Jun 28 2013

The Leslie Knope Standard

Last night the Boysaw and I saw World War Z on a bit of a whim.  It’s summertime, I didn’t have to get up early, and the timing was right after our taco dinner.  We scurried off to catch the 8:15 in 3-D (which, when all is said and done, was a bit unnecessary…but that’s beside the point).  We liked it a lot.  I was captivated, my fists clenched almost the entire time.  At one point, the BF was so overcome with anxiety that he actually gagged and thought he was going to throw up.  (I have to say that I laughed at him a little bit.  As deserved.)

So it stood to reason that we needed a palette-cleanser after such an intense flick.  We agreed to put on a carefree, laugh-out-loud sitcom when we got home, just to flush the nightmarish visions of knashing rotten teeth, decaying flesh, and bloodshot eyes from our minds.

Enter Parks and Recreation.

We snuggled in, iPhone in hand, Netflix streaming cued up on our personal electronic device.

I was a latecomer to the Parks and Recreation Fan Club, but now I’ve been fully, whole-heartedly initiated.  When I first saw glimpses of the show, I assumed that its main character, Leslie Knope, was a female incarnation of The Office’s Michael Scott.  Awkward, cringe-inducing, socially inappropriate, and barely likeable.  Barely.  And she is almost those things.

But Leslie brings more to the table than that.  People don’t only begrudgingly like her.  They genuinely love her; respect her; stand up for her.  Sure, she has some of Michael Scott’s quirky naivete, but she also has a sense of integrity and selflessness often missing in Scott’s character.  She possesses a sensitivity and a moral compass that he lacks.

Leslie is infectiously honest, smart, and driven.  She’s a waffle-loving hot mess at times, but she does it with leadership.  Sure, her colleagues’ good intentions to support her are frequently bumbling and riddled with missteps.  But Leslie still manages to motivate an otherwise mismatched, lazy bunch of townies to actually care about what they do, about town politics, and about each other.  She sees the best in her friends and co-workers, and she believes in them despite their often un-likeable, un-relatable qualities.  And if she doesn’t like you?  If you’ve given her a reason to peg you as the enemy?  Well, you’d better get your guard up.  And fast.

This girl knows who she is.  She’s unapologetically genuine and starry-eyed.  She truly believes that miracles and grand gestures happen every day.  (Largely because she makes them happen.)  She will not be stymied by the rival town’s snobbery or superior funding; she will stop at nothing to advocate for her causes (even if it means digging through rubble during her own bachelorette party in the dark).   She’s silly and childlike at the same time that she’s socially aware, political, and respectful.  She maintains a moral integrity often remiss in public officials.

Like every good hero, though, Leslie is also flawed.  Her single-minded good-doing is sometimes her Achilles Heel.  Take, for example, when she plants Indian artifacts in the aforementioned rubble in order to stop the construction of a fast-food restaurant on a plot of would-be park land.  Of course, eventually she can’t manage to follow through on the poor decision.  She owns up to her (admittedly horrific) error in judgment, without excuses or justification.  She owns it, and makes good on her commitment to integrity.  And we still root against the fast-food giant and for Leslie…misfired ethics and all.

Leslie’s feminism reveals itself in surprising ways.  She posts photos of female political leaders – her role models – on the shelves in her office.  She chooses partners who know and embrace her flaws as well as her strengths, and describes her ideal man as “George Clooney’s mind with Joe Biden’s body”.  She loves relentlessly, but she doesn’t compromise who she is for anyone.  She’s sassy and dependable, playful and driven, proud and humble, all at the same time.

I recently shared this article by Linda Holmes on my Facebook page, feeling especially discouraged by the extreme lack of women in this summer’s movie line-up.   (If you haven’t already, it’s well worth the read.  Check it out.)

And I know that one character doesn’t change the face of American pop culture.  Katniss doesn’t mean that people will now see (or look for) just as many heroines as heroes.  Bridesmaids doesn’t mean that people now believe the truth that women can be funny.  These examples are easily dismissed as outliers; the exceptions that prove the rule.  But the more Leslie Knopes that we see out there, that we create and consume, the more we have a fighting chance of presenting female role models to our young girls; of equalizing the number of male and female characters in our books, movies, and TV shows; of reminding the American public that, despite what they are consuming in unbelievable quantities, girls can be powerful and heroic and smart and funny.  And everything other quality that makes for an interesting, unique, memorable character.

Watching a few episodes of Parks and Recreation restored a little bit of my faith in American popular culture, at the same time that it rocked me to sleep and swept away the nightmares of World War Z.  It isn’t revolutionary, but if we’re looking for female characters, Leslie Knope is a damn good standard.  It’s time we started holding ourselves to that bar.

Jun 20 2013

“Existential Scabs”

A friend recently observed that I’m drawn to stories that seek answers; that posit about life’s purpose and meaning; that present some glimmer of light in the darkness.

“You think a lot about that stuff,” he argued.  “Way more than I do.  Talking to you, I’ve started to do it as well.”

And I was surprised.  For one thing, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that other people might not think about proverbial ‘meaning of life’ as much as I do, or even at all in some cases.  And for another, I’d never really considered myself all that…existential.  I remember reading a line by Jon Krakauer from Into the Wild.  He said something about “picking unhappily at my existential scabs,” and I thought, “Oh man, what a pretentious load of bullshit.”  I swore never to write a turn of phrase like that myself.

Yet here I am.  Picking at my own scabs and scars and boogers like a little kid on a playground.

And that’s probably why the swell of a good musical theater ballad makes my chest tighten with adrenaline, and why my chin crumbles in the falling action of a good book.  It’s why I desperately cling to connection, and why I relentlessly look inward for purpose.

And sure, that’s why I’m comfortable arguing, here, that for me THE MEANING OF LIFE is love.  Cliched and predictable though it is, that’s my truth.  And no, I don’t necessarily mean romantic love (although that too).  I mean self-acceptance; holding a teammate’s hand on a sideline; resting a tired head on the shoulder of your father; being kissed by your seventh grade boyfriend or your 72-year-old wife; walking your dog; planting a slowly-growing plant and observing it gently wind up and around your garden gate; watching your baby sleep.  I mean relationships and community.  A world constructed by little moments of shared experience, strung together like popcorn on a Christmas tree and illuminated by softly-glowing twinkly lights.

So yeah, I guess do look for an explanation and a reason for life, for humanity, for – hell – waking up in the morning.  Absofuckinglutely I do.

Jun 11 2013

Bibles and Cockroaches

A student told me this year that she and her father share a joke.  They kid with each other that on post-apocalyptic planet earth, the only things left will be bibles and cockroaches.  “Those two things are always consistent,” she nodded at me.  “You can count on them.”

I live in Texas, so it’s hard to argue with either.

When I first moved to Austin, my then-boyfriend and I went to the grocery store to stock our kitchen for the first time.  “We’d better get some RAID or something,” he said.

“Why would we do that?” I questioned him.  “Have you seen any cockroaches in the condo?”

I’d never seen a cockroach in my life.  Growing up in rural Massachusetts, I suppose it was just too cold.  Or maybe I’d been lucky.  But Bryant was originally from Baton Rouge; he was a more seasoned traveler than I.  So I agreed.

And sure enough, later that night, our first cockroach appeared.  And I realized that while I’m calm around bees and hornets, and spiders don’t really freak me out, and I’ve held a 100-lb boa constrictor across my shoulders, cockroaches make my skin crawl.  Maybe it’s the fact that they run away from you when you try to ambush them, or the way their little antennae wiggle and shake.  Or it could be that moment when you step into the shower, get your hair all good and lathered up with shampoo, and then turn toward the wall to come face-to-face with one of their crunchy, scaly little bodies, just inches from your nose.

Either way, my transition to Texas was marked by the introduction of cockroaches into my life.

And as for the Bible?  I’d never seen billboards advertising God before.  I’d never heard a State Pledge of Allegiance – nor had I experienced the changing of said pledge to include the word “God”.  I’d never been part of a public school that had a Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  And here’s the thing – I’m not anti-religion, or anti-God, or anti-Christian.  But I still experienced a considerable level of religious culture shock here in my new home state.

I’m coming to grips – ever so very slowly – with the realization that life is full of these changes and transitions.  Some are big, like moving from a small town in Massachusetts to the capital of Texas.  And others are small, like the ending of a school-year and the start of summer.

And even when I’m conscious of the challenges that these changes present for me specifically, they still rattle me.  I always think that I’m eager for summer to begin, but then the last few days of school find me a little weepy, a little fragile, a little sad.  I’m fine while my touring-musician boyfriend is away, but when he returns it’s startling to re-integrate him into my life.  Two years ago I left my current school and began working at a new one, and I was so wrapped up in the newness that I didn’t realize just how much I was struggling with the new curriculum, student culture, and school processes.

I try to head these adjustments off at the pass – prepare myself mentally and emotionally, set up systems to better adapt – but they still sneak up on me.  They still give me trouble and pause.  I still cry a little more than usual, and feel even more sensitive than I’d like.  My emotions are closer to the surface, and I’m quicker to argue with the people I’m closest to.

So while Bibles and Cockroaches might be consistent, they weren’t always a part of my life.  One person’s rock might be another’s wave: ever-changing, ever morphing into something new, ever arriving and then arriving again.

This weekend I started my summer with a writing retreat.  While I had to scramble to finish my year and hit the road for the Texas hill country in a flourish, the immersion set the tone for my next few months.  Surrounded by laptops and journals and other writers, I dug back into works in progress I’d let percolate for all too long.  And I started a few new things, too:  Ideas that had been brewing in my mind and my spirit for a long time.  It brought me back to some of my goals, and gave me a renewed sense of purpose and belief in myself.  In short, I’m transitioning from teacher to writer this weekend.  And in August, I’ll transition back again.  And the cycle will start once more next year.

Bibles and cockroaches.