...in which a writer writes a letter to another writer who is also the editor of this essay, because, work is a breathing thing that exists in the context of a life or lives.
On a Sunday morning I was reading a Times profile of Lana del Rey. The weather was outrageous in its beauty, violent wind and 80 degrees.
"I have strong relationships with icons,” she says. “They’re probably my most meaningful relationships."
That quote reminded me a little of you. It felt like something you would write.
She's a little interesting, right? I feel so strange about her. In the way that I feel about all of these [women] makers who control in different ways while loudly peeling themselves away from sociopolitical context. She recently said something like, why talk about feminism when you can talk about space? That's pithier than what she said. I'll go look it up. Okay, it's this, from a FADER interview:
"For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested. My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants."
Of course the kicker is that a major component of contemporary feminism is just that: driving down dumb barriers so that all women may feel free enough to do what they want.
LOL. When I send you emails re: feminism I feel like I'm trolling you. It isn’t that you don’t care about equal rights and access. It’s just that it’s not “your bag” to talk about it a whole lot.
Who is LDR but another artist who happens to be a woman, young, with a knack for cultural reference and really beautiful hair. I listen to her songs when I run into them and I don’t get angry at their presence. They remind me of who I thought I wanted to be once. Let her have at what she wants!
But PS I don't think she should be criticized within the framework of feminism for reasons above. It's true! Not everything has to be about feminism! Later in the Times interview she talks about not being relevant to the conversation because she doesn't know a lot about feminist history. Which I like. A lot. Let’s all cop to ignorance, but then let us pay attention!
Also: despite my commitment to feminism in thought and act I do not really want my own work to be always read through a feminist lens, though it often interacts with what it feels like to be a girl (LOL) it isn't a political tract, and now maybe I'm beginning to understand your partial bristle? Because art can be made within a cannon and culture of, for example, feminism, but as artists we do want things to stand on their lonesome. Even as they can't in any regard; standing on shoulders of everyone, etc. We are making these objects alone in our rooms out of our minds only! And then it gets hurled out into the peopled ether, and networked.
Maybe isolation is a good thing or a bad thing, re: art. I can't really tell anymore. I believe in community and friends so much! But we are all discrete beings and I'm getting tangled up in my own leash.
For example, your collection Fast Machine is (as I have said to you) sui generis. It is only of itself, and of you, at the last. It portrays a wide swath of really emotionally complicated characters, many of whom are women. Yet when I read it that first time, when I didn't really know you yet, I felt so galvanized. (Which I later emailed Other People lit-podcaster Brad Listi, in a splash of reaching-out vulnerability and almost random gratitude.) But I did. I felt galvanized! About women and sex and love and selfhood. Which are all the things that make me feel excited to be a feminist! And a writer!
I wanted after reading Fast Machine to know its author, not to "know" more about the book, for I already had everything I wanted in its pages. It was the oppositional, the fighting stance, the on-all-fours, the tentative girlhood, the getting-things-ready, the multiplicity of the characters that indicated to me: here is someone who has spent time thinking about women and herself as a woman and person and what it means if it means anything. And was able to express that in such a textured and sophisticated and honest-clear fashion. And it made me feel, not galvanized, but maybe “activated" in a social way.
And of course now knowing you and practicing friendship with you has largely been beyond this, in many ways, though we have talked about thinking-about-being-a-writer and thinking-about-being-a-partner-who-happens-to-be-female, and all, often. Of course it has been more about generosity; yours, mostly, and how mentored I feel by you, in both writerhood and womanhood, and how thankful I am for that. I just got tears in my eyes.
What I’ve meaning to tell you doesn’t need a preamble but I’ll give it. Last night my husband and I were supposed to go to a poetry reading but one bus was extremely delayed, then we missed another. When we finally caught one I made us get off at the wrong stop, so standing northerly in Irving Park finally I told my husband that he should choose what to do because we were already late for the reading and I felt transportationally foolish. He chose a bar around the corner just south of our apartment.
It was Puerto Rican pride weekend and everywhere there were Puerto Rican flags and children hanging off the side of jeeps. We walked in the joyful noise and smoke and were nearly clipped by a lady-motorcyclist making her way on her steed down the sidewalk and the sensory substance was all a relief after the bus debacle.
The place was mostly empty and so we made conversation with the bored bartender, who mentioned he was from Minneapolis. Oh! I said. I would be going there next spring for a writers’ conference. What should I do or see? “I moved away so long ago,” he said. “But there is the Mary Tyler Moore statue, with her throwing her hat. Her hat is in her hand. It’s not the freeze frame, unfortunately. Because you can’t magically suspend an object in the air.”
O’ Mary! I was then infused with a feeling of friendship urgency.
I knew I would have to campaign for your presence at the writers’ conference so that we could go see the sculpture together. You would either go or not go, whatever pleased and comforted you, so I would have to either enjoy seeing the sculpture with you, or see the sculpture and regret your absence actively and probably send you a text or five while doing so.
We went on to have more beers and Tom Collinses and make more conversation with the bartender but I was thinking loudly: now I know how to write about Mary!
Before knowing you, I had already watched MTM, a fair amount of it, on Nick at Nite, which I had discovered unsleeping in middle school, in the years after my parents had finally gotten cable, satisfied that in my earlier childhood years my exclusive viewership of Public Television had imbued a training toward sharing, learning, and curiosity. On better days I believe it worked.
Caveat: I was allowed to watch Jem, the 80s cartoon about a broadcast journalist-cum-rock star because, as my mother says, “She was a positive female role model.”
So this is the origin point of my TV: active and engaged, in pajamas, in the den, in the wee small hours of middle school life in the suburbs of Washington DC. I wore a large t-shirt as a nightgown, and tucked it over my knees. I sat very close to the television set, so that I could keep the volume down, so that I could avoid waking my parents, sleeping, on the other side of the house.
On Nick at Nite I watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dick van Dyke, The Andy Griffith Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, That Girl, and Mary Tyler Moore. I drew the line at Petticoat Junction, which was odious to me in its mock-porn set-up; Bob Newhart’s mealmouth bored my brain rotten. (Sorry. I know you like him.)
I loved “the sitcom” and “the formula” of "the episode.” I watched everything hungrily in those days, especially if it was offered in these neat packages.
Later I became a teenager overly and overtly concerned with appearances. Television and my hunger for unpacking it did not really come back to me in full force as a presence in my life for a decade or more.
Last fall you were the one who suggested we watch or re-watch MTM, in an unofficial manner: you initiated our mutual MTM reminiscences that went on and on until we were both compelled to return to it.
“MTM” is how we referred to it in texts, watching it, both alone in our homes, families elsewhere, asleep or at work. I was in Chicago and you were in Michigan. I was having “a rough time of it.” I can see in retrospect a certain kindness you offered; now we had a media with which to connect despite the geographical distance.
On the spectrum of a cultural-reference womanhood, from LDR to MTM, I am very much MTM-leaning. And you are too, very much, though upon first meeting you I would have said the opposite, if only for your ability to pose with vintage-cool composure in photographs. Or to start with that!
Here is Mary Tyler Moore, as Mary Richards, in a towel turban and robe, fresh from the shower and disturbed. Has there been a knock on the door. Has the phone rang. Is Rhoda dumped again.
Mary Richards is, on first appearance, all about appearance. Plans and square corners and straight hems.
But in the inaugural episode we learn she is full of huff and wonder. She asks for things. She asks for things! She makes her presence known. It is 1970 and the war is still on. And she, a young woman dumped by a lackluster boy-pal, is propelled into her own world at last!
So instead of a secretary she becomes an associate producer, at the television station, for a news program. Sometimes or often she drinks with the boys; for seasons every morning she gets her boss Lou coffee and a bear claw. Then suddenly after years she tells him she probably shouldn’t get him coffee because it’s not really her job to do so. God love him, that bear-man with his appropriate breakfast, he’s okay, he’s just fine, Lou understands! It takes him a little while to adjust. But it all works out.
(We both love Lou, his bearish kindness; he is an embodiment of human flaw, humane flaw: a person who is scrabbling up the sides of his socialized entrenchment. He does, for instance, try to love the modish white stylings of his apartment, designed by aspiring window dresser Rhoda, in the wake of his divorce. He tries for a little bit to love how the hot white heat of its modernity burns at his edges. So what if he needs his tweed upholstery back. He tried! If not Mary or Rhoda, we are Lou! Depending on the day.)
At work Mary is, to use my finest compliment, a world-eater. It takes her a few seasons to warm up, but by and by she’s making changes, for lady and newsmaker kind! Mathematically, each success goes: first wind + hem + haw + second wind. Sometimes the success is a success; sometimes the success is merely in the trying.
O, bless the episode!
At home, sighing from the stresses of labor, she makes a home together with her best friend Rhoda the Jewess, that artsy hapless head-kerchief'd beaut. They are in different apartments, but hardly. They sit in their nightgowns together! What fine intimacy for adults not in a sexual relationship. To be comfortable together. Physically and emotionally. They feel feelings together! Large ones!
I think at first I thought I was “a Rhoda” because, Jewess, and, irresistible assault of self-deprecating sluggers, but by and by it became obvious that my PBS-clarified politeness ranked me Mary adjacent. You’re also a Mary, but in a different way. You’re relentless at sincere thank you notes, for instance, and dress beautifully, but have the plummy brassiness of a classic Rhoda inflect. I meanwhile have Rhoda’s bedraggled overreaching dress and, when tipsy, braggadocio. Mary-heavy/Rhoda-lights get along well together, I’m thinking.
But to parse ourselves into types is a split-hair of the point; inasmuch Mary Tyler Moore is about friendship between women, and between women and men. LDR is a lesson and MTM is a lesson but neither really are models, only cues toward some larger constellation of –
If you watch the series as long as we did—which is to say not the complete series, but enough to, at the advent of season 7, make a lunge for the failed spin-off Rhoda (an unkind alternate reality, in which Rhoda, having moved from Minna back to NYC, ends up in a “Leghorns”/“Bickersons" situation with a flawed hubby, her sack-of-sad sister pulling always at her bell sleeve) and then give up, regretting—it might take you a beat to realize, to understand, that despite the many circumstances of the program (career, romance, budding feminism, mothers, etc.) it is really only ever about friendship, and how it is saying: we just at the last must listen and be kind to one another. Because it vivifies “being” to do so!
It is a sitcom, we understand. But I choose to read into it some great heart, because what or who does that harm?
All the while watching MTM it was essentially ironic that I was so in love with Mary's modern working world while I myself was unemployed, with a newly finished novel I worried would end up in a drawer. "In a drawer" = professional and domestic at once, an intimate hiding place, shameful. Perhaps “ironic” in situation, but emotionally: “correct.”
I experienced Mary as humble life model. Mary who had the worst days, threw awful parties, accidentally let secrets slip, sobbed ugly like a low-rent clown: even she like any being who sleeps could rise in the morning and dress and find good things in the world despite the pitfalls of yesterday.
O, bless the episode!
You are always reminding me to view difficulty and failure as evolutionary components. You are saying, I know it doesn't seem that way now, but it will. It is something my folks have been offering for years. But I can take it so much better from you.
Lana del Rey’s project is not about friendship, which is maybe why it vibrates me on a lower, lesser channel. It is about the individual, at war and in love with the knitting of sex and the body and Romance.
You say you are the existentialist between the two of us, but I would disagree: we are both interested in the ultimate collapsing singularity of “being,” but also the noise of the collective. Icons! Books! Movies! TV! It comes down to friendship, and the way that connection interacts with artmaking.
That’s how we’re both not Mersault, even though we love The Stranger.
When I first met my husband I marveled: you were in the world the whole time! I just didn't know it yet! What beauty and randomness brought us to an evolution of partner intimacy! What is love but the enjoyment of happenstance, and holding fast to its fruit.
I must restrict this potency for partnership, but: friendship is its own backward-and-forward facing beauty. Sometimes I am a good friend and sometimes I am a less good friend but I always value friendship. It is no surprise I love Mary Richards and her indefatigable gang!
Mary and Rhoda and Lou and Ted and Murray and Phyllis and Georgette: they perform a destiny of intimacy because the origin point of the program is this wrangle. As seasons and seasons pass they grow together like surfaced roots. They have so many seasons to work on friendship. It is their raison de’histoire, forever, broadcast and captured and streaming video in perpetuity.
In real life friendship is not quite like that, i.e. the relentless mobility of humans, i.e. me moving to Chicago just as I we sealed into a real pal closeness. You have a lot of long distance friendships and so do I. Oh why must we have cars and legs!
Identically the MTM cast has the privilege of being a bunch of legless potatoes. Until Rhoda sprouts ill advised eyes. Roots. Legs. Whatever. And moves to her NYC doom to be cancelled.
Mary Tyler Moore without Rhoda was bereft, too. O' those episodes. They were sodden, gears skipping in her absence, the chum!
Eventually, beyond the purview of either lady-named show, Rhoda and Mary have a fight, and lose touch for almost-good. It is deep and sonorous yet casual heartbreak to learn this.
A perfect silhouette cannot be satisfying, even in a formula/episode manner. For its pain MTM works, and for its failure.
A friend is an icon, I’d tell Lana, inasmuch a closeness comes from admiration. But you and I, we try I think both of us to take on and acquire and become ourselves icons, if an icon is a shortcut to a pleasing brave and productive life: a substantial forward moving adventure.
In January came my first trip back to the Mitten. I stayed at yours, in the office that doubles for your daughter's sister's room when she visits. It is all pink-affected and girlhood exotica (or do I just think of it as "pink") and half icons: Warhol, Moss, the kind of pool and party tableaus you could fall into, cartoons drawn by friends of yours, a small stack of books that includes Greene's The End of the Affair, (the self same copy with which I began reading last summer, only to finish it in electronic form on a dock on a lake outside Traverse City on my accidental honeymoon when between apartments and cities.)
Later in your finished basement on parent-plush couches we settled to watch Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern Have a Really Depressing Reunion. It was a TV movie broadcast in the nineties: Rhoda is divorced and Mary newly widowed; their daughters are unruly; they are unknown to each other having fallen out of touch for so long. The world around them is tabloid fast and tabloid bright and tabloid rude. They are hucking their old lady bodies to make something sustainable. They are only 60 but seem in their hand jitters 80, at least psychically. The young do not respect their elders yet still Mary and Rhoda must understand lives made newly in grief, made outmoded, and how to continue. And though they do end up living together by movie's end, the reunion is somehow not central to "friendship." There are too many Issues, not enough episodes. We are bereft of icons but also the real. Mary signals some moralist ethical victory and Rhoda one of headstrong independent freedom. But the center is not "each other" but "headline." And a headline is empty w/o sincere context. I finished the drink I had fixed in your kitchen. We went to our respective rooms to sleep, make guttural noises at the back of our throats, in distaste.
The next day we tried to explain to our husbands why it was so terrible but I think we got caught on how dated it was. It was too un-fun and too sad to not just make fun. We are young women yet! And self-reflexive as fuck.