A naked Rainbath in Xanadu with the Queen
What 2022 taught me about unprecedented times
"A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star. An everlasting world and you're here with me, eternally." —Jeff Lynne (as sung by Olivia Newton-John)
A place where nobody dared to go
The art, music, and industries of the 20th century were influenced by our aspirations for flight, from Wrightsville Beach to the surface of the moon and beyond. These achievements made us feel super-human. We sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Leaving on a Jet Place,” “Rocket Man,” and “Free Falling.”
But none who penned them might have guessed that life in 2022 would feel like skydiving out of an Otter without a ripcord.
In spite of jammed airports and a recent spate of billionaire phalluses traversing into the black silence of space, humans may cheer the lift-off but still fear any uncontrolled descents. Yet, here we are, at terminal velocity, half the population insisting that none of it is real. Our breathless bodies plummet past fragile democracies, outbreaks and pandemics, and negative news cycles.
Where are 2015’s comfort-plus seats, free cocktails, cinnamon cookies, and curated playlists? Where are the days when Trump was just a Simpsons episode? When 80-year-old presidents weren’t a thing? When women retained at least a few rights to their own bodies? When a generation of children wasn’t in complete mental distress? Take us back to those days!
But we can’t go back, we are in free-fall mode and no one knows when it will stop. Do we stretch out our arms and enjoy the view or frantically cling to the hope that the parachute will open, someday, some way?
Buying Neutrogena Rainbath at Costco
After a global controversy over skin-lightening products in 2020, the makers of Neutrogena clapped back with a vengeance in 2022, washing their sins away by filling big-box retailers with Godzilla-sized containers of Rainbath shower soap. I won’t go into too much detail about my retail remorse here, but suffice it to say, as soon as I whiffed the amber gold The Los Angeles Times once described as “imbued with a medicinal aura,” I filled my cart with enough bottles for a year.
Not only was this purchase a silly display of privilege and pandemic hoarding, but it was also an act of tethering myself to an ideal of beauty proffered by the fresh-faced models of the 1980s and 1990s —a sisterhood of women my age who today (mostly) still have natural lips, cheeks, eyelids and skin. Growing up I knew I could not achieve their body styles or famous faces, but at least I could aspire to their cleanliness. For me they set a precedent of what it meant to be clean, to be beautiful. During these late stages of the pandemic, especially on days when I could not muster the confidence to show my face onscreen during Zoom meetings, or when my blind eye was so crossed that I resembled a cartoon, I was grateful for the act of washing my face each morning. Cleansing for a new day. This was not about the way I looked or how others perceived me but rather part of the evolving relationship between my sight and my skin.
Skin is a form of status, as is the Western idea of cleanliness. But those statuses disappear when you are alone and cannot see your own skin in the mirror or on the faces and bodies of others. When I take my glasses off to wash my face or to shower, the only thing that matters is the way skin my skin feels and smells. Taking care of my skin meant protecting it from the residue of the world outside, one we’d been closed off from for two years.
Scent is memory. The first time I used the soap from Costco, I was shocked at how Rainbath–a product I had not used or smelled for decades–took me straight back to the home of my fifth-grade friend who moved to our South Carolina neighborhood from New York. Her family introduced me to bagels and lox, Evian, and Neutrogena liquid soap. Their house had state-of-the-art electronics, the latest records, and walls of framed posters. This friend unlocked a new world for me, a world that my brain associates with Rainbath’s heady notes of bergamot. So the soap that started as an impulse buy based on its precedents of the past instead began to symbolize the part of me that is tantalized by the new and unknown, the part of me that should greet this unprecedented future with open hands.
Believing in “Magic” again
I cannot compete with Atlanta billionaire and Spanx founder Sara Blakely. She is the world’s biggest Olivia Newton-John fan, her own Xanadu-themed 50th birthday party at Sparkles roller rink in Smyrna during the pandemic, and owns the leather pants the singer wore when she starred in the 1978 film Grease. I am neither a huge fan nor a collector of Olivia Newton-John memorabilia, but Xanadu, the whacky 1980 roller skating movie in which she co-starred with Gene Kelly, made a huge impact on me as a kid. Not only because Jeff Lynne of ELO, one of my favorite musicians, co-curated the soundtrack’s mix of 1940s swing, 1970s rock, and disco or that many little girls in America wanted to be like Newton-John’s character in the film (Kira, a Greek muse).
Also, Olivia Newton-John spun some of the movie’s magic herself. After she died in August 2022, several tributes focused on the aura of innocence she projected onscreen and the whisper tone of her singing voice. She made it OK to be soft in a world that was telling young girls to toughen up in order to compete with men. There’s a deeper thread here about being blond that I won’t go into here (see my Twitter thread for more on that), but I believe Olivia Newton-John wasn’t using her blondness as a signifier of power, but just the opposite.
In the last few months of last year, I went back and listened to her catalog.
There’s “Let Me Be There,” “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow”– the lightweight 1975 pop tune written for her by John Farrar in the last days of AM Radio that hits so differently today. It’s worth revisiting as a pure point in her career before the industry began to eat her up. It’s true that ”Xanadu” remains my go-to karaoke song after all these years, but Farrar’s “Magic,” another song from the same movie soundtrack, may be the one that outlasts it. What 11-year-old wouldn’t heed these lyrics? Building your dream has to start now There's no other road to take You won't make a mistake I'll be guiding you You have to believe we are magic Being isolated at home for so many months during the pandemic has made me much more aware of tiny signs from the God/ the universe that are around us all the time. A hummingbird fluttering above my head on the front patio, a phone call or text the moment I’m thinking of someone, how algorithms connect us with people we’d never met otherwise. This unprecedented time has given us the opportunity to tap into magic again, to believe that we can get by even when there’s no precedent to follow.
Talking with younger colleagues about Queen Elizabeth and the British monarchy
There’s so much to unpack about the past few years and the British Royal Family: the TV series, the films about Princess Diana, the weddings, funerals, Prince Harry’s memoir (and his connection to Tyler Perry and Oprah), and of course, the death of Queen Elizabeth II. My husband and I were on a shuttle bus to the rental car lot at LAX when the news broke of her passing on Sept. 8, 2022.
I’m not pro-monarchy and I think the concept is outmoded in every manner. But I struggled with news coverage when challenged by younger colleagues to justify the importance of Queen Elizabeth and the role she played in the stability of many governments over the past century. Should we cancel her life altogether? Or could we agree to find some value in her inherited role on the global stage and her leadership as a woman? She was a precedent. I did not agree with all her actions or her perpetuation of a world order built on invasion and colonialism or the fact that the “Crown” has sovereignty over the land and people equal to 1/3 of the planet’s population, but I believed that nuance and discussion are vital to understanding history and progress is built upon bridges between the ages. I’m glad I listened. Her death marked the end of precedented times. It’s up to us where we go from here.