“Tired of Playing the Game:” The Feminism of Lili Von Shtupp

Not helicopter parents, not coma parents, my parents were more like casting agent parents: don’t call us, we’ll call you. It was the late-70s, okay? They made sure we were fed, clothed, law-abiding citizens, but beyond those basic things, they didn’t actively try to dictate our activities or aggressively influence our interests. The exception: comedy.

This was my Dad’s department. He was an alcoholic and, likely, suffered from some form of depression. Not laughing matters, but, man, did laughing really matter in our house. Early on he introduced my older brother and me to the funny legends he grew up with: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye as well as the comics shaping his generation like everyone on Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show, George Carlin, and Mel Brooks. Brooks toed the line between silly and slightly naughty. He stacked his films with enough goofy sight gags, puns, and broad comic material to make ding-dong kids like us laugh, which meant that we were delighted and distracted enough not to really notice the more arch, adult humor that, honestly, my Dad had zero interest explaining to either of us. Win/win.

My first Mel Brooks movie was Blazing Saddles. Set in America’s wild west in the 1870s, the plot revolves around a town (Rock Ridge) that unceremoniously inherits an African-American sheriff named Bart (Cleavon Little). This is part of a larger power play by the villainously inept Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) and his oily political flunky Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the residents from Rock Ridge so that they can take the land, run a railroad through it, and make millions. But really it’s a satire about racism. Also there’s a scene entirely about farting, a fight sequence that devolves into a ludicrously epic pie fight, and this cartoonish bit with an exploding candy box. A guy actually punches a horse, which I would have felt a lot more guilty laughing over if it weren’t for the hilarious look of anthropomorphic shock on the horse’s face. But seriously, racism. Very smart, insightful, sly take down of bigotry American style. Promise.  

In my 8-year-old opinion (the same one defending my Barbie lunchbox as very cool), Blazing Saddles was pitch perfect. More pie fighting please! There was only one wrinkle: The weird part where the blonde lady sings some stupid song in her underwear about something stupid.

I’m talking about the venerable, unparalleled Madeline Khan who plays Lili Von Shtupp, a bawdy songstress and seducer-for-hire enlisted by Lamar to ruin Bart and run him out of Rock Ridge. Khan’s part is relatively small, which makes her ability to nearly steal the entire movie all that more impressive.* Her featured scene is a musical number, “I’m Tired,” a torch song alla Marlene Dietrich, complete with German accent and slightly off-key, improvised warbling. This was 1983. We were a “watch it on network TV household.” There was no “fast forward” or “option to skip” because had there been, I would have jammed my thumb on that button and sped through whatever the hell this time-filling scene was about. Slow! Gross! Boring! MORE BEANS, BROOKS!

Feminism is a lot like puberty: It sneaks up on you. One day you barely notice there aren’t any women on American currency and only ONE girl Smurf in the entire village and the next you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “My Body My Choice” and refusing to laugh at some cute boy’s dumb ass jokes, which actually were just recycled, poorly delivered Dana Carvey bits. Sad.  This was my experience. Once I had my mind pried open and rearranged around how women were or were not represented, how we were treated (poorly) and considered generally (not great), I couldn’t shut it off, couldn’t adjust the prescription strength of those lady issue lenses. And that’s how, many years later, I eventually appreciated and understood what Lili Von Shtupp was all about in Brooks’ sausage fest of a flick.  

Billed as “The Teutonic Titwillow,” Shtupp is set up as a stereotypical saucy showgirl. The entrance music plays her onto the saloon stage. She sashays to center all pure sex in high-heels and red lipstick. And just when you think something lurid might happen, Khan sinks wearily onto a chair and begins to drone in a bored, slightly deflated key:

I’m tired

Sick and tired of love

Tired, tired of being admired

Tired of love uninspired

Let’s face it

I’m tired

What follows is a wry laceration of what men think passes for both romance and women’s sexual gratification:

I’ve been with 1000s of men

Again and again

They promise the moon

They’re always coming and going

Going and coming too soon

Right girls?

The lyrics are funny enough in how they baldly dismantle the idea of someone like Lili Von Shtupp existing for no other reason other than as object of male fantasy fulfillment. It’s the physical and verbal nuances Khan brings to the song that lifts it out of simple parody and puts it in a lane of sophisticated comedy all its own. She delivers each verse with such pronounced disdain and ennui they practically become additional stage companions. There’s no suggestive shimmying or undulating you’d expect from this kind of showgirl piece. There’s zero attempt at sexiness besides what Khan wears. Instead she stalks the stage, hands on hips like a general; she kicks over a chair. She pauses to “work” the crowd. One of the cowboy sits with his feet propped up on the apron:

LVS: Tell me cowboy, what’s your name?

COWBOY: Tex, Ma’am!

LVS: Well, Tex Ma’am, tell me, are you in showbusiness?

COWBOY: Nope.

LVS: Well then why don’t you get your friggin feet off the stage! (she kicks his feet)

A burly, grimy cowboy climbs up on the stage and comes at her for an embrace. “Put’er there!” he leers, laughing. Khan obliges by laying one hand on his shoulder and giving him a knee to the groin. Throughout the crowd whoops and hollers. They can’t get enough of this woman insulting them, but sort of enticing them, but, no, actually calling them pigs and morons right to their faces, but, also, being a little naughty about it, maybe, and also, really, really telling them to piss off. Lili Von Shtupp is mean! Being a guy is hard!

Near the end, the song switches tempo and a group of Prussian soldiers burst onto the stage because this is still a Mel Brooks movie and that kind of nonsensical thing is bound to happen. They dance and sing a reprise of the early verses. With her shoulders sagging, Khan lumbers over to another chair. She rests her head on her hand. She appears to doze. The less effort she exerts to be seductive or even life-like, the more wild the crowd gets. Again, idiots, which is the point. Here was an unexpected burst of smart, insightful, subversive feminist comedy to dovetail with the film’s comments on race and bigotry and white supremacism. Brooks wrote the lyrics, but Khan deserves all the credit for making the scene truly transformative. It’s her control and confidence in who this character really is—powerful, dangerous, a stand-in for any women “tired of playing the game” and ready to do something about it—that rescues the scene from being a parody of tawdry erotics and Lili Von Shtupp the butt of its joke.

Madeline Khan was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Blazing Saddles. She didn’t win, but she deserved it. At the time, Khan was making her way in film, television, and theatre alongside women like Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Jo Anne Worley, and Fannie Flagg. Women who were being “discovered” in publications like The New York Times as “a new breed of funny girl who can be both funny and feminine at the same time” (Barf). “I don’t ‘hide,’ Khan wrote in a journal. “I choose to stand out and up for myself at the same time [and] to set an example for others to do so.” Here was another arena where women were also “tired of playing the game,” and there was Khan on and off screen showing them how to change the rules and write a new playbook entirely.

*In his excellent biography of Khan, Madeline Khan: Being the Music, A Life, author William V. Madison writes that Gene Wilder, one of Khan’s other co-stars, had very little screen time with Khan, but made sure to be on set during the filming of “I’m Tired.” Wilder said, “I told Mel that if the movie were just her one number, it would be worth the price of admission.”  

Party of None

Top 3 recurring anxiety dreams:

Being chased, usually by a shadowy, terrifying something: a cougar, a monster, Ben Affleck and his gnarly, mealy freak-beard.  

Rolling into class at the end of the semester and realizing A. I’m totally unprepared to take the exam. B. I’m totally unprepared to teach the class. C. I skipped the class all semester, which is why I am not prepared to take the exam. The immediate realization sets in that I will fail the entire course and won’t graduate. If this is the type of monumentally dorky pit-sweat fantasy filling my sleeping hours, just think of how wild my waking life must be.

Throwing a party that no one comes to.

You might think the onset of some version of maturity would knock that last one off the list. Maybe it would be replaced with dread related to something relevant: getting an emergency root canal without anesthesia (I could have gone with “without insurance,” but I live in America where you hardly need to dream up that fear). Nope. That would be a shockingly benign gift from the Gods of Adolescence who ruled with iron fists of acne, body odor, braces, and shattering insecurity. Grow out of the incessant need to be liked and celebrated? And then the Gods of Adolescence said LET THERE BE SOCIAL MEDIA! Welcome to your waking nightmare, loser.

In 2019 I did a book. The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy, published by Running Press, (BUY MANY COPIES HERE) became my first general readership book. Before this one, I had turned my dissertation into an academic book published by The University of Michigan Press because at the time I was angling for a life in academia and getting a job without a book was a little like trying to get to Prague with an expired passport. Reader: I am not a professor nor am I summering in Prague. You do the math.

The Internet—that repulsive love child of technology and animus that is half abject David Lynchian hellscape and half quasi-utopic commune of good—makes it possible for a new author to learn so, so much about the do’s, don’t’s, maybe you should’s, we haven’t tried that one, yet’s, sorry, we would deny that in a court of law’s, about the journey (gack) from writing to publication and beyond. It really makes the whole thing sound like Lord of the Rings minus the parts with the elves lounging around on white satin couches sighing while gauzy curtains blow around them as if Rivendell were actually just a sound stage for a Stevie Nicks video.

Writing anything that makes it to the public light of day is much more like the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World. Whiplash and upchuck will happen. It is unpredictable. There are break-downs and slow downs and let downs. There are incredible moments of profound gratitude and joy that slink past you far too quickly. There is relief. Fear. Anxiety. There is ruinous self-doubt followed by a god-like sense of impenetrability (this withers the instant you realize you have to start all over and do this VERY HARD THING again with even less sense of how you’ll pull it off).  These are not complaints, just realities of the journey (gag, gorf) that you are crazy ass lucky, lucky, lucky to be on. Acknowledge. Often. I sure have.

If there is something that gets you over the steeper hills in the climb, it’s two things: seeing your book on a real shelf in a real bookstore that is definitely not also a church basement or even a regular basement. And doing signings. Sorry, that’s a term I grew up with in the days when we discovered fire and had phones the size of Kleenex boxes screwed to the wall. They’re called book or author events now and resemble little of the ones you might have seen on TV or in films. Samantha Jones will not be booking a fabulous club filled with glitterati and delicious, twee artisanal cupcakes. Hopefully an angry ex or seething nemesis will not show up and make a messy scene in the middle of your reading or at the signing table, unless, of course, that was the whole reason you wrote the damn book to begin with. In which case, way to play the very long, painful revenge game.

I’ve attended a few high-profile author events: David Sedaris, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Sarah Vowell, who was probably my favorite. She was at a Unitarian church that sits on the edge of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sarah Vowell’s writing style is wry wit laced with lethal intelligence as is her public speaking persona. At the end of her reading, she took questions from the audience. The third person in line was a Zuckerberg-ish clone who executed a classic D-bag move by essentially asking a non-question in an attempt to come off as smarter than Sarah Vowell (As. Freaking. If): “When you were researching, did you consider also looking at yackety yack yack yack?” Vowell tolerated Mark Zuckerberg IV, patiently waiting for him to come to the end of his own dissertation. When he did, she leaned into the microphone and responded: “No. Next question?” That was probably ten years ago, but I still dine out monthly on that delicious morsel of burn with a “sit down, son” dipping sauce.

Of course, I am not Sarah Vowell or Elizabeth Gilbert, nor do I have a tenth of the talent that David Sedaris has in one of his toenail’s cuticles. But did I lie awake at night sometimes, whispering the pithy answers to questions from the audience standing in line at my book events? Yes. When I was a fourteen year-old baked potato with braces did I think I could become a Broadway dancer? Also yes. Look, if a bit of delusion helps power your dreams, is it really wrong? At some point it will burn off like the chemically slicked Cuyahoga and you’ll either be compelled to put in the real work and sweat equity to make your dream a reality or you’ll shove it to the back of your glove compartment next to some stray rubber bands and car wash tokens.

Samantha Jones was not returning my texts. Booking book events was all on me. Fortunately, living in New England I could easily drive to a store in a whole other state in less than thirty minutes (suck it California. Just kidding, Avocado Mafia, please don’t blacklist me). I made a spreadsheet (wretch); I put together introduction/pitch emails and reached out to lists of bookstores; I did my due diligence and harangued people on social media to come to these events. With each one that responded with a warm, “We’d love to have you!” I felt a little more smug, a tad more confident that I, too, would have the chance to put an irritating mansplaining youthful miscreant in his place in front of, at least a decent bunch (!), of people, right? And that’s when the Gods of Adolescence said, “Hold our beers.”

My first few events drew what I thought was a reasonable crowd for an essentially unknown author—ten or twelve people with a few who maybe drifted over from browsing to stand and listen for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the stacks. Then, just like in every classic horror film where the number of dopey, horned-up teens dwindles after each bloody encounter with Hatchet Man, so too did the amount of attendees at these events. If only Hatchet Man would do me the honor of showing up to one of these, I would happily throw myself in front of the five other people in the room. A willing sacrifice that might actually sell a few more books.

And the thing was everyone I encountered was incredibly lovely and gracious. The booksellers and four others were always enthusiastic and supportive and so nice that I almost wanted to just take everyone out to the bar across the street and open a tab. I hardly felt like I deserved any of it. Wasn’t I letting these amazing stores down by failing to bring in Elizabeth Gilbert-sized crowds, to, essentially, throw the PARTY OF THE YEAR that everyone at school would talk about in perpetuity? It might be okay to admit here that I am a Type-A overachiever with outsized, unrealistic expectations about myself. And the problem with that besides the obvious (unless you’re skimming this piece because, I get it, no one has been reading things since 1998) is that it causes you to double-down and hurl yourself onward like a human battering ram.  Maybe the smarter move is to step back, asses, reflect and process, and then figure out your next move. That is exactly what I did not do when I was invited to a bookstore in NEW YORK CITY.

Because it would surely be different in “the greatest city in the world,” (#Hamilton).

Because instead of doing the rational thing called “thinking this through,” all my brain wanted to do was fast forward to me at Christmas parties casually-not-so-casually telling people about my insanely great author appearance in NEW YORK CITY!!! (cue the Sex in the City theme)

Because the Gods of Adolescence, now very, very drunk, were all “Fuck it, we’re breaking out the Cristal!”

One car trip, a train ride, and a criminally expensive Lyft lift later I arrived sweaty from the roasting August weather and nerves, eager to make a good impression on the folks who were kind enough to have me—Lady Nobody of the Obscure Writers, all the way from East Over There Abouts—to their wonderful, hip, funky indie bookstore. There was a display of my books and the event info on this adorable sandwich board kind of marquis thing by the register. I had to try very hard to stay in my body. I also had to pretend that I was just scrolling on my phone and not actually taking as many photos as could be stored in my iPhotos.

The store held events after hours. They closed and I took my place over in area that had been rearranged for the event. Three young people took their seats. The manager took hers. And a woman who had been in the store browsing, drifted over to sit on the end of a row near a shelf containing nature and science books. Here we were, again: the gang of five in the, uh (clears throat), greatest, (chokes back tears), greatest city in the… (begins to turn to actual dust inside) in the worlllllld (becomes oxygen molecule. End scene).

I launched into my talk, spieling along for my five pals when I notice the woman seated on the end is not so much what you would call listening as BROWSING. She’s picking up books and flipping through them. She’s SHOPPING. Noted. I start to read and talk about the book. I hear another voice and glance over to see the woman has added TALKING ON HER PHONE to her list of activities. To review, those include: 1. Shopping 2. Talking on her phone 3. Not listening to me. Aces!

I truck on in a very show-must-go-on-Baby June kind of way. I notice the look in the poor manager’s eyes, which is a combination of horror, embarrassment, and rage. It was as if she had walked in on her best friend canoodling with her boyfriend in the pantry. Thanks for ruining those chocolate-covered pretzels forever, Steve. In that instant, I felt far worse for her than I did for myself. How did she know I wasn’t one of those meglomaniac creatives who would take to Twitter about this in a scorched earth campaign to wipe this gentle hippy, progressive store off the map? I smiled. If I didn’t start smiling, I knew I would start laughing at the delicious absurdity of it all. I saw the Gods of Adolescence text for an Uber to take their gin-soaked asses home.

I wrapped it up and opened the floor to questions from my new BFFs. We sat in a little circle and had a lovely and smart and fun discussion about comedy and gender and mental health and patriarchy and who in the book deserved a reality TV series. At some point the woman, STILL ON HER DAMN PHONE, slunk out of her row and out of the store. “Say hi to your sister for me! She’s right, Craig does sound like a major tool!” I wanted to yell.

Afterwards, when I had finished signing those three books and another five for the store, the manager apologized profusely. “I’ve never seen that woman before,” she said. “We have regulars, but, I don’t know. I’m so, so sorry!” I shrugged and told her not to worry about it. This was New York. And it’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, really, even Sarah Vowell.  

Hello Soft Pants, My Old Friend

I was late to the soft pants party.

I’m mostly referring to athleisure wear, something invented by manufacturers to upsell their left-over stretchy fabrics. It’s a combination of workout clothes and loungewear doing neither of those jobs. You can also think about athleisure wear as an updated version of your Grandmother’s tracksuit: comfortable enough to have on for a walk around The Everglades Evergreen Retirement home with the gals while also being presentable enough to wear to Jolly Roger’s 3pm early bird dinner. The athleisure wear universe is populated with things like yoga pants and stylish hoodies and sweatpants. Wait, sorry GAP, I mean JOGGERS, which I have never seen anyone wearing while jogging for exercise or to evade law enforcement.

The pandemic was like that freaky gremlin creature that John Lithgow thinks he sees on the wing of the plane in The Twilight Zone movie. It ripped out the wiring of our daily routines and chased us out of offices and clubs and bars and bowling alley into our homes. We ate out of stress and anxiety and boredom. Some people burrowed under and stopped exercising. Most of us experienced some kind of depression, despair, or trauma and grief fatigue (or all of that combined) that the thought of fishing around in your closet for shoes to pair with a skirt that no one was going to see on your Zoom anyway was paralyzingly absurd. Enter soft pants. Stylish, comfortable, versatile—soft pants were the grab-n-go of clothing, the “of course I’ll have fries with that” of fashion. It was no assembly required wardrobe. I was cautiously optimistic.

I do not have a good relationship with fashion. It has never said “I love you first” or at all; it cheats, it lies, spends all my money, and constantly wants me to change. Worst of all, fashion knows I’ll inevitably text back. Such a jerk.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember—me making earnest efforts to exhibit some kind of fashion awareness only to fall spectacularly short every time. From age 6 to 11, I was a polyester fever dream of pants with saggy waistbands. The closest thing I came to “designer” tops were shirts stamped with shiny, sticky cartoon characters on them like Care Bears, Smurfs, Muppets, which would crack and flake a little bit with each washing, in a distressing way, not in a “hip, distressed” way. I often wore thrift store clothes. In 1983, consignment shops were dirty secrets, wracks of shame, a mine field of cotton and denim items once worn by your classmates in higher income brackets. They were not the repositories of cool they are now where you can have your pick of which Halston dress you want to “ironically” wear to your friend’s baby shower.  

The tween and early teen years issued in a clothes-that-match frenzy. That period was extremely short lived because that takes EFFORT and MONEY (see Appendix A: thrift store and read for context). Fortunately this overlapped with the arrival of stirrup pants. For any young person reading this, I will save you the effort of screaming at Alexa “what are stirrup pants?” and then having to explain to your parents why you just paid $300 for some kind of equestrian equipment.

Now we call them leggings. But in 1989 they had loops that fit over the bottom of your feet and were made for girls with the bodies of Ukrainian gymnasts, not “real girls with real curves,” which was pretty much all of us. The look was thus: shove the cinnamon rolls of your pubescent body into the stretchy-ish stirrup pants that are now pulled so taut camel toe is a foregone conclusion. Pair with sweater (extra points if it contains some kind of loudly clashing color patterns that look like an Andy Warhol crime scene) that is also long enough to double as a dress. Try not to openly weep when you make it through most of the day feeling confident and “stylish” until lunchtime when a giant, greasy meatball from your hot lunch sub falls out and splatters sauce squarely across the doughy midsection you were trying so desperately to conceal with your loud finger-color painting sweater. Repeat several days a week.

The remainder has been a full-throttled embrace of denim, flannel, oversized sweaters, along with the anxiety-inducing piece of formal-wear thrown in for a baptism or conference or intervention. Every so often I’d spend time with someone incredibly fashion conscious I’d get some on me. I’d be so envious of how put together they were—Steph’s cute purse not only matches her dress, but it isn’t even a laundry bag with old Girl Scout badges sewn on it. Gee! I’d admire how easy they made it look that I would vow to get my shit together and find a style that wasn’t Mennonite Aunt Judith. I sounded a lot like someone “finally getting serious” about that masters or swearing to “never, ever, EVER drink peach schnapps again, like, for real EVER you guys.” Of course in two weeks (or less) when the fabric-high wore off and the weather changed, which meant making all kinds of new decisions about what to wear—I can’t pull off this trendy merino wool cape in July? What?—I’d be right back in the threadbare flannel and the denim not shredded by design.

One day I was doomscrolling through images of peoples’ sourdough starters and protest signs and noticed ad after ad for delicious, luxurious, promised-to-be-flattering-on-all-body-types, relaxed-fit soft pants. Some were part of the athleisure wear trend. Others were clearly trying to be corporate/professional friendly as evidenced by the beautiful, breezy model in her charcoal grey soft pants and black heels. See how she happily strides SOMEWHERE that definitely isn’t to her basement office or that bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in a month! Look at her carrying that leather tote. Soft pants keep her looking and feeling great as she lives her best pandemic life! I felt the old sensation take hold, the warmth of possibility flood through me as sure as it did when I was fifteen wandering through a forest of taffeta and sequins picturing myself in one of those dresses going to the spring dance with the cute boy whom I already loved 4EVA. I clicked and clicked and clicked.

A few days later they arrived. High waisted, flowy and soft, perfect with sneakers and a cozy hoodie or ballet flats and that chunky, cable-knit sweater. Yes, they whispered to me, you could be relaxed, casually sexy even (!); don’t you want to be like the woman in the ad, dressed in these pants, ready to take on the world instead of crying in the shower every morning? How could I say no?

Comfort: 10/10. Mostly because they seemed less like actual pants and more like a pair of Afghan Hounds grafted to my legs. They were billowy, loose-fitting, and exquisitely soft as promised, but the pants did not complement my body. They enshrouded it, which I suppose could be taken as the other kind of compliment, albeit a back-handed one. Then again, that wouldn’t exactly be out of character for fashion because, as I said before: jerkface supreme. They did not make me feel confident or empowered or energized or successful. They made me extremely nervous going down stairs because of the way the swingy cuffs pooled around and nearly underneath my feet. I could not imagine having a grocery store “meet cute” in these things unless it involved the sentence, “I think my son is hiding underneath your pantleg.” I couldn’t believe I fell for it again. I believed the classic advertising and fashion lie that the fantasy of who you want to be—the cooler, prettier, happier, BETTER IN EVERY WAY you–exists on the other side of this handbag or that outfit. This seems to be a lesson we relish not learning. Why else would we make the same misjudgments over and over again like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s cursed football?

Still, I wore them. I had the delusional idea that they might somehow “become” more fashionable on me the more time I spent in them. I was doing the opposite of dressing for the job I wanted. I was trying to make the dress do the job I wanted. I schlubbed around the house in them. They looked and felt and fell on my body the same if I had on a sweatshirt or sweater, if I wore sneakers or slippers, if I had gained or lost. The fashion of surrender. They accepted me completely, just as I was, even without the tote.

The Charmin Drops at Midnight

We made it through the worst of the pandemic without getting sick and without exhausting our stockpile of toilet paper. It sounds trite, but it feels like a pretty big accomplishment—the toilet paper win, not the part about minding science and not putting everyone at risk like a selfish moron.

In the early weeks of the pandemic toilet paper shortage was savage. I live in a house with one other human who is also a grown-up. Walking into a “Tyler used our last three remaining roles to flood the toilet and now we are absolutely going to have to move” situation was never in question. I thought I’d remain calm and level-headed while the hunt for bath tissue ignited as if it were a subplot in National Treasure. Reader: I did not.

Some mornings my study looked like one of those crime lab rooms: images of toilet paper brands tacked to the wall over maps of area grocery and big box stores, little arms of multi-colored pieces of yarn tagging the connections between product and location. The other grown-up would lean against the doorway, surveying the scene with a scribble of concerned lines etched into his forehead. I’d be hunched over my laptop muttering, “I just saw a tweet from TPRainKing99 with intel that a shipment of the sweet, sweet double-ply is en route to Hartford. If I left in an hour and diapered up….” And that’s when the other grown-up would carefully and quietly back away as if he had just come upon a grizzly mama with her cubs and delicate extraction was all that stood between him and catastrophe. The other grown-up is smart.

Irrational or not (what did I really think was going to happen? I’d have to break into my precious stash of Golden Girl-themed cocktail napkins?), the anxiety fever felt real. I know I ended up paying designer prices for a 12-pack of some brand I had never heard of—Organi-Sheets or Soft-n-Sweet or MegaWipe—simply because it would arrive within the week and not in time for the holidays as was the case with all the other familiar name brands (I will carry this grudge against Scott Tissue to my ever-lovin GRAVE). I know I wasn’t the only one. Judge if you must, but those were scary times. The only people who had remotely prepared us for such scenarios were Stephen King, Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame, and Will Smith in I Am Legend. For a few weeks at least it felt like any and every scenario was in play: states could close their borders, the water supply could get compromised, energy grids could collapse. Anyone who has had the grim experience of watching a youth unable to access her technology for more than 15 minutes can testify that power loss is a very, very bad thing. Making sure the closet was snug with bath tissue was the smallest way to achieve some peace of mind and a modicum of control, both which went MIA the second quarantine mandates went into place.

There was another way to increase your supply to meet household demand (again, even if that household contained one other human grown-up who passionately believed that Timberlands “go” with dress pants and, so, was not exactly what you’d call discerning). But it made trying to kidnap the Pope seem like a breeze in comparison. You could try your luck in the newly formed wild, weird frontiers of the jungle that was the grocery store.  

Because I was relatively low risk I couldn’t justify jockeying for a precious Instacart or putting further stress on essential workers running around gathering orders for curbside deliveries. I would rise at dawn like a warrior (To be clear: If I were an actual warrior, I’d sleep in and get going with wrath and vengeance stuff at a sensible brunch-like hour. They would never see it coming). I’d roll up to the supermarket as the “golden hour” for seniors and at-risk people ended, and “once more unto the breach” I went.

In an effort to minimize my existential grocery store dread, I started making my list in relation to the layout of the store. This would shave off precious minutes where I’d have to be inside, silently freaking out behind my stuffy mask about all the things I’d be forced to touch and handle. It felt a little like I was pulling off a heist, except the rewards were escaping hospitalization and realizing that I had just spent $6.50 on a package of generic brand Oreos.

During one trip to the store in that first month of the pandemic, I was gliding up and down the newly adjusted one-way aisles as smoothly as an Olympic skater entering into the final combination of her program, when I came to the top of the paper product aisle and stopped. There it was. A thing of rare majesty, like Loch Ness, Big Foot, Yeti, and a unicorn all combined into one mythical creature: toilet paper. I blinked. Was I dreaming? Had I fallen into a wormhole somewhere in the pasta aisle and emerged in 2015? Was this a trap? As if in a trance, I started to roll my cart forward and stopped again.

A woman stood a few feet in front of me. In this brave new grocery world, I had to wait for her to clear a safe distance. No problem. Happy to play my part even if it meant ruining my personal best supermarket cannon ball run. My patience and goodwill slowly evaporated into volcanic rage as I watched her take her sweet-ass time inspecting the packages of bath tissue. She picked up an 8-pack, turned it this way and that (was it made from something other than liquified pulp substances?), and gave it a little squeeze. She held it another few seconds, considering it again as if it were one of those Magic 8-Balls: Will I have comfort on “the go” today Magic 8-Ball? Ask again later. She goosed it again. And then she did something which, to this day I believe should have been grounds for immediate citizen’s arrest. She put the damn package BACK ON THE SHELF.

Okay, this was not the Holy Grail of Charmin or Cottonelle, Tiffany, I get it, I do. But, what, YOU THINK YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR TOILET PAPER SITTING OUT ON THE STORE SHELF LIKE A GIFT FROM GOD HERSELF? HOW DARE YOU, TIFFANY! WHAT KIND OF BEST PANDEMIC LIFE ARE YOU LIVING THAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO BE A DISCERNING SHOPPER AND NOT LIKE THE REST OF US FIGHTING OVER SINGLE-PLY LIKE A BUNCH OF GRIMY, FERAL ORPHANS IN A CHARLES DICKENS NOVEL?

I stood there for a good 15 seconds after she had wandered away down the aisle. Must be nice, Tiffany, I muttered enviously into my damp mask as I took my allotted one package of the glorious white stuff and tossed it onto the top of my disaster preparedness cart. It must be a good feeling to seamlessly graft your habits and attitudes from “the before times” onto the gaping void of “whatever this is” now.

I was not doing so well in that department. Basic things I thought were pretty solid—democracy, science—suddenly seemed fragile. I was scared for my friends and family and for people I had never met in New York and San Francisco and London and New Delhi. I was carrying a map in a language I couldn’t read and a compass with a busted dial. We were all building our lifeboats out of different materials. I guess, for some people, it was just as easy to continue on taking the small wins for granted or not seeing the wins at all, but I just couldn’t. And I’ve realized since then that I don’t want to. Sorry, not sorry Tiffany.

Paved Paradise

I pass by the parking lot a few times a week on my routine walks. It’s a small square of concrete that belongs to a 3-story apartment building. The building is unremarkable—a brown paper bag of brick with mid-sized bay windows facing a busy street that’s kind of a junk drawer of places: two-family houses, sketchy real estate offices, a hardware store from the 1950s, a laundromat that doubles as an art gallery (totally real), and, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the stretch: the Ace of Fades barber shop.

I can only imagine that the units inside the building echo the forgettable exterior: a lot of wall-to-wall beige carpet shampooed a thousand times, but not enough to chase away the dingy, baked-in dust hue; white appliances in galley kitchens with once-was-white linoleum and particle board cabinets; bedrooms just big enough to hold a king size and maybe a skinny table and lamp from IKEA, but nothing else (sorry Aunt Sally’s antique brass mirror, you will not be going through to the next round). I could have easily spent the rest of my life not noticing this place if it weren’t for the compact, granite memorial marker parked smartly in a neat bed of mulch at the edge of the lot.

Living in New England for as long as I have, which is my entire life, you become accustomed to encountering plaques, markers, memorials, etchings carved into the walls of moldering,  decidedly very haunted stone houses at any and all intervals around the region. It’s totally normal to be out walking your dog, head down a side street you’ve never been before, and run across a Colonial-looking house with a sign that says “Here lived Bratten James Willoby III who invented the horseshoe and fought off sixteen Redcoats in the fall of 1778 with nothing but an oil lamp and his Bible.” Who needs historical reenactors when it’s literally just outside your door?

And because I’m a history dork, I’m compelled to stop, or in some cases go completely out of my way, to read this or that marker or sign. I’m partly genuinely fascinated by lives lived centuries ago on that particular spot. I believe in mining the past to understand the present; to help us not lose too much sight of our common humanity; to see how far we’ve come; to chart a better way forward or die trying. I also take snobbish pleasure from knowing arcane, esoteric things that others don’t or, more accurately, wouldn’t because they have rich, interesting lives that involve summoning cars and throw pillows and designer drugs using Alexa-the-techno-genie. I am not fun at dinner parties.

So it was on the third or fourth time walking by that I noticed the granite slab out of the corner of my eye and stopped to check it out. Maybe the whole property was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it was a speakeasy during prohibition. Maybe a group of women lived here who worked in the Boston shipyards during World War II, but were actually spies smuggling messages and cured meats to aid our boys overseas. New England is one big history buffet. The neatly lettered engraving on the granite face read:

This parking area in memory of Stanley Dudek

25 years of dedicated service to the people of the Medford Hillside

Well. I had questions. Who are you Stanley Dudek? A very lazy, one-page Google search turned up nothing. I found out the Hillside is the name of the neighborhood, first developed in the 1870s. Unless Stan was a time traveler, he wasn’t around for the neighborhood’s inception. So what exactly was he doing in service of the “people of the Medford Hillside,” which also makes it sound slightly culty or, at the very least, secret society-ish (the money and power kind, not the blood oath type). But really what I couldn’t stop thinking about was: you apparently did some pretty wonderful, probably selfless, most definitely generous things for others and THEY DEDICATED A PARKING LOT TO YOU, STAN. A place to leave your car, maybe smoke a cigarette, enjoy the occasional beer-in-bag whilst leaning against said car, have that last fight with your boyfriend at 3 AM in the cold, heartless, icy apocalypse of a February morning. So, really, this is the shining tribute you could come up with for your great pal, Stan?

I’m not judging. But I am judging. Peoples’ dying wishes come in all shapes, sizes, and unusual objects. Hunter S. Thompson stipulated his ashes get mixed with firework powder so that BOOM POW went Hunter all over the place. A long-time Marvel Comic’s book editor asked for his remains to be filtered into ink used in one of the comic’s titles. A company called LifeGem offers to turn Mom, Dad, or Uncle Stevie into a beautiful (and completely, totally, absolutely, 100% cursed) diamond. All of it is weird, but seems to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the deceased. Stan’s parking lot, though. Now that I just found bleak, a little too on the nose in terms of our utilitarian existence.

Unless, of course, this is really what Stan wanted–this granite stump nestled into a 5×6 piece of dirt and mulch declaring Stan’s dominion over a practical, unassuming parking lot. Maybe that’s who Stan was at his core: a regular Joe carving out a regular life, doing the best he could with what he had, and, along the way, trying to make life just a little bit better, a little bit easier, for his fellow Hillsiders. Most of us are probably very fortunate to be remembered at all—let alone in any flattering way, which is why you must designate someone to erase your browser history.

All the best myths and tales-of-old give us heroes wielding crappy second-hand swords, royalty dressed in rags, peasant girls who possess all the power. The extraordinary always hide in plain sight. Maybe it isn’t so far-fetched to think of Stan’s lot as reliable, familiar, and even welcoming in a world where those things and the people who share those qualities may be hard to come by. After all, one building’s parking lot may be someone else’s paved paradise.