Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Erma Bombeck: Subversive Feminist

Nope, I’m not kidding.

Granted, hers isn’t the first name to jump to mind when you think of great feminist writers of the 60’s and 70’s. But for every one woman who plowed through The Feminine Mystique, hundreds LOL’d their way through her At Wit’s End columns. 

In case you don't know her, Erma Bombeck was a humor writer. She spent several years as a stay-at-home mother before beginning a small weekly humor column about housewifery. Her editor had his doubts about whether such a column would find an audience, but within a short time it was syndicated to over 900 newspapers. Erma became so successful, her husband quit his job to manage her career. In total, she wrote 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. If her humor feels a bit tired today, it’s only because subsequent humorists, including today’s crop of mommy bloggers, still work with updates of tropes Erma popularized.

But she wrote about being a housewife and mom. What's feminist about that?

1. Well, she said this: “Sharing responsibility is what the entire movement to free women is all about. If woman are ever to be appreciated, a husband should drive a car pool . . . just once.”

2.  She told the truth about cleaning. Advertisements and zen philosophy be damned, housework isn’t fulfilling work. It’s monotonous and boring and it's time away from more meaningful pursuits. “Housework,” Bombeck said, “is a treadmill from futility to oblivion with stop offs at tedium and counter productivity.”

She made it okay for women jump off that treadmill. Unfortunately, there’s been a pushback on this. With entire TV channels devoted to home improvement, it’s no longer enough to just keep your house within acceptable sanitation standards; it should be show home worthy.

3. She wrote honestly and humorously about aging as a female. The big kerfuffle about Renee Zellweger reveals how brutally women are still judged just for daring to have birthdays past 35.

4. And she wrote about just how hard it was (and is) for women to balance work and home life:

“Then one day in a leading magazine, I saw a story called, 'Today’s Woman on the Go.'”
At the top of the article was a picture of a well-stacked blonde at a construction site with a group of men around her while she read blueprints to them. I noted her shoes were coordinated with her Gucci yellow hard hat.
The second picture showed her in a pair of flowing pajamas standing over the stove stirring her filet-mignon helper (recipe on page 36) while her husband tossed the salad and her children lovingly set the table.
It made me want to spit up….
You have only to work once in your life to know that “Today’s Woman on the Go” is pure fiction. Maybe they got the captions under the pictures switched. Maybe she wore the long flowing pajamas at work and the hard hat at home. Heaven knows, home is a Hard Hat area.
Where were the pictures showing her racing around the kitchen in a pair of bedroom slippers, trying to quick-thaw a chop under each armpit….”

5. And she said this: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Not I had a floor you could lick. Not I ironed my children’s jeans every day. But I used my talents. 

She helped a generation of mothers and housewives to know their personal dreams were legitimate and worth pursuing. That it was okay to want more than a husband and children and white picket fence.

Okay, okay, Erma was a feminist. But subversive? Really? Isn’t that a little… strong? We're talking housewife humor, here, not George Carlin.

Erma Bombeck let it all hang out, telling readers about her messy house, flawed children, body issues, imperfect marriage, and work/family balance struggles. She made readers laugh at her failures to meet societal expectations, using humor to reveal just how ridiculous the expectations were in the first place. “If you can’t change it, laugh at it,” Erma said. 

I'm willing to bet Sarah Silverman would agree: That’s a darned subversive idea.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dried Up Psycho Mommies

It begins when their children are infants, this period when women who were once perfectly (I mean, borderline) normal become candidates for Psycho-Mommy Hall of Fame. Maybe it comes from inhaling bleach (I mean, nail polish). During this transformative period, a writer (I mean, fellow Mommy) can capitalize on the opportunity to observe these Psycho-Mommy creatures in their natural habit. For every encounter with any kind of crazy is story fodder. And it doesn’t matter if that story is a novel, a post or a tweet.

Recently I attended an orientation night for my high school freshman. It was one of those near-pointless wastes of my fugging time but still I wouldn’t have minded it—except for one thing: the other parents. Educators can be annoying enough with their million dollar egos riding on fifty-cent ambition. And by no means do I include all parents: many are that perfectly normal I mentioned above. And I mean that literally: perfect and normal. Those are the parents who follow their student’s schedule when the bell rings by reading the hall signs and studying the maps. Maybe they even asked their student ahead of time (the school takes up an entire city block, after all, so finding a classroom can be more like a pilgrimage). They enter the classroom and quietly take a seat, acknowledging other parents they know. They listen politely to the 10-minute rehearsed speech. At the bell, they efficiently move to the next classroom.
Those are the parents to emulate, but not to write about. A good writer has to pick crazy. They don’t have to be bat-shit crazy either. If I see a parent with needle tracks, I keep looking. That’s too easy. I look for the ones who don’t actually know they’re Psycho-Mommies (or Daddies, but they’re more difficult to track). The Psycho-Mommy of a high school freshman who, after 14 years, still doesn’t realize how fuggin psycho they are…

The Vainglorious – This is the mommy who hung back (blocking the aisle) to loudly announce to the teacher, “Hi, I’m so-vain, so-gonna-be-embarrassed-tomorrow’s mother.” Now just to put some perspective on this… There are 1,344 students in this high school. There are roughly 25 students in the class just during that hour and 7 hours in a day. We all had exactly 3 minutes to get to the next classroom. I’m probably not the only one in the room who thought, “Who the fug cares who you are? Get your fat ass out of the aisle.” The look on the teacher’s face neared confusion. It clearly said, “I have no idea who so-gonna-be-embarrassed-tomorrow is.” She smiled and shook Ms. So-vain’s hand anyway. Hey, Ms. So-vain! You’re oversizing your own importance just a tad. And I know your daughter. She’s a slut with unlimited disposable income. She’s the one who beams when the orchestra conductor praises a performance. She’s the one who believes he’s talking only to her, not the other 74 musicians. Then she laughs too loudly. She’s the one who the conductor was talking about during parent-teacher conferences last year when he said he gets annoyed by a few brown-nosers in the group. But you go right on a-thinking that the whole fuggin world revolves around you and your precious daughter. Maybe it does.
The Scourge of Stupid Questions – This scourge is really more like a plague here in suburbia. Again, maybe it’s the bleach (okay, nail polish). Maybe it’s that you Psycho-Mommy only went to college to get your Mrs. Degree and no longer uses that thing that’s 3 feet above your ass. Just stop with the fuggin dumb questions already. Read the fuggin paper that’s on the desk in front of you, or the sentence written on the board up front or use the common sense God gave you for shit’s sake. How come your husband isn’t asking if the cafeteria pasta is whole wheat? Because it’s a stupid fuggin question, that’s why.
The Viper – I actually love these Psycho-Mommies. Not because they’re cool, or funny (at least they don’t mean to be funny). I sat in one classroom where a frosted-tips, plunging-neckline, dried-up-piece-of-toast Mommy was being oh-so-friendly to Ms. So-clueless. Two rooms later? Dried-up Mommy was dissing not only so-clueless to another dip-dyed Mommy, but dissing the daughter as well. See, I love her because she makes everyone else look good. Despite the fact that she just spent an hour on her hair to come to a lame school event and looks around the room with imagined superiority. She’s looking for something to gossip about at gymnastics tomorrow. And she has no fugging clue that she’s the worst sort of person. You’re so lame, Viper, that you can’t even stand yourself.
The Dueling Divorced – I debated whether or not to use this as a category. I decided to because it is definitely a treasure trove of good writing material. When both parents of another poor gonna-be-so-embarrassed-tomorrow teen showed up in one classroom, the way they competed with each other was comical. No one else even tried to raise their hands during the 2 minutes of questions at the end—the divorcees started raising theirs before the teacher even got halfway through the 8-minute presentation. Really, if you want to prove to everyone in the room that you’re an attentive parent, then stay the hell married. Don’t try to one-up your ex by asking repetitive questions regarding logistics of your fugged up 2 family schedules. Because people like me sit in the back and watch you with amusement and think: “So…you would take a bullet for your daughter, but you refused to keep your family together for her sake.” Nice. You’ll be in my next book, hypocrite.

So don’t get me wrong, I happen to love Psycho-Mommies. I don’t want to hang around them or be their friend, but they are ripe entertainment for when I’m sitting in a gym, rink, field, etc. Try it next time you’re bored to tears at an event. Even if you’re not a writer. Pick someone out of a crowd, imagine what is going through their head right then. What did they do to get here tonight? What will they say to their children when they walk out of earshot or to their spouse when he gets home? What aspirations did they (or their own parents) once have before they became Psycho-Mommy?