Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Following First Ladies

I watched Ann Romney give her speech to the delegates at the Republican convention last evening and I was not impressed. Mrs Romney reminded me of all of the confident, pretty blondes with small waists and lipsticked smiles whom, as a high school 'square', I watched from afar, covering envy with disdain. Her acceptance of the adulation of the crowd seemed smug, her choice of topic ('Love'!) inane and her praise of her husband shallow in the extreme. Some of her comments (the noise of five boys on a rainy day as hardship, for example) really annoyed me. I found myself muttering that it must have been the nanny's day off. (As a young mother, I worked from home with two rug rats under my feet and rate myself as a connoisseur of noisy kids.) On the other hand, I felt for the woman, forced by other's expectations to expose herself in, to me, a most unnecessary way. And her chewed lipstick was certainly evidence of very understandable nervousness.

The under-trained social anthropologist in me has always been fascinated by the USA's First Lady cult. I was too young to pay much attention to Maimi Eisenhower but felt the full force of the Jackie (Jaquie?) Kennedy adulation. Soon after her husband's election, many of my contemporaries started to try quite hard to look like Mrs Kennedy and some of them to try to emulate her flair for decorating and entertaining. Her demeanour at her husband's death and funeral made her almost a holy icon to many Americans and her topple from the pedestal when she married Onaissis was fascinating to watch. The whole drama was played out in the media and captivated me to such an extent that I have been a First Lady watcher ever since.

There is a row of books on my shelves that I have collected off and on for years: autobiography - Clinton and Bush, are the latest; memoirs - including J B West's Upstairs atthe White House; biography and analysis like Margaret Truman's First Ladies and The Obamas by Jodi Kantor; all of these and more share a bookcase of similar reading on women's lives, from Elizabeth II to L M Montgomery. The books document the changes in women's lives from the late 19th century through to our present so-called post-women's-lib days.

The evolution of the First Lady is one of the more dramatic threads in the tapestry. I believe that no one much knew or cared what Bess Truman was up to when she retired many evenings with Harry and his briefing notes to a private room. But everyone had an opinion on Hillary Clinton's 'two for the price of one' efforts to untangle the medical insurance mess, even though everyone also had an opinion on her hair and whether or not she should have left Bill after the Lewinsky affair.

This fascination with First Lady clothes and style has moved from the adulation of the Kennedy years through exasperation with Barbara Bush's perceived insouciance  and horrified comment on Nancy Reagan's face sculpture to include Michelle Obama's dilemma - should she appear to be a model of sophisticated (and expensive) black womanhood or signal lack of being impressed with herself by wearing inexpensive off-the-rack garments. It appears to me that the poor woman is bound to lose no matter which way she plays it.

The Americans seem to me to be as deeply conflicted about what they expect of women as they are about what type of state they want. A huge number of American women are working outside the home to keep their families afloat but the ideal American woman seems to remain a mom with a station wagon who drives the kids to soccer and (still) bakes apple pies. Norman Rockwell women in yoga pants and (sometimes) $500.00 sneakers. At the same time as Mrs Kennedy was being almost worshipped for her looks and style she was being castigated for how much money she spent and how little time she spent at the White House. And in 2012 the criticisms sound a lot like they did in 1962. The Michelle sneaker drama. The Ann Romney 'never worked outside the home' comment.

Why are these poor women being subjected to this exquisitely detailed scrutiny and commentary? I have never been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation myself and I am not convinced by some of the analysis of the whole phenomenon. Part of it is, certainly, the pressure put on candidates for public office to reveal and to be validated by their personal lives. There seems to be almost a consensus on the rather stultifying values that politicians are expected to follow. The British royal family gets a similar treatment, but there is a profound difference in that they are only there to be symbols of government, not to govern. Why so many people seized on Bill Clinton's indiscretions as a way to discredit his ability is beyond me. Was all the drama simply a chance for one side of the 'what kind of state do we want' advocates to savage the other one? Or was it really a belief that personal sexual stupidity is a mortal sin? If so, our choice of politicians is more than somewhat limited.

One of the things I have watched increase rapidly over my adult lifetime is the cult of celebrity watching. Although malicious gossip has always been with us, the tabloid type seems to be more and more free with speculation, mostly without a grain of truth, about people whose careers - political, entertainment and socialite - put them in the public eye. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to believe what is written. There are also people who validate themselves by putting their lives out in public, courting people's interest. Politicians, I guess, have to do this to feed the public appetite. But, I very much wish that all of the people who run for political office could and would quit making political capital out of their families.

I am glad I live in Canada where the wife of our Prime Minister can get out and ride her motorcycle from time to time. Although we are not free of prurient curiosity (Margaret Trudeau anyone?), we do not do the First Lady icon thing - one good reason to remain a monarchy, in my mind. On the other hand, when Michelle Obama is marched up onto the stage to give her speech, I am going to be right there watching her. And when she writes her memoir, I am buying it.

So, what does that make me? Part of the problem, I guess.



My Jackie Kennedy phase - 1963. The gloves were amazingly annoying. As was the hairspray.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Through the Fog

I've been away for a while. I'm not at all sure when I put my last post up, even, although I will find out when I upload this to Blogger. I'm not sure, in fact, where the last two months have gone. Only that my life feels very changed, very different, somehow insubstantial, even though I have been busy cleaning and doing a lot of child and animal care.

In June I left my last position on the volunteer board where I had served, we calculated, for the last fifteen years. It was hard, in a way, to let the work go because it has been such a big part of my life for so long. But it was time. I was stale, ready to see the baton bob off down the track in the hands of some of my trusted compatriots. And I was looking forward to having more time for my friends and hobbies.

The transition has been very choppy. My best friend in all the world fell ill and we all put everything on hold to be with her and support her. And she died, and I put everything on hold to help and support her family. And so now I have no more almost-daily phone calls, no invitations to 'run away days', no pick-up Scrabble games. I am bereft of her laughter and her great store of wisdom and fun. And she left me the Hall Minute Book, with all sorts of bits and pieces tucked into it in her own inimitable (and pretty well incomprehensible) shorthand, and there is no phone where I can call her and ask for help. And I can't stop crying.

About the cat. I have spent more time at the vet's office in the last month than in all of my previous life-with-dogs spanning twenty odd years. First wee Callee had to have a check-up and shots, then we took her back to get spayed, then a third time to have her stitches out. I have never seen an animal less impeded by surgery - the day we got her home she jumped three feet in the air to catch a moth and continued lively and busy from then on. She did not much like being a house cat, though, and told us what she thought about being kept inside for a week loudly and often.

For a lot of July we also had the YD's dog, as the YD was paddling the Coppermine River ('easy', she says. !) At one point in her visit, Shammy found a porcupine and ended up with a fine Van Dyke beard of quills. Back to the vet, and the poor thing had to be anaesthetized to get the quills out. We hope she has learned a hard lesson. I took her for a walk when we got her back and she staggered around looking hot and miserable for most of it.

And it was hot. Hot and dry. We are experiencing, as are many parts of North America, the hottest, driestsummer for fifty years. The grass is brown and crunches, small trees and bushes are dead or dying, and does do not seem to have fawns with them. All the streamlets on our property are empty. Luckily the beaver are still maintaining the big marsh at the north-west end of our land. Or, I guess it is lucky as it gave Shammy some nice mud and duck weed in which to immerse herself. She didn't even wince at being hosed down with icy well water, the heat was so intense. Best summer for deer flies in years, though. Shammy did not have a fun visit.

I did have a lovely time with Miss G who was here for almost two weeks in late June while her parents did two back-to-back conferences in Europe. She made herself a dress on my sewing machine and was quite triumphant over her success. This visit will have to last me until the new year, however as Miss G and her parents have now launched themselves toward the west coast where they will stay until Christmas, doing research at UBC. Miss G has acquired her own email address, though, and I am waiting with some impatience to read her take on driving across Canada.

The last straw was my pool. For some years I have had a little swimming pool in the basement - the brand is Endless Pools, and I swim against a current - perfect exercise for someone with arthritis and a tricky knee. We have had trouble with liner leaks, however, and the pool was out of commission for quite a while. JG geared up and got a new liner in and the pool back in working order before Miss G's visit and she loved swimming in it. So did I. Last week it sprang yet another leak, after only five weeks in service, and we had to drain it. We must be doing something wrong when we put it together, we think. Such is my state of mind that I cried about that, too.

I don't have any good ideas about how to finish this off. I think the worst part of grieving is the lack of control you have over yourself. I am not sleeping well, not focusing well, not doing things efficiently. I have a list of projects to do. I have the prospect of a nice vacation coming up late next month. I have a silly cat who loves to sleep in my lap and an equally silly dog who thinks my feet taste great. I am getting daily updates from the travelling family complete with photos. I threw out 22 pounds (just weighed the bag) of useless paper to-day. Wasn't this supposed to be the paperless world? I have laughed and cried with the Olympic athletes this last two weeks.

Now my two week orgy of TV and computer viewing is over for four years. I am telling myself to get on with things. And I will.