Saturday, May 10, 2014

Strong Woman Number

The title of this post comes from a song featured in a one-woman, quasi-autobiographical musical by another Gretchen (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road c.1978 by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford). The show is not a work of artistic genius. But it made an impression on me during my impressionable teen years when I saw a production in Houston featuring an actress whom I admired and, shortly thereafter, got to work with in what I, at age sixteen, saw as my “big break.”

Coincidentally, some years later, when I moved to Dallas to pursue my acting career primarily in small venues in sketchy neighborhoods while waiting tables at the Deep Ellum CafĂ©, I met another strong woman named “Gretchen.” Her name was really Margaret, but she had always gone by “Gretchen” thanks to the early intervention of a German nanny. Aside from the fact that Gretchen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Short Stories when I first encountered here, I was favorably disposed toward her because her name, “Gretchen Dyer,” reminded me of songwriter “Gretchen Cryer” and thus of this actress whom I had looked up to as a youth. I was predisposed to like Gretchen Dyer even though she gave me the cold-shoulder at first. She was irritated that the restaurant where we met had had the audacity to hire another “Gretchen”—and one who also fashioned herself an artist. Worse still, the kitchen staff had immediately taken to calling us “Big Gretchen” and “Little Gretchen,” respectively. The nickname “Big Gretchen” did not exactly suit her, a statuesque, Bohemian beauty. She was “big” only in the sense that she was considerably taller than I was—and possessed an oversized brain, drive, and heart.

I am thinking about Gretchen Dyer today for several reasons.

First, this is the time of year when thinking of her, who is no longer with us, is inevitable. We are at the midpoint between her birthday in late April and the anniversary of her death in early June. And because it is also graduation season, I am reminded of how she and her sister Julia came to Austin to represent the Dallas, artistic-fringe contingent of my life when I graduated from law school. And then how, after I was living and practicing law in Austin, she and Julia again came to visit at this same time of year for what proved to be the last time. Shortly thereafter, her body, ravaged by years of fighting a congenital heart condition, gave out. But during that last visit Gretchen was not to be deterred by physical constraints. She took care of business, making the rounds to nurture key relationships and to ensure that her numerous artistic and social-justice projects would live on in her absence.

Second, I am thinking of Gretchen Dyer now because I was recently prompted to do so by a terrific initiative launched by yet another admirably strong woman, Linda Chanow of the Center for Women in Law. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the Center is inviting supporters to make a contribution in honor of a woman who has made a difference in their legal career. See When I learned of his project, I knew I had to honor Gretchen Dyer. She wasn’t a lawyer, though she certainly had all the makings of a talented lawyer. Instead of opting to follow the impressive trajectory of her father, an international law specialist, she had made other, less conventional choices—but not because she viewed a legal career as promising a prosaic grind. She always expressed tremendous respect for her father’s career and took a keen interest in reading the briefs he filed in key cases. Likewise, she did not see my decision to make a mid-life career correction as “selling out.” Instead she cheered me on during every phase of my unlikely leap from non-profit theater to commercial litigation.

Third, I am thinking of Gretchen Dyer because I am about to attend a production of a Shakespeare play whose central character is more than a bit like her: strong, tall, relentlessly articulate, uncompromising, irresistible. That character is “Beatrice” of Much Ado about Nothing. Beatrice, a decidedly clever gal, boasts “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” She then banters her way to romantic happiness with Benedick, a man who can (almost) keep up with her in a battle of wits. Beatrice knows how to sell the strong woman number.

Perhaps, as Mother’s Day approaches, you will consider joining me (and the Center for Women in Law) in cheering for some strong woman who has made a difference in your life. Perhaps one such woman is your very own mother, so you are already prepared to do so. In any event, it shouldn’t be hard to think of a contender, someone performing her own “strong woman number,” day in, day out, for the good of some larger sphere, writ large or small. Examples abound.

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