Thursday, September 14, 2006

Don’t It Always Seem as Though You Don’t Know What You’ve Lost Till It’s Gone?

Tonight I am thinking about loss. Ann Richards, a remarkable woman, even more so to think that she bloomed like a yellow rose in the onion patch of male-dominated Texas politics died yesterday. I consider her loss a personal one for me, and an even greater one for the people of this country, particularly the women.

I loved so many things about her. She was so unabashedly herself, almost never apologizing and never explaining. She was all woman, elegant always, but one of my favorite things she said, speaking about her decision to go into politics, was “I did not want my tombstone to read ‘She kept a really clean house.’” Not to worry, Ann. We are much more likely to remember your accomplishments, your honesty, your candor, your wit. A complete mistress of the pithy remark, she once said of George H.W. Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

This blog entry now definitely wanders into “strange bedfellows” territory. I am about to invoke the name of Woody Allen. Even for me, the queen of the tangential thought process, this one may seem out there.

Tonight, on the series of reruns of selected episodes of the old Dick Cavett show, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) ran an early 70s Cavett interview with Woody Allen. Cavett, in his current-day introduction to the show, spoke of his long-time and ongoing friendship with Allen. He said that he had spoken with Allen recently and that he had commented on the passage of time, saying something like they were once the hip young guys watching old people in the park, and now, look who was watching whom. Things had changed. Cavett said that Allen responded, “Is anything getting better?”

Now, I certainly have no doubts that a lot has gotten better. Scientific and medical advances, race relations, rising consciousness about the environment, fashion sense, you name it, even Woody Allen’s hairstyle, awful as it is now, was worse then. But as the interview progressed, I was fascinated to see what is not better. Something has been lost, and it slipped away quietly, one unheralded little bit at a time, its current absence only visible by traveling back in time and seeing a talk show from some 35 years ago.

Cavett and Allen spoke freely of things that I cannot ever imagine being discussed by Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel. Cavett asked, for example, at what age Allen had begun to have erotic thoughts. When Allen said, with accompanying jokes, “In the crib,” Cavett responded seriously by saying he too had had sexual thoughts as a child very early, probably by two. My God, if someone said anything of the kind in this day and age, they would be publicly pilloried at least and perhaps even locked up. Allen and Cavett went on to have frank and, by today’s standards, politically incorrect discourse about what “type” of women Allen preferred and his views on blind dates. They moved, then, from sex to something even less likely to be spoken of in current society and more taboo than sex, death. And all of this discussion was leavened with humor. They talked of great films; they talked of the process of making films vs. other creative processes like writing or music; they talked about great books and reading.

I felt like I was back at the kind of party I used to have and to attend in the 70s on the East Coast, events where one could wander dropping in and out of one fascinating and substantive discussion to the next. Watching that interview was like intellectual water on the parched landscape of my mind. It was freeing and heavenly. The Dick Cavett Show, to be set in context, was not some stuffy, intellectual, esoteric offering on a public access channel (they didn’t have those much back then). He was the Oprah of his time, a hot show that people discussed around the water cooler and that got high ratings.

Seeing that show while thinking about Ann Richards makes me fearful that with her death we are losing a kind of politician and a kind of woman no longer seen in public life. Ann Richards would never have felt pressure, as Theresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton did, to produce a cookie recipe for reporters to make themselves appear more acceptably domestic. She would have laughed, the appropriate response, at anyone who even suggested it.

She did not whine, she never played any kind of victim card, she did not ever get defensive about her choices as a woman or her desire to do more than keep house or act as a spouse and support. She spoke and acted as if there was a level playing field, or as if she pretended it was level, with a wink, while spotting the poor guys a few points.

I will miss you, Ann. Our people, our country, our world, and our political arena need more, not less, wisdom, humor and common sense. And your passing, combined with that glimpse into the past provided by the Cavett show, have made me aware that I am also missing a lot more.

I am missing public discourse in which there is a genuine exploration of and exchange of ideas, where the tent is wide enough to accommodate a broad spectrum of thought and opinion without dissolving into polarized name calling and labeling. I am missing the presence of strong women in public life whose strength is not called aggression or worse. I am missing, suddenly and fiercely, the assumption of a right to privacy in law and in the media. I am missing walking, talking and buying things as I did in the 70s without fear that my government or law enforcement would be able to or interested in sifting through the minutiae of my life or in detecting “patterns” in it. All of us have lost much and we need to review this slow slide that we are on. This is another moment in which someone or many of us must stand up and say “Have you no decency, sir?” and take back those things our land was built on as our right and our privilege.

Thank you, Ann, for everything and for the kick upside my head. Rest well.

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