Thursday, December 2, 2010

Eight Cow Woman

Mrs. Else taught a course at Nevada Union High School called World Cultures. It was a required course at the time and probably should have been one of my favorites. Sadly, I don’t remember much about the class, only an exercise where we learned about a tribe in North America called the ASU who revered a beast called the Rac and a film about a guy who paid eight cows for his wife. I guess that class must have taught me something because both lessons have stayed with me, for better or worse.

The story of the eight cow woman depicts a couple of conflicting ideas – about the edifying power of the truest love and also about the commercialization of women. If you did not grow up in a fairly conservative or fundamentalist community, you may have missed the story… Johnny Lingo travels to a nearby village and offers the unheard of bride price of eight cows for the homely Sarita. The villagers laugh at him, because as homely as she is, he surely could have made her his wife for one cow and her elderly father would have been grateful. Less than a year after their wedding, Sarita has become a poised and beautiful woman because she is finally aware of her worth and her value as a woman.

I had incredibly ambivalent feelings about Johnny Lingo and his eight cow wife. I recognized that with self-confidence even homely women can become beautiful, which was hugely encouraging to my 13-year-old braces-wearing self. But I also had the vague feeling that the only reason she felt confident was because a man chose her. Johnny’s wife became an eight cow woman because he made her one. And he made her one because he wanted an eight cow wife – her beauty was a reflection of his virility – or something like that.

Thirty years later I am contemplating marriage and the ambivalence is back. I am middle aged, I have children, I have an established career – the only reason I would get married again could only be for the truest love. When I was a young woman, before I was ever married, I used to claim that when I married what I wanted was a simple gold band. I wanted the world to see that I married for love, not for money (one cow). But I always hoped that someone would ultimately spring for the big rock (eight cows). I knew that spending money on a diamond was silly and I wasn’t worth it. I got the plain, gold band and quickie courthouse wedding, exactly what I asked for.

Over the ensuing ten years, I tried to convince myself that what was important was the marriage, not the wedding. But every wedding I attended left me a hot mess, surreptitiously wiping away the tears and the snot, feeling somewhat bewildered by the intensity of my reaction. I look forward to weddings because along with funerals, they tend to be when families and friends come together to celebrate life. We raise glasses, we dance, we talk - weaving the basket that holds our lives and makes us a tribe. I came to realize that part of my sadness came from never truly joining my tribe to my husband’s tribe and for that reason we were always a little bit apart.

When our marriage began to unravel, we didn’t have our unified tribe to help keep us together. And above all, from the very beginning he chose to please his parents and not me. The reason we couldn’t have a wedding was because his parents didn’t approve and wouldn’t attend. But it would be hurtful to them if we celebrated our wedding without them – so out of respect we never celebrated. In the process I learned that if a couple can’t figure out how to bring their families together for a wedding, then the families certainly won’t come together to support a marriage. What you compromise in your wedding is indicative of what you’ll compromise in your marriage, and compromise is essential in a marriage so you’d better figure it out.

When our marriage was over, I looked back on that beginning. Was it really that important that I had no white gown, no veil, no diamond engagement ring and above all, no laughing children running through the legs of dancing couples slightly tipsy from wedding champagne? YES! It was really that important because from the very first he displayed to me that in his eyes I wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t worth the expense of the ring and I wasn’t worth the hassle of the guests and I really wasn’t worth standing up for to his parents. And from the very first I displayed that I didn’t think I was worth it, either. I accepted the wedding band bought on the spur of the moment at the mall, I accepted that my parents wouldn’t be celebrating with us; I accepted that his parents could be excused from being part of our tribe.

Contemplating marriage, for the last and best time, it is important to me that we bring our families together and join them as one family. I trust the ritual to contribute to our foundation. At the same time I have the nagging fear that I want this only because I’ve been trained to fetishize weddings and somehow I believe that like Sarita, only being picked by a man makes me a valuable woman. I’ve started to feel weirdly guilty and ashamed when coveting other women’s beautiful diamond engagement rings and looking up destination weddings online.

I am reliving my 13-year-old proto-post-feminist dialectic: I am a creature of my culture where I long to have my worth validated by the love of a man, but angered by a tradition that commercializes me. I resent the bride price that a beautiful diamond ring implies, but I want the diamond resting on my left hand to signal my worth to the world. I want a public declaration of love - a wedding where we stand at the altar and make our promises, and our friends and family make promises, too. I want to be an eight cow wife.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I was going for a run in my suburban neighborhood a couple of days ago, with the iPod set on shuffle and a forgotten country song from a couple of years ago came on right after 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama”. That song, “Where I’m From”, extols the virtues of small town America where “the quarterback dates the homecoming queen” but it’s the line about the wooden white church and where children are given their grandmothers’ maiden names that I think got to me. I’m running along the street suddenly choking back tears longing for a place that I couldn’t wait to get out of when I was seventeen.

There are a handful of songs that do that to me and they are almost always country songs – although John Cougar Mellencamp can get to me sometimes. I actually did grow up in a town where the quarterback dated the homecoming queen, attended a small white (albeit Catholic) church and, I’m not making this up – my oldest son’s name is my grandmother’s maiden name. Listening to the songs, small town America sounds like a really great place. But let’s be honest, if it were so wonderful why would so many of us try to leave? And that includes the country stars that are singing these songs. I can tell you why I left – because if you’re not the homecoming queen or quarterback or at least trying your hardest to live up to that standard, then there’s really no use for you in those towns. I wasn’t even gay or not white, just uninterested in those things and that by itself is unforgivable. I can only imagine what it was like for folks who weren’t white and heterosexual …

What is it that makes those songs resonate so much? I can understand why a faded homecoming queen in her mid-40’s might start bawling during her morning run listening to that song – but why does it have such a grip on me? And what about other people who never even lived in one of those towns? The image of the yeoman farmer is so ingrained in our national psyche that we are trained to long for it and whether we’ve lived it or not, embrace it as our own history.

Country music is past tense with deep nostalgia for that imagined history. Country music norms that experience so we, as a nation, connect to our idealized shared history. Urban music norms a different experience. Rap and hip/hop, like jazz and blues before it, tells the story of poverty and “making it”. Many of these artists grew up in poverty or at least want to appear that they did so they have “cred” (Not unlike Country artists who’ve never ridden a horse) and now have access to things they didn’t before. They are excluded figuratively and often literally from the idealized American Dream that Country music portrays. Where Country music is nostalgic and past tense, Urban music is aspirational and future tense – portraying a time and place where the singer is not excluded, but in control, where he has a great car, drinks the best champagne – even the best looking woman. Rap and Hip Hop tell the story of a man who has made it and has access to the good life, as Nelly says, “runnin’credit checks with no shame…”

Consider, please, these two differing versions of the United States and the American Dream. There are many who long for the idealized version where just like in the country songs, everyone is either a Homecoming Queen or a Quarterback and all of their needs are met. Then there are those that were never part of that vision, either because they are poor, immigrant, black, brown or gay – maybe even all of those things. Their American Dream is the narrative woven through the urban tracks of rap and hip hop: making it, being a full respected member of our American Society. The tension arises when the Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens begin to feel like the reason that their lives aren’t the way they think they should be is because of the poor, immigrants of color or gay people. Meanwhile, the poor immigrants of color and gay people are pretty sure the Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens are running things and shutting them out. The Tea Partiers are country music’s Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens and the anger in their actions and words is the response to the urban beat of Barack Obama and his supporters who are demanding to speak and be heard.

Tea Partiers want to live in a country song where everyone in the United States plays by their rules and aspires to be a football hero or a pretty girl. Tea Partiers would like to take our country back from those who don’t fit in to their image of what is a “real American”. Fake Americans, such as Barack Obama, Lt. Daniel Choi, and Lilly Ledbetter are trying to break down those barriers that are useful in keeping people cemented into their assigned roles. The Tea Partying “Real Americans” are worried that their government no longer only functions to maintain their status in American life. Health Care reform, the stimulus package, the Dream Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Fair Pay Act are seen as an open invitation to the American Dream, and according to the Tea Partiers, the American Dream belongs only to the people in country songs.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Burqa and the Taco

France (according to the French) invented human rights. While the US has the Declaration of Independence –we merely declared our independence from the yoke of the British crown. In contrast, France’s revolution was crowned and enthroned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
These days, instead of declaring what rights the Citizens of France enjoy, President Sarkozy wants to ban full body veils that hide the face of the wearer. French lawmakers have already outlawed head coverings in French public schools. Efforts to ban the head coverings began in earnest when last spring a woman wearing a niqab was cited for driving with an obstructed view that endangered other drivers. Instead of meekly paying the $30 fine, the woman called a press conference claiming that the fine violated her human rights. Her husband stood gallantly by her side, proudly supporting her defense of Islam, her defense of the right of French women to wear full-body veils and also her defense of Islamic men’s right to insist that the women in their families wear such veils. Apparently, this woman demanding her human right to wear the full body veil created a great deal of national ambivalence. Which is more French – defense of human rights or the secular republic?

Here in the United States, we faced a similar existential crisis when Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law a bill that requires individuals in the state to produce proof of their legal immigration status when asked to do so by any law enforcement officer. Our own history is based on defiance of imperial power and the right to privacy from the over-reaching hand of authority. Our current concern about the encroachment of the Federal Government can be traced directly to King George III and his Red Coats’ brutish exploitation of our Colonial forefathers. When I first heard accounts of the new Arizona law, I bristled at the brutishness of the Arizona State Government, outraged at how the law subverts our constitutional right of freedom from unlawful search and seizure, enshrined in the 4th Amendment. I rolled my eyes and huffed at those closed minded individuals who fear the stranger and complain about “those people” who don’t share our “American” values as they trampled on our Constitution – what hypocrites!

Compare that with the reaction that I had to the French naturalized citizen who vigorously defended his wife’s “right” to wear the niqab: How dare he? In addition to his wife, a French national who adopted the niqab, he had three additional wives in concurrence with Islamic law with whom he fathered no less than twelve children. Each of his “wives” was receiving state benefits provided to single mothers and their children. Again I bristled with outrage! How dare he move to France, take advantage of the generous benefits and insist that French culture bend to his customs – the French government certainly had the right to protect their culture and insist that their laws are not manipulated and exploited by “those people”…..Then it hit me on the head - I sounded just like the supporters of the Arizona law that blamed Mexican immigrants for coming to the United States to take advantage of our (not nearly as generous) benefits.

Certainly the two situations are not entirely comparable, but both highlight the difficult and uneasy balance between the essence of our respective nations and the interconnected world of the 21st Century. We shall see by summer’s end where in the balance both nations lay…

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Questions for the day....

If the Tea Party is taking back "their" government, does that mean their the ones who screwed it up in the first place?

Why is it that people get so worked up when photos surface of the crowned queens of beauty pageants that show them exposing their bodies for attention - isn't that the point of dressing up in high heels and a bathing suit? Why is it only okay to do that if you're wearing a sash?

Is it weird that the guy who introduced therapy to give up the gay turns out to be gay himself, and the guy who supported abstinence education for teens turns out to not be able to abstain himself? Couldn't they get themselves spots in their own programs?

Don't white people get the irony of "taking back our country" from Mexican people, when they live in a part of the country that used to be part of Mexico?

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Day of the Woman?

March 8, 2010 – International Women’s Day. Certainly something to contemplate… Last night, a woman won an Oscar for Best Director and her film won in the Best Film category. That’s progress, right? Unfortunately, it was for a film about war – a war of choice that disproportionately attacks the poor, who are predominately women and their children. A war that not only attacks the poor in the countries that we’re actually at war with, but also disproportionately impacts the poor here in this country.

I heard a snippet on NPR this morning, as I was getting ready for work. An international labor union conducted a study on women in the workforce. Unlike the findings of the Pew report released about a month ago that indicated that most women work and they now often earn greater incomes than their partners – this study looked specifically at mothers in the workplace, and found that mothers typically make as much a one third less than men (including, presumably, fathers). They went on to describe in sterile, research style terms the possible reasons that mothers make less and I just felt sad and tired. While I’ve never had to submit to a pre-employment pregnancy test, like some women have reported, I have experienced many of the challenges described – and not in sterile terms, but in ways that have a long lasting negative impact on my career and on my children’s well-being.

Over the weekend, I received a letter from the State Tax Board, rejecting my claim as Head of Household. I am a single mother with three children that I am the sole source of support for, their father has not worked in over five years. I have assumed the full cost for their care and provide for them happily – feeling blessed and lucky to have the means to support them. However, receiving that letter from the Tax Board was a shocking reminder that in the eyes of the state, I’m still just a woman. Reminds me of how I was passed over for a raise last year, while my male colleague received one because he has a family to support.

These are the reasons that working mothers earn less and are taxed more.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lofty yet Pedestrian New Year's Resolutions

It’s 2010, not technically a new decade but for those of us who are not mathematicians, it’s a new decade which means even greater introspection than the beginning of those years that start in numbers that are not zero. I am challenging myself to come up with some meaningful goals, objectives and resolutions for the New Year, this new decade, but everything seems either too lofty or too pedestrian. What I’ve decided to do instead is make a list of the things that I think I should aspire to, but am probably too lazy to actually make a habit of…

Pray the Rosary
Stop eating meat
Eat a lot more veggies
Stop watching television
Read more books
Read the paper everyday
Write everyday
Work out hard
Arrest materialism and consumerism
Live within my means

See? Lofty and pedestrian but now that I see it on the screen, perhaps not so undoable. If I pray the Rosary even one time, I’m already ahead of last year. Score! Maybe I won’t stop eating meat, but I can start with stop eating meat every meal, work up to stop eating meat everyday. That’s better, isn’t it? In fact, just today I subbed out the meat in my pho for a veggie version of the same thing – bravo. I’m noticing that many of the don’ts coincide with a do – no meat, more veggies; no television, more reading – it’s not such a big deal, right?

I guess what I really want for 2010 and beyond is to be the person that I think I should be. Left to my own devices, I think I would eat less meat, watch less TV opt for the things that make me feel better about my place in the world. What I am resolving to do is to choose those things. And look at it this way… I have a year to figure it out before the new decade REALLY starts.