Thursday, March 31, 2005

Whole People

When we (me, SO, and Stepkid) were at Whole Paycheck awhile ago, Stepkid wanted to know why the store had "Whole People" signs--were some people not whole in some way? Could only people who were whole check out in that lane? (If so, I suspect the line would be shorter in that lane . . .) FloatFans know that the proprietor over there, kStyle, is studying to become a Zen Shiatsu practitioner--related, in some ways, but not in others, to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Both approaches have a "geography" of the body. (Today kStyle notes our preference for simple solutions, which is relevant to what follows.) One of my yoga teachers talks quite a bit about nadis--energy channels--prominent in yogic thought. I go to a gynecologist for a yearly exam, and a "regular" doctor if I'm sick with something more serious than a cold. Awhile ago I combined minor surgical intervention with TCM and acupuncture to treat a bothersome condition. (I don't regard only theTCM/acupuncture as "complementary": I think the treatment styles complemented each other.)

What's interesting to me about these methodologies is that each of them has a different paradigm of the body--what it is, how it works, how it gets out of whack, how to heal it when there's something wrong, how to keep it healthy, what counts as healthy. They probably overlap in important ways, and they probably even overlap in ways about which practitioners are unaware. What distinguishes some of them, however, is whether they consider the whole person--including his/her environment--or whether they focus on a particular area of the body and/or condition, as well as what they recommend as treatment. On one hand, when I saw a doctor for what I suspected was strep throat, I wanted and needed two things: confirmation that that's what it was (I was right) and a prescription for antibiotics to take care of it. There may be other ways to treat strep throat, but I'm not going to experiment. On the other hand, for conditions whose manifestations aren't as (apparently) life-threatening, the "healing" process may be a little different and may require different responsibilities on the patient's part.

In the strep case, my responsibility is to get my throat to a doctor and then take the medication that will get rid of the infection. But take the case of the ex-husband of a friend. I don't know what the ex's underlying pathologies are at this point, but the symptoms and conditions include alcoholism (even though he's occasionally been abstinent for years), and, likely, some abuse in his childhood. He's never done anything about any of this except to drink heavily and blame other people for his unhappiness. He's over 50, and 30+ years of this (self-)torture have taken a toll on him. He's moving into an apartment of some kind, with the help of my friend. I showed her this post before I put it up, to make sure she was okay with it, and she noted, "He's in a dreadful position. The living situation is "nice" enough, I guess, but you cannot imagine how terribly sad this is. It is very difficult to see this man with whom I spent 34 years of my life, left with essentially the clothes on his back and the 45 dollars I put in his pocket. No friends, no community, no phone, no nothing."

He's got some mental conditions, though no one is entirely sure what they are. He takes medication, usually, but, like many people with mental illnesses, when he starts feeling better he stops taking the meds (some people do this because side effects are unpleasant). He apparently has auditory hallucinations, at times. In short, he is--and, for a long time, has been--a candidate for the kind of deep, focused therapy that enables people to make sense of their lives and maybe move on. It may be too late for him by now. He avoided it all along, in part because that kind of therapy requires that the patient actually participate, by engaging with his/her own issues, goals, foibles, etc., and the ex has steadfastly refused to do exactly that. This all leads to the latest ludicrous situation. He told my friend that he needed to get a fan. Why, she asked. Because his doctor suggested that the noise of a fan would drown out the voices in his head.

I suppose that's one way to deal with it, but I think it comes uncomfortably close to sticking one's fingers in one's ears and chanting "la-la-la-la-la." Which is as close as one can come to a metaphor for his whole situation.

Not Forsaking All Others

Charlie brings up a topic that's dear to my non-monogamous little heart. I realized, when I was in my teens, that monogamy didn't make much sense to me--or, rather, FOR me. It's not that I haven't seen sterling examples of it, mind you: both sets of grandparents had solid marriages that lasted for more than 50 years, my parents will celebrate their 49th anniversary this year, and none of my aunts or uncles has gotten divorced. But it just didn't seem like it would make sense for me.

I had a couple of boyfriends in college (in succession, rather than simultaneously), and, while one of those relationships started out with monogamous intentions, both featured an assortment of other more-or-less casual lovers along the way. It was open and above-board, mind you--sneaking around didn't seem like an acceptable choice to me. There were some awkward moments--when a boyfriend met a lover, for example--and, really, I was young, so that's not a surprise. Then I didn't have a "boyfriend," per se, for 17 years. Lovers, yes, but noone with whom marriage was a possibility or likelihood.

When I met C (under circumstances that I will not detail here), and especially when our feelings for each other became clearer, we discussed monogamy. I said that I'd consider trying it, but wasn't sure how I'd feel about it--that, really, I didn't see the point, but would consider it if it was important to him. He thought about it for awhile, and thought maybe he wasn't that keen on it, either, but wondered how it would work--he challenged me to write down the principles, if you will. As best I remember, I came up with the following:
  • Honesty at all times. No lying.

  • No revenge-fucking, i.e., no having sex with someone else because I'm mad at you.

  • Tell only as much as the partner wants to hear.

  • The partner and the primary relationship comes first.
There may have been more, and there was more elaboration, I think, but that's the heart of it. He was a little uncertain, at first, but he also recognized that, deep down inside, he wasn't particularly monogamous, either. Entertainingly enough, I haven't had a lover other than him in about five years--and we've been together for six. I would, mind you, if one came across my path, but who has the time? Eh, I'll get around to it sooner or later. He's had a couple of excursions, and enjoyed them, and realized that I meant exactly what I said about it not bothering me in the least.

I know that this path isn't for everyone. I've also realized, however, that the biggest problem is when people don't know what their own paths are, or are afraid to take them, and then find themselves in the wrong place. As Charlie says, "Regardless of how it happens, being forced into a choice that isn't right for you is going to make you unhappy. Worst of all is to be forced into a choice merely due to ignorance of any alternatives. In the case of marriage, how many people have found themselves married for ten years or more only to belatedly realize they would've been happier with a different kind of relationship? "

So that's the theme of our show again today: Know thyself. And then act on that knowledge.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Really Frivolous

Here's an old one. I have less frivolous things to say, somewhere, but apparently not today.

If I were a month, I would be: July, or the dog days of August
If I were a day of the week, I would be: Tuesday
If I were a time of day, I would be: dawn
If I were a planet, I would be: Earth
If I were a sea animal, I would be: manatee
If I were a direction, I would be: south
If I were a piece of furniture, I would be: a really comfortable chair
If I were a sin, I would be: lust
If I were a liquid, I would be: iced tea
If I were a body of water, I would be: Delaware River
If I were a stone, I would be: pearl (not a stone, really)
If I were a tree, I would be: redwood
If I were a bird, I would be: hawk
If I were a flower/plant, I would be: mother-in-law's tongue
If I were a kind of weather, I would be: sleet
If I were a musical instrument, I would be: electric guitar
If I were an animal, I would be: orangutan
If I were a color, I would be: deep yellow
If I were an emotion, I would be: excitement
If I were a vegetable, I would be: butternut squash
If I were a sound, I would be: the sound of a city during the course of 24 hours
If I were an element, I would be: fire
If I were a car, I would be: a pick-up truck
If I were a song, I would be: “Red-Headed Woman”
If I were a movie, I would be directed by: John Sayles
If I were a book, I would be written by: Richard Russo
If I were a food, I would be: pasta
If I were a place, I would be: prairie
If I were a material, I would be: silk
If I were a taste, I would be: cinnamon
If I were a scent, I would be: a cross between opium and patchouli
If I were a word, I would be: truth
If I were an object, I would be: handmade pottery
If I were a body part, I would be: hand
If I were a facial expression, I would be: amused
If I were a subject in school, I would be: practical philosophy
If I were a dog, I would be: mutt
If I were a cat, I would be: tiger
If I were a number, I would be: 13

Monday, March 28, 2005

Not Quite a Princess

As we do all this wedding-related crap (and by "we" I mean "mostly me doing the advance work and then C joins in when the choices have been narrowed and it's decision-making time"), we obviously have to deal with a lot of different vendors, people, whatever. Last Monday we had dinner with the photographer, someone whom C has known for 20 years. Friday we did rings (two places; trying to decide between them) and invites (had to shitcan the first one we picked out, because one of the papers involved is somewhere between here and Belgium and there's no telling when it'll get here, but the replacement is even better [though C still liked the other one better] and, bonus, cheaper). Saturday we finalized the cake--tasted two new ones, one of which we picked (orange poppyseed cake with vanilla bean and multiple-fruit fillings), and talked to the decorator about the design. Yesterday we went to his mom's for Easter (about 1.5 hours away) with her and C's sister and husband; C's sister, K, has already become a Universal Life Minister, in preparation for officiating at the ceremony.

At some point in nearly every one of these interactions, the vendor w/ whom we're dealing says to me, "Well, it seems that you're not a princess-type." When this happened on Saturday, I was trying to convince the cake decorator that I really did want her to use the colors/shapes/lines suggested by Maxfield Parrish's work to create something original, and that I didn't have a cake in my head that I secretly wanted her to replicate. The people with me generally laugh in agreement quite heartily when they hear that, as do I. No, I am not a princess. Or Cinderella. And I'm trying very hard not to be Bridezilla, though, really, I don't have it in me. I have not been planning my wedding since I was 10 years old, for one thing--I'd always thought there was a good chance that I wasn't ever getting married. I'm not 25. This is not going to be The Most Important Day Of My Life. I've never been very princessy. Okay, not princessy at all, if you want to know.

So there are two things. First, it's interesting to me how quickly the people w/ whom I'm dealing pick up on this. I do my best to be clear with them that I'm not a princess, not even secretly-inside, but they probably hear protestations like that often enough such that they have to figure out which ones are real and which are not. The look that slowly dawns on their faces is one of relief, followed, in some cases, at least, by excitement. Take the cake decorator, for example. I kept telling her, clearly, here are some ideas, and I can answer additional questions that will help you figure this out, but, really, this is YOUR area of expertise, and I'd love to see what you can do. And then they start to get into it, because we're not coming in and saying "it has to be exactly the way I've always dreamed it would be." Second, though, it makes me wonder just what these people deal with on a daily basis. And I shudder to think, because, really, that could be me dealing with the princess brides someday, given this pastry chef thing, and I so do not have the patience for it. I'll have to stop myself from telling people just how tacky and overdone their fantasies really are, and no one wants to hear that, I'm sure. It will be an adventure.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Class, Part IX: Facts and Teddy Bears

I said below that I have two major complaints: That entertainment now "serves not as entertainment for its own sake, or as a mechanism to provoke thought or feeling, or even as decoration; it serves as a means to distract us from more urgent issues," which is my first complaint, and, second, that entertainment serves as a profit center for the companies who produce the entertainment. Thanks to a post by Ann, I've added a third major complaint, that the relentless commodification of every event, every emotion, generally through entertainment media, has further distanced us from the reality-based world Let me detail these complaints separately.

The first complaint is that the press is neglecting to provide us with facts that are relevant to our participation in the political, economic, and social spheres of our lives. Both Avedon Carol and Fred at slacktivist have laid it out quite well; go read those pieces first.

It's true that facts always can be--indeed, are--interpreted: opinion and analysis pieces, for example, as well as extensive news stories, can provide a list of relevant facts and then offer an interpretative framework for them. That's the very essence of reasoned argument that is vital to an open society. I make a an argument, based on a set of facts. Someone else should be able to check the facts on which the argument is based, assess whether the claim based on those facts is a reasonable interpretation, and assess whether I have included all relevant facts in my analysis. That no longer takes place, insofar as much reporting simply tells you what's been said, not whether what's been said is (a) an accurate accounting of the facts of a matter or (b) a reasonable interpretation or analysis. Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show got it right--I can't find the link, but will add it if someone else has it--in the piece where he said that, as a journalist, his job isn't to sift through the evidence and present facts, his job is just to present what each side claims is true.

The right-wing Wurlitzer learned that they can simply pump up the volume on whatever talking points they choose, disperse the message through a variety of right-wing front groups masquerading as research or policy organizations, and fill the airwaves with the spin they want. Simultaneously, the Wurlitzer denigrates fact-finding as "partisan," or as "just their opinion," particularly when the facts challenge the view of the world the Wurlitzer presents. And, as David Neiwert documents, the Wurlitzer has little competition out in the more rural areas of the country--it's all Rush, all the time. They can simply make shit up. If they are called on it, if an actual fact threatens the world view, it's ignored or spun further.

Compare three cases, in two of which The People have a lot of facts about or experienced with a situation already and one case where they depend upon the news media to gather and report facts. The first example is Social Security. Nearly everyone has experience with Social Security. (I think that Josh Marshall may have made this argument, too, and his extensive coverage of the issue is well worth reading.) They get it or they know someone who does, either because of age or disability. That is, people already have a fair number of facts in hand about the institution. The administration's plan, such as it is, (a) won't fix what they say is wrong, (b) will add trillions to the federal deficit to cover the costs, (c) is likely to reduce future benefits, and (d) is likely to result in the end of real Social Security. There's more, but those are the highlights. The administration has been trying to sell the plan, and they've operated under the assumption that their spinning and lying will work as it usually does, that is, people will believe the administration's presentation of the world. Except, in this case, people have an awful lot of experience that runs directly counter to that presentation. Is it any wonder, then, that the more people find out about the plan the less they support it? (I'm particularly amused by the contention that the "Democrats haven't offered a plan." Umm, yes, they have: it's called Social Security, and it works pretty well.)

A second example is the political grandstanding over Terri Schiavo. Most people have been involved in an end-of-life decision for someone close and/or have thought about their own wishes in this regard (inquiries about living wills are apparently way up). Though you'd be hard-pressed to find it in the news stories about this, Digby, citing several other sources, points out that a strong majority of people would choose to remove the feeding tube, were they Ms. Schaivo's guardian, and an even larger majority would want that tube removed were they in her situation. Most news coverage that I've seen--though I've been avoiding it--does not mention this. Again, people have a fair amount of first-hand information at hand, and their opinions provide a stark contrast to the politician-generated spin.

Contrast these examples with the invasion of Iraq. We were told, repeatedly, at great volume, by many people in or supportive of the administration, that there was an imminent threat to our safety and security from the many WMDs that Iraq had stockpiled, that the war would be self-supporting, with oil revenues, and that there was a link between Iraq and September 11. These claims turn out to have been a total fabrication, albeit often carefully phrased. But we had to depend on other people for facts about the situation. Public opinion was mixed and volatile, but, I suspect, would have been much less so if people knew then what they know now. That is, if people had known that there were no WMDs, that the cost of the war would be astronomical, in terms of dollars and human lives and world opinion, and that Iraq had nothing to do with September 11, I suspect the situation would have been analogous to the Social Security debate. The first and third facts were available at the time, and the second fact could have been (and was) surmised. But people did not get those facts, they were presented an argument that implied or said the opposite, and they did not have sufficient direct, personal experience to counter the lies being spread from every corner of the land.

The short version of this first point, then, is that the idle distractions and opinion-mongering that have replaced actual reporting of real facts aren't merely idle distractions: they are in place of the reporting of facts that we need to be an informed society. We cannot properly make decisions, we cannot properly participate in government of the people, by the people, and for the people if we are fed people shouting at each other and contests of people eating worms rather than information about what's at stake in our actions in the world. "But people WANT to watch worm-eating!" you cry; the companies are merely Giving People What They Want!

And that leads to the second point. Media companies are giving people what it is cheap and expedient to give people, and what will not piss off the people in power. They have become less concerned with news, per se, and more concerned with profit, and, therefore, with entertainment. Reporting facts requires that you hire smart, tenacious people and that you look for and report the facts of the matter, even if those facts are inconvenient for the powers that be. But news organizations have cut their news budgets over the past two decades. If I were truly a conspiracy theorist, or if I were a co-conspirator, worm-eating and bathos are precisely what I would supply instead of facts. Worm-eating is cheap, and opinons are like assholes--everybody's got one, making it relatively cheap to gather them. Gathering facts, interpreting them carefully, and reporting on them is not. Plus, you never know where facts will lead--you might piss off someone whose favor or vote you need. Yes, I know, media companies are in business to Make Money, not to serve the Public Good. Who, then will serve the public good? (And, yes, I know that we have varied ideas about what the public good is or can be or should be, but shouldn't that be part of the debate? Surely the public good includes something other than eating worms?) Frankly, the abundance of worm-eating and the lack of reporting is as good an argument against unfettered capitalism as you're likely to find.

As for my third complaint, Ann notes:
Something that has never ceased to amaze me: the way so many people know how to say just the right thing. Not necessarily what they're actually feeling or thinking, but what we've all learned to say from a culture in which therapy and confrontation are completely ordinary.

. . . When an opportunity arises, we must be prepared for it--"TV-ready," so to speak. So we learn how to most inoffensively offer our opinions; we learn the proper words with which to express grief or horror; we learn how to sound as if we're compassionate; we learn to admit to bad behavior even if we have no intentions of changing it, because it sounds good to confess.

Example: Minutes ago, I inadvertently overheard a coworker saying something along the lines of, "I'm sorry for acting that way. I know I have problems in social situations; it has to do with my fear of not being accepted." Once upon a time, that would have been considered an honest, if startling, confession. Now it's just a new way of shifting the blame.

Example: When my middle school burned down, a couple of my classmates were on TV. I remember one girl in particular was sobbing and talking about how horrible an experience it was, how scared she'd been. And I remember thinking, Aw, she just wants attention; she wasn't scared or sad or anything. But it was an effective and, to any stranger watching the news, appropriate response to...well, to the stereotype of the situation. School burns down; kids are upset.

Example: The Ashlee Simpson Show, several episodes of which I caught a couple months ago. For a while I was convinced she was a robot, or at least brainwashed to say all the right things at all the right times. I should've kept track of the number of times she said something like, "I feel this is a turning point in my career" and "I feel my career is really picking up." She was always super-excited about meeting people; she was bummed out when she broke up with her boyfriend, but understood that they were in different places and needed some time apart; she understood the ballet students were angry when she interrupted their class, but she only came to this realization after the interruption. Again, it's a way of absolving herself of blame for the way she acted, even though one would imagine that such insight would be more valuable before one does something stupid.

The problem isn't necessarily that we've learned the proper responses; it's that we use them as substitutes for real responses. You can't say you don't feel anything--not if you want others to sympathize or commiserate with you. In my class, one woman talked about seeing da Vinci's Mona Lisa for the first time. She was an intelligent, thoughtful person; she knew that standing in front of the Mona Lisa is A Big Deal, something to be Moved by, possibly even a Live-Changing Experience. Exciting. Awe-Inspiring. The problem was, she looked and looked and felt...Nothing. Apathy. Emptiness.

What do you do with that realization--especially when you can't muster the energy to feel bad about feeling nothing? Well, you pretend that you do feel something, and you pretend to feel something acceptable, because, again, it's the best way to get people to like you.
The relentless commodification of emotion results in piles of teddy bears and rotting bouquets of flowers at the scene of any well-publicized tragedy, particularly a death, particularly if the person(s) who died was young (or a British princess). Strangers leave tokens, and at least appear to be genuinely touched by the death, but what real meaning can it possibly have? Oh, wait: It Reminds Us All How Fragile Life Really Is.

Another part of this scene, of course, is the grieving family, a representative of whom must appear on television or at a news conference. When, in Lord of the Rings, Theoden says that no parent should have to bury his child, it is a moving moment, in some ways precisely because it is a theatrical presentation. That is, art--no matter whether it is popular culture, or opera, or whatever--is at its best when it provides us with an opportunity to think about what is important in our own lives, when it tells a compelling story, or even when it decorates our world or entertains us. The moment with Theoden is evocative, and it makes the story more honest because it reflects or portrays a truth about the world.

By contrast, when some poor parent or aunt or uncle appears on the news to talk about the murdered child in the family, I cringe. That is grotesque and intrusive, and I feel nothing but sympathy for them; no one should have to have their grief broadcast for the world to see. (And yet, I think some people have come to accept that as a part of the grieving process--their grief isn't real unless it's on television.) The worst part, however, is that if there is any contention at all--a custody battle, for example, or a particularly well-publicized murder--it forces the parties to a very private grief to reconceptualize and re-present their case in media-friendly terms. Facts become secondary to presentation. Real, messy, complicated emotion must be pared down to fit the maw of the entertainment-hungry media.

Those of us who are educated (either by schooling or autodidactically), and, especially, those of us who are liminal, are familiar with this in some ways, because we have the experience of learning a whole new language of behavior. What one can or should say in a working-class bar on a Friday night differs mightily from what one can or should say at the opera intermission. If you've had the experience of both situations (and I have), then you begin to realize how stark the differences can be, as well as the commonalities. The people at the opera and the people at the bar all laugh, cry, eat, shit, breathe; we have parents, spouses, kids, lovers; we work and sleep and socialize. And, as Joan Didion noted, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We construct narratives that explain the facts of our lives.

Where do we learn how to do this? Or, more to the point of this post, what are the public examples available to us in constructing our own narratives? What can we mention and what must we leave out? And here's where class comes into it: What tools do we bring to bear, either to the situations in which we find ourselves or in the narratives we construct about those situations? Who are the critics and judges of the narratives we construct? And what happens when we learn all of this from people who want our money or our votes?

The focus on presentation rather than facts--this elimination of the necessity of facts--and the simultaneous commodification of all emotion do us all a disservice, but it is particularly harmful to people who do not have the resources available to recognize the disconnect. If we are sufficiently wealthy or delusional, we can dissociate ourselves from the reality-based community entirely. Alternatively, we can sit in front of our computers, with our high-speed connections, and zip all over the web, as Avedon Carol says, finding the facts that are left out of other presentations. But if neither of those options is available to us, if we don't know what options other than what we've always known exist, then we are beholden to what is presented to us. When the delusion is calculated, when it is part of an effort to grab political power and resources and capital, when it creates even larger gaps between the haves and the have-nots, then it is no longer merely a matter of entertainment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

As usual

Susie says it eloquently.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Class, Part VIII: Don't mention it!

I don't watch much television (except Law and Order--yes, I know, it's a sickness), I subscribe to two magazines(The Sporting News and Food Porn Bimonthly, more commonly known as Cook's Illustrated), and I skip a lot of the bestsellers, especially the ones that have a reputation for being poorly written, though I read a lot of books. I also read the NY Times, and a lot of lefty weblogs (witness my first lame attempt at a blogroll), but not Time or Newsweek. I hate shopping malls and couldn't tell you the last time I went to one. I don't watch any of the reality shows. I don't watch the news. I don't know what sitcoms are on, and I don't watch any of them. (And, really, when have any of the standard shows, other than the early years of Roseanne, ever talked about class?) But I also don't go to the opera, the symphony, or the theater. I rarely get to the movies (though I used to be better about that), and we probably don't rent more than three or four a year. I go to baseball games, sometimes, and I like watching sports, in general, because, unlike most other things put on view, you really don't know how it's going to turn out. In other words, my interaction with many of the main vectors of any aspect of our culture is pretty limited.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, the short answer is that, especially in a large society, some sorting mechanisms are useful. How do we know whether someone is Like Us? We look at what they wear, we listen to what they say, we find out how much education they have, we find out what (or whether) they read, we find out what kind of entertainment they like and where they go for vacations and where they go out to dinner. Our own choices and experiences are on display, as well. These choices are mediated by and through the media of and the culture(s) in which the interactions occur. We're often trying to figure out who's a threat, who's a friend, who's an enemy, out with whom we want to hang. The more you are like me (with a broad notion of what "like me" can mean), the more I will assume you share with me, in terms of attitudes, beliefs, income, etc.

Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, is one of the foremost commentators on social and political life. She notes that good manners (and modesty), however defined by the culture around one, are available to everyone, regardless of income. As Miss Manners notes, even though it's how we treat others that is relevant, rather than how much money is available to us, we present ourselves in a variety of arenas, and the requirements for fitting into those arenas may vary wildly. Those of us who were/are geeks, for example, have had the delightful experience of knowing that we were regarded as geeks by the Popular Kids and treated accordingly. We recognized that the alpha social groups, like all groups, required specific behaviors and dress, and we also recognized that merely aping the behaviors and adopting the dress would not be sufficient to get us admitted to the group (were we to want that)--it was more likely to bring unpleasant attention than anything else.

High school notwithstanding, we adopt the dress and mannerisms of the people we want to accept us as one of their own, and in a large, amorphous, mobile society--and one without a hereditary aristocracy--such as ours, there's a certain amount of freedom and latitude with regard to those signifiers, even as there may be very strict requirements in particular subgroups. I could wear one of my suits, for example, and fit in reasonably well wherever a suit would be appropriate attire, although people who expect the very most up-to-date style or a particular designer would be disappointed, as would someone who expected spike heels. At the same time, I would not try to pull off gang colors, or high fashion, or sweatshirts with calico cats appliqued on them; I don't know those languages, and I would likely look ridiculous, both to the people who usually wear those items and to the people with whom I'm more closely aligned, appearance-wise. Trivial though these examples are in some ways, you can probably see that it's at least theoretically possible to fit in, unless the social group to which you aspire requires expenditures you cannot afford or unless you have difficulty determining to which things you must pay attention (I'm thinking here of people with autism-spectrum disorders, who have difficulty identifying aspects of social situations and interactions). If you don't like the things your desired group does or wears you have a different problem.

For people who are not liminal, there are few decisions involved: they do what they have always done, and what their families and friends and the people with whom they grew up do. For those of us who have taken advantage of some of that mobility, we have a different task--we have to figure out which things we absolutely must or must not do in order to fit into the stratum we have chosen, and we generally try to develop at least a little personal style within what we understand those boundaries to be. That's not terribly difficult, of course, for someone who's reasonably observant and who has some idea regarding the things about which s/he must be observant.

At least in my case, though, my liminality has made me raise an eyebrow toward both "popular" and "high" culture. It's not that I disdain all popular culture, mind you (the Law and Order confession should serve as evidence of that)--it's not that I think that I'm above it all. And it's not that I disdain high culture, for that matter, even though I think some people think that your love of the opera is evidence of your refined sensibilitie; one could as easily argue that it's evidence of the amount of money you have to spend or the kinds of music to which you listened as a child. So, in the case of both popular and high culture, what I am, mostly, is suspicious of it, in the sense of wondering who's profiting from its promulgation.

Much of the popular culture out there seems kind of pointless at best, and vulgar or stupid at worst, and much high culture seems to be valued for the evidence it provides of your taste rather than for any intrinsic worth. I probably sound like a right-wing culture warrior in that regard, but the difference is that I don't see it as my job to monitor other people's viewing, listening, and dressing options and choices, even if their choices bore or annoy or offend me.

I'm distressed not by the pointlessness, vulgarity, or stupidity, per se, at least not most of the time. I am distressed that these cultural enterprises are being bought and sold and presented as though they were the only or most important information about the world around us, and I'm distressed at the concomitant lack of attention to the facts of many matters. (The longer version of this rant is in the works.) That is, entertainment serves not as entertainment for its own sake, or as a mechanism to provoke thought or feeling, or even as decoration; it serves as a means to distract us from more urgent issues, and it serves as a profit center for the companies who produce the entertainment.

And, really, the stuff that is being sold, commodified, around us is our lives. The most depressing thing I've seen recently in this category is a book providing advice on how to have a "unique" wedding. Okay, look, if it's a BOOK already, that means that thousands of people will read exactly the same advice, and, if they all take that advice, none of them will be the least bit unique. It's like that scene in Life of Brian:
BRIAN: Good morning.
FOLLOWERS: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!...
BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I've got one or two things to say.
FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.
BRIAN: Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we're all individuals!
BRIAN: You're all different!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
DENNIS: I'm not.
ARTHUR: Shhhh.
FOLLOWERS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.
BRIAN: You've all got to work it out for yourselves!
FOLLOWERS: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!
BRIAN: Exactly!
FOLLOWERS: Tell us more!
BRIAN: No! That's the point! Don't let anyone tell you what to do! Otherwise-- Ow! No!
MANDY: Come on, Brian. That's enough. That's enough.
FOLLOWERS: Oooooh. That wasn't a minute!
So, really, the conundrum is that, on one hand, we want some kind of shorthand, some way of sorting people, and, arguably, some agreement on an assortment of dimensions of sorting. This isn't even necessarily a bad thing, although it certainly can be (e.g., when people who are hiring employees think of "someone who is like me" in terms of skin color or religion or genitalia, for example). On the other hand, restricting yourself to people who think and look and dress exactly like you is boring, tedious, and likely to lead to literal and figurative inbreeding of all sorts.

How, then, do we choose the principles by which we sort people? We'd like to claim that it's a meritocracy, that we have correctly identified the requirements for a given task, and we evaluate all candidates fairly in terms of their relative abilities to meet those requirements. We also know that's really not true, and probably cannot be true. We don't always have a full understanding of the requirements, for example, or we may discover that some sorts of tasks can be performed in a multitude of ways. So we use sorting hats, albeit ones that are less efficient and more prone to error than the one at Hogwarts, and the liminal among us recognize that those sorting mechanisms are particularly poor at identifying the people who are good at interstitial work.

In my own life, for example, I've recognized that one of my talents is a certain kind of facilitation. In many circumstances, I can be quite good at listening, at rephrasing, at eliciting or putting forth the general form of a statement, in ways that help the assembled group complete its tasks. I enjoy this work, too, and I've come to recognize that it's quite valuable--it enables people to understand each other and to move on, and, at its best, it elicits formulations, strategies, solutions, or problem definitions that would not have emerged in a non-group or non-facilitated setting. I think that my skills in this regard are a direct result of my background, of the liminality to which I've been referring over these many posts. In order to move from one class to another, you learn to pay attention to a lot of subtle cues, and it's that very ability to pay attention that makes a good facilitator. (The other two necessary qualities are being articulate and being able to submerge one's own ego and ideas--one must run the meeting without dominating it.) It's also the case, however, that these skills are severely undervalued in most arenas. (Consulting firms may value this highly; I don't really know. If they do, I'd love to know how they assess it.)

It's this very facility, however, this liminality, that also causes my jaundiced eye. We cling to the familiar and the comfortable (even those of us who have moved away from or reinvented our initial comfort spheres), but we want to defend it on rational terms rather than on comfort terms. On a societal level, though, the effort to find the least common denominator, to find the version of events or people or comedy that feels most comfortable and familiar, merely serves to reinforce the biases that are already in place. But you knew that already.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Class, Part VII: Hands, Brains, and Working Therewith

I realized, as I reread the Bruce post, that I've blurred an important distinction about types of work and class. "Working class" used to mean:
  • people who worked with their hands--men (typically) who were plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, etc.
  • people who worked in factories
  • people who worked in jobs that did not require a lot of formal education, e.g., secretaries

"Workers" were distinguished and distinguishable from "professionals," supposedly, and, needless to say, the latter was regarded as preferable in a number of ways, at least by professionals. (I wrote several hundred pages about how public school teachers and their bosses fought about whether teachers were "workers" or "professionals." This became an especially important argument when teachers wanted to unionize and thereby get a decent living wage and better working conditions. School boards and school administrators and business associations tried to argue that unionization was inappropriate for "professionals.") (Assume the quotation marks around worker and professional from here on out, okay?)

You probably already see that this is a complicated arena. Some kinds of workers make as much or more money than some kinds of professionals--a good auto mechanic is going to make a lot more than a file clerk, and probably more than a lot of secretaries, and probably more than a fair number of college professors. Many workers solve difficult problems on a regular basis, and have more autonomy and independence in their work than many professionals. The amount of drudgery in a job perhaps factors in, as does how much sucking-up is required. To how many people are you subordinate? As Charlie noted in comments below, there's a difference between "clients" and "customers," and what's required to deal with either.

Then there's the whole question of what it is you're doing when you work. Are you making? Fixing? Writing? Parenting? Negotiating? Selling? Teaching? Serving? Building? Or does your work have no obvious end, as it does not if you are, for example, a dishwasher or a clerk? (There are always more dirty dishes and more people lining up at the cash register.) And here is where some more stories would be helpful, I think.

I like to make things, and most people in my family do. My brother is replacing the addition on his house, and has done a substantial amount of the work himself. My father made ductwork (among other things). My maternal grandmother was a dressmaker--she could describe clothes that she and her sister had made 40 years before. My mother also made clothes, and knit, and she's a good cook. I know how to do a lot of fancy needlework, and I particularly like to design and execute needlepoint. (If I ever figure out how to post pictures, and get a digital camera, I'll post some of my work.) I love to cook and bake. Even the writing I've done--for work, for school, for pleasure--falls into that mode for me; I'm giving voice to something, creating something with words.

And that, really, is what I find so soul-killing about drudgery, about work that involves, for example, cleaning up the ladies' shoe department at Wal-Mart after the customers have gone home. Factory work can certainly fall into this category, though it doesn't necessarily, as does just about any "customer service" position where the powers that be (and that sign your paycheck) are more concerned with shareholder profits than with true customer satisfaction. Some might argue that lawyers trying to make partner, for example, are similarly immersed in drudgery, and they probably are, but they're getting well-compensated for it.

All of this is to say, I think, that we have certain expectations about the satisfactions we can or should be able to get from the work that we do--that we'll enjoy something about the work, that there will be a market for our services, that the work will engage us in some way, that we will be compensated fairly. For some people, presumably, the perceived societal status of the work is relevant. At the same time, the arena in which these expectations get played out is much less simple than a worker/professional (or working class/middle class) interpretive schema suggests.

Apparently, I Cannot Have Everything

I like the new comment feature on Blogger--but if I use that, then I apparently lose all of the comments that now exist. Haloscan's comments blow, however. Anybody know how I can (a) have the Blogger comment feature (b) without losing the comments people have already left and (c) also having trackback? (I did figure out how to leave the Haloscan trackback code and lose the comment code, but I apparently also lose the comments.)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Let's Talk about Feminism!

That's always good for a laugh.

Or, it is when Amanda takes a crack at it, anyway.

How I Am Like Bruce Springsteen (and maybe you are, too)

I like Bruce. Okay, that's probably an understatement: I've been listening to his music since 1973 (I grew up in New Jersey), I've seen him in concert approximately 25 times, I have most of what he's ever released (I don't have the two "greatest-hits" collections), I have a half-dozen bootleg concerts on my iPod, and I'm looking forward to the new release next month. I do not follow him around the country, I've never met him, and I don't spend time talking about him, e.g., on message boards or the like. And he fits into this discussion in a couple of interesting ways.

He released two albums in 1973, which got him lots of attention in the New Jersey/Philadelphia area. (He played a zillion concerts at the now-defunct Main Point in Bryn Mawr. He'd drive to Philadelphia, sleep in his car, then wander into a local radio station where the DJ, Ed Schiacky, was a huge fan, and hang out there. WMMR in Philadelphia used to have a station ID that Springsteen recorded, a take-off on "Growin' Up" from his first album.) The third release, Born to Run in 1975, catapulted him to the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week but also turned a lot of people off because of the major publicity. He then dropped out of sight for three years, because he was fighting to regain control of his work. The first contract he signed--when he was young and unwise in these matters--basically gave his manager the rights to Springsteen's music, and Bruce wanted it back. He released Darkness on the Edge of Town (still one of my favorites) in 1978 and The River in 1980, and began to win over fans in places other than Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston. He released a solo album, Nebraska, in 1982, probably to the dismay of the various business types at the record company. Born in the USA, released in 1984, really made him world-famous in that stratospheric way that few people manage, but about half of it was written at the same time as Nebraska. The first three releases were about cars and girls and taking chances and playing music and having a good time. The second four releases broadened that vision a bit (though cars and girls were still prevalent) to include stories of people whose chances didn't work out so well; this was especially true of USA and Nebraska. There was an increasing awareness of some of the class issues, specifically the working-class issues, about which I've been writing (though I don't write as lyrically or have the E Street Band to back me up). This was, in part, because of his association with Jon Landau (who wrote "I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen"), who became both his manager and his mentor--his college education, really.

That early work still resonates with me. He told stories about people I knew. (Not really, of course, but I certainly knew people like them.) He understood what it was like to have a parent who worked in a factory or what it was like to feel like you'd been forced into a bad choice. He understood how working-class people have limited resources, and what the limitations on those resources meant, not just for an individual, but for a family and for a community. Not many other people have written songs like that and have had such a large audience, except maybe Woody Guthrie.

In any case, after the world-wide fame that came with USA, there was a middle period where Springsteen basically had to take a step back. He could no longer write about the old subjects, at least not with the same point of view, because, really, he was now a very rich man. Tunnel of Love has some good work on it, but most fans regard most of Human Touch and Lucky Town as forgettable--Backstreets, a long-time Springsteen zine, once ran a contest asking readers to come up with a single CD's worth of music from the those two releases, and called the result "Lucky Touch." Only the most die-hard among us listen(ed) to The Ghost of Tom Joad, and even Springsteen noted that only an artist of his stature (read: income) could afford to put out a release like that. He reunited with the band, played lots of the old hits, etc., but nothing new seemed to be coming along any time soon. After, and as a result of, September 11, though, came The Rising, which I regard as uneven in some ways, but which, along with the reunion tour of 1999-2000, returned him to the spotlight in a big way for the first time since the mid-1980s. In the intervening 15 years, he'd become a rich man, and a father, and divorced and remarried.

And, in some ways, he returned to old themes, albeit from a different perspective. That is, he no longer tells working-class stories as someone who is working-class himself. He can't, no matter his roots, no matter his father's work in a factory, no matter the stories he used to tell of his childhood. What he can do, though, because of his current position, is tell those stories and get them heard in a way that the people who live those stories cannot, and part of the reason he can do that is because he once lived the stories himself. And that, it seems to me, is the position that people like me, and Bitch, and Charlie, and maybe others of you find ourselves.

We're no longer working-class, in any strict meaning of that phrase. We have too much education, we have too much of certain kinds of experience, we sometimes have too much income, we read the wrong things and see the wrong movies and live in the wrong neighborhoods for that. (Yes, I realize there are exceptions to every last thing I listed there, but I hope you get my point.) But neither are we wholly of the middle or professional classes, strictly speaking. We are related to people who work with their hands for a living, or who don't have college degrees or "professional" jobs. This is not to lionize either class, mind you; as noted in a comment over at green gabbro, being an asshole is an option open to everyone, regardless of class. (Wolfangel had some commentary, too, on this subject.)

My point is that those of us who have some working (or poorer) class in our backgrounds but who are no longer really a part of that class have some duty to remind the comfortable classes that not everyone has a car, or health insurarnce, or food for every meal, or safe shelter. We've been there, we've lived there, and, just because we don't live there any longer doesn't mean that no one does. If so many of our politicians weren't so set on destroying every last shred of whatever safety nets exist, this would be a much less necessary and urgent task, of course, but as the gifts to the credit card companies and pharmaceutical companies and oil companies show, working people of whatever class are not the first priority of the men and women who are supposed to be representing us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Class, Part VI: This is not my beautiful house.

In a couple of previous posts, I've alluded to "passing," which could probably use some illumination. One of the great games in our supposedly classless society is figuring out someone's background without asking him/her directly. I suspect that people with backgrounds like mine are much more likely to play this game, because we have crossed over in some ways, we ARE liminal, insofar as we have one foot in our class of origin and one foot in the elite classes (and keeping in mind that, relative to a lot of the rest of the world and the rest of the country we are completely elite, no matter our class of origin). People with both feet in a single class have a different perspective than does someone who has crossed a boundary or border in some way. I don't pretend to understand the gradations among the truly elite, mind you--the people whose families have been rich for a couple of generations now--because that's so far beyond my experience I wouldn't know where to begin. I also have no experience among the big-city elites--the people who have buildings named after their grandparents, or the people whose comings and goings make it into a newspaper, for example, or the people who live in the truly rich sections of a city. And I don't mean "celebrities," who are a different entity entirely.

So I want to get to the question I posed at the end of the last post. That is: what counts as success? For the liminal among us, and, really, maybe for everyone, we've had to come up with our own definitions, because the definitions that worked for our families probably don't work so well in our current situations. At the same time, the definitions up with which we have come have certainly been shaped by our families, for better or worse, as well as by the surrounding cultures in which we have been embedded and schooled.

There are several possible categories for a definition of success: The things one owns or can buy. The status, among people whose opinion matters to one, of the position one holds. One's ability to provide for oneself and/or for others. Accomplishments (degrees or titles, for example). And, really, we probably use multiple categories in evaluating our own or others' successes (or failures, I suppose).

I've been struggling to write this particular post, though, and I think it's because, on many levels, most of this doesn't mean much to me. Do I like some of my stuff? coughcoughiPodcoughcough Well, yes. Do I think I'm a success because I have it? Well, no, not really. Do other people judge my success on the basis of such things? Some do, I imagine, but not my friends. On the other hand, to someone who's trying to figure out how to cobble together money to fix the car to get to some really crappy job, I and my iPod look pretty damned successful, and I understand that, and it would be insulting to say to someone in that situation, "Hey, but I'm really working-class at heart! And I've had crappy jobs!" How fucking condescending could I possibly be? As Bruce (Springsteen; I'll get to him eventually, too) put it, a "rich man in a poor man's shirt."

I also remember when I was a lot more broke than I am now (despite the not-getting-paid thing that's STILL going on): I had two or three luxuries that I allowed myself (decent parmesan cheese, decent coffee, and decent soap & shampoo) that helped me convince myself that I wasn't really in that bad shape after all. They were small luxuries that made the rest of it bearable. I imagine everyone, no matter his or her income level, has some version of that. But did (or does) my life revolve around more luxuries, now that I can afford them? Um, no, not really.

Christ; I just about deleted that paragraph, too. I'm not getting anywhere with this, so if someone out there can throw in $.02 that might help, I'd be happy to try to go on from there.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Class, Part V: Where does that highway go?

Charle raises a good point in the comments below about how customers' comments at his Radio Shack job made him feel:
Besides being yet another lesson in the difference between customers and clients, it was interesting to find that I would sit there and think, to myself silently, don't look at me like that! I wondered if I hadn't had my "real" job (as I called it), would I have started to buy into the idea that I wasn't good enough for any other kind of work?
That is the very essence of the privilege about which I/we have been writing. When you were a kid, what did you think you could or would do? What did the people around you do? Not just your parents, but your other relatives, too. What did your parents and teachers and other relatives teach you, implicitly as well as explicitly, about work and life?

As I've intimated below, I consider myself extremely lucky in this regard. In addition to having our material wants addressed, my siblings and I benefited from a family that encouraged and even expected us to do well, by which my parents meant, at the least, go to college. It is also relevant that my parents did not discriminate on the basis of sex in this arena. It was apparent at a relatively early age that I was pretty smart, and it didn't matter that I'm female--smart was not regarded as a gendered quality. It's true that my mother is still engaged in her lifelong campaign to make me more ladylike (you'd think she'd give up on that by now, but apparently some dreams die hard), but "ladylike" was separate and distinguishable from "smart," and the two were not regarded as mutually exclusive. (My sister was much more "ladylike," in many ways, but she, too, was smart.) There were gendered aspects to how we were treated, especially in that my brother has always been The Prince and exempt from most household chores, but they had nothing to do with intelligence. And with regard to the gendering that took place once my brother came along, well, I was six by the time he was born, and I think a lot of our personalities are in place by then. I've always felt like the oldest son as well as the oldest daughter.

To get back to the main point, though: What did you think you COULD do? And, perhaps as important, what does your family, what do you, consider "success" to be? Does it involve a lot of money? A lot of things? A big house? Children? A college education? A husband who doesn't beat you? A marriage that lasts? A high-profile career? A "professional" degree? Not wearing a uniform of some kind to work? Wearing a uniform to work? Our expectations in this regard are shaped by our habitus, and, in particular, are shaped, I think, by what we learned at home and at school and at work.

The other thing that happens, though, is that those of us who have upper-class educations and/or jobs to go with our workinig-class roots and our history of shit jobs learn to "pass." Many of us--myself included--choose not to do that, but we could. We've seen what the elites read and wear and drive; we've seen where they live, and we might even live there, too. We see what they eat and drink. We see what kinds of entertainment they buy, and where they vacation, and where their kids go to school. We are aware, even if they are not, of the privilege inherent in the ability to make those particular choices, precisely because we come from a literal, figurative, metaphorical space where those choices weren't available--weren't even conceivable. That, then, seems to me to be the first project, the one to which Charlie alludes: How do particular choices become conceivable? And then: how do they seem like good choices?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Otters Being Respected

Rivka is back, and her post (a) is related to the Topic of the Week here at War on Error, and (b) refers readers to a series that I have not yet read but that sounds like it also relates to said Topic.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Class, Part IV: What's Your Job?

The first job I ever had was as the summer lunchtime hostess/cashier at a small (90-seat) department store restaurant. Because I had not applied to the SPLAC I wanted to attend in time (yes, I know), I was wait-listed and then offered February admission, which I took. I needed more work hours for the fall, even though I could keep the two evenings/week, and weekend shifts, because the regular lunchtime cashier/hostess was coming back. The daytime dishwasher was leaving, so I asked for those hours and got them. I liked the job, too, as far as that goes; there were no hidden agendas, for one thing, and there's always a rhythm to work like that. I always look for small efficiencies (e.g., I sorted the silverware as I cleaned out the bus buckets, which made putting away the clean silverware a much simpler task for the waitstaff), and it's usually possible to just relax into it. I also discovered that I do NOT like to do this work while high: I did that one time, and the day dragged on for at least two weeks.

Because I was bonded for the cashier job, when the lunch hostess needed to step away for some reason, I stepped up to the cash register in my kitchen whites. (Irrelevant aside: you can always tell whether someone learned to make change on an old-fashioned cash register--i.e., one that doesn't tell you how much to hand back to the customer--or the new-fangled kind that does tell, by seeing whether the person starts from the bills or the pennies.) I mentioned this at the dinner table, and my mother's first reaction was to be appalled that I appeared in the dining room in my kitchen whites (my mother has always been concerned with appearances, and with my tendency to do things that seem unfeminine to her). My father jumped in before I could say anything and said something to the effect of, "They're her work clothes and they're nothing to be ashamed of." I also figured out, when I was at college--in part because my mom was a secretary--that the secretaries knew everything and made everything happen. Not the deans, not the professors, not the administrators, the secretaries. Many students were unaware of this and treated secretaries with something less than the respect they deserved. In short, then, my parents taught me (my mom's concern for appearances notwithstanding) that there was no shame in any job, and that doing a job half-assed was impermissible. It was also impermissible to treat anyone else with anything less than respect, no matter what job they happened to be doing.

As I did a number of shit jobs myself over the years, I experienced this from the other side, i.e., the people who treat you like scum or like a servant because you're in a "service" position. I also experienced the rhythm to service jobs that involved the public (though I never waited tables; that would probably tax my goodwill way too far)--I tried to connect with the customers, even if only in a small way, and I discovered that it made the hours move more quickly and also that it sometimes jolted people out of some funk they were in or just made a small human connection that improved their day. (I did not tell people to smile, however; that makes me crazy.)

Two things have come out of this.

First, having been on the other side, I find myself trying to at least be pleasant to the service people around me. Bus drivers, counter help, waitstaff, janitorial or maintenance staff, whomever. Please; thank you; I don't know how to do this, can you please help me? Mind you, this isn't some kind of noblesse oblige, and I don't think I'm doing anything exceptional here--that's how I think everyone should treat each other. Miss Manners would agree completely. Based on the positive responses that I get, however, it may be the case that not everyone's parents taught this.

The second thing, though, is that, I do not entirely trust someone who's never held a shit job that he or she needed to keep in order to make the rent or buy food. A summer job making photocopies in the law offices of daddy's best friend does not count. Waiting tables three nights a week and weekends so you can pay the rent and eat while you do an unpaid internship does. I can eventually overcome my mistrust, sometimes, but, to me, if you've never had a shit job ever in your life, then you've experienced a fair amount of privilege, and chances are pretty good that you're unaware of that privilege. You've never had the joy of someone treating you like shit, simply because of the work that you're doing, and knowing that you can't really object too much because you need that job. The feeling that goes along with that is neither hopeful nor positive.

There are two sub-points related to this. First, one of the things that made the jobs bearable to me was that I saw them as a means to an end: I'll do this shit work now, and I have to keep this particular job now, but it's in the service of eventually not having to do this job. If working for peanuts at Wal-Mart were the only job i could ever hope to have? I can't imagine the despair that would wash over me. Well, yes, I can, having had a taste of it 12 years ago, and it's not pleasant. Second, though, much as I don't want to do those jobs, I know that, if push comes to shove, I can. I've done them, I know how to do them, I can do it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Class, Part III: The Dire Financial Straits Ride, or: Working Without a Net

Paul Krugman makes this point more succinctly than I'm about to do; go read him first. And James Wolcott makes it more eloquently. Susan has some relevant posts on this as well. You're back now? Okay then.

As Krugman points out, and as will be apparent to those of you whose backgrounds are similar to mine in relevant ways, one of the major fears with which many of us live is the fear of finding ourselves on the Dire Financial Straits ride. When the junkies and alcoholics hired me, I had enough money to survive for about six weeks. I could pay my rent for two months, and eat for about a month and a half. I'm sure I could have found some shit work (the subject of another coming post), but, at that point, I knew that it would keep me out of the Straits for only a couple of weeks at most. I must also say that my parents would have ensured, and would have been able to ensure, that I did not, in fact, have to go to a homeless shelter or run up major consumer debt or something that drastic, but my parents have taken the attitude that we are, by and large, on our own, with some important exceptions (e.g., they're helping in significant ways to pay for the wedding), and I think that's a perfectly reasonable attitude. I was in my late 30s, and I would have been embarrassed to go to them, and I don't know what they would have offered--move me back to Hometown? what?--but I had some kind of net, if push had really come to shove. Still, I was a lot closer to the Straits than many of the people I knew from grad school (or college) would ever get.

So, really, I DID have a net. But many people--most people?--don't. Plain and simple. A big medical bill, a protracted (or even short) period of unemployment, a major repair to the car needed to get to work, and poof, they're screwed.

The last time a large number of people were screwed or potentially screwed in this way was the 1930s. (Russell Baker's 1982 memoir, Growing Up, is a beautiful, lyrical evocation of that time. He does a spectacular job detailing how this major economic, social, and political upheaval affected everyday lives.) The President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was from a family of immense wealth and privilege, yet he managed to come up with myriad programs, including Social Security, that would serve as a net for people who did not have such wealth and privilege to protect them. I don't know nearly enough about him to speculate on why or how he did this, but it's clear that most members of the present government do not have any of that. Quite the opposite: the only people the Bush administration or the Republican Congress seem to want to protect are corporations and rich people. The Republican Party has been trying to eliminate Social Security since its inception, for example, though everyday people seem to believe, pretty overwhelmingly, that Social Security is a good thing.

And, really, it's simple. You pay into the system now, while you're working. People who have worked their whole lives, or people who cannot work because of disability, for example, live off the money you're contributing. When you retire, or if you become disabled, or if one of your kids is disabled, people working then will cover your ass. For people who don't have trust funds, which is most of us, and for people who don't have pensions, which is a growing number of us, and for people who don't make enough to put some money in an IRA, this is a good system.

Simiilarly with bankruptcy. Are some people irresponsible? Yeah, probably--but note that the majority of bankruptcies for folks like us come from things like medical expenses, and also note that, even for those people, most had health insurance. Irresponsibility doesn't enter into it; bad luck does. The Republican Congress wouldn't limit interest rates to 30%. The Republican Congress will, however, enable rich people to hide a chunk of their assets before they declare bankruptcy (I'm sure that shocks you). Poor people, however, fuck 'em. They can't wipe the slate clean, they have to try to pay their creditors. As a result, they're likely to remain in debt and even dig themselves farther in debt. The credit card companies will still get their money--they continue to profit from sending cards to people who can't afford them, or they wouldn't do it--but the wage slaves will just become more impoverished.

This isn't taking away the safety net. This is shredding the net, setting it on fire, and pushing poor people into the abyss. And I can only conclude that it's being done by people who never worried, for even a minute, where the next meal would come from.

As noted, I had a net, even though activating it would have been an act of desperation and an admission of personal failure that I don't want to contemplate. Even today, as I contemplate a major life change, I'm beset by anxieties about being able to pay my bills. Suppose there's no market for pastry chefs? Suppose C loses his job? Suppose I never get any of my back pay? Suppose Something Bad happens? I don't worry so much about being able to do the work--I worry that this move I'm contemplating will throw me right back into the Straits somehow. My rational self thinks that this is a little ludicrous--surely, at this point, I have sufficient skills and experience and so on to keep from starving--but then I look at the economy, and I look at that shredded net, and I'm not so sure anymore. My rational self can distinguish between me and people who don't have education, for example, but then I remember how hard it was to find a job when I finished the last degree, and I remember that my transition to pastry chef has been inspired, in part, by my inability to find a job now. So you tell me--which part is rational?

The larger point, though, is that I've come to believe that these fears are part of the habitus of someone from my background. We don't take jobs for granted, and we don't take money (even in small amounts) for granted. Even if we don't know what it's like to go hungry, we might know what it's like to be out of work and unable to find anything to pay the bills. We know what it's like to narrow your vision down so you can only see one little thing, because thinking about the larger picture causes panic. Some of it we learned from our families, and some we learned from our own adult experience, but it's a different knowledge than that possessed by someone who never really worried about paying the rent or buying groceries.

Update: Go read this post by Susan.

Class, Part II: Habitus

To sum up my ignorance, I had always thought that class was, more or less, about money. What I finally started to realize (to continue the story begun below) is that it is most definitely not just about money. I had thought of the world as a big arena or amusement park, and that one could go on some rides--or avoid some rides--because one had or did not have the money to do so. While there were stages of sorts--you could not get to the Graduate School rides unless you had survived the College ride, for example, and the College ride you were on affected which Graduate School rides you would be able to get on--there was, I thought, a certain transparency to the process. Similarly, if you completed the College ride and showed up for work and so on, you could avoid the Dire Financial Straits ride.

I knew that a SPLAC should have made a wider variety of rides available than a third-tier state teachers' college would have, but I went to a well-regarded SPLAC so I figured that was sufficient. It's clear to me now, though, that I did not exploit what was available at SPLAC in the ways that I might have done. My sister, for example, clearly did a better job of that than I did. In the comments below, Alice mentions that the resume-enhancing jobs were only available to people eligible for federal work-study, which I was, but I didn't know such jobs existed and wouldn't have known how to find them. Instead, I looked for jobs that paid more (one year I managed the student bar (beer only) because the job paid more per hour, plus I could work one 8-hour shift/week and make enough cash to get by rather than having to work 1.5 hours a day in the dining halls). I eventually had enough of a network among the people on campus (I ran student government for a year so I knew a lot of people) such that small jobs sometimes fell in my lap, but they were of the move-all-the-books-on-this-floor-to-that-floor variety rather than an internship or research assistant position.

The real transformation of my ignorance began in one of my philosophy classes in Philadelphia, where I read Outline of a Theory of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu, , followed by Bourdieu's Distinction. Though it would take some work for me to explain Bourdieu here, the effect it had on me was to help me see, and give me a framework for understanding, that our "place" in society isn't just a matter of the money we have, or even of the kinds of material facts I've been listing for you, though those are relevant. Bourdieu talked of habitus, about which the above website says:
The concept means on the individual level "a system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment . . . as well as being the organizing principles of action."
In short then (and I'm really doing this an injustice), one acquires categories of thought, of action, of judgement, of ethics, of spending, and more, and the particular categories we utilize mark our places in social (economic, political) space.

(Completely irrelevant side note: I once got to meet Bourdieu when he came to campus. The person presiding over the visit--and over the group of students who read a lot of Bourdieu's work prior to the visit--was officious beyond belief. Very entertaining, then, was Bourdieu's refusal to abide by the social rules or seating arrangements that the presider tried to institute--Bourdieu talked to anyone, especially the pretty women. I'm told that he was also amused at being made part of a song, a round to the tune of "Frere Jacques," no less, along with Michel Foucault and a third person, that was written for the school's sociology follies.)

In any case, once I got to graduate school, with a certain amount of my ignorance intact but armed with Bourdieu, I began to see that it wasn't, in fact, just about money. I found that I liked a lot of older faculty more than a lot of my fellow students or the faculty who were closer to me in age, precisely because the older faculty were more like me in terms of their backgrounds. I also liked the administrator who ran the department, and I count her among my best friends to this day (she's one of the Unofficial Bridespeople), and she told me a story that's relevant here. She moved to this city with her husband so he could go to graduate school. She hadn't gone to college, though I'd say she's smarter than he ever was, for an assortment of reasons, some of them class-related. She was at some university function with her husband, and someone asked her where she'd gone to college or something like that. When she said she hadn't gone to college, the person turned around and walked away from her. In short, the fact of her not having gone to college was more important, to this person, than anything my friend might have said. It's an extreme example, but its purity helps illuminate how a particular signifier can be more important to some people or in some situations than the reality embedded in it. (There's still no excuse for such rudeness, though.)

Despite my growing understanding of habitus and its effects on creating a possibility space for any given person's actions, I still made choices that some people probably would have regarded as odd. In retrospect, I don't think they affected one whit my inability to get a tenure-track position--the lack of available jobs and the lack of someone to support me while I stayed on the job market an additional year were much more relevant there. Nevertheless, I resisted taking TA or RA positions, because it seemed to me that they were a bad deal, financially, for the students; so, for three years, I had a job where I moved furniture and fixed things. I had regular hours, rather than hours that depended on what the professor was doing or needed, I didn't have emergencies, and I wasn't being exploited. (I did work as an RA for the person who would have chaired my dissertation committee had he lived. He wanted my help with his book, and I happily provided it, both before and after he died.) I was reasonably well-regarded by my department, and, although I didn't start off getting a lot of financial assistance, I did receive competitive dissertation fellowhips, and they did, in fact, help me finish pretty quickly relative to the rest of my class. Nevertheless, you can see that, in college as well as in grad school, I was choosing my jobs in part with an eye to my immediate financial needs rather than to any resume-related concerns. This job pays more or involves less hassle or will take less away from my own work, therefore I want this job. Though I'm still not entirely convinced my choices were the wrong ones (for reasons I'll get to eventually), it should be clear that my choices were shaped, in part, by "categories of perception and assessment" and "organizing principles" that likely would be different for someone whose background was different from mine.

My growing awareness is also evidenced by a friend I made my second or maybe third year in grad school (he's also one of my best friends to this day). He was a new student and I met him at the welcome party, in part by making cracks about his home state. We chit-chatted a few times, and a few weeks after school started, I ran into him at a party that another student in our department was throwing. I asked A a few questions about his background, and, upon hearing his answers, looked at him and said, "I bet you feel wildly out of place here." He thought I was psychic or something, but, really, the fact that his family had been on food stamps when he was a kid was almost enough information in itself. By contrast, another of our department mates got a good one-year position when she finished. At the last moment--right before classes were supposed to start--she decided she didn't want to do that after all, because she was going to work in her father's investment banking firm, thus leaving the school where she was supposed to teach completely in the lurch. That's not the kind of choice that A or I were likely to have, much less make.

When I got my degree, I entered the twilight zone again. Faculty sympathized with my unemployed situation, up to a point, but no one seemed able to do anything about it. One person hired me to teach a few classes, which helped some, but teaching as an adjunct doesn't pay very much and keeps you from getting temp jobs or part-time jobs that require regular hours. Most of the professors' contacts were in academe, and I was leaving that realm (which made me Less Worthy in other ways that I won't discuss here), so I had to resort to the want ads. (This was in the early 90s, before and its ilk.) But now, to the rest of the world, I had a Big Fancy Degree, which meant they Couldn't Afford Me (oh yes you can, I wanted to tell them; I'm BROKE!), or I was overqualified, or I Had No Practical Skills (because we all know that going to too much school makes you unable to do anything in the so-called Real World). And here, I suspect, is where Daddy's connections would have been put into play, were I of a different class. Some network would have been activated that landed me a job somewhere, doing something. Instead, the junkies and alcoholics hired me to write bid proposals and the like.

Since then, I've made two realizations that serve as abbreviations for what I've been babbling about; both were made while riding the bus to work. (I have to add that I've never owned a car: I have a driver's license, but you don't want me to actually use it. My friends mock me about my love (and use) of public transportation, but they also come to me when they want to know how to get somewhere. In any case, I spend many hours a week on buses and trains, so revelations in those venues aren't such a big surprise.) On a day when the bus was particularly unpleasant--crowded with Public Transportation Amateurs, no place to sit, winter coats on but also high heat in the bus, making the whole thing smell like a wet dog--I thought that one of the major functions of money was insulation. People with a lot of money can completely avoid these experiences and, given the right background, not notice the cost of that avoidance. I'd probably always notice the cost, no matter how much money I was making, and even if I were making a big bundle, I'd still feel ecologically (and possibly economically) obligated to take public transportation rather than buying a car. That does not make me a superior person, that only speaks to the categories of thought and perception that I bring to bear on the situation.

The second realization was in relation to a local newscaster. She's a real reporter rather than a vapid talking head, and she's about ten years older than I am. Why, I mused to myself, does she have her job and I don't? (In Emma's fantasyland of alternative lives, I would have enjoyed being a reporter.) I don't want to take anything away from her brains, but I don't think she's smarter than me. And I thought, well, she maybe knew a little bit about what she wanted to do. She got internships in college. She went to college someplace where she could make contacts. She had a job in some local media outlet that enabled her to envision herself as a reporter. It's possible she could have done all this with my class background, mind you: If I'd gone someplace other than SPLAC, if I'd met someone along the way who could open a door for me, if I lived in a different part of the country and got a job sweeping up the newsroom, even, I might have been able to see a path.

And that, then, is the point, I think. With a background like mine, the possibility space is limited by the people our parents know, by the people we happen to meet along the way, by the choices we make, and by the factors that go into our decision-making. For someone of a different background--a doctor or lawyer or professor--even if her parents don't make a lot of money, she's likely to meet people who know people. She knows what internships are and why they're important. She doesn't always have to make decisions based on immediate financial need. It's still possible for people like us. We might have the equivalent of a mailroom job that enables us to meet people who can help us, directly or indirectly, see what other possibilities exist. We might get lucky and stumble into something (I know someone like this, too). If we have sufficient education and/or if we're sufficiently observant, we even become able to "pass," which is a story for the next post on this subject.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Class Is in Session

Both Charlie and Bitch, Ph.D. have written recently about class--a subject dear to my heart as well. People like us--me, Charlie, Bitch, and probably quite a few others, I'm guessing, based on their writings (off the top of my head: bellatrys, tbogg, Suburban Guerilla, Flea)--occupy this liminal space in American culture, which provides an interesting perspective on society, politics, economics, you name it. I'll let them tell their own stories, but here's mine.

As I've said before, my parents' occupations were firmly working-class. My dad was a sheet metal worker (and union member) for 40 years, most of it in my maternal grandfather's mecahnical (sub)contracting business, and my mom was a secretary. My grandfather started the business selling large appliances and doing plumbing and heating in homes; they gradually dropped that side of the business and started doing schools and similar-sized projects in the early 1960s. When my grandfather wanted to retire, he turned the business over to my dad and my mother's brother, who was a plumber. My mother had an associate's degree, though she only went about 50 miles away for college. None of my grandparents had any higher education, and not all of them completed high school. My mother's brother graduated from college, though he made his living as a plumber, and his wife was a registered nurse, but otherwise I don't believe any of my aunts or uncles had any higher education, either.

This was all pretty typical for my hometown. There was one major industry, and some minor ones, and the popluation (of 18,000; the largest town in the county) mostly worked in those industries. There were farmers in neighboring counties, still, though that land has mostly been gobbled up for development by now, and there was a farmers' fair in my county every year. There were some "rich" kids in town, but these were mostly the sons and daughters of local doctors and lawyers, and therefore not overwhelmingly wealthy. (I believe that branchlets of the Colgate-Palmolive money and the Campbell Soup money lived in town, too, but even they went to the public schools.) There were also "projects" in town, and probably some bad areas, but, really, in a town of 18,000, how bad can it get? My parents had gone to grade school and/or high school with the parents of the kids with whom I went to school, and people therefore knew a lot about each other.

My parents insisted that we live well within our means, and even save money, and I knew that we weren't rich. My mother always shopped for bargains and stocked up on things like soap or toilet paper when they were on sale. We ate economically, which meant we didn't eat TV dinners or premade or single-portion meals, we froze and canned fruits and vegetables that we got from the farmers' market, and, when we could afford it, we bought a side of beef because it was cheaper, over the long run. We weren't allowed to go on the rides at the fair because they were too expensive. Despite these economies, I never thought of us as poor, either. We didn't go hungry, and we weren't afraid of going hungry, and there's a lot to be said for that, but I sensed that we didn't have the same kind of money as the doctors' and lawyers' kids.

My generation was probably the first from which a sizeable number of people would go to college. My parents fully expected that the three of us would go to college--the gnashing of teeth that ensued when my brother decided to become an auto mechanic was substantial--even though they had limited experience of it themselves. Most people went to nearby state schools or to community college, so my going to a small, private, liberal arts college (SPLAC) was odd (though I didn't realize that at the time). And how did I end up going there? Because my maternal grandfather, the anarchist, was associated for years with someone who edited an anarchist newspaper, and one of this man's sons was a professor at the college. The college had a well-deserved reputation for being liberal, and I figured if it was liberal, I'd like it. (I also remember being impressed that they included the Gay Union in the list of student organizations in the admissions brochure. Though I'm pretty straight, I figured that was a sign of their openness.) So did I pick this place after extensive research? No: it was because I'd heard of it at the yearly anarchist picnics and figured it was probably a good choice. It was, and I was extremely happy there, but my selection process bears no resemblance to the finely honed strategies of today, or, probably, even of the strategies at the time among the upper classes.

It's also worth including some of my parents' commentary from the time, because it was the first inkling I had that our situation was what I'm calling liminal. Of course I contemplated the Ivies--I knew I was smart, and I had good grades and test scores, so it's not out of the question that I could have gotten into one of them. My parents pointed out that many of my fellow students at the Ivies would be going off on fancy-ass trips and the like, and, although my parents would certainly help pay for tuition, they would be unable to fund my participation in the rich kids' social lives and that I'd likely feel left out. I realized my parents had a point, and I went to SPLAC quite happily. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me, so, basically, I lucked into a much better education than some parts of my background would suggest was likely. Yes, there were rich kids at SPLAC, too, but my first roommate came from a farming family from a teensy town in South Dakota, I knew a number of people not unlike me, there weren't any nearby places for the rich kids to have an extravagant social life, and the rich kids didn't flaunt their wealth, at least not in ways that were discernable to me.

After college, though, I had no clue how one did the next thing, or even how one chose what that next thing would or could be. I had no immediate plans for graduate school. I had done no internships. I had no contacts in any field that seemed likely or promising. I had absolutely no clue how one even got a job. When I was in high school and writing lame short stories, the biggest problem I had with my characters was figuring out what they did for a living. I had no clue what the real range of occupations was, or how one prepared to find them or enter them; clearly the problem persisted after I'd finished college. Thus, I moved to Philadelphia with my boyfriend, primarily because I couldn't think what else to do. (He was a year behind me in school, so he'd only be there for the summer, but his family was in Philadelphia.) What were my other options? Stay in tiny town where SPLAC was located? Why? Move back to hometown? No possible way. What else could I do? Of course, I had never lived anywhere larger than 18,000 people in my life, and had probably spent fewer than three weeks total in any city. I didn't know what I was qualified to do, and I had no sense how to talk myself into anything. So, I did some temporary secretarial work. I temped at the boyfriend's mother's law office. I eventually got a job as a secretary at the boyfriend's father's place, a non-academic department at a university.

It's worth pointing out that my younger (by 17 months) sister was better at this planning thing than I was, though there's no telling how it would have turned out. She, too, went to a SPLAC, though one that was neither as rigorous nor as liberal as mine. She did an internship; she spent a semester at another school, in order to learn more about her field. She found mentors. She joined a service organization as preparation for what she wanted to do next, which was go to the London School of Economics and then work with an organization that worked in developing countries. Clearly, she had a better idea of what she wanted to do and people who helped her figure out the steps she needed to take to do those things. (She died while working with the service organization, but that's a story for another day.) I'd say that education was an end in itself for me--I loved doing philosophy, and political theory; I loved figuring things out--without really thinking about translating it into a specific job. I had a vague notion that I liked to write, and think, and sort things out, but I didn't know what kind of job one could get, other than "professor," that involved those things, and, really, no one sat me down to talk to me about it. I don't think it occurred to anyone that I was so clueless about it.

In any case, while working in Philadelphia I started taking classes at the university where I worked, partly out of boredom, partly because it was free for staff. I decided I wanted to be a professor, which meant I had to go to graduate school; it seemed like a good occupation for my skills, and I liked the idea of teaching, reading, researching, writing, and working with students and colleagues. I switched from philosophy to political science because philosophers didn't seem to care much about real people's real problems. (As noted, if I'd know about the guy at Princeton I might should have gone there.) And even in this decision I displayed a certain amount of ignorance: I applied to only two schools, and the criteria I used didn't have a whole lot to do with who was at this or that institution. In retrospect, given the way faculty up and move, that's not so terrible, but it's more evidence that my cluelessness was still pretty unchallenged.

Other kinds of clues had made their way into my life, though. When I started graduate school, the chair of the department had a meeting to welcome the new grad students, blah blah blah. In his talk, he mentioned that this was one of the top ten departments in the country--which I had not known. Really; I didn't know that when I applied or when I got in or when I made plans to move halfway across the country. Yes; I know; clueless. My first thought was, "What the fuck have I gotten myself into?" My second thought, though, was, "What's the worst they can do to me? Throw me out? I buried my sister three years ago; it's not going to be worse than that was." I was both right and wrong about that, but the point is that that attitude, plus the fact that I was five years older than most of the other new students, made me fearless in ways that graduate students often are not. As this was the beginning of the end of my cluelessness, I'm going to break off here and pick this up in a later post.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Personal & Political, Part II

Or part III, depending on what you're counting.

I see that I have mushed together several different arguments; let's see if I can sort them out.

1. The rules that determine what counts as "real" politics are not objective. This is NOT to say that the rules are arbitrary, or irrelevant, or even inherently unfair, only that the rules themselves are a product of our own activities, that the rules are themselves a social/political/economic construction, rather than something set in stone. Those who believe that human life and activity are governed by discoverable, immutable rules that were handed to us (on stone tablets, for example) will take some issue with this. And, really, it's a lot messier if you have to take responsibility for your own actions, and if there isn't a deity or some other higher authority to whom you can refer all the time. Contrary to the caricatures of those who are more certain of the Truth than I am, I do believe that just because we adapt and change does not mean that it's all always up for grabs willy-nilly. I think that it is our responsibility to try to establish rules that are fair and just, that it is our responsibility to establish institutions that will promote those ends and that will take care of the those of us who cannot take care of ourselves. We're going to make mistakes in those efforts, but we only compound the mistakes by continuing to perpetuate them with the argument that "we've always done it that way." The rules are our rules, which means we have to take responsbility for them rather than merely shrugging our shoulders and saying, "Well, those are the rules," as if they belonged to someone else or were immutable.

2. The rules shape what we think counts as a legitimate move in a particular game. Again, this is neither plot nor conspiracy, this is just the ways rules in general work. However, we do have a tendency to accept the rules as we find them, without necessarily identifying the underlying assumptions. Sometimes, something happens to jar our sense of the rules--we might suddenly see how a particular rule is unfair in some way, because of how it privileges a particular person or group of people. Should women have the vote? Should women be able to get credit cards in their own names? Should men be able to get custody of their children?

Often, though, we don't see the assumptions embedded in the rules. Think, for example, of the implicit message sent by separate sections in a newspaper. If the sections are labeled "news," "sports," "business," "comics," and "women's" or "society" pages--which was not uncommon not that long ago--what does that tell you? One might assume, for example, that "women's concerns"--typically articles having to do with cooking, children, the household--aren't "news." One might assume that (Real) men wouldn't be interested in the content of the women's section. One might assume that the rest of the newspaper implicitly belongs to men. One might assume that the economic conerns of "business" are relevant in ways that the concerns of "labor" are not. Or, most likely, one reads the newspaper and doesn't think much about those divisions, even as they shape our own notions of the categories of our world.

For another example, consider the matter of raising children. You will get a different answer if you ask whether women with young children should work outside the home than you will if you ask how families can meet their children's needs. If you want to make sure that both parents are able to earn a living, should one parent die or the parents get divorced, for example, then you have to take into account the effect on future earning power of dropping completely out of a workforce or career path for a few years. If affordable, convenient daycare isn't routinely available, then you're going to have to develop other solutions. In other words, there are multiple dimensions to the whole issue, and the questions you ask are related to which of those dimensions you regard as most important and what assumptions underlie your questions and answers.

3. Demands to change the rules aren't special pleading. If you're with me so far, then you can see that arguments that the rules should be changed because of a bias embedded in them or embedded in the enactment of them are not necessarily some kind of special pleading. The NBA rules were changed to create a three-point shot, and the NCAA rules were changed to allow dunks. The designated hitter (which is an abomination and should be banned, via a Constitutional amendment, if necessary) was added in 1973; spitballs were outlawed; the height of the pitcher's mound has been changed repeatedly. Each of those rule changes was instituted because the sports' governing bodies wanted to get a particular result or address what they saw as a particular problem.

Thus, it is not special pleading to insist that matters like household economics, or childcare, or other matters frequently assigned to women--and designated as "personal"--are, in fact, political. Instead, it's saying that the things that have made the front pages of the newspapers as "serious" stories are not, in fact, the only "serious" stories out there. The demand for rule changes is neither special pleading nor a matter of getting men to take women's issues seriously--it's an attempt to reconceptualize what counts as an issue for all people, and this reconceptualization is not an uncommon part of life.

4. The intimate, personal, private aspects of our lives have political dimensions. One dimension is the aforementioned "indoctrination" that is an unavoidable aspect of growing up in every society. We learn the shape of the world, the kinds of beings that exist in it, the principles by which they interact, the causal forces presumed to govern our lives and the lives of those around us. We cannot avoid this--we are literally being civilized--taught to live in our civilization. Another dimension is figuring out when the parts that cause us pain are the way it is rather than the way it must be, and that we can therefore object to the way it is, try to change the way it is. And others might be feeling the same pain, and you might be able to identify some of the institutional(ized) forces that propogate this pain, and you might be able to work against those forces. First, though, you have to connect your struggle, your situation, with the situation of others, and that's a political act.