seminal american girls part three: blair, jo, natalie, and tootie

I was eight when the show began and we were living in Missouri. I don’t think I knew about it then. We moved to Taiwan the next year, so I wouldn’t have heard about it for three years. In 1983, when we came back, I was 12, and somehow I knew that it existed and that it was my favorite show. Maybe I saw re-runs in California at my grandparents house. And then we moved to Nevada and got two channels: ABC and CBS, but not NBC.

When we moved to California in 1986, I finally got to see it, the last gasp of first-run episodes, but, more importantly, every weekday at 5 and 5:30, there were reruns on channel 11. Yes. I spent high school catching up on 7 years of The Facts of Life.

Okay, they might not really be seminal American girls for everyone, but for a certain age-span of Gen-X folks, we knew who they were. Even my spouse, 6 years older than I and a cishet male, offhandedly says, “Natalie was my favorite” (that might be one of my favorite things about him). When I was getting to know one of my good guy friends who is 7 years younger than I, we spent a 5 hour road trip talking about The Facts of Life and other 80s television. There is just something about it. Even though it isn’t “great” television, it went deeper than some of the sitcoms of its time. The friendship between Jo and Blair is rich and funny and poignant. Natalie and Tootie are more than just stereotypes. And they tackled difficult topics. Maybe too much so. It can sometimes feel like every episode is a “very special episode,” but they went there. And it’s not overly sexualized, something that disappointed me recently when I tried to watch the first season of Family Ties.

Also, The Facts of Life had George Clooney when he was a baby. He was so cute. (In the same era, he also played an EMT on a sitcom called E/R about an emergency room and starring Elliot Gould. The fact that this isn’t mentioned every time someone mentions ER the drama astounds me.)

As a raised-evangelical kid, there was also the added bonus that Lisa Whelchel was a committed Christian. We could look up to her. I even went to a concert once. Jo was my favorite, but I loved Blair, too. I’ve shared the DVDs of the first few seasons with my daughter. She got bored when Blair and Jo went to college, but she did enjoy them. She does not get my love for Blair. (Though we did watch the Lisa Whelchel Survivor season together. She got that.)

I have been trying to exercise and needed some extra podcasts. It occurred to me that someone might possibly be making a Facts of Life podcast, because that’s what people do in 2020. There are, in fact, two Facts of Life podcasts. So I have been listening to The Facts of Facts with Dominik (an expert) and Britt (a newbie) watching each episode and commenting on them. Britt, watching with a 20-teens eye, is pretty hard on the show. I have also been listening to Let’s Face the Facts where David invites a friend over each week to watch an episode with him and talk about it after. David and his friends tend to love the show and they are gentler about it. I have a preference for the gentler take (because I love this show with all my heart), but I enjoy both of them. While the Facts of Life is family friendly, neither podcast is.

I haven’t mentioned Mrs. Garrett, but she was the glue that held the show together. I was very disturbed when she left. Mrs. G. was the heart of the show. I liked it fine with Chloris Leachman, but it was a different show by then.

There was a moment in the 80s when shows about 4 women were a thing. The young women were The Facts of Life, the middle-aged ones were the Designing Women, and the older ones were, of course, The Golden Girls (who weren’t really very old). I have a theory that somewhere in our American subconscious lies Little Women and every time we gather 4 women together, they are a version of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (with the Beth character varying more than the others). In The Facts of Life it’s almost obvious: Blair/Meg (care about looks and fine things, domestic when it comes down to it), Jo/Jo (duh), Natalie/Beth (she is the sort of odd one out, though Nat is not shy and she doesn’t die), and Tootie/Amy (always sad about being younger and left out, draws attention to herself). In Designing Women it lines up as well: Julia is a Meg, Mary Jo is a Jo (and there’s that name again), Charlene is more Beth than any of the other Beths, and Suzanne is totally Amy. Golden Girls doesn’t work quite so well, but I offer Blanche as Meg, Dorothy as Jo, Rose as Beth, and Sophia as Amy (she has reverted from oldest to youngest).

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the good place and me

I don’t have a ton to say. Linda Holmes has a really nice wrap-up piece at npr.org. I’m just enjoying the end of a journey. I haven’t anticipated a finale this much since Lost, and this was more satisfying (I’m not bagging on the Lost finale. I actually liked it. But this was special.) So here are a few thoughts.

I heard about The Good Place from the beginning. People seemed to like this show where Kristin Bell finds herself in heaven but realizes she doesn’t belong there and has to try to hide it. I didn’t start watching it until the first season was on Netflix. I gave it a try in the background. I wasn’t so sure about it. I didn’t love the characters and the gimmicks didn’t always land for me. And then I got to episode 4 and it all clicked. It was soooo good. I was so intrigued. Here was a show discussing moral philosophy with super quirky and hilarious characters. And then I got to the season finale and I was floored.

I have enjoyed all the places it has gone, and all the character development it has done. It’s been an amazing show. I really appreciate Michael Schur’s basic optimism about the world and the idea that we can change and grow. I liked it with Andy and April on the first seasons of Parks & Rec (which I need to go back and finish; it got lost in the shuffle when I was watching almost no TV, but I think the kids will enjoy it now), and I appreciate it with all the characters on this show. This is an entire series about hope and redemption for even the most unlikely characters. It’s pretty amazing.

Last semester I was looking for something to watch for an essay for my students, and one of them suggested The Good Place. I don’t know if it was the right call or not, but we watched 4 episodes and students wrote about those 4 or about more if they had been watching it. It was fun to talk about as a class, though we did work hard not to spoil it, so there was a lot we couldn’t say.

A couple months ago, my daughter (12) and I were talking about it, and she was intrigued, and I’d been telling my spouse he should watch it for a long time (and he’d heard various things about it), so the three of us started watching it. And then my son (10) decided he wanted in on it and so we started over and he LOVED it. It’s his favorite show. Fortunately it’s limited in length and number of episodes, and we had some holidays, so we were able to get through the whole thing in time to watch the last couple episodes as they came out.

We let the kinds stay up last night and we watched the finale together. It was fun to share it with the family (and not watch it this morning alone). Nobody said much, but we thoroughly enjoyed all the call backs to old episodes (which we’ve seen in the last 6 weeks or so), and the spouse and I enjoyed the cameos and other cultural references.

The Good Place has been more than just a fun romp. It has been a thoughtful fun romp. Sharing it with my family and having them love it has been an added bonus, something that has brought us altogether in a way culture usually doesn’t (the girl barely puts up with Star Wars; the boy whines about things like Little Women, the spouse is really not into Harry Potter, etc.) It’s been A Good Place for us to visit together.

For the record, I surprised myself by not crying until the toasts at the end of the cast gathering after the episode. I cry at everything. This just felt good and right. It did not feel emotionally manipulative at all. As each character made their choice, I was touched, but I was not devastated. (Not that I couldn’t have cried. I cried at the season 3 finale. I just wasn’t in that state last night.)

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seminal (north) american girls part 2: anne shirley

I’ve been meaning to write this post about Anne, but on Thursday, my friend in England messaged me that she and her daughter has just finished watching Anne with an E and she and I had a conversation about why we loved it, so I had an added impetus to think about this.

Obvisouly, I’m using the continent not the country. Anne is purely Canadian.

The funny thing for me about Anne is that I never read the books as a kid. I didn’t even know about them (or I’m certain I would have read them). I read other Canadian books (Jean Little is more obscure, but I knew all her books). Somehow no one ever handed me Anne of Green Gables. Until… I was in my credential year after I’d graduated with my B.A. and the single women slightly older than I were obsessed with the Kevin Sullivan mini series. This was circa 1993/4, so the 1985 mini series was almost a decade old, but we had VHS! I watched it and was enchanted. These books were some of what brought me together with the women who became my very closest friends (including the one messaging me from England last week and the one who reads my blog).

And so, as a young adult, I read (devoured) all of the Anne of Green Gables books. I loved all of them. I read them and read them again. I have a special fondness for Anne of Windy Poplars (I had a nightmare class my first year teaching and Anne’s struggles with the Pringles were comforting in a solidarity kind of way) and Anne’s House of Dreams. I was waiting for my Professor Bhaer, not for my Gilbert Blythe (as much as I adore him), but I love the book nevertheless.

A couple years later, my mom and I took a pilgrimage to my idolized authors. We went to New York and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where Madeleine L’Engle was librarian for many years and two of my favorite books of hers were set (The Young Unicorns and A Severed Wasp). We went from there to Concord, Massachusetts and Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott (my mom’s favorite of the places). Finally, we took a ferry from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island and explored the haunts of L.M. Montgomery and Anne. We also got to see the long-running Anne of Green Gables musical in PEI. It is delightful. The trip was a magical adventure for me.

I watched the mini-series over and over. (I loved the first one, liked the second one, and have refused to watch the subsequent ones.)

I read the books with my daughter when she was old enough (probably barely old enough), but she has read them all and re-read some of them. I kind of love that I got to encounter something as special as these new as an adult, but I also love that my daughter has gotten to love them from the beginning.

In the last few years, there seems to have been a new interest in the Anne story. There has been a new PBS series of films starring Martin Sheen as Matthew and Sara Botsford as Marilla. They are fine, but unexciting. I love the actors (I came across the Canadian series E.N.T. starring Sara Botsford when I was in college, so I am super fond of her, and she actually has a minor role in The West Wing as Leo McGarry’s wife and then ex-wife), but somehow they don’t have the charm of the Kevin Sullivan film or the thoughtfulness of the Netflix series.

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That brings me to Anne with an E. It is so good. In some ways it reminds me of the Little House on the Prairie television series from the 70s and 80s. It takes the characters and ideas from the books and tells stories that fit our modern sensibilities. But it really does stay true to the spirit (soul) of the books. It is a beautiful series and takes its ideas of adaptation very seriously. Even when it goes off book, it finds ways to include moments from the books in the story-telling (e.g. Anne makes the liniment cake for the fair instead of for the Allens). It is achingly beautiful in the same way the books are. I have really enjoyed it. The third season is evidently its last, and I am okay with where it has ended. SPOILER ALERT: If we get to keep it like this, Gilbert and Anne get together but Matthew doesn’t have to die. It’s perfect.

As I said in my last post, I love Jo March. I always have. I am Jo March. I was waiting for my Professor Bhaer (and pretty much found him). I will always be Jo. As a kid I read Little Women et al over and over again. But as an adult, it is the Anne books I return to. Maybe she would have been my ideal if I had read her sooner. I don’t know. Maybe she just touches me in womanhood as Jo touched me in childhood. I don’t know. But it is Anne to whom I turn in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep.

And as someone who has chosen and become intimately involved in the Presbyterian church as an adult (later than my first foray into Anne of Green Gables), I find myself fascinated with the theology expressed in the books, in the background in the first few, but much more foregrounded in the later ones. (Montgomery’s spouse was a Presbyterian Pastor.) There is a somewhat comical Presbyterian vs. Methodist theme in the later books, but they also discuss church union (which did happen in Canada) and ideas such as women ministers (which Methodists had at the time and Presbyterians didn’t, but Montgomery seemed to be on the side of yea). There are deep theological conversations that are quite beautiful.

So. I’m kind of sad I missed Anne as a child, but I am glad to have known her as I grew up with her in young adulthood and beyond. There are more adult Anne books than childhood. I love every version of her I have seen. She is memorable, but more than just memorable. There is a richness and vibrancy in her story that wears well.

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seminal american girls part 1 little women

I grew up on Little Women (and Good Wives (my copies were separate) and Little Men and Jo’s Boys and 8 Cousins and The Aunt Hill and Rose in Bloom, all the books I could find by Louisa May Alcott). I read them all, but the ones I read and re-read were the ones about Jo. I rarely argue with an author’s choices, and I never questioned that Jo was right to reject Laurie and that he and Amy were perfect for each other. I also loved Beth with my whole heart because Jo loved Beth, so I don’t understand the people who think Beth is meh. I read Little Women with my daughter and she loved it too. I think she read Little Men and gave Jo’s Boys a good try (she was younger than I was when I first read it, I’m sure).

[DVD] Little Women (1933) Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett *NEW
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I had seen the Katharine Hepburn version and the June Allyson one (sometime when they came on TV). In 1994 I was in exactly the right place for the Gillian Armstrong directed Little Women. I was a first-year teacher feeling a little alone in the world. Winona Ryder’s grown-up Jo drew me in, and I loved Gabriel Byrne’s Professor Bhaer. I also missed some of the things that were left out (of course!). It emphasized the transcendental connection and minimized the ideas of faith on which the novel is built. I thought it was an interesting choice and made sense in the mid-90s, but I wondered if there were room for both.

Little women (Dvd), Movies

I had always heard about the 1978 mini-series (when I would read about Susan Dey in her LA Law days), and so I found a DVD copy of it and my daughter and I watched it. It’s not good, but it was super fun to see this 1970s version with great television actresses and James T. Kirk as Professor Bhaer!?! We also watched the Masterpiece/BBC version that came out in 2018. It seems a little odd to have a BBC production of this seminal American story. It was fine, kind of unmemorable.

And that brings us to the current film. I have been super excited about this film. I watched the trailer, read the reviews. I knew the conceit of time periods. I may have done myself a disservice by suggesting we take my mother-in-law to it for her birthday. She countered by suggesting the Mr. Rogers movie and I expressed my concerns from the reviews I had read about that not being appropriate for the 10-year-old, so we did Little Women. So I had the burden of not just having chosen the movie, but chosen it over the one she really wanted to see. So I was concerned about how everyone else was doing during the movie (and there was a wholly legitimate issue with the theater and my FIL and we were too close and it was making him ill and he was loud about that and I probably should have just waited and taken my girl when we got home.)

Image result for little women films

So, given that it wasn’t my best movie-going experience, I still liked the film a lot. As all the reviews I’ve seen have said, it is an excellent movie. It is imaginative and very well-made. It captures the spirit of the girls, gives us a lens into each of them (not just Jo). It includes lots of moments from the book even as it rearranges them into this different narrative style. Like Kristin, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I hadn’t heard all the hype. Unlike Kristin, I’m not sure what I think about knowing about the time jumps going in. I think I would like to have discovered that. I like to think I would have thought it was clever. I think it was a good storytelling device, letting past events illuminate present ones. I think it gives us a glimpse into the world of Louisa May Alcott that is hinted at in the books. I always like Jo and the Professor, so I’m not sure what I think of the ambiguous ending, but I also like the idea of having more models of “you don’t have to be half of a couple to be a whole person.” I can live with it. I continue to think that it is an excellent movie; I’m just not sure it is my Little Women. And if it gives people joy and a look at a book I love, it doesn’t have to be my Little Women.

Now I want to watch both the 1994 version and this one again. Either quietly by myself, or with just my daughter. Then I might be able to take it in a little more.

My last thought: I like the actors, and I think this may be the physically best Jo ever. She really isn’t traditionally beautiful in this film (and that’s one of my sticking points about a lot of films like Jane Eyre or A Wrinkle in Time) but I wondered about using 4 young women none of whom is American. (Emma Watson (Meg) was born in Paris to English parents and moved back to England at age 5 and is quite well known for an iconic role in a well-known series that famously hired no American actors because the characters are British; Soairse Ronan (Jo) was born in NY to Irish parents and moved back to Dublin at age 3; Eliza Scanlon (Beth) is Australian; and Florence Pugh (Amy) is British.) Are there no young American women who can play these 19th century roles? Are Americans too much “personalities?” Were there no unknown American actors or stage actors who could have carried this? The book is staunchly American. There’s a whole chapter about the Brits vs. the Americans and how the British Vaughns look down on Brooke and Meg, the American tudor and governess. I think actors should be able to play whatever parts they can, and I think they were excellent (and we are very fond of Emma Watson around here because Hermione is our favorite), but it still strikes me as an odd set of casting choices.

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decades

As people write about the decade, I have begun to think about it, too.

Each decade has been significant in my existence. My brother was born on the very last day of the 60s (a fact about which he is quite proud) and I was born a year and a half into the 70s. In the 70s, we were born in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We lived for 2 years in Japan. Then we settled in Missouri forever (forever lasted 4 whole years). In Missouri my parents were swept up in the Jesus Movement, were saved, and changed the trajectory of our lives.

In the 80s, we lived for 3 years in Taiwan, my parents teaching at a missionary school. We moved from there to 2 years in a teeny tiny town in Nevada (Jr. High for me). Then a year in Hawaii (9th grade) and on to California where I finished high school and began college in the fall of 1989 at the local UC. In Nevada we became baptists because it was the only “Christian” church in town.

In the 90s, I did college and became a teacher where I had gone to high school. I lived with roommates in college and different roommates after. At the end of the decade, I bought a cute little condo. I went to my parents little baptist church and then to a new church start, still Southern Baptist.

In the 2000s, I quit my life, moved across country, and went to graduate school. Then I met my spouse and moved back to California where I got married, gave birth to 2 children, and finished graduate school. I found a new home in the Presbyterian church (USA).

The 2010s are the first decade in my life where I haven’t moved. At all. Ever. Not even from one house to another in the same zip code. Every other decade I’ve moved at least twice, mostly much more than that, especially if one counts house moves and not just states/countries. I’ve had to learn how to stay instead of leave. My kids are 10 and 1/2 and almost 13, so the 2010s were about having small children, and then elementary school children, and finally tweens. I was re-finding myself. I began to work at the Presbyterian church. I taught a bit here and there. By the end of the decade I have found myself living into a dual calling as a pastor and a professor. I love both. They complement each other. I am grateful. It hasn’t been an easy time. The early years were lonely. The last two years have been full of sorrow. I am currently living out the difficulty of being in the sandwich generation. I am busier than is probably good for me. And yet. It’s been amazing. I am using gifts, and I am appreciated for the gifts I (my introverted bookish self) bring to the table.

I am curious what the 2020s will bring. It seems like it will be more of the same. I am, after all, in a very good place. However, given how each decade of my life has been so different, I have no idea what this one portends.

Cheers!

Selfie of me in a purple shirt with my gray hair.
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friday five: advent

Here’s the prompt: We’ve entered a season loaded with traditions that are personal/family and liturgical. What are five of your favorite things about this season of Advent/time of year?

  1. Candles, both at church and at home. At home we have a wreath and light it most nights. One of my favorite photos ever are my kids lighting the wreath in their snowman pajamas on Christmas Morning. At church, I help choose the candle lighting liturgy and the readers/lighters, and coach them through it.
  2. Advent calendars. We always had little paper calendars with windows at home that my brother and I would take turns opening. There was no chocolate or anything life that. As a wife and mom, I bought an Advent house and fill it with chocolates each year. This year I ordered a Hogwarts Advent calendar. It’s nothing but fun.
  3. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and all the minor key Advent music. I’ve always loved pensive music. I tried making an Advent playlist from all my many Christmas albums once. There were about 8 versions of O Come and 3 other songs total.
  4. The longest night service. The first time I attended (9 years ago), my cousin was dying from leukemia. I sobbed through the whole service. It has become one of my favorite services.
  5. I just really love Advent (in a way that I don’t love Lent). I love the lights and the minor keys and the longing. I love the dark nights, the cooler weather, the chance to make soup and eat bread and take a step away from the busy-ness of the ever-impinging “Christmas” season.
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friday five: let’s get creative

From the RevGals on Facebook:
Friday Five: Let’s Get Creative

In elementary school it may have been a brand new box of 64 Crayola crayons. Today it may be that one pen that fits your hand perfectly and writes smoothly. Or perhaps it’s your collection of Sharpie pens or Post-it notes.

What are your favorite school/office/art supplies?

Can I write an entire blog post about stationary supplies? Of course I can! I am the kid whose “candy” store was the stationary shop. I still love wandering around office stores.

  1. Pens of all sorts. My colleague has a thing about fountain pens, and she has passed it on. I have two fountain pens. Right now one has green ink and one has blue, but I have purple and red cartridges waiting, and I am struggling not to just order more pens. I also buy sets of colorful pens fairly often and throw them in my backpack and pencil holders so I always have something to use. I take notes on my grade sheets and like alternating colors for each column.
  2. Card stock. I love card stock. I have a pack of colored card stock that I use for name cards for my students. We use name cards, and I always set out the card stock in case anyone needs a new one (even though they are supposed to bring them back and forth).
  3. Calendars. I love calendars. I have them in every room. We get a balloon calendar every year from my Albuquerque Aunt. We get a train calendar from the trains (something to do with our investments. It’s my spouse’s thing.) I make calendars with kid photos from each month the year before for my spouse to take to work and for our folks*. I carefully choose calendars each year for the kids, generally books or TV shows or movies, I was pleased to find an Anne of Green Gables calendar for the girl last year. It was from Korea, I think. The boy got Wimpy Kid. I always order two copies of the Salt of the Earth Christian Seasons calendar: one for my office at church and one to give away. I love the art they choose. I also find a calendar each year for my office at home. Last year my daughter bought Christmas gifts on her own with her own money for each family member, and she gave me the calendar I have had in my home office this year. It is horses because in her world I love horses. I have pushed Misty of Chincoteague on her (she never got into it) and I showed the family the Black Stallion for one of my movie nights (I read all the Black Stallion books that my elementary library had). I’ve never though of myself as a horse person, and never really wanted to ride horses, but she is not wrong. I read a lot of horse books as a kid, and they were meaningful to me.
  4. Mechanical Pencils. I am a mechanical pencil person, and I love good ones. When teachers would worry that my pencil wasn’t #2 because it wasn’t yellow wood, I would assure them that it would be okay. I like the constant point and the ability to simply push to make it longer. We lived in Asia when I was in elementary school, and I found several things that I never turned back from. Mechanical pencils were one.
  5. Pencil Boxes. While I’m talking about Asia, I might as well admit my lifelong love for Japanese pencil boxes. They had multiple sides and doors and secret compartments and were fascinating. My kids buy simple pencil bags each year when we get school supplies, and I am surprised that Japanese-style pencil boxes have never become a thing.
Vintage Japanese Pencil Case

*I am mystified by my in-laws. They evidently use only 1 calendar and have space for only 1 calendar in their house. I give them a calendar with kid pictures every year and they put it in the same spot as their “real” calendar with the calendar part covered. They put it up. I’ll give them that. But I could just send them 12 photos. They say they don’t want to write on the “special” calendar. It baffles me that it has never occurred to them to put a second calendar in the office or their bedroom or even the bathroom. As I suggested above, I like knowing and being able to check the day and date in all the rooms, so I really don’t get it. My mom, on the other hand, has all the kid calendars up in her bedroom with the current one showing the whole calendar and past ones showing just the photos. Every month she has changed all of them so she can see the month photo for that year. It’s fun to look at. One of the first things I brought to the skilled nursing facility was her current kid calendar.

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