Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘women’

The Tao of Hair

Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy, daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
© 1967 James Rado & Gerome Ragni (lyrics); Galt MacDermot (music)


So many things to worry about in the world and yet I find myself thinking about my hair–and why not? We are our hair. More than eye color or height or weight, hair seems to be how we humans make a statement. Some of this is evolutionary: healthy hair indicates youth and well-being, two desirable traits when it comes to the propagation of the species.  Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, providing both temperature control and, for many animals, camouflage. As most of us (but clearly not all of us) understand, our animal friends don’t really care how they wear their hair as long as it does what their instincts tell them it’s supposed to do: namely, protect and serve.

But we humans are different. We care about our hair (or lack of it)…and we experiment.

While there is ample evidence that men are attentive to styling (the early Greeks, the upper-class Renaissance, the Chinese warriors, fans of Elvis’ pompadour and even—shudder—the mullet), men generally seem to have two styles available to them: long and short. Oh sure, we may go through periods of mutton-chops or fringe bangs (heaven forbid) but at the end of the day, most men stay with short hair, with a few hold-outs opting for shaved heads or the less than inspiring ponytail.

Women, on the other hand, have infinite permutations, notwithstanding they’ve often followed the lead of their leaders—monarchs, movie stars and various trend-setters. In any given decade, you could find a pleasing variety of straight and curly, waist-length and bob, flip and page-boy, worn up, worn down, decorated with beads and feathers or worn unadorned. If you had a little money, you went to a fancy hairdresser and chose a style that suited you; if not, you flipped through pages of hairstyle magazines and selected something and had your mom or your best friend cut it.

So what’s with all the long hair?

I mean long, below the shoulder, tendrils gently brushing one’s breasts or tickling that spot on the back it’s so hard to reach when showering. These days, I feel surrounded by women who look as if they’re auditioning for roles on “Gossip Girls,” women of all ages whose tresses fall far below the shoulder. Some of them sport the super-straight look, apparently ignoring the recent reports about the dangers of formaldehyde in the most popular straightening formulas. More recently, I’ve seen an explosion of the gentle tendrils that make the wearer look like an aspiring fairy princess. A surprising number of women (including a close friend of mine, a financially comfortable woman with great clothes) have long hair that simply sits on the head, as if the wearer had absentmindedly allowed her hair to grow without benefit of cutting or conditioning. It’s not unusual to see three generations of women out on the town with identical hairstyles, tossing back stray strands while they munch on Waldorf salads or scour Target for matching T-shirts.

Popular culture shoulders part of the blame, especially television. These past seasons, we’ve seen a raft of smart, funny, capable women, most between thirty and fifty. Their independent spirit seems to extend to all parts of their lives save their hairstyle choice. Doctors, lawyers, detectives, coroners, therapists, operatives, mothers, U.S. marshals, drug dealers: everyone wears prom-ready do’s, showing up in the operating room, in the courtroom, or at the scene of a crime with locks akimbo. Wouldn’t a flowing mane obstruct a clean shot or a brilliant summation? Isn’t anyone worried about contaminating evidence or interfering with a crime scene?

Maybe it starts with the ads for the latest shampoo, conditioner, coloring or balm, all of which feature attractive young people cavorting under sunny skies swinging great masses of gleaming tresses back and forth without getting whiplash. It’s hair you want to sleep in, dress in, bathe in; who wouldn’t want some of that?

Long hair conveys sensuality and pre or post-menopausal women these days are particularly sensitive about competing for attention in a society that still doesn’t know where to put or how to treat its older women (we can’t all be Betty White).

My own hair has hovered between my chin and my shoulders for years now, occasionally retreating back towards the ear. If the base of the neck is my wire-fenced, heavily-patrolled, “may I see your passport, please” border, then the area to the collarbone is a no-fly zone. Part of the issue relates to sheer volume: as my hair gets longer, it becomes fuller, threatening to engulf my small face in sweeping waves and errant curls. There’s also my ongoing struggle to stay relevant yet also “appropriate.” I mean, as much as I approve of cross-generational pollinating, some fashions, like some behavior, are better worn by the young.

Still, I hear the siren song—or maybe it’s the swan song—of Samson, at least before Delilah got to him. Push the envelope, it sings; go long one time before you’re eligible for Medicaid. Embrace your freedom; who cares if it suits you? This is America. You have the right to look just like everyone else.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

youngMc
But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

Read Full Post »

Outside the Boxes

I’m moving.

To be honest, I’ve been promising/threatening to move out of my townhouse for eight or nine years; but this is the year I intend to set my intention into motion.  Perhaps it’s the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death or the fact that I’ve lived alone in the house we bought together for nearly as long as we shared the space. Maybe it’s the crack in the ceiling or the bumps in the wall; the peeling paint in the garage or the rising property taxes. Most likely it’s the fact that several of my closest friends have put their houses on the market and are dealing, painfully, with closings and contractors, agents and buyers, finishes and new beginnings. Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.

I haven’t settled on the “where” quite yet, although I’ve narrowed it down. I fanaticize about a perfectly designed free-standing, one-story, one-person house, energy-efficient, well-appointed; unique in its design and its aspirations. I’m inclined to use an architect because I’ve worked with designers for much of my work life and because I want to create something special: not just a model home but a template for other singletons; neither too small nor too large but just right…assuming we singletons have made peace with living alone.

To get ready, I’ve begun to tackle the “stuff”, all those objects one unthinkingly accumulates over years of staying in one place. I don’t hoard and I’m not above sweeping a drawer full of items into the trash from time to time. Still, I’ve lived in this house nineteen years, half that time with another person. In the finished basement I scarcely visit, there are boxes on shelves built by my former roommate, aka my late husband.

(Is there an expiration date, I wonder, for terming him “late”, as if he’d simply stayed extra hours at the office?)
box
I sit on the floor and open the boxes. Some are empty, which I take to be  a good sign. Others contain records, mostly albums, but also a few 78s. I open one filled with sheet music and “fake books.” These are the staples of any piano bar crooner, which I was for at least a dozen years (Billy Joe put in half that much time, but he got a hit single and a career out of it). I catch the faint scent of Scotch and cigarettes and flash back to evenings in the company of a tip jar and a group of mostly sad, tired people. The song I wrote was far more downbeat and jazzy than Joel’s, I think but in its own way, just as evocative:

Life at a bar begins around five
The cocktail crowd brings the place alive
Talk turns to business, baseball, and broads
One for the road turns to two

(©1982 Nikki Stern & Owen Vance)

Next to that box is another filled with lyric pages, vocal scores and charts from my years as a theater and pop composer, a memorable but highly unprofitable career I abandoned more than two decades ago. No one writes music by hand now; music software “listens” to what you’re playing and translates it fairly accurately into notes on staffs. I’m not even sure who reads music anymore.  I look at the scribbles–the notes, the fading pencil marks, mixed in with a couple of photos taken with a Polaroid at a recording session. Who was that person? What did she expect would happen?

There is a box of trinkets—there’s no other word for them—that I clearly valued at one time. They should be my madeleine, my gateway to a long-ago world but when I touch them, nothing happens—no sharply recalled moments visit me in the cold basement.

The bulk of the photos are in albums stretching back more than forty years: My senior prom, my college roommates, my mutton-chopped boyfriend; images of our family, Mom and Dad looking predictably vibrant; programs, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings (Nixon resigns!)—they’re all here. The thirteen years’ covered by the images of my husband remind me how much time we spent together–and how little time I really had to become adept at navigating a lifetime relationship. There is a box of his with items from his early years. It’s logical that he would bring his cherished mementoes into the house and the life we were supposed to inhabit together for longer than his time with his parents.

I sit among images and belongings of dead loved ones and missing friends, of younger selves with ambitious dreams and untainted hopes and I prepare to feel the predictable flood of emotions: a cocktail of grief and longing, sorrow and not a little rage at what was not achieved, not finished, not retained, lost forever, goddamn it.

The wave never comes, only a little sigh escapes me, as if I were finally exhaling. This flotsam and jetsam is the tangible evidence that I’ve lived my life up to now. The memories are stored in the dusty closets of my mind; I can get to them as needed. I will one day need them. Old people go back as their future closes in on them. I’ve already had a glimpse of the hemmed-in existence that awaits me.

But in this moment, I have to live, I want to live outside these boxes. I still want what’s new: new experiences, new places, new patterns; new connections. So I consolidate everything into one box; whatever doesn’t fit goes into a trash bag and out to the garage. It’s time to get moving.

Read Full Post »

The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has written a book about losing her husband, following in the heart-broken footsteps of many other such memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Oates’ book, A Widow’s Story, has been generally, although carefully, praised save for one review by New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who (bravely or foolishly; take your pick) questions author’s sincerity of purpose.

Maslin is careful not to criticize Oates’ grief process but rather takes aim at the lack of emotional meaning or depth in A Widow’s Story. Oates’ book is “far less fastidious… flabbier and flightier” than Didion’s work, Maslin asserts, and includes threadbare metaphysics…much minutiae…and worrisome signs of haste.” She also finds Oates’ selective retelling to be deceptive. For example, the author includes poignant and poignantly funny stories about grieving but fails to go deeply into her forty-seven year marriage. A far more grievous omission, in Maslin’s view, is the fact that Oates became engaged eleven months after her husband died and is now happily (one hopes) married. “How delicately must we tread around this situation,” Maslin asks? All of this leads Maslin to conclude that Oates may have been seeking to “willfully [tap] into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market.”

Full stop.

It’s difficult for me to distance myself from these kinds of memoirs—as a writer or as a widow. My first reaction is almost always a distressing cocktail of anger, despair, envy, and confusion.

The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most “qualified” to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a  share of that “lucrative loss-of spouse market,” even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?

The widow in me wonders: How long?

The Oates book and Maslin’s review have generated a fair amount of blogosphere discussion about the grieving process. Author Ruth Conigsberg insisted that “…these memoirs are…highly subjective snapshots that don’t teach us much about how we typically grieve, nor more importantly, for how long.” Conigsberg, it should be noted, has her own book concerning the myth of the stages of grief.

She notes optimistically that many older people do recover from losing a spouse to natural causes fairly quickly and even remarry, as did Oates. Her findings are not to be confused with studies that show younger people who lose their spouses in traumatic situations and remain widows or widowers are six times more likely to experience dementia.

Uh-oh.

Nine and a half years after my traumatic loss, I float in a sea of doubt. I don’t even know if I’m still grieving or if something else is at play. Was my marriage at forty an anomaly, a one-time event? The more time that passes, the more I circle back to “before”—before I met the man I would marry; the years spent in the company of inappropriate, uninterested, non-committal men while yearning for the comfort of a stable relationship. I spent, will have spent, will spend, more years alone than in a romantic partnership. The marriage, as joyful, as sustained, as relieved and as (foolish me) safe as it made me feel, was a blip on the radar screen of my life, an accident of fate. I float, I coast and I wonder how I can draw any kind of illustrative, instructive or illuminating lessons from the before, the “during”, or the after.

The writer in me thinks: Oates is a well-known, well-respected writer and professor at Princeton University. She’s out there. It might have been more, what, helpful, to let us know her process included finding happiness again so quickly. Then again, she wasn’t necessarily writing a self-help book, just an accounting.

The widow in me understands: Any memoir I write would be so unresolved as to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, even to me.

Read Full Post »

The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” 

Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote:  “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.” 

Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”  

In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”

He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?  

Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women.  Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power. 

But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an  either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn’t and we’ve left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.  

History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean that we don’t remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention. 

Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.    

So no, there’s nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there’s never just one.

Read Full Post »

A  series of billboards in Georgia are linking abortion with supposed “efforts” by various groups to reduce or limit the size of the black population. The ads first surfaced at the beginning of February, in time for Black History Month and have gradually been reported in the mainstream press. The most recent story appeared on March 1st in the Los Angeles Times.

The billboards are the brainchild of Ryan Bomberger, founder of Georgia-based group “Radiance.” Bomberger, who is adopted, claims to be the son of a white woman raped by a black man.  He believes data that shows a much higher percentage of black women seeking abortions, as well as the number of Planned Parenthood offices in urban areas, is “evidence” of racial targeting, a claim several minority women’s groups denounce as offensive, condescending, and dangerous nonsense.  They concede the high number of abortions among black women in Georgia, but point to other socio-economic factors, such as limited access to birth control and family planning information as well as inadequate insurance coverage.

But the anti-choice forces are jumping on the bandwagon. The Georgia Right to Life organization has partnered with Radiance on the eighty or so ads, which will be displayed at least through March.  Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced a religious conversion after two abortions and now sits on the board of Georgia’s Right to Life organization. She claims to know absolutely that abortionists are targeting the black community for ethnic cleansing.

As a staunchly pro-choice supporter, I am nevertheless deeply sympathetic to those who are deeply distressed by abortion. In truth, all of us are; as one  advocate put it: “Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion.” No one I have ever met, including those who’ve had abortions, has ever been the least bit cavalier about the procedure, which is why I hope that a measure of common ground can someday be found — say, in efforts to expand information about birth control and family planning.

But I’m also deeply offended by  deliberately provocative and highly misleading advertising that attempts to shame and terrorize women who need and deserve support in making decisions about their reproductive health.  Moreover, I’m infuriated by yet another attempt to use words to drive people further apart on one issue  – abortion – by raising a red flag about another – racism.  I’m afraid – truly afraid – we haven’t seen the end of these billboards.

Read Full Post »

Although other holidays may seem to be specifically targeted (Mothers’ Day, Chinese New Year, Kwanza), Valentine’s Day comes across as the most exclusive. The day really is all about romance, which is why a V- Day shutout carries with it a particular sting,  especially if you’re a single female (or Charlie Brown). No cards, no flowers, no candy or jewelry? Oh, the pain, the embarrassment, the loneliness!

That a holiday named for a martyred 5th century saint managed to couple  with an ancient Roman practice of allowing young men to choose young women by lottery as sexual partners is more than a touch ironic. That it has become a means by which those who are neither wooer or woo-y might feel slighted is nothing short of cruel.

There are ways of dealing with V-Day. You could ignore it, of course, but where’s the fun in that? No, you have to get it to pay attention to you, accept you. Imagine how empowering that might feel, sort of like the Salahis felt after last November’s State dinner.

Herewith, a few simple dos and don’ts:

DO buy a card. Or make one, if you don’t wish to contribute to the relentless marketing machine. Put it on your mantle. Believe me, you are someone’s valentine, even if said individual (or pet) is too inattentive or lazy to remember you (or lacks opposable thumbs).

DO treat yourself to something: haircut, flowers, night out. Skip the chocolate; you’ll only hate yourself in the morning.

DON’T  go through old pictures, especially if they are of your old boyfriend or ex-husband. What are you, a masochist?

DON’T hang out with anyone who freights V-Day with too much importance. It’s just a marketing holiday.

DO something for your heart. Take an aerobics class, eat an egg-white omelette, walk the dog.

DO celebrate the idea of romantic love. Maybe it’s impossible, maybe we’re all delusional, but doesn’t that cute couple over there make you smile? Okay, not them; they’re too young and good-looking and overly demonstrative in public; but what about those two old people over there walking slowly hand in hand? Aww…

And go ahead and have a piece or two of candy. They say chocolate is good for the heart, eh?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »