The devil, they say, is in the details. And so it proved recently as I found myself serving and volleying furiously in a conversation with my Republican uncle about Barack Obama and Donald Trump. (If this had been a tennis match, it would’ve been John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase circa 1979, Madison Square Garden – don’t ask.)
Normally, I am the soul of forbearance with said uncle, who is elderly and served in the Korean Conflict – as he often reminds me. And I have a high tolerance for personal insults, being a confident person and having spent more than 35 years in a newsroom. But when someone I love or admire is attacked, my back is up. Uncle disparaged the current president, and we were off, shouting and talking over each other like a particularly maniacal Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan on the late, lamented “The McLaughlin Group.” (The idiosyncratic political round table was even funnier than its “Saturday Night Live” sendup.)
Late into the dustup with Uncle, he delivered what he no doubt thought was the coup de grace: The outfit I wore to the family’s Thanksgiving gathering made me look like a bag lady. He was embarrassed, particularly in the presence of a family friend.
What I wore that day – a new, sleeveless, textured navy Rebecca Taylor sheath with a kick pleat and scalloped embellishments. It was accompanied by a lime moto jacket, a blue and green scarf with the Greek key pattern, blue and green jewelry and midnight blue suede Stuart Weitzman peep-toe pumps – the palette of this blog. My family was for the most part wearing – jeans.
However, under my jacket, which I took off, was a navy bolero sweater, which had a tiny pinprick hole that I hadn’t yet repaired. Plus, I had brought the light-blue butterfly-patterned apron my beloved Aunt Mary gave me and that I like to wear on the holidays as a way to keep her with me and in case I was needed for KP (kitchen police) duty.
That night, Uncle’s hypercritical laser of an eye – a family trait – went to the offending pinprick sweater hole. Now he returned to the tiny wardrobe malfunction as our conversation overheated, magnifying it into the growing chasm I see between men and women.
In her thoughtful piece for The New York Times’ Sunday Review, “Low Expectations for Husbands and Presidents,” Irin Carmon – co-author, with Shana Knizhnik of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” – writes:
"As the country prepares to revert to white male rule, our common condition for all but eight of the last 240 years, we should think harder about why we assume so little of men, including ones we may be married to.”
But isn’t the answer contained in her statement? White men rule. They have the power, still. (What else was the election about? Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But she lost the election, because she lost the electoral vote and she lost that vote because she lost the white-bread vote.)
When you have the power, you make the rules, including the one that says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Men don’t have to be perfect, particularly in their looks: That’s why they have wives and significant female others. And these women in turn derive status – not to mention money, power and sheer convenience – from these men. No wonder 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Why would you want to upset that carefully piled applecart?
One possible reason: Freedom.
Carmon goes on to write: “As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoting a California judicial opinion, told the Supreme Court in 1971, ‘the pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.’”
I’ve often wondered what I missed in not having a husband. It can be lonely and difficult to bear the burdens of a home and a career with no one to share it intimately. There’s also something nice about going off to work and letting hubby deal with the broken garage door, the car that won’t start, the stopped-up toilet. I know women who are with men in part because they couldn’t cope on their own, physically or financially. It’s in their interest for men to retain power and money in our society.
But there’s a flipside, a price to be paid – the woman who must rush home at 5 to make dinner, the one who must cope with any family crisis, because he won’t be available but who must be at his beck and call when he is. I couldn’t do that and be the writer I want to be.
Back to Uncle: He often accuses me of hating men. I don’t hate men. I want them to be better than they are. I want women to be better than they are.
But I do feel sorry for men. I see the young playwright who went off to Vietnam thinking he would be John Wayne, only to come home and drive his sports car off a California cliff (and somehow survive), the old man who lived in a New York City housing project and regularly burned a pot on the stove because he had no one to care for or about him, the homeless men in the Bowery of the 1980s who would beg me to take them home, the gay artists who died (too many) of AIDS.
I see the men whom other men sent off to mostly useless wars, only to perish there or return somehow maimed – the remains of their day; the men who risk life and limb to provide for their families; the men who genuinely love women and would sacrifice themselves for them.
But I have also seen what men can do to women. I remember one story from my childhood that was in all the papers and haunts me still – a young woman who was kidnapped by a man, who tied her to a tree and sawed off her arms. You can say he was crazy all you want – you think? – but I see him as projecting onto a woman the self-loathing he lacked the guts to face. That is one of the chief games men play.
And perhaps the reason why I was taken aback about the comment on my dress.
I don’t dress to be fashionable or even to express my personality. Rather, I see good, stylish clothing as a kind of armor against an increasingly hostile world.