My Own Gayle Force


Cherri with the Gayles–Elizabeth Kvale, Kristin Follet Carpenter, and Vanita Fitzgerald

Are we out of wine?

By Cherri Ellis

Photography by Beau Gustafson

When a friend sent me the official Buzzfeed “How Oprah Are You?” quiz, I was able to check yes to 36 of the 75 questions. This makes me, according to them, “A Little Bit Oprah.” WTH? I’m no Suze Orman, but even my rudimentary math skills can tell you that 36 of anything is more than a little bit of it. I was robbed. For 40 days, with the help of many local professionals including a chef and a trainer, I have been deliberately trying to live the life of O, so I thought I’d rank higher…like S’OPRAH or something. It was not to be. While I have been called “The Queen of All Media,” it was mostly me talking, so I’m not sure that counts. I also have no plans to wheel around a red wagon full of fat to symbolize how much weight I have lost, and it wouldn’t even take that large a wagon. While it is possible that I may one day get Tom Cruise to jump on my couch, I am pretty sure that I will never be the World’s First Black Billionaire.

So this is as Oprah as I get. I do, however, outscore O on one point: I have a lot more Gayle Kings than she does. Last month, I forced a handful of them into my inaugural book club.

When you are young, you are pressured to have a single best friend. With adulthood comes the freedom to have a myriad of BFFs, and that is amazing. I have been blessed with the kind of friends who will not only dance with me on the mountaintops, but also carry me out of the valley in a fireman’s hold. (Possibly wearing strappy heels and a sombrero, but that’s another story.)

Vanita is a charter member of the Gayles, having met me when our daughters were in kindergarten together, and she is fairly easy to recognize. Fond of animal prints and not afraid to put a bra clasp under duress, Vanita refuses to heed my fashion counsel about the all-important loose fit. When we recently went to see Book of Mormon after my stringent Paleo diet and daily workouts, I met her at the door with “I am wearing a dress I haven’t fit in years!”  She happily responded with “I am wearing a dress I don’t quite fit in yet!”

Along with Vanita, drafted into the club was Elizabeth the palliative care doctor, Kristin the accountant, and Heather the geriatric doctor whom, I should note, is a doctor who specializes in the care of old people, not an old person who is also a doctor. I also sent the book to my sister Marlena in Michigan, my sister Robin in Ohio, and my friend Kathi in Arkansas. I figured I would Skype them in, imagining their faces interacting with us from various laptops during our lively gatherings. I thought I would serve themed and fabulous food and pour better-than-average wine while we lounged around in well-cut but casual clothing and said wise things like, “Words are always equal parts mask and revelation.” Women would nod knowingly.

I chose Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and bought everyone hard copies. Title not withstanding, this book was no man-bashing chickfest. Penned by a woman who is a film director, screenwriter, actor, author, and artist, it is a work as complicated as its creator. The lead character, Claire, is a woman so OCD that she lives her life by a set of rules she calls “The System.” She only has one of everything, and her goal is to reduce clutter by not moving objects around her apartment unless absolutely necessary. She is having an affair with an older man with whom she believes she has been a lover for many lifetimes—just so far not in this one. The story is full of flawed people and painful dynamics, but somehow by the last page, you have unwitting connected to them.

None of that was ever discussed, however, because as far as I got with my book club was making seven people read it. It turns out that women with jobs and lives don’t have that much time for long and dedicated discussion about literary nuance. At Oprah’s book club, you hear insightful revelations followed by hushed silences full of understanding and growth. The one time my group did manage to get together, you heard things like:

“I am fervently in love with this pasta.”

“I couldn’t stand the character Cheryl.”

“I think I might be the character Cheryl.”

“Are we out of wine?”

“Phillip was an asshat.”

“At least there was a happy ending.”

“I hated the story till the epilogue.”

“The wine is in the freezer.”

“There was an epilogue?”

“I’ve dated asshats.”

And so you get my drift. What I learned is what I already knew: We need to gather and commune, and the reason why does not even matter. Find a pack of souls who lift you up and calm you down and find a reason to get in the same space with them. Take in a TV show, discuss a book, share a meal, or watch people in matching outfits move a thing closer to another thing (sports).

My friend, Robin, when she was counseling a younger work friend who had confessed that she felt like she was faking it in her job, laughed before she spoke. “Everyone, honey, unless they are Madonna or Oprah, feels like they are faking it. We are all just making it up as we go.”

We’ll never be Oprah. There’s a good chance that, in spite of all of her success, Oprah isn’t even Oprah. My “team” is my family and my friends, and my life will not forever include private chefs and personal trainers. I suspect we’re all Oprahs, trapped in real people with the same fears and joys that Ms. Winfrey has, give or take $3 billion.

Madonna, though? She may have figured it out. I should call her.

One Response to “My Own Gayle Force”

  1. Pamela Wilson (Vanita s sister) says:

    Loved the article! I know you all have a great time together.

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