Every movie has a backstory, as they call it in “the industry”—as if there’s only one industry. They call LA “the coast,” too, as if there’s only one coast. Interesting. Anyway, here’s the backstory for my particular movie, my life.
You know the first line from A Tale of Two Cities? “They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.” Maybe that was most people’s childhoods, because that’s what life is, a juxtaposition of tragedy and greatness, heartbreak and heartsongs. Funny—that’s what movies are….a juxtaposition of scenes that tell a story, full of tragedy and greatness, heartbreak and heartsongs. Wow…can you imagine how much more dramatic our lives would be if we could slow down the action and add dramatic music and the odd long, meaningful glance or two?
Oh, sorry. Back to my childhood. Okay, while it was nowhere near as awful as the French Revolution must’ve been, it was the best and the worst of times on a less dramatic level. No one on my quiet street was sent to a guillotine, but my early years did involve sickness and death and then more sickness. I have two brothers, and my younger brother was born with a neurological condition. Instead of watching him grow up, we had to watch him grow sicker and sicker, disintegrating before our eyes. I still say I have two brothers because he’s still my brother, at least in my heart if not in the world.
I was young when he died, so for most of my life I figured I was too young to really get it. Yeah….nice try. We get it—whatever “it” is that’s happening around us—from conception. But life is also made up of everything in between the great moments and the tragedies, too. My childhood also had a lot of ish: strange-ish, tough-ish, okay-ish. Maybe a little this, maybe a little that.
I grew up in the middle of the Midwest, the middle child in a middle-class family. All right, Wisconsin is in the upper Midwest, but still—the middle. We’re near the middle of the North American continent, so that’s pretty middle. That was me: right smack dab in the middle of the middle. Even my grades were in the middle, at least they were through middle school. I was the middle one picked for teams in gym class. I suppose if I’d put a little oomph into anything, I would’ve been higher than the middle. But I didn’t….I didn’t discover the power of oomph until I got so ugly that oomph was the only thing that would save me.
My family was Catholic in a land of Lutherans—at least in my little corner of the world. Catholics make up a pretty high percentage of Wisconsinites who consider themselves religious, along with Lutherans, but we were surrounded just by Lutherans for some reason…Large Lutherans, at that. I don’t mean fat, necessarily—they were tall, too. Wisconsin is one of the most German-American states in the country. But we had the messy Irish home in the midst of these tidy Germans. Ugh.
My parents could’ve posed for American Gothic—you know, that painting of the farmer with the pitchfork and a woman who looks to be his wife? Actually, it turns out she might be his daughter. Regardless, my mother had an uncanny resemblance to her, but airbrushed with a slight semblance of refinement. My father, who started the marriage-and-family thing late in his life, was even more dour than that farmer…now that’s dour! My older brother was a younger rendition of the two of them combined. My younger brother was a cutie pie. I often wonder what he would’ve looked like, and sometimes when I’d spot a teenager or young man at the age he would’ve been with the looks he might’ve had, I impulsively wanted to hug the stranger.
My best friend was Jenni—complete with the circle over the i. We couldn’t stand each other. I hear you, and yes, you’re right, I probably shouldn’t have been friends with her. It was a small town, though. There weren’t too many friends to be had. What was even worse was she was BFFs with Cheryl, too, and they would make endless fun of me. I didn’t realize then that that was the only thing they had in common. If they didn’t have me to make fun of, they would’ve had nothing else to talk about—or so they might’ve thought. Oh, sure, everyone needs a hobby.
To be fair, I gave them some great ammunition. I had this crazy red hair that was... So. Curly. Remember Frieda from Charlie Brown, the one with the naturally curly hair? Mine was Frieda’s on steroids and then put into a light socket. We didn’t know where it came from—the curly part, anyway.
Throughout my childhood, especially when I was with the rest of my brown-haired family, people would ask, “Where did you get your red hair?” What a crazy question!
“From both of her grandmothers,” my mother would answer.
“From my head,” I started to answer when my mother was out of earshot.
And we haven’t even mentioned freckles yet. I had so many that one night at a sleepover, when my buddies tried to count how many I had in one square inch, they gave up after a hundred. They played connect the dots instead. I traveled through Viet Nam once, and people would rub my arm—to see if those freaky freckles were lumpy, I guess. I asked a Vietnamese friend how I could call freckles “kisses from the sun.” He told me that unfortunately the poetry would be lost in the translation. Oh, well.
How do Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain have my coloring and not have any freckles? I beat them in the thick, wavy hair department, though. Yeah, and they’re crying all the way to the bank. Bitches.
I’m sorry. They are so not. I’ve met people who’ve worked with them, and rumor has it they’re very kind. I’m just jealous. Okay—I hear you: maybe if I stop being that way I’ll get ahead faster.
This was before spray tans came in to being. Now it’s a non-issue. If I have to show skin and be tan(ish), I can be. And because I’ve stayed out of the sun, every boyfriend and massage therapist raves, “You have the best skin!”
Speaking of massage therapists, one time a friend sent me to see an energy worker. As I climbed on to her healing table, she said, “This goddess has alabaster skin, like the goddesses of the northern-European island countries.” I burst into tears. First of all, I was brand new to people talking like that. Second, thinking of my alabaster skin as something beautiful or myself as anything remotely goddess-like, no matter how many people told me how beautiful I was, was lightyears away from my psyche. At least it was lightyears away then. That’s when I started growing into myself.
But not back in Wisconsin in my early-to-middle teen years. I was fugly. This is something I wasn’t in the middle of—I was at the far end of the spectrum. I would’ve won the frat-house dog party if I was a little older. The upside was that’s when and why I got funny and smart. I frumbled (that’s frumpy bumbling, my invention) through life as best I could, but I also read every book I could get my hands on and watched every movie I could find.
And then......seventeen happened. I learned how to tame my curls with a flatiron. I grew into my teeth and feet. My figure figured itself out. I learned how to use makeup to transform myself into…pretty. By the time I was nineteen, I was so crazy beautiful (thank you, makeup) that even my mother was ready to buy me a ticket to Hollywood. And she did.
When I left for California, I left all my memories and mementos behind, wanting a fresh start. But Fugly definitely came along for the ride. She’s never far from me…actually, I’m thankful for that.
I want to translate a few things here and there, BTW—not for you supercool cats reading this now, but for the peeps reading this thirty years from now who might say, “What the flock is she talking about?”
I don’t know if Americans will still be doing the “So” thing in thirty years, but we’re definitely doing it now. We start every answer, whether spoken or by email, with “So....” Even articulate, trained radio announcers and interviewees do it. I’m talking about well-polished professorial types—the younger ones, anyway. It came out of nowhere and was suddenly everywhere.
Another thing that’s really popular now is writing in incomplete sentences. I think it should be pepper, not salt, but no one’s asking me, so they’re out there as massive amounts of salt. As in, massive. (Oops…there I go myself after dissing it—hehe.)
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