Wednesday, October 30, 2013

201: The Self-Empowered Woman: Marin Alsop

Dear Followers,

Since September 2007, Marin Alsop has been the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is notable because she is the first woman ever to hold this position with a major American orchestra. Her tenure has been so successful that her contract has been extended through the 2020-2021 season. In 2005, she became the first conductor to ever receive a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant."

She was born on October 16th, 1956, in New York City to parents who were professional musicians, and began studying the violin when she was a toddler. Her first exposure to sexism came when she was only nine years old, and her father took her to a Young People's Concert that was conducted Leonard Bernstein. She told her parents "That's what I want to be!" (2: An Early Sense of Direction) and they were supportive, but her violin teacher said, "Girls don't do that." Alsop's mother not only insisted that Marin could be anything she wanted to be, she even bought a box full of batons for her daughter the very next day.

Alsop earned her Master's degree in violin from Juilliard, but still dreamt of becoming a conductor (7: Magnificent Obsession). Carl Bamberger, a renowned conductor and music teacher became a mentor as did Leonard Bernstein (4: Supportive Someone),  and in 1984, her orchestra (The Concordia) had it's first concert in New York's Symphony Space. When she took part in a forum on creative leadership at George Washington University, she told students, "Pound and pound and pound at the front door, and while no one's looking, just walk around the side and climb in the window. That's sort of what I did."

A great deal of controversy surrounded her selection as music director of the Baltimore Symphony because many members of the orchestra questioned her abilities (13: More Than Meets The Eye). It was a humiliating situation, but Marin insisted on meeting with the orchestra so she could tell them about her plan and vision. The musicians told her, "You have 110 percent of our support," and after her first performance with them (in September, 2007), the crowd gave her a standing ovations both before and after the orchestra's performance (8: Turning No Into Yes). She has been the music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California since 1992, as well as the principal conductor of the Sao Paolo State Symphony Orchestra.

Marin prides herself on "reinventing" things that are ready for change, including her maestra's jacket. She insisted that her black jacket and trousers be different than those traditionally worn by (male) conductors, and against the advice of others her suits now have "flashes of crimson silk at the collar and cuffs." She has also been criticized for choosing dissonant music that many attendees at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall find irritating (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Marin has almost made a habit of taking chances. From creating CSI-inspired concerts to donating 20 percent of her MacArthur prize money to help fund Baltimore's OrchKids children's music program, to sponsoring BSO Academy, which allows fans to sit with the orchestra during rehearsals, eat lunch with the musicians, and attend master classes, she is not afraid to break barriers (11: Risk Addiction).

Marin and her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, have a ten year old son, Auden, and when asked recently what her "dream life" would look like, she answered, "Aren't I living it now?"

Looking forward to your comments...


Sunday, October 13, 2013

200: The Self-Empowered Woman: Diana Nyad

Dear Followers,

First of all, let me thank all of you for supporting this blog so enthusiastically--this is my 200th posting, and I'm sure that I will never run out of interesting stories about amazing women! 
Today, I'd like to celebrate 64 year old marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who became--after four failed attempts--the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida.  Her father was a stockbroker who died when she was an infant (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  When her mother remarried, Aristotle Nyad adopted her, became her stepfather, and told her that Nyad--in Greek--meant that she would conquer the sea.
The family moved from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and she began swimming seriously in the seventh grade (2: An Early Sense of Direction).  She won three Florida State high school championships in the backstroke, and dreamed of swimming in the 1968 Summer Olympics.  But in 1966, she was forced to spend three months in bed with endocarditis, an infection of the heart.  By the time she was able to start swimming again she had lost her championship speed (12: Hard Times).
She entered Emory University, but was expelled for jumping out of a 4th-floor dormitory window while wearing a parachute (11: Risk Addiction).  She then transferred to Lake Forest College in Illinois, where she majored in English and French, played on the tennis team, resumed (distance) swimming, and graduated in 1973.
Buck Dawson, who directed the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida introduced her to marathon swimming (4: Supportive Someone) and she set a women's world record (four hours and 22 minutes) in her first event (8: Turning No into Yes).  In June 1974, she set a women's record of eight hours 22 minutes in the 22 mile Bay of Naples Race, and the next year (when she was 26) she swam 28 miles around the Island of Manhattan in just under eight hours.  Her first attempt to swim from Havana to Key West (in 1978) was in a shark cage, but ended after 42 hours and 76 miles.  In 1978, she was an honoree of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.  In 1979, on her 30th birthday, she set a world record for distance swimming by swimming 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida.  It took her 27 and one-half hours.  She then stopped swimming (14: Selective Disassociation) completely for 30 years.
She then began working as a successful sports broadcaster (NPR and CBS) and journalist (Newsweek and The New York Times), and earned over $10,000 for her motivational talks (13: More Than Meets the Eye)After her mother's death, Nyad couldn't stop thinking about the Cuba to Florida swim, and began training in the Caribbean.  Her August, 2011, September, 2011 and August, 2012 attempts all failed due to asthma, strong currents or dangerous jellyfish stings (7: Magnificent Obsession).  While swimming, she has a mental soundtrack of songs that she sings to herself over and over again (9: Music).
To get a better feel of Diane Nyad's personality, watch her two-part interview with Oprah on "Super Soul Sunday" or her TED lecture.  And a Showtime Channel special, "The Other Shore" will be broadcast the first week of November.
Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, October 4, 2013

199: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jane Franklin Mecom

Dear Followers,


In the last post, I recommended a movie that I felt would give all of us something to think about as well as a new perspective. Today, I'd like to recommend a book about a woman whose life has fascinated me for years, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, Jane Mecom.

They grew up in Boston in the early 1700s where they were known in the neighborhood as Benny and Jenny. Their parents had 17 children; he was the youngest boy and she was the youngest girl. We all know how famous and accomplished Benjamin Franklin was--some people have called him "the most interesting public man this country has ever produced." But his sister--like so many women of that era--never left home, married a man who was no great bargain, gave birth to 12 children, struggled with poverty for most of her life, and helped raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I first learned about Jane Mecom from an Op-Ed article in The New York Times written in 2011 by Gail Collins, but when I began to search for more information about her life there wasn't much to be found. Now, Jill Lepore (a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker) has written a lengthy biography about Jane Franklin Mecom that is titled Book of Ages (Knopf, 442 pp, $27.95), which tells us a great deal about the era and as much as possible about this almost-invisible woman. The title comes from a record that Mecom kept about the births and deaths of her children--almost all of whom died before she did, many when they were young and some who had mental illnesses, as well.

Benjamin Franklin cared deeply for his sister and for 63 years sent her many letters, which she kept. He, however, lost most of her correspondence. According to the author, "He loved no one longer...she loved no one better. He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone." Mecom was born in 1712, but no letter written by her before 1758 has survived, which is why Ms. Lepore had such a hard time writing this book. In her words, the "paper trail is miserable scant."
It may have been hard for the author to have found specific information about Mecom, but she is able to tell us a great deal about what life was like for women during that era. At that time, Boston's schools did not enroll girls, and while some girls did learn how to read (at home), they were not taught how to write. How different Franklin siblings' lives were--he signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, while she struggled to write her own name.
At 15, she married Edward Mecom, a saddle-maker who frequently fell into debt, and there is no trace that she "ever wrote anything about him at all." In her few letters that have survived, she apologizes for her poor grammar and spelling, and many of her statements are sad ones. For example, "I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could not Recollect it," and "Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea."
The good news is that Benjamin Franklin tried to help take care of his sister by sending her books, money, and help finding housing. He did not, however, mention her in his autobiography, and we have no idea where she is buried. For anyone who needs a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a world where women are no longer denied educational opportunities, Book of Ages is a brilliant historical reminder.
Looking forward to your comments...