Journal of the Plague No. 6: Peaches

Years and years ago, a number of things happened that were interrelated in ways I wouldn’t know at the time, or till many years later: I went on a trip to New York City to visit friends and see the Jackson Pollock retrospective at MOMA and returned to Iowa City two weeks into the semester and talked my way into a class I didn’t need to take, except for health insurance reasons, where I first met my son’s father; the UI chapter of Students Against Sweatshops was formed by two journalism graduate students whom I’d later join for happy hour every Friday so we could trash the Wall Street Journal editorial page and generally rant; I was rejected from a cooperative house in town and from a room I tried to rent at a house out in the country; I read Chelsea Cain’s first book, Dharma Girl, which is set in Iowa City and is full of places and people I knew; and I first heard the music of John Prine because I went to the Iowa City Public Library to check out a CD set of his so I could listen to the song she quotes in the book:

Blow up your TV, throw away your paper

Move to the country, build you a home

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches

Try and find Jesus on your own

John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream”

A year or two later the New Pioneer Coop made a big handwritten sign that hung in its window with those lyrics, advertising the arrival of peaches, and I didn’t even mind that it was advertising, I guess (or think about the copyright implications, because one of the things that hadn’t occurred to me at that point was becoming a librarian—although I learned tonight that John Prine grew up a suburb away from the first library where I ever worked), because it was the coop, the place where my friend’s mom had a credit union account back in the days when the coop ran its own credit union; the phone where I called her the day I moved back to Iowa City from Indianapolis and she said there was a meeting that night to talk about what was happening in the Persian Gulf and did I want to come (and thus I became a founding member of Operation US Out) and where years later I called the man who would become my son’s father the morning after our arrest at the sit in, because those were the days before cell phones, when I still knew people’s phone numbers by heart.

Tonight I learned that John Prine has died, and like many, I am grieving. And then I read my friend’s post about voting in Milwaukee, where two out of five polling places were open today, and cried some more, because I, too, come from generations of civic nerds and election workers, and because, as many of you know, voting is important to me.

The Jackson Pollock poster I picked up at that MOMA exhibit and which my grandmother had framed for me now lives in my library’s circulating art collection, and you can borrow it to hang on your own wall, at least in normal times. It’s been years since I read Dharma Girl, but it still sits on my shelf, and I quoted from it in the account I wrote of the SAS sit in a year later. I’m Facebook friends with Thisbe Nissen, a wonderful writer who lived in the farmhouse a few years before I tried to become a housemate there, one of my former coworkers lived for a time not only in the coop house from which I was rejected by in the very room I was going to get, which faced the house where I rented an an apartment my last two years of graduate school, the years when I had drinks with my SAS founder friends, one of whom often quoted “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” but who, as a Kentucky native, most loved “Paradise,” and where every day I walked past a house owned by one of the people in Dharma Girl.

In the back of my cupboard are two jars of peaches I canned when I lived in Wyoming and on a whim bought a 30 pound box of peaches from Colorado from a man selling them out of a truck. Tonight I’m sitting in my living room sofa with my son and my mom, and I’m thinking about all the people grieving out there, and all the names of the dead we will never know. I don’t know how all these things add up, and it occurs to me that I am here doing nothing but rewriting a small tiny version of Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” which begins “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and ends with her saying she often reflects on the things of her life “but writing has not yet helped me see what it means.”

Journal of the Plague No. 5: Students Against Sweatshops 20th Reunion

Students Against Sweatshops in Jessup Hall, from UE News. I am third from the left.

Today marks the second day of the 20th anniversary of a six-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in the University of Iowa administration building, Jessup Hall. We were there after a year of research, coalition building, educating, and gathering support for our three demands—1) drop out of the Fair Labor Association, an industry sponsored “monitoring” group that did pre-announced factory inspections and then certified them as “sweat free”; 2) join the Worker Rights Consortium, a real monitoring group, and 3) draft a code of conduct for UI licensees to insure that all companies producing apparel and other items bearing the UI logo were required to adhere to basic human and labor rights. We gained endorsements from everyone from the UI Student Government to the UI Center for Human Rights to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and many in between.

We achieved the first demand on the first day of the sit-in. On the sixth day, at 11:30 pm, the UI suddenly became very concerned about our health and safety, and UI police officers raided the building, chained the doors shut, and arrested anyone who refused to leave voluntarily—ultimately five of us were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, threatened with assorted university disciplinary actions, and banned from Jessup Hall for a year. A year later, we finally got the UI to release its Code of Conduct, sort of—several companies, including Nike, Champion, and Jostens, were allowed to sign a “clarified” code that stripped collective bargaining rights from the code.

Twenty years later, we are still waiting for the UI to drop out of the FLA.

We were supposed to be holding a reunion this weekend—a time to reconnect, to visit the UI Archives, where much of the history of SAS is now preserved, and to hold a public event featuring talks from UI Archivist David McCartney on the history of student activism at the UI; John McKerley of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, who has documented much of our movement through interviews with several of us who were there; representatives from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Hall Workers on their fight to be recognized and win fair wages and conditions for their work; an update on the wildcat strike by graduate employees at UC Santa Cruz from Michael Marchman, who organizes graduate students in Oregon; and high school students from the Iowa City Climate Strikers. We’d have had tables from current activist groups and exhibits of SAS actions past. It would have been—and someday will be—a wonderful event.

Although our focus was on the garment industry, during its time at Iowa, SAS also fought for farm workers, prison workers, steelworkers, graduate employees, coffee growers, and so many other invisible laborers who make our world possible.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of our event along with many others, but I decided to record the introduction I planned to give as a message to all of you out their fighting for a better world.

Journal of the Plague No. 4: The Pinto and the Cost of Human Life

Yellow Ford Pinto in front of industrial building
Ford Pinto at Studio 1970. Photo by John Lloyd.

Some of you may recall the Ford Pinto, a small, economical car manufactured from 1971-1980. They were cheap, popular, and had a bad habit of blowing up, causing serious injury and sometimes death to their drivers and passengers.

According to reporting first done by Mother Jones, an internal Ford memo found that an $11 part would have fixed the faulty system that caused the cars to blow up. One might assume, then, that Ford issued a recall, fixed all the Pintos for $11 each, and sent everyone on their way again. But instead, having already paid out money to the survivors of Pinto explosion victims, they first decided to do a little math.

As Lewis Hyde notes in writing about the Pinto story, “In order to apply a cost-benefit analysis to a situation in which the core equation is ‘cost of safety parts vs cost of lives lost,’ one must first put a price on life. Ford was spared the embarrassment of doing this themselves because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already done it and Ford merely cribbed the figures.

Table showing  price of human life broken down by productivity lost,  medical costs, funeral costs, etc. Total is $200,725
The cost of a traffic fatality from a 1971 NHTSA study.

Ford, in doing the math on how many fatalities and injuries they’d have to pay out for each year versus the cost of adding an $11 part to 11 million cars decided, in the end, it was cheaper to let people die.

I have been thinking a lot about the story of the Ford Pinto (which figures as a plot point in one of my favorite novels, Ghost Dance by Carole Maso), and what it tells us about humanity, particularly when compromised by corporate interests, and what it might tell us about the decisions our governments, companies, and organizations are making right now.

Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said “my mother is not expendable and your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable and we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life,” and, all problems with Cuomo aside, I was filled with a sense of relief, for here, suddenly, was an actual leader talking about actual human lives.

Every time I listen to the news, I hear about the economy, and to be sure, as an economic determinist, I would never argue that it does not have an effect on people’s lives—indeed, I have argued for years that capitalism is killing people faster than almost anything else. But that is not what is meant by “the economy” as described by most news outlets. They mean the Dow Jones Industrial Average, not what Molly Ivins used to call the Doug Jones Average—the way that real people are living, and, in this case, dying.

I keep trying to live by the decisions I feel are best and to call into question those that I feel are detrimental to the well-being of my community. Of course I don’t know which decisions are best on a higher level, but I know that every expert I have heard suggests the same basics: stay at home. Wash your hands. Sanitize your high touch surfaces. Stay at least six feet away from others when you do go out.

Like many, because of my job, I’m not able to follow all those precepts all the time, although perhaps my salary and my health insurance are enough to cover the cost. I hope you and yours are staying as safe as you can, and I hope, in the end, we do not decide that (as they say in Casablanca) human life is cheap.

Journal of the Plague No. 3: FUD

Red roses growing against a chain link fence
“Rose Sighs” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Under normal circumstances, I’d be hopping on Facebook in the morning to make my annual THE LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE KNOWN AS SPRING BREAK IS OVER post, but of course these aren’t normal circumstances. Spring break is over, technically, but school hasn’t started up again, and our school district hasn’t said what, if anything, is happening, other than how you can get lunch and breakfast for your kid (show up in a car with your kid between 11 am and 1 pm at various sites) and that they won’t be doing/requiring any online work (given that half of households with incomes under $30,000/year don’t have internet at home, I am grateful for that, at least).

My library is not open to the public, but we are still open in the sense that we all have to show up for work, and we’re doing various things like drive up book service (a matter of some controversy, along with all other drive up services) and books by mail, and answering the phones. But we have no way to provide many of the most crucial services we provide—namely public computer and internet access and printing for the many people who don’t have access to those things at home. I don’t really know how you’re supposed to apply for unemployment without the internet. I also don’t know how to make the internet available (beyond extending our WiFi into our parking lot) in a way that’s safe for people to use. Today we were told to show up for work tomorrow but that we should await further word after that.

FUD is an acronym I learned somewhere fairly early on in my web career, and unlike most tech world acronyms (PEBKAC comes to mind—Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair) it’s one that is fairly generous-minded. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, and it’s often used to describe the way novice users experience technology, and it’s often then leveraged as a marketing tool to get people to buy things they don’t need (like 196 rolls of toilet paper? I dunno). But I can think of no better description for the state we all live in now: we fear what might happen, we are uncertain of what might happen, we doubt, sometimes, the people we are meant to trust.

Today was not much fun at my house. No one slept the night before, and while 1600 square feet for three people is a great deal of room by global standards and is generally more than enough room for the people who live here, that is dependent on not all three of us being here all at the same time all the time. I could quite happily putter away at household projects all day, but I’d want to blast my music, which no one else likes. My mother could quite happily sit and watch church services and knit and listen to audiobooks, but of course then people keep interrupting her. And my son wants nothing more than to play with his friends and doesn’t understand why he can’t see them all the time, and why these days we’re only playing together outdoors, and why that, too, might soon come to an end. My yoga studio has been offering online classes, but there is nowhere in my house I can do yoga.

“Bread and roses, too,” I wrote in a comment on a Facebook post about why library staff were taking a break to ride abandoned scooters around the empty library. But here at our house, it’s all bread, no roses. And of course sometimes life is like that. “We must never complain,” says Ma Ingalls over and over again in The Long Winter. “We must always be grateful for what we have.”

Some days I agree with her, but some days I agree more with the factory worker I met in Puebla, Mexico twenty years ago. We were comparing our union contracts, and at some point I said I didn’t even know why we were bothering to ask for more because we already had so much by comparison. I will never forget what he said: If you, who have so much, do not continue to fight for your rights, what does that say to us?

I don’t know exactly what fighting for your rights looks like these days, but I believe it behooves us all to fight not only for our own rights but also, if we can, for the rights of those who have less than we do: for the hourly staff and freelance workers who have lost their jobs (speaking of which, why not buy one of my friend’s gorgeous photos?), for the homeless and those in jail or prison or detention camps, for whom social distancing is an impossibility, for the parents who must return to work tomorrow and still somehow find childcare for their kids, for all still required to show up to work in unsafe conditions. May we all hang together (at a six foot distance), for if not, we shall surely hang separately.

Journal of the Plague No. 2

Many years ago, my grandmother took me shopping, as she always did, to buy my mother something for Christmas and something for her birthday. One year, when I was perhaps nine or ten, my grandmother spent a long time convincing me that what my mother would really like was a fancy frilly set of underpants with a matching bra and camisole. I thought this was insane. Who cared about underwear, which no one but you was ever going to see?

My grandmother told me that whether anyone saw it wasn’t the point: the point was that you knew your were wearing it, and it was a sort of secret that made you feel more powerful and good. I still didn’t get it, but I acquiesced, because I loved my mother and my grandmother, and my mother seemed pleased when she opened the Marshall Fields box.

All these years later, of course, I understand both what my grandmother was saying and what she wasn’t (that, in fact, sometimes other people do see your underwear, and by other people I mean “people other than the girls in your cabin or the old hippie ladies at the swimming pool,” and it can be kind of exciting), but more importantly that there are things you do for yourself even when—perhaps especially when—no one else can see them, or no one else is watching.

I’ve been sick for most of the past week and living in pajamas, which was lovely except for the being sick part. Yesterday my fever finally went down, and I put on real clothes and walked my son to the park to meet his friend. Today I put on nicer clothes and went to work.

My work at the moment is, like many libraries (though by no means all) closed to the public, but we’re all still there, trying to figure out how to reinvent library services in a time of pandemic. We don’t have any patrons in, and the only people who see me are my coworkers and the occasional delivery person, but it bothered me inordinately that I didn’t have any lipstick on, because my doctor mother told me to throw out all my old lipstick and lip balm, and I complied.

Those of you who’ve known me forever probably find this lipstick thing confusing—I often do myself—but a couple of years ago when I had to wear contacts for awhile, I started being inordinately bothered by the dark circles under my eyes, and I decided I’d rather wear lipstick to detract from them than eye makeup to cover them up, and now I’m just in the habit more days that not.

I had to pick up a prescription on my way home, and I wandered around Walgreens for a little while just seeing what was in stock and what was not, and marveling at the “As Seen on TV” aisle, and wondering if I had any excuse for buying office supplies (I don’t), and generally being impressed by the wide variety of bizarre consumer items for sale in the midst of this crisis, and then I noticed they were having a “buy 2 get 1 free” makeup sale. As with most such sales, at the rate I go through things this is not really a good deal, but years of frugality in order to pay off debts mean I almost never buy anything but food and clothes, and the temptation was too great. I picked out three lipsticks (of the kind that the New York Times once told me was the best of drugstore makeup) and some more lip balm and my prescription, and $30 later I was out the door with my day to day equivalent of a white lace camisole trimmed with pale blue ribbon, plus some lithium.

Of course, that was once more than a week’s grocery money for me, and half of me wondered if now was the time for frivolity. After all, someone broke into my friend’s office and stole her hand sanitizer the other day. As a therapist I was talking to recently said, we are going to see the best of humanity, and the worst.

I’d like to think of my purchases today as derpy—a word my son and his friends just taught me, which they say means “a tiny bit stupid and a lot funny.” Given the gravity of the decisions so many must make now—decisions that quite possibly affect people’s very lives—I hope there is still room for some derpiness—or at least for some decisions that give you your secret superpowers, whatever those are, for surely we all will need them.

Journal of the Plague No. 1

The influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, November 1918. (Harris Ewing/Library of Congress via AP)

I feel we should all be draping ourselves in white sheets at my house, but instead most of us are draping ourselves in wool, or at least I am, because I am freezing all the time, except of course when I’m boiling up, which usually happens in the middle of the night. Hot flash? Fever? Who can say?

My mother returned from a conference in Florida Sunday night sicker than I’ve ever seen her—quite literally delirious from fever at times, coughing, barely able to cross the room much less carry on a conversation. By the time she was strong enough to get to the doctor, it was Tuesday, and she tested positive for influenza A, but it was too late to start Tamiflu, so she was sent home with a raft of other drugs of the sort one generally only throws at the truly ill—prednisone, Zpac, and so on.

Wednesday morning I woke up feeling not too hot. I’d had a cough for several days but, but I often have a cough in the winter. By the time I’d gotten to work and finished emptying the cash drawers, I felt much worse and went home to discover that I, too, had a fever. That was the first day of the virtual appointments the UIHC was offering, and I got one with ease and got to talk to a doctor at length. She told me I was “the muddiest case” she’d seen all day, but we decided flu A was the most likely and to throw some Tamiflu at it in case we’d caught it in time. It’s Monday now, and I’m still home with a fever that comes and goes.

In my waking hours, in addition to trying to keep my child entertained, I’ve done very little but follow library Twitter for news of library closings. When this crowd-sourced document of public library closures started, it had only 29 listed. It’s up to 772 now, as I just submitted my library, which just decided to close tomorrow earlier today. I also added the library in the town where I live, which closed Sunday, so who knows how many more there are that haven’t been reported. But there are about 35,000 public libraries total in the United States, so even this is just a fraction.

Tonight will be the last Monday night (or any night) my library is open to the public for the foreseeable future, and I’m sad not to be there. Monday have been my night at the library for seven years now. In those seven years there have been only a handful of times that I haven’t made the final announcement: “The time is 8:30 and the Coralville Public Library is now closed for the night. We will reopen tomorrow at 10:00 am. Thank you for your patronage, and have a good night.”

And she remembered to feed me, or why I love Warren

Series of photos white couple in academic regalia with a toddler.
My mom, my dad, and me at her English PhD graduation. Shortly thereafter, she started premed classes, because, she said, “I wanted to do something your father didn’t know anything about.”

I didn’t make any big endorsements this election cycle because I’m a 44 year old woman and I’m pretty sure nobody cares what I think, and I didn’get to caucus anyway, as I had to work, and I doubt it would have made a difference if I had: I correctly predicted the exact number of delegates from my precinct (4 Sanders, 4 Warren, 1 Buttigieg). But I have of course been thinking about it a lot.

Many months ago a friend of the family asked who I was backing, and I said Elizabeth Warren, in part because she is smart and thoughtful and hardworking and has sound ideas, but really also because she tells this story about how she had to potty train her daughter in five days in order to be able to go to law school, because the only daycare she could find required that children be potty trained, and, I said, that resonated with me, because it reminded me so much of what my mother had to do in order to go to medical school—she started when she was 32 and I was 3.5. Two years later my father died, and thus to continue she had to find not only childcare but overnight childcare, sometimes every fourth night for months running. And it made me think of what I’ve had to do (on a much smaller scale) to go on having a professional job a kid.
Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said, and I thought of course. I’d like to say I just thought that and that I didn’t yell at him about how he didn’t get what a privilege it was to be able to go to medical school and not have to do anything else, but of course I did, because I’m me.

I love Bernie Sanders and have for many years, and I love my dad, who, like Sanders, had ties to Vermont, though their similarities end there, at least politically. My mother once described my father as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and I’d be hard pressed to think of a thing he and Bernie would agree on. But like Sanders, my father was beloved by many people. Even now, 39 years after his death, I hear from his former students about what an impact he had on their lives, regardless of what they want on to do, from going back to work at their family business to winning a Nobel Prize. His tough-mindedness mixed with kindness, generosity, and ongoing support is legendary. Even though he notoriously believed men were intellectually superior to women, he encouraged one former student to keep her babysitter and finish her dissertation because, he said, she was the most brilliant student he’d ever had.

That generosity of spirit, however, did not extend to his own family, or at any rate it did not extend to my mother. Once, when asked to get me up, get me dressed, get me breakfast, and get me to preschool, he did—or rather he did except for the breakfast part, which he forgot, but that was my mother’s fault. If she hadn’t been pursuing this silly medical school thing, she would have been there to give me breakfast.

I love Bernie Sanders, but I often wonder if he ever had to find childcare, and how his life and his career might have been different if he had.

Sometimes, when Sanders and Warren supporters were fighting on the internet, I’d want to go hide in my room because it felt like Mom and Dad were fighting, and indeed, I can’t think of any more apt metaphor. My father dealt with big important things in life, and they were things I care about deeply. But my mom cared about those things too and remembered to feed me.

Aside from my family, the major influence on my political upbringing were the socialists I hung out with in high school, whom I met first through the anti-war movement against the “first” Gulf War. Identity politics were one of the things they railed against the most: you should never pick someone because they were like you. And to a large extent I agree with them. I didn’t caucus for Hillary Clinton in 2008 (in Wyoming, where she and Obama were the only candidates left) or in 2016 (when I was proud to be a Bernie person). I would be thrilled to get rid of my female governor and senator in favor of just about any Democrat. But I don’t think that means you can never be for a person because they also happen to be somewhat like you.

I’m glad I was mostly distracted by digital file formats (and, of course, my kid) last night, because when I did finally look at the news, it was like watching my mom get beat up over and over and over again.

I’m mindful that the majority of white women (although none I know) voted for Trump. I don’t think I’m the only—much less most important—demographic, operating as I do from a position of great socioeconomic and white privilege. But I do mourn the losses of the only politician I’ve ever heard talk about childcare in a way that suggested she had actually experienced the difficulties of childcare, and of the way that the lack of it keeps women out of the workforce and out of public life. I have lost track of how many times I have said, “I’m sorry I can’t come to your thing because I have my kid” in the past eight years, but it might be almost as many times as I’ve said “your books are good for three weeks; your DVDs are good for one.” If I am not with my kid, it is because I am paying someone or someone is doing me a favor. And that, more than anything, is why I was a Warren person, because I think she gets that. Maybe that’s selfish of me, but surely it’s no more selfish than the billionaires for Trump.

And now I have to stop this so I can do some work for my job before I pass out, and before my kid wakes me up at 4:30 am.

A Mom

A black and white cutout of a mother and child under a flowering tree

There’s a photograph that High Country News published when Charles Bowden died of Bowden talking to Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and the reason so many of us fell in love with the West, and Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!. There they are: three men of the West, champions of its wild spaces and untamed, unknown, untrammeled (in the lovely word from the Wilderness Act) places through their writing and their activism. Those three are in the foreground, named. But there are three other people in the picture, though you won’t see them unless you take a long glance down Abbey’s porch from the place where the three men are standing, a long glance all the way down to the end, where a woman sits on a porch swing with a baby in her lap and a toddler next to her in a stroller. The unnamed woman is Clarke Cartwright, Abbey’s fifth and final wife, and the baby and the toddler are their children, children who won’t grow up to know their father very well, for he is old already in this photo and doesn’t have many more years of his hard living life left to live. One Life at a Time, Please, one of his books is titled, but he tried to cram fifty into one.

The last time I was in Moab I saw Clarke Cartwright listed in the phone book, and when I saw the piece on Bowden and this photo, I almost looked her up and called to ask what she thought, but I didn’t, because I figure she must get nothing but phone calls about Abbey. I was surprised to see she was even in the phone book, but then everyone I have ever looked up in the phone book in Moab has been there, and I’ve never called any of them. It’s that kind of place.

A year or so later I tried to do an interview with a man who had written a book about searching for Abbey’s grave. I never did anything with it because I wasn’t happy with how it went. I asked why he hadn’t talked to any women, and he said (as I recall) that he’d talked to everyone he could find who would talk to him. That made sense and yet I was still pissed off, and I couldn’t figure out why, and because I couldn’t work out what I was angry about, I just shoved the interview transcript aside and never did anything more with it, and I started trying to write about the picture of Abbey and Bowden and Foreman and Clarke Cartwright instead.

* * *

The other day (or night—I don’t really sleep anymore) a local acquaintance posted to ask if anyone wanted to start a book club for working moms about advancing their careers. Right after that—or right before it—she posted yet another link to that book about why women my age can’t sleep, and I wanted to ask if this book club for working moms would be meeting at 3 am when we all can’ sleep because of fucking perimenopause, or whatever pop psychology reasons lie behind the idea that somehow women of my generation are the first in history to have trouble sleeping at night.

That same day a local friend said his Facebook was all Bernie and he wanted some other perspectives, and could anyone offer any? It was late at night, but I typed this up on my phone:

Okay, here’s the deal. I love Bernie. But some days I wonder if Bernie has ever had to find a babysitter. I often reflect on a time when I was having a meeting with you and another friend and I had to go to make daycare pickup and you guys both said “oh, we’d better go so our wives don’t get mad at us.” And I thought of what a different life that would be if I could be marginally irresponsible and the consequence would just be a spouse being mad at me versus my whole good standing in society.

That was just one day, and I don’t want to act like I think it’s every day of your lives. But I think it is every day in the lives of male politicians, and thus as much as I dislike identity politics, hearing Elizabeth Warren talk about having to potty train her daughter in five days so she could go to law school reminds me so much of what my mom had to do (find not just childcare but overnight childcare every fourth night for months running) to go to medical school. (And we are all of us privileged white women—and it’s still hard.)

I’ll still take Bernie over Klobuchar because I agree with him far more. But it’s not as enthusiastic a take as it was four years ago.

The result was exactly the sort of argument that makes me never want to write anything or post anything on the internet (even though I’ve been doing so publicly under my own name for twenty-one years), the sort of argument that makes me want to apologize to everyone, delete everything I’ve ever posted, and hide under my bed—or run away to Utah—until everyone has forgotten who I am or that I ever lived. But of course I can’t run away to Utah, because I am a mom.

I hate being a mom.

I hate that someone posted a “Valentine’s candy for moms” meme today and lots of people liked it and shared it, and all the candy hearts said things like “put your socks on.” I hate that I am for some reason part of a group called BAD MOMS where (get this) I was once called a bad mom. I hate Mothers Day, even when people nobly try to reclaim it for the anti-war movement (a lost cause if there ever was one), and I hate all the nouns acting as adjectives that have been applied to the word mom. Soccer mom. Helicopter mom. Tiger mom.

I want to be in the foreground in that picture, not the background. I want my name in the bold face type. I want to have (as an old Scott Carrier monologue put it) no interest in taking part in the market economy or the democratic process.

But I can’t. And I’m afraid even to type the whole sentence here that I had planned for fear of what readers may think of me and the choices I’ve made, but I will: But I can’t, because I’m a mom.

Why I’m (Still) Not Sorry I Voted For Nader

A beat up Nader for President 2000 sticker on a bike
The Nader 2000 campaign had bicycle stickers because of course they did.

This piece was first published as one of my “Girl Next Door” columns in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids ICON, 23 November 2000. While many things I’ve written in the past twenty years make me cringe, I stand by this one.

I was thirteen years old when I first heard the song “Masters of War,” penned by Bob Dylan and sung, in the rendition I found in our record cabinet, by a young, short-haired, blue-eye-shadowed Judy Collins. I had not, at this point in life, acquired the accoutrements of the “me against the world” mentality I was already starting to form, but even Judy’s rendition couldn’t hide the bite in the lines “How much do I know to talk out of turn?/You might say that I’m young, you might say I’m unlearned/But there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you. . . .” Ah yes–youth to itself rebels, and all that. But I’d like to suggest that there’s a little more to it than that.

Last week, Gary Sanders (for whom I have a great deal of respect) published a guest opinion in this paper accusing young Nader supporters (such as myself, I can only assume) of being True Believers. Sanders introduced the charge by acknowledging that he himself had once been a True Believer, hitchhiking to New Hampshire to volunteer for George McGovern. Nowadays, being older and wiser, or at any rate crankier, Sanders sees this as folly. As he sees it, working for McGovern eventually helped Richard Nixon, working for Nader just helped George W. Bush.

I’m not here to quibble with Sanders’s numbers or with his reasoning. Rather, I’d like to point out what I feel is a flaw in the idea that elections are solely about policy (as Sanders and Gore supporters would have it) or all about character (as the Republicans would like us to believe). At the risk of pissing off fellow activists, and to invert the old feminist saying, I’d like to suggest that, when it comes to campaigns, the political is the personal. Working on a campaign is not simply a way of getting a candidate elected to office; it is a way of making your own story. It’s a way of acting upon belief and a form of empowerment. If you get one person to change her vote because of you, youve accomplished something. And if you’re working on a major party campaign, that’s really all they want you to accomplish. Just get out the vote, and make sure they know how to mark the ballot.

But working on a campaign like Nader’s–or, I would imagine, McGovern’s–gives you a lot more than that. You know you aren’t going to win–not in the numerical sense, that is. But you might win in other ways. When I talk to people about Nader, or sweatshops, or why there shouldn’t be a new jail, I am doing so only partially in the hope that they will change their votes. What I am really hoping is that they will start to think differently.

If you think a little harder about why it is that the average CEO in the United States now makes 475 times as much as his lowest paid employee or why African-Americans make up 26% of Iowa’s prison population but only 2% of its overall population or why Steve Alford gets a $25,000 bonus if 70% of his team graduates in four years, I regard that as a victory.

Sanders may wish, in retrospect, that he hadn’t volunteered for McGovern because he think that it ended up helping Nixon win the election. But I wonder, would he really have wanted to miss the experience? I imagine that in a way it must have been pretty great–hitching a ride to New Hampshire, knocking on doors with groups of other kids, talking about things they believed in and about a man whom they felt stood for those things. I imagine that there are victories that come from that experience that are more important than where McGovern placed in the primary, victories that continue to fuel Sanders’s indefatigable work on local and national progressive causes and which make him proud to be a member of “the party not only of Al Gore, but of Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and Jesse Jackson.” Are those experiences which Sanders really wants to deny the next generation?

In 1994, when I was graduating from high school, what I mostly heard about people my age was that we were apathetic and uneducated. We mourned the death of Kurt Cobain, not JFK; we were unqualified to do anything but flip burgers and unmotivated to do anything else; we’d rather change the channel than rock the vote.

Now that the public has begun to take note of some of the things we do care about, largely because of the Nader campaign, we’re being characterized as hopelessly misguided idealists instead of hopelessly lazy cynics. Either way, though, we’re supposedly ruining the future of America.

Well, I never felt America had much of a future to be certain about, but I’ve been working for some kind of future since about a year after I first heard that Bob Dylan song, and for me, and many others, I suspect, the political continues to be personal. We work because it gives us not only a sense of political power but also one of personal authenticity. The movement gives back to you tenfold what you give to it. It gives you camaraderie, education, experience, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of hope. And there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you: I know that that hope is crucial.

Little Women

A brown haired girl dressed as Jo March.
Me in my Jo dress, age ten.

Yesterday Steve posted that he’d seen the new Little Women movie and liked it, and I wrote that I had too much to say to respond on my phone.

Reader, I hated it. I hated it so much I almost walked out, but I’ve never done that, even when I should have (I’m looking at you, The Godfather, and Empire of the Sun–both are, I understand, great movies, but I didn’t understand the former and I had a terrible, terrible cold with a runny nose and a total of three tissues during the latter). As mine is a minority report, I feel I owe you some explanation for my dislike, but indulge me while I report a bit on my Louisa May Alcott background first.

When I was in third grade and my friend in second, we decided in September to go as Little Women for Halloween. We both got the book from the library, and every night we’d call each other. “I’m on chapter five. What chapter are you on?” (It will surprise no one that I was a competitive reader as a child.) In one of the few times in my life that brown hair has really paid off, I got to be Jo. My friend fluctuated between Amy and Beth, and her mother found some teenaged girl to be Meg and escort us around.

I’ve since read Little Women many times. I’ve read most, though not all, of Alcott’s other books, including all her children’s books (my favorite is an Old-Fashioned Girl, though Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are also good–the Little Women sequels are dull, and Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs are nearly unbearable). I’ve read some of her blood and thunder stories (as she called them) and an unintentionally hilarious novel called Moods in which the heroine is deciding between marrying a character based on Emerson and a character based on Thoreau. She chooses the former and is miserable, but it’s clear that marrying the Thoreau guy would have been miserable, too. I have toured Orchard House, where she spent most of her life, first growing up and and later taking care of her parents, for the real-life Jo never married. Alcott spent most of her adult life supporting her family, including her parents, as her father was, well, misguided would be the kind way to put it.

I’ve also seen four the the five film adaptations of Little Women, missing only the miniseries.

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever her mother, my great-grandmother Hazel, saw her reading Alcott, she’d say, “I don’t know how you can stand all that moralizing.” It’s a good question. Moralizing is, on the whole, not what we call in librarianship an appeal factor for most people. I find it unbearable in other books, although in the 21st century, it rarely shows up in any genre outside Christian fiction. But for those of us who love Alcott, the moralizing is integral: it is part of the appeal. There is a scene early on in Little Women where Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, each bound in a different color of leather. Who would not want such a thing?

“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little nightcapped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do do me good, and help me through the day.

Modern film adaptations, knowing how poorly this sort of thing goes over, tend to replace the moralizing with political speeches. That’s not historically inaccurate–the Alcotts were abolitionists, and they hung out with a crowd that was fighting for the progressive and civil rights issues of its day. Thus in the 1995 adaptation with Winona Ryder, you get Marmee (as portrayed by Susan Sarandon, surely a political choice if there ever was one) discussing the evils of corsets, and in the current version, Laura Dern’s Marmee speechifies from time to time on the evils of slavery and the rights of women (and gets schooled briefly by a black woman in a scene I’m still trying to decide if I find token or not not). And Amy–in perhaps the most unbelievable scene in the movie–delivers a lecture on women and property.

I don’t think you could do a completely faithful film adaptation of Little Women that anyone would want to watch, and so my issue with the current version isn’t its diversions from the text. Nobody, but nobody, ever represents Professor Bhaer as he is in the book–much older and much more German, in what I suspect are horrifically stereotypical ways. The book has never done a good job of convincing anyone that Jo marrying him is a good idea, but, as my mother once said, Alcott doubtless had to make character she herself could imagine leaving her father for–in other words, someone as similar to him as she could imagine.

What bothers me about the new movie (you were wondering if I would ever get there, I know) is the lack of chronological order. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of chronology–while we are all forced to live that way, few of us think about our lives that way, drawn back ceaselessly into the past as we are. But Little Women is nothing so much as a coming-of-age story: when it starts, the girls are girls. By the end, they are little women. The effect of the flash backs and flash forwards is to rob many of the most poignant scenes of their poignancy and to rob us of our understanding of the shifting alliances among the sisters.

Would a viewer who had never read the book fully understand the drama of the pickled limes, as portrayed in the book, or the betrayal Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy over her? The advantage to chronological order is that you see growth over time: you age as the character does, whether over the course of seven Harry Potter novels, 500 pages of Little Women, or two hours of a film. To disrupt that growth deprives the viewer of the chance to watch a life unfold in real time.

Most people I know loved this Little Women, so clearly there’s much to be said in its favor. But I’ll let others do that, and let this minority report stand as is.