Essays

How a Grown-Up Feels

younger01_444_297“I was at a bit of a crossroads with my career,” says Sutton Foster, a Broadway stalwart and star of Darren Star’s charming TV Land show Younger. The 40-year-old actress plays Liza, a 40-year-old mom who rejoins the workforce by pretending to be 26 — a dissonance she identifies with. “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old. I was having trouble in casting, and then this came across my plate and I thought, Ooh, I can do this! I know how to do this!”

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about Younger and my doubts about its premise. I’ve since watched an episode and a half of the show and, while it’s not perfect (does anyone on the show actually know anything about the publishing industry? Do twenty-somethings actually interact with each other the way these characters do?), it is, as the writer above put it, fairly charming. The premise still irks me, but Dollhouse managed to rise above its kinda-icky premise to become a show that had something to say about female empowerment.

The paragraph above is from an article about the actresses of Younger, up on Vulture today. The article goes on to describe the show and the evolving relationships between the female characters as Sutton Foster’s Liza relives her twenties incognito. It’s a pretty typical visit-to-the-set piece.

As I read it, though, my eyes kept wandering back to that first paragraph—specifically, to this snippet: “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old.”

I’m not an actress, but those lines encapsulate exactly how my mid-thirties feel. I don’t go on auditions or have to read for roles, so no one is sizing me up based solely upon my appearance and my ability to come across old or young. But I do exist as a person in the world—someone who has to get up every morning and decide what to wear, then go to work and interact with other adult humans.

At thirty-six, I’m pretty solidly an adult. Yet the moments during which I feel adult are relatively few and far between. What do I even mean when I say feeling like an adult? What does an adult even feel like? The fact that, chronologically, I am an actual adult should imply that, however I feel, that is how an adult (or, at least, this adult) feels.

But I look at the other adults with whom I work and I find it hard to fathom that they feel like I do. They all seem put-together, confident, capable of negotiating deals, of running companies. My desk is located just down the hall from the office of the president of this company, so I catch plenty of glimpses of her throughout the day. She’s always dressed in a crisp suit, with perfect makeup and carefully coiffed hair. She’s personable and professional. She’s so grownup.

On the other hand, I pick out my clothes for the day and smear some makeup on my face and dry and flatiron my hair, at least part of my brain assuming that if I try to look the part, maybe I’ll feel more adult. But the effort never results in me looking more adult. (Usually, I just look more awake.) I still look like an overgrown kid playing dress-up.

I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into implying I look young for my age. It’s more about this feeling I get when I look into the mirror before I head to work: I feel like I did when, as a five-year-old, I slipped my feet into my mother’s shoes and donned what I thought of as a “lady dress.” Like I’m playing pretend.

Sometimes I think that if I put a little more money into my wardrobe, bought nicer clothes, got something tailored, I’d manage to look more put-together. Is that the secret to feeling more like an adult?

Other times, I understand it doesn’t matter how I look. No amount of money spent on clothes or at Sephora will change how I feel on the inside. Or how I choose to present myself. I hear myself speak during the Monday morning meeting, and I sound exactly like me. Then I listen to my coworker speak, and though I can’t pinpoint the difference—and though she’s younger than I am—she sounds adult. Should I sound more like her? How would I do that? Does anyone else detect the difference between the two of us? Does she feel like an adult? Do men think about these things? Does it matter?

Do other people see me the way I see myself? I wonder. Or is it all just in my head? I’m not unprofessional, although I would characterize my general demeanor as casual and pretty laid-back. Though I don’t own a suit, I dress in the appropriate, business casual style of my office. I’ve put effort into appearing adultlike, but no matter what I wear or how I present myself, I still feel like a sixteen year old who snuck into the building and started impersonating someone who actually belongs here.

Every once in a while, I try to imagine what the other women at work—the businesswomen—are like when they’re not in their business garb. I can hear the president chatting down the hall sometimes, and she talks about the same kind of silly stuff I talk about: T.V. shows and Stitch Fix, what she had for dinner last night, her recent discovery that she’s allergic to eggs. If we’re similar enough after work hours, why are we so different at work?

And does she feel this same dichotomy between being an adult and feeling like one? If I could crawl inside her head, see her from her own point of view, would I discover that when she looks in the mirror, she still feels like a kid dressed up in her mother’s clothes? Does she understand the dissonance Sutton Foster was talking about—that feeling that you’re too old for certain things, but too young for others?

Or maybe she’s just past all this. She’s older than me, so maybe she finally made it beyond the marker that indicates the transition into actual adulthood. Maybe it wasn’t thirty, like I thought it was in my twenties. Maybe it’s forty, that moment when you finally know and feel that you are an adult person. Or fifty.

Or maybe it’s never. There’s a scene in Richard Linklater’s trippy movie Waking Life during which two women are talking in a restaurant, and this exchange takes place:

Woman 1: It's such a strange paradox. I mean, while, technically, I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world. When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.

Woman 2: I know what you mean, because I can remember thinking, “Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything's going to just somehow gel and settle, just end.” It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop.

I find myself thinking about this scene a lot. Reminding myself that there’s no plateau. No indication that I have reached any sort of end of growth or change (other than death, of course). There’s just a hill I keep climbing.

My mom is 58. She looks younger. I was probably in my early thirties when I asked her once if she felt like an adult. I think she just laughed. My grandma is 96. She looks like a grandma, and at this age, she’s grown frailer and less energetic. But well into her eighties, she was spry. She worked in her garden and sewed and was always ready to go on an adventure. To all outward appearances, she looked like an old lady. But I wonder if she felt that way. Maybe, when I am 58, or 96, I will look at myself and finally see an adult. Maybe there will be some kid in my life who will ask me then, “Do you feel like an adult?”

Then again, maybe there is no difference between feeling like a kid and feeling like an adult. There’s no plateau. There’s no looking into other people’s heads to gauge whether I’m on track for adulthood. There’s growth, but not change. Maybe the way I feel is just who I am. I’ll never feel like an adult. I’ll only ever feel like myself.

Bah, Humbug

Its a Wonderful Life - James StewartNow that it’s over, I feel like I can be honest: I’m not really into Christmas. This hasn’t always been the case. I remember childhood Christmas mornings full of anticipation and eagerness, Christmas Eves spent laying out cookies and milk for Santa—all that traditional rigmarole. Occasionally, my family would get up to holiday high jinx; once, over the holiday break from school, my mother left my brother and I during our nighttime teeth-brushing to answer the front door and when she came back, she told us it had been Santa stopping by to make sure we were being good. (It was actually my uncle, probably dropping in to borrow a power tool from my dad, but my brother and I were dazzled: Santa had stopped by our house. To check on us!) Another time, after all the presents were opened and the inevitable come-down was settling over the family, Dad ramped the party vibe right back up by surprising me with a bicycle he’d actually battled Black Friday crowds for. There were candlelight Christmas services at church, actual house-to-house caroling excursions, nativity pageants, cookie-making marathons, drives around town to ohhh and ahhh at Christmas lights.

It seems to me that Christmas hinges on three things: family togetherness, gift-giving, and the traditional Christian nativity story. In a year when togetherness was impossible for my family, it would be easy to claim that my Scroogey attitude is a result of how fucked up things are right now for the Bradburys. The fact is, though, I haven’t been into Christmas in years. When you’re surrounded by holiday cheer that virtually everyone merrily buys into, it doesn’t seem acceptable to voice what you know is going to be an unpopular opinion. You’re seen as a downer, someone who doesn’t enjoy fun. I enjoy fun. I even love holidays—just not this one.

For the non-religious and childless, really, what’s the point of Christmas? Although I’m notoriously known as not being “into” kids, I’ll be the first to admit that without kids, Christmas is dullsville. Who wants to sit around watching a roomful of adults ripping open presents they don’t need and will never use? It’s fun to see a kid’s face bloom into surprise and joy when she discovers “Santa” brought her exactly what she requested in her letter; it’s the opposite of fun to hear half-hearted thank-yous from forty-year-olds who just discovered multi-use pocket tools in their stockings.

I actually love getting gifts for friends and family. But what I love is randomly discovering something I know will be just perfect for someone, then presenting that gift when it’s least expected. (Or on a birthday. Birthdays, I love.) This kind of gift-giving is delightful. It’s not borne out of obligation, nor is it scheduled by the calendar year. Gifts on Christmas, I would argue, are the least exciting because there’s nothing spontaneous or surprising about them. They’re expected. Christmas gift-giving is a forced spiral into debt that can’t be avoided. You resolve to make your gifts this year but discover that gifts made by hand actually cost more than those bought from Amazon. You winnow your Santa-list down to the bare minimum—close family and friends—but then you’re told that all the cousins coming to the holiday party are getting you a gift, and you don’t want to be the non-reciprocating asshole, and also everyone’s pitching in for your boss’s gift, which is only forty dollars per person…Obligated gift-giving is, to my mind, the worst kind.

Focus, then, on the Reason for the Season, advise the religious among us. Except if you’re not religious—if you don’t buy into a supernatural tale about a magic baby whose parents are a virgin and a ghost—then the Reason is kind of moot. Yes, even atheists can presumably get behind the idea of charity and kindness and love for one’s fellow man. But wouldn’t it be better if we celebrated and practiced these things all year round instead of selecting one random winter day once a year to do so?

When I go back to the part of the country where I grew up to celebrate Christmas, I attend Christmas Eve services because I know my parents want me to. At one point, I actually enjoyed this; though I no longer belong to a church or subscribe to any religion, I did enjoy visiting with the people who’d populated my childhood, and I liked singing the traditional holiday hymns. But a few years ago, my parents switched churches. Now they go to what I’d call a “mega-church,” where I don’t know any of the people and where the songs sound like the Christian version of Top 40 garbage. While at one time I was able to engage with the religious aspect of the holiday on a nostalgic level, now even that’s gone.

Since I first watched it on basic cable as a sick-at-home grade schooler, It’s a Wonderful Life has been my favorite Christmas movie. But have you seen it lately? It’s barely a Christmas movie. The majority of the film takes place in flashback, giving you the details of George Bailey’s life that lead to the fateful Christmas Eve that brings him to the brink of suicide. Once George meets up with his guardian angel, he quickly tours the alternate universe—the one in which he was never born—then makes things right again when he asks for his life back. Finally, he returns home, where friends and family have gathered and taken up donations to bail him out of his money troubles—a completely unexpected, spontaneous gift of generosity and love. The film ends, then—on Christmas Eve, before the actual holiday even rolls around—with a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”—a song traditionally sung not on Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve.

Is it any wonder this not-very-Christmassy Christmas movie is my favorite? Though I’m not fond of resolutions, I like setting goals, and I love a good booze-soaked party; I could see myself toasting with the Baileys on a New Year’s Eve. There’s a moment during the alternate-universe sequence of the movie when the camera gives us a close-up of George’s horrified face as he realizes what’s happened; cacophonous music swells and George’s eyes bulge—it’s a scene straight from a horror movie, on par with moments from certain films I associate with my actual favorite holiday, Halloween. It’s a Wonderful Life even manages to celebrate the promise of summer and the sweetness of spring nights that find you falling in love with someone you’ve only just thought to look at a second time. Christmas, though? Really, it’s given zero screen time in this Christmas movie.

And I’m okay with that. I’m happy to buy gifts on my terms, and as long as my best friend’s little girl believes in the magic of Santa, I’ll gladly watch her tear into the presents under the tree. I’ll sing a verse or two of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” while sweeping cat hair from the corners of my apartment on an April afternoon. And on a rainy autumn evening, I might curl up on my couch and watch Jimmy Stewart run through the streets of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, shouting about how wonderful he’s discovered his life is. Even Jimmy knows it’s not Christmas that’s the wonderful thing.

The Worst Advice

Woman reading a bookThere was one thing that used to drive me nuts about my old job in Vermont. For two years, I worked for the novelist John Irving as his “literary assistant.” The job mostly consisted of transcribing the handwritten pages of the novel and screenplays he was working on, but there was also light filing, emailing, scheduling, trip planning, and errand-running to do—typical office-type chores that I neither particularly looked forward to nor really minded taking care of. I also opened his fan mail and typed up his responses to those letters. This task could be a lot of fun, especially when the letters were from young readers. I could imagine my high school self feeling compelled to write to John after having read The World According to Garp for the first time (something I never actually did). Letters from teenagers who’d just finished A Prayer for Owen Meany or kids who wanted to know why John had left certain parts out of his adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules were sweet and enthusiastic, full of a guilelessness the letters from adults rarely possessed.

A good percentage of those young letter-writers, of course, wanted advice from John about how to be a writer. This is what drove me nuts—not the request for advice, but John’s response. He’d offer pretty typical words of wisdom (write as much as you can, write about what interests you). But, more often than not, he’d throw in one last recommendation, which boiled down to: Read everything you can now because when you become a writer, you won’t have time to read.

Arrghh! What?! This is the piece of advice that would send me up the wall. What kind of maniac tells kids to read now because writers don’t read? Also, it was a bald-faced lie: John read. I’d seen evidence of it. Hell, I’d picked up novels from the local bookshop for him, and I kept his magazine subscriptions current, and I’d had conversations with him about things he was reading!

And while I wasn’t a successful, published novelist whose schedule was filled with speaking engagements and book tours and research trips, I was still technically also a writer—I was working on my first novel at the time—and I read. I read a lot. On one hand, I had the time; I was far away from family and friends and lived in a very quiet town, so I filled the hours by reading, managing to get through 85 books in two years. On the other hand, I had arguably less time than John, considering I was not only chipping away at my own book but working a semi-full-time job, plus picking up ten to twenty hours a week waiting tables at a local restaurant. And I still managed to read, Irving.

It took two more years after my tenure as John’s assistant, but eventually I finished my novel—just this February, in fact. As a self-imposed deadline loomed during those last few months of writing, everything that wasn’t novel-related fell by the wayside, especially extracurricular reading. “The problem with writing your own book is you stop reading other people’s books,” I grumbled on Librarything, where I keep a record of what I read every year. That was in May, a full three months after I’d finished writing; by this time, I was revising my manuscript. Still, I figured my illiteracy was a result of the concentrated effort I was putting forth: If I wasn’t cramming to get revisions done by a certain time and using all my free hours to revise, I would have taken some time to read.

Sure enough, once revisions of my own book were finished and I entered the “wait and see” phase of trying to get something published, I started reading again. See, I mentally chided my former employer as I turned a page of Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself. You can too be a writer and still read plenty!

But something strange was happening when I read now. My eyes continued to skim through sentences, and words seemed be registering in my head, but my brain wasn’t processing the information. Instead, my gray matter had absconded with the grain of an idea and was batting it around like a kitten with a ball of twine. While I was ostensibly following the plot some other writer had developed, really I was gnawing on the tender bones of my own story ideas.

I’d refocus and try again. Digest two or three pages—sometimes I managed as many as five!—then find that my mind had wandered once more. After a while, I’d give up, close the book, and sit, thinking instead of reading.

I decided once I started a new project, this would stop. I’d treat my brain like a toddler: give it something fun to do, let it run around till it wore itself out, then take advantage of its mellowed state to get some reading done. I started a short story, then did some free-writing, played around with what I thought might be something longer. But my toddler-brain was indefatigable. It couldn’t settle down; I told it that reading time was quiet time, and it laughed in my face and went chasing after a squirrel.

What’s more, it wasn’t just my reading that suffered. I’d get through an entire podcast episode before realizing I had no idea what I’d just listened to because I’d started piecing together the bits of plot that were nibbling at me. I missed scenes of my favorite television shows because I’d started thinking about how to get through a conflict between characters.

But reading was the worst, especially if I was trying to read something good. Every sentence that dazzled me made my fingers itch for my keyboard; every passage of brilliant prose had me squirming, desperate to get to my desk. Why, why, why was I reading someone else’s writing when I ought to be working on my own?

This, I now realize, might have been what John meant when he told young writers to get all their reading done early. It’s not that there wouldn’t be time to read once they started filling their days with their own writing. It’s that when you make writing a significant part of your life, you develop an itch that won’t go away, no matter how often or hard you scratch it. You can soothe the itch for awhile—a couple hours at your laptop or with your pen in hand acts as a balm—but pretty soon the itch comes back.

Picking up a good novel or short story becomes akin to walking through a patch of poison ivy. You see the end result of the hours another writer has spent toiling over words, and no matter how frustrating your time at your desk was that day, you want to go back because the thing you’re reading is proof that you can get there—you can create something worth reading. Now that I've finished writing my own book, writing feels more than ever like a drug. Someone else’s words trigger the memory of the high I used to feel after a good day’s work, when the words snapped together like magnets and I actually seemed capable of writing exactly what I wanted to write. If I could feel that way again—if I could be writing—why would I want to do anything else?

So, in his way, John was right. If you write, you can’t read. I have been reading, lately. I just finished The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, and before that I read Stephen King’s new book, and I’m about to start a novel by Roxanne Gay called An Untamed State. I’ve even been paying attention to what I’ve read. But I haven’t been writing. I took an unplanned two-week hiatus from this blog, and I haven’t been toying around with any fiction. I’m in a dormant period, I suppose—letting the field lay fallow so the soil can become rich again. So something can grow again. I like to think that when the next good idea catches hold and I’m waking every morning eager to get back to my desk, I’ll still manage to sit down with a good book once in a while—even if I can only manage a few pages before I realize I’d rather be writing.

Lost in Translation

Erika_9_typewriterEvery time I go for a run, I think about Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. It’s not particularly good. I only read it once, probably around age fifteen or sixteen, and I don’t remember much about it, except that it involved aliens, and Jimmy Smits played the protagonist in the movie version. Honestly, the single detail from that book that stands out at all is the typewriter. It’s an invention put together by the Jimmy Smits character, a writer who becomes possessed by aliens (I think) and begins to create all kinds of contraptions, including a typewriter that’s capable of understanding exactly what he wants to write and how he wants to write it, then does the work for him. I would kill for that typewriter.

Last night, I watched the movie The Hours for the first time in years. I discovered that it’s really overwritten, with characters philosophizing and despairing and talking at each other in a way that no one ever actually talks. But there’s a part where the Ed Harris character, a poet, says, “I wanted to be a writer, that's all. I wanted to write about it all. Everything that happens in a moment. […] And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with it ends up being so much less.”

That’s why, when I run, that typewriter pops into my head. I try not to think when I run. I breathe, and watch the snow fall, and let my feet touch the ground in time with the beat of music in my ears. But you can’t shut the brain off. It chatters. Nonsense, worries, lists of things to do and places to go.

Or sometimes it works with an actual purpose: I begin to think about something I want to write. Running, it all seems clear. I can find the words—not because I actually find them while I run, but because the feeling of what I want to write is clear, and that clarity makes the right words seem possible. I can hold two, three, twenty, a hundred thoughts and feelings in my head simultaneously. All the everything that Ed Harris talked about: all of it mixed up, impossible to pull apart. I run, and my brain churns, and it seems easy. It's all there. Just go home and put it on paper.

But it’s never that easy. The minute I try to put into words whatever it was that seemed so clear while my shoes pounded pavement and the breath rushed in and out of my lungs, I start to fail. That’s the hardest part about writing. The translation of what’s in your brain to words on paper—words that other people will (hopefully) read and not just understand but know, down to their bones. As with any translation, though, something is always lost.

Language isn’t always enough. Which is why it’s exciting when you do read something that exactly captures a feeling or a thought or a way of seeing the world that resonates—that makes you feel like someone crawled inside your head and translated what they found there and got it exactly right. There’s joy in discovery, too, of lighting upon a new way to think about something. But I think that feeling of recognition is the greatest triumph of good writing. It’s the thing that makes it possible for reader and writer to understand each other—for us to speak the same language.

Tuesdays, We Run

athlete-woman-is-running-during-winter-training-outside-in-cold-snow-weatherTuesday night. I perch toes-only on a curb, my hand on a street sign that claims there's no parking from this point to the corner, and drop my heels. Outside the Skinny Raven running store on H Street, people cluster in groups, stretch their quads, don their earbuds, or stand in line to sign in for tonight's run. There's a route map taped to the window of the store and a table piled with Asics or Sauconys or Mizunos, depending on the week, that you can try out for free. The sun is setting, or has long set, or won't set at all. Most weeks, this is where you'll find me Tuesday after work:  the Skinny Raven Pub Run, a three- to four-mile route that always starts outside the downtown location and ends at McGinley's Pub. Advertised as a social walk/run, the weekly event attracts all kinds -- moms with strollers, speedwalkers, groups of friends, married couples, lone runners. It's not a competitive event, and while start time is officially 6 p.m., plenty of people hit the pavement as early as 5:15.

Sometimes I'll meet up with a friend, but this time of year, I'm more likely to fall into the lone runner category. Understandably, Anchorage has a good number of fair-weather runners; as the cold sets in, the Tuesday night numbers dwindle. For those who are left, there's a sort of hail-fellow-well-met vibe; we nod at each other as we pass on an out-and-back, we merry few who deck ourselves out like Christmas trees in lights and reflective gear, who don studs and Yaktrax, who bundle ourselves in running tights and thermal pants, wind-resistant jackets, beanies and Buffs and balaclavas.

In the summer, knots of runners clog the trail, and there's a constant soundtrack of pounding feet and conversation audible beneath whatever song plays from my earbuds. In the winter, though, I'm insulated from the world by my cap or earwarmers. Most sounds outside my own breathing are muffled. I'm less likely to pass more than one or two runners at a time, our footfalls conversing for a brief moment, our mingled breath freezing, suspended in a pool of lamplight.

I run four to five times a week, usually alone. For months, sometimes, the pub run is the only night I'll run with others. We generally don't talk -- I've yet to make any lifelong friends at the run, or even acquaintances -- and from week to week I don't recognize any particular people from previous runs. But there's solidarity in this group. If I were to strike up a conversation, I'd know I have at least one thing in common with whomever I chose to speak to. We both know what it's like to chip away at the miles, with no one but ourselves to be accountable to, nothing but our own minds to distract and bedevil us. We are lone wolves who have found a temporary pack. There's a rush you get, running with a herd. It's why people race: the adrenaline surge, the ability to push yourself further, harder, faster when you're alone in a crowd instead of alone on your own.

Tuesday nights aren't about racing -- though I'll find myself growing competitive with the stranger just ahead of me or silently cheering when I pass another runner. Tuesday nights are about community. Not "community" as in the place where we live, but in the fellowship we have with others when we share common attitudes, interests, goals. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, I'll be on my own again. Tuesday, though, I run with the pack.

Twenty-six is the new forty

So, this weekend found me lounging on the couch, putting off scrubbing the gunk out of the corners of my windows by watching The American President (it holds up!) on TV Land, minding my own damn business, when this came on: [youtube=http://youtu.be/FzKn_m3ARPo]

Listen.  I get it.  I ain't mad at Sutton Foster; girl's gotta make a living.  I'm tempted to complain about how a fantastic show with positive portrayals of not just females but an all female-lead cast gets booted while this Darren Starr written/produced/directed project is given the greenlight, but I understand how ratings work.  Bunheads was too good, and too underwatched, for this world.  And it's not like the existence of Younger is responsible for the erasure of Bunheads.  The two shows aren't integers in some sort of mathematical equation where the presence of one cancels out the presence of the other.  (I'm assuming that's how math works, anyway.)

Bunheads obsession aside, I just can't with Younger.  I mean, will I watch it?  Duh.  (Please see:  Sutton Foster.)  But I'm setting my DVR with serious reservations.  I swear I was just reading an essay or two about how far women have come in television; I promise that even though I can't recall which blog or podcast or magazine article it was, something out there was recently celebrating how maybe one or two television shows are actually letting older (i.e., anything over 39) women have interesting roles.  I mean, Jessica Lange is the belle of Ryan Murphy's ball right now, and 49-year-old Viola Davis is leading one of this fall's more successful network dramas.  So it's getting better, right?

Here's Wikipedia's summary of Younger's premise:  "Liza (Sutton Foster) is a 40-year-old recently divorced single mother looking to get a job, which proves difficult for a woman of her age. After a compliment from a much younger man, she decides to get a makeover, courtesy of her friend Maggie (Debi Mazar), in order to look like she is in her mid-twenties. Ultimately, she becomes an assistant to Diana (Miriam Shor) in a publishing firm, who pairs her with co-worker Kelsey (Hilary Duff)." (Italics are mine.  I mean, "for a woman of her age"?  Forty?  HORRORS.)

One step forward, two steps back, I guess.

I'm willing to set aside judgment until after I watch a few episodes.  After all, Darren Star's Sex and the City was ostensibly a silly, shallow show about women who love shoes, but it managed to plumb the depths of female relationships, examine real issues faced by modern women, and make it okay to talk about vaginas, at least on cable.  Maybe Younger is going to be like the broccoli you smother in Velveeta cheese sauce so your five-year-old will get a vegetable inside him:  something wholesome wrapped in something not particularly great but kind of delicious, at least to the unrefined palate.

But the marketing of the show has me doubting.  It's worth noting that the show is based on a book by the same name.  I'm not familiar with the book or with its author, Pamela Redmond Satran, but thanks to a Google search, I'm now aware that in Satran's version, Liza (Alice, in the book version) lies and says she's 29.  So, not only is Younger the show a story about an ancient 40-year-old woman who, because of her age (and time spent outside the workforce, but let's face it, MOSTLY because of her hideous age), can't possibly be considered for a job of any kind and therefore claims that she's younger than she really is; but for the folks who bring us this show, 29 evidently isn't younger enough, since Foster's character claims to be 26 in the trailer.

I love that (streaming) television has evolved to the point where a transgender character can be the lead of a drama.  I love that gay characters and same-sex couples aren't an anomaly on television anymore -- in fact, they're allowed to have dimensions and sex lives and even be the centerpieces of some shows.  I love that there are active conversations about T.V. shows and movies that do or don't pass the Bechdel Test, and that audiences are paying attention to which shows bother to portray characters that aren't just Typical White Male Protagonist and/or Antihero.

So it kind of blows my mind when I see the commercial for Younger.  Are we really back here, shuddering in horror at the thought of a woman over 40?  Insisting that to have any validity, to have any sort of story that might draw the interest of the most coveted television demographic, a female character would have to lie about her age and appear younger than she is?  I guess so.  I find it unlikely that we'd see the male counterpart to Younger:  a tale about a 40-year-old man who, having stepped outside the workforce to raise a child, decides to rejoin working America but, because of his age, is not only rejected but considered a "has-been" and is condescended to.  That show? That show would not exist.

A Voice in the Dark

photoPodcasts are having quite a moment. With the This American Life spin-off, Serial, suddenly capturing everyone’s attention, not to mention the launch of not just a podcast (Startup) but potentially an entire podcasting empire from TAL and Planet Money alum Alex Blumberg, who’s bringing audiences “the origin story you never get to hear,” I can’t get two headlines into the blogs and websites I regularly read without discovering another post contemplating whether Serial will end in a satisfying way, or reflecting upon the nature of storytelling. Slate, which produces its own impressive array of podcasts, is so Serial-obsessed, it now drops a podcast about the podcast the day after every new episode of Serial becomes available. Not to brag, but I feel like the world has finally caught up with me. I downloaded my first podcast back when my friend Sara gave me my first iPod, one of those now adorably retro Nanos with the teeny digital screen, 8 gigs, and the menu wheel. These were the olden days, before touchscreens. My Nano was teal and came engraved with the words, “For Jamey – from your good pal, Gary Oldman.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with this thing. I’ve never been a big music listener, and my old-timey iPod couldn’t play movies. But then I realized that a good chunk of the NPR shows I enjoyed listening to on the radio were available as podcasts—and thus I discovered not only on-demand listening, but an entire array of shows produced by professionals and amateurs, covering every subject imaginable.

I started listening all the time. I was living in North Carolina, going to grad school, and I never walked to class without a pair of earbuds nestled in my ears. I strategically positioned my iPod in rooms so I could listen as I cleaned my apartment. I went on epic walks around town just so I could finish listening to the latest episode of Radiolab. Whereas before, nearly every sentence I spoke started with the words, “I heard on NPR,” now each conversation I launched began, “Oh, I was just listening to this podcast…”

After grad school, I moved to Vermont for work. I had landed my dream job, but it required me to live in a very small, somewhat remote town where, I had been warned, the people who had held my position before me often had trouble making friends or finding things to do. I’ve always been good at living alone, but the two years I spent in Vermont were sometimes a challenge even for me.

Luckily, I had podcasts.

If I had listened regularly before, I listened constantly now. My old Nano couldn’t handle the number of episodes I downloaded (some of which I saved, knowing I’d want to re-listen), so I bought a new 16 gig iPod. I listened in the morning, while I showered, and in the evening, as I cooked elaborate one-person dinners. I listened as I became a runner, circling the two-mile track around the little park on the north side of town. I acquired the accoutrements necessary for round-the-clock, on-the-go listening: a second pair of earbuds, a set of speakers, an adapter for my car.

I was utterly solitary during my time in Vermont. I could go literally an entire week without speaking to a single other human being (and I’m using “literally” in its original sense, not for effect). I’ve always had a habit of talking to myself, but it got out of hand those two years; I would have whole discussions in the aisle of a grocery store about which peanut butter to buy and not even realize how insane I looked until strangers started shooting terrified glances my way. While all the alone time was excellent for getting lots of writing done and reading staggering stacks of books, there were times when I longed to hear a human voice that wasn’t my own.

That’s how podcasts became more than something for me to listen to. They’re an intimate form of entertainment, more inclusive than television, more personal than radio. Even shows that are on their face about something other than the people hosting them, details about the lives of most podcast hosts inevitably seep their way into shows, so that over time you come to feel you know these people—people whose faces you may never have seen, people with whom you’ve never actually exchanged words. (Yelling at Slate’s Culture Gabfest host Stephen Metcalf that he’s being far too cynical and possibly a teensy bit misogynistic about Taylor Swift’s new album does not count.) People who are, essentially, just voices inside your head.

Before Tig Notaro became a household name among comedy aficionados, I’d gotten first-hand updates on the series of awful circumstances that befell her via Professor Blastoff. I’ve rooted for Glen Weldon every time he mentioned how the writing of his new book was going on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Babies have been born, dogs adopted, careers ended and begun as I’ve listened to some podcasts for longer than I’ve known some of my closest friends. If, by some crazy random happenstance, I ever happen to meet the hosts of my favorite podcast, Extra Hot Great, which I have been listening to since episode four, mark one—before Tara (it’s pronounced TAR-ah!) and Dave moved to the west coast to launch Previously.tv and re-launch the podcast—I know that I will become an instantaneous mess, one of those embarrassingly fawning fans who borders on creepy given the amount of personal information I’ve discerned about them over my years of listening.

Not long ago, Steve, Julia, and Daaaaay-na (as Steve is wont to introduce her) spent a segment of Culture Gabfest contemplating why podcasts seem more intimate than other forms of entertainment. (At least I think they did; I cannot for the life of me find the episode I’m thinking of, and you try doing a search for a podcast in which the hosts talk about podcasts.) Anyway, I believe I remember Dana suggesting that, in part, podcasts feel so intimate not just because you come to know—or think you know—so much about the people who host them, but because those people are essentially voices nestled inside your ears, disembodied and speaking in a way that seems to involve you. Even when hosts interview a guest or speak amongst themselves, you feel included.

I’ve often wondered why I love podcasts so much—above and beyond movies, television, and even books—and I think this is why.

When I was a little kid, I regularly spent nights at my grandma’s house. She and my grandpa had separate rooms; hers was outfitted with an extra bed where I remember putting off sleep for as long as possible, begging instead for a bedtime story. Grandma had dozens in her repertoire. She rarely cracked open an actual book to read to me. Instead, her voice, reedy with age, rose out of the darkness of the room, hushed in the way all nighttime voices are hushed, to tell me the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, of Goldielocks, of Little Black Sambo.* She told and retold these stories, embellishing them with non-canonical details, lengthening them in the hopes that eventually I’d tire and finally fall asleep. After awhile, I began to memorize even the parts of the stories she’d made up herself.

“So Little Red Riding Hood walked through the forest,” Grandma would whisper, “swinging her basket, while all around her the woods grew darker and darker. Then, from behind a tree, she heard a voice—”

“Grandma,” I’d pipe up. “You forgot the part where she stops to look at herself in the pond.”

“Oh, right. She stopped at the edge of a clear pond to admire her reflection and her little red cape. Then, she heard a voice—”

“But Grandma, what about the part where she skips rocks across the creek?”

A sigh in the dark. “There was a creek that flowed from the pond, and Red found some smooth stones, and even though she knew she needed to hurry to Grandma’s house, she stopped to skip the rocks across the creek…”

Grandma, clearly, had the patience of Job himself.

Long before the internet gave me podcasts, I had Grandma. Long before I could read, there were stories in the dark, a voice in my ears, a narrative I interacted with. Maybe not everyone who listens to podcasts had the same experience, but I think all humans have a basic, reflexive reaction to being told a story in the dark. Someone turns off the lights and starts to speak, and it’s almost impossible not to listen.

*Yes, I know Little Black Sambo is a horribly racist story. But Grandma was from a different era, I didn't understand the racial implications at the time, and this tale regularly made the nighttime story rotation.

Friend Shipper

Daryl and CarolI’ve been listening to Slate’s podcast recapping the latest season of The Walking Dead (available to Slate Plus members only, sorry guys), and an exchange that took place on the first episode between host Mike Vuolo and Chris Wade caught my attention:

Vuolo: I think that [Carol’s] relationship with Daryl is fantastic because it’s not quite a sexual relationship, it doesn’t feel romantic, it doesn’t feel even sister-brother; it just feels like a pure friendship.

Wade: “Companionate”? Is that a word?

Vuolo: Sure, why not?

Wade: They see something in each other that makes things about this world better. Yeah I think it is great; and it is one of the few moments of subtlety, which I always appreciate in The Walking Dead. Of not having to spell out, like, Oh, they are together. And they don’t seem to need to have any kind of definitions because both of them are realistic enough about what’s going on right now in their world to know that just caring for each other and, like, caring about each other’s well-being more, perhaps, than anyone else is enough to be important and help them live this terrible life they’re in.

(I think my attributions are correct, but both of those dudes’ voices sound similar.)

This is something I think about a lot: the state of friendship between male and female characters on television. As much as movies and television shows get dinged for not passing the Bechdel Test, they can be just as guilty of what I’ll call the Harry Burns Fallacy, after the assertion made by Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally—that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

On T.V., the Harry Burns Fallacy rings true. It’s rare to see an unrelated single man and single woman have a relationship that’s anything other than romantic. Even if they start out as just friends, somewhere down the line they’re sure to end up in bed together, dating, and/or married. It’s telling that on a show called Friends, four out of six of the titular friends ended up in romantic relationships together.

I’m not anti-romance. Trust me, I’m as big a shipper as the next gal. I will tell you now: No one on the face of this planet wanted Parks and Recreation’s Ben and Leslie to get together more than I did. I was actually sorta into Spuffy, and I pulled hard for Cophine. I would see a Science Bros movie in a hot second. And I do not give shit one about Dean-or-Jess: I was a Logan girl all the way (go ahead and hate; I’m standing firm).

But I’m also a die-hard friend shipper. While the romance and companionship of dating and marriage are an essential part of life and have provided compelling storylines on a billion T.V. shows, there’s something to be said for friendship between a man and a woman. Like all great friendships, close lady-dude friendships are about what Chris Wade eloquently described as “see[ing] something in each other that makes things about this world better.” But when you’re friends with someone of the opposite sex, you get the added bonus of radically shifting your perspective: You learn things about the opposite sex you wouldn’t otherwise gain access to, but without the pressure or possibility of something sexual happening.

So many male-female television friendships culminate in romance, though—as if the only value in different-sex friendships is the possibility of “something more.” Sex and marriage, particularly on television, are portrayed as the ultimate connection between two people. As a person in the world, though, I know that there are connections that go just as deep between friends, whether they’re two gals, two dudes, or two people of the opposite sex. What’s deeper, I ask you, than caring about another person’s well-being more than anyone else’s, or helping another person live this life?

That’s why I hope Carol and Daryl remain friends. I won’t lie; I once shipped them. And there have been clues that something romantic may have passed between them. But as they’re portrayed at the moment, they represent a rare animal on television: the man-woman friendship that’s “just” a friendship. There’s mutual respect between them. They’ve both watched the other change and grow. They’ve developed an ease with each other that isn’t charged with sexual tension. In this season’s second episode, when Daryl hops in a car to chase down the men who abducted another friend, Carol jumps in, too, and the tone of this partnership is less I can’t bear to be separated from my lover and more I got your back, bro. “Just friends”? There’s no “just” about a relationship for which you’d risk your life, romantic or platonic. And the only “something more” I need is more friendships like this one on T.V.

Television's Baby Problem

“Can’t we have ONE representation on t.v. of women who want work and a relationship but don’t want to become baby-making machines? YEESH,” I grumbled to a friend over Google chat last May. I was up in arms over the Parks and Recreation season five finale, an episode that featured what my friend referred to as the “who-is-pregnant woman hunt.” Over the course of the finale, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test and makes it his mission to question every female character on the show to find out who’s knocked up. Though the mother-to-be turns out to be Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, the pregnancy hunt awakens the baby-making impulse in the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope. For the first time to the audience’s knowledge, Leslie talks with her husband about the inevitable family they’ll eventually have.

“Leslie’s never even mentioned an interest in having children!” I bitched. “She seems so career-focused (not that you can’t want both a career and kids). But the whole start-a-family thing came out of nowhere! I know that relationship woes/marriage/babies are the traditional progression for most sitcoms, but I just kind of want to see ONE that doesn’t go that route.”

A year later, Leslie would end season six pregnant with triplets. I spent subsequent days ranting inarticulately about why this was a terrible decision on the part of the show’s writers, until the AV Club posted “The trouble with triplets: Leslie Knope’s babies and a problematic sitcom trend,” in which Libby Hill takes issue with Leslie’s career accomplishments being “retconned into being merely preparation for having children.”

In her essay, Hill also traces the evolution of the sitcom heroine and notes that, for characters like Leslie, who thrive in the workplace settings of their comedies, “the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run." We’re living in the “can women have it all” era but, as Hill posits, when it comes to television, “The question is, must women have it all.”

Last week, Homeland’s fourth season premiered with two episodes that brought viewers up to speed on events in the life of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). After a couple of sometimes wobbly seasons, Homeland’s season three landed its ending: Though Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had outlived his usefulness, his execution was gut-wrenching, and it finally freed Carrie from go-nowhere romantic storylines. This was a welcome change because what’s always been unique and, frankly, awesome about Carrie from day one is that she’s crazy-good at her job. Emphasis on the crazy—but the ability her bipolar disorder gives her to make connections no one else sees is exactly why she’s so good.

When the show was exploring the parallels between Carrie and Brody—who, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years, was turned by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts back in the U.S.—it was at its most interesting. But the show went a step further when Carrie and Brody became romantically entangled and, as a result, spun its wheels a bit. The writers seemed invested in this relationship, while as a viewer, I was drumming my fingers, waiting for each episode to get back to the good stuff.

Now in the wake of Brody’s death, Carrie still isn’t home-free: She’s got a Little Brody to contend with. By last Sunday’s second episode, the show seems to have decided how Carrie’s going to deal with motherhood; “Trylon and Perisphere” ended with Carrie taking a hardship posting with the CIA—a decision that any viewer understands is at least partly an excuse for Carrie to leave her infant daughter in the care of her (somewhat reluctant) sister.

I ought to be grateful. Presumably, with Carrie in Pakistan, the show will mostly dispense with the baby plot, save for a few U.S.-to-Pakistan Skype calls. So why am I not more excited about this depiction of a woman on television choosing career over family?

“A baby isn’t just a plot device,” Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in an AV Club recap of Homeland’s season three finale, “it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything.” Yet too often a baby is thrown into a plot as a device to demonstrate that when a female character puts career at the center of her life, she’s not only sacrificing family; she has to become the momentary villain as she chooses work over her offspring.

“Trylon and Perisphere” finds tiny Franny Brody thrust upon her mother by a sister who seems convinced that if Carrie just spends some time with her baby, she’ll discover her maternal instinct. Instead, each scene between Carrie and Franny seems designed to give Carrie (and viewers) a chance to close the Brody chapter—and to demonstrate what a bad mother Carrie would be. In one scene, she allows her mother to reminisce about Papa Brody, admitting that she tried to be happy when she learned she was pregnant, though “with his being gone can’t remember why I had you.” In another harrowing scene, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter during a routine bath. When Carrie departs for Pakistan with a tearful but sterile goodbye to baby, she’s not so much choosing career over family, the show seems to say, but admitting her ineptitude.

In August, Huffington Post ran a piece by Bri Seely (“What It Really Feels Like to Be a Child-Free Woman”), who—having no desire to raise children—recounted asking to be sterilized year after year, only to be told by doctors, “You’ll change your mind.” This is the overwhelming response to most women who say they want child-free lives. “You don’t know what you want,” we’re told again and again. “You’re too young to make that decision, you’ll think differently when you’re older.”

Television perpetuates this depreciation of a woman’s agency when it takes away a female character’s ability to even make this decision. As a career-oriented CIA agent who also lives with a disorder that has genetic component, it seems unlikely that Homeland’s Carrie would put “have a baby” at the top of her list of life goals. Yet she has unprotected sex—of course—and ends up pregnant—of course. And, this being television, there’s no question of abortion; on T.V., women rarely have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially if they’re the protagonist of the show. (This is less true on cable, and if the character in question is an unmarried adolescent or young woman, she’s more often allowed to consider, or even have, an abortion.)

Likewise, at the end of Mad Men’s first season, the character who would come to represent the breaker of glass ceilings, the ur-career-woman, Peggy Olsen, naturally ends up pregnant. It’s a rite of passage, the show seems to say, that she must weather before she can earn the right to a career. Mad Men’s second season deals with the fallout of this pregnancy. Like Carrie, Peggy gives her baby up; Peggy also suffers the stigma of being a “loose” woman as her family accuses her of seducing the man who knocked her up and the priest at her church urges her to confess her sins. While a modern perspective on the show’s 1960s morals allows viewers to sympathize with Peggy’s predicament, in the world of the show Peggy nevertheless becomes something of a momentary villain for choosing career over family.

A baby doesn’t even have to enter the picture, though, for a woman’s agency to be taken away. How I Met Your Mother’s career-oriented Robin Scherbatsky is adamant about not wanting kids, a position that contributes to the end of her relationship with Ted and that remains consistent throughout the show—until season seven’s twelfth episode, in which Robin first believes she is pregnant, then discovers that not only is she not having a baby; she’s infertile. Once again, choice is quickly taken out of the picture. Robin’s reaction to the news that she can’t have a baby is to grieve, a natural reaction for a lot of women—including some who have never wanted children—but given the circumstances and the character’s history, it’s hard not to see this as another version of “you’ll change your mind some day.” Either you will change your mind, the message seems to be, or the decision not to will be taken away from you.

There’s room on television for all kinds of stories—for every story, including Robin’s, Peggy’s, and Carrie’s. And there’s room for a story like Donna’s: Jenny Slate’s character from the charming movie Obvious Child may or may not ultimately want children, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, she makes a decision that puts career (and independence) over family. She makes the decision, and she’s not punished for it or made to look villainous.

But that’s film. Television isn’t quite there yet. And on T.V., all too often, a baby is a plot device. It’s the culmination of an all-too-familiar trajectory. No matter how little a female character’s initial story arc might have to do with babies, in most shows, once the writers run out of ideas, she’s going to find herself faced with a pregnancy. Isn’t the simple inevitability of that progression one more way television seems to say that a woman just isn’t interesting enough outside of her childbearing abilities to sustain an audience’s interest? On T.V., it isn’t enough to work for the CIA, become the most powerful woman in an advertising agency, or have a fulfilling career in journalism. On T.V., women can have the whole pie—career, relationship, and baby—but they can’t opt for just one slice.

The Value of an Editor

MichelleLast year when I heard the sad news that ABC Family was canceling the Amy Sherman-Pallidino-helmed show Bunheads after one admittedly low-rated season, I felt bizarrely compelled to write about it.  More specifically, I wanted to examine why I was so enamored of its main character.  It didn't hurt that the show's leading lady was played by the always charming Sutton Foster.  But anticipating the absence of Bunheads in my life was making me grieve more over this silly ballerina show than I had over any other well-loved, canceled-before-its-time hour of television. Anyway, I ended up writing a short essay about how the show's main character, Michelle, represented a unique female character on television.  And, better yet, when I queried The Hairpin, the editor there not only said she'd read my essay; she agreed to post it under the site's "In Praise of Difficult Women" tag.

But first there were edits.  Then-contributing editor of The Hairpin Jia Tolentino sent me a lovely email suggesting some places where I might cut, reword, or otherwise alter my essay.  The changes weren't huge; in fact, the subtlety of her edits was what made them sort of remarkable:  Just a few tweaks here and there, and suddenly my essay -- which I'd felt was good but perhaps not the best it could be -- was suddenly saying exactly what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it.

That's what a great editor can do.  An editor who is sensitive to a writer's voice and whose main goal is to publish (or post) the best writing possible is an editor who can, through the changes she recommends, help a writer sound even more like herself.

I thought it might be interesting or illuminating, then, to post my original draft of my Hairpin essay here, for a before-and-after comparison.  (The final version of the essay can be read here.)

Why I'll Miss Bunheads:  Because I'm a Mess, Too

After a day during which one mini crisis inspired a second, which invited crises numbers three and four, who brought along their friends, until my mood turned into an impromptu house party filled with unwelcomed guests who drank all my booze and left regret, despair, and used Kleenex as their parting gifts—after that kind of day—this was the news I came home to: “Bunheads has been cancelled.”

I couldn’t be too surprised at the announcement. Despite the cultish passion it inspired in a handful of critics, Bunheads was a weird show with a clunky name and a premise that didn’t exactly grab potential viewers by their remote controls and demand to be watched.

My usual reaction to the cancellation of beloved shows is quiet resignation. When Alcatraz was cancelled—after mystery upon mystery ended in a cliffhanger that would never be resolved—I remembered its poor ratings and shrugged. When Fringe got a truncated fifth season before closing the bridge between its universes and mine once and for all, I was thankful that the plot would have a chance to be wrapped up before the show was done. When AMC’s drama about a 1940s radio station Remember WENN vanished from the network, I reminded myself that I was literally the only person on the planet watching that show, so what did I expect? So, no surprise at the Bunheads cancellation; one more show dead before its time.

What did surprise me was realizing how much I would miss the show’s main character, Michelle Simms. As she had with the denizens of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino populated the fictional town of Bunheads’s Paradise with memorably idiosyncratic characters, from the haughty coffee connoisseur who crafts lattes one bean at a time, to the Frankie-and-Zooey-esque wonder twins who beguile and intrigue their fellow high schoolers by coordinating wardrobe changes between classes and speaking an uncountable number of languages. The characters of Bunheads were characters, each eccentric in his or her own way.

Michelle, as portrayed by Sutton Foster, is an interloper in Paradise. She’s a weirdo, too, but she’s a different kind of weirdo when she first arrives on the scene, and the other weirdoes don’t immediately take to her, leaving her to falter and embarrass herself and step on toes and keep on talking long past the point when she might have just shut her mouth before she found herself licking her own kneecap and garnering straight-up open-mouthed, are-you-done-yet stares. Over the course of the short (too short!) first season, Michelle struggles to fit in, gives up on trying to make a place for herself, runs away from her problems, comes back chagrined and only half-heartedly determined, reluctantly takes on responsibility, shirks responsibility, chases after a dream, and fails more often than she succeeds at most things.

Which is to say, she’s a person. More specifically, she’s me. I’m no dancer, I don’t know how to play the ukulele, and I’ve never impulsively married Alan Ruck only to lose him in an off-camera car accident. But I look at Michelle and I see in her, more than in any other female television character, a reflection of what it’s like to be a thirtysomething woman trying to square what I’d hoped my life would look like by now with reality.

Television is still relatively male-centric and guys don’t have to look too far for their heroes (or antiheroes), but I’m not here to bemoan the lack of distinctive, strong female television characters. And the fact is, there are some great ladies on t.v.—admirable fictional ladies, flawed fictional ladies, even—dare I say?—adorkable fictional ladies who turned out to be less Manic-Pixie-Dreamgirl and more nuanced than I expected. Leslie Knope, Jess Day, Liz Lemon, Peggy Olsen: Television may not be exactly overabundant with relatable female characters, but forking over the price of premium cable isn’t my only option if I want to watch shows that pass the Bechdel Test on a semi-regular basis.

As happy as I am to find these women on my television screen, though, none of them is Michelle Flowers. Regardless of their flaws and their failures, in the end, most female characters manage to get it together. They’re the have-it-all women who can balance career and romance, or who might have a dismal love life but succeed in the workplace by dint of their intelligence, and savvy, or whose remarkable talent all but guarantees that they will succeed despite every odd.

But Michelle is a mess. In virtually every aspect of life, she’s foundering, struggling to find her way. I can relate—and so, I’m willing to bet, can a good number of thirtysomething women who pictured themselves living a certain kind of life by this time but find themselves still stuck in a version of their post-college mid-twenties existences. We’re still working jobs that serve as filler until we finally land our dream jobs. Still composing online dating profiles and suffering through blind dates that feel like job interviews because we’re still looking for the relationship that’s going to last. Still trying to square the responsibilities of adulthood with the nagging suspicion that we not only accidentally slept through the mandatory class where everybody else learned how to be a grown-up—we didn’t hear about the class in the first place.

There are other lady messes on t.v.—Jess from New Girl, in particular, comes to mind—but more often than not, the messiness of this kind of character is meant to be superficially frustrating but ultimately charming. She get into scrapes, meddle in their friends’ lives, and stage not one but two fake robberies to cover up the damage she’s done to her roommate’s collection of trademark suits, but, gosh darn it, she didn’t mean any harm and at the end of the day, isn’t she adorable?

Michelle has the capacity for adorableness, but it’s buried under cynicism, snarkiness, and occasional laziness. What’s more, the scrapes she gets into often aren’t so much scrapes as Hindenberg-level disasters (macing the entire cast of The Nutcracker, for example), and they don’t make her cute—they make her infuriating. Like a lot of regular people, Michelle’s got a good heart, but she’s also capable of disappointing her friends, being unfair, and flaking on her responsibilities. Her friends don’t like her because of these qualities; they put up with the messy parts of her personality because they like her.

Maybe the most relatable thing about Michelle, though, is how—even in her mid-thirties—she’s constantly negotiating the nebulous boundary between adolescence and adulthood. When Michelle starts teaching at her mother-in-law’s dance studio, she takes her place at the head of the class to call out ballet positions, and you can see how, simultaneously, she could almost be one of the teenagers—uncertain, unserious, often insecure—while she’s also clearly separated from them by years and experience and pop culture (Michelle: “Thornton Wilder should’ve mentioned the creepy side of small town life.” Melanie: “Who?” Michelle: “No one. He was in Menudo.” Ginny: “Who?” Michelle: “I’m gonna go be old now.”)

When one of the show’s teenage characters, Sasha, ends up becoming semi-emancipated from her parents and moving into her own apartment (it all makes sense, trust me), the line that separates the sixteen-year-old from the thirtysomething becomes even more vague; Michelle has the wisdom of her years to offer (“Don’t bond with the old lady next door […] before you know it you’re picking up their prescriptions at eleven at night and driving them to the hospital when their hips break.”), but she’s also undone by the fact this kid seems to have her shit more together than she ever will. (“I was twenty-five before I owned an appliance. It was a used microwave that had permanent soup stains and I’m pretty sure radiated my ovaries.”)

As someone who on a near-daily basis wonders when (if) I will ever get my shit together, it’s frankly refreshing to watch Michelle fail to get hers together on a weekly basis. In terms of successes, she’s consistently a one-step-forward, two-steps-back gal. The difference between watching other female t.v. characters and watching Michelle is the difference between knowing things will work out and hoping they will, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Actually, it’s the difference between aspirational television and comfort t.v: When I watch Leslie or Peggy, I can admire their moxie and aspire to be more determined, more driven, more generous, just like they are. I look at those ladies, and I feel like they’ll be just fine when their shows finally retire to perpetual rerun status.

When I watch Michelle, I honestly don’t know whether she’ll ever pull it together. I suspect she’ll do what I do: Pull it together for a day or so, then greet the next crisis with a snarky remark, freak out, run away, eat a pint of Phish Food while watching the America’s Next Top Model Cycle Four marathon, forget to do her laundry, then pick herself up and try again. I’m rooting for her as much as I’m rooting for myself, but there are no guarantees for either of us.

“It’ll all work out,” people like to say—implying that there’s some sort of endpoint, a sort of plateau you’ll reach that will tell you, once and for all, that you have achieved adulthood and maturity and will no longer doubt your own abilities or make disastrous decisions. Unique among female television characters, Michelle was evidence that there’s no plateau. There’s just the episodic nature of life, one thing happening after another. Today you feel on top of it and put together and there’s not cat hair on your skirt or spinach stuck in your teeth; tomorrow you wake to find a possum in your bed. Either way, you just keep dancing until your show is cancelled.