Several recent articles have grabbed my attention for various reasons — sometimes, unpleasant reasons.
Starting out on the bright side, I enjoyed the Wall Street Journal’s story about how Janis Joplin came to write the acapella song, “Mercedes Benz.”
As a designer, I’m always interested in the genesis of creative works. It turns out that “Mercedes Benz” was inspired by the opening line of a song by poet/songwriter Michael McClure: “Come on, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Singer/songwriter Bob Neuwirth said that in August 1970, he was drinking with Janis, actress Geraldine Page and Page’s husband, actor Rip Torn, when “… Janis sang out, ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.’ Earlier, in San Francisco, Janis had heard Michael McClure’s song and it stuck with her. But she couldn’t remember the rest of it.” She ended up writing two of her own verses, with Neuwirth coming up with the third.
McClure said that Janis called him in August 1970:
“[Janis] said she was performing the ‘Mercedes Benz’ song but that hers was different than mine. She sang it over the phone. When she was done, I said it was OK. Then I went for my autoharp and sat on the stairs and sang her mine over the phone. Janis’s version was sweet and wry and had the grace of a riddle. Mine was much more outspoken, funny and ironic. Janis laughed and said she liked hers better. I said, ‘That’s OK, you can sing yours.'”
McClure told writer Marc Myers that that was the last he heard of it until Joplin’s posthumous album Pearl was released in January 1971, and he saw that he had a credit for “Mercedes Benz.” (Neuwirth later got a credit as well.) “Mercedes Benz” was the last song Janis ever recorded. Three days later, on Oct. 4, 1970, she was found dead of an overdose at age 27. Ugh. That’s a depressing end to a cute story, isn’t it? To make the bad feeling go away, go listen to “Mercedes Benz.” Janis’s crazy laugh at the end will lift your spirits. Keep in mind that the “percussion” on the recording is her stomping her feet, and you’ll feel like you’re right in the recording booth with her.
Sticking with the music world, there’s a good Esquire UK interview with my almost-husband Paul McCartney.
So as not to keep you in suspense: No, Macca still has no comment on his failure to marry me! WTF?! At least he has an easy answer for why he keeps a strenuous tour schedule at age 73: “It’s what I do.” He’s like the Geico cat! And unlike some major celebrities (hi, Eminem!), Paul is totally, shamelessly, comfortable with fame. He told writer Alex Bilmes, “I have a joke with my daughter Mary: sometimes I won’t be in a great mood and we’ll go somewhere and the people will be all over me and she’ll turn to Nancy [McCartney’s wife who is not me] and say, ‘He likes a bit of adulation. It cheers him up,’ and the thing is, yep, that is true.” Ha! Go, Paul! What good is fame and fortune if you don’t enjoy it?
I’m sure some people will roll their eyes at McCartney’s continued strong feelings about the unfairness of certain “Lennon-McCartney” songwriting credits, but I highly recommend reading the book version of John Lennon’s long, final interview, conducted by David Sheff for Playboy. In it, John went through all the Beatles songs, describing which were collaborations, which were totally his and which were totally Paul’s. I don’t blame Paul for not being thrilled that, for long-ago branding purposes, John’s name comes first in the credits for a monster hit like “Yesterday,” considering John acknowledged he had nothing to do with that song. Just because you keep repeating “Lennon-McCartney” doesn’t make it true, and the truth is that “Yesterday” is Paul’s song. So there.
The Washington Post has bad news out of Tunica, Miss., a county that was slammed by 60 Minutes in the 1980s for an “apartheid” school system and described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “America’s Ethiopia.” A casino building-boom was supposed to raise the standard of life for everyone and, Chico Harlan reports, indeed, starting in the early 1990s, Tunica has “raked in $759 million, a fortune for a county with 10,000 people.” But, he says, “of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Tunica earned from gambling between 1993 and 2015, just a sliver — about 2.5 percent, according to county records — was used on social programs to help the poor.” Now people like Linda Fay Engle-Harris, a 60-year-old former teacher caring for her mentally disabled brother, are living in homes that are literally rotting. Harlan describes Engle-Harris’s house:
“… when she found new openings in the floor, she crumpled paper into tight wads and jammed them into the gaps. When she awoke to find slugs oozing across her living room, she fetched a dustpan, opened the front door, and gently ushered them back into what she called ‘their natural ecosystem.'”
After spending her savings trying to shore up the house, which had been purchased by her father in 1964, Engle-Harris applied for county housing support. She said the county was partly responsible for the problem. Harlan wrote, “When [the county] paved all the roads, it did not grade them. So the roads rose well above the lawns. Every time it rained, water rolled off the asphalt and toward the houses, collecting under flimsy porches. The neighborhood’s drainage system was overloaded and barely functioning, and Engle-Harris, like many of her neighbors, was living atop a man-made bog.”
The county housing supervisor inspected the home and declared it, “Not livable” and “An immediate need.” Then he put her on a five-year waiting list for assistance. Due to budget uncertainty, Harlan writes, the county hasn’t renovated a single home since June 2014.
Bad decision-making by officials is partly to blame for Tunica’s 30% poverty rate (twice the national average, and that, believe it or not, is an improvement from the pre-casino era). During the good times, property taxes were slashed to the lowest level of any county in Mississippi. That was supposed to entice new business and help all homeowners, but, as Harlan explains, “It disproportionately benefited Tunica’s wealthy … Tax records show 76 percent of the county’s property tax dollars comes from 100 property-owning entities and individuals among 3,200 who own land in the county.” He continues: “Most U.S. counties depend on taxes to fund basic services. But in this case, the casino money was used as a replacement — helping to subsidize the giant property tax cut.” The good times didn’t last. With the economic crash of 2008 and competing casinos in the region, the big money stopped rolling in, and now Tunica is in a bind.
(I’ve emailed Harlan to see if there’s a way to donate to Engle-Harris and will update this post with any information. Helping one person doesn’t do anything to solve the big problem, but still … it helps one person.)
On the medical front, I’ve been alarmed for some time by what seems like ever-increasing social pressure for women with breast cancer in one breast to get the healthy breast removed too. I’m not talking about people like Angelina Jolie, who has a frequently discussed but still relatively rare gene that greatly increases one’s chances of getting cancer. Women with the gene do benefit from double mastectomies as well as additional operations, so don’t crawl up my ass and accuse me of saying those people shouldn’t do it. I’m not saying that. But, for people without the gene, the double-mastectomy trend is a big reversal of what I saw in the 1990s, when my mother had breast cancer. We were so relieved she had the option of a lumpectomy and radiation for her very early stage cancer, rather than what seemed then like old-fashioned mastectomy and chemotherapy. I thought that was where breast-cancer treatment was headed, towards the less invasive and less poisonous whenever possible. However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, doctors are seeing more women with low or average risk for recurrence have the healthy breast removed along with the one affected by cancer.
The Journal reporter, Lucette Lagnado, spoke to Karen Hurley, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in treating breast cancer patients. Hurley said there’s a kind of peer pressure afoot: “At one point, empowerment was keeping your breasts, and now it is removing them.”
The Journal reports that a study of 190,000 California women found survival rates for women with double mastectomies were no better than survival rates for lumpectomy and radiation. The article notes that while the double mastectomy does indeed eliminate any tiny chance of cancer recurring in the remaining breast, “… it carries its own significant risks of complications such as infections. Meanwhile, doctors say, returning cancer is much more likely to spread or metastasize elsewhere in the body, such as bones, the liver or the brain.”
Lagnado quotes Dr. Steven Katz, a researcher at the University of Michigan who has published several studies on double mastectomies, as saying the rate of the cancer recurring elsewhere in the body is as high as 13%. “Women should be focusing on staying alive, which has nothing to do with taking out the other breast,” he said.
To be sure, I’ve never been impressed with what the medical establishment has to say about breast-cancer diagnosis and prognosis, but I think it’s gone in the direction of overreporting and overaction on little things, while missing the bigger picture. For instance, there’s been quite an about-face on ductal carcinoma in situ, which is the term for abnormal cells that haven’t spread out of a milk duct. For years, women were told DCIS was cancer. Now many experts argue that DCIS is really a pre-cancer that doesn’t require drastic action. Meanwhile, plenty of people already have taken drastic action, frightened by the term “carcinoma,” without a corresponding reduction in invasive cancer. And here’s another thing: Despite the fact that I regularly get mammograms (with sonograms), I feel I’m doing it out of superstition rather than any valid reason. “Early detection” isn’t the silver bullet it’s made out to be if we don’t know what we’re detecting. Have you found a serious cancer that truly can be eliminated with early treatment? A virulent cancer that’s unstoppable, so your only goal is to buy time? Or is it something that would never become dangerous at all? That’s where I want research money to go: into interpretation of results and customized treatment. More of this.
Again, don’t crawl up my ass saying I’m criticizing this woman, that woman or you personally for any medical choice you make. I just want everyone to make her own choice based on her own health, not the conventional wisdom du jour. Her condition isn’t your condition. That is what I told my mother in the ’90s when I said she should quit the support group that was making her a nervous wreck. There she was, lumpectomy patient, comparing herself to the women on heavy chemo, whose cancer had metastasized to their bones anyway, who were coming to terms with mortality. I was like, “You don’t have what they have. This isn’t your time. You’ll be around to guilt-trip me for decades!” And, happily, that has been the case.
(If you do decide to have surgery — any surgery, not just mastectomy or lumpectomy! — it’s important to choose your surgeon very, very carefully. I’ve seen the debilitating effects of surgery gone wrong. With great timing, ProPublica has just published its analysis of 17,000 surgeons and their rates of complications for operations that are considered to be routine. Check that out here.)
Finally, the ugly article was about appearances. Right before Serena Williams was victorious at Wimbledon, the New York Times ran a story by freelancer Ben Rothenberg, called, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition.” It started out with a focus on Serena’s “large biceps” and “mold-breaking muscular frame,” and then went on to interviews from several less stellar, white players who — perhaps because of the taste of sour grapes in their mouths — were all like, “Ewwwww! Muscles!” I’m paraphrasing, obviously.
Maria Sharapova is one of the interviewees. Sharapova has lost to Serena 17 times in a row; it’s been 11 years since Maria won against her. Yet “the slender, blond Russian … has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements” Rothenberg reports, because … well, slender, blonde. “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she told the Times, while laughing, presumably all the way to the bank. And she avoids weights in training, going so far as to tell this whopper: “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds.” WAT?! Also, a note to Agnieszka Radwanska — all 5’8″ and 123 pounds of her: Your coach’s extra-creepy quote made me throw up in my mouth a little. “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” Tomasz Wiktorowski said about Agnieszka, “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
Serena Williams is a woman. One who wins …
… as well as one who has been persecuted endlessly for her appearance. Vox has a story summing up many racist and sexist insults and judgments Serena has endured, including this 2006 bit of awfulness that’s all about her breasts. Matthew Norman wrote, “… tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different US state from the rest of her.” Actually, Matthew cannot hope to achieve a career in fortunetelling while lugging around that clip. You see, this Wimbledon was Serena’s 21st Grand Slam title and she did it at age 33, edging past Martina Navratilova to become the oldest Wimbledon champion. If Serena wins at next month’s U.S. Open, she will achieve the first calendar Grand Slam of her career — and the first since Steffi Graf’s 1988 calendar Grand Slam. She’ll also tie Graf for major wins. Let’s not forget that this comes four years after Serena suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
There are plenty of good Serena stories, beyond her biceps, so I wondered how this Times article came to be. I wasn’t the only one. “Many readers were aghast,” said New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan in her excellent column about the matter.
Margaret discovered that the road to the ridiculous story was paved with good intentions. “…It’s unfortunate that this piece didn’t find a way to challenge the views expressed, instead of simply mirroring them,” she wrote. Margaret also spoke to Pat Griffin, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a consultant on sports and discrimination. Griffin said, “Sacrificing your femininity is a really old narrative in women’s sports … There is a whole new narrative breaking through — that women athletes come in all sizes, shapes and forms. So presenting Serena as some kind of freak, or animal-athlete, was appalling.”
I hope the Times does better with the U.S. Open. Maybe it could cover … the tennis? Just a suggestion!