Tuesday, October 27, 2009

There are worse things I could do

It's a jungle out there, which requires skilled juggling and a bag of tricks, too.

When Grease! (the movie) came out, my friends and I went Grease-crazy. Everyone bought the album, and we poured over the foldout album cover's yearbook style collection of photos. We tried to decide which T-Birds were cute versus too greaser, and which photo of Danny and Sandy was best. Meanwhile, the vinyl record played on the record player in the background, repeating the songs until they were burned into my brain for thirty years (and probably beyond).

For my birthday, I had a fifties themed party that year. All the kids came in rolled up jeans and tee-shirt or puffy poodle skirts. I have the photos still, and there we are dancing, singing, and mugging in a big group for the camera. It's amazing how period-perfect we looked. It's amazing how carefree and happy we were.

When I look at the photos, I remember other things beyond the giant amount of fun we had at my party, beyond how thrilled I was when the first doorbell chimed with the first guest. I remember how my entire birthday nearly crashed and burned before it even happened, courtesy of a very mean girl who lived on my street. And I remember how Grease fixed it.

Most girls liked Summer Nights or Hopelessly Devoted, and I did too, but this little heart-breaker from Rizzo (Stockard Channing) was my favorite.

Grease was the first time I caught a hint that the incredibly scary Girl World (via Rosalind Wiseman) I inhabited was not my own personal limited experience (and occasional nightmare). Here was an entire movie about the scary dynamics between girls, their friends, and boys, too. It was, apparently, a universal truth, a universal experience. That truly helped to know. The movie played to sterotypes but not too deeply. Each female character had a little bit of complication and depth:

You had Betty Rizzo, the head Pink Lady. A tough girl. Hard of mouth and hard of heart. Sexy. The school loose girl. Plays insider jokes to heighten a sense (or fear of) exclusion. Sets up pranks and prats for Sandy, the new girl, to trip over. The Mean Girl.

Then there was Marty, often Rizzo's right-hand girl. Pen pal to a long billfold full of servicemen. Goes for older guys. Flirtatious. Hints of sweetness and innocence, or wicked irony in naming her after a cherry that's been popped and pickled. Borrowed sophistication.

Frenchie was the girl who floated around the edges of the Pink Ladies, and tried to truly befriend Sandy, but not enough to stand up for her when the ladies target her. Frenchie has her own issues, anyway.

Jan, the class clown who seemed to follow Rizzo more often than not.

Last but not least, you had Sandy Olsson, the new girl, the good girl, the one who is just trying to be nice and yet somehow inadvertently stepped all over toes everywhere while trying to figure out who she is and how she fits in.

The quintessential coming of age story.

Also? The quintessential Girl World movie. Well before anything starring Lindsay Lohan. A whole generation before, in fact.

Shelley was the Rizzo of our neighborhood, and Moria was her Marty/Frenchie. Mine as well. Shelley was completely a power player -- a player with power. She was the youngest of older parents, with older siblings. Her older siblings were in high school and could barely spare us a glance. She was incredibly spoiled. She got more money, candy, and TV than the rest of us combined. She also got a lot more freedom. And she used that liberally.

She'd plan trips to the corner store, which required walking up a major road for several blocks. My mother put her foot down with a big no. Shelley sweetened the pot saying she'd buy everyone a bubblegum who came. I pleaded. I whined. I threatened. My mother held firm. And so I'd watch the kids tromp off with Shelley, who had the lead, of course. She'd tell them how to walk and which songs to sing. They all came home with new bubblegum card packs. How I felt: my mother was in my way of maintaining my position in the pack. She was ruining my life. And it was all Shelley's fault, too.

Shelley moved in after we did, and by the time she arrived, my sister and I were good friends with the two sisters next door -- by luck we were all of an age. Shelley leapt into the center of that, of course. She offered constant tests of her friendship and friends' loyalty to her. She'd dare them, challenge them to prove how they'd do anything for her, for her friendship, and the kids invariably did.

Except me.

And thus began the battle.

By the time my birthday rolled around, the war was in full heat. Shelley threatened to tell everyone to skip my birthday. Much drama and threats and tears and yelling and more drama ensued. I wish I remember exactly how it all worked out, but my memory gets a little hazy at that point. I think some of the mothers talked and the kids were given no choice. Except, maybe, Shelley. She never said one way or another whether she was coming, but in the end, with the entire neighborhood and our friends all there, she came. The last guest to arrive.

I remember her arrival and how I tensed. Missy, my lifelong good friend who went to another school and lived in another neighborhood, had heard about Shelley but never met her. Caryn, my very own personal best friend in the whole wide world, knew Shelley well from school. When Shelley arrived, I deployed my manners, but then I also gave into a hissy fit. I stalked back to my bedroom with Missy and Caryn and vented about Shelley coming.

They tried to reassure me that I should ignore her, that it would be fine, that she wouldn't cause any trouble. They talked me into returning to the party and having fun anyway. Then Missy delivered the coup de grace, "She doesn't seem so bad, anyway, Julie," she said, "I mean, from your descriptions I sort of expected Regan!" (Regan, from The Exorcist.)

Could nobody see how bad this girl was? How manipulative? Could nobody see her games? Every time I tried to talk to anyone about Shelley and the misery she caused, I got a lot of "ignore her" and "it's not that bad" and "you need to quit making such a big deal out of it" and "let it roll off your back." I also got, "she's insecure," and "she's jealous of you," which I did not buy for one second. Shelley had nothing to envy, that was clear, plus she never seemed envious or insecure. The worst was, 'You're letting her do this, letting her get to you." After a while, I began to believe that it was true: I was the problem, I made the problem by naming it, and it was all my fault. Not to mention, I must deserve it.

On some level, though, I continued to think Shelley was the bad news, not me, and someone needed to notice and take care of it.

I stalked out to my party with my friends, and Caryn, always the fun and funny girl, said, "Let's twist again, like we did last summer!" She swung her hips and demanded music and dancing. Nobody cared it was anachronistic. Nobody cared because we all just wanted to have fun.

I ran to the big stereo table and grabbed the Grease album. A Rizzo photo caught my eye. Suddenly, the Shelley v me situation was so clear. It was life or death to her, or felt like it was to her, to be in charge of the Pink Ladies (or our neighborhood). It was who she was, and my constant challenges on the basis of fairness and principles to her authority, while seemingly rational and reasonable to me, were attacks of the very fiber of her being to Shelley. Shelley would never give up her Queen Bee perch, and we'd never be friends, no matter how much I followed my mother's entreaties to "be nice and you'll make friends." I didn't like her, she didn't like me, and we disagreed about the rules of the 'hood.

Right in the moment I was ready to slap her with my glove (metaphorically), I realized...I didn't even really want a duel, and the principle was really not that important to me. I'd been engaged via my stubbornness, only. In fact, maybe, just maybe, I was part of the problem. In fact, maybe, just maybe, I'd been a bit territorial about the friends when she arrived. Maybe I wasn't quite blameless. Maybe things weren't so simple or black and white.

I looked at Caryn, Missy, and the girls I really liked. True friends.

In my mind, I stepped aside. The next day and the day after that, I stepped aside. I quit letting Shelley be That Important, That Powerful. I'd made my point -- I wasn't her subject. I couldn't force others to make the same choice, and in that instant, I realized that these girls probably wouldn't. They'd keep playing her game. In the end, that had been what I'd wanted. In my mind, it was justice -- to convince these girls to see the power player for who she was and to abandon her court, so we could return to the happy play days we'd had before she arrived.

But it would never be, and so, I opted out.

I took the measure of the other girls and recognized them for the Marty, Frenchie, Jan, Betty Rizzo, Sandy, Patty Simcox and so forth that they were. I recognized them for who they were as much as which roles they played. And I got it, sort of.

I opted out, and things were more peaceful. Nobody thanked me. Nobody expressed appreciation that I'd quit putting them in the middle of a struggle between me and Shelley. Nobody said they were glad that the tenseness eased.

But the friendships got a little easier, and Shelley's teasing had no more nerve to hit.

I found out that Shelley wasn't evil personified at all, sometimes, she was even kind of fun. But, she was not a girl I'd ever particularly like. And that? Was okay. Because we could get along.

I wish I could say that there was never another problem, or that I didn't continue to have to close my eyes and count down my anger. I wish I could say I really learned learned that lesson, and never went through the same things again and again throughout my youth. But, I needed to learn it a little bit more thoroughly. The key, though, was that Shelley, Rizzo, and Grease! did provide valuable perspective: it's not really life or death, it's not the end of the world, you can make a choice, and in the end, you can always opt out.

I'm still learning how and when to do this, but as I raise my daughters -- and re-read the new edition of Queen Bees and Wannabes (just go get it -- it's still as good, and better, with updates, additions, and the new technology chapter that helped me and my husband settle on a Specific Policy WRT Technology and now I sleep better at night. really.) -- I have an empathy for the Girl World they inhabit that I hope translates into useful and supportive parenting.

Because of all the Shelleys, Morias, and similar that I met in life, it caused me to constantly seek perspective and positive tools to handle the situations.

Because of Grease! and Rizzo, I always suspect that under each Girl World role-player lies a real feeling human being, who, regardless of role, probably feels like the real girl Rizzo sang about:
I could hurt someone like me,
Out of spite or jealousy.
I don't steal and I don't lie,
But I can feel and I can cry.
A fact I'll bet you never knew.
But to cry in front of you,
That's the worse thing I could do.
It doesn't make us like each other. It doesn't make the world sunshine and roses whenever we're around each other. But it does provide an underlying base of understanding, that can enable us to let it go -- in a real way, a positive way, not a "try to shut it out and sweep it under the rug way."

So when my older daughter refused to say goodbye to a classmate one day, and when I asked about it said, "She's always so mean to me!" I thought of Mean Shelley, and I thought of Wise Rosalind, and I checked my personal baggage and asked, "What does that mean, she's mean to you? What is mean?"

In this case, mean meant bossy. Mean meant challenging my daughter's perceived right to run her own show, and that show might include a cast of characters that overlapped the other girl's show. In this case, it meant a Shelley and Julie dynamic.

I took a deep breath...and we talked.

I watched my daughter consider taking the same step I had, and letting it go. For now, though, we agreed that you don't have to be friends, but you do always have to be courteous, which means accepting it when it comes your way.

It's never simple, never black and white. There are always multiple players in any game, and a key is deciding what you are doing, and whether it fits with your own personal convictions for who you are and what your morals are.