Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Is a WASP?

On my first day at the all-girls Victoria Hall dormitory at Queen's University, I stood uncomfortably waiting to check in and realized I didn't have a chance.  With my short, permed hair and in a skirt of all things, I'd agonized that morning over two huge pimples that had sprung up in my state of going to university jitters.  I'd needn't have worried about the zits, as I'd pretty much missed the boat entirely.

It seemed as though all the girls waiting in front of me had come straight from the Holt Renfrew store at Bloor and Bay in Toronto, with their perfect blond ponytails, long brown legs and Ralph Lauren polos.  They were the Beautiful People, or BP's, as my friends and I were later to call them.  For four years at school and a number afterwards, I made fun of their incestous social circles and their pretentious manners.  But of course I was desperately jealous of their private school educations and their summers on Lake Muskoka. In stark contrast to me, they grew up knowing exactly who they were and how their lives would turn out. 

In his winsome memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, writer Tad Friend gives a delightful account of his family.  Refreshingly, it's not a sordid tell-all, at least not by modern standards. Yet because Friend and his kin are WASPs, after all, it and the New Yorker article Friend wrote shortly after his mother's death made some of his family feel he was, he writes in the book, "ungenerous." 

The best parts of Cheerful Money describe what I learned at Queen's--real WASPs don't under any circumstances flaunt or talk about their money.  It's vulgar.  And they never, ever look like they are trying too hard.  "We received," Friend writes, "a tricky set of imperatives: meet the unspoken standard without thinking about it too much."  Eccentricity, however, is part of the deal, and I loved Friend's descriptions of family members who drink and have affairs (so John Cheever) but who also go crazy to one degree or another.  One of his cousins says that if Ralph Lauren really wanted to capture WASPs he ought to put mannequins wearing white doctors coats holding lithium drips in his store windows.    

The end of the WASPs' hold on the world began in 1965.  Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, chose this as the year to begin his series for this reason.  It was the beginning of the information age, the sexual revolution.  All the rules seemed to change overnight, and it became very, very square to be a WASP.  Yet some have stubbornly hung on to those rules, and it's not all bad. 

It's 2010 and I am a forty-something woman living in Texas of all places, and many of the women I most admire are true WASPs.  My friend Debra went to Wellesley and wears LL Bean and Ralph Lauren and lipstick only at her annual holiday party, where she and her husband, Paul, lead the guests in a song they've composed about the year's current events.  She is wise and thoughtful and is one of those rare souls who actually goes to City Council hearings on zoning issues.  In our neighborhood Fourth of July parade, she dresses up as Martha Washington and hands out rolled-up photocopies of the Declaration of Independence.  Once I was beside her at the annual Stock Show Parade in Fort Worth when a group of cowboys dressed in Confederate garb and holding rebel flags rode by.  "The war's over, boys!" she shouted.  I was a little embarassed until the middle-aged couple in lawn chairs in front of us immediately turned around and said as if on cue, "No it's not."  Deb represents the best of WASP tradition. She is a bit of character, but a person of substance.  When I grow up, I want to be just like her.

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