Monday, January 10, 2011

Carousel: surprisingly thought-provoking

I gave this old Broadway classic a spin today, believing that it and I had some unfinished business. The last time I listened to Carousel, I watched the movie version, and the whole thing was so old-fashioned and over the top, that I didn't finish it. My experience with it today proved what I already knew to be true: Carousel is indeed the product of another era, (1945, to be exact). But, there were a few surprises a long the way, and I learned that 1) stepping into another time is a great way to get some perspective on the present, 2) we have more in common with people of the past than we may realize.

Songs titled, "This Was a Real Nice Clam Bake," and "While the Children are Asleep," paint the picture . . . with Carousel, you'll get more than your fair share of dated, quaint lyrics and dialogue romanticizing domesticity and small-town life. And then it hit me. There was a time when this wasn't old-fashioned, when these songs got air play, when this was a massive critical and popular sensation, when people would nod their heads along to these songs and go there with the characters. In "While the Children are Asleep," Mr. Snow sings with relish about the fleet of ships he hopes to maintain, the bevy of kids he can't wait to have, the time he'll spend with his wife at the end of the day . . . that's his dream.

That's his dream!

When was the last time you heard a young person say, "My dream is to be well off, living in a house filled to the rafters with kids, and happily married"? (My brother, actually, has said that . . . but he's such an anomaly, we won't count him, ha.)

As far as women go, the feminist movement sure blew that one to bits. Few women today would admit to that being their "dream" without feeling the need to apologize for being so unforgivably horse-and-buggy. Or maybe it's a class thing. As a woman, if you come from the middle classes on up, you're thinking about what college you want to go to, your career, what you're going to "be." But the funny thing is that, in my neighborhood, there are still lots of stay-at-home moms. Many women, regardless of the amount of education they get, will end up doing the traditional thing. My neighbor went to UC Berkeley and on to Law School . . . now she's at home full time with three girls. If you had asked her as a teenager what her "dream," was, it probably wasn't to be the housewife around the corner.

And yet, that's what she's doing. Probably because, at the end of the day, home and family are the most important thing, or at least co-equal with any other noble pursuit.

The way I see it, is that home and family are super-important, as well as career, education, hobbies, and other such things pertaining to personal development. For women and men, it's a tricky juggling act doing right by our families and doing right by ourselves. The juggling act is made all the more tricky by the fact that both dimensions are necessary. I think most people, to feel "complete," need a family/home life of some sort, but they also need a life outside of that. And yet there's so little time, both in a day, and in a lifetime as a whole. A woman can only (safely and easily) have kids through her 30s, and meanwhile, in this "career first" day and age, I've heard that more and more people are not matching up (hence the need for online dating services.) On the other end of the spectrum, you have my Mormon girlfriends who are my age (25) and already married with kids.

I guess nothing's perfect.

The old-fashioned "family first" ethic is heart-warming, but doesn't provide us with the total picture of happiness. And then today's model, where it's taken for granted that one will marry and have children, and some women are led to think: "I only became a housewife," is equally misleading; after all, a happy home-life, particularly a happy marriage, is one of the most rewarding things in life.

But, back to Carousel. Lest you think it's all darning stockings and apple pie, a pointedly resentful musical number took me by surprise and proved that people back then dealt with the complexities of things more than we realize. A chorus of women belted out something to the effect that a man is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, and then individual singers went on and on about the horrors of household work, the inevitable hollowness of husband-wife relationships, the ennui of it all. The girls had come quite a long way from their cheery chattering early on in the show about this or that beau turned fiance. I guess it didn't work out :(

And then came the most striking moment in the musical. They collectively ask Julie Jordan, the female lead, for her opinion on all of this. Not having seen the movie for some time, I've forgotten the particulars of Julie's romance, but I do remember it was the centerpiece of the story . . . and perhaps because of that, because her romance ran deeper than that of the common lot, her response was quite thoughtful. The music turned contemplative, and she sang that it didn't matter how much work was involved, if the guy was good or bad, if things worked out as you planned or not . . . the only thing of any relevance was that: "He's your feller and you love him, that's all there is to that." That response might seem too facile on the one hand, given what she goes through with her guy. But there is a morsel of truth in it, I think. At the end of the day, life isn't glamorous or perfect. There are no fairy tales. But, when you love the people in your life, when you love what you do, it will make up for that. Love can turn the seemingly mundane, (or tragic, in her case), glass-is-half-empty sort of life, into a purposeful one.

We can probably all relate to the feeling of looking at other people and wondering what gets them out of bed in the morning . . . what keeps Mr. So-and-So on track and on the road by 8AM to get to work, what motivates him to come back at night, (I wouldn't want to return to that bratty bunch of kids), what keeps his wife doing the grocery shopping, etc. etc. What motivates most any of us to keep doing whatever it is we do, particularly once life has settled. Young people can be dream. But what about mid-life and beyond, when we come to terms with what will be and what will not be, when we join up with everyone else and find ourselves just getting by, just being everyday, just like . . . everyone else?

Julie's right: love's the answer, love's the thing that makes it all make sense. The more of it you have, the happier you'll be. And, if we take Julie's character as a model, we could further say that the key is to be yourself as much as possible, and then let love surprise you. Julie was always different from the other girls, (e.g. a song like, "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan"). Ever an outsider and daydreamer, she doesn't fall for the safest guy (something that results in its own set of heartaches and complications). But, in spite of these imperfections, something about her marriage is deeper than those of the other girls, who fell in love and married more formulaically. Life starts catching up with them and they wonder if it's all worth it. Julie somehow knows it is.

Love is an irrational, but completely necessary ingredient. It's so irrational in fact, that it's discouraged, it almost gets ironed out of us. When I think of my own growing up, I was taught to worship values, to value being this way or that, to value achieving this or that, and to pursue things based on those values. While the values I was taught were all good, they were generic, having nothing to do with who I uniquely am or what I care about. In other words, I was taught to do things not for the joy of it, (or the love it), but because they are "right." It's a completely different mindset. As I've gotten older, I've gotten a bit more in tune with myself, and I've started doing things because I love them, not because I'm supposed to love them, or because they conform to the right values, but because I, independent of anyone or anything, love them, completely, totally, irrationally.

It's tempting to think that if we put love first, we'll be magically guided to the right profession or to Mr. or Mrs. Right. But I'm not sure it always works out that way. Julie Jordan's character is proof that just because you pursue something you love, doesn't mean you'll end up traveling down the safest, "best" possible path. But what she does have is conviction and passion, the likes of which make the tough times easier to swallow, and give her life a kind of richness, a richness that evades the more superficial characters.

This entry is so sprawling and in need of a proper conclusion and tidying up: but it's almost 4AM, time to to call it a night :)


Andrew said...

Never listened to that before, but I know what you mean about things from the past teaching us a different perspective on things now. I try to watch classic movies sometimes for that reason.

Kristin said...

Oops, Andrew, I'm sorry I didn't respond to this sooner. Thanks for reading. That's interesting that you've also had the same experience watching old movies. Funny, watching old episodes of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show did the same thing. I wish we had a fun variety show like that today, something fun for the whole family. American Idol is as close as it comes, but even that is more limited in its appeal.

Joe Venito said...

Hey, I dream of having kids. Of course, I'm not wild about the thought of spending time with them, especially when they're babies, but a good wife and some little Me's running around, drinking and cursing all over the place, sounds like a pretty good life.

The real reason I'm commenting is that I've been going crazy trying to figure why I've been getting an article I read on the value of law school confused with something I read about feminism and law school. So you've made many an argument moot. kthxbai.

Seriously, though, I do think too many women are going to college. I mean, not that, but they still face a real funnel when it comes to employment. There are more women than men in college (53-47, I believe), but employees still would rather hire men. So what are the women to do after college? I say, obviously, if women are in college 53-47 they should be working at jobs requiring a college education, with the salary to match, in roughly the same ratio. Of course, I don't have the figures on me, so the point may not exist. Only time will tell, I'm afraid.

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