Monday, February 14, 2011

A Half-Hearted Valentine to the Chauvinist Pigs of the Past

Why I (finally) stopped manipulating men
    (2/14/12) What I remember most about my Valentine's dinner with The Colonel, at New York's venerable Luchow's Restaurant, is not that he ordered my six-course dinner for me, without seeking my permission or knowing anything about my preferences. It is that I was strangely, startlingly thrilled. How outrageous of him! How condescending! He took charge, just like that! It was done in a debonair, understated fashion.  The rush of pleasure I experienced was very confusing.

Luchow's opened in 1882 and closed a hundred years later.

    (UPDATE: I have just learned that the Colonel died at his farm in Pender, N.C., at age 89. RIP, you dear, anachronistic man.)
    Sexism was as wrong as its most ardent opponents claimed it was, but it certainly had its flip side. Men took care of everything, including the bill. All a girl had to do was lean back -- looking halfway decent -- and lovely things just unfolded before her, as if in a ballet. 
    Was it "lovely" that my escort had behaved in such a high-handed fashion?  I wouldn't have thought so, but there was some part of my brain -- one of those primitive parts, I guess -- that sure did perk up and get all rosy. I was going to have to smack it back down, as soon as it stopped feeling so good. 

    The Colonel, whom I called "Cologne" just to exasperate him, had been very presumptuous to order for me. It was a stupid thing to do, for many reasons, but it was the unadulterated arrogance of it that made it, in the that era's context, so manly. Neither Beaver Cleaver's daddy nor Ricky Nelson's would have done such a thing. They were pretty wimpy, domesticated cogs in mid-century Middle America. 
You were sweet, Ozzie, but boyish charm isn't charming forever.
     It took swagger for my date to order my food. It may have been anachronistic, given that it was 1976, but it forced me into the role of dainty helplessness, which must have been -- on some level -- a relief. When the Colonel blithely took command, I virtually swooned. I was disgusted with myself even then, but I swooned nevertheless.
    Humphrey Bogart probably would have done the same thing. Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark, too. They would have done it in an imperious, cavalier way, implicitly daring the woman to object. And she wouldn't have! Unless she were Lauren Bacall, perhaps. Lauren would have said something like, "What makes you think I eat meat, you big side of beef?"
"I'm a vegetarian, you stupid, sexy, delicious man!"
     That's what I would have said, if I hadn't been too stunned even to hear what the Colonel ordered for me. 

    Everything that was placed in front of me was meat, except for the dessert, and I didn't eat dessert, either. It was a schnitzel, bratwurst, pig's knuckle, venison chops kind of place. And baby partridge! Shit, that is so sickening! 
    At least the Colonel had the sweeping audacity also to order an entire bottle of whiskey (which I had only experienced once -- at a rowdy polka bar in "Germantown," on the East Side). So I had something to occupy me as he plunged into course after course of slaughtered animal.
    The Colonel, who was about 25 years older than I, and whom I had just met a few days earlier, was a right-winger who knew I was a "leftie." He had just been named by Mayor John V. Lindsay to serve on the board of the agency for which I worked. 
    He was a big, gruff, ruddy and good-looking man, who had never married, and lived by himself in what I had heard was a magnificent Park Avenue apartment. He had enjoyed a distinguished military career after graduating from West Point. He was a currently a "gentleman farmer," who owned a big plantation in North Carolina, which he said was "worked" by "my colored people," but he spent most of his time in New York. He taught a university course in Civil War history because he felt students needed to learn "both sides of the story." That sounded ominous.   
The other side of the story.
    With respect to male-female relations, it was an awkward time. "Women's liberation" was in the air, and I believed in it, but I had been steeped in a male-dominated culture almost all my life. I wasn't unaffected by all that propaganda. 

    Things were in transition, and we -- especially those of us who were single in the 1970s -- were improvising, circling each other cautiously, testing the waters, trying to figure out what was "right," what was realistic and what we could get away with.
    There were rational arguments to be made that women possessed strengths, aptitudes and overall potential that had been brutally suppressed in most parts of the world for most of human history. And brutal is not an exaggeration, if you look deeply enough into the anguished psyches of so many women in our culture up to that time.
Across the nation, women were demanding equality. They were called "shrill."
     But then there was biology. What a mess that makes of things! Men wanted sex, and they would put themselves through all sorts of contortions and games to get it. They were the brutes. They were also helpless victims of their own biochemistry. Now that I've been out of that crazy game for decades, I am able to feel sorry for them.
   But for several years, I would find myself going after the best of both worlds. If you were were rich, famous, powerful or gorgeous, I would join you for drinks or dinner. I was still mired in the notches-in-the-belt phase -- just like a man, except with a smaller waist. It was pretty ruthless and unprincipled, but that seemed to be the milieu of the jungle in which all of us were both hunters and prey. 

    I wanted to have my cake, eat it too, have the guy pay for it, and then demand to be treated as an equal. Most importantly: Don't touch me.
    It worked very well for me. I was beating them at their own game. I'm not proud of it anymore. It was one-upmanship, and that isn't how human relations should be conducted.
    My partial explanation is that I was pissed. I guess I had been angry since my early teens about the gender hierarchy. Maybe I wanted revenge. After taking an "occupational aptitude test" in school, I was told that my strength was in "clerical speed and accuracy," and that I would be highly valued in an office setting. 
I would contribute spunk and vanity as well as speed and accuracy.
     I wouldn't be doing that for long, of course, because I would most assuredly be getting married and having children. 
   When I said I wanted to be an architect or a lawyer, a number of men -- including teachers and friends of my father -- looked at me with outright revulsion. (My dad didn't. He was proud.) It was as if I'd admitted to being a dyke or a communist, which were the two worst things you could be in the '60s. Their reaction was so hurtful to me -- an adolescent girl who knew that male approval was everything in this world -- that I just shut up and kept my aspirations to myself.

    When "women's libbers" came into being, with their insightful, reasonable and rousing assessment of women's oppression, they were loudly despised and ridiculed by people of both sexes. They were demonized as hysterical threats to the idyllic family unit that was central to The American Way of Life. 
    They were assailed as ugly women who were "man haters" with a "castration agenda." They were surely a bunch of gay, Jewish, socialist, mentally unstable rabble-rousers who needed to be firmly crammed back into their assigned cubbyholes, wearing bras whether they wanted to or not.
Hang them until they are dead!
     I was inspired by everything they said and wrote. I wanted to be bold, brave and autonomous, free of preconceived ideas about what I could or should be. I had no doubts, intellectually, about feminists' perspectives.
    The problem was: I enjoyed the perks of the good old days, and as I became a young adult, they were substantial. It would take me years to relinquish them.
    I liked the free stuff. Today, it seems that liking free stuff is a bisexual trait.

    I racked up the free drinks and free dinners and free weekend getaways as if I were a cash register and the till represented my worth as a human being.  Add in all the flowers, bottles of liquor, jewelry, clothing and other "little gifts," and I was pretty priceless. (Maybe if men hadn't been such pricks, women wouldn't have needed this currency to reassure themselves that they had real value.)   
"The Kept Woman" by Mel Odom, from Viva 1976.
    I theorized that some of my male companions were essentially buying the pleasure and prestige of being seen with a well-dressed, glossy-haired younger woman. They got what they paid for.
    Others were purchasing good conversation with someone who was both a good talker and a good listener. They got what they paid for as well, I rationalized.
    But the notion that I could essentially "earn my keep" by being an enjoyable companion is, of course, quite unfair. They were enjoyable companions too. So why should they pay?
    They shouldn't have. But the fact that I allowed them to, for so many years, gave me a sense of power and triumph that significantly compromised my character. It was unprincipled. It was callous, manipulative and greedy. 
    It was delicious!

    All I had to do was the equivalent of batting my eyelashes, and I pretty much got whatever I wanted. That was unfair not only to the men, but also to the women whose eyelashes weren't quite as nice as mine.
    Part of the reason I played this game, as I've said, was certainly an unconscious desire to lash back at a sexist system that had been pigeonholing me from Day One, when I was wrapped in a pink blanket and given a name that, even as a child, I thought was way too feminine for me. There were the dolls, the ballet lessons (and the sewing and cooking lessons). 
    Even my reading obsession was steered toward books and magazines for girls that were blatantly aimed at putting me in my place. When I was in sixth grade, I read "Double Date" and "Marcy Meets a Man," thanks to the ever-helpful public librarian, who could have introduced me to Great Literature if she hadn't herself succumbed to all that programming. The magazines she handed me, Seventeen and American Girl, were all about makeup, contoured bras with "natural-feeling" Fiberfill enhancement, and the latest "flirty" hairstyles. 
"Flips" were so flirty, and so were Jantzen swimsuits!
    The "tomboys" at school -- the girls who dared to be assertive, physical, loud and fearless -- were ridiculed. They should have been encouraged, and we more conventional girls should have been prodded to be inspired by their strengths. 

    As I got older, part of the appeal of the status quo, I'm afraid, was pure larceny. The dating world back then was basically a license to steal. That was exhilarating. "I'll never buy my own drinks or dinner again!" I exclaimed from a Manhattan roof garden.
    But I also longed to be cared for and protected. Having moved far from home before my 21st birthday, and being on shaky ground psychologically, I needed bits of "Daddy" wherever I could find them.
    I had a too-handsome-to-be-true doctor (way cuter than Kildare) who assigned a medical intern to inject some dye into my arm in preparation for a diagnostic procedure. He told me to speak up if the injection made me feel faint or dizzy. Then he left the room.
    The injection did make me feel dizzy, so dizzy I could hardly see. It made me feel so faint that I couldn't speak -- all I could do was to moan as I began to go under. The intern became so alarmed that he ran from the room, leaving the needle dangling from my arm.
    The yummy doctor dashed in, and (this is one of my best memories of all time) he SWEPT ME INTO HIS ARMS and carried my limp body to the examination room across the hall, where he lay me down and began probing my armpits (for some reason) to find a pulse.
Please, please, please: Never put me down.
    Oh my god, I was in such heaven that I had to force myself not to smile, for fear he'd think I was faking. I wasn't faking -- I was fainting -- but I would gladly faint every day if I could be rescued like that, by a white-coated prince who had such anguish and fervor in his eyes. He cared so much! Didn't you, Dr. James Freston?

    I also became acquainted with two big, bald, aggressive and handsome architects.
    Brothers Nat and Dave Geiman called me "Sunshine," a term that wasn't far-fetched at the time, but certainly doesn't apply today. I met them after my freshman year in college, when I got a summer advertising internship in New York.
    I was 18, they were Big Daddies, and I loved the stern, domineering measures they used to ensure I stayed safe during my 10 weeks there. 
    One day, they took me up a creaky, makeshift open elevator to the top floor of a midtown skyscraper they were erecting. There were no walls! I was uneasy even being in the middle of the vast floor space, not to mention venturing out to the edge, so I could look down. 

    But I ventured out anyway, even after their firm warnings not to, because I couldn't resist what I knew would be a titillating, roughly physical rescue."You reckless little fool!" Nat yelled, grabbing me around the waist and yanking me back to safety (I loved it -- sorry). "From now on, I'm not taking my eyes off you for a minute!" (I loved that as well.)
    Several years later, when I worked in one of the most chauvinist-pig environments on Earth -- a men's prison -- I was once again seduced by the power and protectiveness of the opposite sex, this time in the form of the Rikers Island brass. They escorted me everywhere, usually at least two at a time, as if I were Shirley Temple at the Pedophile Resort and Casino.
    My brain knew I didn't need protection. The inmates realized I was there to help them, and they treated me with respect. But that old primitive part of my brain reared its pouty bimbo head again and engulfed me in some sort of chemical bliss. I knew it was protocol that I be supervised in this way, but it still made me feel special. The only thing that really bothered me about it was that it was insulting to the prisoners.

    After a few years of playing the gender game for everything I could get, my integrity finally materialized. I stopped doing it. I wouldn't let anybody buy me anything, or even pay me for freelance work I did for them. I can never make amends for my cynical behavior 40 years ago, but I do regret it. I had motive and means, like any successful criminal. My victims were also my co-conspirators. But by turning relationships into a "game," we all cheated ourselves.

    I don't have to deal with male chauvinism anymore. My darling Joe is chivalrous, but it is part of his character, not a strategy for self-aggrandizement. He leaps to the rescue of anyone in need, no matter their age, attractiveness, gender or species. He escorts bugs out of our house and sends them on their merry way. He rescues fainting plants and nurtures them back to life. He is compelled to intervene if an animal is hungry or in pain.
    So he gets a wholehearted Valentine, not the half-hearted one I sent to the chauvinist pigs of the past.
     I love you, dear.

    POSTSCRIPT: At Luchow's with The Colonel, the first course arrived. It was "head cheese," he informed me. I cut a slice and tried some, along with a chunk of crusty bread.
    "It doesn't taste like cheese to me," I said, chewing thoughtfully.
    "Actually it isn't," he replied. "It's pig head meat suspended in jellied stock."
    Have you ever hurled vomit across an entire restaurant? Neither have I, but I came close. I am just telling you this in case you're as clueless as I was. I wish I'd had the opportunity to order my companion some Ass Cheese. 
    "What a delightful piece of you-know-what," he probably would have said.