11.17.2014

SHE'S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE'S ANGRY: A MARVELOUS, JOYFUL, PROVOCATIVE DOCUMENTARY. THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION IS FAR FROM OVER--WE HAVE LOTS OF WORK TO DO

She's Beautiful When She's Angry is the first documentary ever made about the beginning of the Women's Liberation Movement. We're talking the 1960s and early 1970s--what some call "second wave feminism", the first belonging to the suffragettes--the era of Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone and Bella Abzug and Kate Millet and Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, bless her Playboy Bunny ears.  The days of redstockings and consciousness raising and that bible of reclamation--Our Bodies, Our Selves. The early days of the rights of women of color, the Mad Men era days, when women began to come out of the closets (where they were not and are still not being paid for their work) to find jobs in law offices and corporations--and out of the closet to love as they chose.

The movie is full of fascinating vintage footage from newscasters, and great lines from men (and plenty of women, too) who were opposed to equal rights, or simply befuddled: what is it those girls want again?  She's Beautiful is rambunctious, joyful, provocative, earnest, profound--and utterly mesmerizing--just like the women who made the movement.

I hope every young woman, and every young man, will see this movie, every history class and every poetry class and every economics class, every high school and college campus--and you can find a screening in the next week, various cities. Why see it? Because knowledge is power. My children's generation, the 20 and 30 years olds, should know where we came from to get to them. For those of us who lived it and breathed it, those of us whose very souls were forged by the feminist movement--director Mary Dore has given us back a history that was dimming, ever so softly and gradually, into the dark recesses of lost memory.

Boy, we were beautiful. Simply stunning. We were angry, too. So perfectly, fittingly, brilliantly intense. And funny, and direct, and demanding, and witchy, and creative, and crazy. I love the title, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, because it was a line that was so often used to demean us, undercut our authority, as we were passionately arguing a case, making a point. But you know what? We are beautiful when we're angry.

The only question is, why aren't enough of us still angry?

I watched with tears--of recognition, gratitude, and bewilderment--streaming down my cheeks. We accomplished so much. Our daughters and our sons are better people, and have better, bigger, healthier lives, with many more choices, because of what we did.

But then, why does it feel as though we're slipping backwards? Why are things beginning to feel harder for women, and why is the world feeling more sexist--again? And how are women themselves contributing to that uneasy, insidious sense of oppression?

These questions have been weighing heavily on me over the last few years. I still think women (and men) can have it all--maybe not all of it all, but some of it all, and maybe not all at once, but over time. But too many women of my generation are sending messages of weary, resignation, when what we should be sending is instruction on how to develop the qualities that make you successful in life: Resilience. Persistence. Determination.

I'll bet you can choose just about any company, any day, (or go on any number of dates) and listen to men be as condescending and dismissive in 2014 as they were in 1977. I'm still watching, with startled recognition of something old and familiar--as women's voices go unheard in meetings, as men repeat what women say and take ownership of their ideas, as men put their female colleagues down. I'm listening as young men seem to practice being sexist and condescending--trying it on for size, with no one stopping them.

I'm watching as women work so hard to make places run--but they still don't run enough of those places. And I'm watching women be as ruthless in undercutting other women as any man could dream of being. What's worse, the boundaries of tolerable behavior have been blown open in the last few years, so young women aren't just dealing with sexist attitudes, they're dealing with physically frightening, downright dangerous situations--and not just on college campuses. Get a young Silicon Valley woman to tell you about what goes on at tech conferences...starting with Titstare.

And most of all, because the documentary is such a visual treat (great soundtrack, too), I've been thinking about the visuals surrounding young women and men today. When it comes to the selling of lifestyles and fashion, we are living in one of the most weirdly sexist eras I have ever seen. The porn of the sixties looks quaint by comparison to the advertising we see everywhere today, on billboards, on television, online, in magazines and catalogues. We used to protest that men turned women into meat. Now, women are turning women into meat, or helping men do it.

And women's magazines are the ones publishing most of this stuff. Women's magazines are creating the fashion copy that invites us to bind our feet, to wear things that throw us off balance, literally off our stride.  We're urged to cut open our faces and bodies, inject ourselves with chemicals, for the sake of...well, what, exactly? Surely not to be taken more seriously. To be more ornamental in the workplace? To be more attractive to husbands who might stray? To be less threatening to men?

At what cost, all this visual surround? When exactly did we lose our bearings on what is degrading to women? Why has everything become so sexualized? Why are women okay with this?

Are we colluding in our own undoing?

The Internet is marvelously, inspiringly filled with conversations by women of all ages, but especially young women--being beautiful and angry. They are talking about the way we love, the way we work, the way we walk, the way we dress, the way we parent and the way we regress.

An excellent film provokes response. Mary Dore's gift for inspiring activism shines through every frame. It made me want to get out in the streets again. It made me step back and think about what's left undone.

Sure enough, a woman's work is never done.

There is no equality, no freedom, no respect, when we are routinely earning less than men. And that's what's still happening, fifty years into this fight.

I'm okay with telling young women to lean in, don't give up, engage. But many of them will lean in--and topple into thin air, finding nothing to lean against.

It makes me angry to ask our daughters and nieces to fix the pay gap. They can't. They have no power. They're trying to get their first jobs, for heaven's sake. This is our job. A system-wide problem needs a large scale solution. We--the mothers and fathers of these young workers--are the people who should be slamming that pay gap shut.

The pay gap is not just a high level or mid level problem--in which, for instance, we find that women CFOs are paid 16% lower on average than their male counterparts. The salaries of the youngest generation of women working today--our daughters--are not on par with those of men. A Wells Fargo report showed that college-educated millennial men made $20,000 more per year than women with the same education level. Median annual income for millennial men: $80,000. For women: $63,000. And this is happening way before women and men start planning families. The pay gap begins right out of college.

In general, the pay gap has not changed for a decade; some states are worse than others, but in no state in this country are we at equity. Not one state, and not in any occupation. It gets worse as we get older. In 1960, women earned 61% as much as male workers; by 2009, that figure was up to 77%.

Progress? You bet. Success? No way.

We can argue till the cows come home (those cows! are they doomed to wander the globe endlessly?) about all the factors that "justify" different pay grades to accommodate all the choices women have to make about blending their work lives with their careers. There are plenty of economists out there ready to defend a pay gap for women, or even explain it away.

And here's something I really don't get: Human resource departments are dominated by women, who make up over 70% of the profession, according to a 2012 article by Susan Strayer. You'd think that with that kind of power--and these departments have enormous power within companies--the pay problem would be gone. But it isn't.

Why aren't HR departments at the vanguard of equal pay--and child care solutions?

We should defend the right to control what happens to and in our own bodies. We have a great, and justified, fear that this right is being eroded, as abortion laws are being revised around the country, and clinics are being forced to close. But some of what's happening is what we always knew was going to happen because of the weak spot in Roe v. Wade, the point of implosion: the matter of viability.

Neonatal care has improved by stunning degrees in the last decades; our understanding of the age at which a premature baby can live on its own has changed. Most Americans, women and men, are uncomfortable with abortion at that late edge. And most abortions are not (and have never been) late term abortions.

The second thing that's changed is the widespread use of fetal monitoring: another technology that has changed by stunning degrees. (And I might add, that fetal bombardment by ultrasound is itself a nervewrackingly unmonitored, unstudied development. Some pregnant women are buying home devices to monitor their fetuses every single day. Anxiety has run amok.) We now have the ability to watch, in painstaking detail, a miraculous amniotic ballet, watch the divided brain merge, watch the exposed fetal heart throb, watch leg and arm buds unfurl. That's made us more aware of what we are doing when we abort.

None of this heightened awareness means, however, that we should lose the right to control what is happening to or in our bodies. Most Americans agree; we want our reproductive rights protected, vis the constantly failing Personhood Amendments.

Rich, too, isn't it? that the very people who won't do a thing about global warming--because "I am not a scientist"--suddenly become medical experts when it comes to women's bodies, even though they are by no means doctors.

But it would be a political error to focus all our feminist energy on reproductive rights. We have other, very large, battles ahead. Feminists ought to be up in arms about the amount of toxic chemicals--the tens of thousands of them, known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors--that are completely unregulated, being tested on our bodies, and those of our infants and our adolescent daughters and sons.

We're slathering ourselves with chemicals, we're sudsing our hair with them, we're eating and drinking them, we're breathing them, and they're lodging in the fatty tissues of our breasts, our brains, and in our kidneys and livers, and going right through the placental barrier, right through the blood-brain barrier, and ending up in our fetuses. (Why aren't the fetal rights folks all over this aspect of a child's health?) Our babies are born contaminated with chemicals. We don't even know what we're exposed to in any given product--because of trade secrets. We cannot trust retailers to protect us. Our legislators have totally dropped the ball.

And because of the ongoing difficulty in establishing direct causal links between chemicals and any one affliction that strikes us, because exposures are minute, each day, but accumulate over years--and because anyway, we are ignorant of what we are exposed to (trade secrets!)--we are unable to do much but worry. Or refuse to participate in the beauty industry. Or--and!--demand regulations to protect us. Demand that retailers do a better job of regulating toxics out of their stores. Boycott. Protest. Demand, demand, demand.

And what about the hundreds of thousands of women who work in the beauty industry? They are at the highest risk of exposure to the toxic stuff we put on our nails, in our hair, on our faces--they're up to their elbows in unregulated, untested chemicals, day after day after day. Most likely, many of these beauty workers aren't even making a decent minimum wage.

I will quickly note air pollution and climate change here, as well--only because I write about this every week over at Moms Clean Air Force. Anything that has an impact on a child's health, including the skyrocketing asthma rates sweeping the country, takes a toll on women. Mothers are usually the ones who take time off to care for the sick child. Mothers are usually the ones paying the hospital bills in the poor communities that are disproportionately suffering from bad air quality, the communities with oil and gas development facilities in their backyards, near schools and playgrounds, the communities laced with major highways and truck traffic.

The feminist movement will have third, fourth, fifth waves--if we are smart enough not to upend civilization so drastically that human rights go out the window altogether.

I sure do wish we didn't have to get angry. But here's to many more years of being beautiful.






11.11.2014

SMALL NATURE


The autumnal garden: decaying, mildewed, gnarled, wizened. I find it inexplicably touching. And marvelously beautiful. The brush of powder on an ancient, wrinkled cheek, a whisper of perfume that is already almost a memory.


The tinge of intense color on a fraying head. I don't really want to say too much; the wonder of this time of year comes of watching quietly as life recedes. In the Northeast we have had a long, slow fall.


There's comfort in the knowledge that life will return, in its time, and that, in our time, we will have the privilege of witnessing rebirth. But this season does not make me feel the need for comfort.


I find that I am less and less drawn to "spectacular nature"--landscapes on a large scale, whose power I recognize, but whose grandeur does little to move me. I'm not often in spectacular nature--you have to fly there, or drive there, or climb there, or sail there. It is usually out there, over the horizon, beyond an ocean, up on a mountain, beyond my time frame. I'm glad it is there, but it doesn't mean that much to me in my daily life.

I am more drawn to small nature. Everyday nature, in our backyards, or along median strips on highways, or in vacant lots in derelict neighborhoods. Small, but spectacularly beautiful. Nature right in front of us...nature that beckons: just notice, and fall into love. Somehow I think it is small nature that becomes most meaningful to us; small nature that leads the way into cherishing the large world.


It is the nature of nature to die. And it is a beautiful process, all the way through. Will I get to a place where I can witness my own aging as beautiful, all the way through? I think so. I think that place lies somewhere in accepting the small nature of our lives. We are mostly unspectacular, and spectacularly beautiful.  It gives me enormous joy to be alive, a witness, a watcher, my attention caught, unexpectedly, so that I am quietly holding still, holding my breath as the season sighs.

8.26.2014

AS SOON AS THERE IS A GUEST ROOM, DAHLIAS ARRIVE


It is lovely to have friends who will jump in the car for a visit the moment the paint has dried in the guest room.


Frances, Queen of Dahlias, came to see me at my new cabin in the woods, bearing buckets full of her beauties. (I link to her website for all of you who don't know her work as a potter, as she is as truly gifted at the wheel as in her garden.) And my friends Kate and Brian with their 6 month old Elliot joined us for lunch on the terrace and a walk on the beach.




I am happy to share the dahlias with you. (And as well the corner of a postcard bearing a painting called Question of Balance by artist Joe Keiffer, also a marvelously talented person.) I don't think there is much for me to say about dahlias except that it wasn't until I sat myself down in front of a pitcher full of them in the quiet of this early morning, the day after all the company had left, that I really began to examine their curly, kooky ways. Dahlias pose questions of balance, among other of their ways. They bear up under intense scrutiny. And they know it, too.


YES, IT HAS BEEN A WHILE....



And though I haven't been posting about it, life has unspooled with rich variety, great joy, and enormous speed. I have moved, twice, but I am like that employer who looks all the way around the world and finds the perfect candidate for the job (the job being to shelter me) right in my own backyard. So I have settled once again--in quite different ways--in Rhode Island and New York. Moms Clean Air Force is growing strong, thanks to all your support. And I have Other Projects going. So I'll simply share bursts of photos when I can here, until I sort out what goes where, which, when I think of it, is one of the great challenges of life in general, to say nothing of writing.

All this to say, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, and I move more deeply than ever in slow love with this miracle of a world in which we find ourselves.



And I marvel at the ways people find to decorate the beach, knowing the tide will soon wash them all away.

We were here, these clam shells seem to say. And we left you something. We enjoyed making it but we didn't think too much about it; we scooped these shells into the sand, scalloped the edges of a picture that framed a long, wandering, rather intense conversation....

Or so I imagine the scene.

What more can we ask of one another that we move through the world paying attention, taking the time to care, and leaving behind gentle traces of beauty?




5.05.2014

WAVE HILL ALPINE WALL OF JEWELS



I had a hankering this weekend to visit Wave Hill, a beautiful garden in Riverdale, NYC,  in the Bronx. There were a couple of pines I wanted to check out, and I needed a hit of spring bulbs (beyond the beloved daffodils.) A friend had never seen the place, but always wanted to, and that sealed the deal. I packed a few slices of olive oil cake for fortification, as one always needs a snack after a stroll. (This is my favorite new recipe for tea parties, one that I have baked a few too many times this winter--and yes, one always needs stoutness exercises after a snack....)


I found the pine I've been fantasizing about planting, a Lace Bark. It has a beautiful architecture (this one has been well-pruned over the years) and a marvelous mottled pattern on its bark. And the spring ephemera did not disappoint; the beds are a riot of hellebore and tulips and hyacinth and everything else you would expect to see in spring.


But I was surprised by what I consider the shy star of the garden right now. At the back of a clever series of troughs we spotted a stone wall--at least six feet high--covered with miniature jewels: the Alpine Wall, running alongside the glass Alpine House. We got a lesson in planting walls with tiny delights.




In general the hothouses are looking good; there's an enormous therapeutic benefit to breathing the air in a glasshouse. Several beds of large sedum were handsome and elegantly plump. I'm looking forward to more variety on the wall, and in the house--they can only get better.

There is so much to see in this classic garden, high above the Hudson--an excellent perch from which to watch migrating birds, too. The views of the Palisades are worth the trip, but so are the specimen trees, and right now the magnolias are in heavy bloom. This was once a private garden, and its scale is welcoming; many visitors had settled into the surprisingly comfortable wooden armchairs (painted with Benjamin Moore's Mountain Sage--we asked), their newspapers pinned down against the winds, steaming mugs of coffee in hand, basking in spring sun. We got an extra treat when the legendary Marco Polo Stufano wheeled around the corner. He retired as the director of horticulture in 2001, but he is still invited by to "check up on things"--thankfully for all of us who love this garden; we are the beneficiaries of his keen and discerning eye.



5.03.2014

SPRING WOODS





Last year I took my spring walks in the dunes. This year, I find myself spending hours in Rhode Island woods, tromping across bogs, wading across streams, mesmerized by moss and rot.




Just a few pictures here from a recent walk--and perhaps a desire on my part to balance my last screed on air pollution. I want to share joy as well as frustration.

It's been a long, cold, wet spring, and I have loved every minute of it. I know that soon enough we will all be complaining about how hot it is.





NYC 311: HOW TO MAKE REPORTING ON AIR QUALITY AS DIFFICULT AS POSSIBLE


Outside my window, a few buildings regularly spew black soot into the air. All winter, all spring, all throughout the day, on and off, as the boilers for heat and hot water kick in, every day. This happens across the city. The pollution is hugely improved because of NYC's Clean Heat program.

But it sure isn't solved. And here's an additional problem: It is difficult to figure out how to report the issue, as a plain old citizen.

I'm still on hold at 311, after 15 minutes, so I'm writing while I'm waiting. I am trying to log a complaint about pollution from 835 Riverside Drive and its neighbors. Watching an especially alarming spew of soot this morning--one that went on for 20 minutes--I took a series of photographs, then laced on the sneakers, and tracked down the building. I got addresses, names of the owners, the management companies, and the superintendent for two of the buildings, but not 835. I met a resident from that address, told him what was going on, and he said, "Ha, they don't care." 

The super returns my phone call, and says he has no idea what I'm talking about. Never mind that there is a thick residue of soot around all the stacks. He's never seen smoke.

Next, onto 311--online. Expecting this to be a piece of cake--given de Blasio's recent announcement about air quality as a top priority--I go to the drop-down menu of complaints on the home page. Air Quality? Nothing. Air pollution? Nothing. Smokestack pollution? Nothing. Literally nothing on the 311 home page that makes it clear how to report air pollution. There's garbage, and apartments, transit, graffiti, even. But no air pollution.

Next I go Old School, and phone 311. Eventually, I am sent to the person who will report this issue to the Department of Environmental Protection. He takes down the complaint.

All of this phone calling takes 25 minutes. All told, it took 45 minutes to log a complaint. 

I happen to be obsessed with air pollution--it is my job to be, for starters. But what about all the people who hardly have the time or the patience for reporting?

I've learned a great deal about soot and our hearts, and our lungs. Soot contributes to heart disease and stroke. Asthma levels are epidemic in Northern Manhattan. Smaller lungs take a bigger hit.

I know buildings are supposed to be switching from burning filthy #6 heating oil to #4 or #2--and the city overall has enjoyed much cleaner air since this rule went into effect. Except in my neighborhood of Washington Heights. But honestly,  I see soot billowing from smokestacks all over the city. Soot pouring over hospital buildings, and wafting across office windows. When I lived in Harlem, I watched it pour out of buildings all around 125th Street.

It is much harder to get smaller buildings to comply with the new regulations, and landlords claim that they will have to pass the costs onto tenants who can ill afford higher rents. Surely there are ways around this with creative financing mechanisms, if necessary. And then there's the foot-dragging, if not plain old cynical defiance of these rules. After all, most building owners don't live under the pollution.

Here's a mantra: You cannot fix a problem if you cannot find the problem.

For those of us who are trying to be good citizens, trying to protect the quality of our air, NYC needs to update its 311 home page to include air pollution, and make reporting much easier. These are problems that usually cannot be seen from the street. They are seen from our bedroom windows, so to speak. And they leave their dirty residue on our windowsills, and, more alarmingly, in our hearts and lungs. 

We live in a net of interdependence. Let's make all parts strong, so we can all do our parts to clean up New York City air.