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Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Across the Fence

  Just as we have Mad Men to thank for reminding us of how casually men in power exuded sexism, racism, classism, anti-semitism and homophobia fifty years ago, now we have Rush Limbaugh to thank for reminding us: we still have a lot of work to do. But I’m thankful to Limbaugh.  Really. Because that outrageous statement he made weeks ago—“If we’re gonna pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch”—well, it’s just not going away. And that may be bad for his show’s ad revenues, but in terms of getting people talking? It is good. Tricky, risky, sometimes inflammatory. But good.

Have you seen that MoveOn ad in which five women repeat, simply and straight to the camera, Limbaugh’s notorious words, along with several statements by Rick Santorum and other conservatives regarding contraception? It’s in my email inbox and I expect it’ll show up a few more times, right along with the news about how our state’s proposed budget calls for cuts in funding for contraception and counseling.  Also in the in-box: my friend Liza Bean’s insightful blog post about why conservative women believe liberal women don’t like them.

There’s a conversation going on here. People are talking across the fence. The MoveOn ad is getting buzz not just on MSNBC, but on Fox News, where two Republican commentators, both women, tried in vain to explain to Bill O’Reilly why this all matters: why women across the political spectrum reacted with revulsion to, for example, Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s statement that “a woman impregnated thru rape should accept that horribly created gift. The gift of human life.”

Meanwhile, liberal blogger Liza and her conservative mom are finally having that long-avoided conversation about Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin. Liza’s mom thinks liberal women only want to see liberal women succeed in politics, even though they pay lip service to the notion of diverse views. Liza concedes she may be on to something.

I have to agree. I will never forget the chill I felt when I saw Sarah Palin on TV for the first time, standing next to John McCain, commanding the stage with absolute confidence.

“She’s got the magic,” I thought. “My God, McCain’s going to win and then she’ll run and win and she’ll be our Margaret Thatcher!”

I’ve never been so relieved to be so wrong. And yet what stayed with me were the conversations I had with Republican women who were thrilled by her: by the thought of a woman whose views they shared zooming up the political ladder the way Palin did in 2008.

Ultimately, I believe Palin was a polarizer of women, not a uniter. She did not talk across the fence in 2008, nor has she since, in her role as a TV commentator.

What’s going on now is different. Limbaugh, Santorum and the Virginia and Texas state lawmakers who recently enacted mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds went so far with their intrusive and offensive words that women, whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life, had to respond. Had to at least try to talk, like Liza and her mom.

Just as, fifty years ago, women began to look around the Mad Men world and say: excuse me, guys, but what about us? They didn’t all say it in the same way or for the same reasons. But the conversations began. At the water cooler, over martinis or milk and cookies.  Sometimes, across fences: still the hardest place for us to talk.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


I was going to write about something completely different, until I heard the news about the third tragedy in three weeks involving young children and guns in our state. Two children dead, one seriously wounded.  Will there be another by the time you hear this? Is this some kind of horrifying epidemic?  I hope not. I pray not.

What I was all set to write about was a phrase that caught my eye: novelist and artist Douglas Coupland’s contention, in a recent New York Times book review, that we “live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times.”

A post-era Era.  Really? Maybe we just haven’t decided how to “brand” our era yet because there’s a lot about it that’s not pretty. Maybe our zeitgeist is fear.

It is my unschooled opinion, as a non-gun-owner, that people choose to own guns because fear defines their lives. I’m not talking about hunters here, I’m talking about people who carry handguns or assault rifles.  I’ll say it again: fear defines their lives. They fear the unknown, the unpredictable, the bad thing that could suddenly happen, the bad person that could suddenly appear—and they hope that a loaded gun under the seat of their car will protect them.  Instead, their 3 or 7 or 9 year old finds that gun and a child winds up dead or gravely wounded. And the whole world grieves. And then it happens again. And again.

And maybe some people think, Wow, there are a lot of unhinged people out there with guns, people so distracted they forget to keep them away from their children—so I better get a gun too, in case I encounter one of those wackos. And the fear just escalates and escalates.

I don’t usually write like this. I am an optimist. I really don’t want to believe we live in the Era of Fear. More than anything, I wish I could convince people who let fear define their lives of the alternative, which is, of course, love.

One thing I’ve never understood is how people of faith reconcile gun ownership with their religion. The Bible preaches love. Jesus urged his followers to love their enemies, not fear them. Not take up arms against them. The old prophet Isaiah, living in the bloodiest of times, foretold an era when we would “beat swords into ploughshares.”

We’re not there yet.  We’re here, in a world where loaded guns are left within reach of children.

So back to Douglas Coupland. He says the Internet enables us to live in a time in which “all eras co-exist at once.” When I look up an old music clip on Youtube or some historical fact on Wikipedia, I think, “Great! I love this!”

But when I read about voter intimidation laws, or anti-contraception laws, or small children killing each other with handguns, and I realize they are not stories of the Jim Crow South or the pre-Feminist era or the Wild West, they are this week’s news stories—well, then Coupland’s declaration takes on a whole new, dark,  anarchic sort of meaning.

We live in the era in which all the fears of past eras keep circling back to haunt us.

Last week, I wrote about feeling like I’m every age I ever was.  This week, I feel like we, collectively, are every age we ever were as a country. As a people.  As a sentient species with the purported ability to learn and grow.  To turn fear into love. But can we? Will we? Maybe that’s the question that will define our post-era Era.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available. Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Every Age

Walking up Michigan Avenue on a cold Chicago morning, I know what I look like: a middle-aged woman suited up for a brisk Sunday walk. Practical shoes, corduroy jeans, warm jacket.  Exactly the kind of outfit my mother used to make me wear when I was four years old and I would’ve rather just thrown on a party dress.  Exactly the kind of outfit I’ve worn all my life, setting out for long walks, in any weather, in the many cold northern cities I’ve called home: Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Norwich and Cambridge, England.

What’s so hard to explain to younger people is this: the older you get, the more ages you are. I mean all at once. In every moment of your life.  I’m not just 55, I’m every age I ever was.  I’m the four-year-old who wants to skip and sing. I’m the teenager, walking because I need to be alone. I’m the twenty-something, wishing I could look attractive and stay warm at the same time.  I’m the mom, wishing all the children I see on this chilly day would please, please wear their hats.

I was in Chicago last weekend for the ridiculously gigantic writers’ conference known as AWP: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  Picture nearly ten thousand writers of all ages, racing from bookfairs to seminars in some of Chicago’s most historic hotels—the flagship Hilton across from Grant Park, where President Obama celebrated on Election Night 2008.  The Palmer House, favored by Ronald Reagan.  When Reagan was president, I was a cub reporter in Chicago and grateful to be a girl, in those sexist times, because it meant I didn’t have to work what was known as the Reagan Death Watch, which consisted of hanging out all night at the Palmer House in case Reagan, robust though he was, but—let’s face it—well over 70, suddenly keeled over.

As I walked down Michigan, my brain shifted back and forth from the Reagan era to the Obama era.  My life then. My life now.

My life then: twenty-something. Yearning. Learning my new trade, journalism. Wondering whether my boyfriend and I would marry. Torn on a daily basis between loving life with him and yearning to be… someone else. But I wasn’t sure who.

My life now: fifty-something. Married 24 years, but not to that boyfriend.   Sharing a Chicago hotel room, this AWP weekend, with my 22-year-old daughter. Where did the decades go?

Walking south on Michigan, you can see a faded advertisement for Gossard Corsets still visible on the side of a brick building that now overlooks a Zip Car lot.  This is what 55 means: you’re so old that when you were a very little girl, there were a very few ancient women who still wore some version of a corset. And now you’re living in the era of the Zip Car.

My daughter’s friend drove us to O’Hare Airport in a Zip Car. He’s in Chicago working for the campaign to re-elect our first black president. Could the women who wore Gossard Corsets ever have imagined such a time? Could I, thirty years ago, as I waited for the latest Reagan update in a smoky newsroom full of manual typewriters?

“Live in the moment,” people like to say. It’s good advice. But we don’t.

At one AWP panel, novelist Alice LaPlante suggested that one secret to the success of acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro is that she understands this truth: every present moment is freighted with every past moment of our lives.

Yes, I thought, as I walked up Michigan Avenue.  I am every age I ever was. And that is what makes life meaningful, and poignant.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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