Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why I Like Mad Men

(Image courtesy of these folks)

Sometimes a peek at the past can show you just how far you've come, baby.

Like many of my pals, I've waited (and waited) for Mad Men to resume, and not just because I need to spend more time holding a remote. It's because Mad Men is a type of archeology for me. Mad Men's first season was set in 1961, the year I was born. As I've watched the series unfold, I am astonished to see things I remember in my mother and father: eye-opening things that have informed so many attitudes that I saw back then but didn't understand at all.

My family emigrated to the US from England in 1965. My mother became one of those pretty secretaries that could type like a demon. My dad was a blue collar guy, working in a tool shop making the molds that punch out all manner of plastic widgets. We made our way to California in 1966, and settled into suburbia in 1967. Dad bought a station wagon to tow the motor cycles he had started racing. Mom still preferred her Corvair. Dad gave up smoking before I was born because of a bout of TB, but Mom always had one in her hand - held just the way the Joan does in the show.

What I remember of the 60's is tinted pink with that hopeful feeling that the progress of the decade gave birth to. From the outside, our family looked good. When my folks split in 1971 I was utterly blindsided. While I know now that they weren't happy, watching Don and Betty split has been a revelation. I can see that, like Don, Dad didn't understand that his wife wasn't fulfilled in her roles as mother and secretary. He brought home a decent wage and thought it was enough. Mom, I found out later, wanted a more creative life. She noodled with writing children's stories, but never took it anywhere because it was so far out of the nurse/teacher/secretary mold that the 1960's offered her. She couldn't be Peggy because I was already here. She was stuck being Joan. And while she made sure she was really good at it, stuck was still stuck. And I didn't get how stuck that was until I saw Joan's excitement at being given creative work to do, and her crushing disappointment when it was taken away. If my mom had had the choice, I think she would have been a childless career woman. It really makes me appreciate the choices my generation has.

(As an aside, such moments in the show are raising my consciousness for the older battles of feminism so that I am armed for the ones we obviously have still to fight... but that's for a different day).

After the divorce, I went with Dad back to England, and he quickly remarried. He made sure that wife #2 was decent mother material, because, let's face it, that was her job and where he needed the help. Over the years he and I have gotten closer, but back then he was still the guy that came home for dinner and only really got involved when I ventured into "wait until your father comes home" territory. My teen years were turbulent, as all teen years are, but I can see now that the cultural shifts added to the tornadoes. Step-mom wanted me to be a secretary, like her. Dad wanted me to do something intellectual (he didn't get the chance to go for higher education). He told me I could have any dream that I was willing to work for, a pretty modern attitude. When I chose art, embracing that modern attitude and my cultural right, dammit, it wasn't what he had in mind.

Over the years, Dad and I have clashed about his some of his more misogynist, bigoted and racist views - things I knew were a product of his times, but the show has really brought those times into sharp, gasp-inducing focus. Did they really just say THAT? Yikes! Lucky me to have become aware in an age where second wave feminism was blossoming, and the immigrant migrations of many cultures was becoming commonplace. While we've made many peaces, neither Dad nor I are shy about having an opinion, and these days I can see how fast our culture changed between his 20s and mine, between the Beatles and Disco (and even faster between Disco and Grunge). For both of us, it has seemed such cruel fate at times that he ended up with such a strong willed daughter (although he must realize that I get it from him). And while I don't like that he hasn't kept up on the tolerance front on occasion, I get that his generation, despite being the architects of the rocket age, is still having trouble with the speed of how things change. Heck, my son is light years beyond me already, and I like to think I run pretty hard to be hip, even though I often fall short.

And so it's Sunday night, and Mad Men will be back shortly. I'm excited. Not only for some good storytelling, but for some more revelations. Thus far, it's been an unexpectedly profound way to relearn my personal history. More please!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bob's Your Uncle

My Uncle Bob passed away at 69 on December 30th 2011. What follows is an expanded version of the eulogy I wrote for his service (with a little clarifying detail for the American audiences).

“Bob’s your uncle.” As a child, I remember hearing this and interpreting it literally, thinking “Well, yes, he is.” It took a while for me to catch on to the more common translation of it meaning “there you have it.” Still, I always thought I was lucky when that phrase came up because, indeed, Bob was my uncle.

For those of you who don’t know, my Uncle Bob was quadriplegic. He had a motorcycle accident when I was a baby, one of those horrid twists of fate where the bike and a wet road had a difference of opinion. If he hadn’t been moved by a well meaning Samaritan his spinal injuries might have been resolvable – but alas, this was not the case. I never knew Bob out of his wheelchair, but really, it is hardly the thing that defines him for me. He was always so much more than his labels – as really, we all are.

My first really good memory of Bob comes from a visit to him when I was about 8 or 9 years old. He was on the old long term disabled unit at Stoke Mandeville (a top UK residential spinal injury center) and he was in bed. With a bunch of family trying to crowd into the tiny room, his wheelchair began to look pretty inviting as a place to sit. It was also something of great curiosity to a child who, despite knowing that she needed to behave, had excess energy to burn and was itching to play with that chair. Bob understood this, and rather than going along with the awkward pretense that it wasn’t good manners to be curious about such things, he saw the look in my eyes and encouraged me to haul the wheelchair out into the corridor and go play with it. At the time it occurred to me that Bob still understood what it was like to be a kid.

Playing in Bob’s wheelchair was a pretty pivotal moment for me in many ways. While I endured many a lecture from my family on the dangers of motorcycles over the years, nothing taught me more than those few minutes wheeling Bob’s chair, imagining what it must be like to not be able to get out of it. I think Bob probably knew that too, and let the lesson be learned through my seat rather than my ears.

Bob was the cool uncle. I had a silver charm bracelet through my teens, and he often added to it at my birthday. He always chose fascinating charms that opened or twirled – the most memorable being an apple that opened to cheekily reveal the anatomically correct Adam and Eve. While all the other adults were asking me about what I was studying at school, Bob would cut to the chase and ask the really important question when you are a teenager - was I was courting anyone interesting? That’s the Bob that so many of us knew – all directness and no pretensions.

Bob was always ahead of us with new fangled technology. While the rest of us were getting the hang of radio cassette players, Bob had a top of the line multi-component hi-fi, and with a graphic equalizer no less. He was the first of my family to get satellite TV and a flat screen. As it turns out, he was ahead of us in other ways too. He used that directness to fight for the things you and I take for granted, long before society got politically correct about rights for the disabled. Through his absolute belief that he deserved as good a life in his chair that you or I could have without one, he blazed a trail that eventually led to richer lives for so many others. He lived this belief, from the seemingly small challenge to the ward rules that finally allowed him to share a room and later a disability retrofitted house with his lovely wife Sally, through to his friendship with Jimmy Saville (a famous UK radio and TV personality) that led to national fundraising drives that built a beautiful new residence wing at Stoke Mandeville (that resembled apartments rather than a hospital ward). As I said, Bob was so much more than the chair.

The last time I visited with Bob he made me a full-on Sunday dinner, with extra roast potatoes because he remembered that they were my favorite. I asked him where on earth he learned such a feat, and he said that his mum made sure he could cook a roast in case he needed to impress a girl. Trust me when I say this girl was very impressed.

So there you have it. Bob’s my uncle. Lucky me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

50 Thoughts on Turning 50

A time for reflection and introspection. Time for a party filled with embarrassing gifts of prune juice and adult diapers. The big five-oh. Mid-century. Half way done, should I be so lucky. A few thoughts on that...

1. In the inimitable words of the Monty Python gang – I’m not dead yet!
2. Turning 30 was a relief. Turning 40 made me feel powerful. Turning 50 makes me feel grateful.
3. Questioning authority is still fashionable.
4. Knowing that your girlfriends get you (and like you anyway) is incredibly comforting.
5. Eating chocolate every day is sacrosanct. Wasting calories by eating bad chocolate is just wrong.
6. Having a season pass to Disneyland allows you to see all the small things in the design and artistry – and to marvel at the absolute commitment to the concept such details illustrate.
7. Board games are even more fun as a grown-up.
8. Fake butter is just that. Fake.
9. The shift of a smooth gearbox on an open road is still a thrill.
10. However, next time I’m buying an automatic car. I’m done with clutching my way through traffic.
11. I got too good at not wanting to be a bother in the doctor’s office, and it almost killed me. Being firm about what I instinctually know about my body is the right kind of bothersome to be.
12. Spending time outside of your home country is important.
13. Facebook birthdays rock.
14. Uncomfortable shoes are just not worth the agony.
15. Uncomfortable undies aren’t either.
16. Although I would have chewed my tongue off before admitting this to her as a teenager, I’m grateful that my step-mother spent the time to teach me which fork is the right one.
17. While I think I could have been just fine without children in my life, I’m so glad I have my son Steve. He somehow makes me more complete.
18. Art really is everywhere. And that is a very good thing.
19. That multitasking thing that we’ve all tried so hard to be good at is a load of bull. Being fully present to one thing at a time is so much more satisfying.
20. Having good manners never goes out of style.
21. It is wonderful to find a lost friend from your youth, and to find out that that you still like who they are.
22. It doesn’t matter that my shoes never match my handbag.
23. Having an opinion is a good thing. Respecting that other opinions may differ is a better thing.
24. In my head I’m still in my thirties. But 50 is the new 30, right?
25. Smart phones are incredible tools of efficiency and convenience. And distraction.
26. I'm no longer willing to play dumb, or hide my light, or stay silent when I should speak up, just for the comfort of others.
27. Climbing to the top of a dome or church is a spiritual journey. Coming out into the light and 360 view after the fight of the climb, through the dark and narrow passages, is a re-birth of sorts and worth every ache, gasp, and bead of sweat.
28. I prefer clocks with hands.
29. Wearing the right earrings can make your day.
30. I’m ok with not being liked by everyone anymore. I’m ok with not liking everyone anymore. We are not ALL made for each other.
31. Keeping the back of your neck warm from draughts wards off colds.
32. When all else fails, bake shortbread.
33. Having my face cut and filled to look like a version of 30 will never happen. I’ve earned and lived all my lines.
34. Saying “thank you” is SO important.
35. Saying “sorry” is perhaps even more important.
36. I’m grateful to have been born in times that allow me to exercise choices. And I’m aware that with such privilege comes the responsibility to make sure that these choices are available to future generations.
37. Those SMTWTFS pill boxes really do make your life easier.
38. Sleeping under a handmade quilt is a special joy.
39. Not being obsessively clean is good for your immune system.
40. I hope evolution takes care of chin hairs and the hairs on the top of big toes in future generations because I can vouch for them having no use whatsoever.
41. I’m thrilled to see my young friends making babies, and even more thrilled that I’m no longer in the business of teething, tantrums, and teenagers.
42. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
43. I love the summer movie formula: the good guys win, the bad guys lose, the guy gets the girl, and stuff blows up during a really good car chase.
44. Slumming with the occasional book of trash pulp will not rot my intellect.
45. Learning to say “no” is a good thing. Wish I’d got better at it sooner.
46. Beautifully written words are as satisfying as perfect crème brulée.
47. This teach-to-the-test crap is ruining our children.
48. Seeing it in person is so much better than reading about it on the internet. Just say no to the mediated experience.
49. The color orange makes me happy.
50. You dishonor the people that love you when you don’t allow them to actually do loving things for you. Accepting love is both humbling and powerful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Oh, Thank Cuteness!

My friend Jake, who spearheads Generation Q Magazine, got a blog topic going this week - "Oh, Thank Cuteness!" She wrote about her daughter, and invited the readers to chime in with their versions. She got me to thinking about my son Steve, known to many in my life as The Boy (the capitalization is honorific here) and so here goes...

Steve's personality was evident in utero. Every time we got an ultrasound wand near him he turned his back playfully and kept us guessing as to his gender. We could tickle his feet through my tummy, and in return he would torment me with bump-heaving hiccups. He made us wait to meet him, finally consenting to arrive the better part of a month late. The reward in this is that he smiled early.

From the get-go, he had a sense of humor. Mischief sparkled in his eyes often, and still does. He's relentlessly funny, not in that doesn't-know-when-to-quit annoying way, but in a lightness of being that is just present, even when he's not fully awake. It's a lightness that carries me often, as I tend to take it all a bit too seriously.

At two years old, Steve grabbed the hose while I was washing the car and sprayed me down, squealing. It was the first salvo in water wars that continue between us even today. As a youngster, he would ask the most hair-curling questions, but could find the humor in the then-ickyness of the answers. As a sleepy teen, he took to tapping my head and mumbling "snooze" when I tried to wake him up. I once painted his toenails while he was napping, and he laughed and wore it for the day before asking for the remover.

Steve understands the concept of having fun. He encouraged me to give up the 2-day ritual of decorating for Christmas and instead spend it in pajamas eating leftover Chinese food, while watching a full season of something geeky with him. In fact, this is how we spent our last Thanksgiving together, getting properly dressed only long enough to go to the movies in the afternoon. I reflect back on that day and remember it as one of my faves.

It would be easy to see all this fun and humor and imagine that Steve is just a party guy. Far from the truth. He thinks deeply about lots of things, and continues to ask the tough questions. The first election he voted in was the one that put Schwartzenegger on California's throne, and there was Steve, wading through the pamphlets and brochures, trying to figure out how you pick a winner out of a pack of a hundred when all you can see is the slick marketing.

Like his mama, Steve wears his heart on his sleeve. And literally at that. When he decided to get tattoos, he asked me to help design something that spoke to his ideas of family heritage and life philosophy. No impetuous, beer-fueled doodles for him. I was honored to be trusted with this, and he graciously let me share a version of the same ink (it's on my foot). He has since added more to his collection, all beautiful, and of course, consciously chosen and personally meaningful to him.

Obviously, there is a lot about Steve that has a lot to do with me. But then there is that part that doesn't have anything to do with me at all. It's a construction of what he has observed and tried and discarded, ever refining who he chooses to be on any given day - and I find that I really like that guy. I like how straight he tries to shoot. I admire that he keeps trying. I'm humbled by how loyal he is to those he loves.

We are tight, Steve and I - and this is the greatest thing in the world to me. They say you can tell who a man is by how he treats his mother. Let me tell you... Steve is a good man.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Call to Arms

A couple of months ago I attended a screening of Miss Representation, a pretty important film that is now catching some deserved rotation on the Oprah network. In it, a bleak picture of the current portrayal of women in the media is painted. One would imagine that it would have been easy to make this film one long peepshow of the offending gratuitous images, but instead it is a finely crafted affair, focused on many women in positions of power eloquently discussing the complexities of the issue. It is a somber analysis, smartly presented, and well worth your time.

The film tackles not only the responsibilities of the men who have the power over these images (there is a dearth of female leadership in the upper echelons of pretty much any field), but also brings forth the responsibilities required of women. Even if we haven't yet scored the top jobs, the time has come to give up watching from the sidelines while other people manage our image. We are certainly not powerless. We can write. We can vote. We can use our considerable purchasing power to change the landscape. But the film makes one thing frighteningly clear: we MUST do these things to reverse the terrible backslide in the long way we've tried to come since the 70's. And if we won't do it for ourselves, we need to do it for the upcoming generations of girls.

And so, with this movie ringing in my consciousness, when I caught the headlines about Ashton Kutcher's latest fling, instead of keeping my thoughts to myself (as a polite and seemly woman is taught to do), I wrote the following. It's my offering to the conversation started by Miss Representation. Hope you enjoy:

While there have been many times in my life that I thought being a man would have made things so much easier, I have always appreciated that one of the greatest things about being a woman is being part of the team, the sisterhood. Women have girlfriends, that priceless tribe of confidantes that supports us through the best of times, and the worst of times. Women, for the most part, take care of each other, regardless of what the latest reality bitch-and-bite show would have you believe. We understand that to make it out in the world we need to stick together, have each other’s backs, and support each other like only women can. And so, as I note the most recent lapse in judgment of a certain young lady in Ashton Kutcher’s presence, I want to call women to arms to take care of our womenfolk.

First of all, to Ms. Sarah Leal and to any other women who eyes a married man: Stop it. Stop it right now. You are letting down the team. Move on. If we are serious about elevating our stature as women, we need to take care of our married sisters by not pursuing their men. It is easy to think that a man’s choice to cheat on his wife is none of our business, but if we are serious about taking care of each other, this is business of a most critical order. Don’t fall for that trite “she done me wrong” sob story. Please. You are smarter than that. Don’t help him hurt one of our sisters by cheating with him. Wasn’t it the late, great and wise Ann Landers who pointed out that a man who marries his mistress is merely creating a vacancy in the position? Don’t contribute to the stereotype of philandering lothario as a great catch. True sexy is a man who stands up for his woman, not one who lets her down. Such weak-willed opportunists are catch-and-release material only. If you must give a married guy some attention, let it be in the form of a referral to a great therapist. And then walk away. We can inspire men to better standards by raising our own.

Second, to Ms. Leal: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’ve stood by in silence while media standards for the portrayal of women has sunk low, so low that we have taught you that the way to make it big in this life is by banging a celebrity and selling your story to a tabloid. I should have fought for a media depiction of us that is so much deeper than an image parade of starlet décolletage. I should have stood up for you, for me, for all of us years ago when I first noticed the downhill slide. I should have argued for better portrayal of women who are doing the kind of stuff that would inspire you do something big with your life, the kind of big that would have you featured on instead of in the gossip rags. Truly, I’m sorry.

Ladies, you have my word that I’m working on it right now. I am voting with my feet, turning off the sexist shows, and writing to call attention to the abuses of our image. But I need your help. Can you do a solid for the team?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Parables of the Knicker Drawer

I met Gill when I was fourteen years old. She was expecting her first child, Robert, and as a Cub Scout leader with an upcoming weekend camp scheduled, had mentioned to her co-worker, my step-mum, that an extra pair of hands at camp would be a nice thing. My step-mother immediately volunteered me to help. Being a disinterested former Girl Guide, not to mention disinterestedly fourteen, I wasn’t too keen on being press-ganged into chasing boys around a campsite. But parental authority being what it is, I reported for camp. And thus began one of the best relationships of my teen years.

The first impression I had of Gill was that she was real. No facades on this lovely lady, she possessed a marvelous sense of humor, subtle and self deprecating, but always razor sharp and completely spot-on in its observation of the nuttiness in everyday moments. As an altogether too-serious teenager, she showed me that life could be fun if you had a good laugh now and then, especially if you could do it at yourself. As she and Colin encouraged me to stay in Scouting, I got to learn about volunteering for kids from two of the masters at the game.

Their house became a haven for me in many ways. I got to hang out there under the guise of helping out with Robert, and later Jamie, but really, Gill was making sure I had a place to escape a trying relationship with my step-mother, and to test the fledgling wings of impending adulthood without judgment or pressure. She was the perfect combo of the coolest auntie and the big sister that actually liked you. She even “forgot” to take the Harold Robbins books out of the spare room when I was old enough to be curious about boys.

Gill never talked to me like I was a child. Come to think of it, she never talked to Robert, Jamie, or the Cub Scouts like they were kids either. She had the gift of talking to you like she was absolutely confident that you were already everything she believed you could be. Part acceptance and part encouragement. Although I was on another continent when I had my son, I like to think that the closeness in my relationship with him has much to do with the example she and Colin set.

The first time we talked about the return of her cancer, Gill handled it with typical aplomb. Well, she said, time to enjoy wearing the good knickers. Even as time counted down, she told me of the transitions in her life as Parables of the Knicker Drawer. Wearing the good ones now (don’t delay or deny yourself life’s best parts). Finally chucked the ones with the loose elastic (don’t spend time with people that don’t make you feel good). Must tidy the damn drawer out so as not to leave that mess for my boys (take care of the ones you love the most).

How perfect it was that on the day I learned she left us, I was wearing an uncomfortable pair of knickers that had somehow escaped the rubbish bin. I chucked them at the end of the day. Thank you for teaching me right up to the end, Gill.

(My dear friend Gill Harding left us on June 22, 2011, at the too young age of 63. She is survived by husband Colin, sons Robert and Jamie, and countless other people who love her.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Showing my stuff

Lucky me, I get to show my stuff again. The lovely people at 643 Project Space in Ventura offered me a show, so I took them up on it. You can find the details here:

For the West Coast peeps, it is a chance for you to see (up close and personal) a good portion of the work that earned me my MFA. For the East Coasters, you've seen most of it before, so while you are missing out on the shortbread, you've already seen the art.

I will also be rolling out a new project, something that requires interaction from the folks in the gallery. Instructions and materials will be provided. If you can't make it to the opening and you still want to participate, please shoot me your mailing address in a private email (along with the names of two colors you like) and I will send you a kit.

Let the party commence!