Jane Fonda and Tomlin in ‘Grace and Frankie.’ (Photo: Netflix/Lionsgate)

 

Dear Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda,

Congratulations, Lily and Jane! And thank you for setting in motion what I hope will be a new era of comedy. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve watched four seasons of a television series that portrays older women as engaging, funny, thoughtful, and, yes, sexy. Grace and Frankie is a new moment in the history of comedy.

Although there have been comedies about older women—Golden Girls or Maude comes to mind—or starring older women (the ubiquitous Betty White), invariably, these women are the butt of jokes. The audience laughs at them, not with them. They are Grumpy Old Women and not people we might emulate. No one watching them is invited to think differently about aging or our society’s dysfunctional attitudes toward wrinkles and gray hair.

Grace and Frankie manages to captivate us using real situations. In the third episode (Season 1, “The Dinner”) Grace and Frankie go to the store together, where a clerk is so busy fawning over a young and beautiful customer that he ignores their potential purchase. After trying for a long time to get the young man’s attention, Grace (Jane Fonda) loses her patience and yells angrily, “Are we invisible?” Every woman over 50 can relate to this experience, but in the parking lot Frankie (Lily Tomlin) offers revenge: “We have a superpower,” she says, holding up a pack of cigarettes she’s pilfered. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Even the set-up for the show is funny. Grace and Frankie’s husbands—Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen—leave their wives for each other. Grace is a businesswoman who never had time for her children; Frankie is an aging flower child who teaches a painting class to former convicts. Thrown together by their husbands, they are the Odd Couple with a unique twist: their husbands of 50 years turned out to be gay.

Great humor is more than a setup, though, it also nudges us into uncomfortable subjects. Taking her somewhat stoned daughter, Brianna, (June Diane Raphael) and Frankie to the frozen yogurt store, Grace slips on the floor and confronts the fear that haunts every older person: an injury that might limit their ability to live a normal life (Season 1, “The Fall”). She ends up seeing how much she needs her friend, Frankie, whom she so often criticizes. “I’m just like you,” quips Frankie, “except with a better personality.”

Different responses to the impending death from cancer of their dearest friend, Babe, separates Grace and Frankie, as they grapple with end-of-life issues. “I don’t need a miracle, Sugar,” Babe explains to them both. “I’ve had a really good ride.” (Season 2, “The Party”) Babe attempts dark humor in a way that is real and funny and not funny. Negotiating the roller coaster set in motion by Babe, the two friends don’t agree, but they see each other and Babe in a new light.

And, yes, older women can be sexy. In the first season, a stranger tells Grace she is “smokin’ hot,” and anyone watching the show can believe that this is possible. Single women over 50 worry about whether or not they should put an ad on a singles website, and then what that ad should say. They use vibrators, and they are interested in potions that improve lubrication. Grace and Frankie explores the humor in all of these situations. And they reveal the true risk that it takes to be vulnerable. It was worth watching all four seasons to see how Grace finally allows herself to be vulnerable to a younger man, Nick. As she pulls off her fake eyelashes and washes off her make-up, she says: “You want the real me, well this is what you get. And it’s all downhill from here.” (Season 4, “The Expiration Date.”)

You may remember some four decades ago, Grey Panther Maggie Kuhn blasted the media for not including normal images of older adults. Old white women accounted for less than 1% of the major characters on television, and old black women, she charged, “were only depicted as victims or corpses.” In 1975, the Gray Panthers successfully persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to amend the Television Code of Ethics to include “age” along with race and sex as an area where the media needed to be more sensitive. Despite the best efforts of Maggie and the Gray Panthers, little has really changed on television for older women.

Maggie appeared on Donohue and The Tonight Show, and she was so charming nobody cared if she was critiquing the show and the entire media to boot. I remember as a child, thinking she was funny but also really thinking about what she said. We are living in a future where facelifts and botox are commonplace; hair coloring, mundane. I don’t plan to confess what I spend on wrinkle cream, but none of us have to guess what Maggie Kuhn would think about of all that.

Still, one night, in between episodes of Grace and Frankie, I thought I heard her laugh out loud.

With gratitude,

Margaret

 

  1. S. to Readers: Grace & Frankie is a Netflix Series, and it enters Season 5 in 2019. For more on Maggie Kuhn, see the Gray Panthers Archives at Temple University.

“I never go to national parks,” a young woman dressed in tight capris and climbing shoes said to her bearded friend. It was one of those overheard conversations at an airport. “They aren’t wild enough for me,” she explained and went on to associate our 58 national parks with bumper-to-bumper traffic, long lines for the bathroom, and goggle-eyed tourists with cameras. Thanks to this unknown woman, I’ve started a blog about my adventures in national parks.

Truth is, I shared some of her fears in 2017, when my family and I numbered among the 4.12 million people who visited Yellowstone National Park in 2017. Yellowstone ranks as the oldest (1872) and one of the most heavily traveled national parks, and I worried about crowds ruining our trip. However, my son, an enthusiastic young scientist, wanted to see those geyers.

To get off the beaten track, I’ve learned, requires research. Through my sister Ann I located Janelle Brown, a journalist, who lives in Idaho and visits Yellowstone as often as once a year. “It is like nowhere else on earth, the geysers, hot pots, wildlife, mountains and scenery continue to amaze, and the great thing is if you get away from the road at all you are in pristine wilderness,” she said. “Of course, you’ll want to have bear spray.” One of the most important pieces of advice Janelle offered for our trip was to stay inside the park boundary. The Grand Loop road in Yellowstone is 142 miles long, so don’t spend an additional hour in the car getting there, she advised. Staying inside the park, Janelle said, will help you capture early morning and evening hour views of wildlife while minimizing crowds.

I started planning in January for the following summer, and this was too late for many of the hotels. However, I found a good selection of campsites in Madison Campground and so decided on car camping. Most elk prefer daybreak, so my son and I rose early on the first day and counted seven by the Firehole River. Although the national park campsites typically offer flat tent sites and clean bathrooms, be careful about tent placement: Yellowstone has a lot of late afternoon rain storms, and because of the rocky ground water has no place to go except in the bottom of a tent. People from all over the world stay in national park campgrounds, though, so visits with the “neighbors” can be a lot of fun. Our favorite sign from the Madison Campground bathrooms:

Bathrooms in Yellowstone all post this delightful sign about tourists getting too close to buffalo.

As a frequent national park visitor, I have learned that if you are willing to walk at least a mile, you can often escape the crowds. Naturally, I asked Janelle about favorite day hikes, and she recommended Mount Washburn, a 6.4 mile hike with a 1,400 foot elevation gain up to the 10,243 foot summit. (“Don’t forget the bear spray!”) The morning in July that my family and started on this hike, it was awash in wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush in a magenta color as well as purple lupine and tall yellow thistles. We met a couple of young women from Clemson University who were studying the habitat of pikas. An indicator species for global warming, Ochotona princeps (a tiny member of the rabbit family) favors high elevations and these cooler habitats are sadly in decline.

We met only a few parties on that lovely morning hike, (the trail became more crowded in the afternoon), and at the top we saw 14 big horn sheep. These “charismatic megafauna,” as one of my park service friends calls them, were a thrill to see so close. They posed for photographs but snorted loudly if a hiker invaded their personal space. With steep cliff drop-offs in every direction, I respected their boundaries. On a clear day, a map in the fire tower at the top oriented visitors to the entire park in a panoramic view.

 

Young big horned sheep near the top of Mount Washburn.

In general, I do not enjoy the “most visited site” at any national park. I advise friends to skip Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Tunnel View in Yosemite. However, my son wanted to see the famous Lamar Valley, and the Visitor Center at Mammoth Springs (on our way there) has a bookstore not to be missed. The knowledgeable rangers verified that we had seen a sandhill crane on our drive. They also offered suggestions for the best viewing times of Lamar Valley and where to see an osprey nest on the way. The bookstore included Native American history, which was woefully inadequate in park interpretation. The most important thing we got, however, turned out to be a small book published by Montana State University, called Living Colors: Microbes of Yellowstone National Park (Montana State University, 2013). I bought it as a guidebook for my science buff, but it ended up changing all of our experiences.

One reason I was reluctant to travel the Lamar Valley was because I read the 1986 book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which argues that the scenes of buffalo and elk in the park are the result of mismanagement. To supply visitors with a safe view of nature, the National Park Service in the early twentieth century engaged in predator control, including wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. The NPS did not allow hunting, which then limited Native American culling of the herds. The overpopulation of elk in particular led to a loss of vegetation, which drastically limited beaver populations and changed the nature of the land. Chase even blasts the 1963 Leopold Report, pushed by environmentalists, which moved the entire agency toward ecosystem management. Chase, the ultimate curmudgeon, argued this was another way of “playing God.”

The park drew criticism after the advent of ecosystem management, for no longer feeding bears (1970); for cooperating with elk hunters on the borderlands (1986); for allowing some areas of the park to burn in a fire (1988); and for reintroducing wolves (1994). Some of these experiments worked better than others, but it’s important to remember that few scientists do their work in as public an area, and the Yellowstone rangers must keep 4.12 million people safe who want to see the charismatic megafauna and not get killed.

All this controversy acknowledged, the Lamar Valley with its ranging bison was breathtaking on a July afternoon. On the way into the scene, a buffalo dodged behind our car. When the traffic slowed to a crawl because of a “buffalo jam,” we simply parked by the side of the road and watched the herd. An adult bison weighs 1,000 pounds (cow) to 2,000 pounds (bull) and stands at the hump about six feet. They run as fast as 40 miles an hour. What you cannot get from a postcard photograph of American bison, however, includes their sound. While we watched from a safe distance, two male bison had what appeared to be a disagreement over a female. She munched grass, unconcerned, as the two bulls grunted, stamped their feet and made noises with those giant chest cavities that I can only describe as roars. We half feared and half expected them to lock horns, but after about 30 minutes they went their separate ways. It was thrilling in the way of megafauna.

Be sure to call these charismatic stars of the Lamar Valley bison NOT buffalo.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of our encounters with elk, big horn sheep, sandhill cranes, bison, and other wildlife. Yet one can become a little competitive within such abundance, boasting with strangers about the number of animals “captured” in photographs or the best places to snag a view of one. Maybe that’s why the highlight of the trip, for me, did not take place on remote hikes or in the presence of large animals or even in a place without people. It happened because of the research we did through the little guidebook, Living Colors. We had already enjoyed a fabulous sunset over Norris Geyser Basin; the effervescent glub-glub of Paint Pots; and the beautiful travertine formations made by carbolic acid called Mammoth Springs, both the Upper and Lower terrace. My family and I had marveled at these beauties, but Living Colors opened our eyes to something we hadn’t seen.

Living Colors explains that the beauty of the famous hot springs is not caused by chemical dyes or geologic interactions but by billions of living microbes inside the geyser basins. The microbes in Yellowstone are called extremophiles, because they exist under such harsh conditions. The odd green-blue colors in Mammoth Hot Springs, for instance, are called Chloroflexus, and scientists are studying them because they think they might help us understand the evolution of photosynthesis. One type of extremophile, Sulfurihydrogenibium, has been found in deep sea thermal vents. Living Colors explains that extremophiles may hold the key to alternative energy fuels; hazardous waste control; and even disease treatments. The landscape, which appeared at first glance barren (if fantastic in formation), became filled with mystery for us.

The color of Grand Prismatic Spring is supplied by microbes.

The largest hot spring in America, Grand Prismatic Spring, became the climax of our adventure with microbes. Surprisingly, it no longer mattered that we were sharing this experience with dozens of people who shuffled behind us on a boardwalk. We were, perhaps, annoying to other tourists, because we stayed at the center position for a long time, cataloging Calathrix, a bacterium that lives in water above 86 degrees and has a chemical in it that provides its own sunscreen. Another bacterium, Pharmidium, exists in 95-135 degree water temperatures and produces the bright orange color in the photograph above.

My family had taken all the photographs they wanted, and my son and I had identified the three major extremophiles in the spring. Everyone started back down the boardwalk, but I lingered. I myself could not survive in the hot water this environment, should I fall into it, but extremophiles organisms thrive. The microbes in the rainbow-colored pool suddenly pulsated with a beauty that was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

It’s all alive, I thought, wonderstruck, every color present is filled with life. And, perhaps most surprisingly, I didn’t get off the beaten track to encounter these creatures, and they consist of the opposite of megafauna. Alone for a moment with the Grand Prismatic Spring I felt connected not only to the 2,200 acres of this magical place but also to “the eternity in an hour.”