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It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.
You are in a church in the University District of Seattle. You are compulsively early, so you take a seat near the front. There are thirty other people there already. Mostly academic-looking twenty-something riot grrrls, and one guy who looks a lot like Adam Driver.1 (You are also twenty-something. You are twenty-eight, to be exact, which is also Lena Dunham’s age. You feel older than everyone around you, but it’s because your hair is not dyed anything. You aren’t wearing a single skull, and your one and only facial piercing has been healed over for nearly a decade. You have kids. You drove your minivan here from the suburbs. There are a million reasons for you to feel older, really.) The man who is potentially Adam Driver is slumped down in his seat, chewing on something. You text your husband.
In 1949, Marilyn Monroe, then an obscure starlet, posed for a beer ad at Tom Kelley‘s commercial photography studio in Hollywood. According to some accounts, a Chicago-based calendar manufacturer, John Baumgarth, saw the ad while visiting Los Angeles and inquired about the model: would she pose nude for a calendar? In other accounts, Tom Kelley recruited Monroe for the calendar job on the day he shot the beer ad, knowing that Baumgarth was shopping for nudes. Either way, nude photos could wreck a Hollywood career at the time, as Monroe was keenly aware, so she only accepted the job after being persuaded that nobody would recognize her. To further protect her anonymity, she asked Kelley to schedule the session for night, with no assistants save for his female business partner. Kelley agreed, and Monroe arrived at the studio at seven p.m. and posed for two hours on a red velvet theater curtain that covered the floor and complemented the color of her hair, then a reddish blonde. Twenty-four shots were taken, and Baumgarth chose one of them for the calendar he marketed as Golden Dreams, a name suggested by Monroe’s blondness, though it also inadvertently referenced the nighttime shoot.
“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.
Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.
In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.
By the time you read this your Dear Old Dad—if I’m lucky—will still live: an oversized raisin clinging to my dusty tomes in a stinking armchair, nodding off with my glasses skiing down my nose. I will begrudge your generation’s shitty music and ridiculous clothing and our leaders’ uselessness, and all of this will annoy you. I’ve felt this way for most of my life and, yes, I’ve pretty much always been insufferable.
August 01, 2013
As a precocious pre-teen and teen, I was obsessed with adulthood; I couldn’t wait for the responsibility of rent checks and retirement plans. I watched serious drama as a way to prepare myself for this adult life I so wanted, and since we didn’t have cable I spent a lot of time watching PBS to figure out exactly how adults lived. I loved Masterpiece Theater, Mystery!, and particularly Prime Suspect, the dark and emotionally complex BBC crime series starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson, a lone female detective in a boys’ club of often outright hostile fellow officers. I wanted to be like Jane Tennyson when I grew up. I dreamed of living a solitary but important existence, of having a job that was so central to me that I would forget meals and drink black coffee, a job that included meetings and orders and sleepless nights in which I would struggle to find the key to understanding a fragmented picture and solving the case. Jane Tennyson’s life always had an air of romance to it despite its gritty realism.
April 13, 2013
My daughter is two. Already sounding out letters, she’s learning the concept of reading, taking pleasure in memorizing shapes and sounds, proudly scrawling the first few letters of her name. On the night before “take-a-book-to-school” day a few weeks ago at her daycare, she had difficulty choosing from her favorites. Three feet tall, chubby-faced, she towered over the picture books she’d spread on the living room floor like a colorful hopscotch grid, her dirty blonde hair frizzing around her head in wild curls, her glasses cockeyed. “This one,” she kept saying. “No, this one!”
When do we begin to decide what books we love? At what point do we start choosing to read books about one subject, but not another?
Bitch magazine calls it
A brave, enlightening, and brutally honest historical inquiry that will leave readers with an urgent desire to tell their own stories.
December 02, 2012
I know you have one. I do. I can feel the connectivity like string theory stretched across universes. And I appreciate your efforts to further my vagina’s creative mind-body pathways and how you’ve helped usher many vaginas to the top floors of corporate America. I get it. I do. But please. Please. Stop speaking for my vagina as if your vagina and my vagina are friends. Our vaginas have not met. They do not know each other at all and it’s a little bit creepy.
You remind me of high school and the girl who ran for class president with all her ribbons and buttons and then won class president and spent the entire year lobbying for vegetarian selections in the cafeteria. Most of our class didn’t give a shit about vegetarian selections. We wanted better pizza with better pepperoni. We wanted new soccer balls. We wanted to keep our arts program that was losing state funding, but this girl just kept on yammering about vegetarian selections, when everyone knew she ate McDonald’s cheeseburgers on the weekends.
A lot has been written on Junot Díaz lately. For several weeks starting in September, he appeared in at least twelve publications that showed up at my house. He was in everything from the unsolicited Time Magazine, apparently intended for my fifteen-year-old son, to Vogue, where Díaz appeared in costume, dressed as a member of Edith Wharton’s circle. Díaz’s face smiled out from Entertainment Weekly, and he appealed for understanding from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Online, the Guardian Blog stated that the term “genius” was inadequate praise. Seemingly everywhere, his big glasses, smooth head, trim beard, and tentative smile greeted me. If Andy Warhol still lived, he would use Junot Diaz as a subject.
August 07, 2012
Walking around without Olympic fever has made me feel like a sicko these last couple weeks. The times I’ve sat down to watch the games on TV, I’ve annoyed my family because I’m not content to appreciate the athleticism on display. I can only engage when I start spinning stories, which for me takes the form of posing questions out loud.
In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women have been duped into embracing “raunch” culture, wherein women and girls objectify themselves and other women in crude, sophomoric ways. Levy argues that “raunch” culture pretends to be about women liberating themselves, but is really about keeping women in their place as objects for the male gaze.
In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend, where women have been encouraged to buy into “asshole” culture. While some may argue that we have always tolerated certain types of male bad behavior, it seems there has been a cultural shift in recent years where we actually applaud watching male characters behave like jerks.
I hadn’t noticed.
In fact, I had somewhat forgotten that she existed.
But apparently she is out promoting a new project, and at some point during the press junket, she was characterized as looking “puffy” or as if she’s gaining weight.
Little did they know, boy-o, the press had objectified the wrong Hollywood-actress-who-has-posed-nude-to-help-sell-magazines-and-fronted-a-cosmetic-line-but-also-objects-to-patriarchal-beauty-standards*: