Ever since I started watching "All My Children," I've begun to compare real life to life in mythical Pine Valley, U.S.A.

I knew it was hopeless when I began to subconsciously pattern my behavior after what I saw on screen from noon to 1 p.m. on ABC. For example, when Nina moved out of Pine Valley to "find herself," I moved into a new apartment. When Brooke and Adam called it quits, I broke up with the guy I'd been seeing. I've incorporated myself into the plot without realizing it--and lately, I've felt trapped between the two worlds. I can't decide which one is better.

Romantically, soap land wins hands down over the real world. In soap land, love is quite literally the stuff dreams are made of. Take Julie, for example, who used to have romantic fantasies that were anything but idle. For a while, she existed in a state of unrequited lust for Nico, a hot-blooded guy from the wrong side of the tracks. She spent the summer lapsing into daydream after daydream--scenes that were always blurry around the edges and looked as if they had been shot through Kleenex.

Julie's fantasies always had Nico leaping through the window, grabbing her and kissing her passionately. Afterward, she'd open her eyes and sigh. But here's the kicker: Who would inevitably be standing outside the window but Nico, in the flesh?

That summer I tried it myself, and Tom Cruise never appeared at my bedroom window.

In Pine Valley this kind of thing can go on because people are always just dropping by their friends' homes. It's as if nobody has a job. They don't bother using the phone, I guess, because the town is so small it takes only minutes to drive from one end to another (but did I mention that Pine Valley is large enough to support national magazines, a hospital, a university, a number of world-class restaurants and two of the richest men in the world?). It lets characters indulge in the kind of face-to-face interaction that makes for drama like this:

Jeremy: "What kind of a game are you playing, Trevor?"

Trevor: "It's no game. I like the guy. We have a lot in common."

Jeremy: "That's what I'm afraid of."

Trevor: "He's a changed man."

Jeremy.: "But you're not. You're the same hustler you've always been."

In the real world, over the phone, it wouldn't be the same.

Close on the heels of such interaction follows the consummate message of the soap world: "I'm here for you." If only people said this in real life. If only, whenever you had a crisis, your friends would pop by, take you to lunch at the Pine Valley Inn, listen while you rattled on about your troubles, and then utter those four little words.

When Cindy found out she had AIDS, Angie was there for her. Cliff was there for Angie after her husband was killed. When Nina left Cliff, Travis was there for Nina. And when Travis nearly lost his entire fortune through mismanagement of his company, faked his own kidnaping and got dumped by his wife, the Martins said they were there for him--and gave him a job as chief administrator at Pine Valley Hospital.

The web of interpersonal relationships, the level of support in the soap world, is phenomenal. But then again, everyone in Pine Valley has slept with everyone else.

Still, there are some elements of real life in the soaps, though maybe to an extreme. For instance, only in Pine Valley would every woman in town get a drastically different hairstyle--on the same day.

Real life also shows up in the bloopers on the set, which the producers often don't bother to reshoot. Like when a scene opened with Barbara and Tom in bed with their hands hidden under the covers. "You need some help in there, honey?" Barbara cooed. It wasn't clear until some time later that by "in there," Barbara meant in the kitchen.

I watch the soaps because these kind of moments make me take real life far less seriously. Sure, in Pine Valley you can replace someone in your life simply by hiring another actor to take his or her place. In Pine Valley, every Friday ends with a cliffhanger. And everybody always has the perfect clothes and makeup--even when they wake up.

Then again, real life never looks fuzzy around the edges, as if it has been shot through Kleenex.

In fact, real life looks darn good.

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