Thursday, July 16, 2015

Ladies First

I like to read this Tumblr called Suri's Burn Book. It's gossip and snark in the voice of Suri Cruise and it's pretty hysterical.
Recently this photo was posted with the caption, "Yes, please. This is how I like America to be represented abroad." And I thought again how refreshing it is to have an attractive, well-dressed First Family in the White House, particularly a stylish First Lady like Michelle Obama.

You see, unlike folks who were around in the 1960s and were blessed with the sartorial splendor of Jackie Kennedy, I grew up with nary a White House style icon to be found until Michelle Obama came around.
You see what I mean.

Here are the other First Ladies that have been in office during my lifetime so far, and a brief assessment of their fashion panache or lack thereof:

Betty Ford- "... had a ... fashion sense that embodied late-seventies mod during a time when it was easy to wear clothes that looked like couch covers."

Rosalyn Carter- "The dedicated mental health activist didn’t have much interest for bold fashion, and focused her attention to policy initiatives that represented her own interests and those of the President."


Nancy Reagan-The worst of the 80s, right? Superskinny, usually clad in rooster red, Dynasty-era ruffles and pouffy football-helmet-hair.

Barbara Bush- I never could get past that SNL skit when Nora Dunn's talk show hostess made the mistake of thinking Barbara was George Sr.'s mother, not wife.

Hillary Clinton- Mistakes were made. Headbands. That gold inaugeral ball cape. Always seemed uncomfortable in what she was dressed in until she discovered pantsuits.

Laura Bush- I genuinely can't remember anything she ever wore, which tells you all you need to know.

 Now, of course, there's more to the First Ladies than just their appearance. Many of them contributed greatly to our country and women's history in general. Some are my own personal heroes like Eleanor Roosevelt, admired for what they accomplished in spite of the restrictive and rather low expectations the public had of them. Others seem to have ended up just footnotes in our history or tangential asides. Or inside jokes.

When Brett and I lived in Northwest Ohio, it was a long, boring 6-hour drive home to see our families. To pass the time, we listened to music and made up band names or trivia team names. Some were clever, most were puerile, some just riffs on alliteration. One time, overtired, giddy with too much caffeine and quite possibly experiencing a bout of temporary insanity, I got stuck on alliteration with Pat Nixon's name. Pat Nixon's poothole, specifically. I was cracking myself up, coming up with gems like "Pat Nixon's Poothole Prefers Personal Pan Pizzas" and "Poking Pencils Past Pat Nixon's Poothole" and "When Prodded, Pat Nixon's Poothole Plays Possum." I have no idea where any of this came from, and why, if every word in the phrase had to begin with P, I didn't come up with a celebrity whose initials were P.P., like Pablo Picasso or Peter Parker. Why Pat Nixon, I really don't know.  I can't say I even knew that much about her at the time. (And her name wasn't even Pat! That was a nickname! Her real name was Thelma!)

(Sidenote: Apparently, while I was yammering on about Pat Nixon's butt during that drive back to Western NY, Brett was trying to think of a way to propose to me. I didn't realize how preoccupied he was; I just thought he erroneously did not find Pat Nixon's poothole as awesomely funny as I did.)

Although as a child I was fascinated with the US Presidency, it's only later on that I've learned more about the women of the White House. So here are my top ten favorite bits of trivia about the First Ladies, Pat Nixon excluded. I think I owe her a respite from the spotlight, along with my apologies. (Although she was the first First Lady to earn a graduate degree. And the first First Lady to wear pants in public. Yeah. I had to read that one twice. What the hell.)

Friends, THAT is a hat.
1. Abigail Adams urged her husband to “remember the ladies” when he was writing the nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. She also was the first to live in the White House.

2. Elizabeth Monroe ended the custom of a president's wife making the first social call on the wives of other officials in Washington - and the insulted women boycotted her White House receptions. (Bitches, man.)

3. Louisa Adams was the only first lady born in a foreign country—England. She played the harp, wrote satirical plays and raised silkworms.

4. Sarah Polk  forbid dancing and card playing in the White House.

5. Eliza Johnson taught her husband how to spell and pronounce words properly, but tuberculosis prevented her from being hostess, a role assumed by their daughter Martha Patterson, who milked cows at the White House every morning.

She also owned slaves,
so I don't feel bad about this.
6. Julia Grant was cross-eyed.

7. Lucy Hayes was the first to ban all alcoholic beverages from the White House. She also hosted the first Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.

8.  Florence Harding was first first lady to vote, fly in an airplane, operate a movie camera, own a radio, and invite movie stars to White House. She also was accused of poisoning her husband, who died during his third year in office.
Lou inspecting one of the cannons at a 
Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin
during the Boxer Rebellion. Badass.

9. Grace Coolidge worked as a teacher of deaf students, and became the first first lady to speak in sound newsreels.

10. Lou Hoover spoke Chinese fluently.
(and wins for Most Dr. Seuss-esque First Lady's Name.)


Friday, July 10, 2015

Synchronicity of Underpants

At least once every summer, I take a day off and head to Taughannock Park for some sunning, swimming and reading. I try to go in the middle of the week because the park gets INSANE on weekends in the summer.

Today, I was the only one on the bus as we set off for the park. I had snacks, Oliver Sacks' newest book, and a blankie to loll on. I was the only person on the bus on the way there. 

Near the front, I saw what I thought was the bus driver's lunchbox. It looked like it had the word "whisky" embroidered on the front, which I thought was odd, or perhaps inappropriately honest for a lunchbox. (On closer inspection, it said "Husky" and didn't belong to the bus driver at all; a camp kid had left it behind earlier that morning.)

I like to go to the north point of the park- most people don't bother going all the way over to that side, so it's usually pretty quiet and private. Except there were a ton of ducks there today. I counted a mama with eight ducklings and at least two other such groupings. They, like me, were obviously avoiding the public beach, too.

I moved around the shoreline with the sun- winding up on the other side of the park, surrounded by geese, oddly. They left me alone, for which I was grateful. But then the funniest thing happened- one made a funny little squawk and they all lined up and stood at attention. Another squawk and every single one of them went into the water and began swimming away. 

 The bus ride back to Ithaca was uneventful, until…

…two entire camp-fuls of kids got on the bus at Cass Park. Now, granted, this is only two miles away from downtown, where my stop was. (One time a few years back I got stuck on the bus at the park with several dozen campers. It had rained throughout the day and everyone was soaked from either swimming or the run from the picnic shelter to the bus. The little boy sitting next to me looked at me and my wet hair with such joy on his face and declared loudly, "Everyone on this bus has wet bottoms!") But today, those two miles were about 10 minutes of pure, excruciating hell, made worse by the fact that I had a headache from straining my eyes reading in the sun.
This pretty much captures what it was like.

There was barely enough room on the bus for all the campers. The kid sitting next to me kept bouncing up and down on the seat. The ones who had to stand were swinging from the straps like monkeys on PCP. They almost all to a one smelled like dead worms somehow, and one very large child was PISSED that there was another camp on the bus who took all the "good" seats at the back of the bus. He proceeded to shout at the bus driver about how much he hated him and how this was all his fault, while his skinny, ineffectual, high-pitched whisper-voiced scraggly-goateed camp counselor tried to talk some rationality into him. The bus driver just sailed back and in a big cheery voice told him next time he could ride on the bike rack mounted on the front of the bus. The kid laughed and was fine; apparently this is a conversation that has been had before.

There was a little girl with a rainbow striped shirt, long hair and a long-suffering expression on her face sitting in the seat perpendicular to me. The boys in the seat next to her kept shoving her into me and she kept apologizing to me. I just smiled back at her sympathetically.

And then I overheard this conversation:

Counselor: Ian, uh… Ian? Where are your underpants?
Ian: *shrugs* I dunno. 
Counselor: What do you mean you don't know?
Ian: I guess I lost 'em.
Counselor: How could that happen… Ian, please stop that. Ian! You're being very inappropriate right now! Please- just close the hole up, will you? You're being very inappropriate. Can you cover it up? Well, then, just… oh man. Please stop. Just stop. Can't you, uh, cover it somehow? Oh no. Okay, never mind that. Where's your towel? Where is your towel? *Looks toward back of bus in desperation* Caleb! Caleb, do you have your brother's towel? Can you toss it up here? Thanks. Ian, keep this on your lap till we get to our stop.

The little girl perpendicular to me rolled her eyes and looked beleaguered- Ian was sitting right next to her. Again, she said, "Sorry." I said, "No, I'm sorry," glancing at her seat mate with his grungy, wet towel draped across his lap. You'll probably end up going to prom with him with your luck, I wanted to say, but didn't. She was in enough misery as it was.

A few minutes later, another counselor, who was sitting on the other side of the bus, female this time, had to ask Ian, very sweetly, very politely, to please keep his knees together.

I noticed Ian was the last one off the bus, still perched there in his seat, a towel on his lap like a surgical drape. I wondered how he was getting home- was someone going to pick him and his brother up at the library where they had gotten off the bus? God, I hoped they didn't ride their bikes here, I thought, shuddering. I wondered how he would explain his towel-drape to whatever parents were waiting for him.

I should note that nearly every time I go on one of my little adventures, I manage to come across some
discarded underpants. It doesn't matter if I'm hiking in the woods or exploring a new city- inevitably, I will find underpants. I've always wondered how someone loses their underpants in locations like these. They never appear to have just fallen out of a bag packed with other clothes. They are always alone, unaccompanied by any explanation as to why they were abandoned. It's like they just spontaneously fell off their owner and onto the hiking trail, shrubs, sidewalk, street side planter, once even a cliffside. Who just loses their underpants in a public place?  What happens when they realize they are now sans drawers? Do they ever go back and look for them?

After years of coming across abandoned underwear, today I finally encountered an underpants-loser.  Thank you, Ian, for providing a synchronicity of underpants. I hope your folks were understanding.

Friday, July 3, 2015

It's Always Something

So, a couple weeks ago, I was walking down the hall at the senior community where I work, and I heard a resident upstairs on the 4th floor playing The Way We Were on the piano. I stopped to listen, and it made me smile, because she was playing very methodically, perhaps a little woodenly, and it reminded me of Lisa Loopner's performance of the same song in Gilda Radner's Broadway show, Gilda Radner: Live From New York.

It tickled me to think of Lisa Loopner hammering away at a piano in Assisted Living, so I searched for a clip of her performing the song to post on Facebook. The clip I found had a comment attached noting that the film of her show was directed by Mike Nichols, and also pointed out that she's sitting on a giant phone book while playing the piano. I realized that while I have (and know by heart) the album recorded from her show, I'd never SEEN any of it. I didn't realize there was a filmed version out there. I bought it immediately.

And then last Sunday, after going to an all-you-can-eat crawfish boil in the rain and realizing that those beers we washed the crawdads down with tasted pretty good, we got some more and came home to drink them. I suggested we watch my DVD of Gilda Live which had just arrived a few days earlier.

Oh, it was so funny and sweet and sad, because she's not with us anymore. Watching her play Judy Miller and Roseanne Roseannadanna and Candy Slice at the Winter Garden Theatre just makes you wonder what she'd be doing now if she was alive.

It also made me think back to 1989 and what a pivotal year it was for me. It was really an incredibly formative year, kicked off in a lot of ways by Gilda's death.

I had just finished 10th grade and was looking forward to a summer filled with floating around my parents' pool with a thick book and a bag of candy, wandering the streets at night with my friend Mrs. Schmenkman, eating potato chips and making ludicrous plans for adventures we'd never get to carry out in our boring little town. My world was only as big as the confines of our village, sometimes expanded to include visiting family in Binghamton or New Jersey, or once in 8th grade, Niagara Falls, Canada, the only spontaneous trip I've ever known my parents to take. Things are different now with the internet, but back then, the only way you could get a glimpse of the greater world was to travel, or though the limited TV, newspapers or magazines that came to our area. (Example- my grandmother had MTV long before we did. Our local cable company was of a Christian bent and thought music videos were immoral.)

On May 20th, Gilda Radner died. She'd battled and overcome ovarian cancer, only to
succumb to it when it reared its ugly head again. I was truly saddened by this- I had been allowed to stay up and watch Saturday Night Live when she was on the show and I felt such a connection to this funny, adorable, frizzy-haired, sad-eyed lady. I had Gilda Radner paper dolls. I'd read It's Always Something, her autobiography. My mother let me buy the issue of Glamour magazine that featured a cover story on her life. Up until then, my magazine reading had been limited to Cricket, Seventeen and the occasional Life magazine Year in Review.

Besides mourning my lovely Gilda, the magazine opened my eyes to a new world. Glamour was much more of a feminist publication back then; it wasn't the Kardashian-Kontrolled rag it is now. There was coverage and commentary on current events, particularly how they affected the lives of women. They had their annual Women of the Year awards, which weren't just awarded to actresses and models, but to scientists and politicians and lawyers and innovators and activists.

There was a lot going on in the world to notice then:  the Ayatollah Khomeini- the closest thing my
generation had to a comic villain- died and was violently mourned. Students protestors in Tiananman Square were shot at- my mind reeled at the famous photo of the man standing in front of the tanks with his grocery bags in his hands. The Berlin Wall was breached and finally torn down. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil. Ted Bundy was executed. Women's rights were being attacked again,  thanks to the conservatives that Reagan had ushered in with him. The Central Park Jogger was brutally attacked and raped- a woman named Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote an editorial piece in Glamour about how we were all the Central Park Jogger and we needed to stand up for each other as women, no matter how different we all may be. I
remember that photo of the jogger's bloody sneakers- just regular old Nikes like anyone else had. It was a sobering realization that there were people out there who liked to hurt women; I was now in the ranks of women, which meant that there were people who'd want to hurt me simply for the fact that I was female.

It was about the time that I realized I wanted something more than what my small town had to offer. I wanted something different from what most of the girls I knew aspired to, something different from what people expected me to want.  I wasn't meant to be one of those people who stayed in the same place they grew up for the rest of their lives.  I wasn't going to marry someone I'd grown up with, settle down in my hometown, work whatever job I could find, have babies and run into my classmates at our kids' t-ball games. I wanted to see new places, meet people different from me, learn about and try new things that I had no access to in rural Steuben County. I wanted adventures and experiences. I knew I wanted a different path, but I didn't know just what yet.

And then in 1989, I discovered Murphy Brown and I found my idol. I was absolutely entranced by Murphy- she wasn't anything like any other woman on TV and I loved it. She was smart and not ashamed of her intelligence and refused to play it down to make men feel more comfortable around her. She was tough and not afraid to stand up for herself or others. She didn't care about the things other female sitcom characters did- she wasn't looking for a man to complete her; she was fine on her own, and in fact, preferred it that way. She didn't give a shit about decorating or housekeeping. She loved her work and didn't see a problem with devoting herself to it.
She was dry and sardonic and sarcastic and wonderfully funny. She interviewed fascinating and infuriating people. She was extraordinarily well traveled and at ease in the world of powerful men. She forced her way into a club that didn't allow women. She called people out for perpetuating stereotypes and misogyny. And to top it off, she was effortlessly gorgeous and smartly dressed. So many of the female characters on TV and in movies at that time seemed to demonstrate that you had to sacrifice style for smarts. Murphy showed you could be whatever the hell you wanted to be. Candace Bergen, the actress who played Murphy described the character best:

"a complex, original, endearing, feisty, take-no-prisoners woman. And more surprisingly, a woman who cared not a whit what others thought of her. There was not an ounce of submission, not a drop of passivity, no suggestion of shrivel. Murphy was fierce and principled. She had passion- especially for her work, where she gave no quarter. We all wanted to be her." *

I wanted to be her. Not necessarily a journalist, news anchor or TV reporter. I just wanted to be like Murphy Brown. I wanted to be fiercely independent, unapologetic, proud and capable. I wanted a career that excited and energized me. I wanted a life lived on my own terms.

When you're a little kid, people are always asking you what you want to be when you grow up. Back in my childhood days, if you were a little girl and didn't have a different answer at the ready, it was assumed you wanted to be a wife and a mommy. There is nothing wrong with women who want to be wives and mothers. It IS wrong to assume that every little girl wants only that and to disregard any suggestions to the contrary. If you did state a desire to do something ambitious, folks usually laughed indulgently and nodded knowingly, implying that you might think this way now when you're small and don't know any better, but inevitably you'll change your mind. I got this reaction a lot when I told people I wanted to be the first female president of the United States of the America.

But almost no one asks you WHO you want to be when you grow up. No one asks what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want for yourself, where you see yourself as a grown-up. At 16, aware for the first time really of the greater world around me, I was getting an idea of who I wanted to be. When I pictured what I would be like as an adult back then, I was a lot like Murphy Brown. I had glamorous long hair, exquisitely tailored suits, sensible heels. I spent most of my time in
my office, but I went home late at night to a spacious loft apartment with fantastic city-views, decked out in dark, modern furniture. I had a pet cat, and an equally successful boyfriend who wore pin-striped suits who would visit me and drink martinis in my elegant apartment, but didn't live there and went home to his own place when the evening was over so I could have my space to myself. I was principled, powerful, successful, driven, serious when necessary but funny when I wanted to be. Above all, I was passionate about my work, which was left kind of vague in these fantasies, except they involved me striding purposefully through hallways in my sensible heels. (It's become harder and harder to find attractive shoes with heels that you could run for a bus in but are not frumpy. Heels have become ridiculously high in the past couple years, and it's my theory that these higher heels are a subconscious design intended to keep women incapacitated. Remember that commercial with the women playing basketball in pumps? Imagine doing that in today's 4,5, or 6- inch-heeled pumps with the extra platform in the toe box that makes it look like you're wearing high-heeled Kleenex boxes on your feet.)

Not all of that fantasy came true- there were modifications and changes that had to be made as I left 16 and moved into my 20s, 30s, and then 40s where I am today. I have three dogs, not a cat. I live in a 151-year-old farmhouse in the Finger Lakes, not a lofty penthouse in an unnamed metropolis. My furniture is decidedly not modern. I rarely wear suits or heels to work, although I do walk very quickly with purposeful strides through the halls. My husband doesn't wear suits often either, and he lives in our house with me. (Although I do insist on having space that's just mine in our own home.) But truthfully, those are minor details; the important parts are the same. Someone on social media not too long ago posed the question of what you thought it would be like if your childhood self met your grown-up self. Would she be pleased or disappointed with how you turned out? I think I'd be pretty happy with adult me.

Because the other truth I've learned is that you don't have to be one kind of woman. You can take the
best of an acerbic, fierce, passionate character like Murphy Brown and combine that with the goofy, endearing sweetness of someone like Gilda Radner. You can be serious and funny. You can be a goddamn boss at your job and also enjoy singing songs about Walter Cronkite thinking you farted in his office. You can relish the predicability of your daily routines and also do joyous, adventurous stuff like watch the Independence Day fireworks from a paddleboard in the middle of the lake at night. I think my 16-year-old self would find that pretty cool.

Interestingly, the night we watched Gilda, Live just happened to be her birthday.
She would've been 69 years old.

Happy birthday, my lovely American Gilda. Thanks for being such a great role model.

*Quote from Candace Bergen's autobiography, A Fine Romance.