Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Of Hard Work and Privileged People

I originally posted this piece in a slightly different form on my blog on January 17, 2011. In the meantime, I submitted it to Cultural Weekly. The editor liked it but wanted it to focus more on culture than on politics, so we edited it and here it is in updated form. I like it better than the original.  It was posted on 
 http://www.culturalweekly.com/  on 

Of Hard Work and Privileged People

My daddy had one necktie: It was permanently knotted, so on the rare occasions when he needed to wear it, he would just pull it over his head and tighten it. I could probably count on both hands how often I saw him wear it over the course of my life. He was a little guy, barely 5’3”, heavyset, with powerful hands. When I made brownies, he would take two walnuts in one hand, squeeze them, and they would crack; just like that. For variety, he would smash them with his fist.

It wasn’t a trick; it was just the way he cracked nuts.

I can’t imagine the fathers in “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best,” pulling on a pre-knotted tie, or helping out in the kitchen by cracking nuts with their bare hands. The work these two suburban men did was mysterious. They left in the morning; they were home in time for dinner. They wore ties to work. They had time and energy to help their kids with their homework. Personally, I liked Jackie Gleason’s truculent truck driver; his breezy, worldly-wise wife, Alice, and his friend Art Carney, the sanitation worker in "The Honeymooners." While both the suburban and the working-class families were somewhat idealized, their lives were familiar to me. 

At least, at that time, working-class people appeared on TV and in the movies.  Today, they don’t. In today’s entertainment product, rich and easy-living people predominate, and poverty is always pathological: The kids are in gangs; the working mom is stressed and angry, or defeated.  

This makes me think that maybe GOP Presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich, and this week's apparent front-runner, has been watching too much TV.  By suggesting that poor kids be given janitorial work in their schools [link:http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/gingrich-defends-remarks-on-food-stamps-janitor-jobs-for-poor-children-to-instill-work-ethic/2012/01/16/gIQApmTN4P_story.html] , to help them learn the meaning of work and of earning a paycheck, because they don’t see people working hard around them, he has bought into an image of working-class and poor people as problematic, as if their mere existence is a strain on society.

Then as an example, he offered up one of his own daughters who had a brief stint with working as a janitor when she was thirteen. His daughter raved about the experience. It must have been cool for her to see how the other 99% lives, especially if she only had to do it for a short time. I think the children of the rich should do some work for a paycheck since that may be their only brush with reality. Actually working and paying 20% of their wages in taxes, just like everybody else, instead of living off their investments and paying only 15% of the income in taxes.

I had a bit of janitorial experience. Occasionally, I would help clean the convent of the school I attended, just to be helpful. The nuns would feed us well; it was a win-win. But my real brush with janitorial work was when, as a college student and child of a working-class family, I used to borrow my father’s car and pick him up from his third job in the evenings. After working from 6am to 3pm as a warehouseman, he’d work from 3pm to 5pm in a gas station, and then he would go to the gas company’s corporate offices to clean up. I would meet him there a couple of days a week and empty ashtrays and wastebaskets while he cleaned floors and did other such tasks. A lifelong Teamster, he was also the shop steward in his warehouse, so he spent some evenings at union meetings. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t be too late for dinner. My father’s workday was twelve hours long. That’s what this poor child saw: My father, at day’s end, so exhausted that he would have dinner and fall asleep immediately thereafter in front of the television.

Back-breaking work is over-rated. You learn lots of things from watching your parents work twelve hours a day, especially that you don’t want to ever have to do it yourself.   I had a way out. I was in college, paying my own way without scholarships by working at my own three part-time jobs, while I lived at home.  If I had been cleaning up with no end in sight, no dreams to look forward to, it would have been a life-sentence rather than an opportunity for a paycheck.

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine was going through a very bad depression. A child of privilege, she had grown up with the expectation that she would always be taken care of. She married a prosperous professional man but then the disaster hit: His company downsized, and he lost his job. He was at that awkward age: Too old to be seen as a young go-getter, but too young to retire. They struggled, and he got a job as a salesman—unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it. She bristled with resentment. Her comfortable middle-class existence was undone as they struggled to hang on to their home. She obstinately refused to get a job; she would train for one thing or another and then leave it after being hired because she didn’t like the work.

She was complaining to me about her situation, and I was mystified. It seemed pretty clear to me: if they were going to survive and stay in their beautiful suburban house, she had to find work that would help bring enough money in. I remember her glaring at me: “You wouldn’t understand,” she said. “You’ve always had to work!”

That’s true. I didn’t understand: I don’t know what it’s like to be the daughter or wife of wealthy men, or to have money making money for me, sight unseen, while all I’d have to do is spend it. Even now, as a professional building a 401K, I worry about what it will be like when I am no longer able to work.  Theoretically, my pension and Social Security checks should keep me pretty comfortable, but deep down, I don’t trust they will.

So much for the supposed sanctity of hard work.  As long as America’s entertainment only depicts the well-off, politicians have little reason to understand the working-class.  They think they’re talking to an audience whose minds have been enfeebled by the Real Housewives of Whatever Hills.  They’re probably right. 

The reverse is also true – until our leaders start talking in real terms about real, working-class people, entertainment companies won’t sense that TV shows and movies should have working-class people as string, central characters.

The entertainment industry and politics as usual – those are two nuts my dad would have loved to crack.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Diego the Cat Has Friends in High Office

Diego in hiding

My friend has a big ol’ cat named Diego. When he senses that a trip to the vet is imminent, he crouches down in the middle of the living room, making himself as small as possible. He thinks he is invisible, but he is a big guy and holding his breath won’t change that. The remaining crop of GOP candidates for president reminds me of Diego. Each one has so many skeletons in the closet that he or she has to stand against the door to keep them all from popping out, but we all know they’re there, barely out of sight. Yet they think if they just don’t mention them, nobody will see them. Have they heard that tale about the Emperor’s new clothes?

In order, from most innocuous to most egregious, let us start with Michelle Bachmann. Rep. Bachmann claims that she was a government tax lawyer, formerly employed by the Internal Revenue Service. In the next breath, she claims that she has worked all her life in the private sector. Does she know that working for the IRS puts her employment history in the public sector? Moreover, by all accounts she actually worked there very briefly amidst maternity leaves. Did she work there long enough to gain a real understanding of the tax code? Furthermore, she berates people dependent on public subsidies even though she and her husband own clinics that have received tens of thousands of dollars in public subsidies. She’ll put an end to that, by cracky! Somehow she escapes the wrath of her Tea Party adherents.

Then there’s Texas’s governor, Rick Perry. His family’s hunting ranch was named Niggerhead Ranch. He claims the rock at its entrance bearing the infamous name was painted over long ago but witnesses claim it was there as recently as two years ago. Even so, whether it was two years ago or twenty, did they paint over it out of a newfound sensitivity to the sensibilities of African Americans or out of the uneasy sense that it was no longer acceptable to be so overtly racist, even in Texas?

The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich is so weighed down with his past sins that he resembles Charles Dicken’s ghost of Jacob Marley. He is the only speaker in the history of the House of Representatives to be sanctioned and fined for ethics violations. He closed down the federal government partly because he resented his seat on a trip on Air Force One. The twice married speaker led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton even as he was conducting an affair with the woman who would become his third and present wife, Callista. Sounding rather like his old nemesis, Bill Clinton, who wanted to parse the meaning of “is,” Gingrich is at pains to differentiate that he earned millions from Fannie Mae for his services as an historian and not as a lobbyist. I’m an historian; perhaps he could do a seminar for his fellow historians to share his money-making secrets. We would all be extremely appreciative but he would have to do it as a professional courtesy because we’d never be able to afford his fees.

Mitt Romney keeps trying to convince his audiences that he’s just one of them, even as he adds a $12 million addition to his house and makes lame jokes about how he knows what it’s like to be unemployed. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

But another Texan, perpetual candidate Ron Paul wins the prize for trying to make his past invisible through his dissembling. There are caches of Ron Paul’s writings that are virulently racist. He claims that they went out under his name but that somebody else wrote them; that he was busy practicing medicine. I'm a writer, if someone put out something under my name, I'd be on them so fast, heads would spin. The thing about writing is that once it’s published, it exists. It’s no longer “he said, she said,” it’s hard copy; it’s in people’s homes and in public libraries. Once it is published, “plausible deniability,” to quote a favorite phrase of another Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is lost. Ron Paul may think his past is invisible but he’s just acting like that big ol’ cat. That his followers are willing to ignore it is no great surprise; if independent voters choose to ignore it, we're in trouble. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 and all followed

The weekend before September 11, 2001, I had been to Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire with a friend. At one of the souvenir shops, I'd bought some beautiful glass balls and a shimmering toy dragon for my granddaughter. Since I do not teach on Tuesdays, I was packaging the toys for her, decorating the box with Harry Potter pictures, saying that I was sending her the magical creature with some dragon eggs as well, and packing it for shipping to St. Louis while I listened to NPR.  

8:46am: As I printed out the mailing label, the first announcement came through, that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Trade Towers. How could that be?  I went into the other room to turn on the television. At 9:03am, as I stood in front of the television in a stupor, trying to think clearly, trying to remember if I had any friends who worked in that building, the second plane struck.  It dawned on me that we were being attacked; my heart started pounding very hard. I called my best friend in San Francisco, waking her up saying, turn on your TV! I was having an anxiety attack.  I was trying to calm down when at 9:37am, the news came of the attack on the Pentagon. I knew then that the White House would be next. At 10:03, Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In just over an hour, our carefree lives ended. 

I could not imagine who was crazy enough to launch an attack on the United States.   Who would want to start a world war? Korea? Wait, using civilian airplanes? 

Then two other heart-stopping events events took place: The first one was seeing George W. Bush at Ground Zero, raising the flag with the firefighters, telling them that all America heard them; that we would be resolute in our resistance to terrorism. He must have said resolute thousands of times in the days that followed but when I heard him say it the first time, I recognized that this bubble-headed president had found his sea-legs. He now had a sense of purpose, and he had become a war-time president. We would be stuck with him for two terms. Then, when he was launching the invasion of Iraq, reporters asked him why he was invading Iraq and he responded that they had attacked his daddy. I never saw that news-clip shown again. And we invaded Iraq under the excuse of a fabricated connection with Osama Bin-Laden. 

Our lives changed forever. Now the days before 9/11 seem like a dulcet summer brought to an end by a hurricane worse than Katrina, whose effects we feel every day. Since 9/11 we have known nothing but war, financial loss, and the increasing restrictions on our civil liberties enforced by our fear of being attacked and reinforced by the financial losses that have driven 9.1% of our population--14 million Americans-- into the ranks of the unemployed. 

Fearful people are easily manipulated. We have been manipulated into spending billions of dollars in unwinnable wars, and allowing previously unimaginable intrusions into our privacy, not only at airports but in our daily lives. 

As we remember 9/11, we must think not only of the dead in the towers, in the Pentagon, in a field in Pennsylvania,  and in two hopeless wars, but of the continuing devastation of our culture and economy. Unless we find the courage to stand up to those in our country who are using our fear against us, all will be lost. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beyond the Pearly Gates: God and the Angel Gabriel Consider Michelle Bachmann

Scene: Somewhere beyond the Pearly Gates

Angel Gabriel: Lord, may I ask you something?  Did you send Hurricane Irene to punish New York and all those New England liberals?

God:  Did I what?

Gabriel: Send Hurricane Irene—

God: I can't believe you would ask me that! Why would you think I had anything to do hurricanes?

Gabriel: Well, Michelle Bachmann said you did; and besides, everybody knows that you use the weather to express your displeasure at human behavior.

God: That was when I was young.  Don’t you remember that I made a deal with Noah never to punish them by destroying the earth with water? The rainbow, remember? I made the rainbow the sign of the covenant? [Quoting from memory--]

"12 God added, "Here is the sign of the covenant I am making between myself and you and every living creature with you, for all generations to come: 13 I am putting my rainbow in the cloud - it will be there as a sign of the covenant between myself and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow is seen in the cloud; 15 I will remember my covenant which is between myself and you and every living creature of any kind; and the water will never again become a flood to destroy all living beings. 16 The rainbow will be in the cloud; so that when I look at it, I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of any kind on the earth."  "(Genesis 9: 12-16)

Gabriel: Opps, I guess they forgot what the rainbows mean. But Michelle Bachmann said—

God: WHAT did that woman say this time? (He puts his head in his hands.)

Gabriel: She told a campaign rally in Florida, “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

God: So she thinks there’s a loophole? That I’m not breaking my promise if I kill them all so long as I use a hurricane to bring the floods?  Why is she dragging me into American affairs?  They are such a quarrelsome bunch. (He frowns.)

Gabriel: I don’t think she knows you made the promise! 

God: But she goes around “quoting” me all the time.  Do people think I actually talk to her?  I haven’t concealed myself in a burning bush to talk with humans for several millennia. I don’t get involved in politics. Besides, Jesus said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Luke 20:25) It’s all there in the Bible. Doesn’t she read the Bible?

Gabriel: She says she does. I heard her tell another campaign rally that “I just take the bible for what it is, I guess, and recognize that I am not a scientist, not trained to be a scientist. I'm not a deep thinker on all of this. I wish I was. I wish I was more knowledgeable, but I'm not a scientist.”

God: (LOL) Ain’t that the truth. You need a brain to be a scientist. Gabe, check our records—make sure I gave her a brain.  There could have been a mistake on the assembly-line.

Gabriel: But Lord, you don’t make mistakes.

God: I don’t but the assembly line isn’t perfect; it gets backed-up now and then. Just check, would you?  Y’know, I think the problem is the microphones at their campaign rallies.  They get up there with those microphones in their hands and LIE! The whoppers I hear them tell!  Why, I—

Gabriel: (Giggling) Excuse me for interrupting, Lord, but did you hear what she said about $2 per gallon gas? She said that when she becomes president, she’ll roll back the price of gas to $2 a gallon!

God: (God is laughing so hard, tears are rolling down his cheeks) $2 per gallon gas!  (He falls off his throne and rolls on the floor.)

God: (Choking with laughter) Not in my lifetime!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where The Help Is: A Latina Perspective on Hollywood

Much debate has ensued after the release of “The Help,” the new film about black maids and their relationships with their white employers in Mississippi during the 1960s. The setup for the film is that a white college girl comes home from school and interviews the family maids about their lives.  At first they are reluctant but she succeeds in persuading them to speak and gradually draws out others in the town. The Association of Black Women Historians has issued a statement that takes to task many elements of the film. That a movie that seems to be black-positive and portrays positive interactions between blacks and whites has drawn such fire from some in the black community is a mystery to many people. Yet if you dig just below the surface, the justification for this critique becomes clear.

The stories of blacks and Latinos that make it into the movies are usually the ones written by whites about their positive interactions with nonwhite people. African Americans are weary of stories about black maids, nannies, whores and gangbangers. Stories written by African Americans about their own experiences do not necessarily have a kindly white person easing the way. Americans value the white, middle-class perspective in a way that they do not value a black or Latino's own story. In a nutshell, American society prefers to think of itself as kinder and more beneficent than our history shows us to be.

Hollywood has created movies about heroic black characters, but more often than not, the primary perspective in these stories is that of a white person. Take the most iconic of these stories, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The story is primarily of a young white girl, Scout, learning about racism, and of her modest, heroic father, Atticus Finch, and his efforts to stop an injustice against an innocent black man accused of rape. Do you remember his name? Do you remember who played him? I thought not. Tom Robinson was played by Brock Peters, a character actor who went on to have a long and successful career. Atticus Finch was played by the great Gregory Peck; no matter what else he went on to do in his career, his image as the upright Southern lawyer in a white suit is what everyone remembers.

In “Ghosts of Mississippi,” Alec Baldwin plays Bobby DeLaughters, the heroic prosecutor who finally brings the killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers to account. DeLaughters sacrificed his political aspirations and lost his marriage in his pursuit of justice. DeLaughters, not the dead leader or his wife Myrlie Evers (played by Whoopi Goldberg), was the hero of the film.

“Cry Freedom,” about South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, focused on a white South African journalist (portrayed by Kevin Kline) whose views about Biko changed after they met. Then he sets out to investigate Biko’s torture and killing at the hands of the police. He was forced to flee South Africa when he wrote a book about his findings.

Even in a story like "Something the Lord Made," with rapper Mos Def as the true-life lab technician turned heart surgery pioneer, Vivien Thomas, the black character’s achievements take place within the narrow window society allowed because an arrogant white cardiologist pushed his own prejudice aside a wee bit to make the black character's achievements possible.

Did you ever hear of “Sarafina?” It was one of Whoopi Goldberg's finest roles, but it was in the theaters for perhaps five minutes.  She was central to the story; there was no white facilitator. In that story, the only white characters were the police who tortured her. It did not get much of a white audience because most whites don't want to see--or face--the abuses perpetrated by their own.

The public at large, like you, may go to see a film or a show out of interest in the subject matter or because you want to show your children a broader view of the world; all good motivations, but Hollywood does not trust that ethnically or racially authentic stories will sell.

Consider the story of the black Baltimore Ravens football player Michael Oher in the film “The Blind Side.” I read about him originally in New Times magazine in September 2006, in “The Ballad of Big Mike,” and was so moved by the article that I cut it out and shared with friends; I cannot remember the white woman’s place in the story; it was really focused on Oher’s own trek.  “The Blind Side” was more about a Southern white woman doing something good and noble, and Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of the woman justly won an Academy Award for best performance. I wonder if Hollywood would have made that movie if Oher had been rescued by a middle-class black family, or if the player had told his own story. Would it sell? Or was the image in the ad for the film, showing the massive Oher walking with the small woman’s arm protectively around his shoulders, just too good to pass up?

How many blacks are allowed to be heroes in our society?  A black man becomes President, and the Republicans declare that they will do everything to defeat him; they unite to oppose everything he proposes, even when he takes up their own proposals! But they insist that racism is not their main motivation. Nope, no racism here.

Which black stories get wide coverage? Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry's parodies of black families where grandma is played broadly by a man in drag. To me, Perry's comedies are little better than the old minstrel shows, with blacks shucking and jiving for our entertainment pleasure.

Yet African Americans influence American culture deeply in less
conscious ways. Just as the culture as a whole has absorbed jazz, which has its roots in native African musical forms, young people have absorbed hip-hop, black clothing and hair styles. The impact of black culture goes much deeper than we can imagine.

It is almost painful to talk about how Latinos are portrayed in the cinema and on television. How many Latinas do you see in movies or TV who are not whores, gangbangers, busty bombshells, or maids?  How many Latina professors, doctors, lawyers, or roles as other professionals do you see Latinas play? 

Thank God for Jennifer Lopez--she is beautiful, elegant, smart, accomplished, and she is doing something besides a stereotypical role. She has played a wider variety of roles than most Latina actresses, such as in “Out of Sight,” where she played a U.S. Marshal in pursuit of George Clooney as a bank robber; “Angel Eyes,” where she played a police officer; or “The Wedding Planner ,“ where she played the eponymous role. None of these characters have a Latino name or any hint of Latino culture. Is her acceptability to the general American audience somehow better if she is laundered of her Latina identity? When she turns up in a Latino role, aside from the tragic “Selena,” she is playing—SURPRISE!—a hotel maid in “Maid in Manhattan.”   I am proud that J-Lo is Latina and I am reminded of earlier Latina actresses who “could pass” and were forced to give their names in pursuit of stardom, like Rita Hayworth, née Margarita Carmen Cansino, whose father was of Jewish-Spanish background and her mother of Irish-English descent. Thankfully Carmen Miranda and Rita Moreno weren’t stripped of their identities to star in the movies.

I know that other Latinas share my extreme weariness with the trash that most Latinas play in the movies; on television, we’re virtually invisible. Then there’s George Lopez, but he’s the subject for another kind of rant.

[published on MyLatinoVoice 08/30/2011   http://www.mylatinovoice.com/film/67-movie-news/2987-where-the-help-is-a-latina-perspective-on-hollywood.html]

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Historian Sees "Nabucco" for the First Time

Being a historian and loving opera can be very challenging. After going to the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport to see Nabucco, simulcast live from Taormina, Sicily, I have come to the conclusion that even though I love Giuseppe Verdi best, logic wasn't his strong suit. Ah, well; one can’t be good at everything.

Nabucco, has a very convoluted plot; not as weird as Il Trovatore but strange nevertheless. It is very peculiar watching an opera about Jews (as compared with the Egyptians and Ethiopians in Aida, for instance, or Turandot's Chinese ice maiden-princess). Periodically, the chorus would sing about killing the Jews: “Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!” Honestly, I never thought of that phrase as a chorus’s refrain. I didn't know the plot in advance so I was sitting there wondering if a wide-scale massacre was about to take place; Nabucco was the star, after all. About halfway through, I realized that I had no clue what was going on--and I was wide awake. I even had an ice coffee at the beginning of the opera. 

Then it turns out that the Assyrian princess, Fenena, daughter of Nabucco, (the true-life Babylonian King Nabucodonosor, or as we call him in English, Nebuchadnezzar) who has been taken hostage by the Jews, is in love with the Jew, Ismaele, nephew of the High Priest Zaccharia. Ismaele was the Judean ambassador, to the Assyrians in Babylon. Assyrians in Babylon?  Yes, Babylon conquered Assyria but the events with the Jews were ten years apart. I started getting a headache at this point. 

Wait a minute. Jews had diplomatic relations with their enemies? The ones who conquered them and then moved them en masse to Babylon where they languished in exile? THEN it turns out that her sister, Abigaille, is also in love with the Jewish ambassador. She will spare his people if he stays with her. (I found myself wondering if Abigail Adams knew the origin of her name.)

Nabucco tells her that she, Abigaille, isn't really his daughter, a princess, but is actually a slave. She then grabs the document proving this and tears it to pieces. In the meantime, Fenena converts to Judaism. What?  
Nabucco condemns the Hebrews to death, spurred by the jealous Abigalle.  Then Nabucco has a nervous breakdown. I did, too.  Abigaille seizes power while he is, er, indisposed.  Later, he recovers his powers completely and declares himself for the Jewish God. What???  Who's writing this stuff?  The author of Star Trek? It has a happy ending. The Jews are saved and the evil Abigaille dies.  It was a very weird death scene. ("I'm melting!! Melting!!")

I'm not making this up. I'll spare you the rest of it. Suffice it to say that sometimes it's better just to close your eyes and listen to the music. The most memorable aria from the opera is:
 "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate / "Fly, thought, on golden wings." It is one of the rare arias that the Met permits an encore of. They did an encore here as well. Gorgeous.

Someday, I want to go to see the opera in August, in the ampitheater in Taormina, in Sicily.What a beautiful place; it takes your breath away. Halfway through the opera, the moon came up, and you could see lights outlining the Sicilian coast. It was spectacular. 

Starting anew

I stopped writing the blog last year; I was having shoulder troubles that culminated in surgery, a sick leave during the fall semester, and a long and painful recovery over the winter and spring. I'm over all of that now so I thought I'd start it up again.

Classes start for me on September 7, now only two and a half weeks away. Who knows where the time goes?!

Enjoy what's left of August; as they say, for teachers, August is one long Sunday night.