26 September 2011

Politics and sex

**As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a complimentary copy of Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff for review. This post was inspired by reading the book, and you can check out other club members' posts by going to www.fromlefttowrite.com starting on 27 September.**

I recently graduated from college with my bachelors' degree in history. It was a big deal for me, a long awaited dream and a goal that I had put off.

I mention this only because it seems to me that, with said degree, I should have some knowledge of, well, history. I read this book, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff(who is totally my new hero! Author, scholar, historian, yo!) and I learned so much! I learned a lot, and I also disabused myself of some of notions previously held.

Obviously, as a history major, and a historian, I'm fascinated by history. I also love politics, and nothing pumps my blood pressure like an election season, preferably with big issues at stake. And really, when isn't there a big issue at stake? But every election season, I lament the ever-increasing hostility and lack of manners and decency. I wish that we could back to the days when politics was a little more civil and polite. Heh. And when, pray tell, would those days have been? Loosely defined, I think of politics as the relationship between the government and the governed. The bosses and the workers. The leaders and the people. The business of making a nation function.

That's what I mean. You'd think I would know that politics has always been a blood sport, quite often literally, and maybe never more so than in Cleopatra's time. In the early chapters of Cleopatra, Schiff outlines Cleopatra's "ungainly shrub" of a family tree and her early years when she was groomed and trained to lead. She was schooled vigorously in philosophy and language and the art of public speaking and it seems her father had high aspirations for her. She married one of her brothers; a common practice of the time, hence the "ungainly shrub" of a family tree. They were expected to rule Egypt as king and queen and yet they were mercilessly plotting against one another, even to the death.

The thing I find kind of funny, not so much in the ha-ha way, but in the ironic way, is that a woman who was successful in politics in the years before Christ (B.C.) is, to this day, regarded as a wanton seductress, and cunning manipulator. Julius Caesar, with whom Cleopatra crafted an alliance, was regarded as a successful military strategist. Credit is given to his intellect and his leadership, while Cleopatra, who was not necessarily regarded as all that attractive in her time, has emerged from history as a breathtaking beauty who was capable of rendering men senseless with her come-hither smile and a bat of those kohl-rimmed eyes. She doesn't get credit for being smart and well-trained; she gets credit for being beautiful. But love her or hate her, she was on a pretty equal footing with the men of her time and outfoxed many of them, including her brother and husband Ptolemy who was trying so hard to kill her! When he discovered she had tricked him right under his nose, he literally burst into tears and threw a tantrum, so furious was he. Who says she's just a pretty face?

Fast forward about two thousand years...love them or hate them, there are some pretty powerful women in American politics these days. Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin. Their education and expertise, although it is hotly debated by many, was enough for the people that elected them. They didn't come to be governors or Senators or Secretary of State on their looks alone, and yet that is exactly how they seem to be judged first and foremost. Eventually the conversation will turn to intelligence (or perceived lack thereof), training, experience, education, political savvy. But a lot of weight is given to looks, when the same isn't true of their male counterparts. Unless you count the snarky jokes about John Edwards' $400 haircuts, but that's another post for another day....

Cliches become cliches for a reason, and this whole line of thought brings an oldie but a goodie to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same. No, a woman doesn't have to be beautiful to be successful, but it helps. Hillary's presidential campaign was history making, groundbreaking, and yet what got so much press was her wardrobe. Sarah Palin's clothing budget was the stuff of political legend. And just yesterday, I read a snark opinion piece complaining about how much Michele Bachmann must spend on her manicures.

I stand in awe of powerful women, who didn't follow the rules and didn't behave, no matter what they might have looked like. You know, well-behaved women don't make history.

23 September 2011

On forgiveness and second chances

** Deborah Reed's debut novel Carry Yourself Back to Me follows heartbroken singer-songwriter Annie Walsh as she digs into the past to exonerate her brother from murder. As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book for review. You can read other members posts inspired by Carry Yourself Back to Me on book club day, September 22 at From Left to Write.**

Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed

I really enjoyed reading this book.  I really enjoyed it. This is a debut novel and I really like the author's writing style.  I have a bad habit of picking apart the author's writing style when I read, as opposed to just allowing the story to carry me along, but I suppose that's an occupational hazard.  Sometimes I just can't keep reading, if the style distracts me too much, but I found Reed's style compelling and a little mysterious.  Maybe suspenseful is a better word...at the end of each chapter, she threw in a little twist that made me stay up too late to find out what happened, saying to myself, "Just till I see what what she does now, then I'll put it down."

This book got me thinking, as good books are supposed to do, and it got me thinking about second chances.  Seems to me that just about every character in this book, major and minor, got a second chance.  Bad guys got a chance to be good guys, broken hearts got a chance to heal and love again, and dreams that seemed crushed had a chance to breathe again.

Forgiveness and second chances are not the same thing, but it sure is hard to give someone a second chance when you're not willing to forgive.  Then again, if you forgive, that doesn't always mean you're willing to give a second chance.  

I have been blessed throughout my life, with many, many second chances.  I find it kind of funny and ironic that friends from my wild and mis-spent youth would not recognize the small-town, church-going, stay-home wife and mom I have become, while friends that I have now would not recognize the somewhat wild-child, party-girl, dancing-on-the-edge-of-legal rebel kid that I used to be.  I had something a little bit removed from the childhood my own little people are enjoying.  They have both parents still living, still married to one another, in a nice comfortable house with dinner on the table (oh alright, sometimes it gets delivered in a box from the pizza guy, but whatever!) every night, good friends at a great school, all the books and Legos and video games any three kids could want, and very few worries.  I used to feel sorry for myself for the raw deal I thought life had given me, but I've come to see my rough beginnings as a blessing. 

I got a second chance. 

I was at a crossroads as a young teen, poised on the brink of that time in life when bad decisions really can follow you for a lifetime instead of being mostly temporary and erasable.  And then what I thought was the worst possible thing happened: I was uprooted from one home to another.  I thought it was the end of the world, and that my life was over.  In reality, it was just beginning.  Had I stayed in the other place, I was all but certain to head down a path that was littered with bad decisions and unpleasant consequences.  That is not to say I never made a bad choice again, or that I didn't live with any unpleasant consequences; to the contrary, I did just that.  But my new environment afforded me opportunities that the old one had not and much better guidance along the rocky path to adulthood that kept me from completely careening out of control and over the edge.  I found my way.  Not perfectly, not without mistakes and regrets and tears, but I found my way. 

My father was alternately emotionally abusive, or completely absent.  He was a guy who always seemed to have circumstances stacked against him, he had a lot of bad things happen to him, and he got bitter about it.  He and I didn't see eye to eye on many things, and we hurt each other.  A lot. Ultimately we spent a lot of years estranged and not speaking.  Until he got really sick.

I gave a second chance. 

A lot of water passed under the bridge that last week he spent in hospice and I learned that forgiveness isn't something you give to the other person, it's a gift you give to yourself. Putting down that baggage is blessed relief.  You're the only one that carries it; it's only a burden for you, not the other person.  It's easier to move forward when your load is that much lighter.

Second chances are a gift.  A beautiful gift to be treasured and not squandered. 

In Carry Yourself Back to Me, Annie extended forgiveness and received second chances.  It was only after setting down her angry baggage and forgiving those who had hurt her, that her hands were open and able to receive the second chances. 

Have you ever been given a second chance?  Were you able to receive it?