Sunday, August 22, 2010

The over-planted garden

This year my husband, Rick, and I were judges in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society city gardens contest. The requirements to be a judge are not that stringent— membership in the Horticultural Society and attendance at a training session for prospective judges.

At the training session, we were shown examples of good and bad gardens, including a photo described as “an over-planted garden.” I didn’t understand what the problem was; it looked good to me.

When I got home, I looked at my garden and realized I had created one of those horticultural no-no’s: "the over-planted garden." Rick said if the Horticultural Society trainers could see our garden, they would never let us be judges. Probably so.

Thanks to my friend Fran Waksler, I’ve learned the trick of taking photos of my garden when it’s especially wild and unkempt: close-ups.

Here’s the star of my August garden, crape myrtle:

And when my garden’s really a mess, there’s the close-up of the single flower. This amazing dahlia (variety unknown) begins as a rosy lavender and gradually morphs into a blazing orange:

It’s clear my garden will never win a prize in the city gardens contest. Rick made me feel a little better about it; “Think of a garden as creating an environment—a place you want to be—not a showpiece which meets the highest standards of the Horticultural Society.”

I thought I had made my peace with the messiness of my garden and wrote a post last August in which I proudly stated: “ I can deal with the fact that some of my friends think my garden is a chaotic mess… It took me a lot longer than it should have to get to this state of acceptance, but I think I’m there.”

Well, I’m not quite there yet, but I’ll keep working on making peace with my garden’s imperfections. It’s a lot easier than creating the perfect garden.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The White House Project in the Age of Sarah Palin and the Mama Grizzlies

I attended the White House Project workshop at the 2010 Blogher conference although I had been feeling increasingly ambivalent about non-partisan efforts such as the White House Project and the Women’s Campaign fund, “She should Run” Campaign.

After the White House Project workshop, it was a relief to see Emily’s list put out a frankly partisan attack with its hilarious video “Sarah Doesn't Speak for Me” .

For the past several decades, electing women has been a major focus of my activist life. I first heard Marie Wilson at a Womens Way conference in Philadelphia in 2004 and was convinced she was on the right track. I attended Emily’s List training sessions and over the years participated in numerous local workshops on women in politics. I organized a series of workshops in Philadelphia to encourage women to run for committeeperson, and worked on numerous campaigns to elect women candidates, etc.etc.

So why was I doing all this? It wasn’t just the belief that both genders should be represented in roughly equal numbers in positions of political power. I saw gender parity in politics as way to achieve a progressive agenda. More women in power would mean redirecting funds from a bloated defense budget and investing instead in human needs. Sure, there were the Margaret Thatchers, but I explained them away as women who had clawed their way to the top in a male-dominated political culture. When women achieve critical mass, they will support each other and make it possible for more progressive leaders to emerge.

Well, it turns out the Thatcher types have their female support networks too. And focusing on women does not automatically lead to advancing a progressive agenda.

In this context the White House Project did not resonate with me the way it did in 2004. I understand that the White House Project is a 501c3 and cannot be overtly partisan without jeopardizing its tax exempt status and funding sources. And I grant that the kind of skills-oriented, non-partisan training the White House Project provides is valuable for women new to the political process.

The speakers were excellent. Jill Miller Zimon who described her journey from blogger to elected official was really inspirational and Kathryn Poindexter who did the practical “everything you need to know to run for office” workshop provided all kinds of useful advice. She encouraged everyone at the session to think about running for office.

But not everyone should run. Over the years, I’ve seen workshops like these encourage women who lack the skills/ temperament /the politics which are good fit for their district take up supporters’ time and money on doomed campaigns.

Every successful woman candidate needs a good team behind her and that’s the role I’ve played, but I have become increasingly resentful of candidates with little or no chance to win asking me for my time/money.

After Poindexter’s session, I expressed some of my reservations. She had some good answers: there are so many women out there who have difficulty thinking of themselves in this role. We need to get more women running if we are ever to get that critical mass. Gender parity changes the political dynamic. So if we encourage some weak or inappropriate candidates, that’s a small price to pay to get the word out to large numbers of women.

She and I are on opposite trajectories. Poindexter said she began her career as a campaign consultant, focusing on candidates with progressive /feminist politics—-not on the candidate’s gender. The 2008 election was a real turning point for her; when Cris Matthews said that Hillary Clinton just didn’t sound "presidential," Poindexter decided she’d had enough and wanted to focus on advancing women.

I agree we have a real problem here and grant that at least Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies help to normalize the idea of women in high political office. But with their emergence on the national scene, I’ve begun to question my earlier focus on electing women as a kind of magic bullet.

Yes, I want gender parity but don’t want to achieve that critical mass of women leaders through electing women like Sarah Palin. I want to elect more feminist women (and men). Sarah sure doesn’t speak for me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New York City: The New American Heartland!

My husband and I just spent a few days in New York City for the Blogher 2010 conference. (More about that later.)

Over dinner, I happened to use the term heartland as shorthand for white, small town, Christian America and Rick said, “I think you’re sitting in the heartland.” He may be on to something here.

Walking down the streets of Manhattan (especially lower Manhattan) you see in what sometimes appears to be roughly equal numbers, the descendents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. And a casual glance at the street scene confirms that so many of the children of recent immigrants (with their unaccented English, their dress, their friends and partners) are clearly part of our ever-evolving American culture.

I always feel a little more alive when I’m in NYC and the cultural mix is a major part of the reason for that "center of the universe" feeling I always get in Manhattan.

When my husband and I retired, we planned to get to NYC more frequently but we haven’t done it nearly as much as we intended. We’ve resolved to change that. Rick has always thought of himself as a New Yorker in spirit and we always spend his birthday in NYC. We’ve tended to avoid the city in July and August and wouldn’t have come this August except for the Blogher conference. But I’m beginning to rethink that. The NYC street scene in August has its charms; people move a lot more slowly and seem more relaxed.

Not only do I love the cultural diversity of NYC, I love the relative lack of age segregation. You see so many really old people in their late 70’s, 80’s, even 90’s out and about in on the streets of Manhattan. They’re at the museums, the theaters and restaurants. This has a lot to do with NYC’s public transportation—plentiful taxi’s and accessible buses. A good friend told me her 89 year old mother who just had a hip replacement goes all over the city by bus. For older people who can afford to live there, NYC is a great place to grow old. I never noticed this when I was a young woman coming to NYC for all the excitement Philly could not offer, but as a retiree in her sixties I sure notice it now.

I find it especially gratifying to see women in their late 70’s, 80’s going to the theater alone and enjoying every minute. Sure, it’s much more fun to go to the theater with a friend, a partner. But for people who live alone, it might not always be possible to find someone who wants to see a particular play or be available for an impulse theater trip.

An elderly theater lover can probably easily find a friend who wants to see West Side Story or South Pacific, but it’s not so easy to find someone who might be interested in seeing an off-Broadway production like In God’s Hat described as a “noirish tale of loutish people.” So there she was, the elderly women in the front row having a great time at the theater by herself.

We’ve been going to more off-Broadway shows of late and it’s not just because of the ticket prices. There is so much theatrical talent in NYC and much of it is found off-Broadway The acting in In God’s Hat was astonishingly good. I think somehow it will live beyond its 4 week run at United Stages.

If you like seriously good theater at relatively low prices get on the mailing list for United Stages or for the Atlantic Theater. We’ve seen some fantastic productions of interesting, albeit flawed, plays at the Atlantic. There are far more good productions than there are good plays. But for me there’s nothing like the excitement of live theater and an interesting play that doesn’t quite work can still be a wonderful theatrical experience—and can lead to really great post theater conversations.

This is the main problem with going to the theater alone, but I bet the woman in the front row went home and engaged in the online discussions of the play. So many ways to connect now.

Anyway Rick and I are determined to make more frequent trips to the new heartland!

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I just received the following post from my friend Fran Waksler. August is a really tough month for gardeners and most of our gardens look a mess, but at least Fran has finished her book!

Hibiscus that self-seeded to a place it loves.

Tall phlox that Karen gave me from her garden many years ago

As you’ll notice, the photos are close-ups because any broader view would seem to be of an abandoned lot. But first, to my book.

In April I got a contract from University Press of America for a book I’d completed called The New Orleans Sniper: A Phenomenological Case Study of Constituting the Other, due out in December. As the title suggests, it is not destined to be a million seller, but it does have a niche in phenomenology, sociology, and criminal justice. UPA publishes scholarly books with small runs and thus asks authors to provide camera-ready copy. It’s possible to hire someone to produce such copy, but, hey, I’m retired and can do it myself. I did not, however, entirely understand what I was undertaking. Fortunately, very fortunately, I enjoy detail work, but it ended up being a rather complicated job. I learned more about formatting that I was aware there was to know. Fortunately UPA provided great support and the book is now in their hands. So from April to August I spent most of my time revising, formatting, getting permissions, and doing a hundred necessary bits and pieces.

And thus the state of my garden. Actually, the book was only one of three reasons that my garden is a mess. The weather has been extremely unaccommodating, alternating between too wet and too miserably hot. And then my dog, who always spends time in the yard with me, pulled a muscle, and was on the doggie equivalent of bed rest, i.e., no yard play. Without her beside me, gardening is much less fun. I even began to wonder if I was no longer as interested in gardening. But the day I mailed off my book, I found myself back in the yard, my now healthy dog at my side.

There is no way I can catch up with all there is to be done in the yard so I’m doing my best to deal with the things that are most offensive to me. The weather has produced many of these things: trees have been losing leaves (it looks like autumn), plants have died, the grass is brown (no amount of watering seems to help with days at 90 degrees), and the weeds have run amok. Some things have done well, too well: in my narrow north side moss path the hydrangea has gotten so big that it hits me when I walk by and if I swerve to the other side I get hit by Concord grapes. The Rose of Sharon has had a spectacular year and a wild red rose has been blooming non-stop. But all this is happening surrounded by weeds so nothing looks as pretty as it should. I do find weeding peaceful so my main goal is to pull as many weeds as I can before they reseed, do lots of pruning, and look to next year, when my garden will be immaculate.

The next book I write will be in the winter!