Powerful Women

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My stepmom, who I loved very much, died this week – the same week that Hillary Clinton announced she was running for president. If Mrs. Clinton succeeds she will be the first woman to run our country. My stepmom – who from now on I will refer to as my Second Mom because that is what she really was and that was how I felt about her – ran and successfully raised a blended family of five children from two very different sets of parents for almost 45 years. This was not a first in the world but was certainly one of the firsts in a plethora of blended families that began en masse in the U.S. as a result of the changing social mores of the very early 1970s.

Meet Shelly

Meet Shelly

When my folks split up in 1969 it was not so much rare but extremely uncommon. Divorce was slowly on the rise and the myth of the idealized, perennially happy nuclear unit one saw advertised in the media was being exposed for the smoke and mirrors bit of real imperfect unreality it often most certainly was.

Numerous women have run countries of note over the centuries – Cleopatra, Indira Gandi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher immediately come to mind – especially if one leaves out post B.C. royalty, which I most certainly am happy to do since I believe the anointment of kings and queens should stop at one’s high school prom. But interestingly enough, no female in our last 250 years has ever had or come very close to getting the top job in the United States.

This lady excepted, of course

This lady excepted, of course

That the most powerful country on Earth for many decades, if not centuries, has never had a female at the helm feels counterintuitive. This is especially true when I consider that many women like my Second Mom have proven time and again they intuitively know how to run things – especially people, bringing out the best qualities in them and their encounters with their environments.

Of course, this might not hold true across the board. We all have heard and/or experienced isolated parental horror stories. But overall these are often about both sexes – the horrible, harridan mama and the absent and/or abusive papa. So taking those many tales as a whole we can safely say that this argument at best produces a wash. Which leaves us once again with the question of the day – why are women so often undervalued and why do we not fully appreciate them in the moment of their greatest triumphs?

I've been saying this for years!

I’ve been saying this for years!

My Second Mom had the unenviable task of intermittently (meaning each summer and for various weeks in the year) incorporating the two existing children of the man she had married into a new life with this new husband who in turn she was asking to become the father and therefore breadwinner to the three other children she was bringing along from her previous marriage. Really? Now that I’m two and a half decades older than she was at the time she took all of this on my mind reels at her task at hand. It’s taken all I could muster to handle her death this week. Merely getting out of bed and doing the work I’m tasked to do – which doesn’t include raising ANY kids at all except myself – has me pretty much hog-tied. (Note: I think that is the first time I’ve ever used the term hog-tied in a sentence but nevertheless it somehow felt appropriate). And I’m a man. In 2015. Not a female with five children aged 3-15. In 1971.

A toast to my Second Mom

A toast to my Second Mom

Yet she did this, for many years, and with great humor, wisdom and a big open heart. There are really no books to teach such things. I had barely become a teenager when we met and was sharp, smart, had an attitude and determined to hate her. In other words, leave out the hate part and I was pretty much what you read now. Yet it took a simple game of bowling with my Dad and my much younger sister for her to totally win me over in less than five minutes. How does a Mom, much less a Second Mom, manage to do this? Was it her fringed, faux suede poncho, her long, wavy auburn hair, her penchant for throwing in a snide retort in every fourth sentence? More likely it was the fact that she immediately got me.

To be a great parent is to understand things about your children that they themselves haven’t realized and to guide them into discovery, acceptance and, finally, joy in being the best of themselves. She knew I was gay before I did (Note: I used to wonder how but now well, I mean I can’t even believe I once asked that question); realized I should be a writer way before anyone else in my family ever thought I should; told me I could achieve and handle stuff I felt sure I never could or secretly fantasized I might; and comforted and held me when I was hurt and scared, even when I was far into my adult years and on the surface seemed way, way, way beyond mothering. I couldn’t ever repay her for those many moments and even in recounting this tiny portion feel as if I can barely write about it. On the other hand, if she were here right now I know she’d smile and tell me I was being ridiculous and to just wait – I could not only handle this but a lot, lot more that I had in front of me. (Note: Damned if she wasn’t right again on all counts. Oh well).

shelly's advice

shelly’s advice

To do this sort of thing not only against all odds but to a sometimes hostile audience, is a feat that I will not quite ever understand. It can’t be a guy thing for this not to compute because certainly there are great Dads in the world who have exactly these qualities and understand innately how to do it. Just as there are females who can’t and don’t. Yet like all things great – these types of people are rare. Like all great leaders.

lead·er

  1. the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.

It takes all of the above qualities and more to effectively run a country – especially one of the size, stature and power of the good old US of A, which thus far has rejected every Mom in its history from ever getting the opportunity to do so. Talk about unappreciative, ungrateful or just plain clueless kids. Well, ahem, I guess that’s par for the course. We kids never quite realize the stuff we should until it’s almost too late. The important thing is we do realize it at some point, take what we’ve been taught and put it into practice.

#YES

#YES

Make no mistake – Hillary Clinton should not be elected president because she is a woman and a Mom. Those assets are only a small part of the experience she brings to the job. But to pretend that these are not assets and to not add them to the list of her many qualifications is its own form of acting out – like the mouthy teenager who believes their Mom is an annoying pain who is constantly crawling up their butt for no reason instead of a person with the patience of a saint who is infinitely smarter about certain things because of their experiences and love of their job.

Hillary Clinton has been:

  1. First Lady of the state of Arkansas
  2. First Lady of the U.S.
  3. U.S. Senator and the first woman to represent the state of N.Y.
  4. U.S. Secretary of State
  5. A respected lawyer
  6. A tireless human rights advocate and
  7. A national punching bag who has been dragged through scandal more times than most any one of us reading this AND has lived long and large enough to tell her tale to the world.

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I am not quite sure why at 67 someone with that history still aspires to endure a grueling 18-month election to be the leader of the free world but if I had to guess it would probably be precisely because that person has the sort of history that they do. People make their own choices (Note: Hard Choices – yuk yuk) and it is never an accident the uber-successful are where they are. I tell my students this every time they question me about why a gigantic movie star is a gigantic movie star. Plenty of people have talent but it does take a Village of determination, among other qualities and people, to get there.

See, she gets it!

See, she gets it!

As I posted on social media earlier this week, one might not AGREE with Mrs. Clinton (Note: Why did we all feel, from her earliest days on the national scene, that we have the right to call her “Hillary”) on the issues and instead have their own candidate of choice. But to scream that somehow she is unqualified, not intellectually up to the task or – and this is the most popular – morally lacking (uh, consider her predecessors in the last 50 years) is to be just plain…MAKING STUFF UP. In 2007, I once heard the blogger and former Republican now turned Democrat Andrew Sullivan whining disgustedly on television to Bill Maher that he can’t imagine listening to that voice for the next four years in some pathetic effort to devalue a Hillary Clinton presidency. And that’s coming from a learned guy who agrees more than disagrees with her on any given subject. This gives you just a preview of what is to come in the next couple of years, and then even more, should she get elected. So fasten your seat belts, as both Margo Channing and Ralph Nader once warned.

giphy

Yet if nothing else Hillary Clinton has certainly proven she can take care of herself on that and many other scores. Like many women of her time, she’s had to wear many hats in a large variety of styles and shapes over the years. My Second Mom wore a lot of hats, too. In fact, one of my favorite things she once told me occurred when we were walking through some overdone Las Vegas hotel into some fancy five star restaurant. She had her hair tucked into an unstylish short brimmed cap and when someone took notice of it she turned to me and said, “Oh fuck it, I don’t look like those other women anyway.”

No, she didn’t. She looked, and was, a lot better.

Hillary 2016.

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Second String

“Give me a second. “

When I hear this I’m immediately thinking..

Okay, you need more time.  Whatever…

Great, now I’m getting pissed.  And don’t let the fact that I’m in a hurry and still waiting trouble you because obviously what you’re doing is far more important than what I want or need at this moment.  Which has already passed because you’re so damned selfish and slow.

Of course, perceptions are often wrong.  And even more often than that people get angry about the things over which they are confused, or that they misunderstand based on faulty information. Or even more likely an item or incident they use as an anger substitute for that thing over which they are really angry about (life? the banks? world/your own poverty?  the Kardashian family fame and fortune?). Those things that are too scary to really unleash anger on so  you (we? they?) misplace it to other, lesser-perceived misstatements.

Which brings us back to waiting and my original statement.

“Give me a second.”

No, I (or the ubiquitous they) was NOT trying to poach more time.  (And if only you had asked either of us directly we would have told you). What I was really saying –if you would have engaged me in conversation and really listened to and thought about my response before jumping to your talking/thinking point – was this:

Instead of your first or #1 selection, I’ll take what is considered your second –or #2 – any time.

Yeah I mean you, Ms. Maroney.

See, sometimes the best choice for what ails us in the moment, or in our times, or even on a specific creative project, is the person who is the SECOND-in-command, our SECOND (or maybe even third) choice — the RUNNER UP (or even worse) to  present day fame, fortune and eternal frolic.  Sometimes it takes that very person – the under the radar supporting player or archetypal contemporary day “Bridesmaid” (think Kristen Wiig) – to bring us through the muddy waters and to entertain us and make us laugh or cry, and, most importantly, to put everything back into plain talking perspective and for once and for all and, hopefully, forever, make everything clear.  Forget the bells and the whistles and the fairy dust of the first stringers.  As a famous auto company once advertised about #2’s – often what their status guarantees is they “TRY HARDER.”

And trying harder is what makes you #1 (or used to, at least)…in the first place.  It’s the necessary step along with way before you (we? they?) get complacent in star status.

The most famous #2 of the past week is a  likely yet unlikely choice: a just-about 70-year-old man with piano key teeth, not very good hair plugs, and all the subtlety of Kevin James trying to emulate Adrian Brody’s Oscar-winning star turn in “The Pianist.”  This person, perhaps THE most famous #2 in the world, is a guy we Americans like to call – wait for it –

VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN.

Ole Blue Eyes

That’s right, the eye rolling, horse laughing, over gesticulating senior citizen on the national debate stage.  The guy some people thought was rude and other people thought was real.  The guy who, everyone agrees, was pretty much a poster child person for plain-talking populism of the quintessentially honest American kind that even the most uninformed among us could pretty much  – whether they agree with him or not – understand.

The perils of the #1 perch often don’t allow for that.  Or perhaps it’s what happens when one reaches #1 status that makes falling from the perch and, in turn, making one wrong move, seem even more perilous for the person that has indeed achieved it.  Or – to give a more musical example – maybe it’s the pressure of simply living up to the qualities that Debbie Harry longed to seduce in her famous #1 song.

Whatever IT is, Pres. Barack Obama, our #1, didn’t have IT when he debated several weeks prior, yet  he certainly did have it four years ago opposite his Republican opponent on the debate stage when he running for, but not yet, #1.  Mitt Romney hasn’t had it for the entire time he’s been #1 on the Republican presidential ticket but for some reason momentarily got it (in some people’s opinion, not necessarily mine), when he was #2 on the stage at the presidential debate with our current #1 American (Pres. Obama).

This is not to say #1’s are not truly the best overall and often don’t deserve to be top dog.  It only means that Mel Brooks’ adage of “it’s good to be king” is indeed all too true.  The cyclical version of fame, fortune and mere age ensures that there will always be a #2 worth watching – a person or moment that is second string now but will one day, through verve or sheer attrition and endurance (and sometimes through a faulty strategy of slightly guarded carefulness on the part of #1 that is thought necessary to maintain power) will temporarily and then perhaps even permanently cause the replacement of the top star.  That is the way of the world.  That is the historical and often necessary cycle of existence.

Buckle up…

So it stands to reason that during the reign of #1s, there are always times when the Big Kahuna will falter and one or more of us subjects would do best to listen, learn and be inspired by the musings of a #2 – or even #6, #7 or #8.  Second stringers don’t have as much to lose but often have a lot more to prove, which in turns gives them the motivation and energy to make the case or to pick up the baton (sports or creative) and win the race when the first stringers either graciously step outside or ask for a much needed helping hand they count on their #2s to provide.  What’s great about this is that it not only often works but more times than not, win or lose, makes the result more interesting and brings about the much needed evolvement and, eventual changes, of the future.

I see this every day with my students – who consistently surprise me with their work.  As a writing teacher, one learns to recognize obvious talent.  I mean, it doesn’t really take a genius to see that – only someone who is more than a casual observer.  But the moments teachers and audiences and, I’d venture to say, citizens of the state, live for are the surprising ones.  We get most excited by instances in which the second stringers, the ones not necessarily destined for greatness, rise up to surprise us in an area we thought they never could.  I see this every semester in creative work – people whose good ideas become realized into art that is more original than you ever thought it could be, not only surprisingly fresh but surprisingly great.  Watching an individual take a step out of the pack due solely to the application of their passion, desires and, above all, talent, is a moment that teachers, and audiences, and societies, do truly live for.

Mr. Biden’s robust debate performance, where he spewed the plain-talking, impolite frustration of most of the American public across the stage in Kentucky, (and for those not enthralled with our veep’s performance, perhaps the same could be said yikes! for Mr. Romney’s penultimate sugar high jabs in his first 2012 presidential matchup) is not limited to politics.  It often rears its head in all of the creative arts, in sports, in our friendships and even family lives.

Can film students, movie fans or anyone else in the public imagine the first string choice of Doris Day as the quintessential suburban seducer Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” instead of Anne Bancroft?  How about then “Magnum P.I.” TV megastar Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones instead of a now (but not then) film icon we call Harrison Ford?   The record shows that Mr. Ford and Ms. Bancroft were, to put it kindly, the #2 choices for their roles at the time but more than likely they were even further down on most people’s lists.

Really?

Chicago for years suffered with the ubiquitous title as America’s “second city” until some creative type in the Midwest wisely decided to own that derisive term (as all oppressed groups eventually do) and start a improvisational comedy troupe aptly titled “Second City.”  Ironically, this group became not only the best in the business but would then go on to be the primary supplier of performers and creative types behind perhaps the most enduring and iconic comedy troupes in the history of television – The Not Ready For Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live” – a show based out of what was and still is considered to be our #1 city – New York.

Live from.. Chicago?

It’s also easy to forget that Terrence McNally, the American playwright who has won four Tony Awards and countless nominations for work as diverse as “Love Valour Compassion,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” “Ragtime” and “The Full Monty” was once best known in the New York theatre community as merely a “famous #2” by dating playwriting royalty Edward Albee.  Or that Katy Sagal, America’s infamous Peg Bundy on “Married With Children” and the star of the cable hit “Sons of Anarchy” was early only renowned as one of three literal #2s when she served as a member of Bette Midler’s trio of backup singers, The Harlettes.

In sports I’m old enough to remember when 15 year old Michael Phelps swam in his first Olympics and won 0.0 medals, gold or otherwise, yet sharp enough to recall that after subsequent record-breaking Olympic gold in 2008, it took this year’s drop to #2 status in the first 2012 race of his fourth Olympics game for him to once again emerge as the #1 swimmer of gold more times than any one else in the entire competition.

This could be a drinking game and we could go on and on.  But perhaps the best example is another political figure of the times who recently won the Gallup poll for the tenth year in a row as – wait for it again – the most admired woman in the world – Hillary Clinton.

She knows it.

Talk about a #2 and then some.  First Lady (but really a #2?) of Arkansas.  First Lady (and not even a #2) of the United States and an object of derision for famously proclaiming she wasn’t interested in staying “in the kitchen and baking cookies.” Then even more publicly proclaimed an inexperienced interloper for trying (and then failing) to create a universal health care plan for all Americans under the direction of her husband, the then president.  Undaunted at being #2, Mrs. Clinton did her job, learned, stood in wait and took her lumps from a “vast right wing conspiracy” she inelegantly said was lying (some might say salivating) in wait for her husband.

But then something funny, or perhaps eventual happened.   Her husband was no longer president and she decided to use her fame, smarts and nationwide experience to run for Senator in New York.  She not only won the #1 spot but became one of the most admired members of one of our most well-known “boys clubs.”  She then used her fame to try and become our Uber #1 in her own valiant run for president, only to be shunted down to #2 status by a guy with a weird name who had way less experience than she did – Barack Obama.   However, she barely had time to leave gracefully before our new #1 called her in to be a different kind of #1 (or is it #2, #3 #4 or even lower) – our Secretary of State and the defacto#1 face of foreign policy to all countries around the world.

In the end, it seems – everyone is #1 somewhere but usually #2 (or below) almost everywhere.  Human achievement does have its limits and the fact is very few of us make it into the hall of presidents or on an international awards stage.  But that doesn’t mean that, in more moments than most people realize, we all have the capability, if given the chance, to be as good or even better than any particular number on the right number of days if we keep at it and are given, or take, the chance.

That’s what Joe Biden accomplished last week.  And that’s why it’s important to keep pushing your rock uphill, downhill or sideways – no matter what your status or scoring is at any random moment in time.

And I said I didn’t like sports metaphors…