In the late summer or very early fall of 1987, my mother and grandmother took me to hear Joe Biden speak at a picnic shelter in Upper City Park in Iowa City. He was running for president at the time. That was truly a golden caucus year — Bruce Babbitt, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and a few others listed here I don’t even remember. Biden dropped out shortly after we saw him, and my family transferred its allegiance to Bruce Babbitt, thus continuing with our long line of unsuccessful presidential candidates (Paul Tsongas ’92, anyone?). I believe Adlai Stevenson is the only guy we’ve liked who ever got a nomination. I missed the caucus in ’88 because I had strep, and I’m bummed out about that to this day, but a bunch of us at my grade school collected discarded stickers the next day and wore them around proudly till they unraveled in the wash.
But back to that evening in City Park. Biden gave a rousing speech to a few dozen people, most of them the same sort of upper middle class white professionals that we were. I remember he said damn once and changed it to darn. I remember he said every American high school student should be required to take four years of English (that got a lot of cheers). And my mother remembers that he said that even when school was boring (calculus was the example he used — sorry, mathematicians), it was still important.
In 2008, I was living in Wyoming, far from the land of the first caucus and the People’s Republic of Johnson County. I asked my mother whom she was caucusing for, and she said Joe Biden. “Why?” I asked.
“Do you remember when we went to hear him speak?”
“Yeah. Remember how he said that education was sometimes boring but it was still important?”
“Well, that just really impressed me.”
“So you’re caucusing for someone based on a speech he gave twenty years ago… ?”
I tell this story a lot because of course I love to make fun of my mother (whom I love very much), but in actuality, I agree with its message.
I never planned to have children, and thus I never imagined what I would do with a child, or what I would want to teach one or instill in him. I have my doubts about the ability of parents to teach or instill anything in their children, but if I were to pick something, it might well be this: we don’t always get to do the things we want to do. Life isn’t all about fun. You don’t always get to do what you love. And that’s okay. There’s honor and dignity and meaning in all sorts of work, even the dullest. My job is far from glamorous. Once in awhile I get to talk on TV or radio. Once in awhile I get to clean up puke. Most of the time I deal with the cash register and try to make sure the desk schedule is taken care of and handle various problems. Even the parts of my job that sound exciting are often not all that. I order all the adult fiction for my library, which sounds great (and sometimes is, because I get to buy and promote amazing books like Love Me Back and Battleborn and After Birth and Women), but mostly it means that every month I order five copies of the newest James Patterson* novel, because my job is to keep all the readers happy, not just to pander to my particular tastes.
This time of year tends to be full of people Living Their Best Life, or pledging to, and casting aside the past year and planning for only bright and shining things ahead. And that’s all great. (I have a few plans myself — they include getting all my pictures framed and hung and finding black ankle boots that fit. Check back with me in a year to see if either of these things has happened. I have my doubts.) But I often think we don’t give enough credence to drudgery and toil and even ordinary mind-numbing work. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have — someone still has to collect the garbage. The folks who make our clothes and gadgets — including the black ankle boots I’m coveting and the fancy machine I’m typing on — still make wretched salaries, work horrendous hours in horrific conditions, and have very little of what we all might consider life.
I was of course raised not only on speeches by Joe Biden but also — and more importantly — on literature that posited a very specific kind of world view. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and so many of the other books I read as a child were about nothing so much as stoicism in the face of deprivation. When Pa survives by eating the candy he was going to give the girls for Christmas, or when Laura wonders if she can bring part of the orange she gets at a party home to share, as she’s never seen an orange before, or when Marmee insists they take their Christmas feast to the poor family — these things have stayed with me, even if I don’t live up to their ideals. “We must never complain. We must always be grateful for what we have,” says Ma over and over and over again. I know there’s a lot to be said against that point of view. No one should be grateful for terrible working conditions or domestic abuse or rape culture. But absent the kind of horror you can and should fight against, there’s a lot to be said for it, too.
*It’s true that Patterson gives a lot of money to independent bookstores and booksellers, including here in my town. But buying multiple copies of books whose major plots involve women getting raped and dismembered always leaves a sick feeling in my mouth. Just handling book covers of hazy women’s body parts — and there are a LOT of these, not just by Patterson — makes me kind of ill.