The End of a Hiatus

I turned the corner just in time to see the Physicist walking up to the entrance of my gallery and stopped dead in my tracks. Before he could pass through the bronze doors he paused and turned, catching what I’m sure was a look of shock on my face. For a moment we stared right at each other, and in that same moment I traveled back in time three years…

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I was wearing that stunning piece by Anya Caliendo. He was wearing tweed. We were different. 

He was standing in that doorway the first time I saw him, walking into the opening reception for one of our exhibitions. It was a wintry Sunday afternoon in February, and he was wearing a long white-black tweed coat over slim red pants and a black turtleneck. He looked so bloody French (which we was), and therefore was the best thing I’d seen in a longtime. I was wearing  a sequined feathered whimsy on loan from one of Lady Gaga’s milliners. It happened to sit right in the center of my forehead and project a foot into the air. I looked… different.

He was walking out of that doorway when I decided to run after him to give him a piece of paper with my phone number scrawled on it. I was two weeks out of a serious relationship and was in an empowered mood that bordered on reckless.

It was a week later, on Valentine’s Day, when a few doors down from that doorway we went on our first date.

And then a month later, we were in his doorway and he kissed me good-bye. As I walked out into the lion’s roar of March, I was certain that I’d never see him again…

And then, here we were, three years later on a wintry Friday afternoon in January standing in that doorway again.

“I wish you had told me you were coming in,” I said. “I would have made sure my hair looked better.”

The Physicist was visiting a chapter of his old life, on vacation from his new life in eastern Europe. We caught up over coffee in a trattoria behind the gallery.

“You don’t blog any more,” he remarked once we made it past a catch-up on work life and started the transition to personal lives. “Is that because someone’s given you reason not to blog?”

“I’ve been seeing someone, but he’s not the reason I’m not writing. I just haven’t had any time to write. And maybe, these days, I have too much to say.”

“You should make time. I liked reading it. And writing mattered to you.”
He handed me a deck of playing cards — my gift. The face side of each card was a soviet-era “propaganda” poster. I laughed out loud as I shifted through the images and he showed off some of his Russian. img_20170106_164308060

Sometimes it’s hard to attribute any value to the ephemeral relationships that make their way into and out of our lives. I always considered the Physicist as a quasi toxic vignette in my dating life (even if was French and had a six pack.)  But his cameo at the start of 2017 was a valuable one — he reminded me to hold onto all the things that make me ME.

And so, just as the American political leadership is trying to silence the voices of women and minorities, and just as I start down new paths of my own, I return to my soap box.

They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband is back.

Thanks, Physicist.

 

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Mamas, Please Let your Daughters Grow Up to be Cowgirls

“I don’t want to be in the Annie Oakley skit! I want to be in the Calamity Jane skit! Calamity Jane! I want to BE Calamity Jane.”

As a kid in grade school, I was always well-behaved. Comments on my report cards often read like: “Works well with others. Team-player. Needs to pay closer attention to her spelling. ” But in the 4th grade, I gave my teacher a bit of a shock when I threw a tantrum of epic proportions over the end of the year grade musical.

Apparently, I thought Annie Oakley was a sissy because she wore a dress and was an exhibition sharp-shooter. Calamity Jane was a real cowgirl! A frontierswoman. A daredevil… She could out stalk, out draw, out ride any many in Deadwood City. She also had a really tiny waist and a fabulous buck-skin outfit.

I really liked her outfit.

I should mention that I got most of my education on Calamity from the Doris Day and Howard Keel movie, which I must have watched about 1,000 times.

Despite being the class’s Calamity Jane expert, my teacher refused to yield. The Annie Oakley skit needed someone who could “fiddle” and I was the only violinist in my grade who could read music. She appealed to my “take one for the team! We need you!” better side.

It helped that we were singing “Anything You Can Do” — the whole reason why I wanted to be a cowgirl was because only boys were supposed to grow up to be cow-people. I took the battle of the sexes seriously, even in the sandbox. #BornFeminist

My mother had bought me the Calamity Jane musical on VHS because it had been one of her favorite movies, but also because she liked that I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up (so did she… in many ways, she was a kind of frontierswoman, but her Wild West was the wild, untamed, male-dominated land of finance.) Where most kids would want to be doctors or lawyers, teachers or nurses (if you were a girl,) I wanted to heard cattle and shoot cans off fence posts. I took riding lessons and imagined one day moving west to run a dude ranch. Not surprisingly, my favorite Nickelodeon show was “Hey Dude” and I was almost always a cowgirl for Halloween. I have about 5 pairs of cowboy boots, and a stetson. Somethings, you just don’t outgrow…

My parents never discouraged me, which I appreciate. Because wanting to grow up to be a cowgirl was about more than building a home on the range…

1.DustupFlash forward 20 years later, and I’m writing a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, requesting funds to support an exhibition about female identity. The whole exhibition is held together by one large central piece, “Dust-Up” by New York artist Nancy Davidson.

Nancy is witty and whip-smart. We’d meet several months later, after I won the grant, to talk installation. There’s a generation between us, yet as we swapped Calamity Jane stories, it was clear how much a little girl in the 1950s shared with a girl in the 1980s. Every generation will have its glass ceiling, and the cowgirl will always be a symbol for how, with a little gumption and a good straight shot, we can kick up a little dust up and shatter any barrier.

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When I started at my job, my friend Annie (a coincidence) sent me this card. It’s been on my pushpin board, looking at me every day since. 

 

Out of the Bell Jar and into the Mason Jar: Considering a Literary Classic and my Teenage Years

“That’s the most depressing book.”

A tall, swim-suit sporting man shouted at me as he sauntered over to the pool’s towel stand. He clearly cross-fitted. #ThoseAbs. I paused and looked up from the book in question which was Syliva Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

“It is. I clearly have terrible taste in pool-side reads.”

This is one thing I love about California: you don’t need to have a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model body to get attention at the pool (that’s because, thanks to cross-fit, botox, and boob jobs, everyone has a SI swimsuit model body). No, to stand out at the pool, you just need some socially progressive modernist literature.

He winked. Suggested I switch to something like Cosmo, and was off before I had a chance to exchange room numbers (it’s entirely possible that the toddler toddling behind him was, in fact his, but then again, at hotel pools it’s so hard to tell which parent belongs to which child… oh, well.)

My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn't make light reading
My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn’t make light reading

I had committed to reading such heavy literature at the pool side for two simple reasons: 1. I don’t do fluffy chick-lit, and 2. It was research for the gender-identity/femininity exhibition I’m in the process of curating.

For those that haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s one canonical novel, it was to the 1960s what Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to the 1890s. If you’ve never read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and have no idea what I’m talking about, “The Bell Jar” reads a lot like “Catcher in the Rye.” If you’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye,” well, shame on you and your grade school English teacher.

Here’s the mega abbreviated cliff’s notes run down: Esther Greenwood is a successful and attractive 19 year old college girl who lands a great summer internship at a mega lady’s magazine in New York City. But just when the future looks bright and full of possibilities, Esther hits a wall. She breaks down, crashes, and bottoms out.

The story is dark. The writing, superb.

But as much as I was engrossed in and enjoying such wonderfully, honestly crafted prose, I’m glad I didn’t read it was I was 19. I think it would have felt too familiar… even more familiar than it already does…

Digging around my bedroom this weekend, I found a notebook with the jottings of a frustrated young story writer. Most of the scribbling came from ages 16-20, and they all raged with a kind of loneliness and angst. I think I felt that stories about breakdowns and being misunderstood where what you were supposed to be writing about if you wanted to be considered a good writer. Melodrama seemed to be a prerequisite for the Pulitzer or for making the American English classroom curricula. I don’t think any of what I was writing was reflective of what I felt or of my mental state because I never got very far with them (try like, 3 pages, max.) But then again, I don’t really remember how I felt about life or school at 16. I was just kind of doing rather than feeling. Feeling came in college.

But I did find one piece of writing that was troubling to me, because it was the one piece that wasn’t an attempt at fiction. It was an attempted personal essay and the only thing in the book that was typed, with blue-ink edits.

In it, I rattled off my string of accomplishments, concluding with “I was considered mature and well-round, well cultured and intellectual. Yet something was missing.”

The punchline, of course, because I was 18, was that I needed a boyfriend. Reading it, while I admired her self-awareness and vulnerability, I hated that teenage version of myself for defining happiness in terms of being attached to someone else. I couldn’t go to college without being someone’s girlfriend! I wrote. “The fact I had never been kissed seemed small in comparison.”

Flash to Esther:

“Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.

I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” 

This was how I saw the world — a simple division between lovers and loners. Reading on, I saw that 18 year old me hated me for feeling that way too. What a relief. As I got older, while the idea of a companion was and is always intoxicatingly appealing, there was another feeling I had — a fear of being tied down.

Flash back to Esther:

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored around from a fourth of July rocket. “

There’s a lot of vignettes in the “Bell Jar” I could relate to at 19 and even now. Ones that are in many ways more meaningful to me than the ones about men, about the double standards for the sexes, about marriage. Esther has a moment when she compares her moment in life to standing under a fig tree. Each fig represents a possible path — marriage and a family, Olympics, famous writer, famous editor, and so on. But she can only pick one, and once she does, all the other will fall, spoiled. The tree of possibility can get you down — knowing you have so many options but can’t really have them all. I remember sitting alone on my university quad one cold late autumn night while I was grad student, feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and crying a bit at a fear of achieving non of them, of mucking it all up. But unlike Esther, I didn’t let the fear of failure or indecision win. I learned that with a little cunning, and fast feet, you can grab as many fruit as you can before they all go rotten. Maybe you won’t get them all, but you’ll get enough to make a decent pie… sharing optional.

In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.
In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.

One Dress, Two Women: Or One Size Doesn’t Fit All (Actually and Metaphorically)

My best friend Liz and I wear the same dress size. I won’t tell you what that size is, but we wear it well. Take the same slightly fitted shift dress, hand it to each of us and this is what happens…

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Liz and I are physical opposites. My bra is like the equivalent of pasties on her, while her bikini bottom becomes a thong on on me. She has long lean legs, while my lower body turns every dress into a Hevre Leger bandage dress. She’d spend the whole night checking her neckline to make sure “the girls” were in check. I’d probably go braless, but spend most of the night checking the hemline to make sure my butt cheeks were still under wrap.

In short, Liz and I could wear exactly the same dress, but it wouldn’t look like the same dress. We’d wear that same dress entirely differently.

Now, I’m gonna go ahead and make a philosophical and metaphorical leap here…

Just as no two women wear exactly the same dress on the hanger in the exactly the same way, no two women wear the dress of womanhood in exactly the same way. Life presents us with experiences that are ours and ours alone, that shape our individual identities. And yet, as women, there are experiences universal to the Sisterhood.

We’ve all gotten our periods at the most inopportune moment — like on the morning of a big athletic event, or when we’re wearing white, or when we’re on our first sleep-over with the new plus one. We’ve all faced some kind of gender based discrimination at some level — whether it’s in little league (girls can’t pitch!) or in the corporate office (women make $0.70 for every dollar a man makes.) Big girls don’t cry. We’ve all sat on the couch with a friend, and talked trash about the man or woman who most recently broken our heart. Etc.

Some of these shared experiences transcend “Woman” and are universally “human” — like broken hearts, feelings of inadequacy, moments of joy, the euphoria of love, etc, but some are ours and ours alone as women.

While we all wear the dress of womanhood differently, we’ve been growing into it and altering it as our custom piece of couture from the day we were born.

Elinor Burkett was making a similar point in her NYTimes opinion piece “What Makes a Woman?” — it takes a lifetime living as a woman to really BE a woman, because womanhood isn’t just about biology (and that is part of it.) Being a woman is about sets of shared and individual experiences.

About a year and a half ago, I started work on an exhibition about feminine identity. My driving thesis is that femininity, and gender generally, is one big performance art piece — a sort of play within and against socially constructed norms and personas. A battle between self-definition and societal-definition.

I am most certainly a product of a generation raised on the doctrine of inclusivity, to acknowledge and embrace differences. To understand that the world doesn’t exist in simple binaries — straight or gay, black or white, etc. And yet, I am also the product of a society that is built on a system of binaries — us or them, male or female.

Language is surprisingly limited.

In the sandbox on the playground and into the sandbox of my adult life, the Battle of the Sexes was always simple — us vs. them: Girls rule! Boys drool!

So while I’m embracing of the transgender community, and everyone’s right to live as he or she chooses, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that a born man can, with the help of medicine and performance, transition to a woman and get to be a She in the same way that I am She.

The Monday after Burkett’s piece ran in the Times, we had a meeting with women leaders from my community to discuss how we’re partnering on this exhibition. We talked about the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover and Burkett’s op-ed feature. One of the woman shared an apt analogy:

“If your 4 year old child came up to you and said, ‘Today I am an adult!,’ would you accept that at her word? Or would you tell her she still needs some experience? That she has some growing up to do?”

Caitlyn Jenner is a she, but she wears the dress of womanhood differently than a 65-year-old born woman wears it. Ms. Jenner metaphorically walked into the store, tried on the dress, and bought it. I was handed that dress in the womb… and so was every other born woman. We didn’t get to chose the dress. We’ve spent our lives breaking it in, figuring out which angle is the most flattering, where it should be nipped or tucked so it fits like a glove, patched the holes we’ve picked up along the way…

Ms. Jenner can wear the dress too. That’s okay, and welcome to the club! But I’m not sure it fits her yet, not just yet.

Trying on dresses with the gal pals... we're not sure this one fits Caitlyn.. but it will, eventually.
Trying on dresses with the gal pals… we’re not sure this one fits Caitlyn.. but it will, eventually.

When It’s Time to Ask Yourself: Do I want to Try to “Have it All”

About a month ago, my closest male friend from college married the woman that became his better half. They’re a lovely couple, best friends really. They’re also both smart, funny, and driven career people. I admire them.

Marriage is an interesting thing. It changes everything. About a week ago, my friend’s new wife launched a call for help on facebook:

“To my ladies: do you think it is possible to have it all, amazing career and family life? Cause I really don’t see how one or both won’t suffer. Send some tips my way if u have any.”

We’re all her contemporaries, women in our late 20s, so most shrugged but praised their own mothers for somehow managing both a career and motherhood. Someone shared the famously talked about article in the Atlantic. Appropriate. I shared some advice I had heard a few days earlier from the keynote speaker at a luncheon…

Cut to the buffet spread in an upper crust Westchester suburban yacht club. Enter Judge Judy Sheindlin.

Judge Judy had some advice for the young women in the room about “having it all”

Yea, that’s right. THE Judge Judy.

I was at the Her Honor Mentoring 2012 kick-off luncheon. I had just re-met my mentee, a 17-year-old high school senior with a passion for all things art and aspirations to travel in adulthood. My fellow Mentors were the county’s leading businesswomen and government leaders. What was I doing there?

No matter. On to the speech:

“You may hear that you can’t have it all – a career and a family. But I’m living proof that you can have it all… if you learn how to negotiate…

In my day, you only left the house in either a white dress or a pine box. But I’m telling you that you don’t have to get married as a high school senior. Or as a freshman. Or as a sophomore or junior. Maybe, by the time you’re a senior you can start to look around to see if there’s anyone you find appealing. But just remember: you may have your act together when you’re 22, but they, well, they may not have their act together at 55.

So have your career. Set the bar for your career high and go out and achieve it. And then, and then start to look to have that family.”

It was a message I was surprised Judge Judy would share with a room full of college seniors yet to make their way and professional women who had all pursued unique paths in their lifetime. On the subject of “having it all,” it was surprisingly pragmatic. As I chuckled and applauded (I was the soul “ain’t that the truth, sister!” shouter in the room), it occurred to me that I was the youngest mentor.

I’m just starting in my career. Sometimes I feel like a little girl trying on her mother’s shoes…

Unlike the other “dynamic,” successful career women in the room, I was really just starting out.

My mother married my father when she was 17 and he was 21. Two weeks ago they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. If you do the math, that means they were married some 24 years before I was born. Over that quarter century, my mother made a career for herself, allowing her to retire as a top banking executive when I was starting high school.

Since the Atlantic article came out, there seems to have been another resurgence of feminist talk — or maybe it’s more of another re-evaluation of feminism.

Did you catch this Sunday NYTime’s Opinion piece by Alissa Quart? The one about women hiding their pregnancies in the professional world?

What about the brief speech by a new character on the Good Wife?

What about that other op-ed piece about the “Myth of Masculine Decline” in the work place?

I guess I never questioned the idea of “having it all.” I grew up with Judge Judy’s advice as my own game plan because it was a successful path I had watched unfold.

But then my own life began to happen.

I don’t have an answer for my Californian friend. Or for any young woman in our position. Frankly, no one really does.

Here’s what I can say…

The women of our generation are lucky because we have choices. We can choose to be career women. We can choose to be career mothers. We can choose to be both careerwomen and mothers. None of the above paths are easy — none are achieved without sacrificing or without negotiations.

As for me, well, the question of “having it all” isn’t as relevant now as it will be later. But I will say Nicole Sheindlin’s words from that luncheon have stayed with me.

A career is a woman’s insurance policy for independence and self-confidence.

True that, sister.