Monday, August 30, 2004

Veterans of all wars

I've never been much impressed with John Kerry, though if I lived in a swing state I would certainly be planning to vote for him (if Bush is anywhere close to winning Vermont, then Kerry will have bigger problems than me not voting for him).

I've seen enough politicians speaking at trade-union events to have a sense of how good politicians connect with working people. They don't speak in broad platitudes; they speak to us about the concrete, material struggles of our daily lives: health care, jobs, pensions, our children's schools. They speak in a way that demonstrates that they understand what it's actually like to have to balance a family budget. They propose solutions that are bold, universal, and make sense, not half-measures that reform some tiny corners of systemic problems without pissing anyone off. Needless to say, John Kerry, who I imagine has never had to sweep a floor, clean a grease trap, run a plastic-molding machine or answer a phone call from an irate customer in his life, does not do this.

But last weekend, while staying at the house of a friend who has cable, I was impressed with a Kerry speech for the first time: on CNN, I saw a rebroadcast of his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Clearly, these are Kerry's people. He spoke to veterans about concrete, material struggles — not only being under fire while serving, but being denied adequate medical care by their country when they returned. His promises were not tinkering with the system, his promises were universal - ALL veterans will get high-quality medical care, ALL veterans will get adeuqate pensions. I saw tears in the eyes of the VFW commanders standing behind him. For the first time in this election, I thought maybe George Bush is in trouble.

I just wish Kerry would at least campaign on a program that addresses the concrete struggles of those of us who keep the floor clean, the food cooking, the machines running (I'm beyond hoping for a politician who might actually ENACT such a program). Veterans aren't the only Americans who have fought to defend (or establish) democracy. I want high-quality health care and retirement security for:

every woman who has lost a chance at promotion (or her job) for pursuing a sexual-harassment claim;

every one of the ten thousand workers in the U.S. who are fired every year for trying to organize a union;

and the victims of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre (and their families), shot by Klansmen who were colluding with FBI and police to disrupt a civil-rights march.

And while I'm at it, I want everyone to read this analysis of the bickering between the campaigns about military service: Dogfight: the Gendered Degeneration of Politics, written by veteran Stan Goff.

Monday, August 23, 2004

A roll of black and white 1994

I've been in Ann Arbor, Michigan this weekend, without the family, visiting a friend from high school before heading down to Toledo for a meeting.

Michigan has always been imbued with a cetain otherworldliness for me. The first time I visited the state was in the fall ten years ago, on an ill-advised week-long trip with a recent ex. We drove all over the state, long stretches in the car with just the two of us, feeling the kind of constant, throbbing pain-pleasure of holding a sharp blade just against your skin, hard enough to feel the sharpness but not quite pushing hard enough to cut the skin. It was deep fall, the leaves were brilliant on fire, and the trip was captured in the desolate tones of a roll of black and white film. We drove up to the very northern point of mainland Michigan, actually drove over the bridge to the U.P. and back, and wandered around the deserted lakeside tourist town at the point, cold winds blowing off the lake as we peered into the salt-taffee stores boarded up for the winter. The physical memories of that trip are clearer for me than most of my memories of ten years ago, perhaps they were inscribed somehow in the emotional wounds I was holding open all week, sealed up inside my psyche in a way that other memories were not.

This trip of course has not been anything like that, just a relaxing catching-up with an old friend. I suspect, however, that my ability to keep my life now on an even emotional keel is due in part to the lessons of the relationships of my early 20s, and I still occasionally look through black and white pictures from the fall of 1994 and give thanks for our ability to heal our wounds.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Optional Laziness

Yesterday, I took out a temporary membership in the Bad, but not that Bad Parents club. In addition to watching the kids, running the household, and working a part-time service-sector job, I also dabble in web development. Usually I do this after the kids are in bed, or during those few precious days when I have child care but am not scheduled to work at my job, but yesterday, the scent of having a project almost finished (and being able to send a bill for over $800 when I finished it) kept drawing me towards the computer.

These are the times when I am glad to have two little ones. It makes it easier to rationalize making them entertain themselves. "After all," I say to myself, "they really need to learn the skills of interacting with other children, not the skills of hanging out with an adult." I tell myself, "you're their parent, not their friend," and try to make myself believe that the things I did do yesterday — making them healthy and nutritious meals, laundering all their clothes, and so forth — are what is really important for their development. And, of course, the lazy parent's mantra, "human beings are resilient."

Unlike the messiness of human development, the languages and codes used in web development are elegant and clean. Recently, I've been studying the sublime mysteries of regular expressions, or "regex." My head was so far into web-land yesterday than when a friend wrote me an email with "?" as the subject, I wrote a reply explaining that in the mysterious world of regular expressions, the ? symbol makes whatever come before it optional. If you want to match either "cat" or its plural, the regex is /cats?/ (the ? makes the s optional). It is also a symbol for "laziness" if it follows a special command character. If you try to match the phrase "pain in the ass" with the regex /as+/ (a followed by one or more s's), it will be "greedy" and match ass, but if you use /as+?/ the ? makes the + lazy, so it just matches as.

My friend replied, asking if I was subtly implying that she was a lazy, questionable pain in the ass. In web-land, there are no subtle implications — though things that you write often don't mean what you intend them to mean, they do so in a big, bold, obvious way (your program crashes). And a program doesn't worry about how many mistakes you've made in developing it. This is probably why I find this work so distracting from my family responsibilities, where words have subtle emotional meanings that are often unintentional and where it is the process of raising the kids, making the marriage work that is important, rather than the end result.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Home Ecology

One of the more powerful books I have read about ecology is Dune. This may seem strange, as it is set in a completely science-fictional world. However, its setting is a harsh desert world, its protagonist is a young man struggling with prescience, and re-reading it a couple of years ago, I was struck by how one of the central themes of the book is the deep and complicated patterns of consequences that flow from our actions, and how the hubris of thinking drastic change can be made easily generally leads to disaster.

In addition to being the home economist, I am also the home ecologist. I try to be humble before the complicated patterns of coming and going and doing and feeling that define our daily lives, and to think through all the possible consequences of intervention. I seek a certain stasis in the household, where daily routines are routed to erode the build-ups of dishes, toys, papers and leftovers that accumulate on counters, floors, tabletops and the refrigerator, rather than add to the deposits. I observe how the introduction of new ecological forces disrupts the balance, such as when new toys are brought into the house – until they become integrated into the children's regular routine of games and sharing, they produce intense squabbling. And I know that my family members cannot be made to change habits or behavior with threats or appeals to conscience, that I must instead rely on the subtle changes in family routine that I can effect myself.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Dish washing

I spent much of the day yesterday catching up on dish-washing. Normally I pride myself on doing the dishes as I use them when my dish-washing partner is away, but this past week I've slipped up.

When I was seventeen, a recent high-school graduate, low-wage worker and rock-star wannabe, I lived in an apartment with the drummer from my band. We accumulated impressive stacks of dirty dishes in our small, cramped kitchen, engaging in a kind of teenage-male one-up-manship to see who could last the longest without breaking down and running the dishwasher. We ate frozen pizzas (our staple food) off of saucepan lids to avoid having to wash plates. I usually triumphed in these contests, in no small part because of my ability to bring home a seemingly limitless number of 32-ounce plastic cups from the fast food restaurant where I worked.

In the normal order of things in our house, I cook, H washes the dishes, I dry them and put them away. A friend of mine says we should invest in a dishwashing machine, especially as H is going to be out of town for three weeks in October. But the problem with mechanical dishwashers, as H regularly observes, is that they really don't clean the dishes very well. Either you have to wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher (as my parents do), or put them through the dishwasher and have "clean" dishes with large chunks of food adhered to them (as H's family does).

Early in our relationship, H made an offhand comment about how a good marriage was founded less on romantic attachment than on the ability to meet each other's daily needs. I remember that comment as one of the first times I thought that maybe we would get married and raise children. The daily ritual of washing and drying the dishes together, by hand, is not what you write rock and roll songs about when you're a dreamy 17-year-old, but at 31, I don't think I'll be buying a new dishwasher anytime soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Skillet beans

Last night I was making dinner for myself and the children - H is in Mexico on important union business - sauteed pork chops, plain white rice, and steamed green beans. As I was trimming the beans, I was remembering how I used to cook green beans before the children got old enough to eat with us (or at least to verbalize their pickiness):

  1. Heat some butter or oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Add green beans, and maybe some minced onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-3 minutes (until onions start to color, if using). If desired, add some minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds before proceeding to the next step.
  3. Pour in a splash of white wine, and stir to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover the pan.
  4. When the beans are not quite tender (about 2-3 minutes), uncover and add one or more of the following:
    • almond slivers
    • golden raisins
    • chopped fresh basil
  5. Boil uncovered over high heat until the liquid forms a thick coating on the beans, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Cooking is one of my favorite activities - not just cooking, but the whole set of activities involved in feeding my family: meal planning, grocery shopping, figuring out how to use up the leftovers, and so forth. It is, for me, the ideal blend of mental and physical work - it is skilled labor, and I have the luxury of being able to do it solely for friends and family, completely outside the world of buying and selling labor power.

I tend to think that a lot of socialists and whatnot are attracted to Marx because of the vision of a utopian society free of exploitation, but for me, the most powerful part of Marx's thought is his analysis of the labor process. For Marx, labor is the heart of what makes us human, and unalienated labor, where one uses brain and hand together, in voluntary cooperation with others, to create the desired result for oneself and one's community, is the highest form of human activity. Capitalism degrades labor by separating the brain (management) from the hand (the worker), and because the capitalist keeps the product, giving the worker cash in return. In my kitchen, I have a little space where I can engage in unalienated labor.

Of course, there are always new challenges as social structures become more complex. I now have to feed not just two adults, with adult tastes, but four individuals with completely autonomous tastes, three of whom are exceptionally picky and quite expressive about their distaste for certain foods or certain preparations of those foods. Cooking separate meals for everyone is not an option, because that creates excessive dish-washing work for H. So I have adopted new strategies, like steaming the vegetables and (when I have energy) providing sauces for the adults to spoon over them. But I still look forward to the day when I can once again cook green beans in a skillet.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Pearly white

I took the kids to the dentist this morning. E, the older sister (almost six), is so grown up that she went off with one hygienist without a second thought while I accompanied her younger brother S (almost four) to the child-size sink where they give tooth-brushing instructions and then to the chair, where he got his first professional teeth-cleaning.

Pediatric dentistry seems to have changed a lot from what I remember of my own childhood experience. I'm sure we were also given cheap plastic trinkets, or at least stickers, at the end of the check-up as a concession to our young age, but the pediatric dentist we take our children to provides them with sunglasses to alleviate the brightness of the light shining in their face, allows them to choose from a menu of at least a dozen flavors for their fluoride (there is an actual printed menu, with the flavors illustrated by pictures), and commemorates each child's first cleaning by taking a polaroid shot of him or her reclining in the dentists' chair, wearing the sunglasses, and filling out a "Historical First" certificate.

But perhaps all the pomp and circumstance is an important ritual of conferring class privilege. After all, when I was growing up, my sister and I were constantly reminded by our mother, one of four children of a butcher and an asbestos-factory worker, that we were lucky to be getting regular dental care as children. The point was brought home by the fact that, while we had to endure cleaning and polishing (without sunglasses or fancy menus), she was having to go to the dentist regularly for vastly more unpleasant procedures such as root canals. If my parents had been class-conscious trade unionists, they might have also taught us that employer-provided dental benefits were the fruits of struggle, first won in the 1950s by a union local led by Tony Mazzocchi, one of the great working-class leaders of the later 20th century.

Privilege tries to maintain itself unchallenged by making privilege seem like the norm. If we assume that all the white kids in college got their on “their own merits,” then affirmative action for blacks seems like a “special preference,” because we forget that some of the white kids were “legacies” (accepted because their parents went to that college, like the current resident in the White House), most of them benefited from the uneven and discriminatory distribution of educational resources in the U.S., and so forth. If we assume that having enough nutritious food is normal, then hunger becomes invisible.

The certificate is a message to my children that one’s first teeth cleaning is one of the small, but universal, rites of growing up, and it’s one that the kids in our neighborhood who don’t have good union dental insurance will not have had, and therefore they will be less than “normal.” L, who lives down the street, or E’s best friend A, will have teeth that are not as pearly white and straight, and over the years they may subtly become objects of derision or pity.

We haven’t really started teaching our children about privilege yet. At not-quite six and four, their political analysis is still at the level of “fair” and “not fair,” and I don’t want them misunderstanding and boasting to other kids about their privilege. But maybe I should start looking for a good children's biography of Tony Mazzocchi.