Reinvention Culture is Killing Me

I am feeling very inadequate. In the past year I finished a novel I have been working on for five years, began a new novel, contributed essays to two upcoming anthologies, and jettisoned some very toxic relationships. In the past three years I moved to a new city and a new house to start a new life. I also became an empty-nester. In the past five years I have begun a new relationship and published a huge number of essays and articles, sold a house and bought another and sold that one, too. In the past ten years I have dealt with nearly every family crisis one can think of.

But.

I have not climbed a mountain alone, hiked a thousand-mile trail, started a cupcake business, left my job and devoted myself to volunteer work. Nor have I overcome a huge and debilitating illness. I have not moved to a foreign country, gone back for another degree or begun a clothing line. I haven’t even started making my own jewelry or knitting pet outfits.

Clearly, I am a failure.

I used to like More magazine. It had models over 40 on the cover (even if they were airbrushed) and it had a good amount of decent reading for those of us not permanently in our twenties or early thirties. But now I sigh every time I pick up that magazine. I’m not going to renew my subscription. It is constantly exhorting me to re-invent myself and, frankly, I am rather exhausted. This month’s More has a cover line about “real women” reinventing themselves. As opposed to fake women? And all the other women they have profiled over the years?

I know women’s magazines have no real relationship to life as most of us live it. I am aware that those tomes often give the most bizarre sex advice that we are supposed to try and take seriously (Nerve magazine does a superb job of skewering that sex advice). I realize women’s magazine editorial tries hard to take something ordinary and, well, turn it into a service piece (one article was on how to take a relaxing bath: apparently you dim the lights and use soothing bubble bath.) I am cognizant that everything that can be photo-shopped is photo-shopped. In fact, I am not quite sure what even draws me to those magazines, aside from the fact that, yes, I am always looking for anything that can make my skin look “younger.”

But.

I am really weary of the constant push for us women to re-invent ourselves.

I am sick of the word “reinvention” itself.

I have a friend who is struggling to live with Stage 4 cancer. I have another who has married and inherited an instant family of two young children; still another woman I know left her marriage and her town and started a new job in a big city. Other friends are dealing with the issues inherent to long-term marriages and kids leaving home and unemployment and aging parents who need our care. I can’t think of a woman I know in her forties, fifties or sixties who isn’t overloaded with the stuff of ordinary life and, despite that, doing a bang-up job of coping and even thriving.

And yet we are still exhorted to re-invent our home décor, our relationships, our marriages, our work lives. We are supposed to re-think our hairstyles and makeup and even our purchases—combining inexpensive trendy pieces with the expensive long-term purchase so that our wardrobe can be re-invented. We are pushed to re-examine everything, all the time, each month, with new examples of women who have gone out on a very thin limb and survived to tell the tale.

Those women, while admirable, are as foreign to most of us as an alien landing would be. There is simply no way possible for most women I know to jettison their old lives and embark on a completely new one—not that most of us would really even want to.

I think that most women spend a lot of their lives re-inventing themselves every day: each new challenge, each new trauma, each new joy, each of those means that we have to re-think are values, our coping mechanisms, our reactions all the time. Feminism is still evolving, we are still evolving, and yet we are being pitted against each other for the decisions we make, the way we choose to live. Is it any wonder that we must confront our own selves on a regular basis? And is that any less transforming than those complete life reinventions profiled in magazines?

Women are amazingly flexible. We can take a licking and keep on ticking, as the old Timex commercial had it. We can bob and weave with every blow and still land a punch or two ourselves. And, most importantly, remain on our feet, as shaky as those feet may be sometimes. But this push to make us feel that what we are doing is never enough, that we must constantly re-invent ourselves and everything makes me nuts. For years we were not thin enough, not pretty enough, not pliable enough. And because of that, as we age, some of us remake ourselves physically with implants and liposuction and injections others (and I am one of them) try each and every face cream or serum that promises eternal youth. But still, as we grow ever older we are beset by examples of women who have chucked everything and gone for some or another gold; opened an inn, joined the Peace Corps, adopted a special needs child, changed gender.

None of the women I know are lazy in any description of the word, but the constant call to re-invent ourselves from top to bottom and inside and out can make us feel that no matter what we do it is never enough. What is enough, however, is the siren call to transform. I call for a moratorium on the word re-invention, especially for women. We are doing more than enough as it is.

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Fifty Shades of Grey: I Have Other Fantasies

With the release of the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m reminded that I have fantasies.

Oh, do I have fantasies. They wake me up in the middle of the night; they keep me from work; they interfere with my relationships. My longing is unending. It consumes me. Sometimes I stand, immobilized by my desires: So strong and overwhelming are they that I am unable even to make a step forward.

My fantasies are those of domination and submission but not in the bedroom: in the boardroom, where those in power turn over control to those who have none.

My fantasies involve our fearless leader standing in front of Congress and announcing loudly that they need to shit or get off the pot. The time for doing nothing is over, long over, and if legislation is not made to help the unemployed, students and the elderly, then they will all lose their jobs and their benefits immediately, perhaps retroactively. That taxes will be raised on the very rich, that the Social Security limit for taxation will be increased, that the citizens they purport to represent will have, at the least, the kind of benefits that they have. That control will be held by the people who elected them.

I imagine a scenario where the Supreme Court finally gets a clue and realizes Citizens United was a disaster of a ruling; where they revisit it and end the flow of huge and ugly money to our elections.

I fantasize about a world where we decide that our defense budget is large enough, too large, in fact, and that it will be drastically cut and those monies deflected elsewhere: towards education, single payer health care, the environment. A world in which we move to stop the destruction of our world, in which we no longer subsidize the oil companies, the larger agricultural companies, the pharmaceutical industry.

My longing is palpable for a world in which people actually think of the good of the whole before their own personal happiness. Where people do not selfishly imagine that they, too, will one day be rich and therefore can be selfish, but conjure instead a life with meaning instead of money. I desire a world where no one goes hungry at the same time someone else buys another mansion, another car, another handbag. Where no one is beaten or beaten down.

My fantasies are those of world peace, a place where countries can co-exist and not endlessly try and destroy each other, where stupid and misguided racism no longer overrides common sense; where there is a complete halt to ugly rhetoric, and lies are both caught and challenged by the media. I imagine a world, in fact, where black and white no longer exist but are overshadowed by nuance. Where there is not one God’s truth, but all mankind’s decency toward each other. I think about a world in which a billion dollars is not spent electing a president, but one in which that billion dollars is put to good and kind use.

In my fantasy world, bankers do not win the game by breaking all the rules while those of us who have been honest and played fair suffer deep and abiding losses. It is a world where those in power understand the responsibility that goes with it. A world in which we really do live by the late Rodney King’s words, in which Martin Luther King is not a relic, in which the programs of the New Deal and The Great Society are not relegated to history books and deemed uncool.

In the darkest hours of the night, I create a world where people march in the streets instead of playing computer games, going to the drive-through, watching reality television shows, sitting on their hands convinced that nothing they do matters.

Because I wonder: When will the world wake up and realize that we are all on a television reality show? That while we believe we are acting without a script, the truth is that it is only our minor moves and decisions (what to have for breakfast, what to wear) which are really ours; that the larger issues that consume us are being manipulated by the few and the powerful who fashion our direction, even as we delude ourselves into thinking we are in control.

This is not the benign world of The Truman Show and it is worse even than the Matrix meme that we are all part of someone’s game. Rather, we are all Pinocchio, held up by Geppetto’s strings and we live under the illusion that we finagle the tenuous threads that hold us up and keep us moving. We operate under the notion that our free will can overcome those who hold us in their thrall. While the darkest predictions of those who believe the world will end this year may not come true, still we are on a fast and furious collision course with ourselves because our short term memory is all we have left and so in the long haul we are all like Alzheimer’s patients who can only have the same conversation over and over again. Our condition is indeed approaching terminal.

But I have hallucinations, wet dreams, flights of fancy that we can change course and save ourselves from the inevitable, if slow and painful, decline that comes with our disease.

And so, I continue to think that there may yet be ways out of this mess.

My fantasy life does not jettison debate, difference, opinion or belief. It does not involve a world of sheep grazing the same grass. In fact, it wishes for just the opposite: a world in which people think before they talk, read outside their beliefs and operate with the overriding concern that everything they do has an impact on the planet and each other. It is a world in which we are all separated not by six, but by one degree of separation. Or perhaps just a world in which we wake up and the past 30 years have been a very bad dream and we get a do-over. And this time we get it right.

(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side and in an earlier version in The Huffington Post)

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8 Things Middle-Aged Women Think About Far More Than Whether They’re Still F*ckable by Middle-Aged Men

(This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post)

Tom Junod’s recent Esquire article on the sexual viability of 42-year-old women would be just silly if it weren’t for it being part and parcel of the “new” misogyny taking hold in both American culture and American politics. When white men still make the rules, get pissed off when they can’t make the rules and punish women for wanting to make their own rules, well, Houston, we have a problem. The GOP denies a war on women at the same time it pushes for legislation on women’s reproductive rights that would take us back to the ’50s. Then they insult women who push back. Rush Limbaugh says we are all sluts because we want the same sexual freedom he (and other men) enjoys and Fox News mostly wants us to sit down and shut up, if we aren’t one of their interchangeable blonde talking heads.

And yet what Junod wants us to be concerned with is whether men like him want to sleep with women over 40. He’s a 55-year-old man who deigns to consider bedding some famous 42-year-old women, but only if they are movie stars and have been doing their pilates. And he clearly feels bad not just about our necks, but about our whole fading beauty. So he’s willing to f*ck us one last time before we disappear.

But here’s the thing. We don’t give a sh*t about Tom Junod. We don’t give a sh*t about Rush Limbaugh. We DO give a sh*t about the legislators who are trying mightily to take back what small rights we have won, but we don’t care a whit if those legislators like us. Or if they think we are too loud or aggressive or even just downright bitchy.

Sure, we pass by a mirror and sometimes don’t recognize ourselves. Yes, time is flying; it is fleeting and yes, our youth is long behind us. And, yes, many of us still work out and try and eat right and put on mascara before we leave the house. But what really concerns us? Lots of things that have nothing to do with men or whether they continue to desire us.

If we have children, we care about getting them grown; if they are already grown, we care about keeping them safe. We care about our grandchildren born and the ones we wish for. We wonder what kind of world they will grow up in and when we look 100 years into the future we are terrified: by climate change and war, by famine and oppression, by injustice and inequality.

If we have girls we worry about their safety. We wonder how much to teach them about the ugliness of the world, the cruelty of men and boys. We worry about how to protect them and arm them to protect themselves — without scaring them to death. If we have boys, we struggle with how to teach them respect and kindness and decency toward their own sex and the opposite one. We fear for the violence that is under the surface of all our children and we think about ways to tamp it down and give it constructive outlet.

We care about our parents and how they are aging. We struggle with how to take care of them, if we can pay for their care, if they can live with us and not drive us crazy. We worry about their health and their meds. Some of us continue to try and make peace with our parents despite years of abuse or neglect.

We worry about our old age. Will we have enough money to provide for us if we live another 30 or 40 years? Where would we like to live and how? Who, if anyone, will take care of us? If we are sick we wonder: will our family be able to go on without us? What joys will we miss by dying? How can we go with as little pain as possible. Will we inherit Alzheimer’s or heart disease or something else?

We wonder about our partners. If they will live as long as we do. If we can sustain love and kindness for that long, if those partners will be there for us. Some of us are trying to leave old or tired or abusive relationships and we wonder: Can we make it alone at this age? What are our chances of finding companionship again? Or love? Or even one last grand passion? And if we find that grand last passion we will, yes, worry about how our bodies measure up; we will obsess, if only for a few weeks, about the way we may have aged. But then we will remember (our friends will remind us) that no one gets to be 42 or 52 or 62 without scars and bumps and wrinkles and lumps and stretch marks and age spots and that that person in bed next to us has the same fears and the same imperfections.

We think about our friends and how much we love them, how much we need them, how much we want to be there for them as they travel through middle age. We hope we can give them something of ourselves without using ourselves up. We hope they can cheerfully and kindly listen to us b*tch about our children and our parents and our partners and money and time and the world and that we can do the same for them. We worry about them getting sick and dying because we have been through that before, already, and it’s hard and sad and ugly.

We wonder if we will have enough time to do the things we want to do, if we should change jobs or careers, start a business, or stay home and take care of our children and our parents. We think about books we would like to read and places we would like to see.

And we worry about nameless, faceless fears, the ones that keep us up at night: the sudden storm or car accident or disease or attack which could in one fell swoop changes our lives overnight and forever.

And those are only the worries of the middle-class. Add to those worries poverty, prejudice, and wondering where our next meal might come from. How to pay the bills, who will take care of our kids when we go to work, if we can make that old car last a few more months or year. If we can see a doctor and pay for it.

So. Women worry about the future, money, children, friends, parents, work and life.

Women don’t worry about being f*ckable. We worry about being loveable: able to be loved, able to give love, able to maneuver in a world so lacking in it. Unless we are quite mad, we do not compare ourselves to movie stars or models. We do not care if middle-aged male white writers do not wish to include us in their list of f*ckable women. Unlike men like Junod, we women know full well what is fantasy and what is real. We see it every day when we head out into the world.

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What if They Gave a March and Nobody Came?

(This post originally appeared in the Washington Monthly)

Those of us who can actually remember the Vietnam War well remember the slogan: What if they gave a war and nobody came? It was used to protest the most modern of our useless wars, until the most recent misbegotten two, of course. In those days people actually took to the streets to try and do some good: bring the boys home, stop the senseless killing of innocents and the slaughter of our conscripted. It worked. Sort of. That taking to the streets. The war ended. It ended badly, but it finally ended.

Taking it to the streets hasn’t gone as planned for most protestors, with the exception of perhaps the most powerful march in history when, in 1963 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gathered 250,000 people for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It made waves that are still reverberating across America. Even so, we continue to bump up against racism and inequity all over the U.S. And people are still held and killed for having the wrong skin color. Black men remain chronically unemployed. We are far from post racial as Michelle Obama pointed out yesterday.

There have been several protests for women’s rights, one of which I attended. I was there with 500,000 men and women, trying my best to see above the crowd (I am quite petite). That’s when I knew I was claustrophobic and would have to do my protesting in slightly less physical ways. I was glad I went but women still don’t have equal rights.

Nineteen Ninety-five’s Million Man March for the rights of black men gathered slightly less than a million (somewhere in the wide range between 400,000 and 800,000) but left much less of a legacy than was desired. Thirty two years after Dr. King, the problems he spoke about remain.

Yesterday’s Operation American Spring which promised 10 to 20 million “patriots” got called on account of…. disinterest. The planned rally to call for the ouster of our first black president by the huge numbers, supposedly, of angry men and women who don’t like him, fizzled in the rain. Thirty million people may well support the motives of Operation American Spring, although I doubt it; but they certainly were not willing to give up a work day or anything else to prove it.

This may mean that all the fury and hate that clogs talk radio, blogs and news sites on the internet is perpetrated by far fewer people than we think. Certainly far fewer than the organizers thought. The 200 people who showed up in D.C. may be the same 200 who sound like legion when they have a phone or a computer in front of them. It is hard to tell. There have been other such similar rallies which have also failed (Glenn Beck’s euphemistically entitled “Restoring America” march may have gotten some big numbers, which are still very disputed, but Beck himself has fallen out of favor.)

So what is one to make of this? Are we all now closet claustrophobes? Or are we afraid to leave the comfort zone of our anonymity? Afraid Big Brother will be watching us on his camera or drone? Or just too lazy to make an effort?

Does nothing mean anything to us or is the idea of marching for hatred more distasteful than marching for peace, even among the haters? Again, it is hard to read anything huge into this, other than the quietly dispiriting notion that perhaps our powerless is real.

On the other hand, if a million people were to march on Washington to try and force our government’s hand to really deal with climate change I would take a Xanax and go with the flow.

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Women,Money and Power

(This post originally appeared in The Washington Monthly)

In yesterday’s staff memo by New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., he wrote that in last week’s firing of Abramson “compensation played no part whatsoever in my decision that Jill could not remain as executive editor. Nor did any discussion about compensation.”

I believe that one small part of that memo about this whole brouhaha: the actual monies involved were not the reason she was fired. But in no way does Sulzberger deny that Abramson asking for more money -in effect equal compensation to the past executive editor—wasn’t a factor. Because clearly it was.

I have read everything I can get my hands on about this case because it’s important. It’s important not because it happened at the Times, but because in 2012 Abramson was named one of Forbes five most powerful women in the world. It is important because the only reason we even know her name is because, like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg and Mary Barra, she’s a women.

As the old saw used to go: When a dog bites a man, that’s a story. When a man bites a dog that’s a good story (italics mine). The number of women in power at any business in this country is news enough to make the news.

And here’s the thing. Jill Abramson has been working as a journalist for forty years. She had been at the Times for some years and had seniority as an editor. Not only did her publisher know who she was and how she managed but he also should have understood that her compensation package should have been exactly commensurate with her predecessor’s. All accounts say otherwise. Sulzberger equivocates by saying her compensation was equal and that her pension had to do with the number of years she had been at “the Company.”

By some accounts Abramson was “brusque” and “pushy,” words never used to describe a man, loaded words with the inherent word “bitch” the silent noun which follows. Others saw her as a champion of women and a great editor. She was certainly a far better writer than her predecessor Bill Keller (Abramson’s article about getting hit by a vehicle and the long journey back for herself and other colleagues who had also been so injured was powerful, beautiful stuff.)

Other articles cite Sulzberger being uncomfortable with Abramson’s celebrity status. Too bad about that. When it’s the 21st Century and you name the first woman executive of the most famous newspaper in the world there are going to be interviews.

I think that Abramson’s story and that of Lily Ledbetter, a factory worker and another woman’s name we would not know had she not been instrumental in getting a fair pay law on the books, are similar because their salaries were shrouded in secrecy and inequity.. Ledbetter and Abramson have a lot in common. Each was good at her job, skilled and qualified, with years of experience. Each is assertive and strong. And somewhere along the way each of them pissed off a few people. So what?

But what Abramson’s case also illustrates is a good old-fashioned power struggle.

The Sulzberger memo reads, to me, like a man complaining about the wife he wished he hadn’t married because she simply won’t sit still and do what she is told. Publishers and editors have been having this fight forever. So have men and women. This whole thing makes me think of Betty Draper’s rant to her husband on the last episode of Mad Men, her consciousness rising just a tiny bit with each word. We have come along way but nor far enough.
And power, even power like Abramson’s, doesn’t buy as much for women as it does for men. It doesn’t buy parity. It doesn’t buy equity. And it shouldn’t have to buy keeping quiet.

I liked what Abramson did with the Times. She should be proud of her Pulitzers and very proud of the fact that she championed fewer video news stories rather than more (no one I know reads those stories. We want video, we go somewhere else.) I agree with Salon that the columnist roster needs to be blown up. But I kind of expect she would have done that had she stayed and had those writer’s contracts been within her purview.

Abramson’s story is a big deal outside New York and the Times precisely because she is a woman and was a woman with great power in a profession which doesn’t have many of them. In my days as a journeyman journalist, women still had to fight for the meaty stories and deal with copious amounts of sexual harassment. As a budding feminist I remember the National Organization for Women’s picketing the Times for equal pay and getting rid of the notion that some jobs were for women and others were for men. That picket took place seven years after 1963’s Equal Pay Act.

And while Ledbetter’s Fair Pay Act was passed, Republicans recently blocked the new Paycheck Fairness Act. This is unfortunate because even with two laws already on the books most women are still fighting and losing the paycheck battle.

This battle between Abramson and her publisher is epic: it’s about money, power, control and autonomy. And a lot of us women know full well that being a woman is at the center of it all. Until a woman in power is no longer news, it will be above the fold. It will make headlines. And it is a story that all women need to read.

Women like Abramson have spent their entire lives refighting battles that they and we should have already won. That glass ceiling? It’s falling down, perhaps, but falling right in the path of all the other women who are traveling along it. Each woman still has to find her own route out without being beaned by the debris.

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The Comforting Feeling of Rolling Heads

(This post first appeared in slightly different form in the Washington Monthly)

Since the resignation under fire of Health and Human Services Director Katherine Sebelius you no longer hear as much about repealing the Affordable Care Act (although certain candidates, most recently Scott Brown, continue to bring it up). But when her head rolled a lot of people seemed to feel better. Now the call is for the head of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, after dozens of stories cited deaths allegedly related to delayed care for veterans at many of the nation’s 1700 veterans hospitals and treatment centers. If he is let go people may feel better. But will the issue be solved?

The so-called secret lists of veterans waiting for care is troubling, but if it is true then the system as a whole needs an overhaul. This has been apparent for some time and was previously highlighted by the conditions at Walter Reed Hospital and the delay in computerizing records. But these things most likely won’t follow merely by firing the secretary. And although Congress is calling for another investigation, at the same time recent budget proposals by the GOP reduce money for veterans, including cutting health benefits for veterans.

VA hospitals and clinics served 8.76 million veterans last year. In 2008, 37 percent of veterans sought treatment for PTSD and depression. But it is thought that at least half of all veterans suffer from these. Those who report PTSD usually also suffer from many other conditions, some of which do not manifest themselves until more than 5 years after service.

The VA is a huge bureaucracy which serves as the largest single health care system in the country. Along with men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it still serves veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Today’s veterans survive injuries that would have quickly killed veterans of earlier wars, including burns, amputations and traumatic brain injuries. And in the past ten years the numbers of vets seeking care has increased exponentially due to our most recent wars, with almost half of those veterans seeking disability compensation for their injuries.

For some perspective: In 2010 the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services reported that bad care contributed to 180,000 deaths of patients in Medicare alone. As many as 440,000 people nationwide suffer from some sort of preventable harm which could have contributed to their death. And that is in our civilian hospitals. Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the US.

Average wait time in hospital emergency rooms has risen. It can take two to four weeks to get an appointment with a specialist (In 2009 people waited an average of 20 days. In 2010 fifty percent of our population felt they could have avoided a trip to the ER if they had been able to get an appointment with their regular doctor People without insurance have received little or no care until recent changes with the implantation of the ACA. Before the passage of the ACA, as many as 45,000 uninsured died each year.

In many small towns, including Savannah, Georgia, waiting times to see a mental health specialist can be at least a month for a psychologist and three to six months for a psychiatrist. At the local VA clinic in Savannah, veterans wait no more than three weeks, and often less, for mental health care and walk-ins who are in crisis are treated immediately.

According to the Associated Press yesterday, a recent report indicated that the department’s internal watchdog found no evidence that delays have caused patient deaths. President Obama has appointed deputy White House chief of staff to review VA policies and procedures.

Further inquiries will be held and outrage will continue to mount until something concrete is done. This is not a new issue. But firing Shinseki is like providing palliative care for end-of-life patients: the patient will be more comfortable but he will still die. Any investigation into the VA has to result in major changes to the system as a whole which will not be possible if the problem is “solved” by yet another head rolling.

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Why Talking About Birth Control and Abortion Does Not Make You a Slut

For some reason, and no one intelligent knows why, far too many conservative men think that women talking about insured and covered birth control and available abortion means we are whores. Sluts. Loose women who cannot control our libidos.

The most obvious question is just who IS it all these loose women are screwing, anyway? Because clearly, it isn’t the men who are screaming the loudest about keeping us virgins or pregnant against our will. They might be a little… calmer if that were the case. It really can’t be those men because research shows that sex can actually make you smarter. And the men like Limbaugh, Huckabee, Ron Paul, Akin and countless others are not only not getting any smarter; they clearly wish to keep themselves and women as dumb as possible. Which can only be done if they keep calling us sluts and loose women and assuming that there is no way in which we are intelligent enough to make choices concerning how we care for our bodies and whether we are able or willing to care for a child.

And since available, accessible, affordable birth control =”http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/february/us-abortions-fall-to-lowest-rate-since-roe-v-wade.html”>reduces abortion one might think — if one were a sentient being — that that would be a good thing. But to too many men (and some women) it simply isn’t.

Birth control is bad. Abortion is worse. And women needing or wanting either of those are sluts, they reason.

The obvious inaccuracies that the men above keep shouting into the wind: The more sex you have, the more birth control pills you have to take; the pill is only for contraception and never used for other medical issues is another; rape can be “legitimate.” Yet men with even a smidgen of power operate by trying to shame women, which is bad enough, and trying to enact laws about birth control and abortion rights, which is even worse.

Second wave feminism coincided with the availability of the birth control pill for a reason: For the first time, women could control over how many children they had and when instead of being beholden to chance or luck or barrier methods which often failed. Roe v Wade, which made early abortions the law of the land in 1973, further helped women economically. Because it meant that they could further control their reproductive issues and could work and support themselves and their families. It also meant that illegal and back alley abortions (which killed hundreds of women and left many others scarred or infertile) would not happen.

In other words: birth control and abortion are not about who you f*ck and how many times you f*ck or even if you f*ck at all. They are about leveling the playing field a little more (equal pay would also help) so that women can be productive members of society and use their minds to the good of themselves and the world. They are about access to proper medical care.

Not so many years ago, very recently in terms of history, women had as many babies as nature allowed. Ten, fifteen, sometimes, over the course of their 40-year reproductive lives. They lost a lot of those children to childhood disease, too. And thousands and thousands died in pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, two women shockingly died this year in a Boston hospital. Young, healthy women giving birth. Dead. And a young woman was in the news for months because she died but the child inside her did not and she was kept on machines as a womb.

Pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous. Having and raising children is a huge and expensive responsibility. One should be able to make those decisions as choices, personal choices. A bunch of men who seem to know nothing about pregnancy and even less about sex should not be tasked with making laws which take away the rights of women to be people who can have some measure of control in their lives.

Women who run for office are already singled out for their bad hair choices and fashion faux pas. Now, like Wendy Davis, they are being called whores and bad mothers. Sandra Fluke’s decision to run for office makes her just about the bravest woman on the planet because from this moment on nothing will be held back. The ugliest names in the world will be permanently attached to her name.

This is not a country run by a church. One or another church (tax exempt, mind you) does not get to make physical health choices for their employees and pretend they are the moral choice. Political parties should not get to decide that abortion, the law of the land, is to be no longer allowed. But they are trying, day after day, to do just that. And at the same time, they are conflating sex and birth control and abortion as if every single sex act were somehow any of their business. And as if access to abortion and birth control were really about sex and not about inequality and equal rights and feminism: those really really scary things that some people look for under the bed at night.

We need to educate our men one at a time and then again and again and again: We are not sluts or whores or loose women. We are scientists and writers and doctors and teachers and waitresses and truck drivers and retail workers and nurses and like everyone else who works in this country, we need to be able to do so while we raise our children and to decide especially IF we will have them at all.

Think about this hard: The birth control pill was approved for use in 1960. 54 years ago. 54 years. Not even the lifespan of the average human being. But it changed women’s lives and it made it possible for us to go to college in record numbers, to postpone marriage, to choose how many children to have, to push for equality. 54 years ago. Less than 50 years before that, women were still diagnosed with “hysteria” and being institutionalized and lobotomized against their will. Women who were divorced were seen as easy, any profession like nursing in which women saw men’s bodies was suspect. It isn’t hard to see the past and right now, it isn’t too hard to see the future unless we stop it.

Everything we have fought for in order to live as equals is in jeopardy if we allow, for one moment, men in power to judge us and control us by our libidos instead of respecting us for our minds. Access to affordable birth control, access to abortions when necessary are not sexual issues, they aren’t women’s issues: they are health and economic issues. And that is how they should be discussed. Keep the loose woman red herring out of the equation

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I Am Doing Nothing!

I am doing nothing. I am doing so much nothing that I have wrapped a cocoon of nothing around myself so as to make the doing of nothing easier and less stressful. I am at a writers’ and artists’ colony and have two weeks in which to do nothing — except my work, which is not nothing, but is the kind of nothing that I haven’t had much time to do in the past nine months because I have had a lot of stress. I have been able to keep up with my writing-for-hire, but not with my own work.

I am not a good “doing nothing person,” and so this kind of doing nothing is just my cup of tea. And I really am doing nothing in the best sense of the word — excelling in this nothing doing — because this nothing will include reading and sleeping and actually some real doing nothing. Like sitting and thinking. Which isn’t doing nothing, but comes close. I am doing this partially to try and let go of some of my stress so this period of time of doing nothing will also include, along with my writing, as much of a news blackout as I can muster, although the outrage over the government shutdown creeps in and an article did just slip through the blackout. The article compelled me to write about my doing nothing.

According to an article in The Atlantic, stress has been found to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This is no small thing, especially for a woman who has the history of memory loss in her family. A history of memory loss and the accompanying stress for those of us who take care of family with memory loss.

The study states that: “Over the years, researchers looked at whether the women experienced any periods of distress, and noted changes in their behavior and intellect. For those who developed dementia, they noted the age of onset, and how the disease progressed. They also made sure to control for other factors, ranging from socioeconomic background to family history of mental illness to smoking.” The results were that “between the initial assessment in 1968 and 2006, 19.1 percent of the women developed dementia. The number of stressors women reported experiencing in 1968 was associated with long-lasting distress over the years, as well as higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia later in life.”

It looks like I picked a time to do nothing just in time, although there is no evidence that if one stops the stressors in one’s life, one can lessen the chance of dementia. It is rather, I suppose like stopping smoking doesn’t return lungs to their pre-damaged state — at least not for years and years. By the time my body reacts to this hopeful decrease in the lack of stressors, I will most likely already be in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Not to mention that living a stress-free life seems nearly impossible these days. There is always divorce (or its equivalent), disease, death, pain, sorry, worry.

In addition, the article quotes: “Increased distress could not completely explain the association between midlife stressors and dementia,” the study reads. “One reason for this is that individuals respond differently to psychosocial stressors. Thus, biological responses may develop as a reaction to psychosocial stressors also in individuals who do not experience or report increased distress in association to the stressor.”

And the study already factored in mental illness, which also runs in my family. In other words, I am screwed.

When I have looked back on the women in my family who developed Alzheimer’s (my grandmother and mother), I have never factored in stress. But in hindsight, there was plenty of it. My grandmother brought her own mother home from a mental institution to live with her and her husband — a condition of her marriage to my grandfather — and then spent the next 50 years of her life trying to prevent my great-grandmother from committing suicide (which she did successfully, as my great-grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 88). My grandfather died at 62 and left my grandmother with almost nothing. At 60, she trained as a real estate agent and went to work. When she developed Alzheimer’s, my mother and aunt had to pay for her care:more than 15 years in varying stages in varying institutions.

My mother, struggling with her own sadness self-medicated with wine, experienced a stressful divorce, a move, a new full-time job and the continued (although unlikely) fear that she would be a bag lady in her later years. At 78, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and completely surrendered herself to the disease. Each time I see her it has whittled another bit of her away.

Who am I to think I can escape this trajectory? Even as I escape from the past year’s stress by trying to do nothing for a least a little while, my past is littered with divorces, nursing my best friend through 10 years of cancer, watching my father sicken and die over seven years, pulling my son out of a terrible abyss (he is fine now, but I remain watchful) and most recently, dealing with my daughter moving in with me after leaving college, with all the trauma that has entailed. And those are just the high spots. I also had a three-year long-distance relationship which finally resolved itself when my boyfriend moved close to me, financial turmoil and news of the death of two long-time lovers. I have moved twice in the past six years. I have remade my life in a new city. And I am growing older and finally admitting it. I suspect that even a tiny respite or two will do nothing concrete to alleviate the stressors that have already accumulated.

And it is hard to imagine a life without any stressors, as the authors of the study readily admit. I know no women among my intimates who live a life even remotely stress-free. We are all little hamsters on the wheel, wheezing and running as fast as we can. We are all fighting stress with the love of each other, yoga, wine, walks, and the contemplation of the beautiful, when we get a moment. Even as we hurtle toward our inevitable ends none of us has given up. We really don’t do nothing for very long, if at all, but there is nothing to be done about it. We have obligations. We have stressors.

Nonetheless, I am going to try harder to do less, if not actually nothing, for longer periods of time. I am going to try and balance the stressors I cannot avoid with those I actually can; and take less and less upon myself for the twenty or so good years — if I am lucky — I have left. Doing nothing for a while may not stop me from coming down with Alzheimer’s, as the markers are forbidding. but it, at the very least, gives me a chance to mediate my stressors and realize the damage they are doing. And to admit, as hard as it is, that someday I won’t remember any of them.

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Why The Paula Deen Controversy is About Much More Than Words

I live in Savannah, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and to which I willingly and gratefully moved when my last child left the nest.

I live in Savannah, where the lines for Paula Deen’s restaurant, Lady and Sons, stretch around the block most days, and the parking lot at her brother’s restaurant over the bridge on Whitemarsh Island, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, is perpetually overflowing. That may change with all the negative publicity but Paula Deen’s “troubles” are about far more than her use of an ugly word several years ago. They speak to the larger and more unsettling issue of inequality in the U.S., an issue which is far more difficult to discuss than whether a famous white woman should be denounced for her language.

I technically live in the city of Savannah but really in the county of Chatham. The county has a population of about 276,000 people: almost 55 percent white and 40 percent black. In Savannah proper, population around 142,000, the breakdown by race is 55 percent black and 38 percent white. According to studies, fifty years after the end of the war, 89 percent of black people still lived in the South, but a huge wave of migration between 1915 and 1920 saw perhaps a million black men and women migrate north. Between the years of 1941 and 1970 five million more African Americans left the South. Yet many Southern cities, including Richmond, New Orleans, Baltimore and Savannah still contain a majority black population. And the poverty rate in those cities is huge, on average 25 percent. no doubt badly affected by the recent recession. But in a city like Chicago, which has a majority white population, poverty among blacks there is at 32 percent. Dallas’ black population has a 30 percent poverty rate. It is clear that poverty and opportunity are the wider issues, which have not begun to be dealt with by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election was initially hailed as a blow for racism, but which has, in so many ways, further split our country in two.

I was born and raised in the South and save for 13 years in other states and countries I have lived in three Southern states: Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia for my 57 years. I witnessed firsthand integration when, in 1964 my small town’s school admitted its first black student. In 1972, just two years after college football was fully integrated, a good friend, a young black man, rreceived a football scholarship to Georgia Tech. It wasn’t until many years later, after seeing a documentary on the integration of college football that I realized how big a deal that was.

Integration was achieved seamlessly in my town, especially compared to the stories I read about big city busing and riots, but the local country club still did not allow black members. There were also nearby country clubs which did not accept Jews, and as a young Jewish Southerner I felt my share of keen and targeted anti-Semitism; in fact, upon discussing this fairly recently with black friends from my youth, I found that they felt far more comfortable in their skins than I did. In college, in New England, a young black woman in an economics of the South seminar, vehemently defended her home state of North Carolina. She said she would much rather live in the South because there, at the least, racism was out in the open, whereas in the North it was far more insidious. This was in 1975. I was moved by her speech because I sensed the same. It seemed easier to deal with prejudice out in the open as opposed to pretending it did not exist. And while my life in the South has always been a mixed bag, I am by birth a Southerner and I have now chosen to live in one of the deepest parts of it, Savannah, Georgia.

But even in my less than two years here I know full well that the current “conversation” about Paula Deen, such as it is, is misguided in its obsession with her use of the “n” word, as it is politely called. Deen’s supporters laud her honesty in admitting she used that word in her past; her detractors wonder what century she lives in, because Deen is a throwback to a time when “polite” racism was the norm. When it was standard to separate one’s self from “others,” while, at the same time, sharing a street, a school, a table with them. The South, which has, by many Northerners been as dismissed as Deen, is seen as a racial hotbed and therefore her actions are excused. But none of the issues around Deen are about the South or even about the “n” word: they are about privilege, power, justice, and decency. Those issues strike all across America.

And the notions of privilege, power, justice and decency have just been struck a body blow by two recent Supreme Court decisions that disarm the voting rights act and make it far more difficult for employees to sue for racial harassment.

The lawsuit against Deen, which has supposedly sparked this entire controversy, and the deposition, only part of which has made the news, speak far more to the larger issues of how we treat each other in general. One can read the complaint in its entirety here, and it is eye-opening and mind-boggling. Deen and her brother are hugely successful restaurateurs but run businesses which would have made any right-thinking person run quickly away. Yet, like many areas of the country, unemployment is high in Savannah, higher now since the recession, and good jobs are hard to find. Still the levels of employee harassment hark back to the old Anita Hill days and illustrate, far better than anything I can think of, just how difficult it is to stand up for one’s self as an employee. The power is all in the hands of the boss. And people who make waves get ruined. In the Supreme Court’s decision to make it more difficult for employees to sue for harassment one has to see the supreme irony in Lisa Jackson’s lawsuit. But if it has hastened the ruin of Deen, Deen began her own descent into caricature when she admitted she had diabetes and had had the disease for years, even as she hawked her high fat and high sugar recipes to a seemingly unsuspecting public and then began another life as a shill for a diabetes medication. Yet Jackson is the one who is being vilified.

I get my hair cut at the same salon her son Bobby uses. I have a dear friend who is a friend of Paula’s and has vigorously defended her. Our local paper, the Savannah Morning News, has put the issue of Paula on its front page, above the fold. More than any other person, save for John Berendt and his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which is featured in every tourist and book shop around) Deen has brought visitors to Savannah. Officials are treading lightly. She is a celebrity. In Savannah, perhaps our largest. Yesterday people stood in protest outside of Lady and Sons.

An interesting choice of name for the restaurant: Paula Deen does indeed see herself as a lady but listen to this interview from a year ago and then decide. Deen is a classicist, a power broker drunk on her own success, a woman who, with her family, thought that their businesses could be run by their own peculiar rules, which included every single aspect of a hostile workplace. That is fully clear in the complete complaint..

The controversy surrounding Deen is not just about race or an ugly word. It is about who we really are as Americans. And what this brouhaha shows is that we are not even close to being an inclusive society, despite having a black president, despite the inroads the women’s movement has made, despite our sudden willingness to deal with immigration reform. Each day as many laws are being passed to defeat the progress we have made as to perpetuate it. There have been more than 300 laws passed which restricting women’s power over their bodies this year alone. But those in power, like Deen, hold themselves above the fray and feel comfortable making the rules for the rest of us.

Having been subjected to no small measure of prejudice for much of my life, I never used the ugly word that is part of the controversy surrounding Deen. That does not mean I don’t have my own biases which I struggle against and it doesn’t mean I haven’t stepped on landmines myself. Paula Deen, however, did not step on a land mine: she and her brother created one and armed it themselves and should not be surprised it went off and blew them up. Drunk with power and her world-wide celebrity, Deen grew from a humble sandwich peddler to a juggernaut who believed she was untouchable, despite her endorsement of Smithfield Hams (which has now dropped Deen as a spokeswoman) being marred by the workers who protested conditions at the plant, despite her diabetes revelation, despite myriad rumors which have swirled around her here in Savannah.

People ate and will most likely continue to eat, at Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba’s as long as they remain open: not for the food but for the cachet. She will still have her loyal supporters, many of whom have taken to the internet to speak in language even uglier than that which Deen used. But what those comments don’t seem to take into account is the larger issues the lawsuit raises, mainly, I suspect, because most people take a snippet of information and run with it, which seems to be de rigueur in commentary these days. Deen parlayed a simple idea into huge success through, admittedly, hard work and chutzpah. But the mighty fall hard. And if what happened to her helps us talk more openly about race and class and privilege and a fair workplace, then her fallen star will be to the good.

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I Want My Mother Back

I want my mean, bitchy, drunk mother back. The mother who was depressed and melancholy, who said cruel things about my work and criticized my parenting, who undermined instructions to my kids by saying “You really don’t have to pay attention to her.” I want the mother back who invited herself to my first apartment and then pitched screaming fits in the streets of Boston. The woman who threatened to pull off my arm and beat me with its bloody stump. The mother who said that if I told her she wasn’t a good mother she would kill herself. I want the mother back who came to my college graduation and could barely stand for all the scotch she had had. The mother who took to her bed for weeks. The woman who stood eating supper in the kitchen because she couldn’t bear the meaninglessness of the family dinner table conversations.

I want her back.

I want her back in her old, her former, her horrific but real configuration. I want that woman back who couldn’t see me with a new pocketbook or pair of shoes without saying, “Lovely, but I could never afford such a thing.” The woman who asked for detailed instructions as to what my children wanted for Hanukkah and birthdays and then said those requests were too expensive and sent a $10 check instead. The woman who called me on my birthday (when she remembered at all) and said, “I can’t believe I am a woman old enough to have a daughter as old as you are,” who sent gifts (when she remembered at all) that were unwrapped and showed the mark-downed price she had garnered at Filene’s Basement. Who sent me her old clothes that still smelled of her body and Clinique Aromatics.

I want my mother back.

I want her back to see her grandchildren grown and beautiful and interesting, even if she may still find something wrong with them. I want her to meet my new lover, even if she will raise an eyebrow as if to say: Is this man better than the ones you left? I want the mother back who careened from man to man herself, always searching for that one true great big movie love, and who then complained about being alone. I want the mother back who always complained about the noise, the food, the temperature of a restaurant and then went to the bathroom when the check came.

I also want the mother back who taught me to love music and art and theatre and books. The woman who showed me how to arrange flowers. The woman who traveled the world and took breathtaking photographs. The woman who was not afraid to leave her husband and start a new life, even if that new life began in an institution after a breakdown. The mother who held my babies and wept. The woman who handed me a Valium as I walked down the aisle. The mother who was beautiful and smart, who did the New York Times crossword puzzle in an hour. In ink. Who, as an actress, was a better Martha than Elizabeth Taylor and a better Eleanor of Aquitaine than Katharine Hepburn.

I want the mother back who lived with her pain, even if she did not understand it. Who was born sad and could not climb out of her sadness, but who managed a spectacular life despite it. The woman who was born at the wrong time, married the wrong man and had the wrong children. The mother who, despite it all, gathered friends to her like an abundance of autumn leaves and had all my friends convinced she was the most glamorous mother in town. The woman who struggled and struggled to find meaning in her world and railed against injustice and marched and fought for the rights of the disenfranchised. The woman whose house was filled with gifts from admirers, whose portrait serves as the face of the fairy godmother in a children’s book. The mother who wanted to live forever, but bought long-term care insurance so her daughters would not have to pay for her care as she had paid for her mother’s.

I want my old mother back. The one I had finally made peace with. The one whose whims and vagaries I understood. Whose moods and methods were familiar.

The mother who said she never wished to be a burden but was far more a burden then than she could ever be now.

Eight years ago, before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, visits with my mother were still fraught with tension: How would she be this time? How long would any mood stand? How drunk would she get before she said something terrible? But at least I knew who she was. She was the mother I had had, for better or worse, for nearly 50 years.

Now, she curls up on her bed, recently incontinent. My beautiful and immaculate mother cannot hold in her waste: It flows into a diaper. She must be coerced into eating. She will stay in bed all morning if she is allowed. On a good day ,she insists her memory is fine, although she can answer no question about herself or the world. On a bad day, she gazes at her sister or my sister with confusion; she has already forgotten she has grandchildren. She can no longer write her name.

Soon after the diagnosis, when I first went to clean out her house in order to sell it and move her into assisted living, the out-of-date foodstuffs, the empty refrigerator, the dead flowers, told me what I had already known but hadn’t wanted to admit: that the incoherent late-night telephone calls were not the product of the end of a large bottle of wine, but of something far more sinister. I had not wished to recognize her disease because it would mean taking care of her, something I resisted deep in my soul: She had not taken care of me, after all. But once she moved and I visited her, I knew that taking care of her was all I could do, the most and least, the best and the worst, that I could do. And so I took her on outings, I sat with her while she held my hand and told me she loved me. I sat with her for hours and hours of silence filled only by my chatter. And each time, I felt a huge and deafening grief mixed with a profound guilt that I could no do more. But now, those feelings have changed once again. Because she is changing once again.

For the first several years of her illness, she held me and wept every time I left, followed me outside the door and stood waving until I drove away. Now, she lets me go with little regret or remembrance, her attention already turned to something else or nothing else. She listens to music that would have made her laugh just a few years ago. She cannot read, cannot think, cannot follow a conversation, can hardly speak. She forgets to put on her bra, goes around all day in her bedroom slippers. Not only is her brain shrinking inside her head, but her body is shrinking inside her clothes. Each time I see her she is smaller and smaller. Soon, she will be as tiny as Tiny Alice.

I did not know how to cope with the recent phone call which told me she woke in the night, wet the bed, screaming, and was taken to the hospital where they found nothing physically wrong with her. I called her multitude of doctors. Over and over. Finally, she was taken off some of her medications — especially the ones designed to slow the disease, as there is no possibility of that now — and put on others, specifically one to ease her pain, even if the cause of that pain remains unknown.

But nothing in my history with this woman who shaped me, who abused me and who loved me with her own mixture of crazy and brutal passion has prepared me for the way I weep now, the way I break down when I see her; the way I can’t help but imagine her as she was alone in a hospital room, screaming in pain.

The tears come unbidden. The last time I saw her, I began to weep and she watched, completely detached, as though I were something curious. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

Nothing in our long history as mother and daughter or the relatively short history of her disease seems to be able to prepare me for the way, from now on, she will only go downhill faster and faster, like a skier who has lost his poles. Nothing prepares me for the headlong crash into the tree which will be the end of her. Nothing prepares me for the myriad ways all of it makes me feel.

I know she won’t be back. But still, I want her so to be who she was, as awful as she could be, as wonderful as I know she wanted to be. Anything, even the mother who was so very very hard to love, would be better than who she is now. It may be much easier to love her, but it never gets easier watching her disappear, to see every vestige of the woman who once was — difficult, demanding, beautiful, cruel and exhilaratingly troubled — slide down and off her old self, like raindrops on a window.

(This originally appeared on The Broad Side and the Huffington Post)

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