Category Archives: Thoughts

On heroism, gender, and Patti Smith

Long ago, during college, I considered myself a feminist, and a good one too. But my academically-minded roommate challenged me to list my female heroes.

“Why should heroes be chosen on the basis of sex?” I said defiantly. “Ignoring gender is being neutral, which is better than keeping score.”

“No it isn’t, because the playing field is tipped against women,” she said in a superior tone. “Go ahead and count your heroes. I bet they’re all male. I bet you don’t have a single woman hero that you look up to.”

I thought about my heroes, and by golly she was right. All the authors, artists and rock stars I loved most were men; so too were all the great explorers and inventors.

My annoying roommate suggested to me that the lack of female role models was a void in my life, and that I should look to women’s accomplishments to complete myself as a woman. Grudgingly, I considered the challenge she set me.

The first task of course was to define heroism. To me, a hero is someone whose actions and accomplishments blaze a trail for others, or alternatively, someone who describes the world in an entirely new way. A hero could be someone with immense courage and moral dignity; or a person whose example inspires others.

There were certainly female writers and artists to choose from, but their accomplishments didn’t necessarily speak to me as a person searching for role models. Many second-wave feminists at that time (late ‘70s) worshipped Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, but neither of their writing styles particularly lit me up, and I didn’t view their suicides as a plus. It seemed to me that women too often had to suffer or die in order to earn respect, instead of being honored because of what they achieved or created.

I ultimately identified several contenders for heroic females. Mary Wollstonecraft championed women’s rights and condemned the institution of traditional marriage at the end of the 1700s despite horrifying her peers with her “shocking” views. I also liked her daughter Mary Shelley because she freely chose the life of a shunned bohemian. And I admired Isadora Duncan, who dedicated her life to the pursuit of love, beauty and creativity. But they all had lived generations before me, and like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, they exemplified the grieving/suffering female principle which I viewed as a tired old trope.

In search of an inspiring modern creatrix, I soon found Patti Smith. She became the subject of a shrine on my apartment wall made from a cluster of photos cut from magazines. Possessed of an unusual appearance, unafraid, brazen, a free-wheeling poet with tangled hair and no makeup, Patti growled and yelped her music and was unafraid of blasphemy. (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins….but not mine.”) Head held high, Patti followed her own unique and idiosyncratic path.  (“Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.”) It was rumored that she had jerked off to her own photo on the cover of her Easter album, which depicted her in rumpled negligee, one arm raised to reveal an unshaven armpit. I was delighted with Patti, as were many of my friends. If anyone knew how to épater les bourgeois, Patti certainly did. The High Priestess of Punk seemed a worthy rebel hero to me.

EasterAfter graduation my life truly began. I married; started my own profitable business; earned a law degree; had my son Miles; traveled to Europe on a shoestring several times; wrote a popular newspaper column and authored a book. I was no longer worried about heroes or gender. Instead, I did things that I deemed necessary, desirable, or important.

Patti faded from my radar, retiring to private life after marrying. After her husband’s death she reappeared and began making music again, touring the world and writing. I began to pay attention to her once more.

I read her first memoir “Just Kids” with great pleasure. Because I enjoyed it so much, I bought her second memoir, “M Train.” It struck me differently than the first book had done. Throughout “M Train” she cites scores of creative people who mattered to her: William Burroughs, Sam Shepherd, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, Paul Verlaine, Roberto Bolaño, Mikhail Bulgakov, Haruki Murakami, Bertolt Brecht and many others. But women barely register in her narrative.

What an irony: discovering that my former female hero had virtually no female heroes of her own! My heart sank when she invoked Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, because this triad represented to me the same suffering-female trope that I had resisted in my youth.  But Patti was no longer the defiant young rock-n-roll poet I had idolized long ago. Over time she had evolved from a musical iconoclast to a figure haunted by loss.

I thought about Patti’s lack of female heroes for several days, bemused. Were there no outspoken bold women she admired, none at all? I was disappointed, but eventually realized I was doing the same thing to Patti that my annoying college roommate had done to me: focusing on gender instead of simply respecting the fact that Patti found these fellow human beings to be admirable in some way. And as for the grieving-female stereotype, many of Patti’s male heroes had also suffered and grieved. Suffering is by no means a female monopoly. Any human who lives long enough is bound to suffer – including myself. Although I’m dying of cancer, I don’t want others to think of me as a sorrowful figure, or to lump me into some category purely because of my gender.

Here’s my own manifesto and resolution. Over the years I’ve evolved from feminism to humanism (respect for all, and belief in human capacity for self-worth and betterment). I think of myself each day primarily not as a woman but as a human being. I feel this is a necessary step in our human evolution as a species. After I’m gone, I don’t want to be remembered simply as a female, or as someone whose life ended tragically before its time. Instead, I was a human being who was possessed of exuberance, bawdy humor, imagination, courage and ethics.

Abandon all categories, a friend spray-painted long ago on a downtown wall. I agree. Attempting to balance the playing field between men and women is probably not the best use of finite resources. Trying to improve ourselves as human beings is a far worthier goal. In times like ours, heroes of any gender are desperately needed. Long live Patti!

aging patti

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Questions that perplex, part two

the thinkerPerhaps cancer has colored my perception, but there are many things in American society which make no sense to me as a rational being. After addressing more frivolous concerns recently, let’s look at a burning political question.

Why don’t more people vote? Soon, viewers will sit down with popcorn in front of the movie “Suffragette” and find it astonishing that English suffragists were exposed to terrible violence and oppression during their campaigns in the 1910s; but a large number of these same viewers will completely ignore Election Day when it rolls around. How can anyone be so indifferent to a crucial right that people died to gain? National politics are indeed difficult to influence, but it’s impressively easy to make a real difference at the local level.

I become indignant when people tell me that their vote doesn’t count, or that primaries aren’t important, or that the system is broken and doesn’t merit being supported. If you feel this way, run for mayor or councilperson yourself, and show us your awesome plans for improving the existing system! Monroe County had virtually the lowest voting turnout of all of Indiana last year, which is cause for community-wide shame when considering how many educated and creative people live here. And remember: the city of Bloomington wouldn’t be marred by so much horrible misdevelopment around its central core today if more citizens had turned out during the planning process to voice their disapproval.

Indeed, your vote definitely counts.

Questions that perplex, part one

The following things make no sense to me. Let’s start our survey of hard-to-answer questions with women’s clothing.

  1. If the average American woman is a tad over 5.4 inches in height, why are most jeans, yoga pants and trousers designed for hypothetical women who stand about three inches taller?  I’m an inch taller than the average, but I’ve lost count of all the pants I’ve had to shorten over the years because the hems were long enough to trip over. And “petite” sizes are too short. What’s going on here? Why aren’t pants that are supposedly  designed for mid-height women not properly sized to fit those same women?
  2. Years ago, brassieres were made of sections of delicate, filmy fabric and lace sewn together in a variety of fetching ways. Then, almost overnight, all bras became made of inflexible foam cups that generate perspiration. The change was probably made to keep costs down, but foam-cup bras leave much to be desired in the way of fit. They compress the breast tightly inside the confines of the cup, or when a larger size is selected, the breast then bounces and rattles around loosely inside its foam cage. Never yet have I found a foam-cup bra of any size or dimension that fits as well, or looks as fetching, as the sweet lacy whimsies of the past.
  3. What’s with the indescribably horrible dressing rooms at the local Macy’s (Bloomington, Indiana)? The dressing rooms there have apparently never been remodeled since that wing of the mall was built in the 1980s. In Macy’s horrible cramped dressing booths, all the mirrors are fattening mirrors instead of regular mirrors. Shoppers flinch with aversion from their own reflections, spotlit by the strong overhead light that cruelly delineates every ripple of cellulite and bulge of fat. So different from another unnamed retailer at the same mall, whose spacious dressing rooms are large enough for two or even three people, designed to resemble a boudoir, and lit gently from all sides for an even glow. If retailers truly believe that women will buy just as much from stores with horrible dressing rooms as from stores with lovely dressing rooms, they should compare notes on sales. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t particularly feel like buying anything after I’ve been made to look ugly and deformed in a distorting mirror, but perhaps Macy’s has a different sales philosophy: humiliate shoppers into grabbing anything off the shelf and getting out of there quickly without trying anything on.
  4. And the biggest, final question is: why do these three things endure, year after year, with nothing being done about it? It’s because it takes more than one nut with a blog to make a difference. Speak up! Suggest beneficial changes to management! Complain to management! Write your own nutty blogs! Have a skilled tailor or seamstress create custom clothes for you! Changes won’t happen without critical mass.
The tacky exterior of the College Mall, resembling post-modern Wild West storefronts.  Photo belongs to www.simon.com.
The tacky exterior of the College Mall, resembling post-modern Wild West storefronts. Photo belongs to http://www.simon.com.

Thoughts on the Boston Museum protests

Photo courtesy the New York Times.
Monet’s “La Japonaise.” Photo courtesy the New York Times.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts unexpectedly found itself the target of protesters this past week, and was assailed on social media and Tumblr. Words like “racist” are not often hurled at a world-class cultural institution. What was its offense? Did it use racially disparaging words in an exhibit? Did it turn away visitors of a certain color?

No. All it did was to display Monet’s famous painting of his wife wearing a kimono, along with a similar kimono in which visitors could pose next to the art to have their photos taken.

The protesters are young, principled and earnest, driven by heartfelt convictions of their rightness. They believe that the act of donning a kimono and posing in front of a painting is cultural appropriation, pure and simple. But following that train of logic, I must no longer enjoy sushi dinners or read anime books. I must not consider getting a “tribal” tattoo on my shoulder lest I offend indigenous tribes. I must avoid music by Clapton, Eminem, and Diana Krall because they’re whites performing in musical forms originated by blacks. And on a local level, I must not tap my feet to music from Mali or Mongolia during the annual Lotus Festival of World Music, since I’m not Malinese or Mongolian.

Obviously, all this is ridiculous. The protesters in Boston mean well, but they are quite wrong to sling loaded words like “racist” at the museum. Racism is when we draw a line between ourselves and other human beings in order to separate us into categories. The world’s most serious problems right now are being caused by people who think only in rigid categories and who draw similar lines to divide people. Both the Islamic State and the Boston protesters share this commonality: they both assume that their own beliefs are the only form of righteousness.

To assert something like this in a very complex world is a faulty assumption of breathtaking grandiosity. All moderate people would agree that international cultural exchange is an intrinsically good thing. After all, the world listens to American music. People from all nations enjoy French and Australian wines, and drink Scotch. Why should we not buy a beautiful vintage kimono while vacationing in Japan? Jerk chicken tastes mighty good even when cooked in the American Midwest.

I advise the protestors in Boston to reach out to others instead of finding fault where none was intended. To make our world a better place, we must weigh our own actions rather than criticize the actions of others. It will be a better day when all of us around the globe can wear each other’s garments, listen to each other’s music, eat each other’s food with smiles on our faces, and make love to each other, without anyone else reproaching us for doing so.