The Funniest Girl in Class

Adulthood, Childhood, Coming of Age

When my parents went through the requisite empty nester minimalist purge, I was summoned to the depths of their garage, where I was instructed to sift through stacks of tattered moving boxes that contained all my childhood mementos. “I know this stuff is sentimental,” my mother explained in a very unsentimental tone. “But I can’t keep lugging it from place to place.”

The brown Mayflower boxes had been on quite the journey, traveling across no less than a dozen state lines over the last 30+ years. As my family moved so frequently during my childhood, the scratched out Sharpie labels on the sides of the cartons served as a poignant journal of my many life phases:

Barbies

Tapes

Karate trophies

Photo albums/scrapbooks

Photo albums and scrapbooks are by far the most exciting keepsakes to revisit during a storage purge. For the post-9/11 generations, images and scanned documents from one’s childhood are kept in cyber perpetuity. For the rest of us, memories are sandwiched between sticky cellophane sheets, slowly aging at the same pace as the fashion choices they contain. (Culottes. So many culottes.) Nestled beneath the photo albums were at least half a dozen yearbooks and autograph journals. I scanned the scribbled notes from classmates, amused by the hollowness of it all, e.g. “Have a great summer!” and “K.I.T. QT!”

As I continued through the messages, a common theme emerged. Between grade school, junior high, and high school, there were a lot of references to funniness — to my jokes, to the many apparent goofball memories that these pseudo-friends held deep in their hearts during the five seconds it took for them to write it all down and move onto to the next yearbook.

“You’re nutty and I love it! Stay crazy, chica!”

“I’ll always remember that one time you jumped on stage during the grad dance and rapped all the words to Coolio. That was hilarious. KIT!”

“I’ll always remember you, the funniest girl in class!”

The funniest girl in class. As I sat there, mulling over the pages of forgotten sentiment that once carried so much weight in my own validation, I realized that the funny girl quip was more than just a flippant yearbook compliment, it was a strategy, a shield, an identity.

I don’t recall the first time I got a rousing laugh from a group, but I imagine it goes way back. My parents often reminisce on how I was the chubby, smiley baby who couldn’t help but constantly coo and gurgle for fellow patrons in the restaurants and stores. And isn’t that the tale as old as time? Girl dazzles crowd with pithy one-liners to distract them from her thick thighs and rubenesque arm creases. Maybe babies in the 50th percentile can play it cool, but babies in the 99th percentile gotta work twice as hard to earn that love.

And in terms of earning love, as a young woman, there’s certainly a hierarchy of appeal. First it’s conventional beauty, then unconventional beauty (the conventional beauty who is hiding behind her bookish eyewear), then proximity to money-slash-celebrity, then about a hundred other things…and then there’s funny. In a perfect world, a group of guys would have been sitting around in the locker room, drooling over my encyclopedic knowledge of Mel Brooks films. “You know who’s really hot? That Rachel chick. She knows every line in ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and her Gilbert Gottfried impression is sexy as hell.”

Yes, I was the girl who did awesome Gilbert Gottfried impressions in the cafeteria and wondered why I didn’t have a date to homecoming. That’s fine, though. As evidenced by the aforementioned Coolio performance, I didn’t need a date to homecoming. I had nimble dancing shoes and access to a microphone.

Looking back, I acknowledge that having the loudest laugh and the quickest joke was often a defense mechanism. Fire first so no one had a chance to fire at me. Make everything a joke so that nice boy in science class couldn’t get too close. Put a snarky lid over my vulnerability so I always had the upper hand, the power, the control. I was too scared to know what people really thought of me, so I decided early on that I would make myself the quick witted funny girl, without any consideration as to how others might perceive me. 

Wielding humor in this way made me feel safe – safe from judgment, safe from betrayal, safe from disappointment. And while being told by the popular girls and the cute boys that I was the funniest girl in class wasn’t a mark of acceptance, it wasn’t a mark of rejection either.  

Yet, for all the ways that being funny shielded me from the soft, glittering, romantic experiences that many of peers enjoyed throughout adolescence, I cannot overstate the power and joy it has given me as an adult. It has made me a great storyteller, a skill that has helped me in my career as a communications professional. It has helped me make connections and forge strong relationships with the mentors, colleagues, and friends that have been by my side through some of the toughest, most grueling moments of my life. It has helped me be a better mother and wife, as being able to crack a joke or find the levity in the day-to-day challenges makes even the hardest days seem surmountable.

I’m even lucky enough to now be writing and producing comedy here in Chicago alongside two other hilarious women. We bear witness to the important role that humor plays in helping people make sense of an increasingly frustrating world. Today, being “nuttiest chica” is no longer my defense mechanism, but a key component to my empowerment and liberation.

So cheers to the funny girls. May we know them, may we raise them, may we be them. We need them now more than ever.

 

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Squats, Bends, and Pretzels: A Field Guide to Swimsuit Shopping

Adulthood, Body Acceptance, Coming of Age, Motherhood, Self-Help, Self-Image, Uncategorized

Swimsuit season is upon us. It is like Christmas for wellness-based pyramid schemes and women’s publications who ponder year after year: “What Lycra monstrosity should you deign to wear on your flawed, Rubenesque body?” I have been hyper-cognizant of swimsuit season ever since I was an adolescent coming of age in South Florida, where every day is summer and you are always minutes away from an awkward pool party thrown by some classmate named Tommy who wears too much Ck One and thinks your thighs are offensive. In those days, I wore decorative one-piece suits hand-selected by my mother. Among my favorite looks are:

  • A nautical-themed navy blue suit with Looney Tunes characters climbing an anchor up to my burgeoning bosom. Tweety smiled excitedly as if to say, “Look, she’ll be a woman soon!”
  • A red and white striped Speedo suit designed precisely to emphasize how un-athletic my build was. While swimmers have broad muscular shoulders and narrow torsos to cut through the water, my curvy body bobbed like a buoy in a rip tide as I doggy paddled across the shallow end.  
  • A neon green suit. Neon. It was neon. Look at this photo of starlet Esther Williams and then imagine the opposite of that, which is me in a neon green suit at any age. 

                      
 Yes, I’ve long since shed any illusions around swimsuit season and the body politics of summer. Over the last 20 years of agonizing swimwear selection, I’ve sported one pieces, two pieces, halter tops, board shorts, and everything in between – including maternity swimwear. And it doesn’t really matter how empowered you are, going through the trial and error process of buying the perfect swimsuit is maddening and can severely erode your sense of self faster than you can say “Why am I shopping for swimsuits at Burlington Coat Factory?”

 And so, with that, I have sketched out a comprehensive field guide to selecting a new swimsuit this season.

 STEP ONE: Get forced into shopping for a swimsuit by some impending event. You will put this off until about 48-72 hours before said event, adding extra stress to the experience. Oh, you’re going to wedding? A wedding in Florida where you will be renting an Airbnb on the beach? An Airbnb that is being shared with some old high school friends who think you’re 20 pounds skinnier based on some savvy Instagram filtering? Great. Get excited.STEP TWO: Maybe you have two kids and you have to take them with you on this excursion because you didn’t properly plan. Perfect! This is an opportunity to teach your 7-year-old daughter about body acceptance – which is to say, accepting that she and her brother destroyed your stomach. LOOK AT THIS WEIRD SKIN POUCH, you’ll say to them under the unforgiving lights of the fitting room. YOU GUYS DID THIS TO ME. Feel guilty for misplacing this rage, you proceed to buy them soft pretzels. Okay, you bought one for yourself too. At this point, what difference does it make? All hope for a Sofia Vergara sexy summer is gone. Briefly consider a swim skirt. Realize you’ve been sitting in the food court, staring angrily into space for 15 minutes now.STEP THREE: Enter store that only sells swimsuits. The people who work at this store are swimsuit experts and are ready to match you with the right pieces. You know how fun it is to go to a department store where little old ladies fit you for a bra and tell you how “sturdy” you are while leading you to the full coverage section? This will be super fun, just like that. But, instead of using a tape measure, they will use a system of fruit shapes to determine your best fit. Are you a pear like your Aunt Kathy? An apple like Danny DeVito? A shapeless banana like that shell-of-a-person Sarah who laughed at your Looney Tunes suit at Tommy’s pool party? She’ll be at the wedding too. Your jaw sets with determination. It is decided that you are an hourglass (not a fruit, this is a terribly flawed system) — and not in the Rita Hayworth way. Hourglass in the way that your boobs and hips are just incredibly large and your waist just hasn’t had the opportunity to catch up. The clerk hands you some suits with way more strategic ruching than Rita ever needed. Your stretched out gut tells you that The One is in this pile. It’s all happening. STEP FOUR: First one goes on. It has a bunch of shimmery, textured details. You appreciate the diva factor, but your “hourglass” torso looks like a Koosh Ball dipped in glitter. Next one goes on. It is a strapless suit that comes with convertible straps. You begin the initial squat and bend test. First observation: strapless suits are like an open cup handed to a toddler. One wrong move and it all spills out and the day is ruined. Second observation: squatting and bending in front of a mirror while wearing an ill-fitting suit is the ultimate expression of self-loathing. Also, squatting and bending is only the beginning of the practical swimsuit wearing experience. What if you are going to a water park and your kid wants you to go on the lazy river? It’s all fun and games until you’ve placed her on the inner tube and then you have to get up on the tube yourself and the damn thing keeps slipping out from under your butt, you snort in a bunch of chlorinated water, and bark and flail like an injured sea lion trying to get up on a rock while your child floats away in horror. Very hard to test that in a fitting room.Okay, final one goes on. It is a smoking hot black number, perfectly hugging your curves. Now, twenty years later, you finally look like Esther Williams. You look at the price tag – $150. You bristle because you know you will pay. You will take out a second mortgage to pay for the world’s most expensive swimsuit if it means being done with this process, if it means looking fine for the full 15 minutes you’ll spend at the beach during this wedding trip, if it means going another 12 – 18 months without having to squat in front of a mirror again.

 “Wow, Mommy, you look beautiful,” your angel child will say to you. She is sweet, but she also wants an ice cream cone from the place next door. As you pay for your suit, you think about how she can eat soft pretzels and ice cream without a second thought about how it might impact her body or her clothes. In fact, she already has her swimsuit selected.

A neon one-piece.

The Myth of Finding Yourself

Adulthood, Coming of Age, Party Animal

I was always a somewhat practical young woman. When the movie Hostel came out in 2005, my first reaction to the plotline of two college students backpacking through Europe and then being tortured and killed by a maniac at a transient lodge was not “Despicable! Torture porn!” It was “How entitled do you have to be to take all that time off to wander around another continent? Don’t they have loans to pay and a projected graduation date to work towards?” Backpacking anywhere was such a foreign concept to me, considering I overzealously graduated from college a semester early and jumped into the glamorous world of The Corporate Desk Job. I got a serious boyfriend right away too. We fell in love, got married and popped out my first child by 25. Four years after that, I had purchased my first house, popped out my second kid, and curated this suburban working mom identity for myself. I was hitting milestones like a detonation cord – BOOM BOOM BOOM.

pregnant

Sometime between the first and second kid, though, I began to harbor feelings of regret in having missed out on my own magical hostel story. In my version, of course, I would trade the mutilated toe plotline for, say, a photo op of me learning how to pour the perfect Guinness in Dublin, but basically the same thing. I had missed out on finding myself, I fretted. That’s what your 20s are for, everyone says. Your 20s are for making mistakes! For falling in and out of love! For jumping from job to job like that’s not a total red flag to recruiters! Well, Practical Rachel knows well enough that making mistakes leads to a paper trail, and paper trails lead to unemployment, and unemployment leads to foreclosure. How was I to find myself if I was too busy begging the Wells Fargo call center for a mortgage payment extension? It was an existential crisis.

I mean, I had eaten, prayed, and loved, but not all at the same time because who has time to for that? Maybe Julia Roberts in her Anthropologie cardigan, eating and praying and loving her way through Indonesia. I ate and prayed at the Target food court during my son’s soft pretzel-related meltdown. I loved, but only on anniversary and birthday nights after a bottle of Prosecco and before our daughter sleep walks her way into our bedroom. But doing all three at once? This was the luxury of single people who go to things like Bonnaroo and foreign film festivals. I began to have emotional, self-doubting reactions to vapid Elite Daily articles featuring pictures of blonde 22-year-old girls dancing in the rain, presumably listening to Passion Pit while discovering their calling to fashion merchandising. Talk about an identity paradox! Me, a confident Alpha Female, feeling excluded by a website that describes itself as (verbatim, I must note): “The Voice Of Generation-Y; news from your world delivered the way you want to hear it.”

Gross. Just typing that out gave me vertigo. You couldn’t be more stereotypically Millennial if you stuck Lena Dunham in an American Apparel pop-up in the middle of Coachella.

Then, one rainy Saturday morning, I sat on my couch at dawn, eating a bowl of Kix as my kids watched Cartoon Network (we do these things unironically in my house). “I should sign up for Second City classes,” I thought. I had been talking about joining the Second City writing program for nearly 10 years. Why I didn’t go chase that dream when I was childfree, I have no idea. Maybe if I had watched Hostel through another lens – “Look at those young people! Their arms are being severed by a rusty handsaw, but at least they died a slow and painful death knowing who they truly were inside!” – then maybe I would have signed up earlier.

This was it, I thought. I would finally find myself, and myself would be Amy Poehler. Or Bonnie Hunt. The heads of Second City would call me to their offices and say, “We don’t normally do this, but we see in you what we saw in Tina Fey. We’re going to fast-track you to Saturday Night Live and you’re going to bring your feminine mystique to the Weekend Update desk.” Yes, this is an actual conversation that happened in my head after I pushed “MAKE PAYMENT” button on Second City student registration site.

And now, a year later, I have found something. I found that I am not Tina Fey. I’m not Amy or Bonnie. I am Rachel. I am the same Rachel I was when I was 22, when I was 15, when I was 5. And as I started to write sketches in my classes, drawing from my varied life experiences, it dawned on me that the whole time I was worrying about finding myself, I was living out the experiences that made me who I was supposed to be all along. How could I have written a sketch about two c-suite executives on a date who can only talk dirty in corporate jargon if I never worked for The Man? How could I have written a sketch about sanctimonious cavewomen shaming one another for working in and out of the cave home if I never became a mom?

How could I have written this thought-provoking essay on how a bloody horror film framed up my life’s philosophy if I hadn’t spent 10 years of my life toiling over this crap?

I think this whole modern concept of finding yourself is a myth crafted by people trying to sell you overpriced tickets to three-day music festivals. You were already “you” even if you didn’t celebrate Oktoberfest in Germany, or if you haven’t had an absinthe-fueled one-night stand with a sexy snowman at SantaCon, or if you haven’t danced around in a culturally-appropriated tribal headpiece at an electronica festival. You’re still you if you’re perpetually swiping left on Tinder, or if you’re one half of a boring couple who is eating delivery pizza during a “Big Bang Theory” marathon instead of dry humping strangers at a nightclub. In all of these scenarios, you should be doing these things because you want to, not because you think it all feeds into some grandiose concept of being a 20- or 30-something as illustrated by a series of animated GIFs in a Buzzfeed list.

girls gif

Because, dear Millennials, when our parents held us in their laps back when we were just drooling piles of baby fat rolls, and looked deep into our round little eyes and told us that we were special snowflakes, they didn’t mean “But only if you travel to Ibiza as a house DJ, then build a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand, then buy a brownstone in Brooklyn or else you will have failed.” They really just meant you were special because there’s only one of you and they were glad you came along. That same pile of baby fat rolls is who you are today, just (hopefully) a bit more evolved. Stop chasing some romanticized identity of what you “should” be and seize the authentic moments you’re living right now, cool kid-approved or not.

Whether you want to accept it or not, the real you has been calling the shots all along. Own it and embrace it.