Thursday, October 29, 2009

One Hot Day On The Porch -A Tale of Chuckapaw County

Note: the blog is still on vacation this week as I am re-grouping from a writer's conference. So.. here's a story instead.

“She is just trailer trash in brand new shoes!”

My cousin Lyannie was incensed. Outraged. She stomped her foot on the porch, drew herself up to her considerable height of just under five feet and glared at my sisters and me. I looked at Darlene, who looked at Arlene, who looked back at me as if to say “here we go again”.

“Can you believe it? That Siddalou Udderly just insinuating herself right into the Miss Chuckapaw County Pageant?”

I thought she might spontaneously combust right there before our very eyes. As the porch was wood, and dry wood this far into the summer on top, it might present a hazard. Now, none of us liked Siddalou, and liked the fact that we were related to her even less. The familial relationship between the Bodines and the Udderlys was not something we talked about, but they were family all the same. Lyannie, being a Boudreau and all, found the family ties unmentionable at best and roundly intolerable in the main. She adored us, though. I wondered sometimes if it was just because we were the only relatives nearby who were from the right side of the tracks. Granted, we were from alongside the tracks, but at least on the acceptable side. It was mutual adoration too, which was an odd thing, since neither my sisters nor I had much tolerance for the perpetually pretty and perky types.

“It is supposed to be about Beauty, Poise, Elegance and Charm-the Essential Qualities of a True Lady.” You could hear the capital letters in her voice.

Darlene, Arlene and I mouthed the last three ‘essential qualities’ in silence along with her. Of course, none of us had any of them, but we were well versed in Lyannie’s philosophy, since she constantly tried to instill the said 'essential qualities' into us. A day out with my cousin always included some ill-fated visit to a dress shop or hair dresser where one or all of us would wind up assaulted by some shade of pink, as pink was Lyannie’s all purpose miracle remedy for the “underachievement of feminine potential”. Thankfully today nothing more painful than sitting on the porch yakking was on her agenda.

Arlene was the only one of the three of us who liked pink. But, as Darlene would remind me: “She was the one Daddy dropped on her head.” I’m pretty sure that explained a lot of things about Arlene, including her insistence on spelling her name “R-lene”. But, family is family, as I’ve often said, and you can’t just deny them for convenience sake. Darlene once accused Arlene of having “aspirations of Boudreaucity”. I think Arlene just likes pink.

Any-hoo, Lyannie was in a fine fit over Siddalou’s impromptu incursion into what has always been my cousin’s milieu. (I like that word, milieu). Why, over the years, she had held (in order) the titles of Little Miss Possum Prairie, Pre-Teen Queen of the Bovine Days Parade, Junior Miss Sweet Pea, Princess Nell of the Liberty Bell (twice, and that was just unprecedented), and Miss Nayshan’s Car Wash. Her picture was up in several places at Jake’s Highway 29 Hash 'n’ Dash. Something of a local celebrity, really. But then, the Boudreaus have put the glamour into this part of Chuckapaw County since forever, I think.

“Lyannie.” It was Darlene speaking. “Siddalou Udderly doesn’t have a snowball’s chance. She has no talent, unless you call excelling at irritating people talent. She’s homely, and that’s me being generous on the ‘count of her being family, and her ass is so big it’s like she’s hauling a double-wide around with her all the time. I don’t know what the fuss is.”

She lit a cigarette, scrunched the now empty pack into a ball and set it on the porch railing. I watched it unscrunch itself and slowly stretch like a cellophane inchworm. Darlene smoked in front of Lyannie, even though she knew how much Cousin Boudreau hated the habit. I never did. It was an unspoken agreement. I pretended she didn’t know I smoked. She pretended she didn’t know either.

“It's the principle, Darlene, and I'm just not having it. Marlene,” Lyannie looked at me in exasperation. “Tell me you understand what I mean by the principle.”

“Sure,” I said, trying really hard not to reach for my own pack of cellophane-wrapped relaxation. I had no idea at all.

“Maybe you can explain it to me then, Marlene, 'cause I don't see what difference it makes. Siddalou's a cow, and I'm sorry to say that, since it insults cows and such, but she is, and folks are only going to wonder what the hell she's doing. Not like they're going to take her serious as a candidate for Miss Chuckapaw County. No sir.”

Lyannie looked at me expectantly. I shot Darlene the death gaze and waited for her to topple over, but nothing happened. Arlene just looked genuinely interested in what I might have to say.

“Well,” I said, then took a long pull from my icy cold can of Coca-Cola while I frantically tried to come up with some reason why it should matter what Siddalou Udderly decided to do with a Saturday afternoon in late August. I had nothing.

“Do any of you know who handles the address changes at the post office?” Arlene suddenly piped up. It was out of left field, but I was saved for the moment.

“Uh, no, Arlene. What does that have to do with Siddalou?” Darlene asked.

“Nothing. But I was over to the Hash 'n' Dash with Bobby Jack Petrie and on the way back I saw the announcement sign at the church, and I couldn't believe what it said.”

“What did it say, honey?” Lyannie turned to Arlene, and I was forgotten for the moment. I said a prayer of thanks.

“It said 'Jesus lives here'. Pretty thrilling huh? I don't remember Him ever living here before. So I got to thinking, how's He going to get His mail now?”

Silence fell.

Lyannie opened her mouth once, twice, a third time, but no sound came out. Darlene looked at Arlene like she'd suddenly grown a second head. I know my eyebrows were up near my scalp.

“I don't think Jesus gets mail, Arlene,” I finally managed to say.

“Well, sure He does. Everybody gets mail, Marlene.” Somehow, she managed to make that sound reasonable and I felt like an idiot.

“But Jesus doesn't need mail. He's all knowing and powerful and stuff.” I wondered why that sounded lame to me.

“I know better.” Arlene sniffed. “Jesus gets mail and unless He changed His address He's gonna be missing some. And it might be important.”

“I'm trying to remember now, Arlene,” Darlene said, “Did Daddy drop you just one time on your head or was it two?”

“It was just the one time, Darlene, and I wasn't damaged. Well, just this little dent back here.” Arlene touched a spot under her hair at the back of her head. “But my mind is just fine, thank you. I can't help it if you don't know about Jesus' mail delivery problems. Maybe if you went to church more often you would.”

At least it had the effect of getting us off the subject of Siddalou Udderly and principles.

“Are you sure she's related to us?” Darlene asked me.

“I'm the youngest. I wasn't around for all that. I have to take it on faith.”

“Arlene, do you think maybe you'd like to go in and get a cold cloth for your head? It’s punishingly hot today.” Lyannie looked hopeful.

“I think I would, yes.” Arlene got up from the swing bench and looked at Darlene and I. “But not because there's anything wrong with me. I know what's what when it comes to mail.”

Lyannie and Arlene disappeared into the house. Darlene and I looked at each other.

“Well,” she said.


Then I began to laugh.

“What's so darn funny, Marlene?”

“Oh, I was thinking. What if there was some sort of heavenly post office? You know, sorting parcels for St. Peter, letters for St. Lucy. Think of the bureaucracy of that. Would they have 'disgruntled' workers like us? I can see them, changing the postage meters, stamping everything return to sender. God: addressee unknown. Laughing maniacally.”

“I'm beginning to think Daddy must have dropped you on your head too, Marlene.”

I grinned, and took out my nicotine comfort sticks. “Daddy was a butterfingers, that’s a true thing. So maybe so, Darlene. Maybe so.” Lighting up, I took a long delicious taste of tobacco. It would be worth whatever pink penance I’d have to do later.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Absurdity and Insectoid Drones

On the absurdity scale, with one being “slightly askew” and ten being “no really, tell me, where are the hidden cameras?” a recent happening in my life hit about an eight. A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from the human resources department at my job, informing me that there was a “mismatch” on the information they had and what Social Security was telling them. Or at least what a Social Security computer was telling them. Namely, that according to Social Security, I was a man. Oh really. News to me. Very big news to me. How come I never noticed this about myself before? The other thing was, oh yes, I needed to provide documentation that Social Security no longer believed I was a man or my employer would be forced to remove me from my job. Apparently Homeland Security has a vested interest in being absolutely sure that women of a certain age really are women.

Once I managed to get my eyes unstuck from where they had firmly lodged when I had rolled them, I called the local Social Security office listed on their website, since a perusal of said website did not reveal any online way to get a sex change. The faceless, and ultimately brainless woman I talked to (of course, how do I know if she was really a woman or not) asked me all kinds of questions about previous addresses. I was not prepared for this walk down Memory Lane, this stroll along Recollection Boulevard. I mean, who really remembers all the addresses of the places they’ve lived? Well, maybe some do, but I don’t. I managed to remember enough to convince her I was really myself and she clicked keys on a computer for a while. Eventually she told me that the “paperwork was started” and that the situation should be resolved within thirty days. I wanted to laugh about any government process taking only thirty days, but I figured I’d better keep my levity to myself.

I should have known better. Somewhere deep in my subconscious I probably did. Time passed, and one lovely fall day I received another e-mail reminding me that I had “x” number of days to resolve the issue regarding my Social Security mismatch. In other words, to prove I was not a man. It was kind of like a non-musical, unfunny, non-dancing Victor, Victoria experience. Sort of. Maybe not.

I decided to call the people at Social Security again “just to be sure” all was going as planned. Notice I did not say “faceless insectoid drones”, but I thought about it. This time I talked to a man (or was he?). I explained my issue and what I had been told before and I could hear him looking at me like I suddenly grew a second head. If you know what I mean by that completely incorrect sentence. I was informed that things could not be changed over the phone, but that I needed to present evidence in person at the Social Security office. Present evidence? Like what, I wondered, yank open my blouse? Ohhhhhhh… bring my birth certificate. Ok. Then the faceless insectoid drone asked me “Were you born a man?” I wonder if he heard me look at him like he’d suddenly grown a second head. A second insectoid drone head with a huge proboscis and waggling pincers. I shrieked “No!!!” This whole thing was just too bizarre. Then he asked me “Will it say that on your birth certificate?” I was so astonished at the question. “Yes!!!!” I shrieked again, finding all of this a little horrifying. I imagined the conversation continuing:

“Did you ever wish you were a man?” asks Insectoid Man.

I thought about this. Technically yes…like when on a long trip and the sign says “1000 miles until the next Rest Area”, or when the monthly Festival of Femininity makes its visit, but I get over it.

“No.” I say firmly.

I was brought back to the unreality of the reality by Insectoid Man telling me that he did not know of any documentation that would be available after I presented my birth certificate, that maybe the other Insectoid Drones would know when I visited the hive. I mean office.

Later that day I continued my part in this circus act by jumping through the hoops necessary to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. Then I waited.

It only took about a week to arrive, and so I girded my loins and prepared to meet the Insectoid Drones in the hive. Office. Office. Office.

Surprisingly, the Insectoid Drone was a very pleasant person who clicked merrily away at the keys on his computer with his waggling pincers. He examined my birth certificate, and thankfully that was indeed all the proof I needed to provide. In a short time I was finished. I asked about “documentation” and this time I could actually see the reaction to the second head that had to be growing out of my neck. He told me that there really wasn’t anything for “documentation”, and that the folks who needed to see the documentation could look at it “on the computer” because that is how they would have been informed of the Gender Question in the first place. He gave me a waggle of his pincers in farewell and I was on my way, a new (albeit the same) woman.

At least until some other Insectoid Drone decides otherwise.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sometimes I Have To Wonder What The Thinking Is

Every once in a while, I come across a book that is so mind-numbingly dull, so lackluster in execution, so obvious in plot, that it makes me want to heave it across the room in a fit of gall. No, I’m not going to name names, though I could. What boggles me is a question I have no answer to: how the bloody h-e-double hockey sticks do the things get published in the first place?

Yes, sometimes, I know, a title can be published on the strength of an author’s selling power. Yet I have to say that not every word that comes out of someone’s head needs to or should be published. Myself absolutely included. But, it’s my blo-og and I’ll write what I want to, write what I want to, write what I want to. You can blog too if it feels right to you… Ok. Enough of that.

I have talked to agents and other people in the business, and the talk is always about how quality is looked for. So much competition for so few opportunities. Impress, show them something different. Is just plain BAD so different that it passes for something new and interesting? Or is it that culturally we have become so dumbed-down that mediocre writing is the level expected? Some might say that writing to a “certain level” is fine because “at least they’re still reading”. Maybe, but I wonder if it keeps the culture from sliding any further down the road towards pond scum. Perhaps if expectations keep being lowered, it could send us cart wheeling all the way down that same road.

To be honest, I’m not impressed by books written to impress either. I suspect that some titles that have made the NY Times Bestseller list actually just spend a lot of time on coffee tables (note that I say some … I am not denigrating literary fiction, I happen to like literary fiction unless it is so self-consciously literary that it makes my nose bleed). Nothing “impresses” like a book neither the owner of the coffee table nor the guest have any intention of reading but can appreciate for the air of sophistication, sheen of “cool”, or cachet it gives someone who bought it. Personally I have better things to do with my book-buying budget.

So what do I want? It might seem like all I want are books that fall into my own defined sense of art and interest. Not true. I want well-written books. Books that enchant. Not in the Disney sense necessarily, one can be enchanted by a dark as well as a light tale. I want books that don’t send up flares illuminating the plot so that it can be seen 100 miles away. I want books that are not so ponderous and weighty that they make me seriously wonder if their real purpose is as a doorstop. I want books full of real characters, not carnival cardboard cutouts. I want neither heavy-handed fiction nor feather-handed. I don’t want to see the hand.

Most of all, I don’t want to read another piece of refuse book and marvel at how it exists in published form while I still toil to get it right so that I don’t throw my own book across the room before turning it into a doorstop.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Never Could Say Goodbye

Some goodbyes are poignant. Some are with relief. Some can be with a hearty “good riddance” or “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. Some are reluctant, others welcomed, yet others engender a curious combination of emotions that can hit you like a pineapple anchovy pizza. The goodbyes I think about the most are the ones never said; the times when circumstance or misunderstanding did not allow for it, or when the opportunity was simply denied.

I never got to say goodbye to my father. Not really. He died in March of this year. The week before he died, I had called him to thank him for my birthday present. Never a man given to talking a lot, he was even less gregarious than usual. He said he had a cold, and he did sound terrible. I probably should have known, as Dad was always Mr. Impervious to discomfort or pain. Something that would put mere mortals out of commission would be brushed off by my dad (he once went to work in steel-toed boots the day after having ingrown toenails removed). My brother remarked once that Dad could be standing on the moon in his shirtsleeves and not think it was cold. I myself am not made of such strong stuff.

Technically, I never got to say goodbye to my mother either, but at least I was able to make it home to be with her briefly. I was sick myself when my dad passed, so I was unable to travel. It makes a difference.

When I was in graduate school some odd years ago, my dad had a heart bypass operation. I was unable to get home, but it scared me pretty thoroughly. I wrote him a letter telling him that I wanted him to know how much I loved him. I was surprised to get a letter back telling me that it was harder for him to express feelings than it was for “you girls”, but he told me he loved my mother, and me, and my brothers very much. Whenever we talked on the phone (which wasn’t often or long, him being not very talkative as I mentioned), I always told him I loved him and he always said “I love you too, kid.” It always made me feel good, because I knew it was true. Just like I knew he was proud of me overall, even though I managed to make some monumentally stupid moves down the years.

Being an orphan stinks, to put it plainly. However it has had one effect that I did not anticipate or suspect: I find that I try even harder to accomplish my goals because things truly are up to me now. There’s no mommy or daddy to run to even when I have times (as I still do) when I would like to. No place to go, nowhere to hide when the Masters of the Universe engage in a cosmic smack-down.

I would say this to him if I could: I still can’t say goodbye, Dad. I’m still working and trying to keep you and Mom proud of me, and I won’t quit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rude New World

Is it just me, or does it seem like people have gotten really rude in the last few years? Have civility and manners become outmoded fashion? Does expecting people to behave themselves with at least a modicum of respect for others make me a relic? Ok, I know that there have always been badly behaved people. But seriously. Lately it seems to be epidemic. I’m not talking about Emily Post and which utensil one uses with the aspic. I don’t really care about that. I know it might drive some people up the proverbial wall, but if someone uses the inside fork for the first course, it doesn’t cause the fabric of my cosmos to tear. However, people running off at the mouth when they ought to use their brain first, does bug me.

I’ve been noticing this less than attractive trend for a while now. It happens everywhere. When did people decide that their loud cell phone conversations everywhere from a restaurant to a coffee house to sometimes even outside in close proximity were at all interesting to anyone else? When did people decide that sitting in a legitimate theatre or a movie theatre and talking like it was their living room is acceptable? Are people shopping at the local supermarket so myopic that they can’t see that their conversation with their neighbor while blocking the access to one or more aisles is incredibly annoying? Do the parents of overly active and under-restrained children honestly think that everyone finds their little darling jumping up and down on seats or screaming in the store endearing? If I hear “now, now” one more time… I may throw my own tantrum.

This last week the trend was highlighted publicly and embarrassingly by the actions of both Serena Williams and Congressman Joe Wilson. Now, I of course, don’t personally know either of these people. And let me say right here right now: I’m not discussing politics. Politics are not the point. Neither is race. What I know about Ms. Williams is that she is a phenomenally gifted athlete. What I know about Mr. Wilson is that he is need of a serious hair stylist. That’s pretty much it. What I saw through the magical medium of television, since I was not privileged to attend either the U.S. Open or the joint session of Congress, was, however, appalling. What was even worse was the lukewarm “My emotions got the better of me” statement from both of them. I’m not saying that their apologies were not sincere, because I have no way to know that. I can say what it looked like was two people just going through the motion of an apology.

I suppose I ought to be grateful that much was said, since most of the time people respond to being even gently confronted about their rudeness with a mixture of: 1) disbelief that anyone could find their behavior objectionable, 2) anger that anyone would dare to even mention it and 3) a defensive posture that would serve them well in the WWF. I’m all for assertiveness and standing up for oneself, but acting like an arse just because one has a constitutionally guaranteed right to isn’t the most attractive option that can be taken.

I’d like to think that manners still count. That manners are still taught. That manners are still a concept. That civil behavior is not just something from an old movie. I could just be harboring this naïve hope in the face of the Rude New World. I hope not.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friends, Orbital Rings and the Masters of the Universe

It seems to me that the subject the Masters of the Universe have been nudging me to think on this summer has been friends and friendship. I’ve been reunited with friends after circumstances either technological or just plain idiotic separated us for long periods of time. This has been wonderful, and I value these people in my life. Now that summer is sliding gracefully into autumn, I am looking at some other friendships that have not and are likely not to be renewed. There is a curious mix of feelings that accompany this: some confusion still, as the circumstances were such that I never had any say in anything. I was, for reasons still unknown to me, suddenly persona non-grata. There is a memory of fondness for these people. Surprisingly, there is little sadness and no anger at all. I have an amazing capacity to compartmentalize, and these folks have been shut securely away in the box I guess I need to keep them in. Mostly I don’t care. That is where what little sadness I feel comes from. I would like to feel more bereft, but I don’t really.

When I was growing up, I was never one of those girls who participated in the mean girls’ game of backstabbing and gossiping about my friends. My mother taught me very early how important friendships were. Some would just happen, but still it was important to choose carefully, and important to maintain them. She told me it wasn’t ever a good idea to have a falling out with a girlfriend over a boy. Eventually the boy would be yesterday’s news and another would come along (she was right, you know). True friends are much more rare and valuable. She taught me a very specific definition of friendship: one that counted honesty, loyalty and honor to be highly valued. Consequentially, I never had a huge “entourage”, or gang of friends, but the friends I did have were truly my friends. I was, however, quite guilty of slipshod maintenance, mainly because as a creative person, I tend to get lost in time. I could blink and realize that weeks or months have gone by. Not everyone understands or has the patience for that.

In later years, I came to think of non-romantic relationships in terms of “orbital rings”. Not because I have such an inflated opinion of myself that I think I am the sun or a nucleus or anything, but because the image makes sense for how I think of things. Those who are closest to me occupy the innermost ring; those slightly less close, the next outer ring and so on until the “acquaintance ring”. Everyone else is just out there in the space somewhere. Most of the time trouble would come from someone on a more outer ring competing with someone on an inner ring. The oddity of it was that every time, the inner ring dweller didn’t engage with the one trying to compete. For myself, I could never understand what was so great about me that would make someone want to compete in the first place, but it happened several times.

I know that this orbital competition happens for other people too. This last year, someone from a mid-way ring for both my best friend and I and whom both of us have known and been fond of for a very long time caused chaos in the universe when they decided that they could no longer abide my being on my best friend’s inner orbital ring because it was their rightful place. It was ugly. It was unnecessary. It caused a lot of people a lot of pain. In the end, the person who attempted ring-jumping was jettisoned out into the deepest reaches of space. A lot of years gone up in smoke.

When I think on the actions of this now former friend, and on the actions of the former friends who exiled me, something else my mother taught me comes to mind. She used to say “don’t expect people to sink to certain levels, but don’t be surprised when they do”. I try to keep that in mind, but sometimes I am still surprised. Maybe because I have tried to choose carefully when it comes to friends and so when things like this happen it makes me question my judgment. Maybe because despite all the evidence to the contrary in so many walks of life, I want to believe that other people have the same definitions of friendship and code that I do. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: I have reached a point in my life now where my inner orbital ring is stable. Time and experience have taught me much, and I do not take for granted those I care about and who care about me. I force myself out of the creative universe and onto terra firma to ensure that I feed and water the friendships I have. As for stability in the more outer rings? Tell the Masters of the Universe that I’m working on it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Benevolent Monarch

A sure sign of the seasons beginning to change has come to my house this week. His Royal Catness Prince Mabon has begun consuming food in mass quantities. He is “bulking up” for winter, even though he has already got plenty of bulk at eighteen pounds. Winter ought to be in quotation marks as well, as his entire experience of winter consists of sitting by the window in cozy warmth and gazing out upon the snowy domain. While, I, human serf to the Royal One, risk freezing eyelids, frosted lung lining and potential Bambi-on-ice displays of grace all in the name of working to keep him in The Style To Which He Has Become Accustomed. You would think he would be grateful. Appreciative, maybe. You would be wrong.

The cat world view is quite simple: humans exist to serve their superior furry feline overlords. Humans are tolerated as long as and only as long as they fulfill this function to perfection. Any failure is responded to with a display of disdain as only a cat can manage: what I like to call the “kitty finger”. Cats are adept at showmanship, and the kitty finger is no exception. They turn their back to the disgraced human with a flourish of tail, then sit, studiously ignoring, flicking the tail back and forth. The length of tail, velocity and interval of repetition of said tail flick indicates the level of displeasure one is under. No amount of sweet-talking, cajoling, suggesting of things to play moves them. The human must undergo the punishment for as long as deemed appropriate. Or until you go out into the kitchen and open a can. A can of anything will do. Suddenly, all is forgiven! As with any fickle and capricious monarch, a person’s fortunes rise and fall with astonishing rapidity.

This is not to say that we serfs receive nothing in return. They have an uncanny sense of when we feel sick or depressed, and so they sit with you (or more often on you) to comfort you. Or so you think. Actually they are continuing to exert their domination by deigning to show what passes for affection. This is the cat version of “bread and circuses” known as “snuggling and purring”. You can choose whether or not you wish to be fooled. I choose to be. I actually buy into the happy chirpy greeting I get when I come home.

HRC Prince Mabon is a benevolent monarch, even if he does eat through the equivalent of the GNP of several small nations.

Winter approacheth.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Mythos

John F. Kennedy was assassinated when I was 18 months old. I was six when his brother Robert was killed. I have no memory of the first incident and only a very hazy recollection of the second; mainly that something bad had happened. In the couple of days since the death of Teddy Kennedy, I have been reading and hearing a great deal about the “end of an era”. It has me thinking about the concept of the American Mythos and the appetite of the crowd.

We are a young country, as those things are counted. We have never had a king. Well, maybe some who thought themselves king-like, but never any official king. The fact is that culturally, our foundations were laid by those who had never known anything but monarchy, and even though they fought valiantly to be free from that particular yoke and succeeded, there remains in the American character a fascination with royalty, nobility, whatever one chooses to call it. We are fascinated with the perceived glamour; we just don’t want to be slaves. In some ways, we’re a bit schizophrenic too. Two opposing states of being comprise our most powerfully compelling myths: the self-sufficient loner, and the glamorous surrounded by entourage fabulously wealthy_____ fill in the blank (captain of industry, athlete, actor, musician, etc). Add to this our love of the Horatio Alger sort of rags-to-riches dream, and we have quite a mix. Just don’t fail to live up to what we expect, even if you don’t know what those expectations are.

The character of Jack in Titanic, we liked because he represented some of the things we like to think best in ourselves: resourcefulness, independence, pride without conceit, making a way in the world on his own terms. The flip side is the never-ending fascination and criticism with every move that Brangelina or Britney Spears make. Or, heaven forbid, the Octomom. We raise up heroes onto pedestals only to rush to rip them from those heights with a glee and eagerness that is dizzying. We like our heroes to be human, because we can relate and share in our own way some of their glory, know that success. We just don’t want them to be too human, too like us, because then we see reality, our own failings reflected, and the mirror turns ugly.

I think that Teddy Kennedy spent the last 25 or so years of his life trying to overcome his mistakes. I don’t know if he succeeded, time will have to judge that. It might be because of when I was born, but I was never caught up in the Kennedy myth. I recognize that they were, and to an extent still are, the closest thing we have had to our own home-grown royalty, and so have been accorded the fascination and the adoration as well as the speculation, and the burden of living up to what expectations have been placed on them by the very culture that anointed them. I can say that I’m glad I’m not one of them. I wouldn’t have it in me to stand it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lengsfeld and Merckle: Quite a Pair, Apparently

There are a lot of great combinations in this world: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Bogie and Bacall, Rum and Coke, Law and Order. There are a lot of not-so-great combinations in this world: well, mainly broccoli and anything.Then there are the eternal classic combinations: Death and Taxes, Man and Remote, Hamburgers and Fries. This week I’ve been getting miles of amusement out of another eternally classic combination: Sex and Politics.

Time magazine ran an article I saw regarding the upcoming elections in Germany. As riding the coattails of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popular CDU party in a Berlin district dominated by the Green Party was not going to be a successful strategy, candidate Vera Lengsfeld, 57, has taken a more upfront approach. Her campaign posters, plastered everywhere feature a composite photo of herself and the Chancellor in low-cut attire, over a slogan that simply proclaims: We Have More To Offer.

Ja vol!

If mammary serves, cleavage gets attention (ok, that was bad). It’s Mother Nature’s publicity, a fact that apparently has been used in this case to mostly, though not completely positive feedback. The posters are a good humored trick in a way, but walk a very fine line between being taken seriously and not. Now, I don’t ascribe to the Frankenstein-villagers-with-torches-and-pitchforks we’re going to take back her feminist credentials point of view. I’m also not a man, so I don’t ascribe to the drool-hey-look-dopey smile Cleavage! point of view either. I do, however, wonder if Ms. Lengsfeld had considered running under the auspices of the Benny Hill party. I suppose it might be hard to discuss climate change while patting short bald old fellas on the head to the accompaniment of jittery music, though.

The entire episode has had me laughing, true, but there is another question I find myself asking as well. Why do we (and I mean an in general “we” as western culture) view a woman striving to rise as either a bollocks-busting hellion with PMS, or a game playing vixen? Despite all the advances women have made in careers, politics, and life in general, there is always this undercurrent of derision. “Well, we know who wears the pantsuit in that family.” A woman’s strength is an honorable and appreciated thing within a culturally acceptable context? Like on Little House on the Prairie or something? Or for others, her strength is only considered valid if she scowls at men who hold the door open for her? It’s positively schizophrenic.

Naw, don’t believe any of that. If I did I’d have to eschew my own culture for ever. You don’t have to choose, as a woman, between the vixen and the pantsuit, unless you buy into the argument that you have to. That’s the only way any of it changes. Granted, evolution happens at a glacial pace, but if women decide not to accept either version for themselves and instead become people, both sexual and strong, there won’t be the need for women to make clear How Much More We Have To Offer. And still enjoy the fact that a man holds open the door for us.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nope. I Don't Think About Smoking. Ever.

Two years ago this coming November, I quit smoking. In fairness to myself, or what may be the tiniest bit of remaining denial, I didn’t smoke a lot and I had not been a long-time smoker. Just a few years. There was something calming about the habit, and few things were more enjoyable than a smokey treat accompanied by a cup of good coffee just as the sun was coming up. For some reason, coffee at the break of O Dark Hundred has lost its appeal. Haven’t touched a cigarette though, since the day I quit. Besides the unhelpful effect it has on my health, there are people lined up who would kill me faster than you could say “lung cancer”.

Somebody who works where I do, but not in the same department, saw me heading out of the building and asked me if I was going for a smoke. I blinked in surprise. Normally, I don’t really give the bygone days of smoking much thought. I don’t dare. I don’t dare give it any thought at all. In fact, I am taking a risk right this very moment.

My best friend, whom I shall refer to as the Sicilian Hurricane (and who I will just say here and now loves me a whole lot), had an issue with my smoking. I knew she didn’t like it. I knew she knew I knew she didn’t like it. I knew it worried her, as it did some others of my friends and my brother. For a long time I would pretend she didn’t know I smoked, and she seemed to pretend to be unconcerned or even aware that I had the habit. I became adept at the prestidigitation of lit cigarettes whenever she would appear on the scene, as well as other acts of a covert nature surrounding my habit. Actually, I was an abysmal failure at said prestidigitation, or any covert act, much to the howling delight of my other friends with whom I felt no need to do this silly dance. An oft-retold story amongst them involves me hurriedly placing a lit cigarette in a soda can that was sitting on a railing directly above and behind where I happened to be sitting. I thought the soda can had soda in it. More fool I. I sat there having a lovely and pleasant conversation with l’uragana minuta Siciliana, while behind me, smoke was rising in a slow, lazy curl from the soda can like a miniature version of a quaint and rustic chimney. Of course, none of my friends tried to warn me. How could they? Why would they? Forsake amusement? That is not in our creed. I would have left any of them hanging in the breeze myself. The Hurricane never batted an eye, and I was completely clueless of my backdrop. It was not until later, when hilarity ensued that I grasped with mortified embarrassment what had taken place.

The Masters of the Universe have a perverse sense of humor. A week after I quit smoking, I was hospitalized due to a pulmonary embolism. I had wondered why I felt worse after giving up my smokey treats. The Hurricane lives in another part of the country than I do, but she called when she found out where I was. Smart woman that she is, she knows a captive audience. She had things to say and she was going to say them. Did it matter to her that I had already quit? Not a whit. Did it matter to her that I had decided I wouldn’t smoke again? Surely you jest. Did it matter that the embolism had scared me but good? Served me right. I lived through the vigorous expression of her opinion, (perhaps some might call it “spirited”),but barely. Strangely, my ear felt like I had been pulled around by it for about twenty miles, and a friend of mine who happened to be in my hospital room still says she wishes she had video of my face during the “conversation”. I’m surprised I don’t have a permanent wince engraved on my face.

For a while, I had dreams about having a smoke. Or tried to. They were always the same: I would be standing on a little dock somewhere on a pristine lake, enjoying the peace and quiet. A perfect time for a smokey treat, which would then miraculously appear in my hands. I would smile, delicately sniff the wondrous golden leaf and then the Hurricane would appear. In the middle of my dream. Tapping her foot, arms crossed and a look of “oh you had better not” in her dark eyes. Every darn time. Sigh.

Sometimes I would have a craving and the phone would ring, the Hurricane on the other end. Spooky just like when someone you’re thinking about suddenly calls.

So you see? I don’t dare think about the enjoyment, the minty taste,the mellowing effects. Even the fact that I’ve ever heard of a cigarette. My phone could ring. Shhhhh.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Mother, the Yardstick and the Feminine Hero

My mother died a few years ago. Losing her was the most devastating thing I have ever been through. Perhaps it isn’t for some people, or a lot of people, but it was for me. It is only very recently that I have been able to include her in things I write about.

For years I have measured my success or lack of it in life by my mother’s yardstick. Not any of the usual yardsticks mothers and daughters measure by, but one I created on my own. Listening to her stories of how she survived as a divorcée with two small children during a time when it was considered a shame, or a failure and men looked at her with knowing looks and assumptions regarding her “availability”. The difficult time before she met my father. She was independent, fearless, triumphant. I cut the wood for the yardstick, trimmed it to size, sanded it, applied the proper markings and varnished it over and over until it shone with an impossible gleam. By my mother’s yardstick, so many times I have felt that I failed. I have been obsessed with “measuring up”, and never, to my mind, quite up to the task.

My mother would have been the first to disagree with me, but that never stopped me from building this über image of her in her life before my existence. Friends who can be more objective point out that my mother had some help from my grandparents and that she had to have felt as idiotic, out of her depth and worthless as I have felt those times when I have done something spectacularly catastrophic. The brilliantly shining yardstick has always blinded me to those truths.

Lately, I have been reading Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons in Becoming Myself (Riverhead Books, 2006). I have found her recounting of her journey from her difficult childhood in Detroit through tragedies and triumphs on her way to realizing herself on her path as a Sufi fascinating on so many levels. Yesterday, I came to a passage where she talked about her desire to make films that dealt with feminine heroes, instead of the classic myths focusing mainly on male heroes with women as auxiliary plot devices. She writes: “I’d read somewhere that a hero goes out into the world, meets his enemy, prevails, and founds a new order, while a heroine simply endures. I felt that a feminine hero goes out into the world, meets her enemy, which in one form or another is the limitations imposed on her by her culture, and she not only endures, she also prevails and founds a new order” (pg. 336).

All I could then think about was my mother, and how she was a true feminine hero. She never understood the women’s liberation movement, telling me more than once that she had been liberated all her life. My mother never looked at the world as a place that could imprison her in any defined space, never accepted that. She began working in hospitals pre-World War II, when she was 12, and was smart enough to graduate from high school by age 17. Desiring to go on to nursing school, she was disappointed by their refusals to admit her at an early age. So she married. But she never gave up on what she wanted, and when the marriage turned out to be not such a good idea, she went back and she became that nurse, and she was one for the rest of her working life. When she wanted to do something, go somewhere, she did. Not because she had no regard for anyone, but because she was a realized, free person and she never conceded to any other designation.

Always, she told my brother and me that we could be anything we wanted and to never let anyone tell us we couldn’t. I don’t think she could have foreseen that the one who would tell me that I “couldn’t” was me. The obsession I should have is to live my life in fulfillment of my heroic potential. The lesson I should have learned, is the lesson of the feminine hero, the yardstick I should have crafted was the yardstick that proudly shows me my own progress in becoming one. Just like my mother taught me to be. It has just taken me a long time to see it very clearly.