Archive for the 'Women' Category

Jane Austen and (eek!) modern moral instruction

December 4, 2009

The WSJ has a wonderful article by James Collins on Jane Austen, which contends that “to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”

E-gad! Moral instruction? I thought she was all about romance! How perfectly embarrassing to the modern reader who, according to Collins, “sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But this seems absurd: Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.”

Certainly, the morality of some of her characters is their most maddening — and endearing — aspect. I want to throttle Anne Eliot in “Persuasion” as she loyally listens to that dreadful Lady Russell’s disparagements of the lowly Captain Wentworth while the couple burns with love and longing. I find that Elinor’s tightly held “Sense” in denying herself the company of the already-promised Edward compared to Marianne’s reckless “Sensibility” over the faithless Willoughby makes Elinor look all buttoned up and frustrated — the classical spinster, like her creator.

But, as Collins says, Anne and Elinor can best be understood in the context of their — and their author’s — time, which enforced heavy constraints on women. Men like Wickham and Willoughby could be complete cads and still have a place in society, but their female victims couldn’t. Can’t argue with that.

As for life in the 21st century, I admit that, after a day on the Internet checking in on major media outlets (which is actually part of my job), I crawl home into my book nook and find in Austen and her world a happy retreat. Social-climbing couples crash White House galas, serial adultery has become the rule among the glitterati, snark is the hot new form of discourse, continuing corruption on an almost laughable scale plagues business and government, and tales of encroaching poverty and personal collapse rival anything Dickens ever wrote. ‘Twas ever thus, I know, but elements of modern society seem hell-bent on finding new acts of escalating outrageousness, mostly for purposes of self-promotion. (Don’t get me started on Adam Lambert…)

Collins, in the WSJ article, seems to agree:

Perhaps Austen’s strictness is very old-fashioned, but anyone can find merit in the concepts of honor, duty, and obedience. Those strings have gone so slack that there’s nothing wrong in their being tightened by a sympathetic reading of this aspect of Austen; they will loosen again soon enough.

I would argue that it is this very morality that has kept readers across the centuries so deeply attached to Austen’s works — along with her sharply drawn characters, who are so often defined by their morality, or lack of it.

My surest proof of that would be the Bennet sisters, whose personal responses to the moral challenges of their time form an almost-perfect scale, from the meek, long-suffering Jane on down to the reckless libertine Lydia, with the savvy Elizabeth in the middle. We resonate to all those tones. The extremes are equally irritating, and we look for some sort of resolution. In short, we want to be Elizabeth — at least I do, unless I could be Darcy, with his 50,000 a year that gives him the leisure and the means to set everything right.

So which is it? Moral instruction, or great characters and romance? Can you separate them? Does it even matter? I just know I’m going to keep on reading — and savoring — Jane Austen.

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New site alert: Doublex.com

May 12, 2009

Salon Slate, one of my long-time favorite Web conglomerates, is beta-testing a new site, doublex.com, for us double exes. (No, not dress size. Us women. Any url with a capital X in it is probably a porn site, eh?) It has a rather thought-provoking, not entirely positive essay on Elizabeth Edwards’ public humiliation and her reaction to it, as well as another essay on why the snarky Jezebel.com is bad for women. Worth looking at.

Thanks for the correction, Jane. I can’t keep up with myself sometimes.

On getting fired, and other life lessons

May 11, 2009

imagesThe Wall Street Journal today referenced a mental_floss column by Ethan Rex on successful celebrities who survived, even flourished, after being fired, including, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld:

Remember the ABC sitcom Benson? Seinfeld undoubtedly does. Early in his career he had a small recurring role as a mail boy on three episodes of the show from 1980-81. One day he showed up at work for a read-through, but he couldn’t find a script with his name on it. After Seinfeld asked what was going on, an assistant director told him he’d been fired from the show, but nobody had remembered to tell the young comedian. A humiliated Seinfeld trudged out and decided he was through with sitcoms unless he could get more control over the creative process. As you might have heard, he was pretty successful once that eventually happened.

Other famous firees included Michael Bloomberg, Rainn Wilson, Howard Stern (You think?!) and Robert Redford.

I was fired once. From my first real job. At age 16. We lived near my dad’s pharmacy on a busy state road, and there was a A & W Root Beer Drive In across the street. I thought the carhops — all girls — looked cute running back and forth from the tiny building to the cars with frosty mugs and little baskets of french fries, so when I turned 16, I applied, citing my close proximity to the drive-in as a hiring plus. I got the job. I was thrilled.

Major life lesson: In this little cosmos, the cooks and the night manager — all guys — ruled. And one of the first rules was that all “new girls” got hazed. They made my life there a living hell, barking at me, mixing up my orders, bad-mouthing me to the rest of the staff, and, worst of all, stealing money from me, which is what got me fired after a mere two weeks. It was devastating. I had been a golden girl up until then, good with people, successful with most everything I tried. And here I was, out in the job market, the real world, and I was a miserable failure. The owner couldn’t just let me go, he had to spend nearly a half an hour detailing all my inadequacies and questioning whether I would ever make it as an employee anywhere. (Ironically, the drive-in went bust not too many years later. I wasn’t sorry.)

After enduring his lecture, it was a long walk home. I cried my little teen-aged eyes out. I was convinced at the time that it was all my fault, and it was humiliating having to tell my family and friends that “it just didn’t work out.” It took several months for me to put it all together in my head, and then I got ANGRY. And I’m still a little angry about it. (To his credit, one of the more menacing cooks later told a friend that he felt really bad about what had happened and hoped that I didn’t hate him. I don’t think their hazing had gotten anyone fired before.)

It took me two years to work up the nerve to apply for another job. But I was good at that job, and I’ve been good at every other job I’ve held since then. Most of the men — and women — I have worked with have been steady, genuine people, and I’ve tried to be transparent and sincere. But I’ve always had my radar up, trying to nose out the hazers, the undercutters, the behind-your-back smirkers. When I’ve discovered whatever rock they’ve been hiding underneath, I’ve  confronted them (admittedly with mixed results), made some personal adjustments (like removing myself from their team) or gotten out.

So, like Seinfeld, maybe my getting fired was ultimately a good thing. But I don’t think I could ever convince that good-hearted but devastated little 16-year-old of that probability.

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A foolish expectation of privacy?

May 1, 2009

imagesMsmeta here, poking her head above ground to see if it’s spring yet — oh, wait. That already happened. Way back in February. Which is about how long since I’ve posted regularly. Okay (she said, rubbing the grit out of her eyes), here goes:

I have a plethora of lame excuses for not spilling my guts not posting regularly, most having to do with work, Facebook, work, record snowfalls, work, family issues, blah blah blah. But if you tied me down and put bamboo shoots under my fingernails (or even offered me a Coke with crushed ice, I’m SO easy) I would have to confess that I’ve developed a strange little niggling feeling between my shoulder blades, an uneasiness, a reluctance that I can best express by saying that I’ve been feeling, well, overexposed, vulnerable, too “out there.”

I’ve talked about my penchant for anonoblogging in a previous post, and recently had an interesting, almost uncomfortable response. The reader said it took him only 10 minutes to discover my real identity by following the various breadcrumbs I’ve left throughout cyberspace. So much for hiding in plain sight. (Don’t bother trying to find me. I’m not that interesting. Really.) I think I somehow knew I was discoverable, but it tweaked me a bit nonetheless.

Which is probably why Nell Boeschenstein’s encounter with the limits (or lack thereof) of Internet privacy was so interesting to me. In today’s issue of The Rumpus, an unusual little literary way station on the Web, she tracks how her very personal contribution to a Web site found its way into a very public art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which crossed some definite boundaries for her. Like her, the people who posted to that site:

…were looking for something, and their words and their faces and their desires and their loneliness were being put on display on the wall of a major museum without their permission or knowledge. On the one hand, this was found art; on the other hand, was it? On the one hand, these people had put this information onto the Internet themselves and had no legal expectation to privacy; on the other hand, the piece seemed to take advantage of naïve people who didn’t understand what little ownership they have over the information about themselves available on the Internet. On the one hand, information is taken from the Internet all the time and reprinted in different contexts; on the other hand, faces and emotions and private lives on a museum wall take appropriation to a whole new level. The [original] project seemed kind to the idea of loneliness, yet it seemed to disregard the actual people to whom that loneliness belonged.

Ouch. And she only found out about it because she happened to walk into MOMA and trip over the exhibit. (Her account is a bit long but worth reading.)

Do we have any expectation of privacy out here? Did I sign my rights away when I logged onto WordPress that first time? My posts are never particularly salacious or scatalogical, but could I provoke some unwanted interest just by being here?

I know I’m going to think twice before I contribute to anyone else’s site from now on.

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Eight isn’t enough — it’s 14 too many!

February 2, 2009

Meghan Daum at The LATimes and I are in agreement: Implanting eight embryos in a possibly deranged woman who already has six children, no husband and no visible means of support is MALPRACTICE.

Have cardboard, seeking viaduct

January 30, 2009

This poor woman could SO be me, or any number of my friends. How do you go from a $70,000 job to charity status? Fairly quickly and easily, apparently. This woman is clearly not stupid or lazy. She’s just had a run of bad luck in a particularly dangerous time, and despite the goodness of some charitable agencies, her future is still uncertain. She’s also lacking in social and emotional resources, which I think are as important as cash and credit.

I read that article this morning after musing all the previous day on the record number of lay-offs that were announced. The newscasters and news sites all concentrated on the numbers, but I kept imagining the actual human faces behind those figures: Thousands of human beings carrying  the sum total of their careers in a sack or a cardboard box, loading them into cars that aren’t yet paid for, driving to mortgaged homes filled with spouses, children, parents and pets who are depending on them, trying to figure out what to do next.

Remember that old line that most of us are just a few lost paychecks from being out on the street or under a viaduct? I think we’re going to find out just how many paychecks it takes.

Let’s be kind and gentle with each other this weekend, okay?

Real fashion. Real people. Real lives.

January 28, 2009

Lately, at a certain point in the afternoon, when I’ve got the pigs slopped, the hay baled, the chickens plucked and the chores done, I take a few minutes and review the latest postings to wardrobe remix, a little Flickr site that I stumbled upon a few months ago.

WR is dedicated to all those of us who daily crawl out of bed, limp to our mirrors and scratch our heads in frustration. It is how real women of all ages and sizes use whatever is in their closets, cupboards and drawers to express themselves. (I think it was Isaac Mizrahi who said that fashion is, after all, a form of entertainment.) It has few rules — age 16+, total body shots, including shoes, the poster needs to say where the individual pieces come from, no collages or multiple shots — so the fashion combinations are at times crazy bizarre unique. And yet I’ve found this site to be more interesting and inspiring than any fashion magazine I’ve ever read.

It’s real people wearing real clothes, and many of their favorites are from thrift stores, discount outlets and relatives’ closets. Asian girls revel in their odd (to me, anyway) combinations of prints, Australian women incur deep seasonal jealousy by wearing sundresses and flip flops, European women demonstrate the best in Euro-style, collegiate fashionistas contort themselves in fashion-model stances — and they are surrounded by punk rockers, hippie chicks, thrift-store junkies and middle-aged fashion veterans.

There’s a teacher in Australia whose students must surely wait by the door everyday to see what wild and wonderful combination of colors, prints and jewelry she’ll be sporting. A punk chick seems to change her Day-Glo hair color weekly, with aplomb. A farm wife in Iowa wears thrift-store treasures that make her life look anything but ordinary. A woman in the Midwest with a terrific knack for layering has a link to her blog, where she meditates on fashion and its place in history, psychology and popular culture.

These are just women living their lives. Most are pretty, but not model-beautiful, and their wardrobes wouldn’t make it on the pages of InStyle or Vogue. Yet to me they are so compelling, so REAL.

Along with the fashion parade is a glimpse into the homes of these clothes horses. Hopefully I’m not being too voyeuristic, but I’m actually somehow comforted by the normalcy of most of their living arrangements, with their couches, floor coverings, knick-knacks, spouses/housemates and pets. The living quarters seen in the margins of their photos are sometimes cluttered with evidence of their lives, REAL lives. Their spaces don’t look like TV or magazine sets, but are areas where real people live real, interesting and sometimes messy existences.

Sometimes for the college-age women, it’s a single room or even a communal bathroom that forms the background, while other models stand on wooden floors in front of doors, interesting art or overflowing bookcases. (I’d love to be able to read some of the titles.) Some of them even have messy, overgrown yards — I can relate! One of my favorite backdrops belongs to an chick who poses in front of her flat, standing on a doormat that reads “Next Time Bring a Warrant.” (Needless to say, her sense of style has ATTITUDE.)

If you look at the site, you might initially think I’m nuts. (“She actually went out of the house looking like THAT?”) But scroll through a few photos and you’ll likely find someone whose personal flair and style sense make her look like someone you’d like to know. (“Her” is probably incorrect, as there are a few brave males who post as well.)

Maybe I watch too much TV and read too many magazines. Perhaps I’ve overdosed on air-brushed perfection. Apparently I have finally realized that, for example, Oprah’s guests (and the Queen of TV herself) have been primped and corseted and fussed over within an inch of their very lives before they set foot on her set, and that they bear little resemblance to whatever it is that crawls out of their individual beds in the morning. Whatever the cause, I find that I have a deep unrelenting hunger for whatever is really REAL, and wardrobe remix seems to help satisfy some of that craving.

Stalking: Are you/have you?

January 13, 2009

images-11The Associated Press is reporting today that some 3.4 million Americans identified themselves as victims of stalking last year:

About half of the victims experienced at least one unwanted contact per week from a stalker, and 11 percent had been stalked for five or more years, according to the report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics… The most commonly reported types of stalking were unwanted phone calls (66 percent), unsolicited letters or e-mail (31 percent), or having rumors spread about the victim (36 percent).

The article also details the cost of stalking, from lost time at work (to hide out or submit restraining orders), lost jobs, fear, relocation and a host of other problems.

I’ve had only a few minor brushes with this scary phenomenon, which has gotten a lot of press in recent years. There was a guy in one of my college classes who reacted surprisingly aggressively when I wouldn’t go out with him, calling me to talk about his sexual relationships with other women (rather graphicly, but I was too inexperienced and polite to know to hang up on the creep) and following me around for a few days until he dropped the class and disappeared, much to my relief. That FELT like stalking.

But someone, for the past year or so, has been leaving little innocuous holiday gifts on my doorstep, with a note that says “Love, Joy.” I have wracked my brain and I can’t come up with who it might be. The gifts are small and harmless, and I haven’t paid much attention to them or worried when they showed up. But the giver is clearly unwilling to identify him/herself. Is that stalking? Do fear and intimidation have to be involved?

According to the researchers in the AP story, stalking is “a course of conduct, directed at a specific person on at least two separate occasions, that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.” But a recently single midlife friend of mine has, since her divorce, attracted several sad-sack, underachieving older men who call her regularly but for whom she has expressed no interest. She calls them, in a kindly way, her “stalkers.” She doesn’t fear them, although she admits that they can get annoying. (No surprise, her underachieving ex-husband also calls her regularly to lament his life, so maybe she needs to set up some firmer boundaries…)

The crime channels are full of programs about women who were terrified and in many cases killed by men who were stalking them, and law enforcement appeared in many cases ham-strung by weak or non-existent laws against that kind of threatening behavior. But does unwanted attention have to be that extreme or go that far to be considered stalking?

The article also made me wonder if I’ve been guilty of stalking as well. I clearly remember, also back in college, when the-only-boyfriend-I-was-EVER-going-have-in-my-entire-life broke up with me. I admittedly went a little mad, daily driving by his apartment, hiding outside his classes to see him when he came in and out, pestering mutual friends about what he was doing and who he was seeing. I never did the call-and-hang-up thing, praise Allah, but I remember being pretty obsessed over him for several months until the passion burned out and I got my pride back. (What was I thinking? He was a DOPE.) Was I on some level a stalker?

One lesson I’ve learned over my 50+ years is that we humanoids, male or female, are intensely social and emotional creatures, a fact which often leads to some pretty irrational behavior. (That image of my college-age self, waiting in my unheated car in freezing rain outside Former Boyfriend’s apartment, still makes me CRINGE.) Add those too-human traits to a mind that is already unhinged in some way, and you have a disaster ready to happen.

Does this all stir any memories? Is stalking part of the human experience, some sort of Darwinian throwback? Can we not help ourselves?

Diet Wars: Oprah packs it back on — again

December 10, 2008

imagesAll I have to say about Oprah and her 40 refound pounds is that, if America’s sweetheart, with her millions and millions of dollars and her literal army of assistants — trainers, personal chefs, doctors, nutritionists, counselors, etc. — can’t keep the weight off, then the rest of us chubby plebeians out here should step back, take a deep breath, and just be a little kinder to ourselves. I don’t just think, I KNOW this kind of yo-yo weight loss has contributed to her — and my — weight issues over the years.

She maintains that her fall off the wagon is due to a out-of-balance thyroid, and, in deference to my thyroid-deficient friends — and I have many — I’ll refrain from speculating on that excuse. And don’t go ragging on me — I think Oprah’s okay, just maybe a little self-absorbed sometimes.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll be accepting seconds on pecan pie this season (even if its ByJane’s recipe) or that I’ll quit nagging myself to get off my lazy backside and go for a walk. I’m just not looking for any more reasons to despise myself. And neither should you.

A blessed, peaceful and gracious holiday to you all! (And apologies for my absence from the Blogosphere. Life happens…)

Women and Election 2008: A gut check

November 18, 2008

At the risk of flogging that dead horse, I renew the concerns expressed in my last blogpost by referring you to today’s The Daily Beast, which has an article that quantifies my uneasiness over the state of women following the recent election. According to its own poll:

• By an overwhelming 61% to 19% margin, women believe there is a gender bias in the media.
• 4 in 10 men freely admit sexist attitudes towards a female president. 39% of men say that a male is “naturally more suited” to carrying out the duties of the office
• 48% of women thought Hillary Clinton received fair media treatment and only 29% believed Sarah Palin was treated fairly. In contrast, nearly 8 in 10 voters thought the press gave fair treatment to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
• More than two-thirds of women said they were being treated unfairly in the workplace (68%)

And, it determined, “Women over 50, the first generation to have a majority in the workforce, see far more discrimination in every area of life than younger women.” (HA! I wasn’t just imagining it!)

So clearly I’m not the only one grinding my teeth over this issue. We seem to be running harder than ever, but are we just running in place? Our biggest enemy may not be a biased media, but our own ambivalence, since The Daily Beast’s survey also found that, “Only 20% of women are willing to use the word ‘feminist’ about themselves [and] only 17% of all voters said they would welcome their daughters using that label.” And while more than 90% of African-American voters supported Barack Obama, American women did not back either Clinton or Palin in such significant numbers.

Do we really want to succeed? If we keep thinking that “feminist” is a dirty word, do we need to rescript or relabel the whole endeavor?

“What will women do now?” wonders The Daily Beast.

The poll suggests that there is tremendous potential for an expanded, revitalized, and updated women’s equality movement. Certainly there would be considerable support for boycotts of news stations that carry sexist commentators or generally cover women unfairly.

I think it’s time to us women to start speaking up — in ways small and large, gentle and forthright, local and national — instead of hoping that our sheer numbers are going to speak for us.

Update: Social critic Daphne Merkin shares my pessimism.