How My Mother Made Me a Reader

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Some people are, unfortunately, born out of their proper time; either too early or two late to live the life that would have fulfilled them. My mother was  one of those people.

She graduated from high school in December of 1929, straight into the Great Depression. This sounds like the worst possible luck; and for my father, who left high school in the same year—without graduating—it probably was. But for my mother, bad times meant good opportunities. She had a high school diploma at a time when most women didn’t; she could type and take shorthand; and best of all—no, really—her home-life wasn’t happy. To what was probably the whole family’s satisfaction, at age eighteen my mother took an apartment in Chicago with some friends who wanted—at least for the time being—to have jobs instead of husbands. One of them worked at Sears, Roebuck, and recommended Mother for a job there.

Before the Depression, women at companies like Sears had mostly been confined to the sales floor, and restricted to departments like clothing, where employees were salaried, and not—as in furniture, and appliances—on commission. But as the depression deepened, Sears cut its expenses by hiring women to do what had formerly been strictly men’s jobs. My mother replaced a better-paid man in the accounting department; worked hard; and did well. She even got raises, though her salary never approached those of her male co-workers. She was thrifty, and before long she was able to afford her own apartment. She furnished it with the aid of her Sears Employee Discount; and bought herself an extensive wardrobe. Given what I know of my mother’s execrable tastes, both the furniture and clothing were probably horrible; but she, at least, was happy with her choices.

In later years, she hinted that she’d had a love affair or two during this time; but like most women of the day, what she wanted, ultimately, was to be married. In 1939 a friend at Sears set Mother up with her brother. Three months later, the two were wed; and three months after that, Mom quit work because riding the street-car to her job made her nauseous. My brother was born seven months later.

Even as times changed around her, Mom continued to insist to her own children that “working women” were emotionally stunted, unfulfilled beings who were to be pitied. But in fact, she envied them. A lot. She hated housework and found children and child-care tedious.

Her escape from household monotony was in reading fiction; and this is Rule One in my system for Making Your Children Readers. If you want to make readers, be a reader yourself. Read a lot. Read obsessively. Read so hard that the world recedes into a thing of no importance whatever, and keep it up for hours at a time. You may as well know right now that your children regard most of what you say as no more than an annoying buzz in their ears, but they closely observe what you do. Tell them to read; give them all the excellent reasons that reading is good; and they will not hear you. Swat them away like flies when they disturb your reading, and they will want to discover for themselves the secret joys you find there.

Rule Two of the system is, after your children are four or five years old, read aloud to them; but never as much as they would like. Mom started many books aloud, but I can’t remember her ever reading one through to the end. After a few chapters she’d go dutifully off to stand at the kitchen stove for awhile, her own book propped before her, boiling something she could allege was “dinner,” and leaving the book she’d been reading to us kids lying somewhere, open. It never lay unread for long.

Rule Three is to have a lot of reading material right in your house. People are surprised when I tell them that I never had a library card until I was in college; but honestly, the fact that my mother was too busy reading and boiling dinner and wishing she was Vice President in Charge of Something Big to take her children to get library cards was a big part of why I am a reader today. Our house was full of books, and they stayed around—not for two weeks, as a library book would have—but for my entire childhood, or in other words, until I got around to being interested in them. In the fourth grade, to the shock of my teachers, I read Oliver Twist. I read it because my mother happened to own a copy with interesting wood-cut illustrations. I studied them for a while, trying to figure out what the story was from the pictures; gradually worked my way through the smaller blocks of dialogue; and ended by reading the whole thing just to see how it all came out. I read hundreds of books that way.

But the best, most effective rule of all is Rule Four. Rule Four says, put your kids to bed at a ridiculously early hour (I was ordered to bed at 8:30 until I was in high school) in a room with no source of entertainment save a well-stocked bookshelf; and then supply your children with bedside flashlights.

Then go off and enjoy a quiet evening, reading. Do not ask, next morning or ever, why your children’s flashlight batteries are always dead.

Meet You on the Barricades

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A long time ago, I used to wear a peace sign suspended from the love-beads around my neck, knew many verses to “We Shall Not Be Moved”, and kept a pair of good walking shoes handy for marching in support of civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and against American involvement in foreign wars—specifically, in those days, the one in Vietnam. In the days before the internet and social media, getting together and marching was the only way people knew to counter the widely-disseminated official government position that the American people didn’t really want civil rights to be more broadly extended, or the Vietnam War to end. Thousands of people in the street singing songs and carrying signs was proof for anyone to see that yes, indeed, vast numbers of the American people certainly did want those things, and weren’t going to be stopped from saying so.

The results of our activism were somewhat mixed. The war in Vietnam finally ended and I ceremoniously threw away my peace sign; but then other wars came along. Women lost the fight for a constitutional amendment to guarantee our rights; but we resigned ourselves to the longer, harder road of securing them piecemeal and kept at it. Though we’ve made progress at it, the struggle for civil rights in general has sometimes seemed endless. But along the way, I stopped marching, because our elected officials seemed, finally, to realize that people who marched on behalf of a cause also voted for candidates who supported that cause in Washington, and that if they ignored the marchers, it would be at their peril.

Now that it appears that we’re going to be governed—not through our elected representatives—but by executive orders and fiats imposed by people whose positions are outside of our traditional system of checks and balances, and implemented immediately and preferably when no one is looking.* Many of the elective officials I counted on to be our bulwark against this kind of tyranny are, instead, either indifferent or complicit in it.

Clearly, they need to be taught the lesson again that as we march, so do we vote; so I’ve hung a new peace-sign on a chain around my neck; crocheted myself a pink pussy-hat, and got a sturdy new pair of walking shoes. I’m going out to demonstrate again.

Some things will be very different this time. In the old days, the police hated the demonstrators. Honestly, I always had the feeling they were just looking for any excuse to beat us up. Nearly every police force in the 60’s was made up overwhelmingly of white men. The idea of allowing non-white, female people to have equal rights with men like themselves, who represented the pinnacle of human evolution, seemed to strike them as a personal affront.

But my daughter, who participated in the Woman’s March on Washington, tells me that this time, the police were on the marchers’ side. To prove it she sent me a picture of a man with a sign identifying himself as a Muslim being embraced by a (non-white, female) police officer who was wearing a pink pussy-hat pulled over her regulation one. I’m thinking of having it enlarged and framed.

The police have gotten smarter about demonstrations, too; and probably feel safer, which doubtless contributes to their improved attitude toward the crowd. In my day, we used carry glass bottles to drink from, and elevated our signs by attaching them to dowels and yardsticks. Do I need to point out how easily weaponized glass bottles and sticks are? Sometimes the police got so nervous that they confiscated them, leaving thirsty, cranky marchers whose arms ached. If you’ll notice in the picture above, the person carrying the “I’m with her” sign has come up with an ingenious way to calm the nice police officers’ nerves and elevate the sign so that the cameras can see it, too. S/he’s made a tube of an extra piece of poster-board (permitted by the police), cut a slit in the tube, and put the sign in that. This is such a brilliant idea that I wish I’d thought of it myself. Also, water comes in thin plastic bottles now. I’m going to take a couple extra with me on my marches, and if I see a police officer, I’ll offer one.

Other things haven’t changed at all, it appears. If you should happen to take part in a march, keep in mind that no matter what the organizers tell you, there will not be enough porta-potties at the demonstration site. Not half enough. Possibly not even one-tenth as many as are actually needed. Be proud of this—it means you have a good turnout—but be prepared. In the old days, experienced marchers sometimes made a quick stop at the camping-goods store before the march, for what I’ll just call “emergency supplies”. Nowadays I think the old-folks section of the drug-store might have a better selection. I know you get my drift, so I’ll say no more.

If you demonstrate, take snacks to the demonstration. Share them.

Chanting slogans is fine on a march; but singing is much, much better. But in any crowd, there are more people who want to sing than ones who know the words to the songs. In my young days I heard “This Land Is Your Land” sung by both the demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators at the same demonstration, so I made sure to learn the verses as well as the chorus. It hasn’t lost its popularity since I was young.  It was sung by the women in Washington, too.

Also, I noticed early in my marching days that lots of people will join in on songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” because the only words with which the whole crowd must be familiar are “we shall not be moved”. Verses can be handled solo.  You can keep people singing this one forever, since anybody with half a brain and a cause they believe in can make up a verse on the spot and sing it solo.

Also at any protest demonstration,  “We Shall Overcome” should be sung. I have known even hard, bitter people to be moved to tears by a chorus or two of “We Shall Overcome”.

Just say it’s a hunch, but I kind of suspect that something—some catchy jingle—with a chorus along the lines of “Super-callous-fragile-ego-Trump-you-are-atrocious” will catch on soon, too.

Although the exact date hasn’t been set, there are going to be Marches for Science in Washington and around the nation soon. I’ll be there, of course. I almost have to be. If you should happen to attend too, let’s meet. I’ll be the one under the “Science, Not Silence” sign, wearing comfortable shoes and a pink pussy-hat; and I’ll be singing: “We’ll take back the Congress! We shall overcome! We’ll take back the White House, too! We shall overcome!”

Also, all the verses of “This Land is Your Land”.


*And please don’t bother to tell me this is justified because, “Obama started it”. I have never subscribed to the notion that two wrongs make a right. As far as I’m concerned, people who believe that former president Obama was wrong to issue so many executive orders have less excuse for supporting those of Trump; not more.

Yesterday’s Future

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After attempting a few books (well, first chapters of books, actually) about non-human races and societies, I’ve decided that genre’s not for me. I love writing for the chance it gives me to throw off the constraints of reality and flat-out make stuff up; but, as turns out, there are limits to just how unconstrained I want to be. After just a few pages of having to make everything up—the psychologies of the individual beings; the sociological parameters of their culture; the biology of my non-human creatures, and whether they had mommies and hearts and fingers and if they did, how many of each; and, most of all, whether any of it actually needed to be in the book—I was exhausted.

So I decided to go back to writing about humans again—not my very favorite species, but one with which I am at least somewhat familiar—and mess around with my projected book’s temporal setting instead. I decided I’d send my characters to live in one of those predicted futures that somehow never came, and see what they would do.

There are hundreds of these “futures” to choose from, of course. The one of my young years was mostly a post-nuclear moonscape in which the mutated remnants of humanity fought each other for scraps, but that would be depressing to write about. I decided instead to appropriate the “world of tomorrow” that giant corporations like GE and Ford were selling to the American public in the two decades after World War II. It’s consistent and well-documented; and it’s also the vision of the future that probably most influenced the generation just before mine; a generation whose values and beliefs—as I was recently sharply reminded—I have never understood.

—Also I picked Giant American Corporation Future because I thought it would be easy to research. All I’d have to do was watch a few of the many, many short films Corporate America produced to promote merchandise they did not yet manufacture* (!) and I’d be ready to go. I remember watching these films on rainy days at school in the 1960s, when my teachers, at least, thought the “tomorrow” they depicted, though delayed, might still on the way.

I think my personal favorite was the one in which, after making herself comfy in bed, a modestly night-gowned young lady pushed a button (everything was done by pushing a button) and the head of her bed slid through a suddenly-appearing portal in the wall, half-way out into the— The what? The back-yard? The alley the garbage-truck was going to trundle down early next morning? A void in the air twenty floors above Manhattan? The idea was that you could sleep breathing God’s fresh air; but did the engineers who conceived this marvel never hear of smog; stray cats; sleepwalkers? Despite unanswered questions like this one, I enjoyed the first half-dozen flickers (all except Wink Martindale as an astrophysicist, which I found highly unconvincing); and then I began to feel very sad. It wasn’t appliances these little movies were selling, it was a bill of goods.

The Future of these films was very, very clean; and all the wives (no women but wives appeared) were submissive and content. When not pushing buttons, they entertained the bridge club. Children were scrubbed and happy; all men were gainfully employed and played golf. Culture was entirely homogeneous—core values; music; fashion; everything. By the 1960s, a few African Americans had begun to appear in them, but any implied threat was neutralized by carefully pairing every black male with a black female. There were no Asians. Presumably they all lived in Asia. Hispanics lived in—Mexico City. Where there were nice golf-courses. Everything was peaceful (no nuclear moonscapes here, folks!); uniform; and, from my point of view, very boring.

And all this cultural homogeneity was made possible through the miracle of technology! According to the films, technology was going to solve everything. Every need was met, every disease cured by the push of a button. An automatic dishwasher would cure Mother’s restless striving to have something meaningful in her life; and technological Plenty meant that there would be enough of everything even for “Those People” (you know the ones); who would, under the influence of this Plenty, become happy, non-threatening replicas of “Us”. All of Middle America’s worst fears, in fact, would (according to the films produced by Corporate America) be met and conquered by technology. All without a shot being fired; and all, the films implied, by the year 1999.

My own generation was too despairing about the future (moonscape!), which was bad—but at least it means that we have been happily surprised all through our lives to find ourselves not only still not bombed to radioactive atoms, but living to grow old. In contrast, those members of the generation before mine who believed in Corporate America’s vision of the future have suffered disappointment after disappointment as knotty social problems were not, in fact, solved with better household appliances.

And if they passed their exaggerated hopes and outsized disappointments along to their children—and one assumes many did—it might explain a few things about recent history.


*(Whirlpool is still trying to predict the “Kitchen of the Future“, by the way.)

Why Can’t Things Ever Be Simple?

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I like to read period literature.  –Not the stuff that gets anthologized and reprinted from age to age.  That stuff is mostly whatever the anthologists think is least likely to offend modern sensibilities.  It doesn’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of ordinary people of the time.  I like to read the ephemera.  Forgettable novels and cheesy magazine articles are full of insights into what people like me, people who were not necessarily great and lucid thinkers, once really believed.

A lot of times I find things in period writing that I don’t like very much.  Even after reading a lot of it, the intolerant religiosity of the western world in the nineteenth century sometimes still shocks me.  Writers whose portraits depict sweetly-smiling old ladies in mourning bonnets have no trouble consigning most of humankind to eternal damnation for the sin of not being the right sort of Christian.

Sort of reminds me of something—I can’t think what—that I read in the papers just recently…

Sometimes I find funny things.  I own at least two hundred articles and pamphlets, spanning two hundred years, outlining (in the blackest terms imaginable) what the authors imagine will be the dire and inevitable consequence to women of (among many, many other things) speaking in church or in public; taking payment for nursing the sick; becoming schoolteachers; using a telephone or riding a bicycle; voting; shortening their skirts or their hair; or serving in the military as (underpaid) “auxiliaries.”

The hilarious thing is that—in contrast to the poor record of futurists in general—the writers of these articles were absolutely correct in almost everything they prophesied!  Talkative, employed, short-haired, trousered women really didn’t continue to find their ultimate fulfillment in home, family, and a position of perpetual dependency.  (Men still find women attractive, though.  The extinction of the race due to the lack of the motivation a delicate silk gown provides to men to perform their generative duties is one prediction that has definitely not come true.  –Also, nobody foresaw the tattoos.  Ever.)

And sometimes in ephemera, I find things that make me nostalgic, and kind of sad.

This weekend I was reading a Nero Wolfe mystery that came out in 1965.  In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in an effort to end attempts to deny African-Americans their legitimate rights and responsibilities as Americans.  Though that Act isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, the consciousness of it pervades the book.

The plot is a very common one:  A woman is found murdered, and her fiancé is suspected of the crime.  The complication, the topical detail that makes Nero Wolfe agree to take the case, is that the woman is white; and the fiancé, African-American.  The father of the fiancé, in fact, admiringly quotes a speech Nero Wolfe once gave to a group of African-American men—meant to be stirring, but to modern ears, bombastic and more than a little condescending—urging them to be better and more just than their oppressors.  With hindsight, I can just imagine how such a speech would really have been received.

The rest of the story is formulaic.  (Or at least, it is now.  It might have seemed more original at the time.)  Racist attitudes are openly expressed by the ignorant and evil; while the educated and/or well-meaning say things like, “When I consider myself superior to anyone, as I frequently do, I need a better reason than his skin.”  The problems of the two families, white and black, exactly mirror one another; as do, apparently, their life experiences.  The accused’s father is a professor of anthropology.  If he encountered any racist barriers in his rise to that eminence—and modern readers know that he did—it isn’t mentioned.  Once certain legal disabilities have been done away with, the book implies, the problem of racism in America will be solved, because black Americans will quickly become identical with the white mainstream American “us”.

Back when the book was written, I believed that, too.  I’m embarrassed to remember that now.

It’s been fifty years, and we’re still regrettably racist in this country.  But we have made some progress, I think.  Few of us believe anymore that there’s a single “us” for all the “theys” to turn into, for one thing.  That was an important insight.  America has been a multicultural society from the first, and success for a multicultural society doesn’t lie in somehow ceasing to be multicultural.  Nero Wolfe was good at solving crimes, and I envy his success with orchids (a pink Vanda!)—but in some ways, he was also just so awfully naïve.

I learn a lot of good lessons from reading ephemeral writings, such as that the longer-standing the injustice, the more intractable and elusive the remedy for it; that the degree of hysteria a societal change engenders isn’t necessarily proportional to the issue’s actual importance (oceans of ink were once expended in a futile effort to persuade men not to bring down Western Civilization by adopting the newfangled style of buttoning their trousers at the front, rather than at the side); and that solutions to one problem usually create a bunch of new problems.

And now, thanks to a Nero Wolfe novel, I also know to write only fantasy, or something set in the distant past.  Sure, topical is popular; topical is commercial—but unless you possess a crystal ball (I do not), at every stroke of the pen you risk—fifty years on—looking like a fool.

A Rant

dollI’m about half-through with the novel I’m working on, so I figure it’s time I started thinking about a plot for the next.  This time, I’m going to write a serious work.  A very serious work.  You get no love from the critics, I find, if you’re not deadly, deadly serious.

It’s going to be about a marriage.

I’m a bit of an authority on marriage, having personally been married for many years myself; but the marriage in my book isn’t going to be like mine, because the woman in my book isn’t going to be like me.  She’s going to be pretty, for one thing.  And she’s going to be one of those people-pleasing types.  The kind who greases the axles of society and make the wheels of the world go ‘round—sometimes for everybody but themselves.

The person she wants to please most, of course, is her husband, because she loves him.  (I’m unsure as to whether I should include a few of the men she loved and wanted to please before she got married, or whether I should just start with the husband.  I’ll think about that.)  He’s not easy to please, either—though of course, like everybody, he thinks he is.  He’s picky about his food and his clothes and how often, and under what circumstances, he visits his mother; but these are all things with which my protagonist (I’ll call her Eve) can deal.

The matter of Eve’s personal appearance—in which Hubby demonstrates a consuming interest—is more problematic.

Hubby expects her to shave her legs and armpits, of course.  Hair grows there naturally, we assume for some good reason, on Hubby as well as Eve; but Eve must shave hers in order to be desirable.  Shaving results in stubble, however; and Hubby doesn’t like stubble, unless it’s his own—which, every day after about 5pm, it usually is.  Eventually she has her legs and arms waxed, instead—a process which causes her considerable pain.  It is also expensive.  Eve’s pubic hair, too, must be carefully groomed.  Hubby likes this.

He also likes Eve to be thin.  Quite thin.  Diet-all-the-time thin.  The kind of thin that makes lush breasts unlikely.  Hubby likes lush breasts.  Clever Eve has false ones implanted.

She also speaks in well-modulated tones, so as not to threaten Hubby’s sense of manly dominance, and strives to walk gracefully in shoes that hurt her feet, but make her legs look good.  She is careful to sit properly in dresses that, were she careless, would show off body parts that are for Hubby’s private viewing.

All the waxing and the implants and the hurty shoes (also the hair and the make-up and the juice cleanses and so on and so forth forever and ever amen) are expensive; and Eve wishes she were paid more at her job.  Unfortunately, no one takes a woman who has shaved and dieted and dressed herself to look like a child with large breasts seriously, and she is passed over for several promotions.

Then comes the story’s big finish.

I’m of two minds about the finish.  One part of me wants a sad, message-y ending:  One day Eve gets old, and all the primping and shaving in the world can’t make her look like a girl again.  Hubby’s eye—and other parts—wander, and the marriage ends in divorce.

The other part of me wants a happy, message-y ending:  One day Eve says, “You know what?  That’s enough.”  She goes feral—or anyway as feral as Hubby, whom everyone regards as a perfectly normal member of civilized society despite having hair and a certain amount of body-fat—and to her surprise, Hubby says, “But you’ll still sleep with me, right?  You will?  Okay; cool!”

And they live happily ever after.