REPORT ON A MUSEUM "HAPPENING":

Odd Man Out
An average guy crashes the mother of all slumber parties at the American Visionary Art Museum.

by Paul Cané


On Sunday October 18th about 200 of Baltimore's most influential women met at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) at the base of Federal Hill. Business leaders, doctors, attorneys, artists, even a U.S. Senator, all gathered for The Great Mother Goddess Pre-Millenium Sleepover.

There were also five guys there. One parked cars. One ran the slide projector. One poured drinks. Another managed security. The last was a thoroughly ordinary guy who stood around looking uncomfortable. That was me.

Here's how it started. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle's editor received an invitation to this function, a $250-a head fundraiser for the museum. She had neither the time nor surplus income to attend. I'd stopped by to pitch the idea of -this is no lie- a story about tailgaters at Ravens games. She ignored my pitch and tossed the elaborate pink invitation at me. "Try something different," she said.

I've got few feminist merit badges-a vote for Mondale/Ferraro, judicious use of the word girl, a real fondness for k.d. lang-but no great shakes. I've got a sneaking suspicion that those feminist guys you see at women's functions are working an angle. My co-worker Marco, for example, actually trained his computer to change the word `women' to `womyn' whenever he made the mistake of spelling it the old-fashioned, sexist way.

One morning a year or so ago Marco traipsed into work with a broad grin on his face, and, without a hint of irony, announced, "Feminist men get more and better sex."

Consequently, I'm inclined to view feminist men as somewhat weasel-y, and I was uneasy at the thought of being in a situation where I might be mistaken for one.

In preparation for the AVAM sleep-over, I bolstered my manhood the best way I know, by drinking a lot of beer and watching a lot of football. I then found a bottle of Mennon Skin Bracer behind the Drano and splashed it on, armored myself with that icon of masculinity, the tweed sport coat, and ventured forth into the lionesses' den.

A large tent covered the museum's courtyard between the main building and the barn just behind. Inside women from 18 to 80, dressed in everything from Stevie Nicks goddess gear to business suits to worn gray sweats, were standing in groups drinking from plastic cups filled with champagne with strawberries floating in it.

The hostesses welcomed me, gave me my press kit, and asked me if I was worried about drowning in a sea of estrogen. I made a joke so lame I don't even remember it and slinked off to a corner to observe.

It wasn't long before I began to feel, well, useless. I wanted to be of some use to the people setting up. I tagged this immediately as a male thing. A big project is being undertaken and guys want to be involved.

So I approached the guy with the video camera, the guy preparing the slide show, another with a camera, and finally some guy in a dress and platinum wig pouring wine. They all gave me the same blissed-out, I'm-so-proud-to-be-a-part-of-this smile, and politely refused my help. I wrote them off as Marcos, and shuffled back to my corner, toting one of those strawberry/champagne concoctions this time.

Thirty minutes later I got my first taste of goddess worship. A goddess ceremony had been planned to start the night, and as two women in robes, one with a headdress that looked something like a pig, glided by, my cynical, anti-new-age antennae started quivering.

By this time, the attendees were wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads, a strange complement to the p.j.s and business wear that most women were wearing.

The goddess ceremony took place in the courtyard behind the barn. Alas, as anyone who has ever been to an outdoor wedding knows, sincerity is a poor substitute for amplification. A few words worked their way through-something about mothers, energy, and bearing fruit.

Trying so hard to hear what was being said left me a bit thirsty, and I joined a few of the goddesses as they peeled off from the ceremony and joined the ring of women around the champagne table, with halfhearted singing fading behind us.

But here's where the goddess thing got weird. After the ceremony I went over to talk to the priestess, and it turns out she wasn't a priestess at all-or rather she wasn't only a priestess. Tali Katz is assistant director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, a noted cantor, and the headdress worn by her daughter was a representation of the phylactery worn by Jewish men during prayers. The ceremony I'd so easily dismissed was based on the traditional Jewish Harvest celebration, the Sukkos.

I felt ashamed at my ready dismissal of the ceremony but also an odd kinship with those women who, like me, had slipped out early. Call me paranoid, but it was my first assurance that the women here weren't all born-again pagans who spent every full moon prostrate on the altar of the Earth Mother.

This sense that these people weren't so different from me only grew at the next event, the ostensible centerpiece of the evening, the Summit on the Future.

Rebecca Hoffberger, the director of AVAM, served as emcee for a panel of eight women ranging from homeless advocate Bea Gaddy, to author and art historian Elinor Gadon, to Dr. Lauren Schnaper of GMBC's Comprehensive Breast Care Center.

As Senator Barbara Mikulski gave a boilerplate speech on technology and the future I sat way in the back and all I could think was, "This is just like any other conference I've been to." Exchange the floral crowns for fezzes and I could've been at the Shriners Club, yawning at Paul Sarbanes.

The conference ended around 10:30 with a blonde Cherokee woman leading a parade around the museum. As the attendees crowded around the buffet tables I stood by the bar drinking wine (no beer available; I checked). Soon, I thought, things'll loosen up, and I'll start bumping into those cold shoulders I'd been expecting. What I got instead was two or three visits from some very maternal figures who wanted to know if I was okay, or if there was anyone I'd like to interview. I was getting desperate for rejection, so I headed out to work the crowd.

Nearly all the women I spoke with were focused on the goal of raising funds for the museum. They discussed the need for the city to recognize that AVAM is a world-class institution and that the mission of the museum is both unique and vital. Helen Mills, co-founder of Business for Social Responsibility and a speaker at the summit, spoke with characteristic bluntness when asked what she'd like to see the evening accomplish. "Funding in perpetuity," she said.

Several others made the connection between the visionary component of the museum and the need for women to take a more active spiritual role in the world as the millennium approaches. Sylvia Brown called it "a giving spirit." Charlotte Kerr called it "a commitment to life." Quite a few called it power, but not one accused men of stealing or suppressing it.

Rebecca Hoffberger was clearly thrilled to see the fundraiser going smoothly. "I've wanted to do this kind of thing for years, " she said, "For $250 you usually get a black tie and a seating assignment." She expected to raise nearly $100,000 during the evening-a little less than $14,000 paying for the party, and an unspecified amount going to Bea Gaddy in recognition of her work feeding the homeless.

Naturally Rebecca Hoffberger was more prosaic about what she would like the gathering to accomplish. "Women are great practitioners of kindness," she said. "If I had one wish for the millennium, it would be that we could replace worry with faith."

One question posed to the group prompted the most interesting responses: What do you think would happen if half the women at the event here turned into men? I expected the estrogen to hit the fan, but again the goddesses confounded me. The responses ranged from Lynn Lamberg's half-joking "It would be a very boring evening" to Jan Weinberg's passionate assertion that the women in attendance were all quite secure and would welcome the men. But Helen Mills probably summed the feeling up best. "Some of the intimacy might fade," she said, "but maybe the men would learn something."

This attitude persuaded me to abandon my suspicions and defensiveness-not the idea that men would be welcomed, but that the closeness of the women at the function was celebratory, not conspiratorial, personal, not political. Maybe this is self-evident to women, but it struck me as something of a revelation. The truth is that a lot of men believe that when women gather in groups they talk about men. Maybe men hope for it or maybe they fear it; I don't know. But they do believe it, and that belief underlies much of the discomfort men display when confronted with gatherings like the Great Goddess Sleepover.

The welcoming behavior continued through the night. Relinquishing my task of seeking conflict, I wandered through the museum and watched as women had their palms and tarot cards read. Others hummed and stretched under the guidance of a yoga instructor. I was happily invisible as I worked my way through the corridor of massage, where the air smelled like Juicy Fruit and women sighed in relief or grimaced in pain as a therapist found just the right spot. Even as I stepped outside to grab a smoke I found a cluster of nicotine- addicted goddesses willing to answer my questions and make sure I was comfortable.

But as the evening wore on I had to admit that, while I was comfortable, I really didn't belong. Some of the most popular activities struck me as insufferably dull. Who would take 20 minutes out from a party to bake their hands in a pair of heated mittens? Who, with lots of leftovers and an open bar, would go shopping at midnight?

I didn't get it, and I knew I never would. I began spending more time looking out over the harbor, and when a new friend suggested I watch as an Indian woman drew intricate henna designs on the hands of the attendees I thanked her and stayed by the window. After she left I gathered my notes to leave.

Driving home I imagined a similar function with the sexes reversed. There'd be beer, of course, and the Classic Sports Network. Cigars, most likely. Most guys would go for a blues band, and the all-night movies would include "Pulp Fiction" and "The Dirty Dozen." I'd go and I'd have a great time, even though I hate cigars.

But what of my counterpart? A lone female reporter in the company of 200 men? I wanted to believe that she'd be made to feel as welcome as I was, but I knew better. There are plenty of men who feel that the power of single-sex functions lies in the ability to make outsiders feel unwelcome. Just ask Shannon Faulkner.

That's the real lesson from my night at The Great Goddess Sleepover. Some men (and some women, too, I'm sure) fear the opposite sex not for what they are, but simply because they're not like us, and that refrain-"they're not like us"-remains an anthem wherever ignorance still holds sway, even in the heart of an ordinary guy like me.


Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on November 5, 1997.