I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other

 

A Woman’s Project

I returned to New York City in 2005, long after my “Sell by” date had expired

In 2005, I left the relative comfort of a tremulous marriage and a tumultuous job (drama director/English Teacher) — the details of which are best left to fiction where they will embarrass no one’s children — to pursue my writing career. I knew the transition would not be easy, but having been raised by a Puritan Calvinist father and a mother who’d escaped Europe in 1939, I felt prepared for whatever difficulty might befall me. It seemed that the year’s pay I had vested in my pension along with the portion of my mother’s inheritance that I didn’t give to my children, would, at the very least, get me to a good job in New York, where I would then begin to write in earnest.

New York today is a cleaner, sparklier version of the city I left in my young adulthood; it’s no longer the nurturing artist’s environment I remember from those days. (Photo by Aaron Newman)

It’s a tale, as I think about it, worthy of Flaubert. Except that I was well past young when I ventured out of the provinces into the promise of new life in the city, and I had no idea what incredible bias I would be up against.

In the early days of my wife-and-motherdom, I had taken on a number of jobs (part-time, so long as we could afford to have me home part-time and then full-time as our financial needs grew), had served on boards and managed schedules and even had acted as interim director of a Day School.  I was an inveterate multi-tasker.

As a teacher, in addition to serving as Vice President of the State’s Drama Association and as a member of our NEA (teacher’s union) Negotiations team, et al., I had produced and directed two shows a year for ten years, had run a very successful summer program in one town for 7 then got a grant from the State to operate a Summer Conservatory program in another for two; I had raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and had always brought my programs back to the black. I did my own marketing and publicity, made my own deals with state-wide vendors, hired my own musicians, designers and construction crews. I created dialogue between my students and professional theaters around the country, and I personally arranged at least two annual trips to New York for a performance and a talkback/tour with the cast and crew of the show we saw. For the summer grant program, which required professional theater people to serve in their professional roles as well as to teach, I auditioned, hired and oversaw all manner of talent and crews from New York, provided them with transportation, housing, and meals while I made sure they got paid, and at the same time I produced/directed Sweeney Todd and produced As You Like It in repertory. And in addition to everything else, I had co-authored and produced three short films, two of which had garnered festival prizes

In short, I had taken on many responsibilities — always — and had honed a great many skills. Yet when I began to hunt for jobs in NY, it became quickly apparent that out in the world there are two distinct types for whom professional people have a blanket distrust: older women and teachers. Ooops.

Older women are invisible. They are no longer classifiable. Even though there is a great deal made about the Cougar women men crave, most men don’t even look at most women over 50. Even those who are attractive, fit, vital women get very little attention. And what that means is that women don’t look at them either. Worse, the invisibility somehow makes them less desirable as new hires. Who wants to clutter an office — or, in my case, a theater — with invisible drones? I applied for every possibly suitable job, from education director to personal assistant, posted in America over the course of the two years it took me to realize I was un-hirable. But being over fifty was only part of it.

People in the “real” world believe that teachers go into education because they can’t do. And we all know how easy teaching is! Anyone can do it — so why would you hire someone who “only” knows how to teach? I talked myself hoarse about the various skills I had developed in my various capacities as a “teacher,” but my words fell on deaf ears. One young woman who was interviewing me for a job I could do with my eyes closed effused at me, “Oh, you were a class advisor too? You must love going to proms.”

And the irony was that even for teaching I was now too old to be hired in a new system. When I was shortlisted for a great part-time job in an Alternative High School that would have been perfect for me, the interviewer told me, “I could lose my job for this, but I want to tell you that even though you are my first choice for this position, you won’t get the job.” She went on to tell me that I had “years in”, which required money, and I was no longer “fresh.”

Though guiding is certainly not a dream job, it does pay the cookie bills

So, as my little nest egg began to dwindle — I didn’t fight my husband for what I should have insisted on having after 33 years of marriage, believing I’d find a great job to sustain me very quickly — I took a job in the surreal world of tourism and became a sightseeing guide. Now nearing 65, armed with an arsenal of words, two master’s degrees and a compendium of otherwise useless information collected with my autodidact’s obsession with New York City, wearing my royal blue uniform shirt and a thick coat of sunscreen, I trudge daily down to the place where the tour buses originate. There I endure the abuse by passengers who range from insensitive to moronic, and I allow myself to be ordered around by bosses, many of whom are recently released, convicted felons, and by over-eager ticket sellers, who tend to be newly arrived African immigrants  (priceless few of whom have a shred of empathy for women in general or older women in particular), and then I go home to sleep.

I do this because it allows me every morning to get up before the sun and revel in the knowledge that I have a few hours of precious writing time, and someday soon . . . . well who knows!  I’ve just finished a book, which will be released this month, and I am writing furiously in a way I haven’t since I was a teenager filling journals with self-absorbed ruminations.

I am not alone out here. There are any number of women who have set out to create new lives for themselves, to forge careers in creative endeavors; and I have discovered, after a lifetime of feeling disconnected from women and intimidated by the judgmental, dogged competition friendship with them engendered, that for the first time in my life, I have a true kinship with some of the most remarkable people on the planet. Amazingly, they are women!

It’s been a rough road, and it’s not getting easier any time soon. I know that. I accept it. But I hope to live long enough and to prosper sufficiently to make it easier for someone else. Some day I would dearly love to open a safe house, a home for women like me who have held in their overflowing creativity for too many years and just need a place where they can live and write or paint or study lines or clean their cameras or do whatever they need to do to fulfill the need to DO without fear of eviction and starvation. A fear I carry in my stomach at the end every single month. It’ll be at least a while before I’m where I can even think about making the dream house real. But I want to start the process of providing support right here and right now. In this, my new blog, I will inaugurate a series about some of my most admired, most loved friends, women who, like me, have risked absolute failure in the pursuit of resounding success. A section of this blog will be dedicated to those women who would like to be featured here. That will debut shortly.

My cousin Anna Thea Bogdanovich, one of the women I admire most, seated in a pantheon of creative women at the Museum of Arts and Design

I dedicate my efforts to my daughters and my granddaughters. May they never be invisible. Or disrespected for having lived.