Obsessives… and the rest of us

Melvil Dewey's Decimal System
Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System (Photo credit: Klara Kim)

At a recent Commonwealth Club event author Josh Kendall talked about his eponymous book on American obsessives and the seven builders-&-shakers on whom his spotlight shines. It is a spotlight of ambivalence. Kendall is talking about the likes of Melvil Dewey (who thought so obsessively in ten’s that we can now thank him for the Dewey decimal system, libraries, things like that.) Or Steve Jobs, who was prone to call in the scrubbers if a speck of dirt got on his white floors — but meanwhile was busy creating technological wonders. Or Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator and serial womanizer.

The talk made me feel a little better about the less famous among us. Being mildly obsessed with reproductive rights myself, I am inexpressibly grateful for the likes of Gloria Steinem, or Cecile Richards or Terry O’Neill. But investing one’s gifts and energies in a cause seems to be far less hazardous — to oneself as well as loved ones and everybody else — than the traditional path of the obsessive super-achiever.

Kendall’s super-achievers (the others he chose to study are Thomas Jefferson, Ted Williams, Henry Heinz and — it was reportedly hard to find a woman — Estee Lauder) were not just difficult, he maintains, but mentally ill. In an article for Slate titled “Madness Made Them Great,” he wrote that his subjects had “occasional bouts with depression, but they primarily suffered (or benefited) from another form of mental illness: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.”

You can obsess about a cause or a project and still be a great parent or a welcome dinner guest; once you get to the level of OCPD evidenced by Kendall’s subjects — who make for a fascinating book, by the way — you’re making a mark on history, but driving your families and friends nuts.

In other words, obsessives create a lot of good stuff but you probably don’t want to marry one.

Mothers, daughters & Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem (Photo credit: Queen of Planning)

The big guns, gender-neutrally speaking, were all out at the recent DCCC Women’s Power Lunch in San Francisco: former (and this crowd hopes future) Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, an assortment of other House members including Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, honoree Nan Tucker McEvoy and most of everyone who is anyone progressive in Northern California. But MC Gloria Steinem, 78 and proud of it (and looking pretty darned good to this 79-year-old) was still the star.

Steinem spoke with characteristic vigor about women’s rights currently very much in jeopardy, suggesting that many of the country’s economic issues could be solved simply by raising women’s pay to the level of men’s, and that fixing other inequities wouldn’t be a bad idea either. She also homed in on the Republican pledge to overturn both Obamacare and Roe v Wade. If a constitutional amendment were passed declaring the fertilized egg a “person” with full rights, Steinem said, women would not only lose their own rights but face serious endangerment. Such as: a pregnant woman thought to be inclined toward trying to abort could be physically restrained through the remainder of her pregnancy.

In a few poignant moments Steinem spoke to the largely female audience of the special relationships among women — mothers and daughters, sisters, grandchildren. “We are living the lives our mothers coul

d not,” she said, and working to protect the lives of our daughters and granddaughters.

I feel certain that my gentle, righteous mother would not have supported for a moment my being forced to continue an unplanned pregnancy and bring an unwanted child into the world. I hope, partly through my support for women’s rights, my granddaughters will have the right to make their own safe choices.