Grace Jones turns 69 today (May 19th). My mother listened to Grace’s cover of La Vie en Rose and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive throughout my childhood. Dueling love songs – one of undying affection and the other one about moving on. Both served as anthems of the 70’s in my household. I later fell hard for the original version of La Vie en Rose, penned and sung by Edith Piaf. A favorite of my mother-in-law especially when heard on an old school jukebox over a glass of wine in a New Orleans bar.
My riff on Jon Landau’s seminal 1974 concert review, Growing Young with Rock and Roll, in which the jaded music critic finds the fountain of youth in the sight and sound of Bruce Springsteen.
Last Friday night, at the Civic Theatre in New Orleans, I saw rock and roll future and it is female and her name is Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. And on a night when I needed to feel something, I heard music that made me want to be something for the first time in a very long time.
Rock and roll past didn’t flash before my eyes. Rock and roll was reborn in the form of a boxcar jumping, guitar strumming, soul igniting spiritual adviser, a balladeer from the Bronx with New Orleans chops, a Puerto Rican truth teller paired with a punk rock heart of gold who gave her all to a crowd hungry for the return of their small town heroes.
A night beginning with Nina Simone’s, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, served up as a pre-show prelude to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s catalog of coming of age, rage, immigrant stories and love stories before culminating in a consciousness-raising, rock and roll rally of two covers: John Lennon’s Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple) and CCR’s Fortunate Son with an assist from Ron Gallo.
Ruminating on the powerful performance I had witnessed and the empowerment that continues to stay with me, I can testify that there is nothing more rock and roll at this moment in time than to be a woman, who now by definition is a pre-existing condition, and not back down but grab back, and not turn away but move forward, and motivate others from the stage to do the same in a single phrase turned refrain: Pa’lante.
They gave us women the month of March. How generous granting us one of the seven months with 31 days. Right after February, designated as Black History Month, which also happens to be the shortest month of the year with only 28 days unless it’s a leap year with 29 days of commemoration. The lists, the distinctions, the remembrances are always “by no means exhaustive,” with shout-outs to the well-known and the unsung. My homage honors the women whose work whether in print, song, dance, or their very being formed my personal playbook from girlish to ladylike to bad ass.
Day 1. Gloria Steinem. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. Paperback purchase made in college. Student for life.
Day 2. Eartha Kitt. Rejuvenate! (It’s Never Too Late). Chanteuse. Catwoman. Civil Rights Activist. Eartha Kitt’s book features breathing and stretching exercises from the then spry 70-something, diet advice: try not to break bread with people full of negative energy, and her account of giving Lady Bird straight talk about the war in Vietnam which led to her being blacklisted. Kitt returned triumphant in 1978 as a guest in President Jimmy Carter’s White House. She died Christmas Day, 2008 at the age of 81.
Day 3. Patti Smith. Just Kids. Punk rock’s fairy godmother, Patti Smith, shares a story of friendship, love, hard work, surviving on lettuce soup, and her mother’s saying “that what you do on New Year’s Day will foretell what you’ll be doing the rest of the year.” She spoke and sang at the University of Houston in April of 2010. Reading that book was the only moment I wished I had a daughter who I could share it with.
Day 4. Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book. Witty and poetic observations of life in the Imperial Court recorded by a Japanese lady in waiting from approximately 1000 years ago. Her lists of Adorable Things (duck eggs, an urn containing the relics of some holy person) and Things That Give a Pathetic Expression (The voice of someone who blows his nose while he is speaking) make for excellent bedtime reading.
Day 5. Billie Holiday. The Billie Holiday Songbook. Her entire catalog is an American songbook filled with stories of loving men who do you wrong (My Man) and commentary on our nation at its worst (Strange Fruit). She lifts you up with God Bless the Child and takes you down with her recording of Gloomy Sunday, also known as the Hungarian Suicide Song with lyrics heavy in grief. She died in 1959 at the age of 44.
Day 6. Sue Coe. X, (Raw One-Shot). These words accompany the illustration:
At the center of the web – a wriggling louse who lurks within the lily White House. 6 hounds greet you at the gate, eyes glinting, salivating hate. Tea is served at a quarter to 4. Well-manicured hoofs daintily pour. As for the starving outside the place, they also get nourishment-a dose of mace. That mace can sting. Let freedom ring.
I viewed Sue Coe’s giant paintings depicting the American horror story of the late 80’s as as sophomore in high school at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. It was the first art exhibit I attended that came with a parental advisory. Sadly, her works portraying the brutality of misogyny and racism don’t appear the least bit dated.
Day 7. Anna DuTerroil, Diagnosis of Aesthetic Behavioral Responses Toward Art Among Students in Elementary Teacher Education Programs. My mother’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Education. I was nine years old. The dedication page reads: To my children, Rene and Dana, who are an aesthetic experience, and to their father Gibson, for his undying love and devotion.
Day 8. Susan C. Ross. The Rights of Women-the Basic ACLU Guide to a Woman’s Rights. At the time of publishing (1973), Ross was a partner in a firm specializing in feminist litigation. The special editor was none other than the Notorious RBG. The manual covers everything from reproductive rights to name change.
Day 9. Donna Summer. Live and More. Her first live album recorded at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, 1978. I was eight years old skating circles around the dining room table while the 8-track played on our stereo. Her disco jams inspired me to later join a roller derby league.
Day 10. Anaïs Nin. Delta of Venus. I picked up a copy at a used book store when I was in high school because the cover is everything. I carried it around like a badge of courage. There’s an inscription inside that reads: To Rosemary from Glenn, Best Wishes and Good Luck.
Day 11. Misty Copeland. Life in Motion. An Unlikely Ballerina. Copeland is the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. In 2015, she made a graceful and warm-hearted appearance in Houston before a crowd of children from the Boys and Girls Club while sitting beside Lauren Anderson, the first ever African-American woman to earn a principal role in a major ballet company (the Houston Ballet).
Day 12. Simone Beck & Louisette Bertholle & Julia Child. The Art of French Cooking. I read cookbooks like novels (the food tastes better that way) and this is a classic along with illustrations by Sidonie Coryn. Her drawing of a Charlotte Malakoff is frame-worthy (almond cream with fresh strawberries served cold). This book is my mom’s copy. Her favorite dish is boeuf bourguignon.
Day 13. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Girlhood.
Day 14. Sister Helen Prejean. The Death of Innocents-An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Her follow-up to Dead Man Walking again weaves her personal stories against the backdrop of public policy in an unflinching examination of the death penalty. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in Louisiana but spends much of her time on the road speaking out and seeking justice as she encouraged me to do in my copy.
Day 15. Edith Piaf. Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall. Her rendition of Lovers for a Day destroys me every time with the sound of the shattering glass at the end breaking your heart into a million pieces.
Day 16. Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Smith-Williams, assigned this book in my senior year of 1989. A bold move considering the African-American female author stood out in a predominantly older white male reading list. No offense to Jane Austen (Pride & Prejudice was also required reading that year) but the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III and all those names like Railroad Tommy, Spoonbread, Quack-Quack, Funny Papa and Fuck-Up blew my teenage mind.
Day 17. Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus. “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.” I had never seen photographs like hers before when I was turned on to her work while studying photography in high school.
Day 18. Ruth Reichl. Garlic & Sapphires. The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. Fearless food critic, foodie, and the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.
Day 19. Terry McMillan. Waiting to Exhale. Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria.
Day 20. Marie Kondo The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In our disposable, click and buy, fast fashion culture asking if an object sparks joy forces me to meditate on my possessions and their meaning in my life, as well a question new acquisitions. Plus, I really dig folding. A few of my favorite things that spark joy as pictured above: Nana’s pillbox, Chateau Marmont matchbook, feathers from Ronnie’s Sex Shop on Route 62, South Africa.
Day 21. Sophia Loren. Recipes & Memories. The pasta chapter is my favorite. Winner of the 1961 Academy Award for Best Actress in Two Women making her the first to win an Oscar for her role in a foreign film. She didn’t attend because she didn’t think she was going to win. In 1991, she was there to receive her Honorary Award from the Academy.
Day 22. Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek. Born in Chicago, longtime resident of my birthplace, San Antonio, she now lives in Mexico. She is why the NEA is vital to our country. In the acknowledgements of her book, Cisneros gives a shout-out to the National Endowment for the Arts “for twice saving me in one lifetime.”
Day 23. Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique. “For all the new women, and all the new men.” Friedan’s book was published in 1963. She died in 2006. Her thoughts on the current state of the American wife are sorely missed.
Day 24. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. “Show us happy it makes you to write a poem.” Not so much.
Day 25. Rubye DuTerroil, nee Gibson, my grandmother (father’s side). The Role of Women in 19th Century San Antonio. Her Masters Thesis from 1949. Many women were in the hotel biz including the Menger Hotel, founded by W.A. Menger and taken over by his wife when he died in 1871. Rubye earned her B.A. & M.A. at St. Mary’s University. She taught at Ursuline Academy and Loma Park Elementary. Former Miss San Antonio. Master of side-eye, crossword puzzles, and washing my hair in the kitchen sink. To watch as she lit her unfiltered Pall Mall on the gas stove and slice me a wedge of peach cake was a life lesson in the multi-tasking women do every day.
Day 26. Round 46: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. Performance and installation at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward, March 2017. “I am my sister’s keeper.”
Day 27. All the Nancy Drews. Mildred Wirt Benson was the ghostwriter for books 1-7, 11-25, and 30. Her last one was The Clue of the Velvet Mask. My favorites were The Clue in the Jewel Box and The Clue in the Diary with Nancy channeling a Grace Kelly vibe straight outta Hitchcock. I carried a Nancy Drew lunchbox and hid my eyeglasses in it because I didn’t like how they looked. Somehow, my vision didn’t suffer or stop me from reading.
Day 28. Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale. I no longer own a copy but I still have my college paper comparing the book and the 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson who tragically died in 2009. Stay woke ladies. PS: I got an A.
Day 29. Sophie Tucker. My Dream (Her Latest & Greatest Spicy Saucy Songs). Vaudeville OG. Entertainer who called herself a “perfect 48” – singing in English and Yiddish with a whole lotta swagger. Last of the Red Hot Mamas.
Day 30. Grace Coddington. Grace – A Memoir. Fantastical fashion visionary aka creative director of American Vogue.
Day 31. Rose Pantusa. The Everyday Diary. 1932. San Antonio, TX. My grandmother’s year of ironing, occasional factory work, mass, and cute boys. Nana forever.
They gave us just a month to honor, praise, and cheer
They gave us just a month to hold our heroes dear
They gave us just a month to list them all by name
One by one we remember them whether little known or steeped in fame
They gave us just a month but we will take as long as we damn please
31 days and evermore
We will never cease
“Is that glitter in your hair?”
“No, it’s hair tinsel. I got it at mermaid camp.”
“Mermaid camp? You must have children.”
Nope. Just me and my “what do I want to be when I grow up” girlhood dreams that have followed me well into adulthood.
Do your dreams grow up? My dreams stay put – always on the alert to the potential for fulfillment.
Like the morning of July 10th, 2016, I spotted a flyer offering a Sirenalia Mermaid Retreat in San Marcos, Texas, the former site of Aquarena Springs and the legendary Aquamaids of yesteryear. The image of a mermaid stood out among the standard issue coffee shop bulletin board selection hawking yoga classes and composting workshops. I was ready to sign up before the last sip of my latte despite the absence of details or qualifications I might need to attend. Justifying the desire to become a mermaid was not necessary in my mind. Justifying the expense as an advance on my birthday was my only concern.
My childhood career goals leaned heavily towards accessory-laden professions where wardrobe was part of the job description. Early role models included the lady perched on the red velvet swing at the Old San Francisco Steak House, who propelled herself towards the ceiling to ding the bell with a dainty tap of her toe. I sat mesmerized by her feather boa and fishnet stockings with a ruffly garter encircling one leg. The ragtime tunes of the piano player accompanied her as she swung higher and higher while diners feasted on surf and turf below. I marched up after every meal to take my place of honor on the swing for a ceremonial push and certificate declaring that I too was “a swinger at the Old San Francisco Steak House.”
Later, the Radio City Rockettes’ kick line would inspire visions of a life spent synchronized in sequins. A few years ago, a flight on Singapore Airlines enticed me with the sarong kebaya and slippers ensemble worn by the effortlessly elegant cabin crew.
As for mermaids, I didn’t come of age with Disney’s red-headed Ariel. I was firmly planted on Team Darryl Hannah thanks to the 1984 film, Splash. On land and sans tail, Mermaid Madison awkwardly maneuvered Manhattan, manhandling lobster dinners and shattering tv sets with her high-pitched native tongue. But her clandestine tail-on transformation in the bathtub attested to the sheer luxury and exuberance of being comfortable in your own skin.
And the mermaid’s tail is what caught my eye when I spied that flyer on the bulletin board. Pastel layers of scales scalloping down to the fishtail, bursting with color like an “It Bag” for my bottom half. The mermaid tail possessed the finishing touch superpower of a well-placed accessory. I had appendage envy.
However, my mermaid cred was limited to long, blonde hair and the ability to “hold a mirror and brush hair,” skills that my pre-retreat studies revealed were essential to mermaiding. I adopted a “fake it until you make it” attitude in anticipation of the four-day mermaid immersion program which included an underwater photo shoot, entry to the Mermaid Society Ball, and a seat on a float in the Mermaid Parade. Confident that mermaids were a welcoming bunch, I shelved my fears of uncertainty and focused on packing mermaid-appropriate attire which included strands of tiny conch shells, plumeria hair clips, waterproof mascara, swimsuits, pajamas sewn by my mother-in-law with the advice to “Be a mermaid in a sea of fish,” printed on them, and a plastic lobster as my mascot.
My rookie status was apparent upon meeting pro mermaids with their very own custom-made tails, seashell-embellished bikini tops and palettes of eye shadows, bronzers and blushes. The mermaid makeover crew quickly moved into action, my hair tinseled with sparkly strands and my arm expertly embossed with an intricate henna design. Their talents humbled me and the generosity of spirit and glitter reassured me that despite my lack of experience, I now at least looked the part.
The Sirenalia glam squad of do-gooders cares deeply about the mermaid’s natural habitat, the water. The location for our underwater photo shoot was the San Marcos River where we would later pick up litter left behind by picnickers and careless convoys of tubing revelers in the less pristine parts of the riverbed. Although I knew how to swim, I spent most of my adult life landlocked or on a chaise lounge where the ocean served as a backdrop to sunbathing. That a lifeguard would be present alternatively comforted and terrified me as I was convinced that my star turn as an enchanting sea creature would end with me swept away by the river current, desperately grabbing for the banks as my underwater rescue ended up with a million views on YouTube as a #MermaidFail.
Relief set in when I saw that our stretch of the river ran through the campus of Texas State University with carefree students paddle boarding to class. The pros took to the water with ease, bobbing their colorful tails to the delight of bystanders, rapidly filling their Instagram feed with photos of mermaids taking over the campus. Cautiously, I first tried out the monofin, my dolphin kick more akin to a bucking bronco. I felt like Houdini trying to break out of a pair of hard rubber shackles. Cursing myself for spending more time studying books than developing my core muscles, I channeled costume designer Edith Head: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” It was time to let go of the training wheels and suit up.
Mermaid Elona lent me her tail tinted with the hues of a perfect sunset. Hair and makeup mastermind, Rose, acted as my midwife, guiding me through the laborious process of shimmying and scooting my lower half inside the 30-pound, 100% platinum-cured DragonSilicone tail. In the river, I still struggled to glide with the natural grace of the mermaids surrounding me but I swooned with pride to be in their presence and swim alongside them.
For the retreat’s grand finale, we would ride as live mermaids in the San Marcos Mermaid Parade, celebrating the community’s dedication to river conservation and all things mermaid. Parading was my comfort zone. Years living in New Orleans had schooled me in the roles of spectator and float rider. But no amount of bead throwing and catching had prepared me for the unhinged glee of little girls glimpsing a flatbed of mermaids. Their faces registered amazement, ambition and recognition. Mermaids are real.
As I brush my hair, as all good mermaids do, I carefully protect the two remaining strands of hair tinsel. These shimmery locks are a touchstone – a symbol of achievement, a reminder of the goodness of people who help you pursue your dreams, and an inspiration to others.
Don’t give up. Suit up. #MermaidsAreReal
I swiveled in my office chair for a Royal Street view of the tourist masses flocked in feather boas clutching to-go cups while locals weaved their way around the packs of conventioneers, bachelor parties and safari-clad senior citizens. This panorama was my daily diversion from reviewing all things criminal for the Louisiana Supreme Court whose palatial digs sat in judgment in the most unlikely of locations, the French Quarter of New Orleans, an area known more for the birthplace of boozy concoctions and jazz than jurisprudence. But in the spring of 2005, my distraction sprung from within. Craving more movement than the wheels of justice provided, my daydreams turned to roller derby.
Roller derby leagues were laying down tracks across the U.S. after getting a reboot from the sleazy 70’s version to an updated symbol of female empowerment paired with fishnet stockings. Although the skaters appeared to be much younger, much more tattooed women than myself, I felt a kindred spirit from my childhood years of roller skating around the dining room table with a Donna Summer 8–track backing me as I looped the green linoleum floor over and over. My sedentary existence as a behind-the-scenes lawyer propelled my four-wheel fantasies as I rounded the imaginary track in my mind, sporting my skater name emblazoned across my back, Illegally Blonde.
The name reflected the pride I took in achieving good hair and a meaningful career but I needed more than a moniker to spur me into action from slacker to skater. I sought encouragement from a friend who knew me from our disgruntled teenage days. Without hesitation, he replied, “Hell yeah, you were kinda mean.” I then asked my husband for his thoughts and without hesitation, he replied, “You’ll get creamed.” And then Katrina happened.
Exiled in Houston with my husband and my New Orleanian in-laws, we shared space with my parents who conveniently lived in Houston and were conveniently divorced thereby providing us with two houses to stay in. I watched the televised water mark lines continue to rise in my adopted city while safe and secure back under my parents’ roof in my hometown. Derby dreams were shelved as all my thoughts turned dark wondering when we would go back home – to the city where I became a grownup – from college student, to law student, to lawyer and then wife. I volunteered alongside my fellow Houstonians in the sheltered remains of the Astrodome, desperate to connect with my fellow evacuees who were much worse off but still shared the same underlying pain of removal from a city we loved.
October 2005 marked my return to New Orleans. Our house was still standing but plenty was not. Katrina’s sudden disruption and deprivation of my daily routine and rituals taught me a life lesson: postpone at your peril. And so I moved my roller derby daydreams to my to-do list. Katrina had depleted the league’s numbers – some members remained far removed from home and some with more pressing concerns. But joining roller derby represented a comeback, and a welcome back, for me and my city.
Lacing up a pair of standard issue roller rink skates, I circled the concrete parking lot across the street from our house, skating the same pattern from the green linoleum floor of my youth. I then braved my first roller derby practice fully armored with a helmet, wrist pads, elbow pads, knee pads, and a mouth guard. And for the first time ever, I became an athlete. Before that, I was a failed cross country runner, track team dropout, frequent visitor to the nurse’s office when PE involved any sport that had the potential of a ball hitting me in the face, and had gone AWOL on many a gym membership. But now I was mastering crossovers, booty blocking, and whips and pushes. I’ve never been a natural at anything but I took to the track just like I was back in the dining room listening to Donna Summer belt out Last Dance. “We Skate Through Hell and High Water” was our mantra as we rebuilt the league while rebuilding our homes, our businesses and our lives.
The Big Easy Rollergirls made their debut on September 16, 2006 – a year had passed since Katrina. Our bout was held in the colorful, cavernous warehouse of Mardi Gras World – our track surrounded by Mardi Gras floats housed for the off-season providing a surreal, sold out backdrop for the first ever appearance of flat track roller derby in New Orleans. The rules of roller derby may have been lost on the crowd but their cheering sounded like the whole city was inside. We all rose above the water mark line that night.
I left the league after the first season but roller derby has never left my heart. I also left New Orleans but the city remains in my soul. No longer a jammer, I became a jogger but every time I round that corner on the three-mile loop in Memorial Park, Illegally Blonde gets back on the track. And don’t even think of cutting me in line at the deli counter.
Friday, July 3, 2015. Chicago.
I was the solo no show for a trio of Grateful Dead concerts marking the band’s golden anniversary. A holdout in a town hosting a tie-dye takeover. I bid my husband fare thee well on the first night as he joined the army of Grateful dads making their way to Soldier Field. I wasn’t being insolent. I meant no disrespect. The music that came so easily to so many ears had long eluded mine.
I was a late bloomer whose first exposure to the Grateful Dead was decidedly mainstream. I heard them on the radio when Touch of Grey hit the FM airwaves in 1987. It was catchy but so was Walk Like an Egyptian. Two years later, my college roommate’s copy of Skeletons from the Closet served as my Grateful Dead 101. In return, I schooled her in German punk high priestess, Nina Hagen, and the proper application of red lipstick. But I still stumbled, labeling the band’s colorful lineup of bears dancing on a dude’s backpack as a “fashion don’t” after mistaking them for the rainbow bright Care Bears crew. The closest to a live performance was a night of Ratdog where Bob Weir’s attempt at lounge classic, Play Misty for Me, was cut short with a heckler’s shout: “Go back to Vegas Bobby!” Damn, I knew that song.
Radio again intervened when we moved to Houston from New Orleans where the community radio content shifted from brass bands to singer-songwriter Americana, including a major dose of Grateful Dead. The playlists went beyond the standards of Casey Jones and Sugar Magnolia and dug deeper with songs featuring shout-outs to Shakespeare, Mary Shelley and the Chateau Marmont embedded in the lyrics. Not all the songs sounded like folky campfire jams either with ragtime-y Ramble on Rose and Shakedown Street’s disco beat bringing me into their musical fold. My husband quickly diagnosed me as a fan of first set songs, almost exclusively penned by Jerry Garcia and his songwriting partner, Robert Hunter. I had found my Grateful Dead groove.
However, my non-traditional conversion via recordings versus live shows meant I lacked the listening prowess to withstand the 3 + hour commitment of a typical Grateful Dead concert. In addition, my limited dance moves were more shake it than spin. Most worrisome was my impatience with the band’s signature improvisation – all that plucking and picking, riffing and ripping. Would I turn into that heckler demanding Bobby get back to the chorus? The preservation of my newfound appreciation for the Grateful Dead compelled me to stay away and not commit an act of musical heresy in front of thousands of Deadheads.
So I remain an outsider, enthusiastically unraveling each song’s layers of symbolism and imagining the cast of characters from Billy Sunday to sweet Anne Marie. Contemplating the parallels between Bowie’s Space Oddity, Elton John’s Rocket Man, and the Dead’s Standing on the Moon. Giving Althea’s advice to her man to my own man, “Ain’t nobody messing with you but you.” To thine own ears be true.