Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Verbal Bullies

I pride myself on having an above average vocabulary—Earthlink posts a word of the day and I almost always know what it means—and a fair if by no means exhaustive knowledge of literary allusion.

So when Atlantic Monthly served up Torquemadaean as an adjective in an article about Iceland’s spas, I chalked this up as a pretentious obscurity, an in-joke between the writer and his editor. But then I came across it again—“teenage Torquemadas”—in a column by Steve Rushin in the Dec. 4 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated. Granted, readers of this magazine exhibit a savant-like ability for calculating potential BCS Bowl configurations (I swear there’s still a way for Notre Dame to win the national championship). But Torquemada? If they know what the heck this is and I don’t, how dumb am I?

I bet the vast majority of SI’s audience glossed over the word and decided once and for all that no, Mr. Rushin is not “just one of the guys.” If I didn’t know that Rushin topped 6 feet, I would picture Mr. Smarty Pants as the proverbial 90-pound weakling, mercilessly bullied as a child, and now exacting revenge on the jocks of world through verbal intimidation. “You picked me last in gym class, now I will use really big words to make you feel really small. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.”

Or maybe SI and Atlantic are part of a vast conspiracy to get us all to spend even more time Googling. Because you know that once challenged, I had to get to the bottom of Torquemada.

Turns out it refers to Tomas de Torquemada, Inquisitor General during the Spanish Inquisition. Oh, of course, that Torquemada. In the 500 years since, his name (in some circles, apparently) has become synonymous with torture. Kind of like writers who purposely wield language as a weapon.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Most Influential Woman in America

So I just finished reading The Atlantic Monthly’s list of the 100 Most Influential Americans.

I’m so depressed.

As expected, the top echelons of the list are dominated by the Founding Fathers. I’m not quibbling with their selection. I’m just sorry that while at this country’s outset, our government seemed to be teeming with brilliant individuals full of Big Ideas, that’s no longer the case. Where are today’s Thomas Jeffersons? If they exist at all, they are not to be found in the White House or the halls of Congress.

Also, as expected, few women made the cut. Only 10 in all. We are more than 50 percent of the population, but apparently wield a mere 10 percent of influence. Atlantic notes that marriage was very, very good for folks on the list—91 of the 100 were married at least once and two of them, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, 50 times total. Yet of all those nameless wives, who doubtless enabled the greatness of their spouse, only Eleanor Roosevelt merited recognition on her own.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (#30) leads the way for the women. (And every time I see her picture, I can’t help but wish she could have been prettier.) She’s followed by Susan B. Anthony, who’s now probably better known as a failed quarter, Rachel Carson (a poet and environmentalist), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Betty Friedan, Margaret Mead, and Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science). That’s it. Pretty slim pickings.

Almost all of them fall under what I would term “social welfare.” Where’s the female counterpart to Bill Gates? Sam Walton? Louis and Clark? Women didn’t invent the nuclear bomb (shame on us) or the cotton gin or the mechanical reaper or a million other things. We were too busy doing the laundry. Women didn’t create the skyscraper. We were too busy cleaning house. Women didn’t discover DNA. We just pass it on.

Every time I see one of these lists, I wrack my brain for women to add. If you’re going to have Elvis (#66), why not Madonna, who has ushered in an entire culture of personal reinvention? If you’re going to have Walt Disney (#26) and credit his “unmatched influence over our childhood,” why not Ruth Handler, who created Barbie?

What women have been influential in my life? Let’s see. Martha Stewart springs to mind (and I believe was suggested by at least one of Atlantic’s panelists). I’m not kidding. If it weren’t for Martha, it would never occur to me to make my own Christmas cards. Love her or hate her, there’s not a woman in this country who hasn’t at some point tried to emulate her (with decidedly mixed results).

Then there’s Sr. Eucharista (not making that up), my high school English teacher, who was the first person to encourage me to try to publish my writing. And Elizabeth Dipple, a professor of mine in grad school, who we jokingly referred to as the missing Bronte sister but has seriously informed all of my reading choices of the past 10-15 years. (If it’s not British or post-colonial British, it’s crap.)

But it always comes back to my mom. God, I think nearly everything I do, I measure consciously or not as “like Mom” or “not like Mom.” I have a sneaking suspicion the same would hold true for a large number of the 100 Most Influential Americans.

So the next time someone creates one of these lists, I have an idea for the top spot. Just plain Mom. Because long after everyone’s forgotten why we were supposed to care about William Jennings Bryant (#36), we will all remember something—be it positive or negative—that we learned from out mothers.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Baby It’s Cold Inside

So, it snowed a couple of inches last night (way less in the city than the foot that was forecast) and the wind chill is about 12 degrees.

Time to stop pretending it’s fall and unpack the wool. God I hate my winter wardrobe. I itch just thinking about it.

Summer Patty is pink and purple and yellow and sky blue. She loves sundresses and tank tops and Capri cargo pants. Winter Patty is brown. Brown sweaters, brown skirts, brown pants, brown boots. Summer Patty is a cheery rainbow. Winter Patty is a variation on the theme of dirt.

I looked in my closet a couple of Decembers ago and saw wall-to-wall boredom. Taupe, chocolate, tan, beige, camel. If I were a tree, what kind would I be? The bark.

The blandness was overwhelming. I didn’t think I could make it until June, trapped in this sepia world. (If you think winter in Chicago doesn’t run a full six months, move here.) Like people who sit under sun lamps to combat their Seasonal Affective Disorder, I introduced a few new items with splashes of color—reds, greens, oranges. And they look very pretty on their hangers, which is where they tend to stay, because they’re not warm enough.

Right now, I’m wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, crew neck sweatshirt, hoodie, down vest, jeans, and two pairs of socks. I’m sitting indoors with the heat on. The thermostat reads 69, but our windows are so drafty, the actual air temperature is several degrees chillier. (And yes, I could crank up the temp, but then our furnace would run continuously. I don’t know which I fear more—bankruptcy-by-gas-bill or the noise. Because our furnace is not located in the basement. Because we don’t live in a house. It’s in a little closet right off our living room and is so loud when it ignites that we have to shout to carry on a conversation. If we’re watching a DVD, we have to click on subtitles—for English-language movies.)

I’m one of those people who is either too hot or too cold. There are perhaps two days out of the entire year—maybe once in June and again in September—when I’m perfectly comfortable. I like a nice 73-74 degrees, sunny, no humidity. This is all I want from heaven—the ability to control my climate.

Sometimes I think I would rather be cold than hot, because while you can always add more layers, there’s only so naked a person can get in public. But then I think about my first apartment. It was a small studio with (free) baseboard heat that was either on or off. I lived on the fourth floor and I guess hot air really does rise. My place was so toasty in the winter, I could walk around in shorts and a t-shirt in February. Sometimes I even had to crack the window open to cool things down. There are many things I hated about that apartment—occasional roach outbreaks, noisy neighbors, a building manager with nudie calendars on his office walls—but the warmth made it home.

This is why I bake so much during the holidays. Yes, I love, love, love Christmas cookies. But mostly I’m just looking for an excuse to blast the oven. I stand in front of it, my butt against the door, and soak up the heat until I can feel the first-degree burn.

I can’t run the oven 24/7, so I rely on my heavy wool artillery—layered over Cuddle Duds—to keep the frost at bay. But this year, I didn’t have the heart to completely bid farewell to Summer Patty and pack her away in plastic bins tucked under the bed. I cleared room on a shelf in the closet for my some of favorite gauzy, short-sleeved, non-brown tops, with plans to visit them periodically over the dreary months to come.

This time of year, some folks are dreaming of a White Christmas. Not me. I want that 73 degree day. And a pink sundress.