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.