit his whim. Even sober sex with him was incredible, despite the lack of levity. In the old days, when they’d get whiskey drunk and fuck, they could be heard laughing down the hall as they tumbled across the bed and onto the floor. It was no surprise that Carey had gotten her pregnant twice—they were as responsible as they were gainfully employed.

When the ingredients for dinner were chopped and rinsed, Mae wiped the counter down with the dishcloth, staining it with the juice of the red bell pepper. She considered, over the cast-iron pan of stir-fry, if she should turn off the flame and seduce him now. He was in an insufferable mood—perhaps that might cheer him up. But it could backfire—it could make him so dreadfully intense. He might speechify his professions of love for hours, and Mae had an early morning. He had always been grandiose, but his increasing familiarity with each and every of the twelve steps lent his words a messianic tenor. She pictured herself, 21-year-old bride in a cheap lace sundress, standing on the American side of Niagara Falls, the most romantic spot their young minds could conjure, and briefly imagined what she might have made of her life if she’d run screaming the first time he relapsed.

The first year of their marriage had been relatively placid—bolstered by their defiance, they had endeavored to enact an idyllic scene of young love and had succeeded. Even her parents eventually began to soften to Carey, though they’d never abandon their dislike of him entirely. They’d never understood how she could tolerate his capriciousness; they, of course, suspected his addictions. Mae was not naive, but Carey was her pet, and when she was young, she thought that proper love and nurturing could relieve his suffering and make him whole. It wasn’t long into their marriage before he relapsed after two years of relative sobriety—devastating then, she remembered it as almost quaint in comparison to what would come later. He admitted to having slept with a college classmate in a blackout and Mae had tried to be upset by it. Not long after their first reconciliation, they found the third-floor apartment where they still lived. The landlord, Rex, was a former junkie who had a soft spot for Carey’s troubles; he never bothered them when the rent was late, as long as they paid eventually. They’d been in the creaky old apartment for ten years that April.

She turned the knob on the gas range off and tossed the dishcloth from her hands as she devised a game for them to play. She walked into the parlor, lifted his chin with her right index finger, and used their wedded telepathy to impel him to the bedroom. He placed his guitar gently onto the sofa and followed her eagerly. Once they’d reached the bed, he flung her down with uncommon force and began biting into her flesh like a starved animal. She loved this Carey, possessed by his animal instincts. This was her favorite iteration of him, and her earlier feelings of irritation vanished as bruises appeared on her skin. Their years together had made their lovemaking efficient—Carey took Mae from behind and angled her just so, allowing her to finish before him, as he always did.

She nestled herself in Carey’s arms, inhaling his earthy scent, tracing her fingers along the patterns left by the beads of sweat on his chest. She began to ask what he was thinking, but stopped herself; it was better she didn’t know. In ignorance, she could imagine that he lay there daydreaming of her—the deep curve of her waist, the high arch in her foot, the taste of her. His soft gaze was aimed at the ceiling, which was yellowed here and there from decades of water damage. His breathing was deep and even. She ran her thumb over his bottom lip, slightly protruding, swollen from its time between her teeth. He turned to face her, smiled, and whispered “Mayflower” as he grazed her brow with a kiss. Carey’s wedding band caught the light of the street lamps outside and glowed yellow as his hand rested on her cheek.The weight of it soothed her—his calloused fingertips felt so soft on her face; they’d been so rough only moments before. Mae kissed the palm of his hand; a barely perceptible smile flickered across his lips as his eyes closed to rest. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep, and she soon followed. The flames didn’t wake either of them until they began lapping at the bedroom door.