It's an Interesting Day in the Neighborhood
Updated: Feb 11
Inspired by a Facebook image that perfectly encapsulates some very special people and poignant times in my life, I hereby present a dissertation on the complexity of personhood, persona and the human condition.
Subject One: Julia Child
When I was a senior in college, one of my campus neighbors invited the new university president to dine with him and his roommates. They were pretty darn proud of that. Not to be outdone by their braggadociosness
(braggadocity?), one of my five roommates, Andrew, took it upon himself to up the ante and invited the Honorable Julia Child to dine with us in our home. He sent her an actual, physical letter of invitation, and she graciously accepted.
As we all began to panic at the conundrum of what one might actually cook for JC, Julia pulled a bait-and-switch and in turn invited Andrew to dinner…in addition to a handful of other college randos, which apparently did not include us.
Andrew arrived at Julia’s home to learn that they would actually be dining out, which of course triggered disappointment number two in that no, she would not be cooking for anyone that evening either. Allegedly, Julia liked her wine in glasses (plural) as much as if not more than in her recipes. Three sheets to the wind and with great bravado, she led her ragamuffin entourage to their waiting vehicles and warned them to “Watch your footing!” as they traversed the frozen tundra of Greater Boston.
FYI: Andrew’s JC impression is spot-on.
Anyhoo, as the restaurant festivities ensued, she provided a lesson in Vinology by demonstrating proper wine pouring, raising said glass to the nares, and lifting (the glass, not the nares) ever so gently towards the light so you can see it “SWISH!”, spoken in customary Julia Child intonation. With her hair a mess, her shirt now half-tucked and skirt askew, they left the restaurant never to be seen - by each other - again.
Thirty-plus years later, my husband and I still manage to squeeze in a few iterations of “Watch your footing!” in ode to Andrew every winter. Perhaps this evening’s arrival of a wicked awesome Nor’Easter (we did go to school in New England) is as good a time as any to take Julia's wise words to heart.
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Is anyone else gob smacked by the realization that Julia Child’s initials are JC?
Subject Two: Mister Rogers
The day after I graduated from college, my not-yet husband and I moved to Pittsburgh. My aunt took us on a little tour of the area and went out of her way to drive us to Mister Rogers’ actual neighborhood, where we sat in her car outside of his home for an uncomfortable period of time. It was a bit stalker-ish, but in a benign, morbid curiosity kind of way. And it didn’t disappoint: if you can imagine the quaintest little English cottage located in a suburb – the exact type of dwelling where one would expect Fred to live - you’d be pretty accurate.
Every workday and on most weekends, I drove down Fifth Avenue and passed WQED, the first public television station in the U.S. as well as shooting locale for MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. I learned this piece of trivia (among many greats) from one of my other college roommates, Kenny, who works in the industry. With each drive by the station I mindfully acknowledged it as one of my top 10 list of “Pittsburgh: America’s Greatest Secret” items, thankful that I had the great fortune to live there.
On this particular Monday, the skies opened wide, spilling rain of Ark-ish proportion throughout the city. It was scary rain, voluminous and plentiful, blowing in every direction during morning rush hour. Traffic was stop and go, the roads were slippery, and there were people EVERYWHERE - including the Fredmeister. As I approached WQED, not paying any particular attention to it whatsoever because, you know, rain + traffic = hydroplaning, I kept my eyes glued to the road. This is exactly when Mister Rogers stepped out – FROM BETWEEN TWO CARS – into my vehicle’s landing coordinates
within milliseconds of its arrival time. Having most literally only inches to spare, I slammed on the brakes, praying that this was the safe driving response described in the PA Driving Manual and that Physics was more magical than I remembered. Using my Jersey-cultivated road rage potty mouth, I said very loudly to no one in particular, “What the f#*k is that guy doing…HOLY SH#T – THAT’S MISTER ROGERS!!!”, as he stared me down with the shock of one who has just witnessed Lady Elaine careening the trolley into a no-parking zone.
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Did anyone else's childhood nightmares involve Lady Elaine? She totally ruined decoupage for me. Just saying.
My heart racing, lungs inflating and deflating in quick, shallow bursts, and after eventually returning to my body, one line and one line only echoed inside my head: “I almost killed Mister Rogers.” I was "that close" to becoming the person who pummeled the cardigan-toting, Keds-wearing man loved (or feared) by children the world ‘round. And just like decoupage, my previously held Tao of Fred drowned in the muddy waters overflowing the streets of Pittsburgh, because Captain Safety didn’t walk his talk through the damn crosswalk. Which was, again most literally, five or so feet from where he now stood.
Like all of humanity, brilliant, talented, committed, loving, and generous people are equally flawed. Although one might argue that the idea of a human flaw is flawed in and of itself, based upon the fact that our quirks and foibles aren't necessarily good or bad - "thinking makes it so" (Hamlet). If people are built to make mistakes, live a life of experiences and learn from them, then it's all just information. The choices we make to encode this data into our corpus of knowledge and learn from it, as well as the ability to rebound from last-minute changes, disappointments and near-misses (or actual ones) through humor and other useful coping mechanisms, fosters resilience and, in some extreme cases, the transcendence of suffering. The fact that we are capable of doing so is actually quite astonishing; our willingness and commitment to live this philosophy is the hard part. Like everything else, it gets easier with practice and time. Some might even say much like a good wine.
It is heretofore stated with true sincerity that I have the greatest respect and admiration for both Julia Child and Fred Rogers. It is not my intention to slander or belittle their contributions or personhood. Much like the amazing roommates with whom I was gifted cohabitation (the others are equally as magnificent, btw), they are burned into my memory, forever changed, for better or worse. Personally, I think it's for the better. At least that’s my story – I mean, dissertation - and I’m sticking to it.