31 May 2012

Women Behaving "Badly" (or so some might say)

"When Anthony Met Stanton"
Seneca Falls, New York is just north of the Finger Lakes and about halfway between Rochester and Syracuse.  In the 1840s, it was nearly the western edge of the American Frontier, home to experimental utopian communities, a hotbed of the Second Great Awakening, and a stopover on the Underground Railroad.  Most notably, the “Seneca Falls Convention” of 1848 is considered the birth of the American Women’s Movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony met in Seneca Falls in 1851 and together, launched the largest social change in human history, devoting their lives to making change that, sadly, they never enjoyed in their lifetimes (the 19th Amendment – women’s right to vote -  was not ratified until 1920).  

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World is well-researched and reminds me how lucky I am to live in the age that I do.  Before their efforts, women were denied any sort of public life – they were relegated to “the home sphere.”  Women rarely had education beyond the 8th grade, were not allowed to own ANY of their own property (even personal belongings, like clothing, jewelry, books, housewares, and any and all incomes or inheritances legally belonged entirely to husbands), did not have custody of their children in a divorce, were thought to be “disgusting” if they gave a public address or wore skirts that showed their ankles. 

Today I have freedoms that just 150 years ago would have been unthinkable, and even 60 years ago would have been questionable (seen Mad Men much?).  Is the United States perfect?  Of course not.  Social development is an ongoing process; even from one generation to the next, what is “inappropriate” for one generation might be hardly an issue for the next.  Today, women wear what they want, work in any profession they choose, they can have children or not, within marriage or not.  In the last several months, women’s freedoms have been loudly in the news (and rightly so), but the good news is that we’re loud, we’re proud, and although we can’t take anything for granted, I expect that over time social liberties and equality will expand, not contract.

Vicky Tiel featuring the many
incarnations of the Torrid dress
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve also zoomed through Vicky Tiel’s It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years about Men, Women, Sex, & Fashion.  Vicky Tiel is no Stanton or Anthony; however, Stanton & Anthony (and many other brave women) paved the way for a woman like Tiel.  Her father advises her to never marry a man for “shoes” (essentially, make your own money, do not be dependent…. good feminist advice).  in the 1960s Tiel and her design partner Mia Fonssagrives invented the mini-skirt and the jersey wrap dress.  Tiel created a time-honored rouched dress called The Torrid.  Her designs are standards among the glitterati.  However, I found her continual name-dropping tiresome: her many lovers (i.e. Warren Beatty), her near-lovers (i.e. Woody Allen), and her countless references to Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, blah, blah, blah.  She’ll tell you how to successfully seduce a man, cook awesome food, and give you life advice from “Liz,” Coco Chanel, Goldie Hawn, and others.  She gets married, divorced, jets around the world, Paris, New York, Paris, New York, and finally settles in rural Florida (go figure!).  I’ll be honest: I will probably bake a Dartois, but I will never be anything near the renegade that Vicky Tiel was/is/will be (I simply could not send my child off to boarding school in order to indulge my personal life the way she did, and furthermore, I’m a big fan of undergarments… ‘nuf said).  That’s okay.  One of her recommendations is to “be yourself.”  Can do!

I finished Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance yesterday.  Either you’ll like her chutzpah or you won’t (I do).  A single mom to a very challenging son,  she battled mental illness, substance abuse, and weight issues.  At age 66 she retires from a lifetime of teaching high school English and she is finally quite “well” in all respects, but feels that she has a “lot of living to do,” life she has really missed out on in many ways (it’s complicated – read the book). She thinks long and carefully about it, then takes out an ad in the New York Times personal page: “Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.  If you want to talk first, [Anthony] Trollope works for me.”  She receives ample responses, and is able to be quite selective about the men she chooses to meet.  Her adventure is neither a grand success nor an utter failure.  It is life: glorious moments, tragic moments, and several truly absurd moments.  I appreciated the memoir.  She invites us inside her life and heart in a most profound way. Despite the premise, it's not nearly as racy as you might expect.  It is intimate rather than salacious.  And the connection with Stanton & Anthony?  Once again, this sort of sexual and personal freedom would not be possible without the Women’s Movement.  I think Juska is out to break some serious stereotypes. People have physical desire.  No matter what their age.  She does.  We all do.  Age does not change that.  Kudos to her for reminding us.

24 May 2012

Kenzie & Gennaro - you will be missed...

In spite of having seen Gone, Baby, Gone at least three times, it was only recently (after the holidays) that I somehow became aware that it was the 4th in a series of six crime thrillers by Dennis Lehane.  I swear, I am not living under a rock, but 1. how I got this far without knowing this amazing series exists, and 2. how I could not have learned that this, in my Top 100 favorite films of all time, was first a BOOK, and a GREAT one, is beyond me.  I mean, I watch the credits! How did I miss this for so long?!  Common sense ain’t all that common.  Sounds like something Patrick Kenzie might say.
Casey Affleck & Michelle Monaghan were perfect.
Too bad they made just one.....
It’s pretty rare for me to read a series, rarer to read one that’s more than a trilogy, so for me to BLAZE through each and every volume of this 6-book adventure is really saying something.  Kenzie is an amazing narrator, and hard-boiled in the best tradition.  The genre has been done to death (from Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade, Columbo to Magnum P.I.  Even, to a degree, Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, and god knows who else) but Kenzie is fresh & unique.  I loved how smart and savvy both Patrick & Angie are, and even smarter together. I love their chemistry, both intellectual and sexual.  I love how much he absolutely adores her, even when he’s mad as hell at her.  He’s tough yet tender.  I loved watching Angie transform from a battered wife to a confident 40-something.  Growing up takes a lifetime.

17 May 2012

I'm a perfect mess

Many women continually find fault with their bodies (my butt is too big/flat, I’m too tall/too short, my hair is too straight/too curly).  Nobody’s gonna mistake me for Scarlett Johannson, Halle Berry, Sofia Vergara, or Gwyneth Paltrow, but I don’t have a “body image problem.”

Instead, I have a “home image problem.”  There’s some crumbs, dust, maybe a little grime, but mostly clutter I’m constantly keeping at bay which sometimes provokes “CHAOS” (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome – thank you, Flylady!).  Friends and family tell me that our home is cute and cozy.  Objectively I know that is true. My husband and I have put quite a lot of effort into updating and beautifying our 60-yr-old house (on a thrifty budget, naturally ;-).  Even so, mostly I see the flaws.  My perennials are coming up vigorously, but I see the scruffy lawn.  We’ve recently done a lot of work updating our kitchen, but I still I can’t stop moping over the sad vinyl flooring that we haven’t addressed yet.  We’ve updated our heating system, roof, electrical, windows, doors, and insulation, but every evening I frown at our shabby “tv couch” – the one that takes a daily beating from kid, pet, spills, and just plain hard wear.  Paperwork needs to be filed, laundry in all states of processing, and especially the artifacts of three people who enjoy skiing/boarding, camping, gardening, fishing, and friends, three people who are artists, musicians, readers, writers, couponers, crafters, movie buffs, and science junkies.  We would rather enjoy the truly enjoyable things about life than vacuum every single day. Being excited about these things makes life, well, messy.

the ultimate “take heart, it’s not so bad”
message for people like me.
Enter A Perfect Mess.  Not all mess is bad mess.  Some mess is extremely productive.  There are different kinds of messes, and different kinds of mess-makers.  Some potentially helpful, some downright pathological.  A college professor’s stacks of books and papers may be helpful to her in developing a new concept, but take it several steps forward and compulsive hoarders can literally become trapped and killed by the mountains of stuff they’ve frighteningly packed into their living space.  The most nimble businesses are the ones that can tolerate some operational “mess.” It’s more effective to try new ideas that don’t work out than to not try anything new; throw enough spaghetti on the wall and some of it will stick. It’s been said that creativity is most often the result of combining existing elements in a new way.  Geometric shapes, the human form, and oil-on-canvas are very old, but Cubism is relatively new.  Telephones, cameras, a pocket calendar, and devices that play recorded music are 19th century technology; iPhones are 21st.

“Orderliness” is a matter of personal taste.  My supervisor uses Post-its very effectively for personal visual cueing – reminders of projects pending, etc.  Conversely, I once knew an executive whose desk was always completely vacant, even when he was genuinely hard at work.  To me, I couldn’t figure how on earth he could find anything if everything was always put away (I need a goodly amount of visual cueing myself).  But it worked for him. 

A relative has asked me a couple of times, “You’re such a reader; wouldn’t you rather have a Nook?” (Note: I know this person reads quite a lot, but I’ve never seen an actual book in the public spaces of his/her house.)  NO!  I like books.  I like the bindings, the paper, and yes, they do take up a lot of space, but having no physical books in my home would feel as lonely as if I had no friends.  There’s emotional warmth to books that a Nook can never have.  I can write a loving message to a friend and give a book as a gift.  I can donate it, or I can keep it forever.  I can pass it down to my child.  When my son was in pre-school, he gave me a bookmark for Mother’s Day.  I use it often.  There are no laminated, crayon-colored bookmarks for Nooks.

I’m cutting myself some slack about my mess.  I wouldn’t be me without these things.  Or not the right style of me.  A happy side effect of not needing to be uber-orderly is that I’m also quite spontaneous (or as much as I can be with a school-age son).  A dear old friend calls to go out for a drink on a Tuesday night?  Can do!  A little ordered disorder in life is a good thing.

But I can’t decide: now that I’ve finished reading A Perfect Mess, do I keep it or give it away?

10 May 2012

Should I judge a book by its cover?

It should not take me over a year to read a book.

According to my GoodReads notes, I started John Leland’s Hip: The History in March 2011.  It’s been on my bedside table ever since; I finished it Monday night. 

First, that’s just plain clutter.  Shameful.  The gurus at Real Simple would not approve.

In the last week I just plowed through to the end (mainly because I REALLY want to get back to Kenzie & Gennaro!)

The history of “hip” is largely about African American culture, starting with 17th century slavery.  The Africans who were brought to the colonies were a heterogeneous population – many cultures, MANY languages.  They may have been taking orders from a white owner, but even more, they needed to communicate with one other.  That meant finding commonalities between native languages, mixed with English, to form a distinct system of communication.  African American Vernacular English (somewhat better known, if pejoratively, as "Ebonics") is a genuine dialect, not just sloppy English.  The language of the slaves could serve as a way to undermine authority.  The word “hepi” is a Wolof word meaning “to know, to become enlightened.”  If you’re “hip” to something, it means you know it… but in a subtle, cool way.  Don’t let on to The Man that you know.

Okay, I dig that.  But then Leland extends hip to the 19th century Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville), to jazz, to European Jews in America, to the Beat authors & poets, to rap.  So, if you’re subversive, you’re hip.  Hip also seems to embrace, if not glorify, those who drop out and hit the road (Kerouac), do heroin (Charlie Parker) and/or coke (Iggy Pop), or operate outside of the mainstream generally.  (Interestingly, he doesn’t see 60’s Counterculture as hip at all.  More like wannabes.  Beat Generation was VERY hip.  Hence, the Beatles.  Get it?  BEATles?  Yeah…..)  Women CAN be hip, but it’s a lot harder because, according to Leland, women partners of hipsters shoulder the non-hip responsibilities of making sure the rent is paid and the kids get fed.  Being a reasonably decent mother is decidedly un-hip.

If I judged a book by its cover,
I probably never would never have read this.
Guess what?  All of us on the web?  Doin’ our own thang?  We’re hip. Supposedly. Yup.  Me.  Hip.  Go figure.

Except that he published Hip: The History in 2004.  Before Facebook and Google cranked up.  Just a couple of years after the Napster party ended.  Shortly after the Dot Com Bubble, but before Web 2.0.  I mean, how subversive can I possibly be if Google hosts my blog (for “free”) – it’s not like I need to know a lick of html (although I do know a little, the “dos cervesas, por favor” of html).

So I guess the two ends of the spectrum today are “Hip” or “Square.”  Which one do you think I am?  I think I’m pretty square, really, but so is everyone on The Big Bang Theory, and they’re hip, right? 

At the risk of being totally bogus, it’s like Huey Lewis said: “It’s hip to be square.”

I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

03 May 2012

Genealogy is hip!

Is it just me, or is genealogy really "big" these days?  Two genealogical shows are on the air: NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? (sponsored by Ancestry.com), and PBS' Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Of the two, I think the Gates one is more sensitive, thorough, and academic, but I enjoy the NBC show too.  I watch them both.

I think every family has a resident historian, My dad's mom was really into family history.  My mother's sister has done tremendous amounts of research.  In my generation, that's me.

In my senior year English class, we had a choice of two projects: genealogical research, or a literary paper.  I picked the former.  I worked pretty hard at it, but my entire family is French-Canadian, and in the late 1980s, the only way I could do any research at all would have been an extensive trip to Quebec (Fun!  but no...), or a LOT of letter-writing (in French), in the hopes of a response (in French).  Limited success from the letter-writing.  I didn't get back further than a few generations, except for piggy-backing on research from extended family.

I've had an Ancestry.com account for a couple of years. (I know, I know - the Mormons have probably posthumously baptized all my ancestors by now.  Oh well.)  I've made a few remarkable discoveries.  First, that French-Canadian parish records of births, marriages, and deaths are exceedingly orderly.  Second, and this is a biggie, in Quebecois cultural records, women are listed by MAIDEN name throughout their lives, for all events, even the records of their children's baptisms, and their own death.  That makes researching a particular individual so much easier.  If "Marie Catherine Barbeau" is called that at birth, in every church document, public census document, everywhere, you can always find her and feel fairly confident you're on the right track.

WW Norton & Company, Inc.

So what does this have to do with books?  I just picked up and blazed through Bryan Sykes' Seven Daughters of Eve.  It focuses on mitochondrial DNA - DNA that is passed down, intact, from mother to child.  Tracking the markers backward, researchers have been able to trace all of humanity back to less than 35 "clan mothers."  For those of us of European descent, that number is just seven women. Wow.  On Finding Your Roots, many of the featured people (especially European Jews and African-Americans) are able to learn about their heritage only through mDNA because written records are lost, or never existed at all.

Genealogy, until recently, I think, has mostly been an endeavor to trace a family name (paternalistic, indeed).  In my own family, the effort had stopped at my great-great-grandmothers - pretty much the end of the oral history line.  Until now, no one bothered to search for more records about my father's father's mother's family, or any of my great great great mothers.  But she is every bit a part of my background as the part of the family that happens to have my surname.  It's refreshing indeed to read about matrilineal history (via mDNA).  I've been able to break that barrier and I've already searched back many generations... the fathers and mothers of each ancestor.  I want to know about my foremothers.

And there's only one line of work I've seen thus far, in all the records: "cultivateur."  Farmer.  Farmer after farmer.  No princes, or knights, no doctors, teachers, merchants, miners, sailors, barbers, or blacksmiths.  Just farmers.  At least they were consistent!

My people have been on this continent since the mid-1600s.  Time and again I'm tracing my family back to original European settlers along the St. Lawrence.  Many of the women who arrived in the 17th century were orphans, or as they were euphemistically called at the time, Les Filles de Roi - "Daughters of the King" (or in today's parlance, wards of the state).  I suspect that they were rather unceremoniously shipped out for a wild, unknown land and future (not a far cry from human trafficking, really). 

I'm just waiting for my family tree to circle all the way around.  Yep, I could very well have a matching ancestor 10 generations back on both my mother's AND my father's side.  New France in the 1660s was pretty small.....