Strong Words For Strong Women

A couple of years back, I started referring to my friend Rebecca Brown as “the divine Ms Brown” (as in “the latest piece by the divine Ms Brown…”). Not that I have any desire to worship her – or anyone or anything else for that matter – but her writing definitely touches on the transcendent. The word fit.

robin_seattlemetThen I realized that another friend, contemporary-art curator Robin Held, deserved a better adjective than all the “amazings” and “wonderfuls” constantly used for her. I started thinking of her as “the iconic Ms Held.” That fit too.

I could always stick with the usual words, of course. But when “awesome” is used for everything from the latest video game to a new flavor of ice-cream, it becomes meaningless. There’s no real awe there, just as there’s no real wonder in “wonderful.”

“Amazing” is popular, but seems to indicate surprise that any woman could be strong and intelligent and outspoken.

“Incredible” begs the question.

And as for “courageous” – if it takes courage for a woman to speak her mind and be active in the world (at least in the West), then we’re in worse trouble than I thought.

There’s a whole range of monikers we could use instead of the standard wonderfuls and awesomes and amazings.  I began jotting them down, and found that I could put names of women I know to every one of them. I’m pretty sure you can do the same:

— the badass Ms X

— the incomparable Ms Y

— the unstoppable Ms Z

— the outrageous Ms A

— the formidable Ms B

— the dynamite Ms C

— the fearless Ms D

— the fearsome Ms E

— the notorious Ms F

— the path-breaking Ms G

— the ferocious Ms H

— the inimitable Ms I

— the indomitable Ms J

— the brilliant Ms K

— the magnificent Ms L

— the dynamic Ms M

— the genius known as Ms N

— the epic Ms O

— the mind-blowing Ms P

and this isn’t even the whole of the alphabet.

Some of these tags are stronger, some less so, but you get the idea: We need better accolades for strong, intelligent women. And quit with the weak female-only ones.

Words like “gutsy” don’t cut it — who ever describes a man they admire as gutsy?  “Ballsy?” — oh puh-lease…  “Incredible”? — really, you find it hard to credit?  “Innovative?” — aren’t we all?

So let’s innovate.  No matter what gender you are, feel free to pitch in and share better suggestions in the comments.  And start using them. Liberally.

Think big, think strong, and celebrate strong women with strong language!

A Hard Choice? Really?

The right-wing is trying like hell to do a number on the minds of American women. You know that thing about abortion being the hardest choice a woman will ever have to make, or the one she most regrets? Bullshit.

90_percentIn fact 90% of all American women who’ve had an abortion are either glad or simply relieved they did (click here for the research.)  And for every woman I know who’s had an abortion (that’s half the women I know, and quite possibly half the women you know too), a safe, routine, minimally invasive procedure was far from the hardest decision of their lives. For many, like me, it was the simple, sane choice. The only hard part was finding the money to pay for it.

You want a hard decision? What about marriage? Or divorce? Taking on a mortgage? Choosing a cancer treatment? Allowing a terminally ill spouse to die with dignity? What about the multitude of hard decisions we all have to make in the course of our lives, men and women?

But right-wingers don’t think women capable of rational decision-making at all.  It’s apparently especially hard for us delicate souls, which is presumably why they think we agonize over it and decide wrong.  How very Victorian of them. They’re apparently white knights in shining armor, out to save every woman from her own distressingly poor judgment.  In their ideal world, no woman would be “allowed” to make a decision without prior permission from the Republican caucus.  Certainly not any woman with an income under a million a year.

But it’s not our decision-making that stinks, it’s theirs.  Because not only is it morally and ethically bankrupt, it’s full of lies — deliberate lies.

— Like Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina pretending to be near tears as she talked about watching a video that didn’t exist and never had.

— Or the head of the House Oversight Committee trying to play gotcha with the head of Planned Parenthood by using a bogus chart created by an anti-abortion group.

— Or abortion opponents pretending there’s no such thing as an embryo.  They’d have us think that every abortion is that of a full-term viable fetus, when none are.  The vast majority of abortions are embryonic, medically defined as up to eight weeks from conception.  But hey, you can’t see an embryo on a sonogram, let alone wave photographs of it in an attempt to guilt-trip women.  So lie, baby, lie — and screw the lives you mess up in the process.

It’s clear by now that nobody cares about facts in the fantasy world of today’s Republicans.  Real facts, that is, as opposed to imaginary ones.

Those of us who live in the real world know for a fact that imaginary facts are dangerous.  Remember those non-existent weapons of mass destruction used as the reason to invade Iraq?  Or those non-existent scientists asserting with great authority that there was no such thing as climate change?

Forget hard decisions for the moment.  Here’s an easy one:  A year from now, do all you can to make sure we send this gang of women-hating, war-mongering, planet-polluting liars back to whatever slime pit they crawled out of.

Who’s Really Pro-Life?

How have we allowed this to happen? How have we allowed anti-abortion activists to call themselves pro-life? How have we not called them out, loud and clear, on this Orwellian double-speak?

Many of those against abortion are the same right-wingers who want to nuke the hell out of Iran or any other designated enemy of the day; who support the death penalty no matter how many death-row inmates have been proven innocent; who obstruct all attempts at gun control even when kindergarten kids are massacred; who see nothing wrong about cops shooting unarmed black men in the back. But a single fertilized egg inside a woman’s uterus? Suddenly, that’s sacred.

They’re not pro-life. I am. And Planned Parenthood is. And NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, is. Because nobody here is advocating for abortion per se; what we’re for is the right to have one. For motherhood to be a matter of choice, not compulsion. And for a child’s right to come into the world wanted and welcomed. What we’re for, in short, is life. Not life in the abstract, but real life, as it is lived.

What we’re for is not more but fewer abortions. And the way to achieve that is clear: sex education in schools, and freely available contraception for women. Yet the anti-abortion crowd is against both. Which means that all they ensure is that there’ll be more abortions.

no-more-coat-hangersThe historical record is clear: women have always aborted pregnancies, whether with herbs, with knitting needles, or with wire coat-hangers in back-street abortions such as the one that nearly killed a close friend when I was a student. So now that abortion is safe – a minor medical procedure – the anti-abortion crowd are doing everything they can to make it dangerous again: to make the woman pay for having the gall to be sexual, and to make the unwanted child pay too.

If a woman chooses to carry a pregnancy to term and then give the child up for adoption, I totally support her choice. But it is cruel and punitive to force her to do so. It is downright obscene to insist that a rape victim carry her rapist’s child. And to make a woman give birth to a severely disabled child doomed to die in pain within hours, weeks, or months is nothing less than torture, of both mother and child.

This isn’t about the Bible or the Quran. It’s about punishment, about a basic attitude of life negation, of harshness and joylessness. It isn’t pro-life; it’s anti-life.

If its advocates weren’t causing so much misery and suffering, I might even find it in myself to feel sorry for them.

My Abortion

Planned_Parenthood_busNearly every woman I know has either had an abortion or helped another woman get one. I know this because as the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood ramps up, I’ve been asking. Old and young, black and white and brown, married and single, straight and gay, religious and irreligious – women have been telling me their abortion stories.

But I think we need to tell them publicly too. To break the weird veil of shame and secrecy that still hangs over the decision, even when abortion is legal. To stand up and say “Yes, sure, I had one.”

So here’s the story of mine.

I was 20 years old – young and dumb, as every 20-year-old has every right to be. Not that dumb, though, since I was using a diaphragm thanks to the Marie Stopes clinic, the one place in the whole of England at the time that would provide contraception to an unmarried 17-year-old.  And the diaphragm worked fine until my first summer in Jerusalem, when it didn’t. Not because of any fault in the device, but because I hadn’t put it in. Carried away, late in my menstrual cycle, I’d said “Come on, it’s okay.” And three weeks later, realized it wasn’t.

There was no doubt in my mind what I needed to do. The guy I was with was a no-goodnik, the result of a bad case of delayed teenage rebellion on my part. I had an undergraduate degree in psychology but no idea what I wanted to do next, only that since I could barely handle myself, no way could I handle a baby. But abortion was still illegal in Israel. And I was dead broke.

I found my way to the Jerusalem branch of an aid organization for Brits – a single room with a single occupant, who took one look at me as I stood miserably in the doorway and before I could open my mouth said “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

I nodded yes.

“And you need an abortion.”

Another nod.

“And you don‘t know where to go.”

Again, a nod.

“And you don’t have any money.”

At the final nod, she said “Sit down,” and made three phone calls: one for an appointment with a leading gynecologist who didn’t believe in forcing women to have children; one to her HQ to get approval for a loan to pay his fee; and one to a publishing house to get me a job as a copy-editor so that I could pay back the loan.

We have been firm friends ever since.

The procedure itself was a non-event. (The doctor gave me a prescription for the pill and said he hoped to never see me again, though in fact he did, but not with me as the patient – he ran a maternity clinic, and was the obstetrician for three of my friends as I helped with their labor.) I parted ways with the no-goodnik, and set about the never-ending process of growing up.

And now, almost half a century later? No regrets. Quite the contrary, since I suspect this was the one rational decision I made the whole of that year. In short: thank god I had an abortion.

The A-Words

a-word2They’re the two fall-back adjectives of the moment: awesome and amazing. I think of them as the new A-words. And if the world were full of people in a state of awe and amazement, I’d be fine with them. But it’s not.

I risk being totally ungracious here, since both words have been used on occasion with reference to me. I am grateful for the compliments, but really, I hardly inspire awe – at least I hope I don’t, since awe is as much terror as exhilaration. And I see nothing amazing in what I do, which consists of reading, thinking, writing, and speaking out. My problem is that however well-intended such compliments may be, both “awesome” and “amazing” have been so corrupted by over-use that there’s next to nothing either awesome or amazing left in them.

“Awesome” has spread so far up the age range from its origins in teen-speech that I find it hard to understand why newly minted teens still revert to it. When a freshly purchased pair of sandals or a new ice-cream flavor is called awesome, the word is worth about as much as the price of the cone the ice-cream’s served in. It has nothing to do with real awe — a state of being the speaker has clearly never experienced.

As for “amazing,” consider the way it’s said — in a tone of voice that no longer contains any hint of amazement, and with a downward inflection so that the speaker might just as well be saying “depressing.” This fake amazement has become an automatic response, in much the same realm as “Have a good day.”

I tested it not long ago at a gathering of well-connected millennials who prided themselves on what they took to be unconventional thinking, and whose standard conversation-starter was the utterly conventional “Where are you from?” At first I said Seattle, and this was deemed amazing, as though it were a surprise that anyone could possibly live in such a place. Then, just to check, I began to give other answers. Des Moines, I said. Or Detroit. Or – why not push it? – Dubai. And each answer got the same glassy-eyed response: that un-amazed “amazing.”

Scroll through the click-bait headlines of such sites as Gawker or Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post and you’ll find the A-words used ad nauseam (note to self: does ad nauseam count as an A-word?).  Playful bear cubs and science breakthroughs, inspirational talks and dumb pratfalls, see-through dresses and stars exploding in outer space — all are mashed together in a mini-tsunami of awesomeness, amazement, astonishment, astoundingness. The A-list, I guess.

In the face of so much amazement and awe, I find myself gasping for space in which to breathe, let alone think. I’d say let’s avoid the meaningless use of such words, but the go-to impulse remains strong, and I’m sure I’ll keep using them just like everyone else.

But I hope to stay faithful to my favorite A-word: absurd. And – how could I forget? – accidental.

Lightning Louie

It’s weird how a single scene from a movie can stay with you. Like this piece of American noir:

A fedora-hatted gumshoe walks into a Chinese eatery. He heads for the back booth where an over-sized guy with a bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other is steadily shoveling food into his mouth. The gumshoe wants information, and tosses a banknote on the table. The other guy delicately picks up the banknote with his chopsticks, tucks it into his vest pocket, and keeps right on eating.

I so envied that nonchalant chopstick deftness. A mere thirty seconds of screen time, but it stayed with me even though nothing else of the movie did. I had no idea what it was called, or where I’d seen it (late-night TV?), or who was in it (Bogart?). So for years – decades – I recounted the scene over Japanese or Chinese or Thai food in the hope that someone would recognize it. And finally, a month ago, someone did. A New York friend who’d been on a noir binge in preparation for a course he was teaching sent an email titled “That movie.”

pickuponsouthstreetPickup on South Street. 1953. Directed by Sam Fuller.   Starring Richard Widmark.

Yay! I found a copy, and I was right, it was a great scene. It was a wonderful damn scene. Yet while it was exactly as I remembered it, it was also not at all as I remembered it.

The chopstick magic was there – not once, but twice, as more money was tossed on the table until the overweight guy (going by the irresistible moniker of Lightning Louie) was persuaded to talk. But where the scene played in my memory with the camera full front on him, he was shown the whole time in profile, from the side. The camera was fronted on the gumshoe, seated not across from him in a booth, but cater-corner at a table.

And there was no fedora.  In fact there was no gumshoe. ‘He’ was she – Jean Peters, the female lead, playing the ballsy yet vulnerable dame trying to find a bad-on-the-surface/good-at-heart guy in trouble (that’d be Widmark, of course).

I watched the rest of Pickup on South Street as though for the first time. I had no memory of it, despite the great camera angles and a terrific cast of characters. Only that one cherished scene was familiar, told so many times to friends and drastically re-created in the process. In essence, I’d re-shot the scene, usurping Sam Fuller’s role as director.

I like to think I’m a good observer. As a psychologist, I should surely have a clear eye. I know how malleable memory is, how it has a way of adapting itself to desired narrative, to what we think should have or could have been. But here was proof positive that I’m no more immune than anyone else. I wanted the gumshoe. I wanted the fedora. And because I was entranced by Lightning Louie’s ability to pick up banknotes with chopsticks, I wanted him head on.

As a wise friend said, “we all write our own scripts.”

Caution: Theologist At Work!

Yes, it’s a hard hat — flotsam picked up after a storm on one of the wilder shores of the Pacific Northwest.

We were fooling around after doing the author’s photo for the inside flap of the agnostic manifesto, and it occurred to me that this shot — the opposite of a regular author photo — expresses the spirit of the book quite perfectly!

I’ll start posting again here very soon.  Words, I mean.  For now, it’s as though after writing 40,000 of them, they seem to have gone on vacation.  Since it’s way hot by Seattle standards, that  might be wise of them.


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