Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Exceptional Women, Part Trois

There have been tributes upon tributes so there is not much else to add to whatever has been said about the loss of one of our great musicians without what seems like piling on. True, Whitney Houston was a beautiful, thrilling and exceptional talent. Maybe the horror was magnified because her demise was so public and avoidable. Or maybe it was the addiction to drugs, booze, and that horrible husband she could never really leave. Whatever the reason, we all felt especially saddened by another senseless tragedy.

It’s Valentine’s day so I would like to continue my blob from yesterday. It’s kind of a Valentine. Ella Udall, who insisted that people call her Tiger, died in the same tragic way. At the time, her death was considered a suicide, and maybe it was. I have always believed that it was accidental. Ella would never have intentionally killed herself. She enjoyed being alive, and pissing people off. This much we know. She was drunk and told Mo she was going out to the car to kill herself. This was not unusual. She often made this kind of threat. My guess is that she turned the car (and probably the radio) on, with the garage door closed. Mo never expected that she would remain there. He probably thought she would stay for a little while and then come back in the house. Tiger expected Mo to try to stop her – that was what he always did. But they both fell asleep. He, on the couch, she (having been drinking a great deal), in the car. Tragically, by the time he realized she was missing, she was gone. He loved her so much he would never have let her die.

The first time I met the Udalls was the summer of 1975. It was at a chic (not fancy) fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard. Since it was the Udall campaign, we were always short on staff and the people in charge (there were two I think), asked me to go and ‘advance’ the event. Simply, that meant I had to make all the logistical, press and VIP arrangements for the Candidate, and his animated spouse. Cut to the headline, she liked me, thought I was funny (didn’t care about competence) and asked me to travel with her as personal staff – as her entire staff.

After much campaign discussion, it was decided that Mo would be happier if she were with him, but, because she liked to spend time in the bar, never slept, and the press loved spending time with her (she was charming, smart, entertaining, -- she did wondrous imitations of the staff -- and she knew no parameters) but she could not be left on her own. The job was 24/7. It took me away from my baby and my safe and normal life. But I thought Mo would be a great President and that I wasn’t just babysitting, (I was doing something important for the country --- blah blah blah). It was exciting and fun and Tiger was a hoot. Our day started at 5am,when she would knock on wherever I was sleeping, and yell “What are you, on vacation?”. The day would end at the bar of wherever we were staying. Usually about midnight or 1 a.m. When we were in between, I was educated about working hard, humor, interpersonal relations, and how to deal with criticism. At some point she fired me because I asked her to be kinder to the female staff. I left the road but not the campaign.

Here’s why she made such an impact. She was always authentic. In a business where everything is smoke and mirrors, she did not know how to be false. Loud, Brash, Drunk but Sober, Opinionated, Smart, Loveable, Mean spirited, Devoted, Loyal, Dangerous, Loveable and Hilarious—often all at the same time. If that doesn’t make all who survived her a better, different, stronger person, then nothing could. She wasn’t Betty or Bella, but she had the same passion for “what was right” – not necessarily fair, but right. When you were in her company, she simply took your breath away. Resting in Peace was never something that would make her happy. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Fortunate

This morning, I was reminded by an Al Neuharth (USA Today) column how fortunate I was to have Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Ella Udall in my life. True, they were flowers of different species, but each exceptional in their own right.

The column, which was really a comment on the “feisty” way NOW (National Organization of Women) operated under Betty’s direction, and the Caspar Milquetoast approach of the people in charge today. He said if the Komen Foundation had done in Betty’s years, what they did last week, women would have been on the streets… marching, not just commenting. And he was right.

The anniversary of her birth and death, (she was born -1921, and died- 2006, on February 4th) were celebrated the same week Brinker allowed her foundation to become a political tool. Seems like awkward timing – if you knew about Betty and the progress NOW helped the women’s movement to make. If you weren’t around in those days, and if you expect to find her name in most history books, then you have been denied a wonderful opportunity to learn about how activists used to make things happen.

My focus of issues that concern women (life, death, and everything that happens in between) started in the 70s when we burned our bras. Since I never needed one, it wasn’t a big sacrifice. But we didn’t measure boobs, just commitment to a cause. We were always vocal and visible. Betty showed real leadership when her brainchild (NOW), was finally an organization with which the political world needed to contend. Bella, as the Congressional Representative from New York, who always made important noise, and wore outrageous hats. And Ella, the wife of a presidential Candidate who refused to behave like the wife of a Presidential Candidate.

But first to Betty. (I may have to blob about Ella and Bella at another time). We didn’t bond over abortion, the economy, or childcare. As the Chief of Staff at an international government agency, I was able to fund “speaker’s trips” for both Betty and Bella all over the world. So, yes, it was the money, not my incredible charisma, that allowed me entree into the lives and works of these special women. Somehow, maybe because they saw me at all kinds of women’s issues meetings, they assumed I should be included in whatever important meetings they had arranged. Here’s what I most loved about those events: we would enter as a group, (different sizes, shapes, and color), but often it made no difference to the people with whom we were meeting. We were all just girls.

As soon as Betty realized that the meeting was primarily to listen rather than be heard, she would just say, “OK, it’s time for us to go.” And no matter how long we had been there, we would all just stand up, say a pleasant goodbye, and we were gone – often leaving the people/person, with whom we were meeting, surprised and in pretty much in the dark. Betty would say, “If they didn’t get why we left, they weren’t worth the time we had already wasted.” There were never any apologies.

Betty was small in height, and enormous in stature. She was very well aware of the importance she had to women who worked with her, and those who admired her and often wanted to be her. Much like trying to explain to today’s young people what life was like without cell phones, the internet, and GPS, in today’s political climate it remains a challenge to describe the powerful impact and heartfelt intensity of someone like Betty Friedan. We’re just sayin’… Iris

Friday, February 10, 2012

One In A Million

Todd and Brittany, who looked like they were in their early 30’s were in the hotel lobby, talking to the concierge about Bed and Breakfast possibilities near or in Albuquerque. She was a wispy blonde with her hair held back with a scarf. Todd, thin, handsome, and smiling, was in a wheelchair.
“We were looking for something small and romantic, maybe with a fireplace in the room,” she said.
“Don’t think I can help you”, the concierge said. “That area is a puzzle I can’t put together.

While I was sitting in the rear of the room, there were four people waiting for someone in the front lobby. Joseph Rivera was one of the four, but not paying much attention until he noticed that half of Todd’s leg was missing,

“Thank you for your service to the country.” He said it with a level of comfort I wish we all had. “I live out there and know that area pretty well. There are a couple of places that are probably exactly what you want.” He went on to describe each place.

Brittany seemed particularly excited about one of them. Rivera added, “It would be an honor for me to cover the cost of the room. The least I can do.”

Brittany, in tears, accepted his generous offer. (Which also included a bottle of wine from his wine cellar.) They continued to talk, I continued to listen. Todd had been in the service for sixteen years. As an infantry Staff Sergeant, he was posted to Fairbanks Alaska, which was where he had hoped they (Brittany and four home schooled children), would retire. Then he was sent to Kandahar.

“There were twenty guys ahead of me, my medic and me, and twenty guys in the rear. I stepped on the mine. No one else was hurt, thank God, and I lost half my leg. God works in strange ways, he must have had some plan for me. At least that’s what I feel in my heart. Now I’m in rehab in San Antonio and my whole family lives in the Fisher House. We are blessed.”

These lovely people were authentic. It was not just empty banter. Being a cynic, and not particularly religious, I was moved by Joe’s generosity, but, where I would have been wary of all the God conversation, I found myself wishing I was as sure of what I believe in as they did. And then they held hands and prayed. Although I had introduced myself, I was not part of the prayer circle, but did continue to listen to each of the five prayers.

Each prayer was personal. In every case, along with family and friends, they prayed for the nation and the wisdom of the President. There was no political judgment in their words. And then the best…. “Dear God, you are way cool.” This was how Brittany began her prayer. It was said with the kind of enthusiasm that I had never heard in a conversation with God. The honesty was truly moving. (And you all know it’s not easy to move me). At the end of the prayer, there were more thanks and lots of hugs – Having sat there quietly for quite some time, they included me in the hug part of the program.

From the time Joe inserted himself in the Bread and Breakfast conversation (Oh and they were also going to have a fireplace in their bedroom) until the hugs and goodbyes, it could not have been more than half an hour. Although this well deserved pause in my cynicism was brief -- I didn’t hold hands but I admit I said a little prayer and found the whole event incredibly spiritual. What I’m left with today is concern about all our wounded warriors, and a hope that Joe Rivera, Bless him, is not just one in a million. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The War on Tits

It irritates me when women make war on women. It also irritates me that the conservative right calls their anti-abortion sentiments the "right-to-life". Because if you are ‘pro-life’ then everyone else must be against life. Many of us say ‘choice,’ instead of "the right to choose." The right to choose what you will do with your body does not mean that you are against life. In fact, quite the contrary. What it means is that you have the right to live your life the way you want to. And just let me say this: no one, but no one gets pregnant as a joke. It is always intentional or accidental – unless you’re under 18, when you have no idea of the consequences, and then it’s just stupid. The same people that are anti-abortion are also people who don’t particularly care what happens to the kid once they are born. One of the Presidential Candidates even said that even if a woman got raped, she should be made to carry the baby because being pregnant was a blessing from God. I wonder when God shared that information with him.

But that is not what I wanted to blob about. 90% of what Planned Parenthood, does, (aside from being under attack, and now investigation, by the conservative right), is to provide breast exams for women who cannot afford it, and give counsel to people who need to be educated about birth control. Only 3% (and you may feel that is too much) is related to abortion. Shame on the Komen Foundation. Their excuse for the elimination of grant money to PP (now restored), was that Planned Parenthood was under Congressional investigation. I don’t have to tell you by whom. And while they rewrote their Grant requirements to eliminate any organization under investigation, (regardless of reason), they did not re-write their sponsor/donor rules to include corporations under investigation. So it’s OK to take money from corporations that are suspect—like the Bank of America --but not to give it.

The fact that they were surprised by the backlash was amazing. There are people who have mammograms, who don’t believe in abortion. (BTW there are also men who get breast cancer. ) It will never be the same for them. As the largest of the breast cancer organizations, they had a special place, a credibility, and a fine reputation that will never be restored. There were policies established by Komen with which I did not agree—like you shouldn’t just treat the cancer, you should treat the whole person, (I think first things first.) But they were certainly worthy of financial support, not only from corporations, but from people like me, who walked, ran, and attended a variety of events – because everyone knows someone who has had to deal with the epidemic in some way. Whether that person is their wife, mother, child, or friend, no one has gone untouched.

Here’s the good news, Komen is only one of many breast cancer related organizations. We can still give to help eliminate the disease, but we may need to look beyond the largest, and opt for one that is local, or at least beyond National Politics. Women and men all across the country, (regardless of Party) were enraged and insulted by the presumption by Komen, that we all were stupid enough to believe that this was not a political decision. Their refusal to give a grant to Planned Parenthood made it political. Clearly, they need a new policy/political director – that is, if they even manage to survive over the next few years. We’re just sayin’… Iris