Wednesday, February 28, 2007

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.


Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

The dangers of Advil

(A guerrilla repost of the L.A. Times article.)

11:39 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

Here are some more links:

Losing my Tolerance for "Zero Tolerance"

A site about the excesses of "Zero Tolerance" includes a List of stories and incidents, one of which is Nathan Steel Suspended After Taking Over-The-Counter
Med While His Mother Drives Him To School

A report on Zero-Tolerance abuses and it's effects by the Bi Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence 106th Congress, February 2000.

12:22 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

Bombeck was a writer, not a housewife and mother, except ``as well.''

The deal with women is that they don't have the same things holding their interest as men do. Probably men are the more delusional about importance, willing as they are to spend a year at a time without human contact to work on an obscure math problem. ``But at last, something will be settled once and for all, at least in this obscure area.'' Then they guy can go on to the next problem, or perhaps opt for expert status in that obscure area instead. And be completely satisfied by it.

Women are less uncomfortable with open ends, and are more interested in relating different stories and situations at once, and inhabiting them. So their interest is otherwise occupied. They have all the talent you'd want for math, but won't choose to do it at any level of obsession.

So the question of woman's place comes up, which resonates with ``in the kitchen'' but is actually aimed in another direction : does woman have a place at all, or does she create places instead. Emma Goldman : If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

So, far from unthinkeable, Brombeck was actually doing what feminism today can no longer think, in a genuine feminism that probably goes back to the beginning of time.

Follow your interests, and learn to recognize them. They're not what the men are doing, probably.

Breadwinner and earning a paycheck are part of the going-on-quests-for-the-woman constellation of satisfactions that a man gets ; the woman gets to show she's satisfied with him. Probably Brombeck managed it too ; indeed she wrote about it.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Before Bombeck, author Shirley Jackson, remembered for such creepy and depressing short stories as The Lottery wrote two humorous memoirs of her 1950's domesticity. Life among the Savages and Raising Demons.

Having read and enjoyed her humorous books, boy! was I caught off guard when a Jr. High English teacher read her creepier stories to us.

I fondly remember those books, but I wonder if I would still find them funny today.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

Accursed new job is interfering with my periodic ration of Jennifer speak again....darn the bad luck.

10:31 AM  

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