Essay

That Wonderful Woman! Oh, How I Loathe Her.

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Do you idolspize?

Or, more to the point, whom do you idolspize?

Let me explain. It recently became clear to me that modern life has spawned a brand new emotion, that psychological sidewalk-crack between envy and idolatry that we often succeed in jumping over, but once in a while fall right through. That's where we meet them, those of superior beauty, character, talent and intelligence and, if friends, who are never less than loyal, supportive, generous and kind.

For this we loathe them.

It all began on a Thursday. I was at my computer idly scrolling through House & Home, that most invidious section of the New York Times, and there it was: a splashy article about New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, and the house she and her husband recently built in the Hudson Valley. An avid house-porn junkie and Susan Orlean fan, I devoured the story and eagerly accompanied Orlean as she took readers on a low-key Web tour of the glass-and-fieldstone showplace overlooking the Taconic mountains, a soaring yet serene sanctuary she described as "spacious but not pointlessly huge." The slide show's centerpiece was a photo of an understandably ecstatic-looking Orlean -- who even at 50 can still pull off her signature mane of long, red hair -- basking with her son and husband in the great room of an incredibly great house.

Within hours, Susan Orlean began acquiring even more real estate than her 55 acres in Columbia County, taking up residence in that part of my brain reserved for those I hold in equal parts esteem and contempt. In my head began a tiny little synaptic badminton game that goes something like this: I love Susan Orlean, I hate Susan Orlean, I wish I could be Susan Orlean, I'm not smart/pretty/talented/enterprising enough to be Susan Orlean. I idolize Susan Orlean. I despise Susan Orlean.

I idolspize Susan Orlean.

Please understand: I adore Susan Orlean and begrudge her nothing, not the New Yorker gig, the books, the close-up-ready face. Not even the two great movies based on her articles -- "Adaptation" and "Blue Crush" -- that opened the same year . Still, throughout the ensuing weekend, my mind obsessively returned to the same thoughts, the mewling laments of a puny inquisitor: She's got the career, the looks, the romance, the kid. Did she have to get the perfect house, too? Must her happiness, however justified, be so in-your-face? Must she be so promiscuous in her bliss?

We all have them, those close friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances or complete strangers whose lives and careers exist -- it seems to us -- solely as a rebuke to our own. We respect them, admire them from afar, maybe even love them -- but with a twinge of . . . what exactly? Jealousy? Envy? White-knuckled rage? They're the people who are constantly reminding us that we'll never quite measure up. They're the valedictorians to our salutatorians, the bestsellers to our mid-listers, the mid-listers to our never-published, the homecoming queens to our also-rans. They seem to have sprung fully formed from our ugliest competitive streaks, our egos at their most fragile, our deepest self-loathing. They are our own squandered potential, fully realized.

Susan Orlean may be the most idolspicable person in my life, but there have been others: The college classmate, tall and gorgeous enough to be a supermodel, whose documentary was nominated for an Oscar. The acquaintance who, in an aerobics class 20 years ago in New York, giddily confided that she'd begun dating a then-unknown stand-up comedian; reader, she married him and he went on to create a mega-hit sitcom. The former colleague who underwent a transformation -- lightened her hair, got a divorce, quit her job -- into a fabulous-looking, critically acclaimed novelist with a hugely successful writer-producer boyfriend.

In New York, they're the guy you knew when you were both interns, who sold his Web site to Yahoo! and now owns a $5 million brownstone just down the street from the cramped walk-up you're still renting; in Los Angeles they're the fellow actor or screenwriter or director you see every day at Ralph's when, bam, he gets the big studio gig, she sells her script for seven figures, he's asked to pose for a Vanity Fair cover with Soderbergh and Scorsese. In Washington, they're one step closer to the committee chairman with one more Georgetown invitation or Tim Russert tete-a-tete than you.

(Is idolspizing an extreme sport on the coasts, the product of cities where the haves, have-nots and almost-not-quites live in proximity too close not to engender chronic envy? Who idolspizes whom in Des Moines? Discuss.)


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