The Ghost Ships That Don't Carry Us


(Mostly this a post about a TV finale, but it's also about being single or married, child-free or a parent.)

I just finished watching The Jim Gaffigan Show finale, and I was so pissed off and offended by it I thought for sure I would find scathing reviews of it online written by smarter, better writers than I, but my google search proved fruitless. Possibly because no one who would write such a review is actually watching the show?

I wanted to give it a chance, as I've enjoyed seeing Jim live and watching his specials with my parents. I've always liked the way he talked about the fact that he and his wife had 5 kids, as he kept it self-deprecating and invited us to laugh at that particular choice in life, just like I enjoy laughing with comics like Amy Schumer about her dating/sex life. In all art forms, I personally find it really important that the artist/comic/musician whatever gives a window into a part of the human experience--with it's ups and downs--without becoming too preachy about how their choices in life are better than others.

And unfortunately as I kept watching TJGS, I had a hard time finding humor in the family life portrayed (though that's a different blog post), and it culminated in the finale, "Wonderful": your standard It's-A-Wonderful-Life homage episode complete with guiding angel (Steve Buscemi) and fantasy of what the world would be like if Jim hadn't married his wife Jeannie and had 5 kids.

It begins with Jim getting angry about the restrictions having a wife and 5 kids puts on his career, finances, health, and personal space/possessions. He storms off and exclaims in frustration: "I wish I'd never gotten married and had kids!"

He then pushes Steve Buscemi out the way of a bike accident, and gets conked on the head. Steve tries to help him and Jim declines and goes home. And this is where I get angry. I was hoping for a nuanced, complex view at the way our choices change our lives, and make us who we are. I would have been fine with Jim missing his wife and kids, of course, and feeling like a different person, with a life different than the one he chose, and then the final act being he likes the choices he made and who they made him become and he wakes up to appreciate his family and how he lives into the roles of husband, father, caregiver, provider, etc.

But I guess that wouldn't have made very good television, or Jim and his wife (who write the show together) want it to be much more black and white, with extremes and--in my mind--false dichotomies. And where It's A Wonderful Life (1946) fails Mary, TJGS's "Wonderful" fails its characters too.

Mary (Donna Reed) is given "The Spinster" trope treatment, moving from a character in the first half who is bubbly, warm, vivacious and feminine, to a severe, scared, 'mousy' "old maid" in the second half who works--gasp!--at a library.


This issue with the film has already been explored by other, more qualified critics, but it's an important reminder before we move into the finale. The idea that Mary, as a person who wanted to be a wife and mother, wouldn't have found someone else to marry is...unlikely. We could argue forever about whether or not she would have been happier with George than with another man, but this gets into "The God Who Loves You" territory, as if there's one master plan that our choices either lead us to or away from. No one has that certainty: that you're marrying the BEST possible person for you out of all 7 (or 3.5) billion people in the world, or you've picked the right city, house, job, that gives you the more satisfaction than any other possible city, house, or job.

As Cheryl Strayed says about major decision-marking in "Tiny Beautiful Things" (x):
"...There will likely be no clarity, at least at the outset; there will only be the choice you make and the sure knowledge that either one will contain some loss."*
She's writing back to a man who loves his childless life but also wonders if he should want/have children. I love her response:
"If I could go back in time I'd make the same choice [to be a mother] in a snap. And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead. I wouldn't know what I couldn't know until I became a mom, and so I'm certain there are things I don't know because I can't know because I did. Who would I have nurtured had I not been nurturing my two children over these past seven years? In what creative and practical forces would my love have been gathered up? What didn't I write because I was catching my children at the bottoms of slides and spotting them as they balanced along the tops of low brick walls and pushing them endlessly in swings? What did I write because I did? Would I be happier and more intelligent and prettier if I had been free all this time to read in silence on a couch that sat opposite of Mr. Sugar's? Would I complain less? Has sleep deprivation and the consumption of an exorbitant number of Annie's Homegrown Organic Cheddar Bunnies taken years off my life or added years onto it? Who would I have met if I had bicycled across Iceland and hiked around Mongolia and what would I have experienced and where would that have taken me? 
I'll never know and neither will you of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore."
For the TJGS finale, I wanted a look at the ghost ship of Jim's life had he not met Jeannie or had 5 children with her. I was fine with it not being ultimately what he wanted, but I didn't want the ridiculous caricature that they ended up writing. 

He arrives home to see he lives with crass, misogynist friend Dave because, who could conceive of a single person in their 40s having their own home?

Then a strange woman comes out of the bathroom, joking about how much she pooped before grabbing a turkey drumstick out of the fridge, pulling out her wedgie, and asking Jim to come back to bed with her. Because if Jim didn't marry a 'clean' Catholic 'classy' woman like Jeannie, he would have meaningless sex with drunk, crass strangers.

Dave asks about Jim's half of the rent, implying he's financially irresponsible:

Jim continues to act confused and assumes it's all a joke, Dave then reveals that to top it all off, Jim does hard drugs as well:

The overall impression is Jim--without a wife and kids--is a mess whose personal life is unhealthy, empty, and out of control. Single people, ya know?!!

When he tries to go to his favorite deli, he's upset to find it closed: "This is where I go for alone time away from my wife and kids!" Steve arrives (and calls him Nathan because he's also been guardian-angeling Nathan Lane and keeps conflating them):

"All you have is alone time" is the clincher. A) 'Alone time' is assumed as depressing and unfulfilling because you're all alone! B) You couldn't possibly have any valuable relationships outside a spouse and children, like for instance: parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, etc. 

The weirdest 'upside-down' choice the show makes is with Blanca, the family's nanny. Apparently in a world where Jim and Jeannie don't marry and have kids, Blanca ends up not--as you might think--a nanny for a different family, but rather an angry drunk in fishnets and thigh-high boots who gets thrown out of comedy clubs:

When he gets inside the comedy club, everyone is afraid of him, and then three young men compliment him on his comedy albums, called "Moms Are Crazy Old Bitches" and "Bitches Are Crazy Bitches." So because he's single and childless, he became a raging misogynist?

Of course we come to the "Where's Jeannie?" moment, where Steve doesn't want him to see her in the alternate world, just like Clarence didn't want George Bailey to see Mary as a Spinster Librarian. In a hat tip to It's A Wonderful Life, he tells her she's "closing up the library": The Library being the name of the bar Jeannie owns. "Jeannie works in this bar? What about the kids?" Jim asks. Steve: "She never had kids." Also, incredibly unlikely. A woman eager to have 5 kids in one life would probably try to have or adopt at least some children in her other lives.

Like Blanca, this 'other' Jeannie is another humdinger:

The former domestic goddess is a butch bartender with--as Jim calls it--"David Beckham" hair, sleeves of tattoos, piercings, bold makeup, a deeper voice and angry/rude attitude. When Jim tries to remind her of their children, the show chooses a classic childless stereotype:

She punches him, he wakes up, it was all a dream. He goes home to find his real-life wife Jeannie and their actual 5 kids, breaking the fourth wall before bringing out all the actors and crew to sing "Auld Lang Syne."

I know it could be said that I'm reading far too much into this little comedy show, and that hyperbole is a key comedic device, but what I can forgive as misguided and careless in 1946, I cannot in 2015. I love Michael Ian Black and Adam Goldberg, but this finale was the final straw for me watching this show. Too much of our culture already holds marriage and children as the be-all-end-all to a fulfilling life. I want to find books, movies, TV shows, music--all kinds of stories and art that reveals all kinds of lives, without worshiping one as the ideal. Finding stories and art about being single that don't end with a coupling or focus on how being single is an attempt to avoid intimacy can be hard to come by.

Before I left for Italy I decided to listen to Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love audio book. I'd avoided the book for ages because I'd heard the author can come across as unlikable and self-centered. I know, I know, it's a memoir--how could it not be self-centered? But I suppose it's in the way she sees herself and her worldview. Despite this I decided to listen to the first third of the book, since I was craving more Italian travel writing after listening to Frances Mayes' Every Day in Tuscany.

There was a particular passage that--to me--felt like a great way of describing a single life without children within the context of a family tree. This past year I did a lot of research on, and finding a relative who--at least within public record--never married or had children was like discovering a lost gem. What happened in their lives that led them to live an unconventional life? Usually: they died young. But not always! Here's the passage:
To create a family with a spouse is one of the most fundamental ways a person can find continuity and meaning in American (or any) society. I rediscover this truth every time I go to a big reunion of my mother's family in Minnesota and I see how everyone is held so reassuringly in their positions over the years. First you are a child, then you are a teenager, then you are a young married person, then you are a parent, then you are retired, then you are a grandparent--at every stage you know who you are, you know what your duty is and you know where to sit at the reunion. You sit with the other children, or teenagers, or young parents, or retirees. Until at last you are sitting with the ninety-year-olds in the shade, watching over your progeny with satisfaction. Who are you? No problem--you're the person who created all this. The satisfaction of this knowledge is immediate, and moreover, it's universally acknowledged. How many people have I heard claim their children as the greatest accomplishment and comfort of their lives? It's the thing they can always lean on during a metaphysical crisis, or a moment of doubt about their relevancy--If I have done nothing else in this life, then at least I have raised my children well.
But what if, either by choice or by reluctant necessity, you end up not participating in this comforting cycle of family and continuity? What if you step out? Where do you sit at the reunion? How do you mark time's passage without the fear that you've just frittered away your time on earth without being relevant? You'll need to find another purpose, another measure by which to judge whether or not you have been a successful human being. I love children, but what if I don't have any? What kind of person does that make me?
For me, these questions didn't arrive at a reunion, but at a funeral: similar in guest list, but of course much, much sadder. My grandma had passed away, and we were holding a small memorial service at my parents' house, just family. I sat in the very back row while a pastor (who I don't think ever met my grandmother) talked on and on about what a wife she was, what a mother, what a grandmother. And it made me wonder, what is said about people who die of old age who were never wives, mothers, or grandmothers? What would be said about me?

While parts of me do resemble 'alternate universe' Jeannie: I have tattoos and short hair and piercings, I like to hope no one would be remembering me as an aggressive, angry person who hates kids. Maybe Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan don't actually know any single, child-free adults, or they might have written their finale differently.

*I have to say (this is me, not Cheryl), that of course if you make a big decision and there's MAJOR loss, like your safety, dignity, self-esteem, then you maybe need to make another decision to get OUT of that first decision.

No comments: