Walking the Invisible Bridge

It’s only logical to believe in Mr. Spock.

What did you know, and when did you know it?

The catchphrase, forever associated with the Watergate scandal, hinges on the culturally accepted definition of knowledge as a body of facts. These days, facts, it seems, mean different things to different people. Opinion masquerades as fact, and sentiment obscures the hard edge of reality. But when truth itself becomes a matter of opinion we’ve sailed too far from the shore. Lately the news feed has me feeling seasick.

For me, reality is best endured with a touch of whimsy and chaser of mad romance. I need the comfort of music, literature, and films. Of course I don’t believe we can teach the whole world to sing in perfect harmony with just one song, or one book. Yet every now and then a film comes along that moves the global ball a little closer to the goal.

I’m not talking about important great films of days gone by like “On the Waterfront” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Nor do I care to weigh in on the blockbusters of more recent times such as “The Godfather” series or the “Star Wars” saga, though each of those has had a profound effect on our country at least.

I’m partial to films that shed light on the complexities of modern life. One such film came out late last year that dealt with the challenges of living with autism. Directed by Ben Lewin, “Please Stand By” tells the story of a young woman with autism who runs away from her caregiver to enter a Star Trek writing competition. It’s not easy even for a relatively stable person to write something original, and then to muster the courage to do whatever it takes to get that work critiqued. Dakota Fanning plays the autistic writer, and she’s fantastic in the role of a fragile-seeming woman who discovers her own inner strength in the pursuit of her dream. The cast also includes the gifted Toni Collette as the caregiver, and the always droll Patton Oswalt in a small but essential role as a police officer who understands Klingon.

That’s how you know.

When a writer, in this case Michael Golamco, isn’t afraid to leaven the drama with a touch of, you know, silliness, then I dare to hope that things won’t end in tears. And that’s what I look for in a satisfying film. If I want tears there’s the daily news.

Sometimes it’s important to take a breath of hope. A spoonful of fantasy makes the bitter pills go down.

Seize the Days

The marmot, like its cousin the groundhog, is a shy retiring type, eluding autograph seekers by hiding in a burrow.
The marmot, a member of the groundhog family, is a shy retiring type, eluding autograph seekers by hiding in a burrow.

Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday which will forever be linked in my mind with Bill Murray.

Maybe I’ve watched the movie too many times. What can I say? It resonates with me.

In case there’s anyone living under a rock, or in a groundhog burrow, who hasn’t seen the film, the plot centers on a flawed character (Murray) who finds himself stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same 24-hour period. He goes through the usual stages of grief, denial, anger, etc., before he realizes the silver lining of his predicament — by changing his own behavior he gradually becomes the master of the rewind cycle, and finally gets it right.

It’s a brilliant conceit. In its own weird way, the film Groundhog Day sheds light on the value of second chances. As a writer I appreciate the process of self-editing that Murray’s character undergoes. When I’m writing, characters sometimes arrive in my mind fully-formed. Other times they come with a lot of unnecessary baggage that does nothing to enrich the story. I’m learning to trust my instincts.

When I first began writing, I was reluctant to eliminate a single word from my precious prose. Now, older, and I hope, a bit wiser, I’ve come to enjoy the process of revision. In writing, as in life, less is sometimes more.

With this in mind, at the beginning of 2016 I decided to republish my 2011 urban fantasy The Goddess of Green Lake under my own imprint. This second edition offered me the chance to eliminate clutter and cut to the chase. It remains the story of a musician whose life gets complicated after he falls for a passionate environmental activist and helps her liberate an orphaned baby otter from a public aquarium. There’s also a bit of Green Man magic and a mermaid backstory which ties in with the underlying “save the oceans” theme.

But in a broader sense, the story is about finding the courage to live your own life, to work your way through the dark times without giving up on the things that matter. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort.

I feel for the groundhog. Any creature that hides from its own shadow doesn’t have much of a chance in this life. But maybe it just takes practice. A little shadow boxing can help you hone your skills before you take on more substantial foes. Carpe diem.

Flown Away

Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.
Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.

Like birds on the wing, the flutter of opinions stirs the air we breathe. Try as we might to still our minds and think pure thoughts, currents of rage and sorrow and desire carry us far from the places we thought we were going, and we may wind up asking ourselves, as the Talking Heads so eloquently put it: “How did I get here?”

Recently I watched two very different films, each of which addresses the way humans struggle to control the direction of their own lives, and how they cope with the loss of it.

In “Birdman,” the Oscar-winning darkly funny study of egos clashing onstage and off, Michael Keaton delivers a riveting portrayal of a man whose dreams of artistic achievement were swept away by the hurricane force of his early commercial success in a movie franchise of a comic book superhero.

As a former Batman himself, Keaton’s credibility in the role of Riggan Thomson is never in question. Less certain is the artistic integrity of the character played by Edward Norton (a former Hulk, another irony-laden casting choice) who gives a vivid portrayal of the sort of actor who is most alive when pretending to be someone else.

It’s a fascinating movie about the human need to feel relevant. However, as Riggan’s damaged daughter, Emma Stone sums up the futility of the effort in a few passionate lines about how it feels to grow up in the age of Twitter and You-Tube, when anyone may suddenly acquire a million followers in the blink of an eye, yet still be profoundly lost.

I enjoyed “Birdman” in part because it’s the sort of film that allows viewers to feel compassion, while remaining comfortably detached from the problems of these self-obsessed characters. They’re all actors, after all. They’re not saving the world. They’re desperately seeking validation through applause and critical acclaim.

A totally different sort of the cinematic experience is presented in “Shun-li and The Poet,” an award-winning Italian film from 2011 about the struggle of a Chinese woman trying to reunite with her eight-year-old son. The story takes place near Venice, but it’s not the postcard-perfect Venice tourists flock to see. In a small tavern Shun-li waits on the fishermen who work the lagoons surrounding Venice. Most of them harbor deep distrust of foreigners. Shun-li tries to keep her head down and her hopes up that eventually she will pay off the debt she owes to her Chinese bosses. We feel for her, especially when she develops an innocent friendship with Bepi, a Yugoslavian, known to his fisher pals as “the poet” for his habit of rhyming. Alone among the other patrons of the cafe, Bepi shows Shun-li some kindness.

The film moves slowly, revealing the way lonely people find solace in their shared humanity. Poetry, spoken and visual, flows through the film. It left me feeling both sad and hopeful.

Much as I enjoy happy explosion movies where quippy heroes make the world safer for us all, at the end of the reel there’s the real to be faced. Still gritty, sometimes beautiful, often heartbreaking. A little poetry eases the transition.

Less Is More

‘Tis the season for excess.

At this time of year, when we should all be thinking of others and trying to be the person our dog thinks we are etc., the impulse to go overboard can get the best of the best of us.

When my children were little, and still true believers in the miracle of things appearing under a magic tree once a year, I felt the weight of their belief on my shoulders. I wanted to give them a happy day. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? Yet, now that I’m older, if not much wiser, I realize that happiness isn’t something you can wrap up with a bow and hand to your kid.

Happiness has to be won through struggle and toil, trial and error, through rain and cold and dark of night. And then, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few moments when the drab wet raincoat of trouble falls to the floor and the radiant joy of life is yours and everything seems worthwhile for a few incandescent seconds.

The secret to being happy is to learn to appreciate those fleeting moments, and to remember them after they quickly vanish, like a beloved song you heard once but can’t download onto your hard drive.

In December it sometimes feels as if too many insipid holiday songs have been weaponized. It doesn’t matter if you only go to the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste, or if you’re stuck in the express line at the grocery waiting to pay for your milk, the tortures of Rudolph and Frosty will make the experience memorable, and not in a good way.

I love music. But as the years have gone by it seems I’m ever more cranky and hard to please. So when I tell you I recently discovered the charms of ukulele music, trust me, it’s that good.

For those of us who had the misfortune to grow up when Tiny Tim was the most prominent ukulele player on the entertainment scene, the mere mention of the instrument was enough to empty rooms. It was a classic case of blaming the messenger.

The ukulele itself is a remarkable instrument, accessible to a small child, yet capable of producing anything from classical to jazz, from rock to bluegrass. And yes, even heavy metal, uke style.

I learned all of this, not only from my ukulele playing nephew, who is always way ahead of the curve on these things, but from a charming short film titled “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”

Shimabukuro, a native of Hawaii, began playing ukulele at the age of four. He had early success with a small band and gained local recognition. But Shimabukuro’s talent has taken him far beyond the island. His passion for an instrument seldom granted much respect outside Hawaii has made him an inspiration to a new generation of musicians, dazzling audiences around the world with his brilliant playing and his infectious personality.

And he does it all on only four strings. Who could ask for anything more?

Go Wes!

The Bristol-Palace Hotel in the spa town of Karlovy-Vary, Czech Republic, served as an inspiration for the setting of Anderson's latest film.
The Bristol-Palace Hotel in the spa town of Karlovy-Vary, Czech Republic, served as an inspiration for the setting of Anderson’s latest film.

I confess. I am a fan of the films of Wes Anderson.

Although my infatuation with all things Anderson began with the very first film he co-wrote with his friend Owen Wilson, the offbeat but endearing Bottle Rocket, it wasn’t until 2001 when The Royal Tenenbaums  came out that I realized I had found a director whose oddly surreal view of life resonated with my own.

And while a few Anderson films since then have failed to engage my passion (notably The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a sodden misstep in my view)  more often a new Anderson project is cause for celebration. Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, in 2012, featured all the elements that make Anderson’s vision unique: a flawed but likable hero trying to negotiate a trajectory through the jungle of reality, gentle humor, great music, and meticulous set design.

Anderson excels at creating on film worlds as finely detailed as a Faberge egg yet emotionally complex and surprisingly buoyant. His most recent work, The Grand Budapest Hotel, released this past spring, is a remarkable fairytale for adults. Set in a fictional European alpine state in 1932 during a respite between two wars, the film evokes the elegance and civility of a lost era. The hero, Monsieur Gustave, is the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel. The plot involves murder, stolen art, and exquisite pastry.

Ralph Fiennes, as M.Gustave, is marvelous. The pace is brisk, the dialogue snappy, and all of the characters bring something to the party. But perhaps top billing really should go to the hotel itself, which Anderson devised after researching and studying archival photos of grand European hotels at the Library of Congress. One of the inspirations for the Grand Budapest Hotel was the Palace Bristol Hotel in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.

For the film Anderson had several small scale models of the hotel produced, including one fourteen feet long and seven feet deep.

I never wanted a doll house as a child, but I find myself yearning for that pink hotel.

Of course, few these days can afford the sort of extravagance that flavors the Old World vision suggested in parts of the film. But it isn’t simply the trappings of wealth that give the world portrayed in The Grand Budapest Hotel its timeless charm. It’s the passion for civility, the idea that good manners and kindness clothe any human with dignity. And that without those things our haloes dim, our lives lose something intangibly precious.

And so it is with fairytales. There’s more to win than the crown. There’s more to lose than the throne. Happily ever after is the flimsiest of predictions. But to strive for perfection in the face of inevitable decline is perhaps the last best hope for humanity in a graceless age.

Why Not A Duck?

My brother Jeff watched the  baby ducks enjoy our backyard stream.
My brother Jeff watched the ducks enjoy our backyard stream.

Audiences are trained to expect comedy from ducks.

Consider Donald. Also Daffy. And, of course, the Marx Brothers, who, while not ducks themselves, knew the value of a good duck joke.

So perhaps it’s understandable that when writer/director Nicole Bettauer’s 2005 independent film Duck was released some people were dismayed by the serious issues and quiet tragedy embedded in the plot. Some internet ranters apparently felt that they’d been swindled, sold a false bill of goods. And in their defense, it must be said that the movie’s original tagline: “Think outside the flock,” is a bit enigmatic.

I was instantly intrigued when I first learned of the film. I put it in our Netflix queue last year. And there it sat, for months, constantly bumped lower by some shiny new release, or “important” film that had to be seen.

But last weekend “Duck” finally waddled out of the queue and into my heart. That’s right naysayers. I liked it.

Yes, it made me cry. But it also made me feel somehow hopeful in spite of everything. And if you’ve been reading your newspapers and feeding at the online Trough of Doom, you know that only lottery ticket buyers and reality show contestants really know how to hope.

The film stars longtime character actor Philip Baker Hall as Arthur Pratt, a widowed man in Los Angeles who has lost everything while caring for his dying wife. At the start of the film he is planning to end his life.

So then, the moment duck fans have been waiting for: an orphaned baby duck comes into the picture and takes an immediate shine to Arthur. In some other film, this could have evolved into a sort of Up parable about destiny, making the most of every minute, blah, blah, blah. (Don’t get me wrong. Up is great. But apples and oranges.) What transpires in Duck is more of a mystic journey through the loveless underbelly of a dying city. Yay! Dystopia! It’s all the rage.

As a suddenly homeless person, with a duck, Arthur has to find a way to survive in a society that views him as a quack. I won’t spoil it for anyone who might want to see Duck, but I have to say, there are some surprises. There are lots of movies about boys with dogs, girls with horses, even musicians with cats. There aren’t a lot buddy movies with a duck as the co-star.

It’s possible I was drawn to this film because in the first years of my life we had ducks at the house where I was born in Erie. A small stream with a little bridge over it ran through the backyard. My dad bought a bunch of baby ducks that lived for a while in a pen until they got big enough to paddle in the stream. I don’t know what happened to them after we moved away. I’d like to think their offspring are still swimming around in Lake Erie, unless they’ve relocated to L.A. to work as extras on Duck Two: The Punchline.

Baby ducks just naturally go with the flow.
Baby ducks just naturally go with the flow.


My Heart Belongs to Laddy

My Dad, who woul dhave been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.
My Dad, who would have been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.

Did we learn nothing from Planet of the Apes?

While that classic sci-fi film may be a bit dated and far-fetched, the ideas it raised remain compelling. In particular, the way the film exposes the tendency of humans to view themselves as masters of all other species.

Of course, we have books, written by humans, which codify this conceit. However, simply because something is written in a book, or even a law, doesn’t make it necessarily true or right. The argument has been around for centuries, long before Darwin suggested another way of looking at things. Yet we are no closer to a clear understanding of the Big Picture, even when it’s screened on IMax.

So why do I care? Well, this morning, in my glutton for punishment way, I was reading the newspaper and came across a story about recent research into the mechanisms that cause depression. Such studies have been going on for decades. You might hope they would have figured it out by now. But no. What they have figured out is how to cause debilitating depression in mice. And dogs.

That’s when I began to feel depressed myself.

I mean, obviously I understand the need to conduct research to find life-saving drugs. And I realize that it isn’t always possible to use human subjects for all tests. Yet when it comes to problems humans face, stress doesn’t seem to me to be high on the list. Yes, we live in stressful times. But there has always been stress. Being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger? Not exactly a theme-park thrill. Yet stress is a natural part of existence, and overcoming naturally occurring stress is part of the process of being alive.

But there’s stress and there’s stress. Someone you love dies or becomes very ill, that’s stress. When someone forces you to walk barefoot on an electrified floor with no apparent means of escape, that’s torture. A different breed of stress entirely.

That electrified floor was used on dogs in a well-known 1967 study which showed that when dogs are made to feel that they have no options, they develop what is called “learned helplessness.” In other words, they learn to give up hope. This induced depression can be traumatizing to a human. How much more traumatic it must be to a dog, a creature which has been bred to trust humans.

I have no moral high ground on the issues of animal rights. I’m no vegetarian. But I draw the line at dogs. Also cats, but that’s a much harder argument to win.

Dogs, on the other hand, are, in fact, Man’s Best Friend. Everybody knows this. Even people who claim to dislike dogs have to respect the heroic qualities of our canine companions. They sniff out bombs, they save babies from burning buildings, they lead the blind, they comfort the sick and aging. They go into battle and they don’t do it for medals. They do these things because we ask them to.

For some incredible reason, dogs love us. God knows why.

Some may argue that we humans deserve our “right” to dominion over all the animals because of our superior intellect. I would argue that if we wish to consider ourselves “superior” to any other species the proof of this edge must begin with greater compassion for all other species. But especially dogs.

A few years ago the brilliant comic writer Tom Holt penned a remarkable satire called Blonde Bombshell which riffed wildly on the idea of a planet where “a dog’s best friend is his man.” It’s a lot funnier than Planet of the Apes, though that may owe something to the fact that a human dressed up as an ape could never hope to rival a golden retriever.

It’s been more than two thousand years since a wise teacher gave us a golden tip: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The luster of that line has sadly dimmed in these me-first  times, and realistically, maybe we’ll never be able to love one another. But if we can at least learn to treat our best friends as well as we’d like to be treated, that would be a start.


Lost and Found in Austen

There'll always be an England in one small corner of Georgetown.
There’ll always be an England in one small corner of Georgetown.

Every fandom has its debates.

Gryffindor vs Slytherin. Edward vs Jacob. Angel vs Spike.

Fans of Jane Austen tend to be a civil bunch, disinclined to wage the sort of rough and tumble debate that thrives on the internet. Although, much as I like Colin Firth, whose 1995 portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the TV series raised the bar for repressed heroes everywhere,  I think we can all agree that the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen film version of Pride and Prejudice was as close to perfection as we are likely to see. Ever.

However, that doesn’t stop us from allowing our modest hopes to rise every time some trailer bursts on the scene announcing a new take on the works of Miss Austen. Thus, when I saw the wacky clips from the 2013 spoof Austenland, I couldn’t help hoping it would at least be watchable. After all, the cast included Keri Russell, Jenifer Coolidge and Bret Mackenzie, all gifted actors adept at light comedy. It seemed reasonable to expect something entertaining.

To be fair, the movie wasn’t terrible. But it was no moon shot. In spite of an amusing premise — a modern American woman visits an Austen theme park in England in hopes of finding her own Mr. Darcy — the film managed to shoot itself in the slippered foot.

Yet of course, Austennut that I am, I still enjoyed it. It’s comforting to believe that there are other people similarly obsessed with the carefully edited and beautifully observed world of Austen’s novels.

I had only the sketchiest idea about her work when I went to college. But there, while seeking respite from the weighty work of Aristotle and Plato, I came across an old copy of Pride and Prejudice in the college library. From the famous first sentence I knew she was The One, the writer I could count on to soothe my soul and provide escape from the fractious static of the so-called real world.

People who don’t enjoy fiction must, I presume, find other ways to negotiate the sticky parts and sharp curves that give life its curious flavor. But for me, fiction has always been essential.

I’ve never been to England. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make the trip to visit the places Austen describes. Perhaps those places don’t exist anymore, at least not in the way they did when she was writing. But I know how I’ve always seen them in my mind.

Recently I discovered a place right here in the District that comes close to that imaginary ideal. On a surprisingly secluded 5-1/2 acre property at the northern edge of Georgetown, Tudor Place offers a serene glimpse into the past. In the gardens, especially if you are an Austen fan, you can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet strolling the gravel paths, enjoying the roses and the grand trees, while musing on the perplexing business of human emotion. And perhaps hoping to bump into Mr. Darcy in the shrubbery.

Old roses thrive in the sunny knot garden.
Old roses thrive in the sunny knot garden.
At the end of the bowling green a shady pool offers a perfect spot for a tryst.
At the end of the bowling green a shady pool offers a perfect spot for a tryst.
This "Millennium Landmark Tree" on the lawn is more than 200 years old. Jane would have loved it.
This “Millennium Landmark Tree” on the lawn is more than 200 years old. Jane would have loved it.
The song a robin sings plays on at Tudor Place.
The song a robin sings plays on at Tudor Place.

Uncool Cat

Like a portal to a timeless era, Washington Square arch serves as the gateway to Greenwich Village.
Like a portal to a timeless era,  Washington Square arch is an iconic landmark of Greenwich Village.

I was intrigued when I saw the trailers for the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The carefully composed images of Greenwich Village evoked the gritty glamor of the early 1960s in that neighborhood where poets, artists and musicians found cheap lodging and community.

I was some kind of excited when, at age twelve, I went with my Girl Scout Troop on an overnight trip to New York City in the early 1960s. We toured the United Nations, saw a Broadway musical and the Statue of Liberty. But what I was really looking forward to was seeing Greenwich Village. I’d read about the beatniks. I had a set of bongos. I aspired to be cool.

However, my hopes of breathing the air of Washington Square were squashed by the caution of the trip chaperones. Our tour bus did pass by the famous square, but we weren’t allowed to get out of the bus. Who knows what we might have inhaled?

The frustration I felt only made me more determined to experience the city on my terms. Five years later, in the winter of 1966-67, I moved into a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Suffice it to say I learned a lot.

By then the folk music scene had given way to upstart rock bands. There weren’t many bongo players around. But there were still a lot of scruffy young men wandering about with guitar cases filled with dreams.

When I watched Inside Llewyn Davis I was expecting to see something of that tumultuous time when civil rights and social justice were at the forefront of public discourse. But I hadn’t taken into account that this was a Coen Brothers film. The award winning duo has made some amazing films, among them Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men. Some even consider The Big Lebowski a great film. Who am I to judge?

I wanted to like Inside Llewyn Davis. It has the Village, folk music, Justin Timberlake. It even has a cat in a supporting role. But try as I might, I just couldn’t warm to any of the characters. Except the cat. The cat was cool, cooler than Llewyn, and considerably more likable.

The movie follows Llewyn Davis through one week in midwinter as he attempts to restart his career as a solo performer, after his former singing partner (spoiler alert) jumped off a bridge. The movie doesn’t spell out why this happened. But after an hour or so of watching the anti-hero floundering around from couch to couch, I didn’t much care if he jumped off a bridge too.

There are a lot of almost funny little scenes, slyly mocking the folkies of the early 60s, and the earnest fans who believed in them. There is a brief road trip sequence that channels the spirit of Jim Jarmusch, complete with an inscrutable drug addict and a chain-smoking Beat poet.

However, though I tried to care about this story of a lost musician, in the end it was just too much like work. When the film first came out the soundtrack inspired talk of the resurgence of folk music. But really, folk music never goes away. We take it for granted, assuming it will always be there, like that person who always knows the words at the hootenanny. Like Woodie Guthrie. And now he’s gone. Who could take his place? Not someone like Llewyn Davis. Unless maybe he takes up bongos.

Carefully Taught

Even though I rode a bike at a young age, I knew I was a girl. Check out the footwear.
Even though I rode a bike at a young age, I knew I was a girl. Check out the footwear.

Contrary to popular mythology, I didn’t learn everything I know from my cat.

I was schooled by the lyrics of Broadway musicals. In our house when I was growing up, these classic gems of melody and harmony and wit were played regularly on the tiny turntable in the living room which served as our entire “sound system,” the same system that played “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hounddog” and “Bye Bye Love.” And along with learning all of Elvis’s moves and the Everly Brothers’ songs, I learned the words to all the songs in My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and, perhaps most beloved, South Pacific.

Set in World War II, that Rogers and Hammerstein romantic drama included some genuinely thoughtful songs about prejudice and gender issues. The most memorable of these, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” eloquently expresses the pressure societies exert to ensure that rigidly held conventions remain unchallenged, as the American Lieutenant sings to the island girl he loves: “You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Last week when I read in the news about the eight-year-old Virginia girl who was asked to leave the Christian school in which she was a student because she failed to “dress and act like a girl” I was appalled. Of course private schools make their own rules. And that’s their right. But as a former tomboy myself, I was shocked and dismayed to see yet another example of how little we’ve changed as a species.

I grew up as the only girl in a family of five kids  in the ’50s in Northern Virginia. I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs for much of the time, except to school of course, where girls were expected to wear skirts or dresses. Thing were different then. But outside of school and church, I wore pants. Try riding a bike in skirts, fellas. Talk about drafting.

Close to Washington, D.C., the area tended to be less conservative than much of Virginia, but even so, traditional views were still in force. Title IX, which opened the doors for girls to play sports with something approaching equal support in 1972, didn’t exist back then. The idea of gender equality wasn’t taken seriously. Men were in charge. Women took dictation.

All of that has changed for much of the world, thankfully. But clearly not everyone is happy with the changes. People who yearn for a time when things seemed simpler may try to put the Jeannie back in the crinoline, but I don’t think women will stand for it anymore.

I recently watched “Wadjda,” the first film directed by a Saudi Arabian woman shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. This amazing film, which centers on the struggles of a 10-year-old girl who wants to own a bicycle, has garnered considerable critical acclaim.  The young girl who plays the lead shines with pluck and resourcefulness. But what makes the film so important, from a gender standpoint, is how it reveals the incredibly restrictive social conditions for women in Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda wants a bicycle because she wants to race her friend, who is a boy. In the film gangs of boys ride bikes all over the place. But girls are discouraged from riding bikes because of the commonly held belief that bike riding will destroy their virginity, and thus make them unmarriageable.

Yikes. I remember hearing similar tales when I was growing up. In the real “olden days” that’s why ladies were supposed to ride sidesaddle — not to protect their skirts but to protect their virginity. Anything to keep the women from passing the menfolks.

I rode a bike everywhere when I was 10 years old. Well, not everywhere, because I was a girl. My brothers were always allowed more freedom, and whenever they could do something I wasn’t allowed to do, I asked my father why I couldn’t. The answer was always: “Because you’re a girl.”

I understand now that he was trying to protect me from a world full of dangers, many of them men. But at the time I only felt the unfairness. As a child I wanted to live in a just world, where everyone has the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same benefits.

I’m still waiting. But signs of progress are everywhere. That eight-year-old tomboy who got kicked out of her Christian school? Her grandparents stood by her and she moved to another school. And Wadjda? I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone, but trust me, fortune favors the brave.

Wheels of destiny, turning still.
Wheels of destiny, turning still.