Archive for July, 2012

What’s in a Name? Women, Work and the suburbs



There was a girl at my suburban New York Catholic high school who really seemed to have it all.  She was a cheerleader (natch) – she may in fact have been captain of the cheerleaders, but this was a very long time ago and I could easily be exaggerating her status in retrospect. But she was definitely on the team.  Her boyfriend was a Senior when we were Juniors, and he was the darling both of the basketball coach and the math teacher who were known to hate pretty much everyone. She was blonde and quiet in a snotty sort of way, known to be quite clever, and besides all these god-given riches, she had two more attributes that represented  her unattainably, even unthinkably superior lifestyle: firstly her name was the unspeakably elegant, sophisticated and un-Long Island-sounding Cecelia,  and secondly, it was rumoured that Cecelia’s mother employed a housekeeper.

Looking back from where I am now, I realise that the two extraordinary traits for which we envied Cecelia the cheerleader are linked in an interesting way that has to do with women, work and immigration.  Like many suburbs of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which I grew up in the 1970s and 80s was peopled for the most part by the descendents of the European diaspora that arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century via Ellis Island, and you could generally tell how far removed you were from the shackles of the “old country” of your ancestors by your first name.  So for instance a middle of the road to Americanisation name like Mary, Margaret, Robert, Maria, John, Walter or Anne would tend to signify that your parents had been born in America, but their parents were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc.  while a name like Angelo, Siobhan, Helmut (that poor kid) or Analisa meant that the parents of those kids were what was to us then the most embarrassing of all creatures: relatives with an accent. The way such parents spoke was anxiety- provoking enough, but worse still to our cruel, tribal teenage eyes  were their old-fashioned ways of dressing, of decorating their homes and of course of cooking.  Shame befell the teen whose mother cooked authentic goulash instead of the hamburger helper kind the more Americanised moms were making, and horror belonged to the kid who brought a friend home after school only to have their mom feed them pirogues instead of twinkies for a snack.(Exceptions to this rule were allowed in the case of Italian families for everyone loves lasagne no matter who makes it or what their accent might be).

But generally speaking in my white working and middle class 1970s suburb, being  100% American (that is, just like the people we saw on television) was where it was at and everything else was cringe-worthy. And while most of our names reflected our links to some distant past in a country we never knew, we Margarets and Marys and Helmuts and Angelos longed for a name that represented our true allegiance to the one country we cared about: The United States of Television.  Names like Jennifer and Chad and Marilyn and Greg spoke to an idealised (and non-specific) heritage we wished to be ours, and Cecelia’s name seemed to represent the apotheosis of that form of white-bread Americana for which we had been prepared by the Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction and the Partridge Family (Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Billie Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo, Keith and Laurie Partridge were not eating cabbage soup or latkes at home, that’s for sure).(And BTW, Blonde haired, blue eyed Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie was meant to be Persian).

What’s funny is how the second of Cecelia’s unattainable attributes (the cleaning lady) haunted us just as much as her television-perfect name.  A housekeeper was something we saw on Hazel, on Nanny and the Professor, and of course, on the Brady Bunch (by the way, wtf was Carol Brady doing all day while Alice slaved in her pinafore and longed for a night out with Sam the Butcher? ) Like every kid  I knew (except the cheerleader whose name still arouses my ire) in our family we had just as many kids as the Bradys and Partridges but the idea of a housekeeper or cleaner was as distant and unlikely to us as being renamed Pippa .  And as a result some kid’s houses (like mine) were a continual source of anxiety, dread, remorse and sticky feet (the kitchen floor was rarely clean). And other kids who tended to be deeply afraid of their mothers had very clean houses, of which they (I figured then) must have been very proud, but which (I now believe) they actually couldn’t wait to get the hell out of.  And why is that?  I mean why is it that middle-class parents, many of whom were both working and had two or more cars and sometimes swimming pools and paid the fees for private Catholic education would never have dreamed of paying someone to clean their houses for them? I figure it has something to do with the proximity of many of our parents to the poverty of the previous generation, and in particular, to the poverty of many of their mothers, who, having arrived in the New World as children or young adults had to struggle with their accented English often in menial jobs that offered very little pay for seriously hard work, all so that they could the next generation of their families could have the American dream.  So while our parents enjoyed the relative luxury of only having to clean their own homes, their children, my generation, longed for the part of the American dream that meant we could make as much mess as we wanted and never, ever have to clean it up.  We wanted to be Marcia Brady goddamnit, or at least her cheerleader equivalent in the legendary Cecelia of Long Island. Back when the legal drinking age was eighteen (so half of high school seniors were old enough to go to bars) my boyfriend (who was eighteen) invited me to a party at a bar.  I was still seventeen.  I waited outside while he went in to borrow someone’s ID to bring back out to me.  He came back a few minutes later with – you guessed it – Cecelia’s driver’s license. We were of similar height and coloring, and anyway, in those days the license didn’t have a picture. I was both thrilled at sickened at the chance of pretending to be her and it took several minutes for my boyfriend to convince me to give it a try. I gathered up my nerve and walked brazenly into the bar with my fake id, for a moment inhabiting the Olympic heights of being a housekeeper-employing and television-name-bearing-goddess. But when I handed the id back to the real Cecelia with a thank you and she gave me one of her snotty smiles and I suddenly noticed that she had really bad teeth and her nose was crooked and her hair was actually kind of weird. In other words, Cecelia was really rather a lot like me (apart from my house being dirty and my name being Margaret.) And looking back now the idea that my vision of an ideal life came from Friday nights on ABC is both frightening and kind of funny, particularly as I seem to have spent much of my adult life researching the origins of words, images, and ideas, stripping away the false, the processed, the pre-digested in a variety of forms.  Like many women of my generation, I buy organic (sometimes) search out “authentic” ethnic recipes and ingredients that my own mother would not have recognised (but her mother might) and scoured the baby name books for “original” sounding names that reflect the childrens’ cultural heritage. Hell, I don’t even watch television anymore.  But lest I try to pretend that the Long Island girl has been entirely left behind, I confess that long ago I changed my name from Margaret to Meg.  And recently, I hired a cleaner.



Poetry and Hope: Liane Strauss

I had dinner on Sunday night with London-based New York born poet Liane Strauss, author of Leaving Eden, (Salt 2010) and Frankie, Alfredo (Donut Press, 2009). Liane has published widely in the US and UK including  The Hudson Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner and Magma. She teaches literature and creative writing at Birkbeck College, The Poetry School and The City Literary Institute.

See here the late Michael Donaghy’s take on Strauss’s poetry:

So what did we two misplaced New York women writers discuss on a rainy so-called summer’s evening in London: poetry and hope.  Where does it come from and do we need more of it?  Is false hope better than no hope?  Isn’t the act of writing itself an inscription of hope, hope writ large or small (depending on the form) that grows out of a belief both in one’s own voice and ability to craft that voice into art, and in the possibilty that your the invitation to the reader will be accepted. 

The process of submission for publication of one’s writing, of course, is another act of faith.  As Liane reminded me “it is out of your control.  Your job is to concentrate on the work. That is what matters,” and the ability to continue to do so in the face of criticism, or worse yet, indifference, is perhaps the central tenet of the artist’s creed: self-belief, hope in one’s power to create something original, something that matters, something that says something that needs to be said in a new and perhaps shocking or shockingly beautiful way.

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when the chips are down and the cupboards are bare and all seems lost and empty and hopeless, Marmee tells her girls to “Hope and keep busy,” and it is nice to know that writing women are still there to offer the same solace to one another.

I offer you this poem of Liane’s, and its shockingly beautiful evocation of hope.

It’s Never Too Early for a Clean Slate

I’m blinking in the blank white light off the blinding sheets.
The voice beside my head has seen more of the world already
and it’s not even 7. She reassures me like a baby,
but I’m 42 if I’m a day, and I need to hear the forecast,
which I still haven’t learned has nothing to do with the weather.

The next 12 hours are playing like a film on the bathroom mirror.
I’m the atheist at the baptism, looking forward to lamb chops:
I merely survey the experience; my heart’s not in it.
When I release my grip the living end reverses into the tube.

And here is my first tall cup. It scalds
my gums, the parapets and vaults of my mouth,
and you’re talking to me in the native tongue
which was my own once, set like type,
or handprints in cement, as near second nature as Mother Nature,
but today I can’t make heads nor tails of anything you’re saying,
although I remain convinced if only I would try a little harder,
apply myself with more stick-to-itiveness,
I’ll be able to save you, or be myself saved,
from what, from the look in your eyes, is
some not-so-new or even unforeseeable disaster.
But then I realize I can’t even hear myself think,
that I’d need earplugs and a pneumatic drill
just to get through the words. And even your eyes
don’t hear me when, out of time, ideas and desperation,
I semaphore in my own dead language, remembering my father
telling me never to fall in love with a foreigner
or in the middle of the night he’d curse me.

But it’s only first thing in the morning,
and not the first time, by my troth,
I’ve failed to seize (let alone shuck) a pearl of wisdom
cast like an aspersion before me and time to go,
so I wave goodbye, which I see is an ambiguous
as well as an ambidextrous gesture. But at the same time
I also can’t see. And what choice do I have?
I don’t have two right hands, and we’re at the crossroads
of the breakfast table – the coast being clear, the toast being cold –
and I unbolt the chain, let slip the wards of God,
(or Whoever it is Whose gates these are) and,
tossing precaution and my only set of keys into the hedge,
I notice that it really isn’t too early yet,
and I’m brimming with hope, which has its disadvantages.

Liane Strauss, 2010, copyright Salt Publishing

I Got All My Sisters with Me: Why BFFs Matter


‘To yield readily— easily— to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.’
‘To yield without conviction is no compliment
to the understanding of either.’
‘You appear to me, Mr. Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection.’  ≈ Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

‘Nobody sees a flower reallyit is so small it takes timewe haven’t timeand to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’  Georgia O’Keeffe

‘It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.’  Marlene Dietrich

Women are hard-wired to be social in ways that not only reduce stress but help them stay healthier as they age.  In fact, not having strong bonds with family and friends is the equivalent of poison–as detrimental to physical well-being as smoking or being overweight, according to U.C.L.A. researchers.  ‘Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have,’ writes psychologist Shelley E.  Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships. Men typically rely on women for that protective shield of intimacy, often in marriage. But studies have shown that, for women, it doesn’t matter whether they are married or not, as long as they have close relationships. From Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to Sex and the City, where would we be without our girlfriends?