Brand building through storytelling

Like a fish without a bicycle

Back when I was setting forth to climb the corporate ladder, dressed for success in my first and only navy blue suit, I liked to quote a slogan attributed to Gloria Steinem: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Who but the world’s most glamorous feminist could toss off a quip like that?

Turns out Gloria never really said it—I guess she was too astute. Me, I was a sucker for flippancy decked out as insight. I couldn’t bear the thought of needing a man (what was I, some kind of 50s throwback who counted on hubby to pay the bills?).

Rona FlareWhat I needed, according to the self-appointed experts who were churning out advice for working women, was a well-connected mentor who could get me an entrée to those legendary lunches where deals took shape over the second martini. Needless to say, my mentor would be male. To fit in with his crowd, I should learn sports lingo and carry a big leather briefcase full of Very Important Papers. It was as if I could become my own man.

I never did find a corporate honcho to show me the ropes, but I was already married to the first man I loved. He still compelled my attention like nobody else, even though he could drive me to screaming, tear-drenched distraction. My fantasies of leaving inevitably led to steamier fantasies of finding bliss with someone who truly understood me—and who’d never leave his clothes on the living room floor or drink orange juice straight from the bottle.

Little by little, I faced the truth. I did need a man. If I couldn’t work things out with my flawed but endearing husband, I’d have to start at square one with the next guy, who would have his own quirks and blind spots. Needing someone to love was not a sign of weakness after all. It was a sign of being human. So enough of this nonsense about fish and bicycles! Without a man to cherish me, to make me laugh and pour me just the right wine at the end of the day, I’d be a fish on a dock, flopping and gasping.

What we humans will do for love, and the desperate measures we’ve been known to take when love dies, is the great enduring theme that drives all manner of wildly popular creations, from Shakespearean tragedies to hurtin’ songs to Grey’s Anatomy. It’s mind-boggling, really, that so many ambitious, educated women of my generation ever thought we should be able to leave the primordial yearning behind, along with puny paycheques and husbands who didn’t change diapers. Love can bring any woman to her knees, no matter how stalwart. So I couldn’t resist the surprising confessions of Katha Pollitt, a feminist renowned for her wit and fire.

Learning To DrivePollitt made her name as a columnist for The Nation. Abandoned by her lover (a dour philanderer and Marxist zealot known in the new book as “G”), she took to stalking him on the Web. She had vivid daydreams about running him over with his new love, but first she’d have to pass a road test. Pollitt couldn’t drive, much to G’s annoyance. Suddenly manless in midlife, she had joined the throng of aging widows and divorcees who’d been driven around all their lives and now were forced to struggle with the mysteries of traffic. Her driving was comically, intractably clueless. Oh, the shame! In a slim book of essays called Learning to Drive, she reveals her quivering heart for the world to see—and attack.

Pollitt has ardent fans who think her one permissible role is tearing a strip off the likes of Michael Ignatieff. These people aren’t just puzzled by Learning to Drive. They’re on fire with righteous indignation. To read what they’re saying in the media, you’d think that Joan of Arc had thrown off her armour and taken up pole dancing.

Sputters one female reviewer in the Los Angeles Times: “Watching a feminist I’ve admired my entire life dissolve into a whingeing puddle is painful.” Whingeing puddle. Oh, for God’s sake. Could somebody please get this so-called critic an editor?

Pollitt’s own prose is never less than elegantly chiseled, and often deliciously droll. It takes courage to share one’s absurd excesses, and she holds nothing back. At her most abject, she considers the prison term she’d get for mowing down the faithless G: “…in jail, after all, I would not need to drive. I could settle into comfy middle age, reorganizing the prison library and becoming a lesbian.” She tries to hack into G’s e-mail; she messages his suspected lovers, confirming that he cheated on her with them all. One becomes, briefly, her soul mate: “When her name popped up in the in-box I was as excited as if hearing from a lover. What, he really said that to you?”

It’s a gripping tale, “Chain of Fools” with attitude and intellect. Pollitt has a flair for provocative questions. For instance: “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase—you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to grapple with the thorny issues that it raises about dependency and power—issues women still find profoundly unnerving, to judge from the ire of many critics. I have a personal reason for taking a closer look at the power conundrum. I don’t drive anymore, and if you’d ever seen me at the wheel (or, worse, had to drive behind me) you might think I’ve made a wise decision. Still, I can’t help but wonder what not driving says about me.

So I was disappointed when Pollitt danced away from her story to consider more familiar subjects like motherhood and aging. Too many of the essays in Learning to Drive feel tossed off by a writer in a hurry to meet her deadline. Pollitt has a husband now, I gather from one piece. But did she ever get a driver’s license?

Oh, why do I ask? I renew my license faithfully. It comes in handy at airports. And besides, you never know. One day I too could be a woman alone, trying to get somewhere.

To read a New York Times Magazine interview with Katha Pollitt, click here.

Posted by Rona

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