Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What Do Nance and Old Faithful Have In Common? Every Once In A While, We've Gotta Blow.

This may very well be the result of some Serious Hormone Influence, or it may be the Aftermath of Post-Essay Grading Stress, but I'm just a wee bit grumpy and in need of a catharsis. I'm going to see if a bit of a brain enema can't "mellow me out," as we used to say back in the old days.

Just as a sort of postscript to my previous post regarding ladies who dine out, here's another little irritant that frosts my cupcakes. My sister and I were recently on what has now become our Annual Mom Haul, wherein we transport our mother across state lines to visit her sisters in Pennsylvania (state nickname "Home of Patsy's Relatives"), and we stopped this time to transfer custody of Patsy to her sister Shirley at a Denny's conveniently located halfway between Cleveland and Gettysburg. We all trooped in and had a little lunch before resuming our journeys homeward. While waiting for our food, I glanced around and saw a woman pull a huge emery board out of her purse which was sitting on the table. This alone was enough to horrify me. Like many women, I often have no choice but to put my purse on any number of unsanitary surfaces in any given week. There is, therefore, no freaking way I am ever putting it on the same surface from which I plan to eat or drink. No way. Then, of course, she starts to FILE HER NAILS VIGOROUSLY AT THE TABLE. IN A PUBLIC RESTAURANT.

All right. Yes. It is only a Denny's. I am aware. But it is still a public place and a restaurant. This is when I think it should be permissible for me to make a Citizen's Arrest. Immediately.

Oh, but it gets even worse.

She then, for some reason, proceeded to take out, from the depths of her enormous bag, a smaller purse. It was a fish-scale sequined clutch purse with a chain strap. It was all I could do not to A)weep, and B)call the police immediately. I mean, come ON. She was wearing a tee shirt and a hoodie. In a Denny's. Off of the Interstate.
Does anyone feel my pain? Anyone? It was at that moment that I felt very keenly the fact that Denny's does not serve alcohol.

The second thing I want to vent about is this news item that I heard about last night. No doubt many misguided young women are hopeful and excited about it. They are, alas, young and that accounts for their...misguided-ness. Just because researchers think that they may one day soon develop a birth control pill for men does not mean that women are off the hook! As the mother of two young men in their twenties, I know of what I speak. Here is a typical conversation between me and either of my sons regarding him taking any daily medication necessary for any aspect of his wellness:

Me: Hey, did you take your pill today?
Him: Huh?
Me: Your pill. Did you take it?
Him: Umm....I think so.
Me: Well, you have to! It's important. The doctor said you have to take it, and the same time every day.
Him: Mom! I know!
Me: But you don't even know if you took it or not.
Him: Jesus! Let me go count!
Me: Oh. My. God. How ridiculous.
Him: (distant) Shit!
Me: What!? What happened?
Him: They fell in the sink and some went down the drain. I hope you're happy now.

And trust me: the threat of an impending pregnancy will add little incentive. Guys just don't think that far in advance, especially if there is still female birth control as an option. The only way a male birth control pill will work is if they put something in it to make his penis bigger. Then they'll take it.

And you know I'm right.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Phenomenon Of Ladies Who Lunch

Allow me to say at the outset that I love being a woman. I love the fact that I am talky, feely, complex, and actually do need five pairs of black shoes because yes, they are all totally different and no, I cannot wear those black shoes with that dress, how stupid.

Actually, I just went and counted and I have nine pairs. But I digress.

My point--and I do have one--is that I embrace my sex. I like being female and I wouldn't have it any other way. But there is one area where women in general need to get it under control, and that is when they're out lunching together and the bill comes.

It's absolutely horrific the convoluted calculating and dissection that occurs. It's like listening to the most devious and boring word problems ever concocted by wicked Dickensian headmasters!

"Now, Beora, you had the small dinner salad, but you also had part of my crabcakes. If the crabcakes were $8.50 for three of them and you had one, how much would that be? Don't forget that I'm also leaving a 15% tip. Oh, wait. I had the olives out of your salad. Do you think 75 cents is fair for them? I'll tell you what. Just take the tax off and we'll call it even." This is the only time when many women will willingly resort to math! Without calculators!

Rick and I were dining at The Cheesecake Factory (aka The Coldest Restaurant Ever) the other night and there was a table crowded with women next to us. I knew in my heart it was Perfect Blog Fodder, so I was very careful to discreetly observe and eavesdrop. That poor waitress. As the bills came and were passed around, the very very expertly coiffed woman in the linen cropped pants and French manicure called her over. (I stole a look at her plate: she ate only the chicken out of her sandwich and most of her fries. I also think the avocado didn't make the cut.) The waitress leaned over. "We," and the woman elegantly indicated her friend across the table in a sort of Royal Wave motion, "were wondering. Could you possibly re-do our checks and split the avocado spring roll appetizer between them? Thanks so much," she said, before the waitress had even indicated that she would.

Please. The cost of this woman's moisturizer is probably thirty times what those effing spring rolls would have set her back. I almost leaned over and said to the waitress, "Miss, you look very tired. Please don't put yourself to so much trouble for something so trivial. Put the cost of that appetizer on my bill and these ladies may consider it my treat." But I knew it wouldn't come out that way.

What is it about us that makes so many of us go through this Tortuous Ordeal? Why must we struggle so? If we are the takers, do we fear being under obligation to a possible Mean Girl who will hold it over us or snark about it behind our backs later? "You know, Beora snarfed down one of my crabcakes and I never saw a penny for them. I ate a few of her olives, but really--what's that, like 75 cents? That's so typical of her. Her kids are the same way; they come over all the time but never ask my kids over there."

Or, if we're the givers, do we worry that we'll be taken advantage of time and time again and seen as a Goodtime Girl? "Don't worry if you don't have enough money! Just come along anyway! Velma will cover any part of the bill that's left after we all 'chip in' nudge nudge wink wink. "

Aren't these women we're lunching with supposed to be our friends? Can't we just "do lunch" the way guys do and simply order food, eat it, then everyone toss money at the bill when it comes, knowing it will all even out at some eventual point sometime in the future? Isn't there a trust factor here? More importantly, even, why does math have to get all involved? Why must we Woman It Up?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tales From The Front: Two Girls, A Tongue, And A Pun

Trying to get the final edition of the literary magazine out before we all lose our sanity has proven to be a major challenge for my staff and me. Both my poetry and fiction editors are seniors; they are inundated with pretty heady stuff this time of year: college scholarships, bigass papers, prom, the musical, and naturally, each is also an officer in at least one other school organization. Beth and Michelle also work at least 15 hours a week at an outside job, take all honors and Advanced Placement courses, and as a result of all this, are chronically sleep-deprived.

For the past couple of weeks, we've been stealing periods here and there and time after school to read submissions, edit, type, and do the graphics for what will be our last issue. I ply them with chocolate and sneak them coffee from the lounge when their energy shows signs of flagging.
Recently, Michelle was reading a piece of short fiction and crabbing about the typos and spelling. "Why is this so hard?" she moaned. She picked up my red pen and circled the word "tong" in the story. "Tongue!" she yelled. "Tongue! Not tong!" Angrily above the misspelled word, she wrote t-o-u-n-g-e.
"Er, Michelle?" I said. "It's t-o-n-g-u-e."
Michelle looked at me, stunned. Then she folded her arms on my desk and buried her face in them. From the depths I heard a muffled voice, "Oh God. Maybe I should take a writing course before I sign up for this gig."

On Friday, Beth sat down at my computer to do the page layouts. Suddenly, she was overcome with a fit of sneezing. Michelle and I blessed her a few times, but soon it became not only tedious, but pointless. She was going to sneeze, that's all there was to it, and we had work to do. Finally, I said, "Geeze, Beth! What the heck?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. D.," she said. "I have some kind of allergies. I'm not sick."
"Well, you're really pissing us off," Michelle pointed out. "We have a crapload of work to do, and you're no fun."
"Honestly," I agreed. "It's very selfish. Here we are, stuck on a Friday with all this junk to read and edit, getting punchy, and you're sneezing for apparently no reason."
"It happens every time I go into a building," Beth said. "When I'm outside, I'm fine."
"What the heck kind of dumb allergy is that?" Michelle sneered.
"Apparently, Beth has an edifice complex," I said triumphantly, and high-fived my appreciative staff.

I'm gonna miss these girls.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Somewhere In Here There's A Great Pun On The Staff Of Life Or Teaching Being My Bread And Butter

So, I'm getting ready to give my daily quiz in 5th period sophomore Honors class. They're so well-trained; all of them already have everything off their desks except the requisite half-sheet of paper and either a pen or a pencil. I scan the room and note their eager, anticipatory faces. They've all read the three assigned chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, or at least if they haven't, one or two of them have downloaded the chapter summaries from and are hoping to maybe get a couple of the basic plot questions right. I'm just about to read the first question aloud when something odd catches my eye.

I turn to my right and look at the desktop of Ben, my little Alternative Rocker Boy. I absolutely love Ben, who is emo-skinny, has gorgeous red hair in a very stylish straggly cut, plays drums and bass guitar in two bands, and says, "thank you" every time I hand him a test, a graded paper, a quiz, or a worksheet. He also has dimples and very cool glasses and the kind of ad-agency printing for handwriting that you just know means he is creative and mature for his age and will probably end up having an awesome job like managing a charity co-op art gallery for musicians in SoHo with Bono, Madonna, and that one guy who started Live Aid on its board of directors. (Crap! Who the hell is that guy?)

Anyway, back to Ben and the thing that catches my eye. He has something on his desk. This is highly unusual because Ben, for all his individuality, is not a rulebreaker. I stare at it quizzically. is half a loaf of Italian bread. On his desk. Just sitting there. Not even sliced or anything. So, I just sort of look at it, thinking for a few moments. And Ben is just patiently waiting for me to begin the quiz, but everyone else has followed my stare and is also looking at The Bread. So, I smile a very small smile, and Ben smiles back at me--a lovely, winning, gorgeous Ben-smile.

"Expecting a flock of ducks?" I inquire.

Ben looks at me, very serious. He says, "No." Sadly, all of them are used to my frequent bouts of random attempts at not only humor, but odd ways to introduce discussion topics. Doubtless, he thought this could be either.

I press on. "Perhaps a butter delivery, then?"

Ben tilts his head, rather like a dog whose owner has given it an unfamiliar command. Again, the smile. "No."

(The rest of the class, it should be noted, followed this exchange visually as if it were a ping-pong match. At this point, they all turned to me.)

But I'm in agony:

What now? Is Ben toying with me? Does he really not know what I'm talking about? Can I risk another one-liner here, or am I pushing it? The totally cool thing, of course, is to simply drop it and give the quiz. That way, my cool is intact and so is Ben's. But... But... I have to know the story behind that damned Bread!

I gave the quiz.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

If Amazon Thinks I'm Gay, What About Netflix?

When I discovered, I thought I had found the perfect relationship. I could sit in my little office in my comfy rolly chair and browse books, books, books to my heart's content. Then, I could order whatever of these lovely books that I wanted--in hardback!--simply by clicking with my mouse. Moreover, my cute UPS guy with the dark hair and lovely tan skin would bring them right to my door!
Naturally, a bill would eventually come, but there was FREE SHIPPING, and who could possibly bitch about that? It was a wonderful, idyllic time.

And then, I ordered two books that changed everything. They were: Tipping the Velvet by Sara Waters and Truly Wilde by Joan Schenkar. The first one was a Dickensian style novel about a girl who works in a fishmonger's house and meets a male impersonator. The second was a biography of Oscar Wilde's niece. I had read reviews of them both, read excerpts of both, and found them well-written and engaging. I didn't know it then, but the technobots at Amazon were clicking and clacking away at my destiny.

The next time I signed in to Amazon, the little banner greeted me, telling me they had recommendations for me, as usual. And what recommendations they were! I could tell by the titles of some of them that they were, as Amazon tags them, definitely lesbian literature, lesbian erotica, and lesbian fiction. All intermixed among my Salem Witch trial book recommendations, classic literature recommendations, nonfiction recommendations, history (mainly Lincoln) recommendations, and my husband's construction and computer book recommendations (Rick uses my Amazon account). Clearly, Amazon and I were having relationship issues. thought I was a lesbian. Or, a lesbian witch carpenter. With a history fixation.

This makes me start wondering about Netflix. Which Rick and I just signed up for about a month or so ago, once he realized that I was going through serious House and Project Runway withdrawal. We sat down together and, since I am the one who is most savvy and current with movies, I started adding movies to our "queue" (which is a fancy schmancy Netflix word for "waiting list." BFD.) We noticed right away an alarming preponderance of George Clooney movies at the top of said queue. Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck are like, in the first 5 movies we've rented. So, I'm wondering...Is Netflix going to make assumptions about me based upon what looks like an obsession for George Clooney? Am I going to be inundated with recommendations for the Oceans numerical series? Will I be hounded with offers to queue up the Facts of Life television series? So, I checked in with my Netflix account just to see how judgy it was.

Oh, Netflix. How I love you so!

Netflix doesn't base our relationship on just three flings with George Clooney! NO! It takes into consideration my other ratings, my entire queue, even my moods. It knows my preference for Daniel Day-Lewis and big, epic costume dramas. It even seems to know that it was Rick and not I that queued up Walk the Line and Falling Down, and Netflix isn't holding that against me! It still remembers that we watched and loved Once, and it recommends A Passage to India and Benny and Joon. It remembers that I loved Fast Times at Ridgemont High and laughingly recommends Sixteen Candles. Netflix knows that I'm an 80s girl! Does Netflix remind me that Elizabeth: The Golden Age should soon be in my queue? It is to laugh!

Amazon and I--we have some issues to work out. It's hard to get all my books in hardcover now, and I don't like having to trust someone else. I like sticking with what I know. I'll get it together. But Netflix--it's still got the bloom of a new, exciting relationship. And it's so easy and carefree! We completely understand each other. I think this might last a long, long time.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

My Latest Obsession: I Stand Up For Mary Lincoln

"Certainly ill luck presided at my birth--certainly it has been a faithful attendant." --fragment in a letter from Mary Lincoln, November 1869

You would have to look hard in America's history to find a woman more roundly condemned and more valiantly championed, both in her own time and more than a hundred years later, than Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. She was, in many cases, a woman before her time, intensely interested in politics and highly educated, well-versed in banking and real estate, and no stranger to international travel and the ways of European society. She was fluent in French, adept in all social situations when she chose to be, and so charming that her brother-in-law once remarked that she could "make a bishop forget his prayers." True, her moods could be mercurial, but that was to be expected for the "middle child" whose mother died in childbirth when Mary was only 6 1/2.

Her father remarried quickly, too, bringing a cold, distant woman into the house who immediately began on a second family of nine more children. Mary left for boarding school as soon as possible, where she excelled. Soon, she was able to escape permanently to Springfield, Illinois, to her sister's house, where she met and--against her sister's wishes--married Abraham Lincoln. It had not been an easy engagement, however; at one point, they had a 6 month estrangement which proved almost suicidal for Abraham. Due to the intervention of well-meaning friends, they had several meetings and the engagement was salvaged. One year later, their first son Robert was born. Three years later, Edward, who they called "Eddie" was born.

Mary, who believed that homemaking and mothering were the most noble of callings, set about making her home a haven for her children and her often absent husband, whose job took him away from his family. Nineteenth-century housekeeping was brutally hard and nonstop. And the lack of sanitation and refrigeration made illness a constant companion and threat. In 1849, Mary lost both her beloved father, for whom her eldest was named, and her grandmother. At the beginning of the following year, in February, her beloved son Eddie died of "consumption". And Mary went into paroxysms of mourning. In these Victorian times, women were expected to bear up under grief, to accept it as God's will and to be strong. Mary Lincoln never grieved that way, and she was seen as extreme and unchristian for it. She had watched her child of only four years old waste away from sickness for fifty-two days and then die. She could not bear it.

Ten months later, Willie was born. And three years later, Thomas "Tad" Lincoln joined the family. And with Mary's help and ambition, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House in 1861 with the country torn asunder and gave his inaugural address with Federal snipers posted on the top of key buildings in Washington in case any Southern "secesh" should try his luck at taking out the new President.

Already the gossips and newspapers were vilifying First Lady Mary Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky. They speculated about her loyalties. The North accused her of espionage for her rebel family; the South accused her of being a traitor. She read the papers, heard the epithets being thrown at her husband: black ape, tyrant, imbecile, gorilla. She heard of death threats against her husband as well as plots to kidnap him. Her own carriage was tampered with, causing an accident. In 1862, Tad and Willie became gravely ill with typhoid, and Willie died. The day he was buried, a tornado swept through Washington. Mary was overcome with grief, and for three weeks could not move from her bed. The President harbored fears that she had become deranged. Tad, still sickly, seemed unable to regain his health, and the country was locked in a bloody civil war.

Mary had lost two half-brothers to the Civil War, but she dared not mourn them; they fought on the Confederate side. At this time, a new wave of pseudo-science was sweeping the globe: Spiritualism. Mediums claimed they could bridge the chasm between the spirit world and the living. Mary, bereft of her two darlings and overcome with grief, began to attend seances. She convinced her husband to allow a medium to come to the White House. He humored her, and a long interest in Spiritualism followed.

On April 6 or 7 of 1865, Abraham Lincoln confided to his wife that he had an unsettling dream: he had been awakened by the sound of weeping. Wandering through the White House, he came to the East Room where he saw a catafalque on which a coffin rested with a body inside. He asked a nearby soldier, "Who is dead in the White House?" One answered, "The President." On April 14, 1865, Mary Lincoln witnessed the assassination of her husband in the chair next to her.

On May 23, Mary, dressed in the heavy black mourning that she would never, ever give up, finally left the White House. There was no provision made for her residence at the time; no money appropriated. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer by profession, had died without a will. She and her sons lived in Chicago, for Mary Lincoln could not bear to return to Springfield, a city rife with memories of her beloved husband and their young family's early years together. They lived cheaply, and Mary worried constantly about money. She petitioned Congress for a widow's pension, but her reputation in Washington was sullied by last-days looting of the White House by souvenir hunters and petty thieves. The White House was open to the public in those days, and anything not nailed down or under the watchful eyes of guards was easy pickings. China, silver, draperies, art, even furnishings had disappeared after Lincoln's death. And an astonishing number of Washingtonians blamed Mary Lincoln. Even after some things showed up in private homes or in pawnshops, she was still called a common thief among social circles and in the newspapers.

In 1868, Mary felt defeated. She decided to leave for Europe with Tad. She was in ill health, persecuted, a pariah in her own country, a country that owed its very existence to her husband, the Martyred President. She left for Europe, hoping to take the cure in some of its most recommended health spots. Tad, under the tutelage of a scholar, began to improve in his studies, but soon became homesick after so much continental wandering. In 1871, they boarded ship, but Tad, ever susceptible to illness, caught a cold which developed into pleurisy. Back in Chicago, he worsened and in July, Mary lost her third son. This time, she was able to attend his funeral, but her only remaining child, the distant and very Victorian Robert, left inexplicably less than two weeks later for a Colorado vacation. Mary was left alone.

That fall, the Chicago fire broke out. Fighting smoke and flames, Mary escaped with a few items, losing many valuable letters, papers, and mementos of her husband. She spent the night and part of the next day along the shore of Lake Michigan. After that, she became a continental nomad, wandering Europe and North America, seeking mediums to help her make contact with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and her dead darling boys. She was especially pleased with the picture made by a spiritualist photographer which showed the spirit of her husband hovering behind her, his hands placed protectively upon her shoulders. It would prove to be the last photograph ever taken of her.

In May of 1875, her son Robert had had enough. His mother's constant mood changes, her odd behavior, her shopping sprees and her buying mania were not only embarrassing to him, but were worrisome. No longer could she be termed "eccentric"; she was, since his father's death, literally insane. He convened, secretly, a half-dozen doctors, the majority of whom had never even seen, let alone examined his mother, and presented his evidence. They wholeheartedly agreed: She needed to be confined to protect not only herself but her assets. She might spend herself into the poorhouse. Robert sent a family friend and a guard to collect his mother, who had no choice but to acquiesce with humiliation. The trial was a jury trial, and Mary Lincoln was never called to speak on her own behalf. Indeed, she had no idea until she got there and was told so that Robert was the one who initiated the proceedings. When it was all over, she was declared insane, and was ordered confined to Bellevue Place, a private asylum.

Her stay there was short because Mary Lincoln began an immediate campaign for her release, much to her son's chagrin and dismay. She wrote letters, comported herself admirably, and did not require any restraint or strong medications. She even involved the newspapers, her most hated nemeses, inviting a reporter to visit her at Bellevue and write about his impressions. It was sensational. Entering Bellevue on May 20, she was released on September 11 to the care of her sister Elizabeth in Springfield. By June of the following year, she was declared in court to be "restored to reason." Robert, it must be noted, strongly objected to both the release and to her declaration of full sanity. He did so, however, out of concern for her well-being both times, he continued to reiterate. There is not definitive evidence to the contrary. But Mary Lincoln never forgave him and, at one point, planned to shoot him with a pistol packed away in one of her trunks.

As was her usual habit, Mary Lincoln left for Europe after this battle. But she was forced by continued ill health and loneliness to return in 1880, unable to care for herself. She had fallen and broken her back, weighed now only about 100 pounds, and was nearly blind, a condition actually caused by her excessive weeping. She was unable to bear most light and spent the remaining two years in a darkened room at her sister's home, one of four that she paid rent for. One was a sitting room, one for her bedroom, and two for her sixty-four trunks of possessions, whose combined weight was four tons and caused much concern as to whether the structure of the house could bear it. Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, of a stroke. She would have loved her funeral, held three days later. It was full of flowers and music; the mayor declared it a holiday; thousands lined the streets. Even the newspapers printed a thick black mourning band on their mastheads.

And at the end of it all, Mary Lincoln was laid to rest with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and the rest of her family.
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