Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mad for Mad Men

In our house, we are late comers to watching the marvelous series "Mad Men."  But, we have worked valiantly to catch up--we ordered the past seasons, watched them all, and then joined the viewers who are watching the current season 5.

There are many reasons to enjoy this series.  As people who came of age during the 1960s, my husband and I keep remembering the original events that inspire the on-screen escapades and interactions of highly believable, if not always likable, characters.

But the theme that wrings truest for me, and causes me great psychic pain, is women's liberation.  Oh, that is almost an out-dated term, but there was a time not so long ago when women really were second class citizens in America.  What is so maddening is that, even as we watched women struggling in the series "Mad Men" to be taken seriously, all around in our current political environment we seem to be fighting these battles again.

This past week's "Mad Men" episode was especially painful for me.  The episode was titled "The Other Woman" interweaving three story lines.  If you don't watch the series, I won't go into the particulars, but suffice it to say that one story line involves a woman who works in the advertising agency at the heart of the show being asked to sleep with (OK, have sex with) a potential customer just to land the contract.

As the story unfolded, my immediate and strong reaction was -- ewwwww!  Oh, yes, I remember such times.  Of course, I never encountered such a bald proposition as the one posed on "Man Men" when I was in the workplace.  But I certainly recall the obvious way women were looked at in the workplace.  I recall having conversations with male co-workers where the subtext had nothing to do with my work abilities.  I recall the presumptions that women had one particular place and value, and it did not center on a woman's capacity to think.

I remember a conversation I had with our daughter when she was a young girl.  The external pressure on girls is so strong to BE pretty, and not brainy.  I told her--if you have to choose between beauty and brains, pick brains.  Beauty fades, intelligence doesn't.  At the time, she was young enough that she must have thought her mother was daft.  Who would ever pick brains over beauty?

While reliving a fictionalized version of women being oppressed in "Mad Men" I got to thinking of the political swirl of issues now that seems bent on marching women back to "the good old days"--days that may have been good for men but certainly weren't good for women.

How can it be that we are now seriously considering going backwards.  Congress debates renewing measures against domestic violence.  Really? Is anyone in FAVOR of domestic violence? Congress debates rolling back "equal pay for equal work" laws.  There is mounting pressure to limit or even ban birth control.  Seriously?

Along about this point in my mental meanderings, I find myself speechless.  I cannot fathom WHY we would want to go back to the mad days of mad men.
Photo from

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tell Me A Story

As anyone who has been a parent to a small child—or a friend to a small child—knows, one request you will no doubt hear from said child is:  tell me a story.
We humans are hard-wired to want to hear story telling.  I used that human need when I was teaching—nothing got the attention of students quite so fast as telling a story.  One of the first writing assignments I would give was to write a narrative.  The simple task of the assignment:  tell me a story.

No doubt, our human love of stories originated around cave campfires.  The nights can stretch long and cold in northern winters.  It is easy to picture a small group of cave people—men, women, old and young, huddled together and then someone begins to tell a story.

We know, for example, that some of the earliest literature we have began out of an oral tradition.  Stories that would be told, perhaps even sung, by professional story-tellers who would travel around, weaving their magic in words.

Sometimes it seems that when we grow older, and more sophisticated in our modern way, that we think we don’t need stories anymore.  But, the recent news of Maurice Sendak’s death struck a deep sad chord within the hearts of those of us who grew up either reading or hearing “Where the Wild Things Are.”  Sendak grasped the power of the story.  Not for him the faux emotion of a happily-ever-after-sugar-coated Disney tale.  He told stories that placed a firm finger on children’s deep inner fears—and made them seem … normal.  It was OK to have wild things romping around in your kingdom room.  It was OK to be afraid.  It was OK to peer into the darkness.

And just today, I heard of another use of storytelling.  An NPR story (there’s that word again) talked about Alzheimer’s patients or even anyone with dementia.  One of the sad losses they experience is the ability to communicate.  And it begins when their memories grow spotty so they can’t recall things.  Loved ones who long to communicate try to prompt them to talk about something they remember.  But, it’s the failure of memory that frustrates them and sometimes renders them mute.

So some bright person thought—why not get them to tell a story about a picture they look at.  The picture can be anything: an ad from a magazine, an illustration, a painting—whatever.  The prompt is simple—tell me a story about what you see in this picture.  And since there’s no wrong answer, no challenge to recall details, they can talk.  They construct stories about the scene in the picture, adding details and thoroughly enjoying themselves.  No doubt, their loved ones are also gratified to hear them communicating again.

So, tell me a story.  It’s the human thing to do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Do you remember that old routine the Smothers Brothers did on their show?  I think Tom wanted to recite that verse* about Mother--you know, M is for...
Then Dick (the younger) would say to Tom (the older)--go ahead, Tom, say the poem.  So Tom started out:
M is for the Many things she gave me--(pause)
O is for the Other things she gave me--(another pause)
T is for the Things she gave me--(awkward pause)

And, then Tom would stop.  Stuck on H not really knowing the verse about "Mother."  Predictably, that would earn Dick's derisive scorn.  Of course, the routine stopped there--Tom never finished his version.

Well, Mother's Day is one of those days which the predominant culture lauds and bathes in positive association.  All of us had a mother--whatever other relatives we have, we all have for certainty two: a mother and a father.  But not all of us have happy memories attending this day. 

I know this has been the subject of a previous post--for, you see, my mother died on Mother's Day.  Of course, I still celebrate this day.  I honored my mother on this day when she was alive, and now that I have a step-mother, I honor her.  I have honored other mother figures in my life.  And I have been honored as a mother.

But, still, the day brings a moment's reflection--it raises a lump in my throat, quickens a tightness in my chest.  No day is a good day for the premature death of one's mother--but to have that death occur on Mother's Day?  Well, the overlapping of happiness with grief inevitably arises.

No need to belabor the subject--but each Mother's Day I naturally think of my mother, and I also remember her death.

* In case you don't know the verse (actually the lyrics from an early 1900s song)--here it is:
M Is for the Many things she gave me,
O Means only that she’s growing Old.
T Is for the Tears she shed to save me,
H Is for her Heart of purest gold.
E Is for her Eyes with love light shining,
R Means Right and Right she’ll always be.
Put them all together, They spell MOTHER.
A word that means the world to me.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Face is Familiar...

I was charmed recently while listening to Terry Gross conduct an interview on Fresh Air with Anna Quindlen.  Quindlen has long been one of my favorite writers.  She knows how to turn a sentence as one would turn a prism--slowly, holding it up to the light, giving time for all the colors to sparkle.

I was a huge fan of her writing when she wrote opinion pieces for the New York Times.  To my great dismay, she announced in 1995 that she was giving up writing a regular column.  It turns out she was devoting her writing energies into writing novels (she has written 5 thus far) and non-fiction.  And then in 1999 Newsweek recruited her to write the last page column which she did for 10 years.

When I was teaching, I used one of those articles Quindlen had written about plagiarism.  An article she wrote had been lifted, almost wholesale, by Wayne Newton when he was asked to write a guest column.  She called him on the appropriation of someone else's work (which is what plagiarism is) and his defense was--my, isn't it interesting how our minds were so in tune that our words matched.  I had to stop using it, however, when students asked me--who is Wayne Newton?  Oh my.

Well, I had best get to the reason for my rumination.  Her most recent work is a book, a sort of personal memoir, titled Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.  It was the publication of this book on which Terry focused her interview.  Among many topics covered, Terry queried Anna Quindlen on one admission in her book--she has had Botox injections, and some facial fillers.  Why? Terry wondered.

And I wonder too.  Quindlen's reasons are her own, and they are perfectly good reasons.  After all, any decision to alter one's appearance is personal.  Quindlen compared her periodic Botox injections, to relax muscles on her forehead that tighten and give her an unintended scowl, to periodic eyebrow waxing.  Small tweaks to improve an overall appearance.

Let's face it.  Our society puts a great deal of emphasis on how we look--but the pressure is greater on women than men.  Sometimes, when I watch a news show and see a male reporter with a face that shows every wrinkle acquired over decades of living, I can't help but muse that a female reporter with a similar road map of life on her face would not be on television.  Think Morley Safer--is there a woman reporter whose faces shows as many decades as his does?

It is a rare woman in public life who has not felt the pressure to have "some work" done.  Some women trumpet it, making sure that every tweak is noted, while others deny, deny, deny all the while their looks belie.  Sometimes the results are gentle and hardly noticeable, sometimes the results are disastrous.  And sometimes, she no longer looks familiar.

I know I am not in the public eye, but a long time ago, I vowed--my face gets to age as it will.  No nips, no tucks, no tighenings.  That way, perhaps the face will stay familiar.