I rented a video of Room at the Top the other night--you know the one with Lawrence Harvey as a poor young man hellbent on moving up in post-war England, and Simone Signoret as the “older woman” he loves and leaves for a young heiress? I settled in for a major cocooning evening, watching a great old broad play out a doomed love affair.
But what was this? Signoret looked fabulous. Slim-waisted, sexy. Young. If I saw her and this weeby Harvey guy in a restaurant or strolling along a city street, I’d wonder what she saw in him.
But there she was---on screen----saying she was too old to be beautiful, too old to start life over, too old to be loved. She was, she “confessed”--thirty-fiiive!
I backed up the tape. Say that again, Simone? And she did.
Stunning. Did everybody back then think 35 was old? Or maybe the writer was just far too young to be writing about grownups’ lives. I wanted Signoret to refuse to say the line, or to bust out laughing when she said it.
But I hadn’t laughed when I first saw the film. Back then, the idiot-who-was-me thought Signoret was old.
I got curious and rented Sunset Boulevard. That one was about a really old woman and her young lover, right? So I’m watching William Holden ask Gloria Swanson--“How old are you, 50?” and I suddenly understand something weird about our times.
Here’s this powerful cultural programming that says 50-year-old women are grotesque hags, tragically sidelined from their work and from the really important thing--attracting men.
But but but--today I could tell you about dozens of women born 50 plus years ago who are feeling great, doing their best work ever, and lookin fiiine. They’re in the vanguard of the baby boomers, with millions more close behind them.
So what we’ve got here is a major mismatch between our reality and our programming. What’s a 50-year-old woman to think when she knows she’s never been better and the most beautiful woman on current magazine covers is 6 year-old murder victim? When she knows that 45-year-old Meryl Streep almost didn’t get the part of the 45-year-old heroine of The Bridges of Madison County, opposite an actor old enough to be her father, for heaven’s sake? When she sees that the models used to sell clothes to her are 15? When...
Never mind--I have a proposal. What if we just don’t buy into the madness? What if all of us grownup women refuse to say the lines, to play the hag? What if we bust out laughing if and when anyone says or even hints that we’re too old for anything we set our minds to do, have or be?
Trust me. It works. You see, I am not a boomer woman, born after World War Two. I was born before that war. I am in fact the age at which the Beatles wondered if you’d still need them--64. That’s almost 30 years older than the too-old-to-live woman in Room at the Top. It’s 14 years past the hag on Sunset Boulevard. And I don’t have any more time to talk to you now because I gotta finish up some cool stuff I’m doing at the best job in the world and go meet my buff, boomer husband for our tango class.
Too old? You gotta be kidding.
—Ann Medlock on public radio, May 1997
Have you turned into your Mother yet?
It happens. After all the times you said, “When I have children, I’ll never...” haven’t you found yourself doing, saying just the things you swore you’d never do or say?
The other night my son was leaving the house after dinner, going back to his so-called cottage, back to a day job where he’s not making a living wage, back to night classes, and I found myself stuffing food in his pockets, in his hands, in his jacket hood. If he’d had trouser cuffs, I would have gotten raisins into them. When he said “Mom, puhleeze!”—what a moment! It was me talking to my mom, telling her I was going to be just fine, to let me make it on my own.
Well, mostly I do—let him make it on his own—but it’s a jungle out there and a few packets of dried soup mix couldn’t hurt, right? I mean it’s not like I’m doing what I want to do which is go tell his landlord he’s overcharging and his boss that he’s underpaying. And I’m not so sure about that night school instructor—that paper he put a C on looked like a B-plus to me. I haven’t said a word to any of them. The kid is on his own.
But I understand, Mom. Now, I really do understand. It is very, very hard to see your fledglings flapping their wings as hard as they can—and sort of sinking more than they’re rising. Every bone in your body wants to whip out there and give them a lift. You stay put, you keep quiet—but you stuff their pockets with apples and baking potatoes.
I work everyday with the stories of people who are sticking their necks out to make the world a better place. And since I realized that I have become my mother, I look through the story files and over and over again I see—mothering. Women who are taking all those urges to nurture, protect, counsel, to make things right no matter what they have to give up or go through, women who are using that mothering stuff to fix the world.
They’ve chasing johns and drug buyers out of neighborhoods so they’ll be safe again. They’re hiding abused kids from their abusers. They’re taking control of run-down housing projects and making them real neighborhoods. They’re teaching ex-cons how to live honestly, non-violently. They’re feeding, clothing, sheltering, encouraging—way beyond their own kids, way out there—mothering the world.
It took turning into my own mother to get me to recognize what I was looking at. And to value its place in the world. We may get “Mom, puhleeze!” from our kids, but when we put those instincts and that energy to work in the world—now there, there you’ve really got something.
Happy Mothers’ Day.
Fathers’ Day is coming. You forgot. You remembered. You’ve sent a card; you sprung for a present. You’re going over to see him. He lives too far away. You’ll call him. He died recently. He died when you were young. You love him. You hate him. You can’t figure him out. You’re mad at him and you don’t want to hear about Fathers’ Day.
Thinking about fathers can push a lot of our buttons. Some kinds of thinking about fathers can keep us from ever growing up—can keep us from taking control of our private and our public lives.
Like expecting them to know everything, do everything, be everything. Well, maybe some fathers live up to that, but the other 99.9% aren’t perfect. More likely they’re just doing the best they can and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s less than good and sometimes it’s a real mess. They’re just people.
Expecting, demanding so much of Dad, being disappointed and angry when he doesn’t come through—these are not just family issues. These are political issues of the first magnitude.
I was on the other side of the earth when I began to see how serious those political ramifications can be. In Moscow, talking day after day with Soviet citizens about the crisis there, I began to feel that the USSR was suffering from a possibly terminal case of Daddyism. There were wise, strong-spirited people doing their best to make perestroika work, but they were far outnumbered by those I could only describe as brats-having-a-temper-tantrum: “I want it. I want it now. Give it to me.” And what were they willing to do to make it happen? Would they stick their necks out? Would they take on some of the responsibility for making things better? Was I crazy? He—Gorbachev—was responsible. They demanded that he come through for them, that he make a miracle, alone. That he be the perfect Daddy.
Obviously, we on these shores are not immune to such brattiness. It may well be a plague on the entire human species. Are humans saying in every language, “They should do something about this mess”? Since most of the “theys” in this world are still men (unless you live in Norway), “They” usually means adult, middle-aged men, men who remind us of our fathers. “They” must chase the monsters away and come up with the answers to all our questions. If “They” can’t manage that, we’ll just have a little tantrum here. In a democracy, we can throw the bums out and put in a new set—until they fail us too. Meanwhile, we don’t have to do anything ourselves to make the monsters go away; we don’t have to seek out our own answers to our questions.
Wouldn’t it be an incredible gift to the all fathers of the world—the ones in our families and the ones in our capitals and in our city halls—if we just grew up? We could give them the gift of understanding that they’re just people, that they can’t do it all for us, that we have to stick our own necks out to make our world what we want it to be. Dad can’t make the world perfectly safe and comfortable for you and neither can the President or the governor or any of the other men you think are running your world. The world isn’t always a safe and comfortable place—grownups understand that. Grownups know that nobody else is responsible for their fates. There is no “Them.” There is only us. And that’s enough.
Happy Fathers’ Day.
Tomorrow’s Independence Day. A day to celebrate the American Dream. Now quick—tell me what the American Dream is.
Yes, it’s a trick question. Were your first thoughts are about having money and things, security and comforts?
We are surrounded by messages that tell us that’s the American Dream, so if you don’t watch it, you can slip into accepting that dumb idea. When I see the American Dream defined as getting and spending, I get hostile—the same way I get when white supremacists wave the stars and stripes. I want to yell, Drop it! You’re not what that flag’s about and you don’t get to pretend that you are.
People who want to sell you more stuff pretend that the American Dream is about guess what?—buying stuff. They define us, they address us, not as citizens, but as consumers. I resent that.
It’s true that a lot of our ancestors came here because they couldn’t make a living where they were. But what about the ones who came because they dreamed of being free? The ones who came to escape political oppression? What about the ancestors who came here in chains and dreamed of being free in White America?
The dream of being free citizens of a strong democracy—that’s the American Dream that rings a great bell in the heart. Forget that dream and we can allow ourselves to become nothing nobler than consumers of stuff.
The Founding Fathers counted on strong citizens to make the nation work—they created a system that balanced a presidency, a legislature, a court system and an informed, active citizenry. (I know, they didn’t include all of us, but now we’ve fixed that and we’ve all got the vote.) We are the essential fourth sector of this democracy. You and me. Us citizens.
Those whose American Dream really is nothing more than to consume, find their lives are consumed by stuff—by getting it, tending it, using it and protecting it. Keeps you really busy—keeps you out of the hair of people who want your vote every few years, but may not want you watching too closely, in between elections. Informed, active citizens can really bug politicians—which is what the founders of this democracy counted on us to do.
Being a citizen can mean going to city council sessions instead of to the mall, writing your Representatives instead of watching your favorite TV shows. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun—I’ve been to county and state meetings that were absolutely hilarious—and they don’t even charge admission.
But it’s still all too seriously true that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. If we are just consumers, if we give up the power the Founders gave us—we get just what we deserve—a city, a state, a country that run the way other people want them to, not the way we want them to.
Tomorrow, when I’m flipping hamburgers and watching fireworks, I’ll be celebrating the real American Dream—the freedom to be a watchful, involved, caring, pushy citizen.
There’s been a lot of press lately  about the Information Highway, about how we’re all going to be able to summon the world onto home computer screens—you’ll be able to pull in any movie you want, any news, any book, any work of art. You’ll be able to shop any store in the country. And never leave your home. Wow.
Does this sound great or lousy to you? I suspect that your opinion may be directly tied to what your days are like. To what you actually do and see and hear and smell and experience, day after day. If that includes a lot of depersonalized and annoying interactions with the world at large, the idea of retreating to a nice quiet one-on-one relationship with a home computer could be really tempting. As a former New Yorker, I get it.
Take movies. I used to love Manhattan’s selection of hundreds of films, but year by year it was more and more of a drag to be a movie buff. Getting across town on time for a showing was hard; the theatre lines were long; the theatre staffs rude; the prices daunting—and more and more of the good theatres were being et by megascreens showing only “major motion pictures.” It was all too depersonalized and annoying.
But maybe what we need to do now is not to retreat from all this public incivility into computerized isolation, but to stand and fight to preserve those public institutions that make life livable. Like, I suggest that every movie lover needs a Clyde.
The Clyde is the only movie in the island community where I now live. It reminds me of a theatre in my old New York neighborhood, a theatre that closed years ago. The Clyde has one screen. Dolby sound. Real popcorn in the lobby. Real neighbors in the seats. The neighbors who own the place choose to show the very films I want to see. They publish a schedule of upcoming films every quarter—everybody on the island has it taped to the refrigerator. If I’m off-island, I will not see a picture that I know is coming to the Clyde—because it will be so much better there.
Sometimes a picture gets to our theatre after the video gets to the grocery store—but people still go to see it at the Clyde. And that says something about this information highway that’s rolling toward our doors. Yes, we could hole up at home and watch the video on our home screens, in our bathrobes, for a little less than a ticket to the Clyde, but we’d rather go to the Clyde. There, it’s hi Dave, how’s the ankle, it’s knowing the out-of-control laugh in the back is your favorite bank teller, it’s seeing that the Parsons kid is there on her own, no longer a pg-thirteener—it’s personal. The Clyde is a civilized institution, a maker of community; anybody or anything that threatened the Clyde would have to reckon with me.
It’s precious because real life is populated with real fellow humans, walking, talking, surprising, intriguing fellow humans. Each of us among them. Out there in the movie houses, in libraries, in the streets, in the flesh. We’re all mixing it up in communities and neighborhoods large and small. It’s risky. It’s annoying. It’s unpredictable. It’s glorious.
So do I want to hole up in my living room, become a node in an electronic pseudo-community, absorbing impersonal, controlled, pre-packaged, binary simulations of real experience? Not on your life. Look for me at the Clyde.
Ann Medlock for KPLU, July 12, 1993