Friday, April 22, 2011

No Escape from Death

On Good Friday, the Rev. David Smith woke up, put on his swimsuit, donned his regular clothing over it, stealthily left the house, and drove three hours to the beach. He knew his wife would assume he’d gone to his office for some early morning meditation on this high holy day. His secretary would assume he’d lingered at home this morning for the same reason. His cell phone was off.

Smith had grown up on the beach, another beach on another coast. He always missed it but rarely visited anymore. Today was different. Today he wanted to escape Good Friday’s rituals of suffering and death.

He found a coffee shop right on the beach. By now, the place contained just a few tables of retired men, out from under their wives’ feet. He bought a tall Kenyan blend, grabbed a thick newspaper, and settled down by the window.

There’s no place I’d rather be right now, he thought, rifling through the paper. He pulled out the Culture section, scanning the photos of art exhibits and authors. He set down the open paper and looked out the window. Dotted up and down the waterline, several men were surf casting. A group of young people, two in wetsuits, toted surfboards.

It was a rough day. The surf thundered as it tumbled to the shore. His eyes went out further, over the water, to the horizon. It seems to go on forever into the unknown, yet there is another side. He tried to conjure the image from his study wall of the world map, to picture what country lie directly across the latitude of the Atlantic.

Back to the newspaper, Smith read a review of Rob Bell’s controversial book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Several of his church members had asked him about this. Christians were lining up militantly on either side, charging at one another with words as bullets, grenades and bayonets, looking down on each other with disdain. His standard reply was, “I have not read the book.” He hadn’t.

He had addressed the issue indirectly last Sunday in his sermon from Galatians 5:13-15: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” The sinful nature, he explained, is pride, which often surfaces as a need to be right.

Just then there was a commotion at the shoreline. People—the fishermen and young people—ran back and forth, yelling, pointing. Smith hurried out to the front deck of the coffee shop, peering out to see what was wrong. There it was. A surfboard shot straight up into the air, suspended for a moment, then fell back onto the waves. Where was its owner?

Smith descended the several flights of stairs and headed a few hundred feet down the beach to the lifeguard stand. Yanking open the supply box, he picked up the binoculars and climbed up the stand. He instantly spotted the surfer’s head bobbing on the water beyond the breakers. The young man struggled to keep afloat, his arms flailing.

Smith jumped off the stand, pulled out the rope from the supply box and sped down the beach to the distraught group. He ripped off his shoes, shirt and jeans. He tied one end of the rope around his waist. He handed the roll to the strongest looking man in the crowd, then dove into the surf.

As a lifeguard in his youth, he’d been a strong swimmer. He’d tried to maintain that strength at the local pool by doing laps several times a week. It was not the same as ocean swimming but now he hoped it was enough. Where his strength ended, adrenalin took over. He made it out past the breakers and looked around. Nothing. He looked toward the group on the shore. They were still and silent.

Smith kept swimming back and forth, searching. After about 15 minutes, he was joined by several lifeguards in a rescue boat, who pulled alongside him, hauling him into the boat. He was tired. Back on shore, the four young people wept, hugged Smith and thanked him for his efforts to save their friend.

Driving home, Smith could not rid his thoughts of death.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Enlightened Sexism: Is Feminism's Work Done?

At age 15, I was part of a sit-in. One morning in 1969, I crowded with other girls into the lobby of my high school, sat down and refused to move until I had what we wanted: the right to wear pants to school.

And get this. The blue jeans I wore to school that day? They were boys’ jeans. Because back then no manufacturers made dungarees for girls.

In a speech Wednesday at JMU, Susan J. Douglas recalled that when she was 18, women could not get credit cards or take out mortgages. So things have changed a lot for women, she admits.

Douglas, author of “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done,” says our culture gives girls and women some very mixed messages about who they are. On the one hand, you have women playing powerful roles on TV shows, starring as news anchors, lawyers, doctors, police chiefs and judges. In the last presidential election, a woman ran for the top seat and another ran for vice-president.

The reality is that not many women really work in those roles. Women today fill the same jobs they did 100 years ago, as secretaries, nurses, maids, waitresses and schoolteachers. Does college make a difference? A year out of college, Douglas cites, women earn 80 percent of their male counterparts. Ten years out, they earn 69 percent of what men make.

“And if girls and women really have come so far,” says Douglas, “and full equality has truly been achieved, why is it that K-Mart sells outfits for four-year-old girls that look like something out of Fredericks of Hollywood?”

Douglas says much of the media is over-representing women as having made it in the high-profile professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort. At the same time, there’s a “resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries,” like The Man Show, Girls Gone Wild and TV specials featuring Victoria’s Secret bras and panties.

“But even this fare,” she writes in her book, “which insists that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacities of a vole, was presented as empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.”

By some strange twist in logic, in the 1960s, girlie magazines were sexist, but now pornography empowers women?

Douglas writes, “In Sex and the City, with its characters who were successful professionals by day and Kama Sutra masters by night, there was no such thing as the double standard: women had as much sexual freedom, and maybe even more kinky sex, than men. Cosmo isn’t for passive girls waiting for the right guy to find them; it’s the magazine for the ‘Fun, Fearless Female’ who is also proud to be, as one cover put it, a ‘Sex Genius.’ Have a look at O! The magazine is one giant, all-encompassing, throbbing zone of self-fulfillment for women where everything from pillows to celadon-colored notebooks (but only if purchased and used properly) are empowering and everything is possible.”

Oh, and in addition to being a “sex genius,” the other most powerful thing women can do is shop. “Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves,” writes Douglas. Does shopping make you feel powerful?

Douglas contends that the media offers women fantasies of power. But, ah, seeing the irony in all this also offers a fantasy of power. Watching a show like Jersey Shore and ridiculing the girls also feels empowering, says Douglas. It offers women a form of pleasure in that oh-so-feminine catty sort of way. So you think you’re not being seduced by it but … you are still watching it, aren’t you?

So all this is driven by two premises, says Douglas. One is “embedded feminism” that’s woven into our culture. We’ve made so much progress in 40 years and there’s no more to be done. We’re equal. That’s it.

The other is “enlightened sexism,” which keeps women in their place. Because in spite of all our professional, academic, athletic, artistic and you-name-it success, if our faces (well made-up), hair (straight, shiny) and body (thin, large-breasted) are not perfect, we are failures.

Isn’t that what most of us think?

Friday, April 01, 2011

An Encounter With Troy Aikman

So a couple weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, in the mail came a flyer about a business that rents huge-screen TVs on a weekly basis.

And when I say huge, I mean huge. You get 55 inches of LCD 1080p 120Hz HDTV—delivery and set-up included—for only … are you ready for this … $ per week. For an extra $7 you can rent a TV stand to put it on, available in a variety of styles. Oops! Sorry! Not a mere everyday typical run-of-the-mill variety, but a wide variety. Wide.

Other merchandise available to rent are washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, living room sets, computers and bedroom sets. And for an extra $13 per week, they’ll throw in the mattress.

On the front of the flyer are two hunks of manhood holding a small sign, one on either side. I recognize the one man. Who has not heard of Hulk Hogan, the “pro” wrestler? But I do not know who the other man is.

“Who is Troy Aikman?” I ask the husband.

The husband says he used to be a quarterback for some “football” team. I forget which or when and I don’t know what a quarterback is. I mean, I’ve heard about quarterbacks all my life, but I don’t know what they actually do.

But get this. Later, that night, we’re out somewhere and someone starts talking about … Troy Aikman! That’s the second time today! I look at the husband like … what? This has to be God, right?

Is this a sign that I should rent the 55-inch LCD 1080p 120Hz HDTV? Or am I supposed to rent one of the other products? Or am I supposed to write a column about Troy Aikman? How can I know what this means?

Why would Troy Aikman and Hulk Hogan be on this flyer, I wonder. Some people might see them as real manly men. Both were in sports that require speed, agility, strength, power, tenacity, muscle. All which add up to pure masculinity.

Also, in both “football” and “pro” wrestling the athletes get knocked around. Don’t their brains suffer some trauma? Does a helmet make it safe to ram your head against another head over and over for years?

In an attempt to discover the deeper meaning of this double encounter with Troy Aikman, I look him up on Wikipedia. First off, his photo looks like he spends a lot of time in the tanning booth. You know the look, so distinct from a real sunshine tan. I tend to group individuals who do this frequently into a little family. So no matter what their name is, I call such a person Miss Tanning Booth, Mrs. Tanning Booth or, in this case, Mr. Tanning Booth.

Aikman is a pure sports guy. The New York Mets baseball team offered him a contract right out of high school. He chose instead to pursue “football” at the University of Oklahoma, then transferred to UCLA where he played with the Bruins. From college he went to the Dallas Cowboys. Then he had this 11-year career in “football,” breaking records and leading the team to glory over and over.

After retiring, he became a sports commentator on FOX, winning an Emmy Award for his work. He started a weekly radio show. He’s the head of the Troy Aikman Foundation, a charity that benefits children. In 2006, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Later he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame. He bought a racecar and founded the Hall of Fame Racing in 2005. He is co-owner of the San Diego Padres.

Then there’s this: “As of fall 2010, Aikman is a co-spokesman for [a rental business] along with Hulk Hogan.”

Why? Why, Troy, why?

It’s like William Shatner in the Priceline ads. Every time I see one, I think, “Come on, Bill, you’re better than this.”

Why does a guy like Aikman, with such an illustrious career, obviously rolling in the dough, busy with family, public appearances, board of directors work, sportscasting, team ownership and on and on start appearing on flyers for TV rentals?

Aha! In his Wikipedia bio it says, “Aikman's final game was a home game against the Washington Redskins. Aikman was hit by linebacker LaVar Arrington and suffered the 10th concussion of his career.”

That answers that question. But the puzzle still remains as to why I encountered Aikman twice in one day. The answer can only be destiny. I was destined to write about him for April Fool’s Day.