Thoughts, stories, and titles for imaginary BBC shows from Mara Wilson.

Triangle Theory

The Three Least Cool (But Most Awesome) Places to Be From in the United States

I’ve been watching The Sopranos for the first time. Apparently it’s the twenty year anniversary, but I didn’t know that until after I started watching. I think I was just desperate for some “prestige TV” after Bodyguard left me cold. (This week’s email was very nearly “Things I Have Yelled at the Screen While Watching Bodyguard”.)

Anyway, I’ve had two interesting revelations: First, I liked Tony Soprano way too much. I know he’s an antihero, really the ur-antihero of Peak TV, but for the first few episodes I just saw him as neurotic and affable. Then he slapped his mistress around and had his nephew threaten to kill a dog, and I finally could admit that yes, this is a bad guy. Although it is a little weird that I watched him beat up and even kill people and still found him avuncular. I suppose I just saw his mistress and the dog as innocent parties. (OK, yes, the dog belonged to a sexual predator, but that’s not the dog’s fault.)

Second, and more surprisingly, I miss New Jersey.

Actually, it’s not that surprising. I have a lot of happy memories of New Jersey: my college boyfriend was there, and we’d often take the New Jersey Transit to his parents’ house on weekends and holidays. I even recovered from having my wisdom teeth taken out there. When I reunited with Danny Devito a few years ago for the Matilda reunion, one of the first conversations we had was about New Jersey, and how it “isn’t what people think it is.” Mostly, though, I like the people I know from there.

Look, it’s a big country. As much as I might love Minnesota and Wisconsin, as beautiful as Washington State and Oregon may be, as friendly as the South can be, as terrified I have learned to be of ever saying anything less than positive about Philadelphia or Boston (for the record, they are both very fun cities to visit, and Gritty fuckin’ rules), I don’t always get the people from them. They have their own culture, their own rituals and rivalries, their own ways of being polite or impolite. They’re too proud of where they come from, or too pretentious about it.

That’s why I have a theory: there’s a connection between people who come from three particular parts of the United States. (And most of the time, have moved away, or at least spent time away from there.) Every time I meet people from one of these places, I know we’ll get along. We seem to understand each other. If I map out where most of my friends and people I’ve dated have come from, it makes something of a triangle: New Jersey, Florida, and Southern California.

I call it Triangle Theory, though I have reconsidered renaming it, because there’s a fourth place that I consider an honorary part. No, not New York City: everyone I knew who grew up in New York is just too painfully cool. Regardless of their borough or neighborhood they all have a sophisticated air about them, something the rest of us can only hope to imitate. (I’d also argue that Miami may be too cool to be part of the Triangle.) No, the other part is Long Island. Think about the people you know from Florida and New Jersey. Then think about the people you know from Long Island, and think about the jokes people make about it. See what I mean?

For a while I thought that the connection was mostly demographic, that our home states had a similar ethnic makeup and a similar immigrant culture. Most fellow Ashkenazi Jews I meet grew up somewhere in the Triangle, after all. But it’s not just that. We all have the beach culture, and the vacation cities people love to come to, make a mess of, and leave. We all the have embarrassing bands or singers that we love unconditionally and will defend to the death. (I never knew anyone on the East Coast who would admit they liked Sublime until I lived with a girl from Long Beach, Long Island.) We are all defined by our proximity to much more interesting and beautiful places, and most of us end up moving away to these much more interesting and beautiful places. Most of all, we’re used to other places seeing us as a joke.

“Florida and New Jersey make sense,” some might say. “But Southern California? Southern Californians are supposed to be cool.” To them, I say, you’re not thinking of real Southern Californians. You’re thinking either of attractive fame or spiritual seekers who moved to California and never talk about where they’re actually from, or someone from a fictionalized, mythologized version of Southern California. You’re thinking of Orange County, which has a bunch of TV shows and movies made about it, not of Riverside County, which has a bunch of cows. (OK, yes, Riverside County had a movie made about it, but it was a David Lynch movie.)

“Surely L.A., is cool, though?” L.A., I would argue, is as much of a punchline as New Jersey and Florida. We are a city that exists so people from Massachusetts can move to it, become TV writers, and make jokes on TV about what a crappy city it is. Tell someone you’re proud to be from D.C. or Chicago, and they’ll say “cool.” Tell somebody you’re proud to be from Los Angeles, and they’ll ask what the hell is wrong with you.

People from the Triangle get it. While we love where we’re from, we have a sense of humor about it, because we have to. And that’s why we get along. We know we’ll never be cool, but we’re still awesome. Together.

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Bubble and Squeak (Synopsis: two women who run a Bed and Breakfast solve murder mysteries)

Further Adventures in Looking Younger Than You Are

I did not book the hotel room. If I had, it would not have been such a nice hotel.

This is partly because I’m really bad at doing nice things for myself. I tend to put off enjoyable experiences, either because I want to make sure the moment’s right and that I have the energy for it, or because I don’t feel I deserve it. (This might be why it took me more than three years to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion.) Anna has pointed out that most of the times I do treat myself, it’s to something that will make me more productive. It’s something I believe I need, rather than what I want. I don’t need a fancy hotel, I just need a bedbug-free bed or couch that can fit all five feet of me. Practicality is my middle name. (It’s just spelled and pronounced “Elizabeth.”)

It’s also how I was raised: namely, lower-middle-class with four siblings, and thus without much to spend on vacations. Once a year we might have stayed in a two-star motel somewhere in Northern or Central California, but mostly we just went camping. Until 20th Century Fox sent us to London, Madrid, and Tokyo to promote Miracle on 34th Street, my family had never left North America, and my sister and I had never left the country (the rest of us apparently had a very, very short driving excursion on the other side of the Mexican border before I was born.) We were equally grateful and bemused when we found ourselves in a gorgeous Mayfair hotel with an intricate carved fruit sculpture waiting for us. It was so pretty, were we even allowed to eat it?

Twenty-four years later, I found myself in another fancy hotel in London, where I would be representing a mental health organization, trying to work out a misunderstanding. My publicist Heidi and I stood at the reception desk for twenty minutes with a front desk worker who seemed new at her job. After a lot of back-and-forth, she asked for my card.

“This is for incidentals, right?” I said, as I handed it over. I’d been charged before for rooms I didn’t book, and I didn’t want that to happen again, especially not in a place I didn’t book and probably couldn’t afford. Did I even have enough on this card to be able to cover it, I wondered?

“It is for incidentals,” she said. “But I also need a card on file to pay for your room.”

“But we didn’t book the rooms,” I said.

She didn’t seem to understand. “Yes, but I still need a card to cover the room, please.”

“But we’re not the ones paying for the rooms.”

“But you need to pay for the room,” she said.

It took us another five minutes of back-and-forth to try to explain it to her. I know hotel employees have a notoriously difficult job, and I have a lot of respect for them. But an organization booking a room for someone isn’t that unusual. She frowned into her computer until we finished talking. Then, she looked up, and for the first time, she took a good look at my face. It’s true that I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and I was wearing a backpack, but I was not anticipating what she said next.

“Oh, I see,” she said, as if she finally understood, and her voice changed. It was higher, and dripping with condescension. “Your mom booked the room for you.”

Oh my god. She thought I was a teenager, and not just any teenager, a trust fund teenager whose mom booked her fancy international hotel rooms. An irresponsible, adolescent Ugly American. I looked at Heidi, and she was as bemused as I was. We do not look like sisters, let alone underage ones. But what could we do? She’d finally understood, sort of. We took it as a compliment, took the room keys and took the lift upstairs to our rooms.

It all went well, until five days later when I got an email telling me my card was declined. It turns out I didn’t have the money on that card to cover it, and I had the organization contact the hotel to sort it out.

But really, what did she expect from an irresponsible American teenager?

Stuff I Did This Week: It was the holidays, so not a lot, unless you count playing with this little guy.

His name is Basil!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Wistful Sighing Over Picturesque Views of the Scottish Highlands

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The A(ristotle) Team

Professor Lind did not deserve what we did to her.

It’s not that we were horrible. We, the members of her 12:30PM freshman Introduction to Theater Studies class, definitely had our moments. We had spirited discussions about censorship and the NEA Four. We had very creative ideas about how to stage “exit, pursued by a bear.” Most of us even genuinely enjoyed watching My Dinner with Andre!

But then came Aristotle’s Poetics, and it all went to shit.

I was no stranger to theater history: we’d had a particularly thorough theater history class at my arts boarding school, where I learned the meaning and pronunciation of the word “verisimilitude,” that Ancient Greeks wore chitons, not togas, and that “tragedy” translates to “ode to a goat.” By eighteen, I had read Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, and Euripides. But I could not get my head around Poetics. Something about it felt dense and insurmountable to me, so specific to that time in history, and not at all applicable to modern theater. Maybe I had a bad translation. I just remember lots of throwing the book across the room, and many saved Word files with titles like “FuckAristotle.doc.”

The rest of the class seemed to be struggling with it, too. We’d toughed it out through Brecht and Zola, and, being theater majors, had been very eager to read out loud and perform monologues (my friend Devere, in particular, did an amazing rendition of King Pentheus’s smarmy first monologue from The Bacchae, instructing us to laugh sycophantically when he mocked Dionysus). But our classes on Poetics were quiet ones.

“Aristotle says a theatrical work should create ‘pity and fear,’” said Professor Lind. “Why ‘pity’ and ‘fear?’ Do you agree?”

We stayed silent as her voice echoed through the rafters. Class was being held in a church on the Lower East Side. The NYU graduate students were striking for benefits, and Professor Lind, very much a former child of the New Left, insisted “I would never ask a student to cross a picket line!” (She was more considerate than my Writing the Essay teacher, who had us attend class in his friend’s small apartment in Little Italy. I have a strong memory of drying my hands on a stranger’s Superman bath towel.)

Aside from her activism, and seemingly knowing everything about every playwright from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Soyinka, Professor Lind had a career as criminal defense attorney before becoming a professor. A neo-Freudian to her core, she taught classes on Lacan and the unconscious mind, and wrote critical theory essays about psychoanalysis in great works of English literature in her spare time. She was obviously brilliant. Sometimes, though, that kind of brilliance will be lost on a group of eighteen-year-olds — even the kind that know how to pronounce “verisimilitude.”

“I want to know what these words mean to you,” she said. “So, first, I want you to think for a second, ‘what do I fear?’ And then I want us to go around and say it out loud.”

I was in the front row, and had to go first, but I’ll never be able to remember what I said. At that point in my life, I could have said anything. New York scared me. Being in college scared me. Relationships with men scared me, and relationships with women even more so. I must have kept it vague.

“All right,” said Professor Lind, when we were done. “Now ‘what do I pity?’”

I felt uncomfortable. There was a very obvious answer, but I couldn’t say that: I had been trying to transcend my high school role as class smart-ass. It would just be embarrassing for both of us, and I was already on Professor Lind’s nerves for questioning her definition of “sadism” the previous week. Poetics might have been beyond me, but I still wanted to do well in her class. Maybe for “what do I fear” I should have been honest and told her “You.”

“I… pity a… suffering child?” I said. Professor Lind gave a half-nod: my answer was boring and predictable, but not inaccurate. I had played by the rules.

“All right,” she said. “Now, the rest of you, ‘what do I pity?’”

And one by one, down went the rest of the class.

“The Fool.”

“The Fool.”

“The Fool...”

“The Fool!”

“The Fool,” the last student concluded.

Oh god, I thought. They did it. They all did it. This was terrible. They’d embarrassed themselves and her. We’d get a lecture on The Real Meaning of Art. We’d have to read even more Aristotle. We were all so fucked.

I looked back at Professor Lind, awaiting her exasperation. Instead, her eyes lit up, and she nodded slowly. “That is interesting,” she said, as if she had just uncovered something. “Why is it, do you think, that so many of you pity a fool?”

Oh no, I thought. This was even worse. She had probably spent the entire 1980s without a television. She had been in an intellectual bubble. She knew Wallace Shawn as playwright and dinner partner for Andre Gregory, not as Vizzini from The Princess Bride. Any second now she was going to start talking about the death of the Fool in King Lear. There was a suppressed collective giggle from the class, but I couldn’t bear it. It was too much. I raised my hand, and explained Mr. T to the woman who’d taught me the word “verfremdungseffekt.”

“Oh,” she said, and the light in her eyes faded. “Oh, I see.”

We had failed her. The class grew quiet again. I watched as she shuffled her papers on her makeshift desk, her mouth in a straight, contemptuous line, and moved on to explaining “mimesis.”

And in that moment, I pitied her.

Stuff I Did This Week: My episode of The Bechdel Cast went up! Get yourself in the holiday mood by hearing me talk about Elf, and the pragmatic reasons to work on a Christmas movie. (And FYI, Buddy the Elf was played by Sebastian Arcelus in the Broadway musical!)

Stuff You Can Do This Week: You can also get yourself in the holiday mood by giving your friends a gift subscription to Shan’t We Tell The Vicar?

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Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: I Prefer Richard (I wish this one were mine, but it’s not! My dear friend Kyra Sims came up with it. But isn’t it brilliant?)

Ten People I Am Still Thinking About

  • The sixty-year-old ex-rocker-type standing on the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street yelling to a friend, “I’m still waiting on my check from the Italian government!”

  • The sad-eyed man on his phone in a crowded Starbucks, whispering, slowly and mournfully, into a friend’s voicemail “Vanessa, do you really think… that most people in this world… don’t actually believe love is possible?”

  • The preteen girl riding the subway through Brooklyn, braiding a friendship bracelet taped to a library-borrowed copy of Plato’s Symposium

  • The woman who used to give out prescribed medications in tiny envelopes at night at my boarding school dorm who would always tell me what color my “aura” was that night (usually “gold” or “powder blue”)

  • The man my sister and I met in a New Age store in L.A. who overheard us talking about her needing a haircut and said, “If you’re interested, I give spiritual haircuts!”

  • The British Vivienne Westwood-esque shopkeeper in L.A. who I am both terrified and in awe of and who gave me one of my favorite backhanded compliments of all time: “You’ve got a sizeable arse, my dear.”

  • The little British girl I met while visiting a school in East London who told me that the most special thing about her was her cat, who was white and named “Legend”

  • The young woman with the quietest, tiniest baby voice I’d ever heard, whispering to a receptionist at the doctor that her last name was “Famous”

  • The bartender at Theatre 80 on St. Marks' Place whose family ran a theater out of a former speakeasy, who once ran away from the family business to be a war photographer but came back when his wife said it was too dangerous, and whose father once found a million dollars when he knocked down an old wall and nearly started a gang war after he “returned it to the wrong mobster”

  • The flamboyantly dressed man who rode up on a bicycle to House of Pies, and when we complimented him on his outfit, said “Thanks! I got it at Liberace’s yard sale!” then leaned in conspiratorially and said “You guys want a little pot?” and before we could respond, opened his hand to reveal a palm-sized gardening pot.

Special Announcement: Hey! Last week was Hanukkah! Coming up soon we have Christmas and Kwanzaa and Solstice and New Year’s and Festivus and all kinds of excuses to give people presents! And if you’ve got a friend who likes fake BBC Shows and former child actors who love to eavesdrop, you can give that friend the gift of Shan’t We Tell The Vicar? Click the button below!

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Stuff I Did This Week: Last week, I went to the The Trevor Project’s gala and had a great time for a great cause — especially since I was one table away from the cast of Pose the whole night. (Dominique Jackson told me I looked beautiful in my dress and kissed my cheek, which left me feeling as if I’d been blessed. I missed the chance to tell James Van Der Beek how underrated Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 was, though.)

I also got to reminisce about my episodes of Welcome to Night Vale (and traveling, and cats, and show choir) with some dear friends on Good Morning, Night Vale! And then had the good fortune to be on a live episode of The Bechdel Cast, which will be out later this week! What a fun show, and what an amazing audience we had! And Jamie and Caitlin are just brilliant.

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: You’ve Got a Sizeable Arse, My Dear

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