Today’s Reality Is Yesterday’s Punchline
I’ve been posting sporadically this week (and by “sporadically” I mean “not at all”) because I started a new job. It’s a step up from my old one and I’m damned glad to have it, but on the other hand it’s very difficult for a newspaper writer starting a new gig; since I haven’t cultivated any sources yet there’s nobody I can call to say “I need a story. Got anything?” So I’ve been scrambling about introducing myself to the people on my new beat and scrolling through the Internet in search of local issues to write about, and by the time I get home I just can’t bear to look at a computer screen any longer than it takes me to check my e-mail.
Instead, I’ve been reading those old-fashioned things — what are they called again? Like web pages, only they’re made of paper and have no interactive functions? That’s right, “books.” Specifically, some old Erma Bombeck books I found in a thrift store. Bombeck, for those of you who don’t know, was a popular humor columnist back in the 60s and 70s, and her chief subject was the hassles of being a housewife and mother.
A lot of the old humor doesn’t carry over into the modern world; it’s more to be read now as a sociological study than a slice-of-life comedy. Bombeck’s generation was the Baby Boomers’ parents, and she was (for the most part) among the last American women to be raised with no expectation that they or any other woman would have a job and a husband simultaneously.
In a piece she wrote around 1965, Bombeck said this about disappointing Christmas gifts husbands gave their wives:
One of the more conscientious husbands can always be counted upon to come up with the item mentioned last July when his wife snarled “what I need is a decent plunger!” Inspired by his power of retention he will sprint out and have a plunger wrapped as a gift. No one will be more surprised than he when his wife cups it over his mouth!
Others will seek out the advice of young secretaries who have read all the magazines and know that happiness is an immoral nightgown. Depending on the type of wife she will (a) return the nightgown and buy a sandwich grill, or (b) smile gratefully and wear it to bed under a coat, or (c) check out the secretary.
It goes on like this and then Bombeck switches into semi-serious mode, giving husbands useful gift advice (and one of the saddest things I’ve read this year) concerning the difference between the frugal, bread-wrapper-saving outer persona of their wives, and what they yearn to be deep inside:
Hidden is the woman who sings duets with Barbra Streisand and pretends Robert Goulet is singing to her. Who hides out in the bathroom and experiments with her eyes …. Who reads burlesque ads when she thinks no one is watching …. Who thinks about making ceramics, writing a play and earning a paycheck.
The italics are mine; in Bombeck’s day that phrase wasn’t worth italicizing.
So for the most part, I’m damned glad to be living in my time and not hers. Mostly. But look at this: in 1979 she published Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, a witty parody of the self-help self-actualization books so popular in the 70s. After lampooning Transcendental Meditation, astrology and other improvement-a-go-go 70s trends, Bombeck discussed how, with her newfound confidence and ability, she would take on the terrifying task of chaperoning at her son’s high-school prom.
This bit, with the lead chaperone explaining the rules to Bombeck and her fellow conscripts, was at the time meant to be a ludicrously exaggerated bit of humor:
If you are going for a ‘bust’ of any kind, make sure you are familiar with the facts. Two years ago, a guidance counselor summoned an emergency unit, two police cruisers, and a priest for a boy who had just thrown two Tic-Tacs into his mouth to improve his breath.Wow. You mean once upon a time, a kid at school could be busted for drugs only if he took actual drugs, not druggish-looking substances? We’ve all seen cases of modern zero-tolerance incidents where something that isn’t an illegal drug but kind of looks like one if you squint at it is enough to get a kid expelled. I’d link to some such cases for y’all, but I have to go to work.