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Seeing Yourself

It's a neat coincidence that the day a set of remarkably un-diverse Oscar nominations were announced, and the week Eddie Huang threw a bit of a call-out bomb, and a couple of days before we saw Selma, Andy and I finished a three-day binge-watch of Transparent.

I didn't know much about the show, and what I did now had mostly to do with its A-plot premise, an older person's gender transition and the story of how she comes out to her family and how they respond. None of that is particularly relatable to me, but relatability isn't something I intentionally seek out in stories - often it's the opposite - and a well-told story is usually well-told because it creates relatability out of utterly unrelatable situations or characters. So the fact that the family in question is a Jewish one, made up of two divorced parents and their secular-ish Southern California-raised adult children was a mild surprise. The bigger surprise was how intensely familiar that family was to me, right down to the architecture and floor plan of the family home, and how much that familiarity meant to me. It sent me scrambling, actually, mentally collecting details that I had filed under "My Family (On My Dad's Side)" and hastily moving them over to "California Jews," the shorthand Andy always used for my Dad's family and I never fully bought into until it was reflected back to me by a totally (okay, mostly) fictional family. I can't quite point to specifics (beyond that house, oh my god that house) just a gut feeling of recognition and understanding.

And the realization that something you always thought of as sui generis, your own particular weirdo thing, is actually a capital-T Thing - that not-aloneness - is something I can't recall ever experiencing in such a bone-deep way. This despite the fact that I'm so disconnected from my California Jewishness that I probably haven't mentioned it once here since way back in 2005, when my California Jewish grandmother died. A lot of what I know about Jewishness wasn't inherited, it was learned - a series of children's books here, living in a partly-Hasidic neighborhood there - and I'm reluctant at times to even claim the identity in any real way. I like to tell people the story about the time I went to a Catholic school's trivia night fundraiser and mopped the floor with the rest of the room in the category of 'Yiddish Vocabulary,' joking that I'd never felt more Jewish in my life. The truth, though, is that of the ten questions, I could only answer one based on something I learned growing up as a kid. The rest came from a random book I happened to read, more as a hobby sociolinguist than a Jew.*

So it's real easy for me right now to understand why such a seemingly-trivial thing like "Are The Oscar Nominations Diverse Enough?" can matter profoundly to a person, even though it won't save someone getting killed by a cop, or erase the household wealth disparity. Because stories are important to us. We narrativize everything** in part to make meaning out of the unpredictable chaos of our lives, and use shared stories as a way to talk about ourselves with each other. And if nobody is telling your story - your lived experience of whatever it is that makes you feel like you - people who are not-you lose out on a way to understand you, and you lose a way to tell people about yourself. Having stories and characters to identify with feels like a flimsy thing, hard to give much weight and easy to write off, and I've certainly been guilty of rolling my eyes at "I'm such a Carrie Bradshaw!"-type comments, but it's powerful. I knew that before, I guess. I read The Celluloid Closet, even! But oh, that house. I remember that house in my body, and arguments over a funeral deli order, too, and how guilt-laden simple expressions of love can be, and that's only just the tiniest bit of who I am but it means so so much. I don't generally feel invisible, like there are no mirrors that show my reflection, but if I did? If I didn't have any other stories to point to to help tell the story of who I am? That shock of realization would have laid me out instead of just taking up residence in a corner of my head long enough to simmer into a blog post. Yes, it matters.

* The story of how I learned that one word is a gem of a memory. My grandmother's partner Hank was someone I adored growing up - smart, funny, mean, a poet, interested in everything - and he was driving me around one day in his giant van when another driver cut him off. He leaned on the horn perfunctorily and yelled "Schmuck!" and I asked from the passenger seat, "What's a schmuck, Hank?" I don't know how old I was, but I was definitely so short my feet didn't reach the floor of the van. "It's a penis, honey," he said mildly, already over the brief moment of anger.
** Dude, sports.  Sports is just a framework for storytelling - set up some constraints and see how many variants on the same story we can spin out of it. How many stories can we get? Infinity, that's how many.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
clevernonsense
Jan. 21st, 2015 11:33 pm (UTC)
Oh god, this: “America ain’t three fifths bad.” #Compromise
ayun
Jan. 22nd, 2015 01:08 pm (UTC)
Right? Made me more interested in the show than I ever would have been, even though it's aggressively pointing out how much of a failure the show probably is.
clevernonsense
Jan. 22nd, 2015 03:41 pm (UTC)
Yeah I feel the same way. I wonder if he was able to salvage much (disclosure: I immediately stopped at that quote to post it here because it was so great, then got sidetracked and never finished the article).
ayun
Jan. 22nd, 2015 04:31 pm (UTC)
If you never get around to the rest of the article, here's a spoiler: He feels like on-balance, yeah, it's a good thing, and there's a moment at the tail end of the pilot that he seems to be unreservedly proud of. Only he says it way funnier than I did.
ma_ee_uh
Jan. 22nd, 2015 12:31 am (UTC)
Ooh, enjoyed reading this (and now I am going to give Transparent a try, asap ... )
ayun
Jan. 22nd, 2015 04:50 pm (UTC)
It's a good show, which I don't think I actually mentioned anywhere!
ma_ee_uh
Jan. 22nd, 2015 05:00 pm (UTC)
It was heavily implied! :D
herself_nyc
Jan. 25th, 2015 07:16 am (UTC)
Wonderful post.
jasonlizard
Feb. 3rd, 2015 03:15 am (UTC)
Yes, stories are important to us. I love it when you get into a groove and tell yours. Like this. It was a great read with nice observations.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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