At Six Months Shy of Sixty, A Six Pack

At six months short of my sixtieth birthday I have a six pack. Well, practically. I can see the ripples of muscle more clearly than I ever had before even if they are covered in a small layer of post C-section, well-past menopause fat. The muscles are discernible.

My arms are strong, too, the bat wings of old age less distressing than they might be. My legs can carry me miles and miles. I use my strong back to hold up my torso, my self, straight and tall (or as tall as a short woman can be!) and I move through this pre-apocalyptic world with more grace and confidence than I have ever had. The ripples across my belly mean I am disciplined and steady. They mean I don’t allow defeat to destroy me, nor sadness to make me immobile for more than a few days at a time. I can’t lose my muscle memory because that memory is as fine and important as the things I struggle to retain in my mind.

There is a photograph hanging on my wall that shows my grandmother at around sixty. She is wearing a sensible dress and sensible shoes; she has a doughy middle. Her gray hair is wound up into a bun. For most of my life that was what sixty looked like to me. And then I woke up so close to that age I can taste it and suddenly sixty isn’t my grandmother at all. I may share her sensibility but it is on the inside not the outside. On the outside is the shell that keeps me from declining into too much of the sensible. That reminds me that wisdom is fleeting and that memory of any kind must be constantly trained.

In my wedding photo my mother is fifty-five. She looks glamorous. Her hair is still dark. She is dressed beautifully. But on that day I saw her as an old woman: my mother only. It would be years before I got the sadness in her eyes, before I really knew that she was so much more than my mother and so much less. I did not model myself after her because I had no idea who she was. Nor did she. She kept up the front for twenty more years and then she let it drop all at once when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She aged thirty years in five. She had no memory, muscle or otherwise, to keep her moving.

As much as I write and read and love and live I keep moving every day, working my body, honing my muscles, strengthening my bones. It is partly, I realize, to counteract the myriad medicines I take for various conditions. Each day and night as I go to open my pill box I feel older than Methuselah. But each morning as I shrug myself into a sports bra and tie my training shoes the feeling begins to abate. Each weight I lift, each yoga pose I put my body into, each moment when I am moving and not thinking is a moment when age doesn’t matter. I haven’t given or given in or rested on some past laurels. In fact I push myself harder and harder just to see if I can do more and more.

In my writing I reveal secrets. I tell stories about myself. I work at laying myself bare. I am not always successful. Sometimes I pull back, I retreat. Just as sometimes I put myself into child’s pose and rest, or set down the weights and take a deep breath or two or ten. Pushing forward is hard. I understand why people stop. But I am a shark and always have been, I must keep moving or I will die.

Tragedy has entered and left my life but it leaves vestiges. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, days when I look in the mirror and wonder who I am. It will come and go again and then I suppose it might come and stay at some point. I may lose my mind and then my body. I may forget the notion that muscle memory and memory at all exist. There is precedent. There is no precedent for what I do now, though. No history of six packs and writing till you drop. No legacy of the hope and faith that keep me lifting all the heavy weights, real and metaphorical. No past lesson that tells me not to give up or give in or settle. That is a history I have to write myself.

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Dear Jessica Valenti, You’re Missing the Cat Calls?

Dear Jessica:

At 36, I was still getting catcalled in the street. At 46, I was being accosted by men on the streets of Paris and in cafes where I sat, by myself, reading and writing. At 50, and divorced, I was asked out by a man of 42 who was crushed when I told him he was too young for me. At 59, my lover frequently tells me I am beautiful.

Does this all make me feel pretty? Do I need the admiring glances of strangers or any man to let me know that I am attractive? No. Like any feminist worth her salt I look in the mirror and on some mornings I am pleased and on others I am not. It has ever been thus. How beautiful I am is not dependent on the male gaze. It is dependent on my own gaze and my own expectations.

I’ve written about aging and it can suck. Donald Sutherland was recently quoted as saying: “Getting older is like having a new profession, but it’s not a profession of your own choosing.” He’s 80 and he’s right. He’s also still gorgeous. But his new ‘profession’ isn’t a lack of beauty. It is just that age is a whole other country, too: one we have to learn to navigate because, frankly, as anyone over 50 will tell you, one’s insides just don’t seem to match one’s outsides. It isn’t my beauty to men I mourn but the self I used to see. So I make adjustments with humor and honesty. I am sure you thought you were being honest when you admitted to your addiction to the male gaze. But what you are is dangerous. Dangerous to all the women who will come before you. And dangerous to the feminists whose label you wear so ostentatiously.

You’ve made a career out of parsing feminism. In my 20s I wasn’t parsing feminism, I was living it or trying to. Like all the other women, admitted feminists or not, of my generation (the generation old enough to be your mother) we were pushing against glass ceilings that hadn’t even begun to crack and trying to prove to the men who put their hands on us without our permission that we were as good at our jobs as they were. We spent our days hoping that the male gaze didn’t define us, wanting to be something far more than pretty or desirable. We wanted to be successful. We wanted to make choices that our mothers had not been able to. We wanted to live with intention.

I have no doubt that much of my youthful beauty has been lost. Because so much of beauty IS youth. The young are beautiful mainly because they are young, because their skin is soft and unmarked, their faces unlined, their souls as yet uncrushed. They move through the world with a fluid grace and I love to watch them; they are like beautiful birds trying their wings. I am bemused when I am with my stunning 22-year-old daughter who cannot walk down the street without heads swiveling. She floats, often unconscious of the impact she has. But I see it and I know how fleeting it is, how swiftly it will pass and how unimportant it is. I know that how men see her should never ever be about how she looks and I have told her that many times, even as I have as I have told her honestly how lovely she was. I have also told her that in her kind of beauty is power and that she needs to use it for good rather than for gain.

I know she has heard me and so I know in 15 years she won’t feel as you do, that the male gaze is gone for her and that that is a pity.

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Hey Whiny Parents, Get Over Yourselves!

Full Disclosure: I do not like whiners. Especially adult whiners. Especially adults who constantly whine about how hard child-rearing is. (With this caveat: if you have a child who is emotionally or mentally challenged, stop reading. I do not know how it feels to be a mother to a child with autism or any related issue. I understand from friends it is both hellish and joyous.) But for all the rest of the women out there who have chosen to become a mother I offer some small bits of wisdom. Not advice: you can go to dozens of sites for that. But simple wisdom.

Being a parent can be exhausting. So what. Lots of things are exhausting and few of them are as wonderful as raising a child.

Motherhood is the only job you are guaranteed to fail at. No matter how good you are. Own it.

You get your kid. Not your friend’s or your sister’s or your cousin’s or your co-workers. You get your OWN kid. So that kid has to fit into your life. Not vice versa. If you want to travel, travel; if you want to work, work; if you want to live off the grid, then do it. The kids will adapt. My children lived in two foreign countries and went to a French school in one. The day they entered they had perhaps ten words of French. When we moved there I had none. We learned together.

Bedtimes and mealtimes are up to you. Yes, the experts say a regular early bedtime for young children is best and that they should learn to go to sleep alone. But if you don’t care that your child stays up until he drops on the carpet in front of the Tonight Show then do it and don’t worry about it. And yes children should eat a balanced diet, they should sit at a dinner table and eat real food, but if they don’t occasionally, they won’t starve. No child past the age of two has willingly starved herself. If you give in with special meals and snacks then don’t whine about it. You did this. Own it.

Don’t announce the name of your upcoming child or how you are going to raise him unless you want feedback. If you don’t want feedback then be quiet. It is no one’s business but your own (unless you do something egregious enough for a call to CPS; then that’s on you).

Don’t bemoan the fact that you have no time to write or paint or clean the house or make dinner. You don’t because it isn’t important enough for you to figure it out. Kids can play alone. Kids can also watch a movie for an hour; it will not kill them.

Guilt fucks up more kids than anything else. YOUR guilt. Not theirs. Kids have no guilt. But if you do things out of guilt then be prepared to be manipulated into continuing to do them.

If a time out doesn’t work for your kid, take one for yourself. This especially works well when parenting teenagers. Teenagers may not want to go to their room but you can. You can go to your room and simmer down until the crisis is less threatening and then you can deal with it.

Your kids’ crises are theirs, not yours. Their success is not yours, nor are their failures. Be there to help and love always but do not take on the burden of who they turn out to be. So RELAX. Just be. Take a note from Ram Dass: Be here now. Don’t agonize or beat yourself up about every misstep or failure.

— And if you yell, apologize. Parents need to know how to say I’m sorry when it’s needed. Mistakes go with the territory.

Frankly, I am glad I raised my kids before Facebook, before helicopter parenting and tiger mothering and free range this and that. I parented by my guts and when I needed help I asked. I had no good role model as a mother so I found others. But mostly I listened to my kids, treated them like people and was dead honest. I did not, however, allow them to frame the narrative at any time. I was the boss, pure and simple. It was my house and my rules. And they knew that.

Now that they are well into adulthood I think they are amazing, spectacular people. They have internalized the values I thought were most important, while also figuring things out for themselves. They are a joy to spend time with. They have given me far far more to kvell about than any pain and angst (although there was that, of course) and I look forward at some point to being the same bossy, loving, mater-of-fact grandmother I was as a mother.

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That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Here is what Viagra does: it allows a man to get an erection so that he can have intercourse with a woman when his body isn’t cooperating due to age, illness or medication side effects. Here is what Viagra doesn’t do: it doesn’t spark desire, it doesn’t make a man want to make love to a woman, any woman, just because he takes a pill. It doesn’t turn him into a raging sex fiend.

Viagra is like the match you put to a pile of charcoal briquettes doused in lighter fluid. It starts the flame but the fire has already been laid.

So all this talk about a Viagra pill for women is bizarre, especially when interpreted by the members of the media, as they clamored to get on the bandwagon to report that an FDA advisory committee recommended the approval of a new “female Viagra.”

Most recently we have this gem from every woman’s BFF Cal Thomas, a conservative (to put it mildly) syndicated columnist:

Men of a certain age may rejoice at such a breakthrough. Imagine the possibility of no longer hearing “not tonight, honey, I’ve got a headache.”

Think of the time and money this pill could save men. No more expensive dinners. No more mandatory chick flicks. No remembering birthdays or sending flowers. No back rubs or faked sensitivity. Just a simple pill and she’ll be “ready,” as the male enhancement commercial euphemistically calls it. Cut to the chase, except there would be no need for a chase. No romance. No “getting to know you.” It sounds like the 1973 film “Westworld” where lifelike android women fulfill any male fantasy and never say “no.”


He adds:

Many believe the contraceptive pill transformed sex from a marital act to a mechanical action. Love would also be re-defined from a selfless regard for another person, to a focus on pleasing oneself.

In this latter definition, when the feelings end or can no longer be sustained at the hormonal level of a randy teenager or newlywed, one jettisons the object of one’s former affection in pursuit of new feelings and new conquests. If women today complain about men who can’t commit — and many do — how do they expect commitment when a little pill can lead to pharmaceutical arousal? The same holds true for men and Viagra.

Right. Viagra hasn’t done that, of course. What it has done is to allow men to have sexual relations with the women they wish to have sexual relations with. But a female Viagra? That would spell the downfall of the human race.

But as NPR reports, the drug, called flibanserin (gotta change that name) doesn’t even work like Viagra:

“Flibanserin shifts the balance of three key brain chemicals … . The drug … increases “excitatory factors for sex” — dopamine and norepinephrine — and decreases serotonin, which can dampen the sex drive …”

And in fact, the drug has already been rejected by the FDA twice, due to lack of evidence of its efficacy and a rather alarming group of side effects.

There are women’s groups pushing for some sort of drug to help women achieve a higher level of satisfaction. The head of the National Organization for Women and several women in congress feel that the standards for a woman’s drug are far too rigorous when compared with the standards that gave rise to Viagra, Cialis and other such types of pills for men.

But the counter, according to an article in Think Progress, is this:

People on the other side of the issue disagree, saying that it’s unnecessary and potentially even irresponsible to market a drug that claims to help women who are struggling with low libidos. Some behavioral health experts argue that women’s sexuality is too complex to be regulated with a pill, and the pharmaceutical industry is more interested in its own profits than in finding real solutions to nuanced sexual health issues.

“There’s really been a move toward medicalizing normal human experience,” Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University professor who studies the influence of drug companies’ marketing practices on the medical profession, told NPR. “And while there are certainly some women who have very troublesome symptoms of low libido, it’s not at all clear that medication is a good answer for them.”

It isn’t that something to help women regain both their libido and desire isn’t a useful concept, especially for post-menopausal women who often find their desire waning, despite a competing desire to continue to have desire. But that’s what makes the manufacture of a drug for women’s sexual dysfunction so complex. Menopause hits each of us differently: for some it ratchets up desire now that the fear of pregnancy is no longer relevant and the children are out of the house; for others the lack of hormones can seriously decrease the sex drive. Women I know have found help in HRT of many kinds, from pills to creams. But first we need to address the issue that a “little pink pill” isn’t targeted toward the same kind of issues as that little blue pill. There are millions of women in bad or unsatisfying relationships who have no wish for sexual intimacy with their partners. No pill in the universe is going to change that.

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Missing Daddy

I am sitting in a Five Guys mindlessly shelling peanuts and waiting for my hamburger when in a sudden and nearly breathtaking moment I miss my father. I realize I will never again see him, talk to him, try to understand him, make him understand me. His laugh so distinctive and infectious floods my mind. I miss his cockeyed smile, the way for so long I believed everything he told me.

He has been dead more than five years and I have never missed him like this, acutely, painfully.

Perhaps it was the six years that I watched him slowly, painfully, die, pieces of his spirit breaking off with each tragedy: a heart attack, a stroke, another of each, yet another of each, emphysema, congestive heart failure. The way I saw his lovely black hair thinned and grayed and his strong body shrink and bend. The years I watched him shuffle behind his walker, the way he was tethered to an oxygen tank. The way he was attached to his illnesses by steel and plastic and rubber and the damned inconvenience of it all.

Or perhaps it was the way he spent my whole life pushing me away in some fashion or another; telling me the things I talked about were too serious, making fun of the laugh that was just like his, telling me I was a bitch like my mother, disparaging the career moves I made or didn’t make. And then when he got sick the way he slapped my hand away when I tried to help him cut his meat– his hands shaking and useless from the stroke–, or the way he shrugged off a helping arm as he tried to get out of the car, find purchase on the walker, make sure the oxygen tank was secure and giving him his breath. The way he pushed and pushed and pushed me away every time I tried to draw close to him.

Those silly peanuts. They are the memory that brings him back full force into the fluorescent lighting of a hamburger joint, just the kind of place he would have loved. He was a man who ate a cheeseburger every day for lunch for forty years, ignoring the danger of it, as he did his smoking, and the damage his vices would do to him. Eventually. He was a man who never thought the future would catch up with him.

Those damned peanuts. A bowl of them waiting each night with his scotch and water when he came home and greeted his wife, freshly bathed and made up; the two of them sitting on the couch in the den as we children floated around them wanting, wanting to be so glamorous and beautiful and all grown up.

Those peanuts, Spanish ones at times, so petite in their silky brown jackets that slid off in your hands. I put a dime in the machine at the airport and out they spilled into my palm. I parsed them out one by one as I waited for his plane and then my sisters and I ran and ran right onto the tarmac to welcome him home.

Those peanuts. He split them open and pulled out the tiny inside pieces, the “babies” he called him, and lined those babies up to be eaten in one big gulp, as he slid them down his fingers in his mouth. We learned to eat peanuts that way, just as we learned the art of taking an entire runny egg yolk in a single bite. Just as we learned to lick the sticky sugar off our fingers when we ate a donut. Just as we learned that if he liked gribenes, the curled pieces of chicken fat my mother would roast in the toaster oven and the slick marrow that slid from soup bone and was spread on toast and salted, we would, too. We would sit and wait until take he had had his fill and then we would take our treats as though they were gifts from him. He liked caviar, the good stuff, and taught us to like it too. But save for the yiddishe dishes from his past and that odd adult craving for elegant fish eggs he was a childish eater: steak, hamburgers, potatoes, kippers and eggs. He didn’t like most vegetables. He taught us to eat badly and we loved it.

In fact, in some ways, he was always childish. Never quite fully grown up. He told bad jokes, and refused to understand why they were bad. He teased his daughters as if we were all schoolchildren together. He could be a bully, too. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with children who grew up and talked back. Often he just bulldozed us out of the way.

And yet. Five years on I am just realizing that he is gone forever. That is what happens when a presence looms so large, so powerful, and sometimes so terrifying. When a presence is so portentous it hangs around this earth long after its physical manifestation is gone. It is just now, half a decade after his death but years after I had already lost him, that I can remember my father’s softer side: the way he wept at my wedding, the way he gazed rapt at his first grandson mere days after he came into the world. The way he spoiled all of his grandchildren and played with them in ways he never played with me. The way he held my son’s hand. Just the way he held my boy’s hand.

I was a gullible child and my father played on that. He told me fantastic things about himself that I wanted so to believe. That he went to Hebrew School with Abraham Lincoln, for example. Long into my twenties I was still half-convinced he was an agent with the CIA. Because he liked fooling me. He liked thinking that he could convince me of anything. I don’t know why. He was a generous man with his money if not his time, he was successful, he was smart and he was handsome. Everyone liked him. He wasn’t a small or insignificant man in any way and yet he seemed to need a larger profile than he had: he seemed to need his daughters to believe he was magical. I don’t know why and I can’t ask him that question, which would be a good one: Why did you think you were not enough as you were, Daddy? He wouldn’t have answered me anyway. That kind of talk was nonsense to him.

He thought it was a waste of time to spend any part of my life trying to figure him out. Perhaps it was. I realized finally, perhaps too late, that any amount of time trying to get him to understand me was also a waste of time. I regret that time, that energy that went for naught. Had I loved him better and with less expectation perhaps he could have loved me better, too. I did love him, of course, despite his indifference, despite the way he seemed to disapprove of everything I did, everything I was, but that love was overshadowed by a desire that he not only see me but that he approve of me. It was love with a purpose. I see the same struggle in my own daughter with her own father and it makes me sad. I tell her to just be who she is, to be loving, to be kind even when he isn’t, and most of all to not ask for more than he can give. The only way to truly love is to understand the limitations of the person you love. To understand what it is that they can and cannot give, and to try and stop yourself from asking for more.

I expect now, years on, there will be many other moments, ordinary moments, into which the memory of my father will intrude. The space I am in will suddenly feel a bit surreal, I will take a deep breath, and I will miss him. Terribly.

But I will go with that feeling. I will not dissect it. I will sit with the sense of loss I feel that my father is no longer with me. I will sit with the knowledge that there truly is a hole in the universe where he once was. I will sit with the knowledge that the years since his death have taught me something valuable. Love is a choice. How we love is a choice. And how we let that love affect us is the largest choice of all.

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Psst! You Can’t Handle the Truth About Women!

Hey you. Yes, you. Come here. Yes. Closer. I have something to tell you. Are you ready? Are you sure? Can you handle it?

Ok. Here it is.

Women over 37 have sex. They have relationships. They are attractive. They have sex with men their own age, too. Or older. Or younger.

In the real world.

In Hollywood, not so much.

Only in the bizarro world of Hollywood dog years would someone tell Maggie Gyllenhaal that at the geriatric age of 37 she’s way too old to play a love interest role of an AARP aged man.

This chart came out two years ago and it’s instructive. And sobering. Look at Denzel, Harrison, Tom, George, etc. Those gaps are insanely large. Some might say unnaturally “you’re old enough to be my father” large. But they are on-screen Hollywood “normal.”

But a friend wants to know if people actually think that that is the way it is in off-screen Hollywood. For some celebrity couples it is, but just as many break the stereotype as fit it. And movies are something else. The movies have to provide a fantasy. Supposedly. The fantasy that a middle-aged woman could never convince fans that she could be the love interest of a man some would call a senior citizen. Sort of like no one would ever go for a 30-something actress as a one-armed woman with a shaved head who can drive a truck and command an entire film, including bossing around an actor two years younger than she …

Oh wait.

That’s maybe the biggest movie of the year.

But Maggie Gyllenhaal still can’t find love with a 55-year-old who would be only 18 years her senior. She is TOO OLD. In the movies, that is. I suspect any REAL 55-year-old in the universe would snap her right up were she to be available.

Which if she is smart she won’t.

I mean who wants an old guy when you’re only 37?

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Wife Bonuses, Mad Men and The Mommy Wars

In a recent Sunday issue of the New York Times two very different articles on women and their households appeared.

One, “Poor Little Rich Woman,” is already stirring up controversy for the so-called “wife bonuses” that some of these uber wealthy stay-at-home-moms supposedly receive from their husbands if they perform well as wives and mothers (although that notion has been pretty thoroughly debunked as something of a one-off.) The other, which has received far, far less publicity — probably because the topic isn’t nearly as gossip-worthy — is an article called “Do Children of Working Moms Benefit?”

Coincidentally, both of these articles arrived on the day of the last episode of Mad Men, a series which chronicled very accurately the plight of both the mothers who stay at home and those who try to work.

It is clear that the issue of who stays home with the kids and why and how they stay home is still being debated in both the real world and in fictional ones, but it’s a debate that only upper class and wealthy women can engage in, of course.

Those women who have no choice to stay at home without impoverishing their family or going on welfare aren’t really included in these “conversations” unless we hope they are shored up by the notion that their work outside the home imparts some very real advantages to their sons and daughters, even, one would hope, if that job is housekeeping or fast food or even two or three jobs to make ends meet.

In other words what we continue to focus on is the rarefied atmosphere of the mothers who actually get to choose while the fact is that nearly “three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed,” even if they aren’t always working full time for a variety of reasons.

Full confession. I did both. I worked, part time, when my son was very small, but found that the child care in my small town was not up to snuff and that the work I was doing at the time was not nearly as fulfilling as caring for my son. So, for the rest of my married life I freelanced, writing when the children were asleep or occupied and being a full time mom when they needed me. I was lucky to be able to do so but I also accepted the financial sacrifices involved. The downside was that when I divorced I found myself in a very precarious financial situation for several years and had few options but minimum wage work in a bookstore.

Even almost thirty years ago when I began raising my children the so-called “mommy wars” were in full swing. Mothers who worked as physicians, lawyers and professors often called on the stay-at-homes to pick up the slack when it came to volunteering, ferrying the children to and from school and lessons and arranging play dates. There was loads of resentment in both groups and I found myself wanting to be allied with neither.

But I understood then and understand now that women identifying with something in addition to raising their children gave those kids several benefits, even if at the time they seemed ineffable. In my case my children saw me leave for several weeks each year to go to a writer’s colony; their father took over with no large hitches. They also knew what when I was in my office writing they were not to disturb me unless the house was on fire.

I am gratified to see then that in Claire Cain Miller’s article in the New York Times and in another recent piece in Forbes by Emma Johnson that working mothers don’t damage their children at all. In fact, working outside the home is credited with the daughters of those women earning more in their work lives and the sons understanding that their share of the housework in the family is non-negotiable. Johnson cites the University of Maryland study which states that “the number of hours a mother spends with her kids aged 3 to 11 has little to no impact on their academic or psychological success.”

Continues Johnson: “This finding completely confronts and contradicts the prevalent parenting message of our time: More time with your kids is more. Mothers are told in direct and indirect ways: The stay-at-home mom is the better mom. The message is: If you work outside the home, your children will suffer. In fact, a couple years ago a Pew survey found a stunning 40 percent of Americans believe that when a mother (not parent — mother) works outside the home it actually harms her children.” (italics are Johnson’s).

Miller’s articles stresses more subtle benefits, such as the notion that a happy family will be happy no matter the status of the mother, working or not. But she adds that the Harvard study she writes about is “part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family.”

Which is how it should be. Neither men nor women can thrive if the onus for happiness is laid on the shoulders of mom alone, nor the guilt for the outcome her fault entirely. Family is macro, not micro. And that is why the article on the glamorous and rich stay-at-home mothers is much less disturbing than the hornet’s nest it has stirred. I know women like those East Side mothers. I have never envied them. I don’t particularly envy single moms either, although I was one for awhile. They have all made a choice based solely on their own economic situations but the issue is so much larger than that.

In the end, the wife or mommy bonus is as interesting and uncommon as the apartment whose price is “available on demand.” Out of reach of the 99 percent. Which, really, is all of us. There is a reason more women identified with Joan on Mad Men over Betty. Perhaps when my grandchildren have children this “debate” will no longer be pertinent.

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What She Gave Me: A Mother’s Day Reflection

There was always jazz playing on the stereo: we had stereos back then, fancier versions of the record player I got for my bedroom when I was 15 and on which I played Jethro Tull while I rolled around on the floor with boys with improbable names like Mack, Doug, and Tony, names you don’t hear much anymore. Stereos were for the good music, the real music, the serious music, and my mother was nothing if not serious. I listened to the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner. A dozen others. Many of whom I would actually eventually see in concert.

We had built-in bookshelves: wooden masterpieces that reached nearly to the ceiling. They were packed full of those record albums and books and books. My mother’s bookshelf was my first library. There were stacks of magazines, too, which piled up on the coffee table and two daily newspapers; an endless supply of education and information. All mine without censor. We went to the theater, even if it was only a community one in which my parents and their friends (and then my sisters and I) acted. We had real paintings on the wall and years before my mother could afford what she called “good” furniture an ebony baby grand piano sat in the living room.

I learned about beauty from my mother: how to arrange flowers, grow vegetables, appreciate art and music; how to identify the real from the fake, the shabby from the glossy, the modern from the cheap. Every time I look around my house I see what she gave me. The concrete in the things I have arranged around the rooms, things taken from her home when she got sick and could no longer keep them; and the more ephemeral, the way those things are displayed, the colors I have chosen, the pristine sleekness of the space I inhabit. Each of the homes I have lived in—from the shoddiest apartment to my condo by the water—has felt her imprint but none more than where I live now, with the collections of my mother’s life now collected in mine. She has never seen this home. She never will. But she is here in it, all around me. There is nothing that does not remind me of her and the things she gave me. The things I never knew were important until she no longer had them to give.

For the first and only time in my memory I ache to talk to her. The need to speak to her is sometimes enough to wake me up out of sleep and more than enough to bring me to tears at the most banal moments. The years she could talk to me, listen to me, visit me, are gone and with them the brutality, the pain, the loneliness, the misunderstandings that permeated each and every syllable. But suddenly in the first real throes of my own mortality I long to sit with her on the couch, show her around my rooms, take her for a walk on the beach. I want her to see the evidence of the things she gave me in the way I live my life, in the things that are important to me, in the daughter, who, like the mother, gathers beauty around her as a cloak. I want to just talk to her.

My mother has said very little in the past half dozen years; she can barely react, can no longer process what I say, isn’t sure sometimes even which daughter I am. She is a hologram of her former self. For a long time I was all right with that, I even felt a sort of relief. Gone was the woman, who angry and drunk, pulled me down next to her on the couch and said: Listen to this, as the music surrounded us. Gone is the woman who pushed me into ballet lessons, piano lessons, art lessons, who tried to mold me into the kind of girl she wished she had been. Gone is the woman who refashioned her own self by sheer will, who tried to push back against her own demons but so often lost. Gone is the woman who lived for love and sand and water and flowers and music and books and paintings and beauty. Gone is the woman who never listened and was so very, very furious at things I could not then understand. Gone, gone, gone is the mother I had, the mother I got, the mother who tried and failed, the mother who I hated for too long and never really forgave.

But if even before her illness I had given up all hope of a rapprochement, of truth-telling, of protestations of love, of apologies for past misdeeds, now I wish I had gotten to this place I am now but with my mother still intact and not gone. Then we could settle into this last old age of hers, these last years as mother and daughter, with a fragile peace we could never ever find for more than a few moments. Her mind is lost and I miss it in all its complexity.

And all I have left is what she gave me.

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Téa Leoni Saves the World

Better than Keri Russell who is tough but on the wrong side, way more interesting than any Wonder Woman incarnation, more fully realized than any of the female FBI agents or cops who abound in television dramas, and far less neurotic than Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson, Téa Leoni is the best thing to happen to feminism on television since I don’t know when.

Like the television shows The West Wing and The Newsroom, Madam Secretary mirrors what we wish the world was: just, fair, good and decent. And Leoni as the Secretary of State is the show’s modern-day superhero, our savior, the woman who not only has it all (even if she isn’t always successful with it) but uses all of her abilities to save the world, one day at a time. Her specific brand of casual feminism is endearing: she has her doubts about juggling everything but we know she doesn’t really doubt she can, in the end, fix everything that’s broken.

The show is preposterous, of course. Leoni is lithe, brilliant, witty, sarcastic and charming. Her children are good-looking and clever and seem to deal with their mom’s notoriety with little lasting angst. Her husband, played by Tim Daly, is gorgeous, loving, also brilliant, and totally supportive when his wife is plucked from her teaching job at the University of Virginia and asked to serve as Secretary of State by the president (winningly and realistically portrayed by Keith Carradine). Leoni is ex-CIA and her family seems used to her having a high-powered job even if she has given it up for “ethical reasons” to teach and mother her three children. It doesn’t hurt that Daly is a world-renowned religion professor who gets a job at Georgetown so he can follow his wife to D.C. Or that he just happened to have been an operative with the National Security Agency and is tapped again and again for interesting covert operations. That way he can be the supportive husband and also be a clandestine superhero himself.

It’s fantasy land but they all make it seem almost normal.

Instead of a crime-of-the-week, Madam Secretary poses a world-crisis-of-the week, which Leoni and her staff manage to neatly solve in each episode, many times with a last-minute seats-of-the-pants epiphany. She saves two American students imprisoned in Syria, foils a CIA plot to overthrow the presidency, prevents the death of 50,000 West Africans, hires a private army, uses black ops soldiers, brokers an environmental treaty between China and Japan, fixes relations with Iran, Iraq, and Canada, saves a death cult holed up in Bolivia and survives and earthquake in India and an assassination attempt in Iran. She also watches the gunning down of her boarding school friend, a Bahraini prince, and seems to know every important player in world events from her time in the CIA. And that is only half a dozen episodes or so in. In the latest “ripped from the headlines” story she helps the president stave off a global financial collapse. Yeah, it’s clichéd. It’s nuts. But it is also nail baiting.

Why does Madam Secretary work? Why does the series theme music (by the Transcenders, all founding members of The Black-Eyed Peas) stir me like no other music since The Newsroom? Why am I left teary-eyed after nearly every episode? Why do I want to watch each episode at least twice?

Téa Leoni.

Simple as that.

The under-rated actress is both mesmerizing and absolutely believable as the savior of the free world. When she says, “There are events that transcend national interests” we believe her. When she stands up to the president or thwarts his Machiavellian chief-of-staff (played by the eternally evil Zeljko Ivanek) we practically cheer. When she fights with the staff of the former Secretary of State whose mysterious death is the reason she even is Secretary of State, we are on her side. When she wrestles with moral ambiguity, burns dinner, makes time for sex with her husband, and suffers from anxiety and PTSD after an assassination attempt, we are in her corner.

She is our best possible self: the perfect modern woman, the kind of person we want pulling us out of chaos. Even though we know she can’t possibly exist, we cheer for her. Her ego is just strong enough to make her stand tall but not be overbearing; she is pretty but not out of the realm of possible beauty; she suffers doubts but keeps on pushing through; she is exhausted but won’t sleep until the job is done. She wears bad clothes, walks like the former athlete she is, and refuses to work on her image, except when a make-over helps re-direct the narrative so that she can get her real work done—which is saving the world from bad guys. But still somehow she is us.

When Téa Leoni saves the world we really want to be along for the ride.

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Warren Buffett Says Elizabeth Warren’s “Too Angry.” We Say Rage On, Girl!

Do you know what pisses me off? Warren Buffett calling out Elizabeth Warren for being angry.

As I’ve grown older I do indeed try to temper my anger, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get mad; I just try to save my mad for the things which are really worth it. And injustice, inequity, power-grabbing one-percenters, those things are worth getting mad over. As are the banks and the banksters who seem to operate still—even after they helped crash our entire economy— with impunity.

There are many things worth getting angry about in the world today and Warren has pinpointed some of them for many Americans. She is the voice of those whose anger won’t make a lot of difference because she is in the public eye; she has the spotlight. And she is shining that spotlight on the sorts of things that should piss off the majority of us.

Now, uber-investor Buffet says, “”I think that [Warren] would do better if she was less angry and demonizing.”

Anger isn’t pretty. And women haven’t been encouraged to use it. Once upon a time, anger could get us locked up and out of the way. Not a hundred years ago women were still being institutionalized—against their will– for talking back to any male figure, for being too “hormonal,” or too sexy, or too emotional. Women, like children, were supposed to be seen and not heard. More recently, women’s anger has been the butt of jokes and not-so-subtle putdowns. How many of us have been told to “chill out” when we express displeasure at something? How many of us have been dismissed when we find something insulting rather than funny? Get a sense of humor! We are told. Calm down.

Men are strong when they’re angry. Women? We’re just being bitchy. Or maybe it’s our “time of the month.”

The New York Times recently published an article about the medication of women and how more women than men take anti-depressants and mood elevators. As writer Julie Holland so eloquently puts it: “[W]e are under constant pressure to restrain our emotional lives. We have been taught to apologize for our tears, to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.”

Buffett, who is actually a pretty good guy in many respects, wants Warren to not “demonize” the banks and financial institutions she says need to be reined in. But what DO we call people who have robbed others of their homes, their livelihoods, their very lives? What do we say about the absolute power of those whose reign over the powerless is without check? It isn’t as if we don’t have proof in the ashes of foreclosed homes, ruined communities, destroyed families. Buffett’s money cushions him and so he asks for “compromise.” Warren, who also has money, doesn’t bask in the comfort of hers: instead she talks loudly and carries a big stick, all the better to protect those behind her who look to her protection.

Women have been asked to “compromise” forever. It’s one of the tenets of feminism that sometimes shouting more loudly than we want to is the only way to get heard. We hear Warren and we like what we hear. Rage on, Elizabeth.

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