Sex and Power

Last night I watched The Favourite, a drama based on actual historical occurrences, and one of the movies nominated for best picture in the Oscar race this year.  It was, on the surface, a weird film. The weirdness had to do with: the fantastical costumes of the 17th century, (men in long, curly wigs with red beauty patches on their cheeks); the recreation of Lordly aristocrats (they seemed to enjoy pummeling a bewigged nude man with apples); and an instance of ballroom dancing (whereby a Lord twirled his partner around his waist aka Dancing with the Stars and then proceeded to crawdad-walk the length of the ballroom).  The fascination of the film though was its theme:  the limits of sex to gain power or to comfort.

Every advertiser knows the power of sex:  sex sells.  You may be reading this blog because you saw the word “sex” in the title.

Frankly, when I was a much younger woman, I, like many women, used my sex appeal to influence.

As a twenty-something living on an isolated desert farm, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and writing for a newspaper.  Without any experience or education in journalism, I wrote seven newspaper columns about a city girl’s life on the farm.  When I marched into the newsroom of our local newspaper with my columns in hand, I had on my prettiest dress and most charming smile. The city news desk editor took notice (I could tell).  He may have liked what I wrote, but I also think he was influenced by what he saw.  A week later I got a call telling me the newspaper was interested in publishing my work.

In the movie, The Favourite, Queen Anne of Great Britain is horribly depressed.  She’s lost her husband and endured 17 failed pregnancies. What is a queen’s value in the 1700’s if not to produce an heir (or even, in Great Britain today—consider how overjoyed everyone is that Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, has been reliably fertile).

Queen Anne is easy pickings for the machinations of her assistant, Lady Sarah, and her chamber maid, Abigail, who both vie for Anne’s favor in the hope of gaining power.  They coddle Anne and respond to her every whim, including providing sex.  Ironically, considering Anne’s barren condition, sex appears to be the most effective manipulation.

I was both fascinated and repulsed watching Queen Anne try to comfort herself by eating cake until she vomited into the vomit bucket, or quietly sob as she participated in yet another meaningless sexual experience.

It was like watching someone with an appendix attack try to staunch the pain by riding a roller coaster.  Thrills are not going to solve Anne’s problem.  Sadly, in the film Queen Anne never overcomes her depression, and the aristocratic women prostituting themselves for her end up trapped in that role.  Here’s a movie (or a piece of history) I would gladly rewrite.  In my ending Queen Anne would find something she obviously and desperately needed: a genuine friend.  This person would ask nothing of her—and give nothing to her—except real love.  I’d call it a fairy-tale ending.

Image credit:  The Favourite

The Problem with Home Schooling

I talked with a woman about her adult son who was struggling to get through college—at the age of 27.  Maybe she was talking to me because she knew I had a doctorate in Education and had taught at the college-level for several years. She insisted that her son’s problem had nothing to do with his intelligence or work ethic.

“Then what do you think is wrong?”  I asked her.

“Oh, I just don’t know!” she sighed.  “I guess it could have something to do with home-schooling him.  I mean I gave him independence and let him work on projects at his own pace.  Isn’t that the way it should be?  Encourage children to engage in what interests them for as long as they want?”

“So you’re telling me maybe part of the reason he’s failing his college class is that he isn’t ‘timely’ or ‘efficient?’”  She didn’t respond to my question, perhaps because finding the cause of her son’s college problems didn’t solve them.

I felt her pain, but knew her primary reason for home-schooling had little to do with independence or having her child work at his own pace, and more to do with making sure he had a Christian-based education.  I squelched the urge to lecture her on a significant issue related to home schooling often tucked under the label “socialization.”

Most parents interpret socialization to mean having their children interact with other children so they can learn social skills; but the word has a much broader context.

Socialization also includes peer review, learning how to meet expectations of others whether in a college classroom setting, or with an employer at a job.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to operate independent of other people’s values and time tables.  But life isn’t like that.

Horace Mann in 1838 understood the benefits of having children leave the shelter of their homes to mix with a variety of other children in a less managed and protected environment: the public school classroom.  Mann, considered the father of the American public education system, had a list of life skills he thought children should be taught including: promptness in attendance and the ability to “organize the time accorded.”

In his day though, Mann was most concerned about the disparity between children’s education in the upper and lower classes.  His objective was to see that all children were educated equally in a democratic society.  He believed religious institutions by their very nature, were exclusive, and served only to further segregate and fragment our population.  By advocating that education for American children be universal, nonsectarian (not defined by religious or political groups), and free, Mann hoped to support fairness and the ideas America was founded on.  He fought for the establishment of a tax-supported, public education system for elementary-aged students.

I realize there are several good reasons parents home-school their children.

Some would argue religious and/or moral education should be a part of a child’s everyday educational experience.  Other parents have children who must be schooled in a more protected, familiar environment due to emotional/behavioral issues.  And today, on-line education in the comfort of a child’s own living room is often more convenient, time-saving, and cost-effective.

But with our culture wars, our polarized political spectrum, and attempts made by the current Department of Education to entrench these divisions even deeper by using tax dollars to support sectarian private and for-profit charter schools, public education seems an answer.

Public education is a glue like none other that binds and holds our democracy together, despite our many different religious, ethnic, and cultural identities.

My husband tells a story about riding the school bus in the 1960’s with Ernie (whose blue jeans were often patched), the Arellano kids (whose parents were born in Mexico), and the daughters of the biggest and richest landowner in the valley.  Everyone rode the same bus and went to the same school.  He says it was great.  In our attempts to protect and nurture our children, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they eventually must live in the broader culture.  Horace Mann understood this fact and I for one, am grateful he did.

Surviving Donner Pass

“Chain up!” That’s what the large, electronic message board said at the side of the highway. My eighty-five-year-old mother and I were sitting in my little blue Prius at the base of Donner Pass west of Reno, Nevada. Outside our car, snow blew around a long line of semis parked with us along the highway shoulder. In the distance, dark silhouetted truckers scurried like giant ants throwing chains over their duals, anxious to be on their way.

“Mom, do you know anything about putting chains on tires?”

She looked at me horrified—and I shrugged. It was an old habit, asking mom for help. Back in Reno, I didn’t get any direction from the Les Schwab tire guy about how to do it. When I went to the store counter I noticed his name tag said, “Hunter.”

“I don’t know if we have any chains left, but I’ll check in the back. End of season you know,” Hunter commented.

“Are you sure you want to go over Donner tonight? Looks pretty bad out there,” he glanced out the big front windows at the swirling snow.

Yes we were going over Donner tonight. I thought about how excited mom and I both were to see my daughter and her granddaughter waiting for us on the other side of the mountain in our San Francisco hotel room. Besides, we were staying at the downtown Hyatt Regency in a room that the reservation clerk told me normally went for $923-a-night. Tonight they’d sell me that room at a steal—$250—since I was attending a two-day conference there. If nothing else, we’d brave the weather just to see whether our hotel beds were gold-plated.

“Hunter?” I smiled sweetly, “Would you mind . . . I mean could you put the chains on our tires?”

He was typing out my order and never looked up. “Um, you don’t want to put them on now. Wait until you get to the base of the mountain. They’re easy to hook up (my smile faded). Usually there’s a guy at the bottom of Donner you can pay thirty bucks to chain you up.”

In the car now, peering through the blowing snow, I wondered what we’d do if I couldn’t find the guy Hunter told us about. Then I saw him. He was covered head to foot in a fluorescent yellow snowsuit.

“Turn your tires to the left. FAR LEFT!” the chain-up guy shouted multiple times to me as I tried to hear him through my cracked window. “Now right. FAR RIGHT! (This was easy?—I don’t think so Hunter). Okay,” he tapped my hood, “You young ladies are good to go. Be careful up there! It’ll be dark by the time you get to the pass.”

Here’s what I learned about driving with chains on your tires: it’s like driving on marbles.

Even though chains are supposed to prevent sliding, driving at the top of Donner’s 7,000 foot pass still felt like skidding across ice cubes.

Mom chatted along as I gripped the steering wheel, our speed topping out at a formidable 25-miles-an-hour. Then a strange thing happened. Somewhere past Truckee the snow stopped and the night sky suddenly cleared.

“Oh,” mom gasped, “it’s so beautiful. Look! The moon’s out.”

The road was virtually empty except for our Prius and several dozen semi’s, but the landscape was fairy tale-like, flocked in snow under the pale moonlight. I felt a moment of awe and my fingers loosened on the steering wheel.
The descent on the other side was steep and quick and happily the snow soon turned to rain. I worked to keep our shackled tires to the recommended 35-miles-an-hour until I could bribe someone to take the chains off at a quickie-mart.

“Thanks for this adventure,” mom said smiling at me as we whizzed along the interstate now free of our chains. I realized then it really had been an adventure—and I was glad I could have one more of those with my mom.

A True Idahoan

I was reading about the lineup of candidates running for president in 2020. The Vanity Fair article said that though Beto O’Rourke lived for a time in New York City, he would always be a Texan. I don’t know what that means. Did he “howdy” his way into performances at the Met? Did he walk the streets of Broadway wearing snakeskin boots and a rodeo belt buckle? When Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016 comedian Rosie O’Donnell commented on Trump’s combative style: “He’s from Queen’s. What do you expect?” Apparently, people from the New York borough of Queens like to get into fights.

If an Idahoan ran for president, would it be apparent he’s from Idaho? How would an Idahoan be viewed in the political spotlight?

George Hansen became the unfortunate political face of Idaho for a brief time back in 1979. The country of Iran had just become our enemy and took several Americans working there, hostage. Into this international fray steps Hansen, one of two representatives from Idaho to congress. Hansen said he went to Iran to solve the hostage crisis. I remember seeing news footage of Hansen, a big, beefy man in a dark blue suit and tie, incongruously towering over crowds of angry Persians. The ABC news anchor voiced over this televised footage commenting that Hansen was acting as a lone wolf in Iran and did not have state department support or approval. The clear implication: Idaho Representative George Hansen thought he knew more than the rest of the federal government about how to resolve an international problem.

“No!” I shouted at the television (I was a young woman then and more prone to yell or throw things at the TV). Hansen did not represent me and other Idahoans I knew. Maybe he was a caricature of something Idahoan, people who like to think for themselves and act independently, but it was a cartoon caricature.

If I were to choose a figure in Idaho history to nominate as a representative Idahoan, I’d probably nominate Grace Jordan.

Jordan gained the national spotlight briefly as the wife of former Governor and Senator, Len Jordan. She’s remembered more today for her classic autobiography of homesteading a run-down sheep ranch in Hell’s Canyon during the Great Depression. In that book, Home Below Hell’s Canyon, she chronicles canning peaches, making soap, and teaching her children to read and write. What stands out in her story is her good cheer, stamina, and courage through a difficult time. And though Jordan supported her husband’s political ambitions, she also managed to carve out her own career as a writer and author.

Idaho has changed greatly since George Hansen and Grace Jordan. We now have a much broader demographic including refugees from other countries, transplanted Californians, and an expanding Mexican-American population. I’d be hard-pressed to define a specific kind of Idaho character today. The old slogan about our state: “Idaho is what America was,” is less relevant. Idaho is slowly becoming America: a mishmash of many different cultures, each making their own rich and distinctive contribution. And that’s a good thing.

Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.

Drinking, Stealing, and Lying–Oh My!

Last night I dreamed I stole a can of beer from a gas station convenience store. Let me be clear: I don’t like or drink beer. Maybe I don’t like beer because my father drank enough Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Black Label beer to float a boat in Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is after all, a body of water not far from where I grew up in northern Indiana, and very near the Wisconsin breweries where the beer was fermented.

In my dream what made me feel most guilty was not that I’d stolen a can of beer, but the lie I told after that. I tried to explain away my thievery to the gas station owner by saying I wouldn’t have nabbed the beer if the clerk hadn’t refused to give me the diet Coke I’d purchased. The dream gods decided I shouldn’t get away with my lie. There was a video camera mounted in the corner of the store and in my dream I saw my grainy black and white image (I’m not sure if I dream in color—but the video of me was definitely in black and white) stealthily taking a beer—and a beer only—from the cooler. The next scene in my dream was me walking away, scot-free from my crime, out the store and through an attached garage—where several mechanics were working under my baby blue Prius as it was hoisted in the air. Dreams can be notoriously digressive.

Whence cometh these dreams of such perfidy and mendacious behavior? Does my subconscious know something about me that I don’t? At the core am I a thieving, sneaky, liar? The latest theory about dreams is that they don’t actually mean anything, for which I’m eternally grateful considering all the times I’ve dreamed I was standing in the middle of a high school hallway disturbingly naked. Dreams are supposed to be just random thoughts and imagery pulled from the subconscious and pieced together in a story—or not. Some people can’t make any sense of what they dream.

The thing that intrigues me about this theory is that I dreamed about stealing and lying. Why was stealing and lying floating around in my nighttime neural circuitry? I’ve always believed myself to be fairly honest but when I think about it, how honest am I really? Apparently, the average person lies a couple of times a day without even batting an eyelash. It becomes second nature. Some of this is harmless “white lies” or lies by omission. What people say, or don’t say, to get through their day more smoothly. Other lying is more deliberate and destructive. Some of our dishonesty we dismiss with: “Well, that may be true for you—but it’s not true for me.” Relativity and post-modernism birthed an unintended consequence: it gave us all an excuse for lying.

Probably I dreamed about stealing and lying because I’m a news junkie and though all politicians lie, our current president has taken the practice to new levels. Growing up, parents and teachers, adults around me, could shame me when I told a lie. Today, “alternative truth” seems almost fashionable. In fact, I just read that the New Orleans Saints football fans, since their questionable loss to the Los Angeles Rams, have taken to calling the NFL: “alternative truth” football.

I understand some of the president’s supporters dismiss his lies by calling them “puffery”—as in an airy nothingness that doesn’t mean anything really, like the feathery head of a dandelion that once you blow on it, falls apart in the breeze. But the feathery head of a dandelion is full of seeds, seeds that can take root. In our current political climate, alternative facts (or lies) are distributed into our culture in long chains of disinformation like that old party game: Telephone. Lying itself becomes entrenched and validated. There is something jittery-making when our leadership throws truth out the window like a discarded Big Mac box. We’re littering our landscape, our mind with all this refuse. I long for the clean-up crew. I long for a good, dreamless night. When’s the next election?

DeGrazia, Tony Doerr, and J. R. Simplot

I stood in front of Ted DeGrazia’s painting of Navajo children dancing in a circle, the one that UNICEF picked for their annual Christmas card in 1960, and tried to “feel” the painting. I like art and sometimes art can move me, evoke emotion and stir some ancient memory. I have a reproduction of a watercolor my old boss, Bill Trueba painted that I find absolutely haunting. It’s a picture, a silhouette really, of a man walking city streets at night. Bill brushstrokes loneliness and despair across his canvas in orange, blues and black. For some reason, though DeGrazia is a famous southwest painter and his Navajo children painting-turned-Christmas card sold four million cards, I’ve little attraction for the painting.

Who can understand why some art touches us and not others, or vice-versa? The other evening at a supper party, talk turned to movies likely nominated for the Oscars this year. I said, “I loved watching Roma on Netflix. That’s a beautiful movie.”

Leslie about spit out the water she was drinking. “What? You liked Roma? How could anybody like that movie? What was it about anyways? Does anybody know? I didn’t get it. It just seemed like a lot of family scenes down in Mexico during the 70’s.”

I could have told Leslie that Rotten Tomatoes web site gave Roma a 99% certified “fresh” ranking—but that was too much like telling someone the reason I like banana splits is because everyone else says they’re great–so I said instead:

“Yeah, you’re right Leslie. There’s hardly any plot in Roma. For me it’s more about the setting, the character, the mood of the film. So melancholy: this poor indigenous woman, destined to live her life scrubbing the laundry and tending the children of some other Mexican family, an upper-class, European-looking one.”

Books are another art form I’ve found, that can draw strikingly different reactions depending on the reader. For example, is there an Idaho reader alive, who doesn’t revere Anthony Doerr (our native son) and dote on his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, All the Light We Cannot See? I’m going to speak sacrilege here and confess: this Idahoan was not awed by Doerr’s book. Though I think Doerr writes artfully, his book to me was not a work of art. I’ve considered this could be a case of sour grapes. Why didn’t I write such a book? Probably because I don’t have his talent. But I thought, generally-speaking, All the Light We Cannot See was too calculated in its construction. It was like he wrote today’s formula for a literary best-seller: a blind, handicapped girl and something about the Nazis occupation of Europe during WWII. Why didn’t Tony, being from Idaho, write about . . . well . . . an Idaho potato farmer?

Speaking of Idaho potato farmers, I’ll end this little essay on artistic taste by saying that a couple of years ago I took a tour of a Boise home that once belonged to the potato magnate, J. R. Simplot. One piece of art he’d mounted on his walls struck me more than any of the other artwork I saw in his old home. It was a framed poster of sexy Marilyn Monroe wearing a burlap potato sack, circa 1951. I stood in front of the picture for some moments, much like I did DeGrazia’s painting, waiting and wondering. What I concluded was: though the picture didn’t speak to me, it certainly must have to Simplot. Here was a billboard advertising the values of J. R. Simplot, an agribusiness-man in his prime. Thus, I think art can be as they say, many things to many people. Beauty, and what’s not so beautiful, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.