The Long Transition from a Gypsy to a Rose

Roses Turn (the re-invention anthem, out of order on purpose):

 Mama’s talkin’ loud.
 Mama’s doin’ fine.
 Mama’s gettin’ hot. 
Mama’s goin’ stong.
 Mama’s movin’ on.
 Mama’s all alone.
 Mama doesn’t care.
 Mama’s lettin’ loose.
Mama’s got the stuff.
 Mama’s lettin’ go.
 Mama?
 Mama’s got the stuff.
 Mama’s gotta move.
 Mama’s gotta go.
 Mama? Mama?
 Mama’s gotta let go.

 Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
 Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
 Give ’em love and what does it get ya?
 What does it get ya?
 One quick look as each of ’em leaves you.
 All your life and what does it get ya?
 Thanks a lot and out with the garbage,
 they take bows and you’re battin’ zero.


Ya either got it, or ya ain’t.
 And, boys, I got it!
 Ya like it?
 Well, I got it!

 Some people got it and make it pay.
 Some people can’t even give it away.
 This people’s got it
 and this people’s spreadin’ it around!
 You either have it
 or you’ve had it!

Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn? 
Don’t I get a dream for myself?
 Starting now it’s gonna be my turn. 
Gangway, world, get off of my runway!
 Starting now I bat a thousand!
 This time, boys, I’m taking the bows and

everything’s coming up Rose!
 Everything’s coming up Roses! 
Everything’s coming up Roses
 this time for me!
 For me! For me! For me! For me! For me! 
For me! Yeah!

 The general patriarchic summary of the stage play “Gypsy” often describes the mother, Rose, as a self centered harpy- but as I watched once again with an older, and more nuanced eye I saw the subtlety and wit that would make Nora Ephron (RIP) proud.  There is a reason the character of Rose can be on stage for almost the entire show and still be engaging.  If she truly were a one-note character largely made up of a self-centered harpy the show would not work.  The greater themes about parenting, aging, and the necessity of adapting are what keep us engaged as they play out in a larger than life woman and her relationships with those she loves.  That Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent got it right is really impressive (and that some of their other work is such schlock makes me think they both might just BE versions of the Rose character).  Clive Barnes understood the psychological and entertainment brilliance of Rose when he said she was one of the few truly complex characters in the American Musical (Thank you Wikipedia for reminding me of this review: Barnes, Clive. ” ‘Gypsy’ Bounces Back With Zest and Lilt”. The New York Times. September 24, 1974).

While Rose is deeply and uniquely gendered, I think the character and the struggles she experiences (warts and all) as well as the impulse for reinvention goes beyond gender and is a truly humanist construction.  For decades swaths of people in LBGT communities have been drawn to the story of theater, parental conflict and the character of Rose.  So much so, fandom of Rose has become a sort of “hair pin”, and I would like to think I can make a claim to affinity for Rose without the hair pin, and reappropriate her for middle aged women.

I am struck by how well the tension between Gypsy and Rose captures the continuum all women face.  We start out as young women, exploring our lives as sexual beings, “pretty girls” (if you recall the mirror scene), resisting the objectification that comes with that time of life, and fashioning our presence as our own.  Slowly, over time, we grow and change and there is an epiphany many, many of us go through when we sing the “Rose’s Turn” song in our own way as we become a Rose, and leave Gypsy behind.  Oh, and all that “Mama’s getting’ hot”?  Layered meanings, folks- and the multiyear wind up to menopause is in it.

The necessity in middle age of taking stock and reinventing ourselves is not special to women, but can play out in very different and gendered ways that “Roses Turn” deftly captures.  What superficially may seem grasping, even delusional, is not.  The song is fully self-aware and instead of devolving into self-pity, asserts the character as adaptive and open to a new time in life with fierceness, intelligence, charm, and gusto (but does not avoid the attendant sadness and regret either).  We should all be so lucky to have the bravado of Rose!

I am still on the continuum, shifting.  I think of all the Red Hat ladies who designated women my age as “Pink Ladies”, not yet old enough, not yet ready to wear the brash, assertive red.  Aging and parenting can have dark, cruel, cruel sides for women.  Marketers count on that.  But it is the infinitely creative, funny, and strong presence of all the Roses I have known that provide my texts as I advance, and a bulwark against the all too common reductive, diminishing, and dismissive forces of culture towards middle aged women (in arenas of employment, entertainment, health care, and journalism especially).

I took great pleasure in watching Rosalind Russell belt out “Roses Turn” today.  Pleasure of a complexity I never had before.  I can’t help but think so many of the women who stump and squawk about issues that force women into untenable corners (healthcare and abortion rights as one example) and are on the side of regressive, suppressive policies might gain something from watching Rose, and start to recognize the Rose’s in their lives, and in themselves.

There have been many extremely stressful, unasked for corners in the past few years and I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my husband, friends, and family.  Huge holes in this blog are one example of the collateral effects.  But today, this morning, if just for a little while, I am humming and singing to myself,  Mama’s talkin’ loud.
Mama’s doin’ fine.
Mama’s gettin’ hot.
Mama’s goin’ stong.
Mama’s movin’ on. . .

Thank you Rose. 

All you Roses, thank you.

To my peers, lets start to shimmy a little and get loud. . . 

I am invisible

We are a collection of wonderful paradoxes, Walt Whitman might say.  I am both a very shy person, and yet can be charismatic and outgoing.  Choosing to be invisible is easy.  Worn teeshirt, jeans, frumpy hair, no makeup, what I think of as my Coco Chanel glasses (large, plastic frames and glass bi-focal lenses), small silver earrings.  Keen sandals.  Wedding band.  All this and I disappear.  Literally.  Counter clerks have to look twice, as if I appeared out of thin air from the first time they glanced.  When I am done with my business and walk away, I doubt they could recall anything about me at all.  Crossing the street, cars forget to stop. 

When I make myself “presentable”, people seem shocked.  The mothers of the children at the preschool my son attends recently had lunch together.  Many are academics, most over the age of 30.  When I walked in, the organizer of the event looked stunned.  She commented on how I appeared, positively.  So did others.  When I picked up my son from school his teacher could not stop asking about the large funky ring I wore (Did Husband make it? No.), the sweater, the black jeans, the BCBG black shoes, the silver bangles.  I had makeup and less crazy glasses on as well.  When she could not seem to stop, I interjected “Yes.  I clean up.”  She seemed embarrassed at that point.  I usually drop him off and pick him up while cleaning or gardening, or any number of banal and mundane activities that require “work clothes”.  Also, I know I am invisible when I dress down and no one bothers me.  They avoid me actually, so I suppose my appearance is a few steps above bag lady.

 I have a fantasy about my own super heroine.  She is a late 50’s retired chemist, widowed.  She lives in a neat and orderly craftsman style house in an older neighborhood, in a university town.  Her neighbor is a Native American man who looks after her garden when she travels.  Her old grad assistant looks after her dog.  She has become a finely attuned killer.  She has educated herself about all manner of methods (very funny scenes in the beginning of the development of her alter ego when she is learning methods of how to kill).  She scans various newspapers for people she believes deserve to be taken out of the gene pool as she says; child abusers who have gotten off on technicalities for example.   She expertly hunts them down and erases them.  She does so with relative ease because she is smart, but also because she is invisible.  She is the kindly, graying older woman no one takes seriously.  She slips through crowds without being seen, but without needing camouflage.  Hey, men have their Spider-mans and Dark Knights.  I have my Invisible Woman. 

 One sided dialogue from imagined film pitch:

“No.  Not like Ms. Marple.”

“No.  Not like Dexter.”

“No.  She does not have super powers.”

“No.  She does not dress like a tart.  I don’t think you get the idea.”

“No.  Not like Stephanie Plum.”

“No.  No no no.  The core demographic is not male 12-35.”

“Do you know what irony is?”

“We are done here.”

  That’s pretty much how life goes anyway.

I may not have the brains or nerve to BE my super heroine, but on a smaller scale I know how to manipulate my appearance and energy to achieve certain perceptions.  You have to “work with what you have” my mother used to say.  I was never beautiful, and youth is a great help in attractiveness.  Middle age is another situation entirely.   It was near the end of my graduate school experiences, at a conference, when a woman told me “you look like somebodys mother”.  I had not dressed that way, and wondered why she got off on insulting me.  She was older than I was and trying way too hard to be hip in her appearance.  It was just another straw on the proverbial camels back for me regarding academia, and not really a surprise.  People are just as messed up, petty, competitive, dim and prone to superficiality as in any other arena, they just have the skills to mask it better.  Being invisible does not mean it is a good quality, and there are a lot of women whom it really chafes.

Most of us know as we slip into invisibility.  Men cease to take the automatic sneak peek at our breasts, and we move beyond sexual opportunity into “safe” ; not yet grandmotherly, but not a sexual bulls eye to hit either.  We gain a little social authority, but only when we are persistent in a goal.  Otherwise we risk being called crazy, or threatening and are thus dismissed.  As Husband says, that is a grave mistake- because a middle aged woman comfortable in her body and experienced is “a thing of wonder and pleasure”.

Try to remember: you never know about all those ladies you pass on the street.  Don’t underestimate us, because you really have no idea about all the things we are and who we can be.  You have been given fair warning.  Besides, isn’t it better to imagine a bunch of terrific Invisible Women out there fighting for the greater good in the world?