Writers and artists are supposed to be tortured souls, driven to the page by their tormented childhoods, their tragic love stories, their various psychoses. Even the funny ones are screwed up. Austen Borroughs, of Running with Scissors fame, was raised by his mother’s therapist, befriended a pedophile, and abused prescription medications. David Sedaris dabbled in drugs, struggled with his sexual identity, and let’s not forget about his crippling lisp.
I think it’s only fair that I admit this right now: my family is the fucking Cleavers.
We’re your perfect little nuclear family: mom, dad, and 2.5 kids (the dog rounds out the “.5”). Mom (June) and Dad (Ward) have been happily married for 27 years. Russell, as the younger brother, fills the role of the rambunctious Beaver: he likes “messin’ around,” but he’s just so darn cute you can’t stay mad at him for long. By default, I’m Wally, the older, responsible sibling who occasionally serves as the mediator between parent and rascally son.
Russell’s totaled two cars, but he goes to Princeton. Naturally, he’s the alpha pledge of his fraternity, and the top two eating clubs are vying for his membership. Sure, he needed several thousand dollars worth of plastic surgery after a drunken piggy-back riding episode, but when it comes to harder substances, he just says no.
My mother can only recall two incidents where divorce was even a remote possibility, the first of which involves an egregiously long road trip in Bumblefuck, France, culminating in a hotel stay from hell. As for the second, she insists that had a judge been present on the slopes during my parents’ first ski trip, my father would have filed the papers right then and there. Apparently, he fell his way down the mountain; while my mother managed to remain upright, she didn’t manage to contain her amusement. But several hundred falls and a broken thumb later, my father still makes my mother a mean Cosmo whenever she so desires. And she only drinks one.
Where better to set the fictional Mayfield than Greenwich, Connecticut? White people and white picket fences abound, Greenwich hasn’t changed much from the 1950’s – except now they let Jews on the golf course. People still talk in hushed tones about the Martha Moxley murder of ’75; only in Greenwich would the murderer be a Kennedy. The economy has hit Greenwich hard; residents have been forced to sell their yachts and summer homes. As for the premiere of the The Stepford Wives remake, filmed in a local mansion, Greenwich housewives attended theatres in droves, dressed in costume, although how their attire differed from their usual garb is hard to say.
Like the Cleavers, the Slater family, in its current formation, has moved once, from one home in Greenwich to another. We currently reside on a street that is more appropriately named for a sitcom than the Cleavers’ Mapleton Drive; whenever someone asks for its spelling, I am forced to respond, “Tinker, as in Bell.” Tinker Lane. Dead end street, blocked by a single fence with a neatly printed sign: Children At Play.
Perhaps the only flaw in this real-life sitcom is my own discomfort with my casting. In the real Leave It to Beaver,Wally spends his nights pouring over textbooks and writing essays in his composition book – as I suppose I am doing right now. The series ends with Wally preparing for college and the next stage of his life, where he presumably will pursue some sort of respectable profession and start a whole new generation of Cleavers. In other words, my worst nightmare.
At age nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an actress, they nodded their heads and smiled. “You’ll grow out of it,” they said.
“Nuh uh,” I insisted. And it became a point of pride. Eight years later, my parents were no longer smiling: I remained dead set on my dreams of superstardom. Now, remember, my parents are the Cleavers, so they didn’t discourage me; they merely restated their hope that I would one day change my mind. Scratched off the list were any colleges without a well-regarded theatre department, with the exception of my father’s alma mater, Cornell. And when I chose Northwestern over Cornell, my parents rationalized that at least I would be receiving a B.A. from a legitimate university, even if my prospective major wasn’t ideal.
In the middle of Winter Quarter, my sophomore year, Northwestern theatre professor and legend, Cindy Gold, guest taught one of our lectures. Up to this point, we hadn’t done any real acting; the class focused on Suzuki exercises, in which we recited Greek poetry while holding excruciatingly painful poses.
“Today, I want us to get to the root of emotion,” boomed Cindy. My inner Wally balked at the grandiosity of this declaration.
“I want you to clear your mind of all thought, and walk around the stage. Concentrate on each individual footstep.”
“Now, I want you to think of a time where you were ecstatically happy. I want you to let that emotion fill you, from your toes to your head. Let it shape the way you feel, the way you move.”
I spent the next five minutes racking my brain for my happiest moment. Was it my debut as Miss Hannigan in fifth grade? No, too long ago. Maybe when I won the Connecticut Drama Association award for my role as Lady MacDuff? No, too trite. Was it when my ex-boyfriend came crawling, begging for me to take him back? No, too vengeful.
Before I could settle on an acceptable memory, Cindy clapped her hands. “OK, now I want you to think of a time when you were utterly despondent. Let that emotion fill you, from your toes to your head. Let it shape the way you feel, the way you move.”
In front of me, a girl’s shoulders began to shake, and a low sob welled from her throat. Next to me, a boy wiped silent tears from his cheeks. Sniffles filled the room, and one by one, my classmates sunk to the floor, in the depths of despair. I was the only one still standing.
What knowledge had I of true anguish? No one had ever physically or verbally abused me, nobody I loved had ever passed away, and while breaking up with my boyfriend had been devastating at the time, a girl can only be so devastated by a six-month-long relationship. Heck, the last time I’d cried was because of an unfortunate haircut. My G-d, I thought to myself, I am so uninteresting.
My acting ambitions were doomed by my complete lack of profound life experiences. Nobody watches Leave It to Beaver or The Brady Bunch anymore. People want lust, grief, scandal, immorality – not a privileged white girl from Greenwich, Connecticut whose greatest tragedy is getting rejected from Yale. If tragedy builds character, does the lack thereof make for a lack of character? Is there something shameful in being well-raised? Am I less of an interesting person because I come from a good family?
I loved to tell people I was a theatre major because it meant I had soul, I had depth; I was an artist. But somewhere along the road, the idea of being an artist became more important than the art itself. Was using the title of theatre major to escape Wally Cleaver enough of a reason to continue acting? The stage, which used to be my way of escaping the mundane, now seemed just as constricting as my Disney-themed address. I was holding on to the theatre just so no one could say, “I told you so.”
This December, I will graduate from Northwestern with a degree in political science: the perfect mix of educational loftiness and ambiguity. With a poli sci degree, I can pursue any respected field, be it politics, law, or business. I hate all three. It would seem that my role as Wally Cleaver has solidified my fate.
I like to tell people that I want to go into corporate fitness, a reputable occupation with a logical path of ascension. But I have a latent dream of forgoing practicality and becoming a fitness mogul. In this dream, I’m the editor of a revolutionary women’s health magazine with a wide readership. Or perhaps I am a personal trainer for a celebrity clientele, with a popular fitness blog that receives a million hits a day. Or maybe I throw conventionality completely out the window and train to become a professional powerlifter. After all, my brother attends Princeton and plans on making bank either on Wall Street or in the sciences. Maybe I’ll just leave it to Beaver.
*Circa 2009. I'm now graduated.