In 2018, after years of occasional on-camera and radio commentary, I began hosting and producing podcasts for EW as part of my work to develop our digital audio programming.
EW On Set: In this exclusive weekly companion podcast for Schitt’s Creek‘s sixth and final season, Dan Levy and the rest of the Rose family and friends – Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, and more – discuss the heightened emotions and most heartwarming moments behind the scenes of their show. Featuring cast interviews taped on location in pop-up podcast studios.
EW’s BINGE: Schitt’s Creek co-creator, showrunner and star Dan Levy takes a deep dive with us through each of the first five seasons of the sleeper hit comedy. With bonus episodes starring Annie Murphy (Alexis Rose) and Dustin Milligan (Ted Mullens). (Also available on YouTube.)
I had such good intentions. I made it one week into 2018 sticking to my promise that I’d regularly write something, somewhere that at least some other people could read it.
Then the flu was a plague upon our house, then it was awards season, in between a furious mix of work and travel and suddenly it’s mid-March and this is the first full weekend I’ve been healthy and home since MLK Day.
I’m resisting the urge to abandon the hard-won resolutions I’d made my around to by the end of 2017. We’ll just call this an early Spring reboot. I’m trying every day, every week, to think about what I am doing to care for my body, my mind, and my future.
In between rounds of the flu, we did yoga while watching whales leap through the ocean off the coast of Mexico during a short trip to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate 10 years since our first date.
I read a lot, from a Marcia Clark-penned mystery novel I found by the pool at the hotel, to a YA novel that had been on my list for a while, the amazing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, to a very un-me fantasy-history novel, The Philosopher’s Flight.
By far the most influential thing I inhaled while spending a lot of time in bed was a recommendation from my friend Annika, Rachael Herron’s Fast-Draft Your Memoir. Annika wrote in her TinyLetter that she’d finally pushed way into a long-contemplated writing project thanks to Rachael’s advice.
My formal education as a writer is a little all over the place—journalism school broke my ability to form short, declarative sentences into crumbs and then helped me rebuild that skill, one excruciating class at a time, which for all that I tend to shrug off the value of a Medill degree is in retrospect fairly invaluable. I took a series of MediaBistro screenwriting classes shortly after moving to LA, which I snobbily liked in large part because they were for working writers, mostly journalists, rather than casual hobbyists. It was more focused on how to tackle a new format than a reassuring or nurturing support group. Other writer friends contributed their own story-breaking best-practices from the various camps/cults/classes they’d paid for. I learned a lot from blogs Jane Espenson and John August faithfully updated, often daily, through the mid-2000s. I have a dog-chewed and dog-eared copy of How to Write a Romantic Comedy that more than fulfilled its title promise.
Mostly, I wrote. I wrote thousands of essays and blog posts, both on my own and for work at Popnography, dozens if not hundreds of feature and cover stories for magazines, a short film and three (four?) screenplays, one of which I revised and rewrote seriously for the better part of maybe five years, parts of a half-dozen other short story collections or novels. In my bones and heart I’m a writer, even if in this phase of my career I rarely do it for my day job.
So one night, only sort of high on cold meds, I bought Fast-Draft Your Memoir for six bucks on Kindle and figured, especially with Annika’s recommendation, that at the least I might find something that would help me advance the almost-ready-to-be-written book I finally found myself on the cusp of tackling. Then, as Jessica joked, I did a very typical Shana thing and speed-read a book about how to speed-write a book. Two hours later I’d highlighted and annotated my way through Herron’s advice and even begrudgingly hauled out a notebook to follow her instructions to write an outline.
I have, I am pretty sure, two big books in me that I need to write before I die, and for the last three or four months or so I’ve been inching my way toward being ready to finally tackle the first. I’d thought maybe it should be a novel. Narratively neater, more easily compacted, free of the hurt that still stings in recalling a very precise and largely awful time in my life.
This book changed my mind, if only because for the first time it was actually simple to outline what parts of the story needed to be told and which could be skipped. (Herron’s perhaps obvious but important advice: a memoir is not an unabridged autobiography. It’s a story.)
Just before the flu struck, the first lay-on-the-floor yoga class of the year included the option to draw a card from a deck of intentions. I’d been agitated through the first part of the session, more distracted than usual due to some work drama that just wouldn’t fade from the front of my mind.
Instead of trying to find some elusive clear consciousness, eventually, I’d prompted myself to consider the tiny spark of the book idea I’d been trying to tease into more, and in a blissed-out haze of long-held horizontal poses and calming chimes, I felt my mind unspool across the entirety of a story. I could see the beginning, middle and end. I knew what to title it. I understood how, though the story had started 16 years before, I was only just now ready to assemble it properly.
I rose from my mat at the end of the class feeling light, buzzing with a calm certitude. Then I drew a card from the deck the teacher had left on her mat at the head of the room.
CREATE, the oracle said, and I may not be one who often asks the universe what to do but I’m also not one to ignore when I’m given such a clear answer.
Annika’s already made her way through a first draft, which is amazing and so exciting and inspiring. I’m just now finding my way into something resembling a regular writing schedule and I’m sure around some unforeseen corner I will hit a wall, hard, like always happens.
But for now it still feels absurdly easy. I lived this story a long time ago, and I’ve spent some part of probably every day since trying to make sense of it, telling myself over and over how I survived. That I survived. Now it’s time to write it down for real.
Amy Bloom’s new novel, White Houses, reunites Eleanor Roosevelt with her longtime love, journalist Lorena Hickok, with a sweet, sincere attention to detail that historians have failed to fully realize. I interviewed the National Book Award-nominated author about homophobic academics, superior first ladies and White House sex scandals.
I told myself in 2018 I was going to write, somewhere, about something personal every week. Here goes.
This wasn’t the easiest re-entry, though I hadn’t expected it to be. January is awards season, and you come crashing back into it fast, with the Golden Globes almost always the first Sunday after the holiday break. We prep going back into November but every year it’s still a shock to the system. Add on top of that everyone else in our company (non-awards season-reliant divisions) rested and ready to come in all invigorated and ready to plan How Things Will Be Better in 2018. I wish our fiscal year started in March.
I came back well-rested (and decided to take the observations of such as a compliment given I know exactly how ragged I felt by the time I checked out in December). I’ve struggled not to be overwhelmed and exhausted all week, and to remind myself that’s how it always is after a nice solid vacation.
I also came back with a new hairdo. I have never really had a signature hairstyle because 95 percent of my grooming is about controlling the Beast, and wresting that control in my favor already seemed like the highest bar possible to expect. But after we saw the devastatingly excellent Call Me By Your Name last weekend, the night before New Year’s Eve, I fixated a bit on one slice of the early ’80s scene-making: the side-swept long curls worn by Elio’s sometimes girlfriend, Marzia.
When we went to Italy in 2014, I was enraptured by how many women wore long messy curls with such bravada. Coming off a year like 2017, with the swoony taste of that film still strong under my tongue, it seemed like finally the time to see whether my workday cosplay — my corporate drag, as it were — could extend finally all the way head to toe.
I tested the look and accompanying retro-ish jumpsuit at a New Year’s Day party, because what good are friends you’ve had for years and years if not to experiment on.
And then I came back to work on Tuesday, coiffed and at least marginally more confident, hair slicked down on one side and curls crimped out on the other.
Why not treat the office like a stage, when so much of what we do there, especially as women, is perform? Every day I act like a person who is not grievously insulted to have to prove my ability to excel in my field, over and over. Every day I consider whether to speak my informed opinion or swallow it down—which will be easier, short-term, medium-term, long-term? Every day I wonder what my career and life would be like were I to be granted the benefit of the doubt half as often as I have seen myself and those I work with and for give it to those who already started with a leg up.
Time’s up, as they’re saying. I am excited to see so many people putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to justice for women in other fields, many of whom need actual, demonstrable legal and financial resources in order to fight back. I loved how Shonda Rhimes said, “We’re a bunch of women used to getting stuff done. And we’re getting stuff done.” (One of the most fundamental truths of organizing I ever learned was that busy people—women—are the ones most likely to make change.)
Black dresses won’t change the world, but they’re forcing an important shift in tone. A hairstyle won’t make that change, either, or even hasten it. But this week, at least, it made me feel more able to face the world with my head held high.
My friend and colleague Jason writes a weekly meditative Medium post that I find 100 percent worth reading and reflecting on. One line from this Sunday’s missive gave me that guttural yesssssss throat-clicking swallow when something feels so true you can’t breathe deeply until you’ve taken a moment to honor it:
I started playing with this ai bot called Replika yesterday. It asked me what I would want to share with my future self. I sat with that question for a while before replying Seek out things that give life meaning
I sat with that for a while.
The answer every time I am asked why did you get that tattoo, no matter which tattoo, is essentially the same. They are all messages to my future self.
I have enough visible tattoos that I am often asked by those without any, especially those who are feeling the call for their first, some version of that question. It’s frequently accompanied by its inquisitive cousin: but how do you know you won’t regret it?
It’s a question worth asking — if you’re really going to get a tattoo you should ask every single question you have before you do, and keep asking until you are satisfied with the answers, if only because by all accounts getting one removed is even more painful and expensive than doing it in the first place.
It’s worth asking but to me it’s not the right question.
I have no idea what my future self will wish I have done or not done with my life, with my body or time or money or love. I don’t think she’ll be that different, but seriously, what do I know? She’s not here yet. I hope she is not consumed with any kind of regret. I invest in that future but there’s no way to know if it will yield the result I imagine.
Instead I ask what she will need to know from the past. One day, weeks or months or years or even decades after the decision is made and the ink is sown, she will need — I will need — to be reminded that there was a truth I felt so deeply the only way I could be sure I never forgot was to commit my skin to it.
Even before my memory and memory-making mechanisms were brutally rewired, I somehow sensed this road map back in time would be necessary. The real reason I got that tattoo at age 22, or 27, or 34, or 40, was because something was so true and real I wanted to be sure I never forgot. Was never able to forget. It didn’t matter if I felt that way at 26, or 30, or 55. I just needed to remember I had felt that way, and to honor that past self the way I must trust in my future one.
These are my tattoos:
A compass rose
A phrase from a Pablo Neruda poem
A line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
Another line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
A lyric by Joni Mitchell
A portrait of our dog, Trip
A postcard illustration
A family motto
The truth of each of these seems so obvious to me but is often misinterpreted based on a first look, even when carefully considered.
Number 2 has been mistaken for a statement of lgbtq solidarity or strength, which is actually what Number 4 represents. Number 3 can look as much like waves, which isn’t wrong. Number 1 is actually two tattoos maybe five years apart, the second overlapping version slightly more ornate than the simple original one underneath, but also modified to expand on the meaning of the first. The line in Number 6 is best known for being sung by another artist that also has deep significance. Number 8 is based on a photo taken of us in Kauai but is equally a warning to my present and future selves, much like Number 5 is equally a pledge and a precaution. Number 7 is as purely about grief as Number 9 is about love, which is to say sometimes.
They all hurt. Some I wanted desperately to. Number 2 I correctly planned and predicted would ache, especially flying cross-country, so deeply that I would be unable to lose sense of my corporeal self. It kept me anchored. Number 7 revealed that I, like many people, am allergic to at least some kinds of red ink, and also that my reaction could have been much, much worse.
Here is how, when prompted today, I would distill what I wanted to remember from each:
A place that lives inside you never leaves, no matter where you are, and you can find your way back when you need and are ready
Words will save you, complete you, help make sense of your life — but you must work for them
Only the rocks live forever, or: don’t overestimate your importance to the universe
You must fight, and keep fighting — whether it’s for a principle, a people, a country, or a final draft that finds optimism where there was once only despair
Make good trouble, but not for the mere sake of it
This marriage is the best thing you will ever do
Grief will have its way with you, and it’s okay to wear that on your arm
You survived, and you have something to live for, so don’t be fucking stupid
People are the point
Today for some reason, while I sat on our new patio in the sun and tied my shoes and got ready to run up my new mountain, I sang some of “Power of Love” to the dog.
“Are you singing Huey Lewis and the News?” Jessica called from the house. I was. I don’t really care about them as a band but I, like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, loved Back to the Future, and that’s where it starts (and ends).
I thought I was singing “Back in Time,” and I’d forgotten the whole middle part of this verse:
It don’t take money Don’t take fame Don’t need credit card to ride this train It’s strong and it’s sudden And it’s cruel sometimes But it might just save your life That’s the power of love
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Tomorrow I will. I’ll do my best to avoid the TVs playing CNN throughout the office, though it’s possible there will be so much other, newer, awful news to show over and over that anniversary coverage will barely make air. (The producer in me calls bullshit: anniversary packages have been cut and dammit they will be run!)
This year might be different. Not tomorrow specifically, which will likely be hard and harrowing especially because this whole year has been hard and harrowing.
But this year I tried something different. Yes, there is a story there. No, I’m not ready to write about it, not yet. It’s not some miracle. It’s no cure, not a clean slate. A new intent, maybe. A new map.
Really it’s about trying a whole series of things that are different. Soaking silently for hours in a teak boxes of mineral water. Lying on the floor in the near-dark and meditating in long-held slow stretches. I didn’t know before I was capable of such stillness. I wasn’t, I guess. I couldn’t hold that quiet calm through the fear and worry and unknown places my mind might wander. Now I find myself reaching out to those edges.
I have been searching and searching through my memories and my old hard drives to find a tiny scrawl I made in late 2001. I have probably made that search before but if so I left terrible breadcrumbs for myself.
Finally: I found her.
Meet Little Miss End of the World:
October 2, 2001.
I was at my parents’ house in Reno, in limbo between New York and San Francisco. I was drowning every day, every night. Barely keeping my head above water in the middle of that hot dry autumn desert. Drenched in guilt that even though I’d planned to move west on September 15 now somehow I was abandoning the survival we needed to do together as a city. Far too traumatized to do anything and yet carrying on every day.
I wrote this:
living alone means you get to decide what kind of person you are, i said when i first moved [to new york]. it means, do you go to the movies today or read a book? cook a meal or walk down to a restaurant? fuck around or make something useful of yourself? no one’s there in that crowded house to tell you where to go or what to do, not even when the sky is falling.
so i was alone. i stood alone on the edge of the apocalypse and spun in circles and choked on ash and remembered no one was there to lead me home if i didn’t find it myself. good thing i’ve been trusting no one but myself this whole time, i thought, because that’s who i’m left with. and i found my way, followed, asked, soldiered on.
and maybe i spent too much of those days after alone, too, because when i close my eyes i see her, my little stick figure on an empty half planet. no buildings, even. no people. no smoke. no flat white light. this is what the end of the world looks like, except i know now that it will be worse than what we’ve been able to imagine. i’m officially making her my friend, little miss end of the world, this self of myself that i see when i try to sleep. maybe if i know she’s just a little digital picture i can manipulate and resize and put where i want i’ll remember where i am, why i’m leaving this time.
I survived. I’ve survived. I was 24 and it changed everything except that the world continued on, good and bad and better and worse.
This year has been worse. Today, so far, is okay. Tonight I’ll go curl up on a hardwood floor in some semi-fetal position and reach out for those calm wisps at the edges of my consciousness. I won’t be alone. I’m not alone.
I wasn’t alone then, either, but now I know at least that much so deep in my bones it doesn’t ever let go. I’ve learned better language, precise and clinical but also elusive and intuitive, for understanding and accepting what trauma does to your brain and body and what will or won’t or might not or just might ever heal the way you’re expecting and in many ways you hadn’t.
I am not alone at the end of the world. And neither are you. Maybe I still needed that little scrawled drawing to remind me. Or maybe you do.
(I’m almost almost almost ready to write about George, but as I told Sara as we texted furiously back and forth about this playlist and all the memories it dredged up, once I start writing about George I may never stop.)
Disc 3, though. Disc 3 is my life in California. (Note: This is just the first half.)
2004: Green Day, “Are We the Waiting”
In February ’04, I moved from San Francisco back to New York City. To prove I could. To be sure I hadn’t actually died on 9/11 and just not yet fully noticed. Turned out I wasn’t dead, but it still wasn’t where I needed to be. Quit my agency job, figured out how to fund and run a GOTV campaign working with AIDS agencies, dropped my stuff in an apartment in Long Beach and spent three months criss-crossing Ohio and Pennsylvania. The day after GWB won (again), I tucked myself into my hoodie and took a train, another train and a plane back across country to my new home. I listened to American Idiot the whole way, and for most of the next month, until SoCal’s relentless sunshine forced me back into the world. I don’t say lightly that an album saved my life, but this one came as close as I’ve ever needed and found. More than once, really: then there was the musical, oh god the musical. We saw the previews in Berkeley on our honeymoon, I got to sit down with Billie Joe Armstrong and talk about hearing his songs fully realized only when sung by women — and as face-melting as that was, it couldn’t compare to how beautifully Stark Sands delivered this song on Broadway. (Or then, later, BJA as St. Jimmy.) If I ever figure out how to write this novel I have bouncing around inside about Los Angeles it will be born from that same ache.
2005: Panic! At the Disco, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”
Relatively recent memory is a mindfuck. How bizarre to think back and realize these were adjacent years. We actually saw what’s left of Panic — Brendon Urie, now Broadway-bound himself to take a role once played by Stark Sands — last month at the Forum. It wasn’t at all like the many of their shows we saw once upon a time, through no real fault of theirs. I was proud that this weird queerish band of teenagers had survived long enough to be loved by a new generation of kids on a sold-out arena tour scale. But they might as well be a different band now. What I first remember of Panic in 2005, maybe 2006, is as raw and rough and painful as the ache just barely restrained under the young ambition of this record: Emily belting out “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” in the shower, bathroom door open on a hot summer day. But whenever it was we first saw them play live, it was this song that sealed the deal. “Swear to shake it up!” Brendon howled, and the devoted crowd yelled it right back at him like a boomerang. Swear to shake it up.
2006: Silversun Pickups, “Lazy Eye”
Peak Silverlake, though actually we got there more like two years later. Yes, this album was great, but it was Swoon that I will forever feel in my bones. I heard “Panic Switch” for the first time sitting with Davis at Dangerbird Records, blasted from the speakers on the publicist’s desk right in our faces. Just a sunny weekday afternoon in Sunset Junction. That was my job, to hear a song like that months before it would be released and figure out how to make the world love it as much as we did. That was 2008, the year when we almost got married at Spaceland — because why not, we could throw open our balcony doors and hear whoever was playing down the hill anyway — when I spent as much time in LA’s many tiny rock venues as I did at the office. There’s nothing about “The Royal We” — we are ready for the siege, we are armed up to the teeth, be careful how you live and breathe, release what’s broken underneath — that feels less relevant now. More, really, compared to those easy happy days. “Lazy Eye” always felt to me like a track that belonged more to Swoon than its predecessor, though, so consider this kind of a prequel to that life moment.
2007: Fall Out Boy, “Hum Hallelujah”
When everyone was putting Rufus Wainwright’s (admittedly amazing) cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” in their TV show’s most emotional finale, Pete Wentz was writing a song about that time he tried to kill himself in a Best Buy parking lot while listening to the original on repeat. It’s fast, full-bodied and loud as fuck. (It was around this time that I realized my best answer to being asked “What kind of music do you like?” was simply, “I like it loud.”) Fall Out Boy belatedly filled in for my un-arrested development — a far-too-serious adolescence spent mostly shunning whatever my peers liked. But standing shoulder to shoulder with kids 10 years my junior at FOB shows even as I turned 30, sweat and tears and feels pouring off us, did more to heal whatever angst was left from my teens than years of therapy. I sing the blues and swallow them too, Patrick sang so sweetly, and I hung onto the rough wooden beams on the roof of the Troubadour, standing on the table in the balcony with Jamie and singing back at the top of our lungs. I got splinters in my fingertips. Never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you, Pete wrote once. Felt only fair to bleed for it a little, too.
2008: Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi”
In no small part because of how I spent way too much time thinking about Pete Wentz — and specifically how he toed some precarious line between his public self and whatever was left to keep private — in this string of years I wrote, and rewrote, and kept writing a short film and then screenplay about how some unclassifiable pop star could still shake the music industry. One common rumor early on about Gaga was that she was trans. “Ambiguity makes you a lightning rod for people to hate you,” Pete told me when I interviewed him for an Out cover in spring ’08. “Some days I wake up and I couldn’t be bothered at all. Some days you Google yourself and you can’t eat.” This is hardly even the most meta song off Gaga’s The Fame (that prize probably goes to the title track) but it was still in heavy rotation through my writing playlist. I was — am — so obsessed with the known and unacknowledged rules and behavior required to succeed within the economy of fame, and this little stalker of of a love song sums it up so succinctly: Baby you’ll be famous, chase you down until you love me.
2009: Adam Lambert, “Whataya Want From Me”
I tried not to sneak a look at the track list of each of these discs as I made my way through, didn’t want to spoil myself in this amazing journey back through my own life, and when these opening notes came on in the car I actually gasped. I’d forgotten somehow how perfect this song is and was for that moment. I’ve already written my way through what Adam still makes me think about in this post around the end of American Idol. This song was written by/for Pink (with Max Martin, natch), and you can tell, but somehow it still feels like it was written for Adam. After months and months of writing about him on Idol and the aftermath, I interviewed him in October of this year, days before my wedding, and unknowingly and unwittingly beginning one of the biggest shit-storms of my life as a writer. This track was in many ways used as his peacemaker — after shocking the AMAs with an unrehearsed extra-sexualized version of his first post-Idol release, the far less interesting or emotionally honest “For Your Entertainment” (in response, in part, to what was written about him and Out), a bunch of his promo appearances for the album were canceled. When he was allowed back onto the morning shows, it was with this song, which seemed to contain somehow just the right amount of genuflection (once upon a time, I didn’t give a damn, but now here we are) and righteous defiance (there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s me, I’m a freak) to let him largely win his way back into safe-for-straights territory. It worked: the song charted into Billboard’s Top 10 and scored him a Grammy nom for best male vocal performance. He’s still got one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and I’m so glad we’re seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl with Queen this summer. But this song, wistful and a little angry, reminds me he could have been an even bigger star, and somehow we still weren’t yet ready for him.
And….somehow that feels like the right place to stop with this for now. In 2004 I finally figured out where in the world I wanted to live — sunny Southern California, please and thank you — and by 2009 I’d figured out who I wanted to spend the rest of my days with. Those are the biggest and most important before-and-after changes in my life that still bring me happiness every day, and getting to hear them play out in song is truly a gift.
So I turned 40. I didn’t write as much about that, not even on Twitter, as I expected I might, mostly because thanks to my wife I completely achieved (overachieved) at my twin goals of distracting myself as much as possible and also surrounding myself with people who have loved me for so long and through so much that it was difficult, even for me, to forget what an accomplishment that is in and of itself. I am terrible at not treating birthdays, anniversaries and New Years as annual opportunities to harshly grade myself — so clearly getting through 40 without spiraling into any significant self-criticism means I’m completely grown up now and have nothing left to learn.
One great and unexpected gift landed on my desk the day I finally dragged myself back to work: the #ShanaTop40, a 3-CD compilation of the biggest hits of my lifetime, commemorated in a format that Meredith was also smart/kind/brutal enough to remind me I was alive for both the birth and relative death of. (It’s also available on Spotify, which is helpful because while my car still has a CD player, none of my laptops do.)
The #ShanaTop40 is fucking amazing, especially when played on the evening commute at top volume with the sunroof open. The drive home from work is a better barometer of my current mental health than any questionnaire could be. It’s how I coined the term crommuting, which (obviously) means the kind of driving home from work you do where whether you want to or not, whether you can articulate why or not, you basically navigate traffic through a cloud of crying. Sometimes it’s mere exhaustion. I genuinely love what I do, but being a boss lady is hard work (as it should be — the day managing people is easy is probably the day I should stop, because it will likely mean I’ve forgotten the essential work required to be human). Sometimes it’s much shittier than that. One pledge I’ve made at 40 is to stop calling the sexist bullshit that still simmers under the surface at pretty much every workplace by any nicer name.
I have a glass office. Nearly everyone on my staff has at some point come in and cried there. I’ve done my best to comfort and reassure each one that I 100 percent truly never will hold against them the way we — women, especially — just sometimes leak all our overwhelmedness out of our eyes. But I can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t held that in myself — until I got into the car for the drive home. My commute is a lot shorter now than it has been at other times, but I’m still usually a bit more settled by the time I pull up at the house. Crommute accomplished. On a hard but slightly better spring day, where I make that drive with the sun still above the horizon, a mix CD stacked with the best singles of the last 40 years is exactly what I need to remember how fucking alive I still am. Meredith’s annual end of year mixes come with stellar liner notes, but I guess it’s on me to write about these songs, or at least some of them, somewhere.
Almost everything you need to know about me is that the most formative movies of my very young girlhood were Victor/Victoria and 9 to 5.
The first is a 1982 fake-French musical set in 1930s Paris, starring Julie Andrews as a desperately broke opera singer who finds unexpected success — and a complicated romance with a mobster — after she begins working as a (male) female impersonator. It’s queer and transgressive and romantic and every story I ever write about finding love among the other freaks owes it a major debt.
The other most important film of my impressionable youth, of course, is the 1980 feminist comedy featuring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as three fed-up secretaries at Consolidated, the impenetrably generic corporation where they are routinely demeaned, dismissed and harassed, especially by their boss, who they somewhat accidentally conspire to kidnap and then hold hostage (in his own house) while implementing the many common-sense workplace reforms he and his old boy cronies had blocked. I saw this movie when I was maybe 5 and became pretty obsessed with it, even though I’m not sure how much I really understood then. I had a huge crush on Dolly, her sweet southern twang and (admittedly) soft cashmere sweater sets. I played every game of Office as if I was Lily Tomlin’s character — “Consolidated, please hold!” I would chirp into my fake phone, placing multiple calls into imaginary purgatory until I was ready to choose one line and solve the next crisis.
Many of my favorite ’80s movies were business comedies — I was also a big fan of the ridiculous Secret of My Success, in which Michael J. Fox is legitimately in peak comedy form, but also features him and Helen Slater bursting into a big conference room to either stop or help stage a company takeover. (I don’t remember which — I just remember being so impressed by this kind of scene in every Wall Street-esque movie.)
But 9 to 5, it turned out, was for all its broad farce maybe the most accurate. Maybe still.
Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’ Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’ They just use your mind and they never give you credit It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it 9 to 5, for service and devotion You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion Want to move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!
But then, buried a little in the second chorus, is exactly the kind of sly, subversive faith that the movie has, that the secretaries of the world will win in the end:
They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder But you got dreams he’ll never take away You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way
Is it? I hope so. This song and movie is nearly as old as I am and there’s a lot in there that still sounds far too familiar.
But I was wearing a kick-ass lady boss jumpsuit the day I put this first CD in the car and I sang along to Dolly at the top of my lungs as I drove and I only wanted to cry a little. Mostly I was proud of having made it this far. I care more about being a good boss than I ever imagined would matter to me, all those dramatic boardroom scenes aside. I don’t need my staff to like me, or want to be my friend, or want me to be theirs. But I want to make the workplace better, at least a little better, for everyone else who’s just fighting to get through the day in one piece, too.
In this regular series on ETonline, we ask shows’ creators and writers to talk about their most cherished moment and how it went from script to screen.
Neal Baer, who also worked on China Beach, was the showrunner for 11 seasons on Law & Order: SVU—but I most wanted to talk to him about his time writing and producing on ER. The scene we dove into, from “Rescue Me,” was from a gut-puncher of a Thanksgiving episode about Abby (Maura Tierney) and her bipolar mother, Maggie (played by Sally Field).
Extra backstory: Neal was also the subject of the first magazine Q&A I ever did about a TV show—back in 2000ish, I interviewed him for POZ about ER’s major storyline featuring Gloria Reuben as a nurse who is living with HIV. “Meet the man who gave Jeanie Boulet AIDS,” I said then, because it was Baer, one of the only MDs in the writer’s room, who’d argued for the important, and then still controversial, storyline of a health care worker who is HIV positive.