Sunday, December 5, 2010

Vanity, thy name is (not) Lucy

Ethel: When you chew with that beard on, you look just like a billy goat.
Lucy: Nobody but a nanny goat would notice it.

None of us are completely without vanity. Even if I'm in such a rush that I leave the house in pajamas, I still manage to dab on concealer and curl my eyelashes. My mother, who's always felt that she's too short (at 5 foot 5), refuses to wear slippers without heels.

We all know Lucy was vain to a certain degree, as this all-too-human trait produced countless great moments in comedy: Lucy disguising herself as member of the chorus line at the Tropicana to spy on Ricky and and a seductive girl dancer; Lucy dressing up in an evening gown and full makeup to serve a seemingly disinterested Ricky breakfast; Lucy overspending on countless dresses/hats/etc.

Despite these examples, Lucy was always willing to sacrifice vanity for the sake of some greater purpose, a rare and valuable quality.

In Episode 89, "Lucy is Envious," Lucy (and, of course, Ethel) dress up as Martians and invade the top of the Empire State Building as part of a publicity stunt. The payoff? 500 bucks, which happens to be precisely the amount of cash Lucy accidentally donated to her snooty ex-schoolmate's charity (she thought she was pledging $5). The Martian costumes were far from flattering, but who cared? Not Lucy. Nor did she balk when Episode 79, "The Million-Dollar Idea," required her to take on the persona of a slurring, unkempt old woman disgusted by Aunt Martha's Old-Fashioned Salad Dressing ("What'sh Aunt Martha tryin' to do, poison me?").

Even less-flattering than the Martian outfits was the long white beard Lucy affixed to her face with spirit gum in Episode 23, "The Moustache." A visual protest of Ricky's new moustache, the billy goat beard didn't come off as easily as it was supposed to. It did, however, inspire Ricky to shave (and won Lucy an offer to play Ricky's father in a movie). But as memorable an image Lucy-The-Bearded-Lady may be, I do believe my favorite Portrait of a Lucy will forever remain her star turn as Queen of the Gypsies in Episode 38, "The Operetta." Far from the charming ingenue role one might expect Lucy to snatch in her self-penned play for The Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League, the Queen of the Gypsies was a snaggle-toothed, tambourine-carrying hag...who naturally stole the show.

It's a difficult thing for a woman to do, to deny The Beauty Myth its power. "It's a duty to be beautiful," we are raised to believe, when the truth is our only duty is to be ourselves: Some days a stunner, other days a stooge.

I have a naturally expressive face, I've been told. This rather cartoonish trait is not something I developed on purpose, it's just the way I've always been. So I was rather dumbfounded when, several Christmases ago, an older male relative took me aside to give me the following advice:
"You have a beautiful, classic profile," he said. "But when you make those big expressions, you don't look as beautiful. You should try to keep your face more...still."
He was a senior citizen and it was the holidays and I knew he meant no harm, so I just said "Thank you, that's very helpful" or something like that and walked away. At first, I wasn't sure how I should feel - embarrassed? Indignant? Repentant? No matter what I was feeling, I guessed I wasn't supposed to show it.

Salvation came courtesy of Lucy, as ever. Watching my idol on TV later that week, I asked myself a question. What would have happened if Lucy had "kept her face still?" Not much of anything, I realized - certainly nothing funny.

I'd rather look overly-animated than live an underly-animated life.

Making faces: It's what Lucy would do.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

She's never early, she's always late

Ricky: Lucy, you haven’t even got your dress on yet. You were supposed to be ready an hour ago.

Lucy: Well, it’s all your fault.

Ricky: My fault?

Lucy: Yes. I wasted an hour telling you I’d be ready in a minute.

I’ve been running late since the day I was born, literally: I arrived two weeks past my due date. My life since has been a bleary blur of sleeping through alarms, sheepishly asking for late passes and hurriedly applying make-up at stoplights. I’ve tiptoed into weddings just in time to see the couple pronounced man and wife, I’ve missed the first acts of countless plays, I’ve arrived at birthday parties after the candles were blown out. In the process, I’ve irritated friends, family, bosses, co-workers, doctors, hairdressers…the list goes on. Those who’ve known me for a considerable length of time have learned to say “Meet me at 2:30” when they want me at 3 o’clock.

It’s a sickness of sorts, and my beloved Lucy was likewise afflicted. In Episode #33, “Lucy’s Schedule,” Mr. And Mrs. Ricardo miss an important dinner with Ricky’s new boss, Mr. Littlefield, because Lucy takes too long getting dressed.

Furious, Ricky decides to put Lucy on a strict timeline. “I’m making out a schedule so you can budget your time,” he says. “Budget my time?” asks Lucy. “Like I budget my money?” (“Heaven forbid!” says Ricky.) His plan is to ask Mr. Littlefield and his wife over for dinner, where he’ll be able to show off how he turned his tardy wife into a timely wonder. Unfortunately for Ricky, Mrs. Littlefield tips Lucy off ahead of time in a spirit of sisterly solidarity, revealing that she and her husband were invited to “watch her perform.”

And perform she does, with the help of Ethel and Mrs. Littlefield, staging a meal so speedy that no one can finish a course or a conversation. (My favorite moment: Ethel throwing biscuits from the kitchen to the dining room instead of carrying them.)

Ricky should’ve known better than to try to change Lucy’s stripes, as his previous attempts consistently backfired. But while not every punctually-challenged person is as stubborn or willful as Lucy, I’m not sure any of us can be reformed.

I once heard Dr. Phil say that people who have a problem with being on time are “arrogant” by nature because they don’t consider how their actions affect others. I vehemently disagree with this theory. When I’m late for something, say, a dentist’s appointment, it’s not like I breeze obliviously into the office and expect a warm, accommodating welcome. On the contrary, I spend the drive to the dentist sweating and cursing at stoplights and start apologizing profusely the second I burst through the door. I’m aware of the fact that people are negatively impacted by my delinquent arrival, and I feel horrible about it. Still, the pattern is firmly in place: First, the clock magically speeds itself up when I’m not looking. Then, once I take notice of the time, I enter into a sort of panic-induced paralysis. The floors turn into quicksand, my eyes glaze over and all I can hear in my head is the tick, tick, tick of the mounting minutes.

I imagine this is what Lucy felt standing at her closet door, contemplating what to wear to dinner with Mr. Littlefield. Ricky’s repeated nagging certainly didn’t help. While you might expect that telling someone to hurry up would make them, well, hurry up, in my experience it only adds to the immobilization.

So yes, Lucy was always late and it drove everyone around her nuts and I undoubtedly drive everyone around me nuts. Ironically, I think it was Lucille Ball (off-camera) who offered the most pragmatic take on this type of inherent personality flaw. “I think knowing what you cannot do is more important than knowing what you can,” she said.

It sounds counterintuitive, to plan life around your limitations – but at the same time, it makes more sense than anything else.

Most importantly, it’s what Lucy would do.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Travel Insecurity

Train Conductor: Ma’am, did you stop this train by pulling that handle?

Lucy: Well, I didn’t do it by dragging my foot.

The current controversy over intrusive airport pat-downs and full-body scans that could double as X-ray porn has me wondering: How would Lucy handle traveling today? The methods of regulation are more high-tech now than they were in the '50's, of course, and I assume the "security agents" of Lucy's time were more polite than most of the "Respect My Authority!" power-trippers I've encountered en voyage. Still, I suspect Mrs. Ricardo would have found a way to fly the un-friendly skies without compromising her own agenda.

Indeed, Lucy knew better than to let a little red tape ruin her travels. In Episode 153, “Return Home from Europe,” Ricky tries to discourage Lucy from taking home 25 pounds of rare Italian cheese on the plane, worried they’ll be charged for the extra weight. Figuring babies travel for free, Lucy secretly decides to disguise the enormous cheese as her infant, blanket and all. Not until Lucy and Ethel are on the flight do they find out that babies do not, in fact, fly free of charge; whether the bundle in Lucy’s arms is cheese or child, it’ll cost them...unless, that is, the pair can manage to eat most of the smuggled snack before the plane lands. So what if a horrified fellow passenger ended up mistaking Lucy for a baby-eating cannibal? She never did have to pay for the damn cheese.

Not that Lucy always successfully sidestepped protocol. The guards at the border of Italy and France posed more of a challenge than any cheese-sniffing stewardesses (calm down, it's okay to say "stewardess" in a retro kind of way). In Episode 151, "Lucy's Bicycle Trip," a misplaced passport keeps Lucy stuck in Italy while Ricky, Ethel and Fred pedal their way into France. Lucy pleads with the guard as she waits for the rest of her crew to bike all the way to Nice (where she thinks her passport is packed in a trunk) and back, but the Italian official is unmoved: "You gotta have-a you pass-a-port!" Lucy realizes the passport is in her backpack just several feet away on the other side of the border, but still the guard refuses to let her pass. Even disguising herself as a biker in a race doesn't work. She is forced to wait for hours until Ricky returns.

I usually prefer Lucy to outsmart whomever she needs to, but I'll admit that recalling this episode gave me great solace a few years ago when I was experiencing my own passport problems (namely that my kids' passports arrived a day after we were supposed to leave for Mexico). I tried my best, but the guys at JFK were unswayed by my tearful protestations: "How can a five-year-old and a ten-month-old be terrorists?" They didn't go for my indignant arguments, either: "Why would you punish my innocent children for the passport agency's mistake? My poor little girl is devastated!" (Cue high-pitched wail from child.) I switched to a calm, rational stance after the fifth time the large man in the uniform told me to lower my voice or else - "I understand you're just trying doing your job...would it help if I got someone from the agency on the phone who can explain what happened?" - but only the fellow travelers behind us in line were convinced. "Oh, just let them get on the plane!" a grandmotherly type yelled from the back. No dice. We had no choice but to reschedule our flight for two days later.

The only thing that made me feel better was the FOUR OUNCE bottle of hand lotion I managed to carry onboard undetected in the depths of my diaper bag.

A lesser triumph than the cheese-smuggling incident, but a victory Lucy would have appreciated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Be A Domestic Goddess (Or Just Look Like One)

Ricky: (Referring to the Ricardo’s apartment) It’s a regular pig-pen in here!

Lucy: It ain’t a regular one, but it’ll do.

Back in Lucy’s day, women were judged by the cleanliness of their home and the quality of their pot roast. I’m not too worried about anyone giving my apartment the white glove test or testing my bread-baking skills, but the pressure is still on: Whether it’s Martha Stewart telling me to vacuum my ceiling (seriously?) or Giada De Laurentiis implying that I'm a bad hostess for not stuffing and deep frying olives as appetizers for my guests, our society sends much the same message to women today.

Lucy was as interested in keeping up appearances as anybody, but she wasn't about to let the drudgery of housework get in the way of far more fascinating pursuits...particularly when there were shortcuts to be found. In Episode 178, "Lucy Raises Tulips," Lucy has her heart set on winning the Garden Club's prize for best-looking garden, an award nosy neighbor Betty Ramsay has won for the past three years. When a lawnmower gone mad destroys both Lucy and Betty's gardens right before judging time, Lucy simply repopulates the flower beds with wax tulips. Too bad about that noonday sun...

Back to the vile practice of judging women by their level of domestic prowess. Lucy thumbed her nose at the notion that performing menial tasks with a sense of obligatory zeal made a woman noble or worthy. None of that brainwashing was going to mess with her priorities. In Episode 25, "Pioneer Women," Lucy and Ethel want to join the Society Matron's League and fear that their dishpan hands will be a turn-off. Justifiably, they ask Ricky and Fred for dishwashers. Naturally, this kicks off a battle-of-the-sexes type contest (who can go without modern conveniences longest, the girls or boys?). This episode is probably best known for the 18-foot loaf of homemade bread which ends up bursting out of the Ricardos' oven, but one of my favorite moments was when Ethel disproved the "do-it-yourself and save money" myth by spending over $20 in her effort to churn one measly pat of butter.

I've had more experiences like this one than I care to admit (as their repetition suggests a stubborn streak I pretend not to have), but I finally learned my lesson trying to recreate an authentic Korean restaurant dish, japchae, at home. The main ingredients were cellophane noodles and very, very thinly julienned vegetables, the first of which I'd never cooked before, the second of which I'd never pulled off successfully. An hour or so into the project, the over-soaked noodles were spilling over every surface in my kitchen like so many gluey, transparent worms; thanks to the brand-new mandolin I didn't know how to use, blood was spattered on the floor and smeared on dishtowels.

Believe me when I tell you there's nothing like julienned fingers to cure you of culinary ambition.

Now, when asked to produce a challenging meal, I do what I believe Lucy would do...I order take-out. (And say I made it.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Here's to Good Friends...

Lucy: Oh gee, Ethel, thanks. It’s times like these you know what friends are really for.

Ethel: If I had known this was what friends were for, I’d have signed up as an enemy!

There’s no denying that Lucy’s friends went above and beyond the call of duty, time and again, for their unpredictable pal. But isn't that what true friendship requires of a person? Anyway, I would argue that everyone in Lucy’s circle – Ethel, Fred, Caroline Appleby, even Mrs. Trumbull – got back everything they gave and then some. For one thing, friendship with Lucy guaranteed constant entertainment. For another, the woman was as loyal as Ricky’s accent was thick. Why else would Ethel be willing to help her best buddy steal John Wayne’s footprints from outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater or agree to dress up like an alien on a NYC rooftop?

When trouble did arise in companionship paradise, Lucy and Co. didn’t stoop to sterilizing their emotions for the sake of a "rational" argument. It was full-on emotional warfare; a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Take Episode 69, "Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress." Set to perform a duet of Cole Porter's "Friendship" on television (television!), the pair unwittingly purchase the exact same gown to wear. When they figure out their mistake, both Lucy and Ethel graciously offer to return their dress to the store. Then they realize that to be truly fair, they should both return their gowns and start from scratch. Not until the cameras are rolling do the identically-dressed friends discover that neither has kept her promise. That's when the Girls Go Wild, abandoning their choreographed moves to rip up each others' costumes instead. (Ricky and Fred step in before anyone is actually stripped naked.)

Most conflict-resolution experts would probably find the above scenario unacceptable. But there were no grudges to be held afterward, no lingering resentments. Every shred of ill-will was left in a pile of tatters on the stage. The dresses were destroyed, but the relationship remained intact.

This is the stuff of lifelong camaraderie. My dearest friends are the ones who have seen me at my absolute worst and still (for some reason) stick around. And there's no better bonding experience than a high-stakes, adrenaline-filled misadventure. As I write this, I am flooded with memories of many such times. The only problem is, admitting to any of them would implicate whichever friend was involved, and, while I don't mind tarnishing my own reputation, I can't in good conscience trash any of my friends in a public forum.

Another mark of true friendship: Covering your pal's tracks when necessary. That's what Lucy would do.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whole-hearted, half-baked

Ricky: What's so bad with being a drummer?

Lucy: It's just not good enough for a son of mine.

Ricky: Well, it's good enough for a husband of yours.

Lucy: Well, that's different.

Ricky: How is that different?

Lucy: He's my flesh and blood. You're just a close relative.

Motherhood is tricky business, a thorny subject to dance around. As a mother of two who is frankly relieved if my kids are breathing at the end of every chaotic day, I don’t buy into the “perfect mother” myth. I suspect Lucy didn’t either. Unfortunately, we viewers don’t get to see the former Miss McGillicuddy up to her elbows in motherly dirty work: diaper changes, time-outs…those everyday chores existed only off-screen. This doesn’t really matter, though, because what we are privy to tells us everything we need to know about Lucy’s mothering style: Whole-hearted, if half-baked. (Just like me!)

In Episode 136, “Nursery School,” a nurse at the hospital where Little Ricky is getting his tonsils removed informs Lucy that she isn’t allowed to stay overnight with her son. As if! Lucy stuffs Little Ricky’s teddy bear under her coat, posing as an expectant mother, to get past the front door; once inside, she smartly snatches a nurse’s uniform. Needless to say, Little Ricky does not spend the night in his hospital room alone. Any mother – myself included – who has spent such a night “sleeping” in the pediatrics ward at her child’s bedside can relate to Lucy’s determination in this case.

True maternal grit is shown in Episode 163, “Little Ricky’s School Pageant.” Not every mother would fly across the stage of a grade school auditorium dressed as a witch to help her shy son remember his lines. Along “it takes a village” lines, Ethel, Fred and Ricky step up, too, playing a fairy princess, a frog, and a hollow tree, respectively. (If you ask me, Ricky gets off easy.)

For mothers today, one of the most relatable - almost prophetic - episodes about parenting was #157, "Little Ricky Learns to Play Drums." Long before over-scheduling kids with "enriching" activities became a trend, Lucy recognized the importance of encouraging children's interests and nurturing potential talent. Though she fantasizes about raising a future physician, Lucy is unabashedly supportive when Little Ricky decides he wants to play the drums. (Naturally, big Ricky is all for his son's career choice). In fact, both parents are so enthusiastic that they allow Little Ricky to play the same beat on his drum over and over and over again for four days straight. Eventually, everything they do is synced to Little Ricky's rhythm: Cracking eggs, scraping burnt toast, chewing. Downstairs, the Mertzes are likewise afflicted (even Ethel, trying to get Fred's attention, speaks in time: "Fred. Fred. Fred, Fred, Fred!"). Lucy and Ricky are as weary of the ceaseless beat as the rest of the building, but show appropriate parental indignation when the Mertzes complain. A fight of epic proportions ensues (and is comically resolved) but Lucy never wavers. Agonizingly repetitive as Little Ricky might be, she has no doubt her son is a musical genius.

I was reminded of this episode last night, at a restaurant where I was eating dinner with my mother, my five-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. It was one of those miraculous evenings when my children were oddly well-behaved, quietly reading and coloring at the table as we waited for our food. Sadly, the two moms seated at the table to our left were having a very different dining experience. Their five small charges were deep in the throes of pre-bedtime hyperactivity, popping under the table, running in circles, tossing ice cream and shrieking. It was significantly distracting, but I couldn't allow myself to be annoyed, knowing that my children have similarly irritated innocent restaurant patrons despite my best efforts to quiet them down. (Anyway, the rowdy group was already on dessert well before our entrees arrived.) As they walked by on their way out, one of the moms stopped at my table. "I'm so sorry about the noise," she said. "I don't know what got into them."

"Please, don't apologize," I said. "I've been there! Didn't bother us at all."

A lie, yes. But, more precisely, an example of simple parent-to-parent etiquette based on an unspoken rule of motherhood so perfectly illustrated by Lucy's defense of her little drummer boy: We are allowed to complain about our own children's actions, but should anyone else dare to voice their displeasure...! Unleash the redheaded dragon.

My daughter was about three when she threw a huge tantrum in the middle of our walk home from the park. I've since forgotten what she was so upset about, but I do remember with perfect clarity the high decibel screams coming out of her mouth. I was trying my hardest to calm my daughter down when two older ladies walked by, one of whom pointedly shook her head and covered her ears.

That's when I threw a little tantrum of my own. Am I proud of yelling obscenities at senior citizens in front of my preschooler on a public sidewalk? No. Would I do it again? Would Lucy? Oh yeah.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Climbing The Ladder of Success (No Matter Who Gets Knocked off)

Ethel: There are a lot of things you’re good at.

Lucy: Like what?

Ethel: Well, you’re awfully good at…uh…you’ve always been great at…

Lucy: Those are the same ones Ricky came up with.

Poor Lucy. Her problem wasn’t a lack of aptitude, it was an overabundance of talent – and nowhere to put it.

Cast in the role of wife and mother, Lucy dreamed of becoming a star in her own right. In Episode 65, “Ricky’s Life Story,” Lucy explained to Ricky: “It’s only because of Little Ricky that I want to get my break in show business...when he goes to school and his playmates ask who his parents are, just what is he going to have to say? ‘My father is Ricky Ricardo, the internationally known entertainer. And then there’s my mother, whose name escapes me for the moment.’”

Lucy was looking for much more than fame, she was searching for validation outside of the domestic sphere, something women today – even those straddling both career and motherhood – still struggle to find. (If that line of thinking sounds antiquated to you, consider the fact that as recently as 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that women made only 75.5 cents to every man’s dollar.)

A little recognition, that’s all we want. Lucy’s top career choice may have been show biz, but that didn’t stop her from throwing herself into a staggering array of unrelated enterprises, from salad dressing manufacturer to butcher to Vitameatavegamin spokeswoman to, perhaps most famously, chocolate factory worker. No matter what job she wanted, she never let trivial things like experience get in her way.

I get it. When I was a young and struggling actress frustrated at being shut out from major film auditions (one required a heavy-hitting agent to line those up), what did I do? Used my mother as a temporary “Ethel” and invented a non-existent talent agency. Am I a star? No. Did I almost get to be in a movie with Brad Pitt? Yes. (But I try not to think about it.) It's common practice on a variety of levels, whether you're a teenager writing your best friend's name down under "Most Recent Employer" on your first job application or a mid-level executive bluffing your way through the latest software ("Sure, I'm familiar with that program.").

Lucy knew she had potential. Most of us suspect the same of ourselves. But what set Lucy apart was how far she was willing to go to prove it - no matter what (or who) stood in her way.

Consider the many, many occasions on which Ricky attempted to keep his wife in the wings. Not only did Lucy always find some way into the show, she usually managed to upstage Ricky in the process. In the aforementioned episode, "Ricky's Life Story," Lucy is enraged to find that Ricky has tricked her into gratefully accepting a silent role in his routine (sitting on a balcony, holding a rose in her teeth while he serenades her with "Lady of Spain."). She keeps quiet, all right...but hams it up for the audience performing magic tricks whenever Ricky turns his back. A stellar show-stealer, that Lucy.

And so, on days when I'm feeling a little low on mojo, I remember Lucy with that rose between her teeth and think: This show is mine for the stealing.

I encourage you to do the same.