In the News: Planned Parenthood

Flash back a few decades. Without realizing it, I have chosen an authoritarian (old white male) obstetrician to see me through my first pregnancy and deliver my son. I am very young and new to this business of Ob/Gyn oversight, not to mention marriage and pregnancy. Alone, no friends in San Francisco. No birth centers, a sense of participating, surrounded by family. No, the kindly doctor took over with a paternalistic pat on the head and other parts. Fortunately, it was an easy birth and my son was born beautiful with a full head of blond hair.

So, then I asked for birth control pills. “No, you will have to get them somewhere else,” he said. “I don’t prescribe them.” The good old doc was Catholic.

The somewhere else I went was Planned Parenthood. Visiting my parents in the beach area of Los Angeles, I took the bus 20 miles into downtown LA, to the closest Planned Parenthood. My memory is smoggily vague. Did I have my son with me or did I leave him with my parents? Did I have an appointment? Did I wait long? I just remember lying in a greenish space with curtains and a strange (young) man coming in and examining me and okaying the pills. Did I get them there or go to a drugstore?

I know I was relieved as I rode the bus home. And within months my husband and I had moved to San Diego and I had a new, younger male doctor named Dr. Rights. And birth control for two to three years until I got pregnant with my second son.

Flash forward, recent years. A young woman I know is a student. No money. She goes for a checkup at Planned Parenthood and they discover cervical cancer. She undergoes treatment and is doing okay.

I walk by our neighborhood Planned Parenthood. It is closed! Oh no. But I see it has moved to another location two miles away. Not far. And the new center looks larger. That gives me hope. Government funding may be wavering, but the spirit of the organization is strong, determined, not about to give up after 101 years. Helping women who are between doctors or jobs, without resources. What would I or my friend have done without them? I could have found another doctor, maybe gone to my mother’s, but the delay might have meant an unwanted pregnancy. My friend with cancer may have been able to borrow money, but if not, she would not be alive today.

The conservatives are big on people taking personal responsibility. Planned Parenthood is big on teaching women how to do this with birth control, family planning, health care. So why the gap in logic and compassion? Many religious conservatives are against abortion services offered by Planned Parenthood, even though it is legal in this country. And even though family planning education will reduce abortions, the Planned Parenthood foes would rather shutter all the clinics and kick poor women out onto the sidewalk than continue to support the organization.

This would be like me, a vegetarian, refusing to help a food bank or soup kitchen because they distribute or serve meat. Just because I am personally opposed to eating animals, I don’t think I have the right to impose my viewpoint on others.

The foes of Planned Parenthood, including those in government office, are trying to inflict their religious beliefs on us, in opposition to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion …”

Vice President Pence the Pilgrim may criticize Muslim sharia law, but he’d be the first in line to brand and stockade a woman with a mind and body of her own if he could get away with it. In his worldview, he cannot even have dinner alone with women. He is more comfortable sitting around a conference table with other old (mostly white) men deciding that women are their vessels and not separate people with rights.

If their wives are okay living that way, that is one thing. But most of us have outgrown the stranglehold of authoritarianism and will resist its being forced on us. By now, my San Francisco doctor is long dead and Dr. Rights, closer to my age, died two years ago.

That means the younger generation, with less restrictive beliefs, are moving into government and medicine and other areas where they can make a difference. Like Planned Parenthood. And, yes, healthcare for all.

Let’s hope they move quickly, with agility and honesty, leaving the tyrannical T-Rexes in the dust.


A Tribute to Carolyn See

Tribute to Carolyn See
Culver City News, May 22, 1980

Reading Carolyn See, I’m sixteen again, flying with my girlfriends up Pacific Coast Highway. We are good students, serious girls, honors English, we have standards, but on Fridays after school, we are free. Bouncing along in a finned Ford or Buick, blasting our music, shouting into the salty wind to anyone who will listen, happy to be cruising to the outer limits of vast LA.

Carolyn was like that. She captured all the broken dreams and sun-baked inhabitants of an indefinable city without driving off the edge, without abandoning the zany sense that all this is nuts, but aren’t we having a great time? Her writing in all its forms – novels, memoir, book reviews – always grasped the importance of a subject, but without a pompous PhD voice. No dusty academia for her, even though she graced the halls of respected universities.

Even writing about sadness and terror – her screwed-up parents, lives, loves and worlds lost – she managed to reveal all through a lens of compassion and humor.

I knew none of this in 1980 when I went to interview her. I didn’t know who she was.

I read about her novel “Mothers, Daughters” and decided it would make a nice story for Mother’s Day. As the new feature editor of the Culver City News, it was my job to build up the Community Life section of the paper.

I reached Carolyn in her office at UCLA. “Sure, I’d love to talk to you,” she said. “Come on over!”

And so I did, little reporter notebook in hand, camera in my purse. She greeted me warmly and escorted me into her office with high windows. Unlike many people being interviewed, she seemed at ease. I liked her lack of pretention.

I soon learned that her latest novel was not a tribute to sweet mothers. No, it was a dark story about a sad woman going through a divorce. This launched us into a discussion of divorce (we had both gone through two), single motherhood (she had two daughters and I two sons), and changing attitudes. She thought it was important for women to learn to take care of themselves and give up their “lust for tragedy.”

“If I were to write it today, it would be a comedy,” said Carolyn.

In her next novel, “Rhine Maidens,” which came out the following month, her older, divorced woman character learns to enjoy life – while still appreciating children and men. “Men are too cute for words, don’t you think?”

After jotting down all I could capture, I took Carolyn’s picture, assumed I’d be leaving.

“Oh no, we’re taking you to lunch in the faculty lounge. I want you to meet my boyfriend and my daughter. We’re working on a soap opera mini-series for TV.”

And so I met her distinguished man friend John Espey and her daughter Lisa See and my story took on more layers and flavors. An anthropology professor sat with us for awhile. Carolyn announced she was anxious to get home to see how the wetbacks she hired to work in her yard were doing. “Carolyn!” the professor admonished her. But I think she knew Carolyn spoke from irreverently dark humor, not meanness.

I learned that Carolyn had first met John in the early 1960s. An Oxford graduate, writer and UCLA English professor 21 years her senior, he oversaw her dissertation. “But I was too frightened to speak to him until 5 ½ years ago,” she admitted. They were together for more than 25 years.

I enjoyed writing the story and Carolyn liked it too.

She and her daughter thought it was horrible I was stuck in an office and had to write for others. I often thought of Carolyn in the years that followed, especially after I moved from journalism into technical writing, no longer writing about people, but about machines and their software. Even though my bank account grew, my soul shriveled in grey cubicles; by comparison, noisy news rooms didn’t seem so bad.

The trio I met that day in May 36 years ago published two novels and a non-fiction book as Monica Highland. Lisa See is a successful novelist.

In the following years, I ran into Carolyn a few times at readings. I read almost everything she wrote, cried over her tribute to John when he died in 2000, her grappling with grief while sitting in The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades. She wrote also about her failing eyesight and I could not imagine an unseeing See.

My own writing alternated between floods and droughts and I eagerly grabbed her book, “Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers,” when it appeared in 2002. She recommends writing a thousand words a day and “charming notes” of appreciation five days a week to other writers, journalists, artists. I was too lacking in confidence to follow her charming note advice, especially during drought seasons. But I had a list started, and she was the first one on it.

So I’m writing it now, my thank you letter to Carolyn. I’m sorry I waited so long.


Where Are Real (Older) Women?

Enough already. Not enough already.

Where are all the women heroines of a certain age? The age beyond young thing and even beyond middle age? I know there are millions of us out here, heroines in many ways, but where are we in the movies and on TV?

Some characters cling to the upper middle age category for a few years. They teeter through their roles as hard-driving lawyers or policewomen in high heels and tight dresses, assuring us they are still sex bombs, thank you. And also smart.

But once they retire, it’s as if they plunge off a cliff in those high heels.

If a hot young thing character mentions her older mother or former female boss, she’s usually dead, in a home with dementia, or playing cards in Arizona.

Well Rounded WomanBut watch out if the mother does appear! Most likely she’s one of the following: 1) a Jewish, Italian or Southern bossy busybody who bakes and barks; 2) a devious, resentful neurotic who plots and schemes; 3) a hippie throwback who grows pot in the country somewhere and has visions (aka hallucinations); 4) a gypsy who’s been living in Spain or South America; 5) a self-centered socialite who cruises the world with a 30-year-old boy toy; or 6) a combination of one or more of these.

Her sole purpose in life – and in the story – seems to be to make her family miserable. Unless she’s dying, she doesn’t stay long. She often gets kicked out or runs off to her next family member or adventure.

Why can’t we see more older women in movies and TV shown as we really are: enjoying our lives, taking care of ourselves and others, facing challenges, doing interesting things, or maybe just learning to relax successfully?

Movies like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” portray older women (and men), but despite their spirited natures, they are not part of modern lives and families. In fact, they have banded together as a way of avoiding isolation. James Bond’s boss – M – played by the great Judi Dench in the Bond movies, is a strong character, but she gets killed off in the remote highlands of Scotland. There are exceptions, of course. Helen Mirren successfully and believably transitioned from middle age to older age during the 14 years she played Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison on “Prime Suspect.”

Meryl Streep, like Katherine Hepburn before her, has successfully swooped into the certain age category. In “It’s Complicated,” “Hope Springs,” and “Jules and Julia” she plays real older women – sensual, alive, attractive, intelligent, funny, vulnerable. In her latest movie, “August: Osage County,” she is family matriarch Violet, a hard-to-take harridan. She is heart wrenchingly damaged and takes it out on those around her, including her three daughters. During one scene, she assures them that while men get more appealing with age, women do not.

As Violet, she has been nominated for her 18th Academy Award. Golden Globe hostess Tiny Fay quipped recently, “She is brilliant … It’s good to know there are still roles for Meryl Streeps in their 60s.”

I recently saw the movie and think she deserves the nomination, if not the award. (It would be her 4th.) Violet is a morbidly fascinating character (see Number 6, above).

But I truly hope I don’t see her often on the big or small screen – and that she is not considered a role model or a typical older woman.