Saturday, November 21, 2020

Grief: "I Just Want Something I Can Ignore"

 Rob says that in the film version of High Fidelity, one of the great Gen-X films of the 1990s, played by Gen-X's poster child, John Cusack. I love that quote. It's one of those things I wish I'd written, damn you, Nick Hornby. It's such a succinct thought that conveys something we don't often articulate about mass media; namely, that there is, underneath the Must Watch Shows and the Trending Twitter Topics, and the "No Spoilers" Fan-Bombs on Facebook, a second layer of media, movies, and music. It's the stuff that, for one reason or another, serves as a kind of white noise machine for our overly-stimulated simian brains. 

Shows like M.A.S.H., for instance. That's a show everyone of a certain age remembered watching, both during prime time and syndication, for two or more decades. Now, well into our adulthood, M.A.S.H. is a show that is part of the glue of television. It's always on somewhere, and we've seen every episode multiple times. Even the episodes we think we didn't see...trust me, we've seen it. It's now a digital backdrop, visual Muzak, the kind of thing that can be on in the background during a family dinner and no one minds, because no one really pays that much attention to it, even the super serious episodes where Hawkeye cries or when Sidney tries to psychoanalyze someone.

Which leads me to Gilmore Girls

I never watched the show when it was on the air, back in the early aughts. My knowledge of the program was based entirely on a handful of commercials I'd seen with the two leads looking wistfully at something, and then a house, an old person, and the show's logo. My impression was that the eponymous Gilmore Girls were sisters who had no other family and were living in a small town, trying their best at life and love. Again, I never watched one show. I knew people who were obsessed with the show, but from my cursory inspection, I concluded that I was not the target audience for the program and tuned all conversation out. 

Fast forward two decades, and I am tethered in place by a 50-gallon garbage sack of emotions, feelings, and life damage. My brain is broken and it hurts to move it. I can't think about one damn thing without stepping into a bear-trap of memories that leaves me functionally paralyzed. But I can't turn my brain off, either, so the next best thing is drowning the bear-trap thoughts out with something light and innocuous. Comfort Food for my noggin. Something I can ignore. 

I can't watch anything recent, because it sets off cascading dominos of memories and thoughts. My only other go-to is to pick some stuff that Cathy never watched, because it wasn't ever really her thing. But somehow, Breaking Bad isn't going to be the soothing balm I need it to be. What to do, what to do. 

Netflix's screensaver obligingly offered up their Gilmore Girls revival mini-series, A Year in the Life. I realized that not only had I never seen one episode of this highly touted show, but that being a WB series about girls finding dates, there was no way I was going to trip over anything hazardous, or even dangerous. Finding out that the show's creator was the same woman who did The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show I adore, sealed the deal. Hell, the least I could do was watch the pilot, right? What could it hurt? 

I was pleasantly surprised by the first episode for a number of reasons: I'd gotten the premise wrong, and at first glance, I would have been even LESS the target demographic for the show. But! There was something about Lorelai and Rory (mostly Lorelai, who was basically the same age as me in 2000) that was really compelling. Oh, sure, all of the fan sites love to cite the "rapid-fire dialogue," which is a bit of an overstatement, I think. The dialogue isn't just fast. Rather, it's the timing and delivery. I instantly "got" Lorelai because, in many ways, she's me. She speaks in movie quotes, and Rory, her daughter, age sixteen to Lorelai's thirty-two, keeps up with her pop culture-saturated mom, and gives as good as she gets. 

That alone would have been enough, but the fictional town of Stars Hollow is also an idyllic oasis, full of quirky characters that never quite descend into parody, but definitely built upon the architecture set out by Mayberry and countless other shows where everyone knows everyone and just shakes their head ruefully at so-and-so's latest antics. As a town, it's a perfect Connecticut postcard, with four clearly delineated seasons, snow every Christmas, a seemingly endless parade of festivals and outdoor family fun (on the town square, of course!) and no matter how screwed up it all gets, somehow things manage to work themselves out in the end. 

That's not what the show is about, of course. At its heart, Gilmore Girls is about the relationship between teenage Rory and her mother, Lorelai, and adult Lorelai and her estranged mother, Emily. See, when Lorelai got pregnant in high school, she toppled the filthyrich Gilmore house's plans and expectations for their daughter. Rather than have her life be controlled and predestined, she lit out, determined to make her own way in the world. That's how she ended up in a little tourist town, fifty miles away from her ancestral home, working as a maid at an old country inn. 

Three Generations.
Now she's an adult, and she's managing that inn, and her daughter is wicked smart, like, private prep school, headed for Harvard-level smart. Rory just got accepted to one of those schools with uniforms, which would let her excel and really give her the leg up she needs to get into an Ivy league school. Only, there's the problem of tuition. The school ain't cheap. And Lorelai, despite doing well enough for a car and a house and food on the table, can't swing it. So she goes home, hat in hand, to ask her parents for a loan (that she'll pay back). Her parents, seeing their chance, agree to give her the money, with the proviso that she and Rory come to family dinner every Friday. 

That's the pilot episode, in broad strokes. The show is about the multi-generational relationship between mother and daughter, old wounds and grievances, and about single women with agency making their way in the world, all of which is couched in an endless stream of conversations about 80s punk and new wave bands, cinema, both classic and trashy, and oblique literary references thrown about at random, as the metaphors occur to Lorelei and Rory. 

Every kid in town reads, and not just Sweet Valley High books, either. Melville, Tolstoy, Kerouac, Bukowski, Proust...real books, and what's more, they like them. Rory's adorable best friend Lane has a musical knowledge that rivals 40 year record store clerks, and she's deep into Mojo magazine, for crying out loud. The band name checks are fast and heavy in the early seasons. 

The Band, Hep Alien. 
When Lane decides to use her prodigious rock and roll knowledge to start a band, the only other guitarist they can scrounge up is an older guy...in his late 30s...who runs a sandwich shop because rock and roll doesn't pay the bills...played by Skid Row's Sebastian Bach. I shit you not. Sebastian Bach is in the show, and you know, he's not bad! 

In the first season, Lorelai takes Rory and her prep school friends to see the fucking BANGLES in concert, and the episode is full of Bangles music. I mean, COME ON! I'm only human, here. Later in the series, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore make cameos as buskers in town, in an episode jammed full of other alt rock legends. I don't know who this show was aimed at, but I hit me right between the eyes.  

If Film Threat had still been around in 2001, I guarantee Rory would have been reading it in one scene, as well. The girls all speak to each other in the shorthand of pop culture. Ruth Gordon references, both from Rosemary's Baby and Harold and Maude? Double Indemnity? Sid & Nancy? Chinatown? Are you KIDDING me? 

I thought I'd spend a comfortable hour. Put the show on, let it wash over me, done. Instead, I found myself crushing so hard on Lorelai. Here's a sample of how she describes herself and her thought process: 

LORELAI: Because my brain is a wild jungle full of scary gibberish. "I'm writing a letter. I can't write a letter. "Why can't I write a letter? I'm wearing a green dress. "I wish I was wearing my blue dress. "My blue dress is at the cleaners. "'The Germans wore gray. You wore blue. ''Casablanca'. "'Casablanca' is such a good movie. "'Casablanca.' The white house. Bush. "Why don't I drive a hybrid car? I should drive a hybrid car. "I should really take my bicycle to work. "Bicycle. Unicycle. Unitard. Hockey puck. Rattlesnake. Monkey, monkey, underpants."

What you should know is that's really how most creative people go through most days, myself included. In the parlance of our time, I've never felt so "seen" in all my life. Granted, as hard a crush as I had on Lorelai, she would have been a nightmare to date. I would have settled with just being friends with her. 

A good friend of mine warned me that after season 4, there were diminishing returns on the series, and that's largely true. However, one of the real advantages of binging on Netflix is that you don't have to wait 9 months for the resolution to the cliffhanger, refreshing fan message boards every ten minutes, and writing fanfic about what could be happening. You can get up, stretch, go to the bathroom, plop back down, and press play. So, while the second half of the seven season seriesveers (and later carooms) into more soapy, weirdly melodramatic territory (they broke the rule, see: Sam and Diane can never get together), I kept watching the show. 

Every time I'd get overwhelmed by something in my life, I'd escape to Stars Hollow and see what those wacky townspeople were up to. I'd tune back in to see if this is the episode where Emily was going to say to Lorelai that she did a good job of raising Rory. I'd delight whenever Lorelai's father, played by veteran character actor and certified National Treasure Edward Herrmann, would get an episode with Rory, as the two of them were able to bond over their disinterest in contributing to the feud between Emily and Lorelai. 

Some days I'd watch one episode. Maybe two. Others, I'd find my Netflix account playing bartender, asking me if I wanted to keep watching the show. Listen, asshole, you just cue up the next one, okay? I'll tell YOU when I've had enough. 

It was nice. I didn't have to think about anything, except maybe which oblique reference Lorelai or Rory made about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the nand names Lane dropped as being essential for anyone wanting to know anything about music. The series also stars Melissa McCarthy as Lorelai's best friend, Sookie, the chef. She pulls off a physical comedy bit in the pilot that is one of the more beautifully timed pieces of comedy I've seen in a long time. Also, for you genre geeks out there, Sean Gunn (Rocket Racoon) plays the town oddball (great casting, by the way) and Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli from Heroes) plays one of the bad boy boyfriends of Rory's, who also just happens to have great taste in books and music, as well. Oh, to be young again in Stars Hollow. 

This past week was particularly hard, for a number of reasons. I found myself watching more and more episodes of Gilmore Girls in order to cope. I was on the stream, Jack. I had a real problem. A Lauren Graham-sized monkey on my back. Season seven whizzed by in a blur, and I remember vaguely about some of my friends not liking how the series ended. Again, one of the advantages of waiting twenty years to start something is that I didn't have to wait ten years to watch the four part mini-series, Gilmore Girls: a Year in the Life. 

Be careful what you wish for. 

In the ten years' time between the series ending and the Netflix revival, we lost Ed Herrmann, who was one of the best things about the show. He was a great character actor (you know who he is; click the link for a refresher). The show's creators and writers wisely decided to incorporate that into the mini-series. We find all three generations of Gilmore Girls not dealing well with the death of Richard Gilmore. Emily's fifty year marriage is gone, and she has no identity anymore. Lorelai lost the only person who could be a real bulwark between her and her mother. And Rory list her grandfather, who she grew very close to during the original series. They are all dealing with their loss differently.

I bet you can see where this is going. 

Lorelai begs her mother to see a therapist. Emily ropes Lorelai into going with her, and the episode where they are trying to make that work is vintage Gilmore Girls. When Emily predictably bails on therapy, Lorelai gets a solo session with the therapist, and she describes her father in the ICU at the hospital, after a massive heart attack, and how he was in and out of consciousness, and how his last words (aimed at the nurses) were "get the hell out of here!" and she chuckles at the memory and then suddenly, I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. 

I couldn't remember what Cathy's last words were. I couldn't hear them. All I could summon up was her breathing at the very end, how ragged and scary it sounded. It felt like I was being stabbed, over and over. I couldn't catch my breath. I wanted to inhale so I could scream, but all that came out where these dry, gulping sobs. 

Somehow I managed to dial my therapist and she was able to talk me down. Once I got calm, I remembered the last thing Cathy said to me. It wasn't anything profound or awe-inspiring. She whispered, "I love you, honey."  That was it. The next time I saw her, she had stopped talking. She could look at me, and when she did, I saw the recognition in her eyes. It was brief, just a couple of seconds, but she saw me with her, holding her hand, fighting back the tears that now came gushing out of me that day with the Gilmore Girls mini-series paused and me howling into my phone while Meagan calmly guided me to where I was breathing more or less normally again. 

I've never had a freak out like that before. It scared me. I didn't know what was happening. I suppose it was a panic attack, but it didn't feel like one. It felt like I had rage I couldn't control, like Bruce Banner before he turns into the Hulk. It was frankly terrifying, this sudden and complete lack of control. I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself.

I just wanted something to ignore. I wanted to ignore my grief. Turns out, it's not going to let me. 

5 comments:

David Farnell said...

Thank you for sharing this, Mark. It's beautiful and deeply painful at once. It makes me want to watch the Gilmore Girls, which I always got mixed up with Golden Girls. It makes me want to sit and deal with my own grief.

Julia said...

Grief can be insidious that way.

I'm glad you were able to get help that quickly.

The girl next door said...

I once heard grief described as all the love you have for someone that gets stuck inside us, when we no longer have a place to direct it. Mark, that was all the pent up emotion being released. I'm glad you had someone to help guide you through that moment. And believe me , it will get easier, in time. Until then, let it out. Let it all out.

trollsmyth said...

Gilmore Girl is sneaky, grade-A nerd bait. You think you can safely watch an episode because the girl you're crushing on likes it and the next thing you know, you're scouring fan-fiction sites for Rory/Lane slashfic. ;p

(True story but not my story, alas. ;D)

DeAnne D. said...

I'm sorry sweetie.