Friday, July 12, 2013

Not Some One's French Mother

Pictue of french chic from here
I wasn't thinking about clothing, or even about getting dressed, for that matter, when I stumbled on this article during my morning email reading/link clicking/ web-surfing, er I mean, my "pre-writing ritual." Yeah-- see, I do get ideas to write about during this "creative" morning period.  Just because I will not be posting about George Clooney's latest break-up (no surprise, she wanted to settle down?!) or Kim and Kanye's baby-naming antics (really, North West?  At least the poor little girl will have money for therapy and lawyers...) doesn't mean that I'm not revving up to write my next essay/rant/post. 

Anyway, the article outlines the differences between the ways typical American and French women dress, coming down firmly on the side of the tres chic French style.  Quelle Suprise!   I know it's silly, but I do pay attention to this kind of thing, and as you may know, there are whole books-- yeah books, plural-- comparing the cultural qualities of American and French womanhood, in clothing, attitude, diet and mothering skills, and they universally pronounce the French way superior.  I am always suckered  by these books and articles nevertheless, because they are almost always accompanied by a photo or illustration of a busy but chic thin woman looking fabulously put together, even though it is clear that she doesn't have to think about how she looks because really, she is just dropping off the tots at the ecole and picking up a baguette and some cheese for the evening meal, which she will whip together effortlessly by adding a bit of butter, something green, and an egg or two.  And she will never get fat (per this book), and she will never raise her voice to her children (per this book), because she has trained them since they were enfants, and an arched eyebrow or a raised palm will bring silence from the gallery d' peanut...

The truth is, I have looked approximately the same, dressed, since I had children.  I had my first at 18, so I guess  didn't look middle aged then, as I certainly do now, but I have looked like some one's mother since that first child was born.  Would it be better to look like some one's French mother?  Maybe, but even if I put on the trim jeans and the striped fisherman's tee, I won't look more put together, because something about me seems to be naturally rumpled.  
I could fit in with these gals...picture from here
It's not that I haven't experimented with different styles.  I went a year or so during grad school sporting the woman's academic look-- loose neutral or black layers, sensible European shoes and big Global jewelry, all topped off by wild, curly frizzy hair, or alternatively, close cropped angular hair-- The Eileen Fisher/ J Jill woman, comfy, yet brainy, with too much going on in her head to worry about being fashionable, yet too professional to actually teach class in her pajamas. 
This is kinda what I was going for
Picture found here
When I was going to lectures at universities in Boston, I tried out the academic preppy version, with the cords and scuffed leather boots and the big wool sweater with the tiny moth hole at the neckline to show that it was real wool, that my boyfriend had owned it since prep school, and that I was too intellectually preoccupied to do more than throw on some clean clothes and grab my books before heading out the door.  Still, no matter who I tried to be, I always looked like some one's mother. Possibly wearing a costume.   But I digress...

Back to the whole Franco-American thing.  First of all, I take issue with the notion of "typical" French and American women as they are usually portrayed, because we're actually comparing a pretty non-specific American mom demographic,  to some French group of women that aren't likely to be from the same slice of life.  Since I fall into a (lower) middle class (but way too over educated for my own good)  mom demographic, I have the feeling that  we are really dealing with some kind of cultural inferiority complex here.  This woman we aspire to be doesn't have to be French, but since so many people are extolling madam's virtues, we've got this idea stuck in our heads.*  I think we look to the French for examples because we-- and I really mean I, but come along with me here-- equate looking more put together, healthier, and like a calmer mommy, with being all of those things.  All of us-- and here I know I sometimes I totally forget, but stay with me-- know that isn't the case.  We all know a woman or two who seems to have everything together until we find out she doesn't.  I won't accuse the rest of you, but I know I'm always envious of the sleek, chill appearance and always more than a tiny bit glad when I find out her dark secret-- her kids get lice because she hasn't vacuumed in years, or her husband is leaving her for a slightly frumpier, but definitely warmer and younger version of herself. 

I guess what I'm getting to here is that I'm going to try to stop comparing myself to ideals, French or otherwise, and try to just be happy with my own rumpled self.  You'll see me at school drop off, or at the grocery store.  I'll be the one in the faded yoga pants and husband's college T-shirt with the washed and butterfly-clipped  hair.  I might be eating something fattening while I yell at my kids to stop whatever they are doing right this minute.  Say hi, because we ordinary moms need to stick together instead of trying to look like-- or feel bad that we aren't-- something else. 

*I have a theory that this goes back to at least Jackie Kennedy because her calm coolness somehow got conflated with her love of the French culture, but I don't teach cultural studies here on the blog, do I, so, really, who cares... 

Friday, July 5, 2013


I know I always talk about how I waste my time, but do I really talk about how I waste my time?  I know this will shock you, but sometimes I do it the same way everyone else does, just watching TV.  (You thought figuring out cold fusion, maybe?  Nah!)
Of course, I'm not usually in charge of viewing choices, so there's a lot of PBS Kids on at my house.  Curious George, Sid the Science Kid, Arthur & his gang are all regulars.  I know the theme song to Wordgirl by heart.  (Well, she is kinda my hero.  I think I would be totally at home on the planet Lexicon!) And of course, there is the process of introducing the girls to the shows I watched as a kid. Well, I was doing that, until they asked if the shows looked so weird because technology hadn't been invented when I was a little girl.  They did like the Vitameatavegimin episode of I Love Lucy, and they get Bewitched, which was my favorite at their ages. (They haven't caught up to the confusion of new Darrin yet.) We might go for Get Smart in a few years, just to make sure they know that Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway are not the real Smart and 99.

Lately, they've developed a weird fascination with Full House, which was somehow anachronistic even when it was new.  And really, you try explaining the fact that little Michelle, that roly-poly baby ball of blond wisecracks, was actually played by the Olsen twins.  I showed the girls the Vogue magazine featuring the now skeletal Mary Kate and Ashley and their ready-to-wear empire, but I was met with utter disbelief.  "First, mama, there is only one Michelle, so two girls could not be her," said Fiona, the existential philosopher, and from Delia, the pragmatist, "Those girls don't even look like Michelle, because they have pointy bones." She diplomatically added,  "I think you might be making a mistake about this because the show was a really long time ago."  Since I'm really not equipped to explicate child labor laws as they relate to 1980's television production, and can't possibly explain how the baby fat melted off of the skeletal clothes hangers Mary Kate and Ashley are today, I've let it go.  Maybe they never were Michelle.  It was a long time ago. 

So I don't often get to pick what we watch, but when I do, (and here, I can't help but think of the Dos Equis guy, because, really, I watch plenty of TV) I confess that I am now a binge watcher. Since we gave up cable at the beginning of the year, we've used the much cheaper option of streaming TV to supplement the four channels (including PBS, thank goodness) that we can get with our modern day "rabbit ears."  And, like most everyone else who has such access, I can't stop myself from watching one episode after another.  Somehow, watching three so-so movies in a row doesn't do it for me, but I'll hit "watch next episode" over and over, given the opportunity. 

The Gg's at Luke's Diner, of course... from here
I usually pick shows I've seen, but never really gotten to watch attentively, because, you know, I have kids.  If I could, I would just watch the entire run of Gilmore girls over and over for the snappy repartee. Sadly, it is only available a few episodes at a time, because it still runs on some real TV channels somewhere in cable land.  But enough about strong female characters like Wordgirl and the Gilmores. What I've been watching lately is pretty much all British guys-- solving crimes, pretending to be Americans, sometimes doing both in the same show. 

Lately, there has been DI Lewis and his laconic partner Sgt. Hathaway on Inspector Lewis, the contemporary Oxford-set crime procedural. And before that, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle, on Foyle's War, which is set in a coastal English town during World War II.    Both have new episodes on PBS this season, so I have been catching up by watching old episodes.  I see you yawning over there, but really, there is plenty of blood and sexual intrigue in these shows and the best thing about them is that the characters have an amazing way of shutting down bullshit with a quick phrase.  The writers of these shows have the  characters say the clever stuff that most mortals only think of long after the appropriate moment has passed.  Plus, I would argue that Lewis and Hathaway have dialogue almost as snappy as Lorelai and Rory, but in that bitten-off British guy way that sounds so much smarter than most of what's on our side of the pond. 

Three of the other shows I've been watching lately were cancelled long ago, but live on in the twilight of Netflix and Hulu, even though they have yet to achieve anything like cult status.   Strangely, though I'm not a fan of the season-ending cliff hanger, I can make peace with a show that will stay unfinished forever.  My taste clearly runs toward quirky antiheroes, men who are challenged by the system and by personal demons.  Yeah, I like my main characters complex and smarter than everyone else in the room... And all of them are English guys playing tormented American everymen?  Is that more than a little weird?

The first show is Life, which stars Londoner Damien Lewis, lately of the uber-popular Homeland, as Charlie Crews, a Los Angeles detective back on the homicide squad after serving twelve years in maximum security prison for a set of murders he did not commit.  While in the joint, he calmed down by reading Buddhist philosophy and getting into fierce fighting shape in solitary confinement.

His fantasy settlement with the city for his erroneous incarceration includes a truckload of money. Some of this he has used to buy a gigantic house which is set on a ranch where he grows all kinds of fruit, because it was the food he missed most while he was in prison. In addition, he got a promotion to detective, so he is solving murders and covertly investigating the crime for which he took the fall.  There are only a season and a half of episodes, and the first series unfolds like an origami swan as he pieces together who set him up and who the real killer was.  Adam Arkin plays his housemate and financial manager with a practical hangdog sincerity that balances Charlie's zen-spouting fruit-eating at home the same way his cynical, sarcastic detective partner Reese, played by Sarah Sahi, balances it on the job.  The second season, which we are watching now, is not quite as evenly paced, and is missing Reese, because Sahi took time off while she was pregnant. From what I've read, the last episode wraps up Charlie's saga because the show runners knew the axe was going to fall.  I'm almost up to that final episode, and I've enjoyed the ride.

Awake features another Englishman, Jason Isaacs, as Michael Britten, another LAPD detective with issues. (Are there no Americans to play LA cops anymore?) After a horrible car accident, Britten lives in two realities, never sure which one, if either, is a dream.  There are subtle differences in lighting and obvious differences in the cast in each part of his life, as in one reality his wife died in the accident and in the other, his son was killed. 

In each reality, he sees a therapist who is trying to convince him to let go of the other life because it can't possibly exist.  Incredibly, he manages to help his detective partner in each life solve a murder every week, using clues from both realities to piece the puzzles together.  It is a pretty complicated set-up, which is certainly why it only lasted one season, and it requires real attention, which is something unexpectedly diverting in a TV show.  The cancellation of this show was also certain, so the story line was wrapped up in a twisty last episode.  Isaacs did a good job conveying the torment and confusion of his character, expressing grief for his family and fear that he was somehow responsible for the whole thing.  There were also bits of humor punctuating the darkness and keeping viewers on track with the multi-layered plots.

Finally, I have to mention Eli Stone, which is found on HULU, because it is yet another British actor, Jonny Lee Miller (who is currently doing a modern day Sherlock Holmes on CBS, also good) as another American guy in a weird situation.  And because I love it irrationally.  Stone is a thirty-something big law attorney in San Fransisco who suffers from a series of hallucinations which often erupt into full blown musical numbers staged in offices, courtrooms, and Golden Gate Park.
Stone's visions cause him to stop the cut-throat corporate litigation that made him an asset to his national law firm and take up pro bono work which he believes will better the world.  While his visions are eventually explained as the product of an inoperable brain aneurysm, he interprets them as signs he should follow and declines medical intervention (except for the occasional acupuncture session which clarifies the visions somehow) because he prefers the purpose this shift in his life has given him.  The show is silly and philosophical and I'm sure that I was attracted to it when it came out because I was going to graduate from law school soon and wanted to see someone buck the billable hours trap and do some justice.  I have yet to see the wrap up of this show, but I know it did not get the neat finish of Life and Awake.  Still, I don't know of other shows where lawyers jump up on their desks and sing George Michael songs, so I will keep hitting next episode... until the kids want to watch Full House.