Horrible, Thanks for Asking

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“How are you? How are you doing,” I asked my friend. I asked because I cared and because this is what I know we’re supposed to do to start a conversation.

“Horrible, but thanks for asking,” she responded. There was a beat. We both burst out laughing, gutted by the truth masquerading as absurdity. It was a relief to hear her say what I had been silently yelling every time someone, with best intentions, asked. Being a human requires everything we have these days. At the very least, most of us are dented soup cans, at the worst, we are wrecked like a wild west saloon post-brawl. Yet at the same time, we’re still “us.” We’re still trying to earn a living and show up for our people and get the laundry put away and make life happen. Turns out that between weathering a global pandemic and white-knuckling it through the evaporation of American democracy, making life happen is a lot harder than Instagram would have you believe.

Maybe that’s why early on I made rom-coms a staple in my coping arsenal. I had already cycled through all seasons of The Great British Baking Show so many times that I was starting to gain sympathy weight from all that marvelous gluten and sugar. Rom-coms felt like the next best thing.

I’ve always been a fan of these movies—no matter how dippy or vapid. Depending on where you are in your life or your day, they can work as a kind of celluloid swaddling. As the pandemic has inched along, these flicks helped me check a lot of feel good boxes. They’re set in the past, so even 2002 feels idyllic, quaint. They’re breezily, blessedly formulaic. I can assure you that no brain cells were too taxed in the course of 90 minutes watching Hugh Grant smile shyly a lot. And most importantly, rom-coms exploit the best parts all the things that turn us into human puddles: sweet, quirky friendships; romantic gestures big and small and goofy; on-the-cute-side-of-precocious children; dogs performing charming dog antics; and Tom Hanks doing literally anything. The rom-com world is meant to be a perfect snow globe housing beautiful people finding love, success, happiness, and fresh starts galore. No one pays taxes or fights with their mother (unless it’s all mostly witty banter that ends with mom and daughter drinking wine in front of a cozy fire pit at their beach house). The rom-com is a refuge of unreality, and in these last few months it has been the sanctioned escape I’ve needed.

My friend’s quippy reply was so real and so true that it sounded like it could have been a line from a scene in a Nora Ephron movie. A journalist and cultural writer, Ephron poured her savvy humor and keen intelligence into screenplays like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle that would become the gold standard of the rom-com genre. If she were alive today, Nora Ephron would find a way to make our terrible awful feel less suffocating and doomy, and more like an extremely bad day that everyone is having at the same time, but with more cappuccino and cable knit sweaters.  

I revisited many of Ephron’s films during this stretch because I love them—her writing is witty and whip smart, her characters are relatable, and she recognized the gift that was Carrie Fisher, giving her all the best lines in When Harry Met Sally. I dipped back into Ephron’s catalog craving the kind of pop song love stories rom-coms rely on to transport me from the harsh and cruel reality. While romance does make an appearance, eventually—some very intense hand-holding in the last 3 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle, a very heady walk in the park in You’ve Got Mail, for Ephron romance was a Trojan horse. It was a handy vehicle to deliver more complicated ideas about the nature of relationships in general. I think she really wanted us to think about the messy imperfection of connection, of the beautiful labor that comes with building something true and honest. This takes more courage than the Eiffel Tower proposal. It requires more tenacity than getting him back after the epic screw up. It’s more important and much bigger than winning the argument about the wagon wheel coffee table.

It’s not about finding love; it’s about finding each other. Because we need one another.

I’ve wanted to disappear so badly over these seven months, but Ephron reminded me that we can’t reach each other if we aren’t willing to be seen. It’s not in scripted perfection that lives change and hearts call out to another, it’s in the thousands of seemingly throw-away moments where it’s just our regular selves showing up, breaking through, willing to admit, yeah, I’m horrible too, thanks for asking.

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