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Damsel in Distress

We hadn’t checked our tires since we moved—oh the joys of car care—and on the way back from the gym I noticed that one of them was low. I headed to the closest gas station where air has a price: $1.50 in quarters for five minutes. But that wasn’t my problem; I had quarters stored in the glove compartment. My problem was psychological: I was on my own in a still-strange town, a tire had deflated to 15 lbs., my husband was not around, and despite AAA membership, I suddenly felt vulnerable—a damsel in distress.

The myth of damsels in distress pervades classical literature, painting, sculpture, cinema and every woman’s life into the 20th century, at least. There are many examples, here is just one: A US World War I poster (Harry R. Hopps; 1917) invites prospective recruits to symbolically save a "damsel in distress" from the monstrous Germans. And the monstrous German looks like King Kong who, in turn, looks like a threatening man of color. Say no more re: embedded cultural stereotypes.

The #MeToo movement continues women’s struggle against oppression, violence, abuse, humiliation, workplace discrimination, stereotypical imagery and, yes, distress. The difference now is that women don’t require “saving”; they are saving and empowering themselves.

But we have our retro moments. I could not, absolutely could not stop releasing air from the tire with—you know—the little gage. I went inside the station, forgetting that gas stations are not service stations any more, and said, out loud, to all and sundry paying their bills for chips and candy and gas, “Is there anyone here who can help me put some air into my tires?”

And, lo! a man said, “‘Yes, beautiful lady, of course.”

I swooned.

Short, stocky, mid-50’s maybe and he had an accent. Eastern European was my guess, grew up in a communist regime, has his own business—I was writing his life story--until he bent over and I saw a statement about supporting the Second Amendment on the back of his tee shirt. I asked him about the logo on the front; the sports store he uses, he said. “You can get anything you want there.” Anything meaning guns and ammunition.

“Great,” I said.

In five minutes the tires were done, with a free diagnosis: “ Dry rot in those tires, I’d suggest a set of new ones before the winter.”

Then came a lecture about our beleagured country and the threats we are facing.

“Russian cyber attacks?” I asked.
“No, the Arabs. Why do you think this is a gas station and there are no service stations any more? Those politicians, they know nothing.”
“Oh.”
“And what about killing babies, what about that? They put the vacuum in and suck the baby out.”

I was riveted. It’s not that I haven’t heard these “ideas” before; I have, many times. But there was something about the dissonance between this man’s kindness and his rant that struck me hard. It was a reminder that none of us are all one thing. And that fear runs deep. Because even in the (relative) safety of America, and with a more kindred—albeit fascist, not communist ---politician in the White House, this man was still very afraid.

Dear reader, he was a man in distress.

So I didn’t take anything he said personally, not at all. Beautiful I may be, but I don’t think he “saw” me, or cared about my politics, or where I’m from, or what I do, or my ethnicity. I could have been anyone or I could have been someone, it made no difference. I was a blank screen upon which he projected his terror. I just didn't want to get too close to him when he was carrying a gun. He was probably packing as we stood there talking, or had a weapon concealed in his car.

“Thank you for helping me.” I continued. “You’ve been very kind. I’m heading for Mavis right now to buy a new set of tires. I really do appreciate what you have done for me today.”  Read More 
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Homeland

At the beginning of term, I had told my students not to expect replies to emails late on Sunday nights when they are often working on their assignments and I am watching Homeland. Throughout the first season of this compelling drama, my husband and I were riveted. We had friends over to participate, sharing a meal that had to be over long before the 10 p.m. show time. We set the TV to the channel in advance so we wouldn’t miss an instant of the logo or the first scene.

And, then, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we met with some Arab-American friends for a coffee and talked about the show. They were deeply concerned that the educated elite in the United States, including our re-elected President, were so hooked on it. It is, after all, an adaptation of a successful Israeli series. Transposing the venue from Israel to the United States has changed the show in many ways, but the shadow of the Israeli scripts is still there and they have a clear and troublesome political agenda. And, now, the escalation of violence in Gaza, a great and continuing tragedy for everyone.

As writers, what are we to think of a show that is so well written and so engaging, yet so offensive to our Arab-American citizens? What is our responsibility? Does anything we say or think about the show matter? If we agree with the assertion that there is something morally wrong with the portrait of Arabs in the show, shall we boycott? Write letters to the producers? To the White House?

As writers, we are the custodians of language. Language matters. How do we speak about “the other,” whoever that other may be? How do we define ourselves in relation to that other? When do we become the other ourselves?  Read More 
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