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.)
Let me be clear. Those we idolspize are not, as Jessica Mitford called them in 1977, "Frenemies," a concept she gleaned from one of her famous sisters. "My sister and the Frenemy played together constantly," Mitford explained, "invited each other to tea at least once a week, were inseparable companions, all the time disliking each other heartily."
As useful as the term is, having a "Frenemy" isn't quite like idolspizing someone -- you can idolspize a perfect stranger, say -- although it's close. So, too, idolspizing doesn't adhere to the rule that it isn't enough you should succeed, but that your friends should also fail; the idolspizer might succumb to the odd moment of schadenfreude -- would I weep openly if, say, Susan Orlean's house developed wood rot? -- but we're sincerely happy for our idols even while we endure their ever-accumulating triumphs.
To be truly idolspicable, someone must be thisclose to your own age, background, educational achievement and career, and they must be of your gender and general situation in life; there's no use idolspizing Gisele Bundchen, Stephen Hawking or those whose surpassing physical and mental gifts put them beyond the pale of human spizolatry. You can idolspize Jennifer Aniston because, without TV stars for a dad and an uncle, she seems like someone you could have gone to high school with. You can't, however, idolspize Angelina Jolie, unless you're Jennifer Aniston, in which case you would most likely bypass "idol" altogether and go straight to "despise."
(Do men idolspize other men? Or do they have more psychologically healthy means of competing, like sports, boardroom coups, barroom brawls? Is idolspizolatry women's response to the have-it-all myths of post-feminist culture? Discuss.)
Celebrities in general are too pretty, rich and thin to provide realistic idolspizing fodder -- plus there's usually a broken marriage or substance abuse problem that allows the rest of us to feel smugly superior -- although who among us doesn't secretly idolspize recent award-winners Reese Witherspoon and Kelly Clarkson (American Idolspize)? Indeed, awards season -- not to mention finales of that-could-be-me reality shows such as "Project Runway" and "The Bachelor" -- makes for perfect idolspizing weather, as yet another deserving winner claims the Big Prize. And make no mistake, the idolspized are nothing if not deserving. They're attractive, friendly, down-to-earth, hard-working -- we want them to succeed, we just wonder why they have to keep succeeding, over and over again.
The idolspized signify the recognition that meritocracy can be a bummer. And that it can be maddeningly random: On some level, there but by the sheer perversity of God -- or more likely your own sloth, self-sabotage or failure to seize the day -- go you. Indeed, they are you, only smarter, faster, richer, thinner, with better hair. To wit: Like Susan Orlean, I'm a redhead, a writer, a dog lover, a late marrier and later-in-life parent; I even have my own weekend house that on paper sounds like a candidate for House & Home-worthy envy, were it not for the sagging plaster walls and the un-Taconic view of a crab shack belonging to a waterman named Junebug.
But still, it's a house on the water, which is precisely one house on the water more than I ever thought I would own. And perhaps there is someone out there who, after reading about that house, or hearing about my awesome job, my sweet husband, my enchanting daughter or my adorable dogs -- has found a reason to idolspize me. As mind-bending as it sounds, maybe there's even someone out there Susan Orlean idolspizes. A girl can dream. In the meantime, Orlean wrote a story about homing pigeons for a recent issue of the New Yorker. I read every word, and it was delightful.