Going Out on a Limb: A Truth, a Speculation, and Two Tributes

Going out on a limb conjures images of danger. Lost in Space is back, but I don’t think the robot-looking intelligent entity can be as persuasive as the original when it warns Will Robinson. Random opinion. I have three things to say: One I believe is true, the second is entirely speculative and probably isn’t true but has its own poem, and the third involves tributes. Maybe a balancing act would be a more appropriate image (incredibly cool video—I’ve never seen an act like this. We used to watch people balancing plates on Ed Sullivan, but this is amazing.)

The first thing involves our origin. We didn’t have one. Our intelligence or being or whatever you want to call it has always existed. Intelligence—like energy or matter—cannot be created or destroyed. When God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee,” we get a glimpse of the existence. When Christ responds to the disciples asking who sinned, the man born blind or his parents, Jesus responds that neither had sinned, again suggesting that the man had done nothing before he was born to cause his condition. That we do not remember anything previous should not affect our perception of its truth. If we remembered, then we would not be walking this life by faith.

Part two. Far more complicated. Someone once suggested that we were able to choose our gender, that our intelligences had none, and we were allowed to make that decision. This view is based on nothing that I have seen anywhere. It sounds plausible. We are who we are.

The word “epicene” means without gender. I saw it first when teaching an essay about the incidents in Tiananmen Square from 1989. The protest was long and involved mostly students, with a culmination of sorts in the capital. If you remember anything, it was the person known only as Tank Man, standing defiantly in front of advancing tanks. The essay mentioned an epicene voice over the loudspeaker, telling the protestors to disperse. I had no idea what it meant. The students didn’t realize I didn’t since I followed my grandmother’s dictum: Look it up. We learned together that day, my Latin- and Greek-aided vocabulary slightly wounded.

Here’s the poem, also titled “Epicene.”

Without form or light or time—

without eyes to see,

ears to hear,

without any thing at all—

*mens absque corpore,                                              *mind without body

thought not thing:


My epicene I

must have known

that the two opposites—

he and she—

were parts

of a whole,

neither without the other



Then said

(not saying: an inclination)

I will choose the one

not the other,

in an unknown wisdom

before beginning—


For they are either good,

both needed,


My epicene I,

if I know the gendered I

I am now,

chose what seemed

the better.

Unpoetically, I want to say that I’d rather be a female person than a male one. I like the other gender, a lot, and in many instances would rather talk to one than to one of my own sex. Femaleness has a wide range, of course. Here we have Nancy Kwan singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song. It’s a song that’s stuck with me, I think because of the line “A pound and a half of cream upon my face!” Not my thing.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Mozart’s Queen of the Night, a powerful, cruel woman who’s got some of the best arias in the repertoire. Here Diana Damrau sings “Die Hölle Rache” (“The flames of Hell”) to her daughter, telling her that if she doesn’t kill her mother’s rival, she’ll be disowned. The performance here chills; the Queen’s eyebrows alone would scare young children.

Last week two remarkable women were in the news. Tammie Jo Shults, captain of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, landed a damaged craft on April 17, 2018. You can listen to the back-and-forth between her, the co-pilot, and the towers here. Lots of folks reported her as having “nerves of steel.” That may suggest a steely demeanor, but I don’t hear that at all. It’s a woman, trained and capable, doing what needs to be done. (An aside—they call passengers “souls,” which I learned in the movie Sully with Tom Hanks.)

On the same day, in the evening, Barbara Bush died at age 92. She’d been married 73 years, longer than most people live. She and Tammie had little in common, superficially. Tammie Shults grew up near an airbase, watching the jets and knowing she wanted to fly. She was a pioneer for female aviators in the Navy. Barbara Bush, born in Manhattan, was the daughter of a prominent publisher who headed magazines such as Redbook and McCall’s. She was anything but demure, but her wit wasn’t acerbic, but wry and smart. My favorite story involves a reporter asking her weight: “Oh, I don’t know…I think about a hundred pounds.”

Deeper, they share the bonds of motherhood and faith, commitment and vision. Both deserve a tribute today.

One final point, and I’ll let you be. As women, we can follow dreams or have a legacy, not because we are better than men, but because we have a unique set of attributes that we bring with us spiritually and mentally. We can be pilots or patricians, we can sing an F above the staff in Mozart or balance a feather on a dozen branches. But we don’t have to be or do any of that, and that is really my point. What wonderful women there are in the world. No matter what we do, we can be wonderful, as well.