10 Ways to Cope With Martha Stewart

Last week, I borrowed a copy of Martha Stewart's 1982 book, Entertaining, from my local public library. I was displeased, but not altogether surprised, to see that someone had branded two holes into it with a cigarette. There was Martha in the cover photo, as would be expected, laying a beribboned linen napkin on a table set with antique silver and long-stemmed Italian poppies. And there, veering into the golden wave of Martha's hair, were two angry, amoeba-shaped burns. It's a sign of the times. A fraction of us admire Martha Stewart devotedly and would pretty much pay to watch her floss her teeth. But many others would like to see her pinned beneath the business end of a Virginia Slims. Case in point: the day after Martha Stewart's prime-time Home for the Holidays TV special ran in January, several friends called me to ask what in the world I could possibly find to admire in Martha. They asked this question almost desperately, and their near-desperation is justified. More than even Princess Diana or Newt Gingrich, Martha Stewart has been popping up everywhere lately. And, as she told People magazine last fall, the things she's accomplished so far -- the books, the magazine, the weekly TV show, the bimonthly appearances on Today, the line of towels and sheets and paints and cake-decorating implements -- are "just the start." Just the start. If Martha Stewart irritates you at present, in other words, you can look forward to a lot more irritation in 1997 and beyond, a period that we might as well christen the Martha Millennium right now. If you can't stomach her, it won't be an easy era for you.Help! Please allow me to help. A true-blue if somewhat quiet Martha Stewart fan, I watched her holiday TV special with as much alarm as the next person. As Martha flitted from one outlandish Yuletide project to another for a solid hour (drill the acorns! gild the bay leaves! fling and whirl the caramel!), my faith in her was nearly shaken, and I began asking myself the very question my friends would ask me the next day: what is there to be admired in this implausibly productive woman, aside from her energy, her wealth, and her staggering amassment of tools? Answer (after long deliberation): plenty. But only if you know how to deal with Martha, how to control your exposure to her, how to extract from her just what you need, how to use her as a drug. In other words, how to do the things that I've always done unconsciously to interpret Martha without pain and trauma. In the spirit of Martha's own show-and-tell, I hereby offer up my superior knowledge: the do-it-yourself, easy-to-try-at-home, 10 Perfect Tactics that will help anyone cope with my beloved hero, Martha Stewart. As Martha herself would say: It's a good thing.1) 'Hire' her This is perhaps the most useful coping strategy I can pass along, and so I note it first. When exposed to Martha, many people are overtaken by panic and, if they're of a certain frame of mind, a disbelief that finds its expression in astonished laughter. She wants me to use a hand held leaf-blower to blast the dust out from under the lid of a grand piano?? Ha ha ha ha ha ha! In the course of reading a single Martha Stewart Living magazine, for instance, you may be presented with instructions for upholstering a chair, stamping a pumpkin with canape cutters, sculpting a marzipan papaya, and preserving magnolia branches by soaking their cut ends in a glycerin-and-water mixture for three to six weeks. The natural human impulse, when faced with this information, is to picture yourself attempting the projects Martha proposes, to freak out at the sheer volume of the work involved, and then to feel that a) you are a faulty, disorganized creature, or b) Martha is insane. There's no need for either of those conclusions if you adopt the attitude that, instead of being an upper-crust lifestyle expert who does everything flawlessly, Martha is actually (now, pay attention here) your own personal servant. Martha as the head of your housekeeping and grounds keeping staff, if you will. Picture Martha as a very proficient head housekeeper with a large staff of researchers and stylists at her disposal, but also imagine that she's a little too into her job. Picture her as the kind of housekeeper who is always bringing you suggestions and hints -- some fraction of them useful, but many of them blatantly irrelevant to your needs. I guarantee it -- if you filter all contact with Martha Stewart through this perspective, if you tell yourself that you've got her employment application and I-9 form on file somewhere, you will find her both pleasant and relatively helpful. And when she starts explaining how best to dig the trenches in which to plant the "all-male variety" asparagus that will be harvestable only after two years, simply tell her, in your mind (using your best patrician tone), "Thank you so much for looking into that, Martha. You are a credit to your class. It isn't of particular use to me just now, but perhaps some years down the line..."2) Ration her Martha Stewart is a star. A big one, bright and fierce as the sun. It might help you greatly, in fact, to think of her as the sun itself: a body best viewed from afar, and one you shouldn't expose yourself to for more than half an hour at a time if you don't want to get burned. Martha's weekly TV show lasts for just half an hour, and that's perfect. With commercials, it's maybe 20 minutes of Martha, and maybe four techniques explained. Just enough. Her holiday special, on the other hand, exceeded the limit -- unless you happened to tune in to it halfway through. Here is my suggestion for rationing Martha when reading her beautiful and intelligent magazine, which really does contain a lot of great information: allow yourself to look at it only while doing another task whose time limits you. For instance, while blow-drying your hair. If you find yourself feeling queasy, get your hair cut a little shorter. Adjust to taste, but be meager. Let Martha always be the guest who leaves before her welcome is worn out.3) Play art critic Tell yourself that Martha is a performance artist. Thinking of her this way softens and enhances the impact of her exertions considerably. Maybe Martha Stewart undertakes her numerous lifestyle projects and programs simply in order to gauge public reaction to such a thing in the 1990s. She could very well be keeping a journal about the letters she receives, the Web site devoted to her (in which it is reported that Martha used to trap muskrats and sell the fur to Sears Roebuck when she was a child), the two parody books, Is Martha Stuart Living? and Martha Stuart's Better Than You at Entertaining. She may be getting a good hoot out of it all, or she may be compiling a video documentary. Some performance artists rub chocolate on their bodies, some shoot themselves in the arm, some masturbate. It's not always comfortable to watch, but it's art. Perhaps we, the public, can't grasp the scope of Martha Stewart's work until the day that she or an astute critic chooses to explain it to us in ArtForum. Chew this over. Salute her brain power and artistry. And then, with new interest and scrutiny, watch Martha Stewart tie back the legs of a turkey. She's a genius, as you will notice. And, before long, you will be certain that, now and then, she winks at you.4) Thank her for being adult Allow yourself to appreciate Martha Stewart for being one of the very few adult famous persons anyone can point to. Try to think of another. Most fully-grown celebrities are adult in name only. The British royal family used to consist of adult celebrities, but not any more; now they have their toes sucked, wish to be a tampon, and cut at themselves. Famous lawyers, judges, and athletes used to act like adults. Then came the O.J. Simpson trial. Leading men once acted like adults even off-screen. Now we have Tom Arnold, Hugh Grant, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp, and Charlie Sheen. Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly have passed away. Sophia Loren stars in Grumpier Old Men. Elizabeth Taylor hangs out with Michael Jackson. And apparently just about any celebrity is willing to appear wearing a milk mustache in a full-page ad. Martha, on the other hand, is an honest-to-goodness mature person, who speaks in a nice, calm, low voice. She has at least a modicum of humor about herself, as evidenced by her appearance on Ellen. But you can't easily imagine her using a bathroom or wearing feetie pajamas. Kind of refreshing.5) Check for seams If you watched Martha Stewart's holiday special, you probably enjoyed the segment in which Miss Piggy visited Martha in her kitchen and shocked her by suggesting that the amaryllis in Martha's window was a plastic flower. Did it occur to you to ask why Miss Piggy, of all celebrities, would join Martha on her special? Julia Child made croquembouche with Martha in one segment, and okay, that made sense. Hillary Clinton let Martha hang a wreath on the White House in another segment -- very logical guest choice, as they probably have roughly the same popularity rating. But Miss Piggy? Let yourself entertain the thought that Martha Stewart and Miss Piggy may be cut from the same cloth. Literally. You will find that this throws things into a new light. Perhaps Martha is a very elaborate Muppet controlled by Jim Henson, the wonderful creator and puppeteer of Kermit the Frog. Sure, Henson was reported to have died several years back. But wasn't that just around the time that Martha began to come into her own? Isn't it true that during her television segments we rarely see the legs of Martha Stewart, because she's often standing behind some counter? Doesn't this bring rich ironic meaning to Miss Piggy's accusation about the "plastic" flower? When Martha Stewart's perfection starts to grate on your nerves, distract yourself from her efficiency by attempting to spot any stitching along the base of her neck, or wires supporting her arms as she gestures.6) Be her love slave Perhaps it's time for you to come to terms with Martha by taking up an S&M lifestyle. This is not so illogical a suggestion as it might appear. Martha Stewart Living is packed with commands. Just look at the notations on her monthly calendar, which always appears in the magazine's first few pages. Martha would make a supreme dominatrix. She may not be kinky, but she's awfully firm. Remove shutters; power wash and paint them. Clean and put away outdoor grills. Dig, rake, and lay out design of decorative vegetable garden. Clean out the garage. Paint all Lloyd Loom wicker furniture. Turn and aerate compost heaps. This is the kind of stuff that floats many a person's boat. Some would pay dearly for this kind of stimulation. Paint back hall. Replace batteries in all household clocks. Clean thoroughly around furnace and hot water heater. If it doesn't quite work for you, at least draw some pleasure, in crucial instructive moments, from picturing Martha with black leather whip in hand.7) Be her shrink I have found a certain book published last year very useful in coping with Martha, a little book called Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness, by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James. Now, never in a million years would I suggest that Martha Stewart is either insane or strange, but, after reading this book, I have been able to diagnose her as an eccentric -- much in the vein of Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and Howard Hughes -- and that has helped me comprehend and sympathize with her. According to Weeks and James, "doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways has always been a trait of the eccentric." Have you ever seen Martha make a bed? I have, on her show, and it's a multi-step process involving a wool mattress pad and a $665 comforter. Eccentrics "tend to exhibit extremism in their pursuits of life," report Weeks and James. "They do nothing by half-measures, exhibiting a boundless enthusiasm that can lead them to take on special attributes that set them apart as exceptional." Check. Eccentrics are endlessly curious. Typical Martha sentence: "I hope someday to learn the art of blown sugar so I can make pears and apples and other fruits and objects that resemble Venetian glass." Many eccentric adult women, Weeks and James state, are reclusive. Martha, obviously, is not. Thus, we have a rare chance to view an eccentric in action -- and how. Enjoy it. Entertain or bore friends with your analysis. Or label Martha with some other psychological or social affinity. She's ripe for study.8) Be a feminist Thinking in a feminist way may not at first seem to be the best avenue for learning to love Martha Stewart, queen of the home and hearth. But even if it's the road less traveled, it's a pretty good road. Get yourself some magazine articles about Martha. Call 60 Minutes and request a copy of the interview with her. Read especially the People profile of her. You will notice a theme: most interviewers like to portray Martha Stewart as a woman who has paid a huge price for her success. Her marriage has fallen apart, her husband having married one of her (younger) former assistants, and she appears to have no steady man in her life. Many folks get positively gleeful about Martha's single status. The implication is that lack of sex has given her a brittle and empty soul. And yet, what do we have here in Ms. Stewart? We have a woman who has made a fortune on her own, who knows how to take and maintain control, who is maybe a little stiff sometimes, but has collected a tremendous body of knowledge. We have a woman who can show you the best way to polish a table, sharpen a knife in the kitchen, plant a tree, re-pane a window. If you allow her to, Martha can give you an indirect course in empowerment. Notice how, although we're always talking about needing strong, female public figures, as soon as one comes along we fault her for not appearing on the arm of a man. Hmph. Martha Stewart makes Jane Fonda and Madonna look like sissies.9) Share back "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" is the Golden Rule. That established, stop thinking so much about your needs. Take a moment to concentrate on what Martha must be yearning for. It's obvious, isn't it? Martha, assuming she follows the Golden Rule herself, wants you to send her your housekeeping tips. Yes, she does. She'd like a whole boatload of them, please. You don't have her staff, of course, so simply do the best that you can. Start jotting down your helpful home-and-garden tips on three-by-five cards and the backs of old ATM receipts. "When picking up after the dog, avoid using the kind of plastic supermarket bag that has a hole in its bottom." "Use your thumbnail to scrape residue from the soap dish." "Don't rinse a lot of uncooked rice down the disposal, or it will expand and you'll have to call Roto-Rooter and pay at least $150." Address these useful tidbits to: Martha Stewart, 20 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036. Or send them to mstewart@msl.timeinc.com. Wait for the thank you note.10) Become a Buddhist We have now reached a territory marked "last resorts." If you have tried tactics one through nine to no avail, if you have attempted to picture Martha in your employ -- Martha with arms supported by wires, Martha in a studded collar -- if no other strategy seems to warm your heart to her, if you are still facing the Martha Millennium with dread, perhaps you should look into Buddhism. Buddhism incorporates some pretty effective philosophy when it comes to getting yourself worked up to like someone. It proposes the following game plan: First, think of how much you love your own mother. Then remind yourself that you believe in reincarnation. Then, still remembering how much you love your mom, realize that in the course of infinite rebirths, everyone has, in one life or another, been everyone's mother. Get it? Martha Stewart is your mother and you are hers. Look at a photo of her planting tulips or making a cranberry wreath. Force yourself to say, "Hello there, Mom." Love Martha Stewart unconditionally. Or, if that doesn't work, remember she's your daughter, and send her to her room.


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Happy Holidays!