The Big Bucks Stop Here
We have now spent the last fortnight informally monitoring the habits of the transvestite prostitutes who patrol outside our window. The one with the startling blond wig who performed his full service in easy view of our sixth floor window has not returned. Instead, the street has been dominated by a tall, slim black man who favors a black bob and a short Jaffa orange dress, which he teams carefully with a patent white shoulder bag and matching white stilettos.
Each Friday and Monday night he can be seen making his slow, gum- chewing progress up and down Gansvoort street in the blood-stained edge of the Mafia-run meat market, occasionally stopping and sitting down on the fire-escape steps to take off his shoes, rub his feet and rotate his drooping arches. It is a lonely life.
In between his appearances, we have had two more visitors. The first was a young Hispanic hobo laden down with a series of carrier bags who drew to a halt, sat down on the fire-escape and, after fumbling around in one of his bags produced a wooden flute, upon which he started playing a series of wistful melodies. At first, I thought he might be serenading someone, but after half an hour or so he started wandering through scales and arpeggios, repeating them again and again.
Up and down he played, again and again. As I stared down at him, from the luxury of my window seat, I suddenly realized he was crying. Every so often he would stop and heave huge silent, terrible shoulder- shaking sobs. When he lifted his face to play again, it was smeary with tears.
Haunted by his despair, I retreated to the kitchen quietly wondering about his story. How had he got there, and why was he weeping? Above the dull vibrations of the air conditioner, the sad breathy strains continued for another half hour, then it was silent and he was gone.
He was followed ten minutes later by another hobo, older and black this time, sporting a bulbous flat cap at a rakish angle which was so big it looked as if it might have been inflated with a pump. He too had a series of exhausted carrier bags which he was pushing unhurriedly in a supermarket trolley.
This time it was the fire hydrant which proved the attraction. After rooting around in one of his bags, he produced three plastic bottles which he lined up triumphantly on the pavement. Then he rummaged around some more until he retrieved a huge spanner with which he proceeded to undo the top of the hydrant, twisting it until he achieved a steady stream of water. He then took off his cap, placing it gently on the trolley seat normally reserved for children, reached for one of the plastic bottles, squeezed out some of the contents and, taking up a squatting position next to the hydrant, he began lathering his hair with soap suds.
It was exactly the same position I have seen women taking by the Sabi river in Zimbabwe washing and rubbing their clothes in the running water. There the threats come from hippos, crocodiles, and diseased mustard-thick water. Here the water was clean, but it was a scene straight form the Third World, exacerbated by this week's temperatures of 97 degrees.
Amid the hype of Ivana Trump's latest divorce agreement -- she's now suing her husband for $15 million damages because he spoke to the tabloids about her -- and Jerry Seinfeld's latest salary hike, there is not much attention paid publicly to America's poor. The man below was clearly living on the street. Where did he come from, where did he belong? I pondered what inner resources had made him bother to continue with the special rituals of the bathroom.
I carried on watching as, after rinsing fastidiously, he appeared to condition his hair, standing anxiously massaging it for the obligatory minute before rinsing it off again. Throughout the next five minutes he carried out the rest of his evening ablutions, fumbling for a toothbrush from inside a little black bag. Just as I assumed he'd finished, he produced a small white box from which he unraveled a thin white thread. It was dental floss. Putting his head on one side, he began the familiar see- sawing motions. After repacking his toiletries, the hobo reached into his collection and pulled out another bag, which contained a tray of plums. These he held under the tap, working his way through the bag until he had washed each one. He put them all back, hesitantly turned the hydrant off with his spanner and went back down the road with his trolley from whence he had come. Nonplussed, I switched back to Seinfeld.
It was a surreal juxtaposition, for Jerry Seinfeld is now ranking among America's better paid entertainers, looking set to rake in $22 million this year. Americans love statistics and there is none they like better than that which relates to someone else's salary. This week saw obsessive interest in the Forbes Top 200 List. This time around it chronicled the 200 wealthiest people in the world including "for the first time kings, queens and dictators".
There was much national rejoicing because the top three are all American; Bill Gates of Microsoft, the Walton family of the Wal-Mart stores and Warren E Buffet, who has totted up to $23 billion playing the markets. Royals aside, the first Brit doesn't appear until the third page. Viscount Rothermere, worth $2 billion, ranks as no. 114.
There is, however, another statistic worth bearing in mind when you read that New York is booming and that the American economy had never been stronger. How many people in New York do you think earn more than $100, 000?
When I asked my real estate broker, he reckoned 35 per cent; my doorman confidently volunteered 50 per cent. It is one of the city's most successful con-tricks: everyone is convinced that everyone else is earning much, much more than there really are. New York boasts the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world. But that is till a relatively small number -- about 20 percent of the 68,000 in the US as a whole, and the country has 250 million people. Meanwhile, the percentage of those earning more than $100, 000 is 8 per cent.
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Life in the Grind
I strode around the office proclaiming my new credo to my co-workers, who looked at me as if I was about to go postal and disappear in a hail of bullets. "To me, art and culture mean nothing anymore," I yelled. "It has nothing to do with the demands asked of me at work, and therefore, is irrelevant to my job, which, in turn, is irrelevant to my life. Manhattan and all its galleries could sink into the Hudson, and I don't care. It wouldn't affect me in the least."
Yes, work was getting to be a drag, and at 27, I realized that it was consuming my life. My old 9 to 5 had turned into an 8 to 8, with forced labor on weekends becoming the norm and cancelled dinners and after work get-to- togethers with friends being erased from my schedule every week. I haven't read a book since the summer of 1996 (it was Michael Moore's Downsize This!, ironically) and watched helpessly as my camera and photography equipment gathered dust on the shelf. When I arrived home from work every night exhausted and longing to plop right into bed, and my once pronounced love for reading, photography, history and other hobbies had become covered and capped like trash in a landfill, sealed with my overwhelming fear of what I needed to do for that 9 a.m. press conference tomorrow. My newfound apathy for the arts was not produced by Jesse Helms, but by my own work environment, as I spun buzz word like "working families," "twenty-first century," "changing marketplace" around the local news media like practicing a masochistic agenda of workaholism in my own life. Family leave for thee but not for me, I should've written.
Oddly enough, I work in politics, and due to a few years of observation, I am quite concerned about the personal growth and private lives of America's elected officials and the people who love them.
When George Bush was publicly embarassed during the 1992 campaign for not knowing that supermarkets have price scanners, or when President Clinton's vacations seem more like hectic photo-ops of the Chief Exec bounding around a made-for-TV wilderness in a cowboy hat, I knew what those guys were going through, Politicians never, ever take real vacations, except when they leave public office. A politician without a cell phone is like a child's top: they both spin around recklessly, not knowing what they'll knock into next. They, for better or for worse, are workaholics with no life. And they have to be, lest they be accused of being aloof or ignorant of pressing matters of state by a cadre of reporters with too much time on its hands. Can you ever picture Trent Lott or Tom Daschle spending a day at a museum or a ballgame with the family or going on a three-day hike in the mountains and leaving the cell phone at home? Worse, can you picture them loading a pile of laundry into a washing machine, scrubbing rust rings off the toilet or hosing out trash cans on a Sunday afternoon? I'm starting to worry because I rarely do these things anymore, spending my Sunday afternoons awash in papers and sundry news media clippings (that rust ring in my toilet is looking mighty ugly by the way).
Let me explain. My first day on my job with my new employer, I decided to strike up a conversation with him about the lowest common denominator all guys share -- sports.
"Perhaps we should check out a hockey game...I've got tickets," I said.
"Don't have time for hockey," replied the elected official tersley.
"How about golf?" I asked, knowing that many politicians love golf.
"I never have a block of four free hours to spend hitting a ball around a fairway," he answered. End of conversation. Discuss federal changes to welfare legislation and how it's all Newt's fault...pronto.
I walked away dejected, vowing not to fall into the trap of my boss, a man who I admire and respect, but like my dad, swear that I'll never become one day. Until, of course, when I found myself using the exact same line when a friend asked me to play a round of golf.
Egad...am I becoming a mindless political automaton? A robotic policy wonk whose boyish charm and zest for life is just a front for a souless number cruncher and spin doctor?
Utne Reader devoted an entire issue recently to exhortations that we should slow down and take life a bit easier, and I'd love to ask my boss if it's alright if I only work four days a week like those happy-go-lucky Germans, but I don't think I'll suddenly win the lottery and gain the cockiness of a pro wrestler anytime soon, either. Sure, it's easy for those mutual-funded Utne Reader folks to tell me to chill out, sipping their designer coffee in their internet-equipped brownstone while their au paur arrives home in the forest green Volvo with the L.L. Bean clad progeny in tow, but I gotta work for a living. To hell with making the world a better place through government, I'm starting to believe the media's report's of doom and gloom in the workplace, and I need to build a nest egg -- fast. Those Utne people are going to spend mu Social Security on alternative-fueled, forest green Volvos in 20 years, and I want to make sure I can afford a decent cup of pureed beets when I'm 85 and holed up in the old nursing home.
Me, old? Me, slowing down? I'd shudder at the thought, but I don't have time. I have to write a speech on working families for a press conference in one hour.
Jeff Jotz is a 1992 Notre Dame graduate and occasional contributor to Common Sense. He lives in Jersey City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A Grassroots Response to the Betrayal of the Mainstream Environmental Movement
I don't intend to tell you the latest story about Greenpeace activists getting arrested and attracting worldwide attention with their powerful media skills. I wonŐt talk about how due to the Sierra ClubŐs endorsement of Clinton and its subsequent environmental lobbying the planet is going to be "just fine." I won't suggest that you relax, watch TV, or curl up with a nice book. Nor will I discuss how oil companies, which recently committed themselves to produce renewable energy, will solve all our problems by utilizing their expertise, if only we just trust them. Some attribute the fascination to the novelty of the mission. An American and a Russian sharing a cot in space is indeed unusual.
I want to talk about a national student environment movement that has been hidden from Notre Dame's eye for all too long . Basically, there are two kinds of environmental movements in this country. But from following the media one would only be aware of the mainstream movement, the one that has sold out.
As is often the case, following the money enables us to see what is really happening. The top ten environmental groups made $10 million in 1965, $218 million in 1985, $514 million in 1990, and will easily make over a billion dollars in 1997. A lot of money is involved, yet income is distributed unequally. In 1993, 70% of the money raised by environmental organizations went to the largest 25, with little left for the remaining 10,000 groups.
The reason behind the unbalanced distribution is firmly linked to the money's source. In 1988, for example, the National Wildlife Federation received money from Amoco, ARCO, Coca-Cola, Dow, Duke Power, Du Pont, Exxon, GE, GM, IBM, Mobil, Monsanto, Tenneco, Waste Management, Westinghouse and others. In return it rewarded Waste Management, the largest disposer of toxic chemicals in the world, and notorious convicted environmental law breaker, by giving its CEO a seat on its board of directors. A study in February 1990, Z Magazine , showed that 67 people associated with seven major environmental groups held upper level positions (like CEO and directorships) in 92 corporations. The mainstream environmental groups have become cozy with business and are even starting to imitate them. They establish hierarchical structures of mostly white men, and seek to ŇprofessionalizeÓ themselves. Leaving the members with little or no influence in the decision making process -- they alienate their constituency, deny the role of activism, and become totally cut- off from the grass-roots. By involving themselves in the politics of compromise, the mainstream groups are working for reforms that limit the damage done to the environment, but are already within a framework of continued destruction. By settling for and proposing piecemeal legislation, the mainstream groups are betraying themselves, the movement, humanity and all living creatures, and paving the way for the possibility of an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. Corporations are interested in the environment only in so far as it allows them to co-opt the movement and disempower grass-roots activists, while really ensuring future exploitation of resources and profits. Along the way, the corporation also creates a good image for itself which will lead to greater profits. While the mainstream environmental movement isnŐt going to save the planet, fortunately there still exists a grassroots movement that refuses to be trampled on. In the spring of 1988, a group of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill placed a small ad in Greenpeace Magazine> calling upon students and groups interested in forming a network to join their endeavor. From the over 200 responses that they received emerged a national student group: the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). SEAC is a student run and led national network of progressive organizations and individuals. Its aim, according to its platform, "is to uproot environmental injustices through action and education. We define the environment to include the physical, economical, political, and cultural conditions in which we live. By challenging the power structure which threatens these environmental conditions, SEAC works to create progressive social change on both the local and global levels.Ó Since its establishment SEAC has held national conferences (with as many as 7600 people), countless regional conferences, started a newsletter, provided resources and activist training programs, done field organizing, and created a network of 2000 member groups from high schools, colleges, and universities. Despite the ten hour drive, I decided last year to go to an environmentalist conference in the middle of Pennsylvania. I hooked up with a SEACer from Philadelphia and spent my summer totally restructuring and updating the organizationŐs database. While collecting data and hanging out with SEACers, I learned a lot about SEAC and environmental organizing. The capping experience of my summer was attending a four day Summer Training Institute with 35 SEACers from across the country in New York City. SEAC is an open organization which is conscious of sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression that exist in our society. It has a caucus system which empowers members of the oppressed groups and encourages discussion of how we can end oppression both inside the environmental movement and outside. At meetings we sit in circles, use facilitators, and everyone has an equal right to speak and vote. SEAC nationalŐs budget has never topped $300,000; it is not run by money. Students manage it, and it has no ties to parent organizations that place limits on its activity. Moreover, it is revolutionary. Many SEACers realize that we need to fundamentally change society if we are going to save the planet. SEAC goes beyond pure environmentalism and calls itself an environmental justice organization. We recognize that all forms of oppression are connected and that we need to unite to end them all. Hearing the experiences of SEACers and their views has inspired my critique of mainstream groups. Many believe in deep ecology, sympathize with Earth First!, and occasionally get arrested for civil disobedience. Don't misunderstand me. SEAC calls for hard work: SEACers study, work, and still find time to organize winning campaigns. SEACers across the US are working to free Burma from the military dictatorship and restore democracy by putting economic and political pressure on the regime. In a campaign similar to the anti-apartheid movement of the eighties, actions by fellow grassroots activists has caused Pepsi, Heineken, and more recently Texaco to pull out all of their investments from Burma. Activists have passed selective purchasing legislation in Massachusetts, as well as in numerous counties and cities, which has banned government agencies from doing business with companies that invest in Burma. On a more local level, I know SEACers who have been working with a group called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), of Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester is the unlucky recipient of toxic waste from surrounding counties and states. One of the worse polluters is a Westinghouse Incinerator which has been fined over $400,000. Remember Westinghouse? Yes, they donated money to the National Wildlife Federation in 1988. TheyŐre one of those nice environmental corporations. The dump site was chosen in a 70% African American community, which now has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, and a lung cancer rate 60% higher than Delaware county from where most of the waste comes. SEAC calls Westinghouse's action environmental racism, an issue which the mainstream groups, unlike the grassroots ones, have been neglecting. Meanwhile CRCQL and SEACers, working together, just defeated a waste treatment plant. A big victory! Through education and action they pressured the Department of Environmental Protection into refusing the permit. These are but two examples of current grassroots campaigns. Also SEACers are very vigilant on campus, fighting for recycling programs, exposing environmental abuses, and trying to make campuses a model of environmental and social responsibility. Currently IŐm the SEAC coordinator for the Great Lakes region, trying to network all student environmental groups in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. There are some very non-lucrative regional organizing openings if you are at all interested. YouŐll meet amazing people. Your easy connection to SEAC and the grassroots environmental movement is Notre Dame Students for Environmental Action (SEA). We meet at 7pm on Sundays in the Center for Social Concerns, and would love for you to drop by!
Aaron Kreider is a Graduate Student in the Dept. Of Economics at the University of Notre Dame.
For more information on SEAC check out the webpage www.seac.org, locally the Notre Dame SEA page at www.nd.edu/~sea, or email me at Aaron.Kreider.email@example.com
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The Jewel in the Crown
During August, the month the English call the silly season, reports began surfacing that the Pope was about to place the final jewel in the crown of Jesus' mother, Mary. After an infallible declaration on her new status, she would be styled Co-Redeemer (Co-Redemptrix) in addition to Mediatrix of All Graces. Mary looked poised to enter the big league with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The very idea sent shudders through the ranks of influential Catholics who work hard at keeping the lid on the more outré aspects of Roman Catholicism. By the end of August, a cover story had appeared in Newsweek written by religion editor, Kenneth Woodward. It was a pre- emptive strike. A Catholic of worldly moderation himself, Woodward marshaled some theological heavy-weights to give the thumbs down - ever so prudentially - to the Pope's hare-brained scheme. One week later, the Pope's oily minder, Joachim Navarro-Valls, published a denial of the Newsweek story in the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. Round one to K. Woodward.
So, for the time being the potentially explosive honorific is to be shelved. However, the Pope is a willful old man, much addicted to having his own way, and gilding Mary's reputation is something of an idée fixe with him. If he remains sufficiently sentient for a while longer - especially as fin de siécle fever heats up - he may insist on elevating her anyway and K. Woodward and chums will have to lump it. Unless John Paul II has kept his appointment with the Grim Reaper by the year 2,000, my money is on a Co-Redeemer for the next millennium.
While the idea of heaping more honors on Mary is daft, carefully unpacked it reveals a lot about the Pope. He has long had both a personal and political stake in the cult of Mary, which probably started with her emblematic role as patron saint of his native Poland. John Paul II is a highly political pontiff,who has allied himself with some of the most reactionary forces in Europe, the US and Latin America. This odd, obsessive devotion to the "Mother of God" is not unconnected to some of the most troubling politics and theology of his long reign.
The prominence of Mary in the life of the Church is of antique origin, the result, in part, of accommodations made by early Christians with pagan communities they were trying to convert. Local goddesses were traded in for Mary. While it was a politically astute move, it was not without anthropological risk. Religious transpositions are a dodgy business and can result in the most unlikely misunderstandings when, in the process of inculturation, the unconscious meanings of symbols have not been adequately addressed.
Years ago, in what is now Lesotho in Southern Africa, but was then Basutoland (a British High Commission Territory), I recall a local headman being puzzled by the jittery punitiveness of the colonial administration whenever a case of ritual murder cropped up - which occasionally it did during periods of drought or political unrest. After one such murder, fourteen men were hung as the British indulged their own ritual form of retributive, legal murder. Basutoland was predominantly Catholic, due in large measure to the evangelizing zeal of French Canadian Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was not obvious to the protesting headman how different the Church's chief sacrament - a sacrifice which required the ritual consumption of the body and blood of Christ - was from the old Basuto custom. A convert to Roman Catholicism myself, I have always had trouble with the primitive, sanguinary literalism of Catholic eucharistic theology. The eucharist Jesus himself instituted was about communion - the celebration of solidarity with one's neighbors through Him, and not some sublimated act of cannibalism.
The Mary the Pope venerates has a lot in common with the old goddesses; she is more in the tradition of, say, Queen Nut, mother of the Egyptian god Osiris. Mary is identified with accessibility. As Queen of Heaven, she soothes the anxious supplicant afraid of approaching the big guys - Yahweh and Jesus Christ - directly. In reality, the biblical portrait of Mary, the young Jewish woman, possibly from a Zealot family, is sketchy. She does celebrate her pregnancy with a Zealot hymn - The Magnificat - the words of which are not far removed from the French 19th century socialist hymn, The Internationale. She sings of bringing the powerful to their knees, packing the rich off into hungry exile and filling the poor with good things. Beyond this we catch only fragmentary glimpses of her doing her Jewish mother thing, fretting about her precocious boy. Not much here to hang your Co- Redemptrix hat on.
One of the cruel ironies in all this is the way Marian piety has edged out political theology. As Mary's star waxed, liberation theology, rooted in a prophetic, biblical concern for the poor and marginalized, has waned. John Paul II's anti-Communism has not received the scrutiny it deserved; there was often an hysterical, irrational component to it. When he discovered that liberation theologians were not averse to using a bit of class analysis to unmask political and economic hegemonies, the Pope ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the old office of the Inquisition) to move against them. It is also worth noting that Marian devotion has done nothing to advance the Church's acknowledgment of women's equality. This may be explained by the Pope's highly personal, even neurotic attachment to Mary- as I shall try to show.
During ancestral visits to England in the summer, I regularly tune into a secular sabbath ritual on BBC radio. The Sunday noonday hour is taken over by an Irish psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Clare, who, over the years has persuaded the famous and notorious to slide onto his couch and talk. The tone Clare has established is light years from the Oprah style-confessional. Folk from violinist Yuhudi Menuhin to the charming socialist parliamentarian, Tony Benn, have accepted the invitation to do a spot of psychological delving. One theme that surfaces again and again, is the pivotal role that the early loss or absence of a parent plays. This past summer, Clare interviewed historian Norman Stone - until recently a big man at Oxford - Professor of Modern European History. Stone's father was killed testing new aircraft at the beginning of WWII, when Norman was still an infant.
However, beyond the starkest biographical details, viz that Papa was a Glasgow lawyer, the son evinced no interest in his provenance. Clever Norman grew up to be a very badly behaved boy, and while Margaret Thatcher loved his chauvinist politics (he wrote recently that much of twentieth century history could be summed up in a sentence: "The Germans went ape."), Oxford came to find his drunken, boorish behavior more than it could stomach. His response has been to advertise his millennium wish-list that starts with the abolition of the University. By the end of the therapeutic fifty minutes, Stone began to sound more and more like a young inner-city male, whose addictive, aggressive behavior we are frequently told these days is the result of the absent or unknown father.
In the Pope's case, it was early motherlessness that shaped his personality, his take on the world and religion. The singularity of his obsession with Mary must be seen in this context. She has become the idealized, absent mother. A perpetual virgin, who has had no sexual congress with the father, she is the small boy's ultimate Oedipal fantasy. To demonstrate that he is the perfect, adoring son, worthy of her, she must be extravagantly honored. She saved him, he believes, from death after he was felled by the assassin's bullet. She was his personal redemptrix; so the narcissistic child's grandiosity interpolates this by making her Redemptrix for all of us.
Because his relationship with Mary developed to fill the vacuum left by the dead mother, it comes as no surprise that the love of a mythic goddess figure has not translated into love or respect for ordinary mortal women. Because he is in thrall to Mary's virginity, female sexuality, or more bluntly female desire, appalls him. If Mary was above the unruly orgasm, all women should follow her fastidious example. Consequently, much ink has been spilled during his pontificate expatiating puritanically on the most intimate aspects of a woman's life - sex and childbirth - in a desperate effort to keep Church teachings in line with his own pre-pubescent fixations.
This is not a fellow women can do business with. In their book, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, authors Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, report a 1994 encounter between the Pope and Nafis Sadik, a Pakistani woman and General Secretary of the UN Conference on Population and Development. Sadik's job brought her into daily contact with the problems of maternal health around the globe. When the Pope insisted that only natural methods of birth-control would be sanctioned by the Church, Sadik countered by explaining that natural birth control requires an equal relationship between men and women. She said: "In many societies, and not just the developing world, women do not have equal status with men. There's a lot of sexual violence within the family. Women are quite willing to practice natural methods and abstain, because they are the ones who get pregnant and don't want to be. But they can't abstain without the cooperation of their partners." The Pope's astonishing rejoinder to Sadik's exposition was: "Don't you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?"
It was the sort of feeble, misogynist remark one might expect from a late- night stand-up comic, not from the man whose views on population issues are listened to respectfully, especially by the US Congress. Feeling "disappointed," Nafis Sadik walked out into St. Peter's Square. "He does not like women," she commented later.
Ann Pettifer is an alumna of Notre Dame.
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Feminist Family Values
At a Graduate School staff meeting six years ago on the topic of graduate student health insurance, a decision was made to try to assist the most needy grad students by establishing a special fund in the Grad School to which these students could apply to offset some of their medical expenses. The obvious question then arose: Who would be eligible for these funds? And the obvious response was "families." But how would "family" be defined? someone asked. And the response, which again seemed obvious, was "student, spouse and children".
I didn't know why I suddenly felt invisible; I only knew that I did. As my colleagues continued to talk, though, the realization slowly began to dawn on me that I was the only single parent in the room, and that what I heard them tell me, however unintentionally, was that I didn't have a family. Hurt and humiliated, I couldn't even respond at first. But when I realized that my silence would lead to the exclusion of the neediest of the needy among the graduate school population, single parents, most of whom were women, I finally spoke up. Fortunately, my colleagues agreed with me, and the definition of "family" was changed to "student and dependents."
Although it was a victory for single parents, questions lingered in my mind. Two parent households, it seemed to me at the time, were "naturally" families; they didn't have to justify themselves. That they were families was, to me, as it was to my colleagues, a given. But what about single parent households? There was a definite stigma attached to them, as if they weren't really families. And so I asked myself, was the presence of a man the essential ingredient in a family, the thing that made it what it was? Or was it something else? What exactly made a family?
At the time of that meeting, I'd been a widow for about a year, but it would be wrong to say that I was unhappy. On the contrary, I was surprised to discover that I'd never felt happier, and freer, in my life. I was proving to myself, each and every day, that I could take care of myself. This was a matter of some pride to me because I'd never lived on my own. Like many women of my generation, when I married in 1975 I'd gone from my father's house to my husband's; I'd never had a home of my own. Now I did. But yet I felt that something wasn't quite right about us. I feared that my family was what everyone thought it was, broken.
During that first year, I had tried desperately to hold everything together. I had a full-time job that I couldn't afford to quit, two young children to raise and a house to maintain. In addition to working all day, I had to clean, shop, cook, do the laundry, pay the bills, mow the lawn, shovel the snow, schlep the kids to and from school and soccer practices, help with homework, fix toilets and bring my lemon of a car to the repair shop regularly. I crawled into bed at night, too exhausted at times to even change my clothes. I was on a merry-go-round to nowhere that I couldn't get off. And the worst part was realizing, at the end of that first year, that this was as good as it was going to get. I might have been happy and I might have been competent, but I was also overwhelmed.
Though I cared adequately for my children's physical needs, I didn't have the time or the energy to deal with their emotional ones. And I knew I would have to. Two weeks after my husband's death, my daughter's school invited a child psychologist in to talk to the parents of children who would be starting junior high in the fall. There, I heard all the horror stories about the emotional, hormonally-driven roller-coaster ride that I was about to embark on with my oldest child and all I could do was pray. "Please God," I begged, "make this Cup pass from me." But instead, God passed me a Bucket.
By the time my oldest daughter was fifteen, she was out of control. She faked illnesses so she wouldn't have to go to school. She hung around at a local coffee shop for teens, and formed friendships with kids she shouldn't have. When she got her license at sixteen, she cracked up the car three times in five months, the last time totalling it and almost killing herself, at which point her insurance was cancelled. She then had to rely on the shady characters she called friends for transportation; where they went, she followed, in more ways than one. And that's when the real roller-coaster ride began.
For this reason, I attended the lecture by the sociologist Sarah McLanahan when she was on campus two years ago. The subject of her research hit very close to home, the experience of growing up with a single parent. McLanahan spoke about the impact of divorce on children, marshalling a mountain of statistics to back up her claim that two parents are always better than one. She talked about the higher drop-out rate among children of divorce, and the higher rates of joblessness, delinquency, pregnancy and crime. Experience taught me that she was right on the money. But though I couldn't deny the legitimacy of her evidence, I had trouble accepting the conclusion she drew from it, that except in cases of physical abuse, couples should stay together.
Over the years since my husband died I'd observed many unhappy marriages; many of the married women I knew, and even some of the men, lived lives of quiet desperation. In contrast to what I'd expected to find, that divorced and single women were more dissatisfied with their lives than their married counterparts, I had discovered that the exact opposite was true. (Research, in fact, confirms this. Studies have shown that while married men are healthier and happier than single men, the same is not true for women. For them, whether married or single, the key to health and happiness is friendship with other women. Clearly, marriage doesn't do for women what it does for men.) And in contrast to what many Catholic writers had written, that the rising tide of divorce is a function of women's desire to find personal or financial fulfillment outside the home and that the antidote to divorce is for women to revive Donna Reed by staying at home, I didn't know of a single instance of a divorce caused by the wife's employment (unless you count the one where the husband lost his job, his wife went to work, and he abuptly left. As the wife, an old friend of mine from college, told me, "It would have been better, I guess, for us to go on welfare than for him to feel emasculated." But if he felt emasculated, was it his wife's fault?) The single mothers I knew did not divorce lightly; they did so only after years of pain and anguish, of teetering precariously on the edge of the thin line between self-sacrifice and self-annihilation. In the end, they divorced because they felt as if they were dying, emotionally and spiritually, because they were living not in loving and mutually-sustaining families but in toxic waste dumps polluted by alcoholism, drug abuse, infidelity, violence, workaholism, or more commonly, the physical and emotional absence of their husbands. If women's wages now allowed them to escape these circumstances when they couldn't before, I failed to see how this was a bad thing. To argue otherwise would be to say that the Catholic Church sanctions self-destructive relationships. Maybe it does. But where was the virtue, I asked myself, in being held hostage?
Some, including McLanahan, might argue that if there are children involved, there is the virtue. But a number of men and women I knew actually divorced because of unresolved issues from childhoods spent in miserable families. I wondered about the impact of such misery on children. Children, after all, are neither blind nor stupid; in my experience, they're the only ones guaranteed to speak the truth about what they see and hear. Unfortunately, as the psychologist Alice Miller has pointed out, when children see their parents behaving badly, they have a habit of trying to make their parents look good by making themselves look bad. If their father or mother is angry or bitter or resentful, if he or she is drinking or fighting or abusive or unfaithful, children think it's their fault. If only they were better kids, this wouldn't be happening. I tried to imagine a lifetime spent carrying the burden of the belief that you are the cause of, and are personally responsible for, your parents' misery. What kind of a spouse would a person ultimately make who is filled with such guilt and self- loathing? And so I ask myself now, is it better for a child to suffer life silently in an unholy alliance of miserable people, or for him or her to grow up with a single parent?
I don't pretend to know the answer to that question, but I do know that traditional two-parent households and single-parent ones can be equally toxic places for men, women and children, and when they are, neither has the right to properly call itself a "family." But it's the children who are the real victims in each case, and it's the children growing up in single-parent homes who are most at risk. Among the causes of this increased risk, according to McLanahan, are the triple trauma of the father's sudden absence, the mother's sudden loss of income, and if the family home must be sold, the sudden physical dislocation. Over a relatively short period of time, the child's life is literally turned inside out. But there is another loss which the child growing up with a single mother suffers which may be even greater than these, and that is the loss of parental authority.
During the years when my daughter was running wild, I'd tried putting on the brakes, laying down the rules, but my heart wasn't in it. Her father had been the disciplinarian; my job had been to nurture. Now, with his commanding voice gone, I didn't want to alienate my daughter by disciplining her; I didn't want her to walk out on me, which she threatened to do, often. I wanted to be her friend. Like many women, the most important thing to me was the preservation of the relationship, at any cost. Besides, I wasn't comfortable exercising authority. And when I did, I didn't sound credible, even to myself. If I were she, I thought to myself, I wouldn't listen to me either.
This was not a family. This was a toxic waste dump. And I knew it.
The crisis occurred last summer after she graduated from high school. After years of putting up with her disrespect, her unpredictable mood swings and erratic behavior, of worrying myself sick when she didn't come home until the wee hours of the morning, of surviving on three or four hours of sleep a night, I caught her in a lie. It wasn't of earth-shattering significance; it was merely the end of a long line of lies. Nevertheless, it was the fuse that ignited the toxic waste.
She was eighteen, she reminded me, and old enough to make her own decisions about what she wanted to do and when she wanted to do it; legally, I could not compel her to do otherwise. For her, this final battle was about my recognizing her independence before the law. For me, independence wasn't something miraculously bestowed upon her on her eighteenth birthday; it was something she grew into, gradually, over time and with guidance. But if independence was what she wanted, independence was what she was going to get. Angry, frustrated, hurt and beyond exhaustion, I threw her out of the house. I can still hear my words to her echoing in my head: "I am worth something, Goddammit, and I don't have to take your crap!"
I don't know who was more surprised to hear those words fly out of my mouth, my daughter or myself, but no sooner had she left than I regretted speaking them.
The Donna Reed inside of me was consumed by guilt. Good mothers should be able to give and give and never stop giving. What kind of mother would ever throw her child out of the house? But yet something told me that it had to come to this, that I had to throw her out, no matter how painful it was. Andit was without a doubt the most difficult, most painful thing I'd ever done. Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for it; it went totally against the grain. I felt as if I'd ripped out my own heart.
She was gone for a month, during which time she discovered the dangers of living on her own, the cost of apartments and food and high-risk auto insurance, and what kinds of jobs were available to high school graduates with no marketable skills. When she returned, she was a different person.
"If dad were still alive," she told me later, "I would never have been so arrogant and gotten myself into so much trouble."
Maybe this was just the wishful thinking of a young woman who desperately missed her father and, in his absence, had romanticized him. But maybe what she said was right. I don't know if things would have been different had her father lived, and I never will know. All I know is that into the vacuum left in our lives by his death rushed the sound of silence. My daughter needed a voice of authority and I failed to give it to her until it was almost too late.
Several years ago, I was asked to write an essay for the Notre Dame Magazine which was dedicating an issue to the theme of adolescence. The editor said he would write a piece about raising his children; an assistant editor told me she would write an article on her own adolescence. Not wanting to duplicate their efforts, I knew I'd have to come up with a different angle. But how would I do that when the best angles were already taken? Then, in the middle of my third sleepless night of hand-wringing, I heard in my head the echo of my 14-year-old daughter's voice as she argued with me earlier in the day about doing the laundry. Immediately, I got out of bed, went to the computer, and by 6 a.m. had cranked out, effortlessly, as if I was merely taking dictation, a humorous story of adolescence told in my daughter's voice. When the story was published, many people asked me if my daughter had written it. I was offended, why would I put my name on something I hadn't written? When I asked the editor about this, he laughed and told me that their question was an obvious one since the essay had "perfect pitch." Anyone who had teenagers, he assured me, recognized that voice. It was a compliment, I'm sure. But the whole experience was unsettling. I could hear my daughter's voice with perfect pitch, but where, I wondered, was my own?
It's a question many women ask. Trained from birth to identify so completely with their husbands' and children's wants and needs, they wake up one day, look in the mirror and discover that no one is there. I don't know what the antidote to divorce is, but I'm quite sure it's not the sacrifice of all women on the altar of their families or their husbands' careers. This mistakes the cure for the disease, and betrays a perverse preference for preserving the form of the family over its substance.
What I learned from being passed that Bucket is that good families are not simply given, as I once believed; they are constructed out of a mysterious melding of love and compassion and self-sacrifice, infinite patience and understanding, and a healthy capacity to both absorb pain and to forgive. Of course, any construction job would be easier if it were a shared activity, but the essential tool in constructing a family, the glue that holds it together, is not the presence of a man; it's the presence of a strong and consistent voice.
Until more men understand that feminism is as much about them as it is about women, until they share the weight of the self-sacrifice they so easily prescribe for and demand of women, and pigs will fly first, the sad truth is that divorce is here to stay. It would therefore behoove us to stop trying to resurrect Donna Reed and to start giving our daughters the tools they'll need, whether they choose to be homemakers or rocket scientists, to re-construct their families should they ever find themselves on their own. This means teaching them that they have intrinsic worth apart from their men and children, and that goodness means self-respect as well as self-sacrifice. This will not shield their children from all of the adverse effects of divorce, but it can shield them from one of the worst, the sound of silence. If we really care about family values, the best thing we could do is to give our daughters a voice.
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Spirit versus Spirit: Meditation on a Poem by Thomas Hardy
"Hell. No: I won't go!"
-Sylvester Rambo Stallone
Fraternization with enemy troops
on Christmas Eve is strictly for-
bidden. Violators will be subject
-British Field Directive, 1915
(after British and German troops Fraternized on Christmas Eve, 1914)
"War is the Health of the State."
-Randolph Bourne, The State (1919)
"War is the State."
-Kenneth Rexroth The Dragon and the Unicorn (1949)
First the poem. Entitled "The Man He Killed, " it's Hardy near his best:
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry
And staring face to face
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead--because--
Because he was my foe
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
He thought he'd list, perhaps,
Off-hand like--just as I-
Was out of work-had sold he traps--
No other reason why.
Yes! quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is
Or help to half-a-crown.
Thinking about the poem might lead us to ask where one's most fundamental loyalties or values reside in a war. We at first take it as facile anti-war verse: all men are brothers; given the proper chance enemy soldiers could be friends. Had they met near a tavern in time of peace, they would have treated each other to a bottle of ale, perhaps even sung a song or two together. But at war, they would kill each other without hesitation.
Tim O'Brien's If I Die a Combat Zone, a book about the Vietnam War and his Army experiences, indicates why the will to kill would be automatic:
[Drill Sergeant] Blyton...gives us our lesson in the bayonet. Left elbow locked, left hand on wood just below weapon's sights...lunge with left leg, slice up with the steel. Again and again we thrust into mid-air imagined bellies, sometimes towards throats. "Dinks are little shits,' Blyton yells out. `If you want their guts, you gotta go low. Crouch and dig.' Soldiers! Tell me! What is the spirit of the bayonet?' He screams the question... ...'Drill Sergeant--the spirit of the bayonet is to kill! To kill!'
A further reason why the enemy/friend in Hardy's poem is part enemy is that the poem's speaker in real life often has another friend not alluded to in the poem--his combat buddy. One doesn't have to be an expert on combat motivation to know that intense cameraderie is the prime binding element in a basic fighting unit; the squad is a soldier's immediate "family." With its support and loyalty or lack thereof during combat, he likely either lives or dies. When one's unit buddy is killed or horribly wounded, a part of one's self is maimed. The consequent rage towards the enemy responsible (whether literally or symbolically) is massive. One remembers all too many scenes from the Vietnam War in TV coverage movies like Platoon and books: Vietnamese villagers of all ages being dragged out of their huts by their hair or feet, their heads bashed in by weeping, rifle-butting American soldiers.
Actually, Hardy, or his soldier-narrator, ignores such physical horrors of war, in part because he is concerned with the psychological horror of its simple yet profound irony. Chances are good (certainly they were during World War One), that the two foes could have ended up in hand-to-hand combat, each trying to kill the other in the most efficient (and probably brutal) way possible. Rather than a surgically neat stab or gun shot right through the heart, being bayoneted through the throat, belly or groins perhaps even more likely. Fussell in his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War is disturbingly informative on the surreal, demonic nature of combat injury:
What annoyed the troops...[about the public was its] innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration Corps with its space for indicating `Members Missing.' You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him you'd hardly be ready for the answer. My buddy's head, or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees...
It becomes apparent how the usually suppressed reality in this quotation could lead to Fussell's sinister generalization later in a chapter correctly entitled "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books":
In war it is not just the weak soldiers, or the sensitive one, or the highly imaginative or cowardly one who will break down. Inevitably all [itals. added-D.G] will break down if in combat long enough. `Long enough' is now defined by physicians and psychiatrists as between 200 and 240 days. As medical observers have reported, there is no such thing as getting used to combat... Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their experience. Thus--and this is unequivocal--psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in war.
I present this "reality-of-war" dimension first to underline the overt irony in Hardy's poem--the man who he would buy drinks for, perhaps become good friends with in peacetime, would in war embody the foe he would do anything to destroy in the rage and terror of combat. Hardy's soldier kills his foe-friend ultimately at the dictated of the State (Hardy's poem doesn't include societal coercion--the Draft--but it is part of the scenario implied by the poem.) Although Hardy's soldier enlisted, sooner or later he would have otherwise been drafted. Being out-of-work suggests that the narrator is a marginal figure economically forced into enlisting. Further, the foe/friend relationship of Hardy and his enemy suggests a "friend"/"foe" relationship between a soldier and his own society, particularly the power centers of that society or what/social libertarian theorists from Prince Kropotkin to Kirkpatrick Sale have called the State. As the French philosopher Simone Weil once pointed out, an enlisted man's real enemy could well be his own officers and the authorities empowering both that military hierarchy and the war itself.
That the rulers of Edwardian England (the era in which the poem was published) had their own/economic, political and egotistic reasons for wanting to engage in war is suggestive about the possible fate of unemployed classes and races in our time and nation. The reader of "The Man He Killed" possibly knows, as Hardy did, that there was a British Empire out there, and that it had to be defended from those savage, imperialist Dutch (or, twelve years later, Germans).
Hardy's soldier might not realize why his society wants a war and wants him in it, but he does sense the vivid and profound irony of having to kill his foe/friend--it's "quaint and curious". The irony prompts the reader to wonder, should another war come and s/he (and "she" will definitely be all the way in it) enlists or is drafted, whether s/he will obey the spirit of the Bayonet. Or will s/he obey another spirit, either directing one "North" or to jail as a Conscientious Objector or even to pulling down the criminal leaders--the politicians, the military brass, the Corporation war-profiteers--who start or want wars in the first place. For be sure of it: there will be more wars, and they will be justified by slick lies concocted by the State, forcing us or our children or theirs to choose between the two Spirits.
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