Rainy Mornings And The Working Poor

Child in her rain gear.

Child goes to a school that is full of poor kids.  Child is a poor kid.

I am proud and resourceful, so Child’s experience of being a poor kid is different from some of the poor kids she goes to school with.  We are also not always poor.  We are never rich, but we are sometimes lower middle class instead of poor.  It is the way with freelancing.

Child’s first grade teacher told me that she typically loses about half of her students to moving for reasons of financial hardship.

That totally blew my mind.  When I was little, we got maybe one new kid a year, and occasionally kids wouldn’t show up for the following year, but they NEVER left in the middle of the year.

Another thing that blew my mind?

Last year, Child was in a special reading program.  So every day, we did the hour’s worth of homework Child got from her reading help and from her regular class.  Her reading teacher thanked me repeatedly for helping her with her homework, for holding her accountable.

I thought, “but that’s what parents do.”


I take child to school every morning because we live too close for her to get bussed.

And every morning, we working poor people kiss our kids goodbye in our work outfits, some of us are in our pajamas.  Some of us are incredibly young, pushing strollers, or pregnant, or too skinny, or too round, or wear clothes that were obviously somebody richer’s castoffs.

A lot of the parents’ voices rattle from smoking too much. Have kids whose backpacks smell like stale cigarettes. A lot of the parents have stringy, unwashed hair.  A lot of the parents leave the dropping off to the grandparents.  A lot of kids come with somebody else’s parents.  But there’s a real feeling of community and teamwork in these moments.

They feel like home to me.  They feel like moments full of people coming together in a ritual.

Yesterday morning, it was raining.  I often think it’d be a fun view from the air, all the bobbing umbrellas, then the clusters of them at the entrance to the school while people keep themselves, their kids, other people’s kids dry.

When I was little, I barely had to go ten feet from my front door to another dry spot.  I was released within inches of my elementary school, under an awning.

The kids at Child’s school know about trekking for blocks, and they see the value of an umbrella, which is something I had no concept of until I was in my 20s.

And as I crossed High St. on the way to the Pajama Factory, I saw a dad on crutches, getting drenched, shuffling five kids across the street, and I thought, “maybe it’s anecdotal, but there’s a guy who recognizes the importance of getting his kids to school safely & on time.”  He stood, impervious to the rain, watching the kids, made sure they got onto school ground safely.

And as I thought more, I think it’s not anecdotal.  The poor parents I see interacting with their kids obviously love them.  They obviously care about the education.  The trouble is, it takes a lot more hours at $7 to make a living than it does at $30, $100.

And all this ridiculous rhetoric about how poor people are lazy, and Romney’s denial that he’s dismissive toward Americans who don’t pay taxes make me crazy with anger and frustration.  I wonder how many times Romney, not his hired people, helped his children with homework.

How is there any universe in which somebody parenting multiple children and working full time for minimum wage–regardless of the choices, circumstances, etc that led them to that life–could be considered to be lazy?  Working part time for minimum wage and parenting a single child is a greater task than anyone sane would take on outside of parental love.

The fact is that the working poor do not have the time or energy to deal with their kids’ homework.  When the greater pressure is making sure the kids are dressed and fed, who gives a shit about a math worksheet?

It’s not right that our world is like this.  It’s not right that anybody would complain that people who live in poverty don’t have to pay taxes.  It’s not right that there are individual humans who receive enough money annually to pay for private educations for every single one of the underserved kids in my county.  Or that those same humans are pointing their bloated, greedy fingers at the poor–of whom they possess no realistic conception–and saying, “You’re the problem.  You are.  You’re the reason America’s broken.”  How can a group with no voice break America?

But people–even the working poor–listen.  Why?

I would love to understand.  Please help me.  Do you understand how it happens that the filthy stinking rich people who hang out in their luxe mansions, summer homes, golf courses, race tracks, and order more food get to blame and criticize people who have so little they can’t even see to their kids’ educations properly? And why anybody with a modicum of sense would agree?

Is Class-blind Literacy Responsible for Shitty Books?

from Flickr user rachelkramerbussel.com

I shared an article on Facebook.  It was called “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes by Dwight Allen” from the L.A. Review of Books about how Stephen King doesn’t write literature.  I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about SK, but nothing by SK, except for On Writing.

The article inspired a lot of impassioned comments.  Some of the commenters felt anger and annoyance.  All directed at the guy who wrote the article.  And I am really confused about how people could get so angry with Dwight Allen.  He actually read SK’s books, a good number of them, and with thoughtful consideration to SK’s body of work, which I am mostly unwilling to do.

In the piece, he said, “Yes, I have read these books, and they are mostly without literary merit, but SK is the most famous-and-rich writer alive, and that’s really fine with me.  But I become annoyed when he is awarded prestigious literary prizes, like the one for his contribution to American Letters in 2003, just because he’s a nice, liberal guy. Also, why do we choose to read this when there are so many better things to read.”  That’s pure paraphrase.  The article was wonderfully written, full of money vocab and openly a little snobby and pretentious.  Go on, click the link.

But I get it. Because I think what’s going on here is that there’s a chasm between my sense of literary merit and that of the unwashed masses. We writers are a little bit uppity about our relationship with craft, and we have every right to be.

I mean, it’s simply not fair that people who write utterly un-extraordinary sentences, and sometimes people who write horrible books that are full of tropes, redundant phrases, flat characters, and totally predictable turns of plot get to do so and make money from it, while many more people who honor the craft are labeled snobs and relegated to academia or the reviewer’s circle.

Other commenters said, “But you’re wrong!  SK does write literature!”  He does not.  It’s not a value judgement, it’s a fact.  SK writes books that a lot of people like.  That does not, as we know, literature make.

And that brings me round to the review of 50 Shades of Grey by EL James that I read (and shared on facebook) yesterday by PhD candidate Alison Balakskovits in The Missouri Review, a literary journal.  And after my inital twinge of “OMG, why the hell are they talking about that turd in a literary journal or even on its blog,” I read the article.  I was deeply amused.

And the Facebook comments on that review were mostly “Yeah!” and “I’ll never read that shit!”  And I’m glad my friends feel that way.  But the only difference between EL James’s contemporaries and SK’s is that SK got started when there were still gatekeepers, and when books meant something more than money to publishers.

Though it’s a stretch to slide SK and EL James in the same file, it is a much grander stretch to file SK and say, Joan Didion together.

I’ve been wondering a lot and for some time about this disparity between the popularity of books that are strict genre fiction and books that are literary.  I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about it, including one for Jane Friedman’s blog that has a lot of terrific comments and also impassioned views.

And I was thinking before that maybe the problem is the labels we put on books: that genre labels are unhelpful.

And I still think they are, perhaps, part of the problem; though I recognize the need for some finer classification than just Fiction and Nonfiction, because the shades of variation of each are greater than fifty to be sure.

And I was thinking that if we could just get more smart books and writing in front of more people, change the perception of “literary” that inspires fear and angst in the hearts of previously-tortured high school English students, that’d be terrific. People would read them and see, and smart books could enjoy at least equal market share.  And I still think that’s true, too.  I think a lot of the reason that high school kids hate literature is that they’re not yet mature enough to understand it.

I think maybe those people who teach classics in well-done, well-written comics are onto something.

But it occurred to me in this morning’s wee small hours, as I sort of talked myself through what I know of the history of literacy (which is admittedly little) that reading used to be a thing that rich people did. Poor people didn’t read.  They didn’t know how, and they didn’t have time.

Rich people were tutored by classically-trained teachers, learned to read Latin long after it was a dead language, learned not only reading, writing, math, and science, but usually to play a musical instrument, which is shown to be beneficial to a person’s intellect.

But it seems to me that the advent of books for mass-consumption in the US coincides nicely with the latest stages of the industrial revolution, with a kind of upward slope after WWII when attending school became compulsory for all US children of a particular age.

So now, 60-70 years in, we’re in a place where not only can everyone read, our educations are so diluted that we don’t even know what good reading is.  We’re so ignorant on that topic that people actually read and enjoy! BS like 50 Shades of Grey.  And worse, anybody thinks she can write a book!

I mean, I’ve read tons of books, and my canonical, classical reading repertoire is shit.  And mine is loads better than a lot of people. I can at least say that I’ve read one or more works from all the major literary periods.

Not at all to vilify teachers and education, I’m beginning to think that the misfortune of literature is owing to the logistical problems with literacy and education for everybody and funding of it.  Of course, I’m not proposing that we return to the class-determined education model.  Certainly, I would be a laundress (though I do love doing laundry), but I’m suggesting that perhaps we ought to re-evaluate how we do book teachin’ at the primary and secondary levels.

Do you have any ideas?

I Got Annoyed by Stephen King, Then I Loved Him.

From Flickr User AZRainman

Right.  Until a few weeks ago, I had never read a Stephen King anything.

Don’t get pissed.  I’m just not interested.  I do want to read The Green Mile, but that is all.  I have seen a couple of the movies made from Stephen King novels/novellas: The Green Mile, The Stand.  That might be it. I honestly do not know.

It’s not in my aesthetic.

But I had to read his writing manual/memoir On Writing for the Wilkes Residency.

This was my emotional experience during the reading:  First, there was boredom. So I skipped the “I was the kid of a single mom, I want you to know that was hard” part, and started in on the section that was about writing.

Then there was utter annoyance.  The annoyance came as much from King’s arrogance as from the fact that I feel ambivalent about the usefulness of reading books about other writers’ processes.  I’m not saying that I have nothing to learn.  To the contrary.  I feel like I have tons to learn.  But I’m not going to learn what I need to learn about my process from Stephen King.  I’m going to learn that by reading and writing, and that is all I want to do, ever, basically.

Then there was indifference.  Here was my thinking: all right, King.  I know you hate adverbs.  I get it.  I hate them too.  I’m with you that more writers should learn some stuff about craft.  You’re right about the tool box, but you’re not knocking my socks off, here, buddy.  You really ought to be.  You are one of the few writers in history to actually get rich from writing.

Then there was anger.  I found some of the examples he used to be just preposterous.  The book was like barely confined King ego.

Then there was creeping fondness.  I promise you I fought it.  But he’s kind of funny.  And he’s earned the right to speak with authority about writing.  And he didn’t speak with any guilt at all about getting rich on writing.  I find it to be obnoxious when people feel guilty about getting rich.  I want to tell them that if they feel so guilty about being rich, they should do something useful with their money, live like paupers, and quit whining.

And by the last fifty pages of the book, I was lapping it up like a black dog in summer.  And it wasn’t really what he said so much as how he said it.  He’s frank and honest and underneath the bravado/braggadocio, there’s this twitchy, insecure artist.  The same one that lives in all of us writers.

I am alone in this assessment of King’s book, that is 80% yuck, 20% I love you, Stephen King.  Most of the other folks at the residency all louvvred the King book.  Which was sad.  A lot of them were vocally antagonistic toward the Brande book, Becoming a Writer.  I enjoyed the quiet doggedness with which Brande wrote and recommended to a writerly life.  There really isn’t a better example.

After all, we can’t all be King.

Purity Balls, and All They Represent, Are Absurd.

From Flickr User godfreek56 Hmmm.

First: Some facts about me.

1.  I grew up in a Christian home in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s still Christian there, my siblings and parents are Protestant a la Baptist (some more absolutist than others), and I am solidly agnostic.  Sometimes I attend church when I visit them, I do this because I know it makes them happy and gives them hope, but I find it to be incredibly uncomfortable.    Like how I feel in nursing homes: a little sick inside and powerless to help the people there’s illnesses.

2.  When I was fifteen or sixteen, I was given a “promise ring” by my parents.  It was very expensive and pretty, and it was a symbol of my promise to “remain pure” till marriage.  I was totally on board.  I am, now, a little ashamed by my then-zealotry.

3.  I was a virgin until I was in my 20s.

4.  I have a daughter who is six who does not know her biological father.

5.  I think sex is great.

That’s the stuff I thought about when I first heard of Purity Balls.

My friend who keeps me up-to-speed on absurd pop culture stuff asked me the other week if I’d heard of these things called, “Purity Balls.”

“Ha!” I said. “Sounds Oxymoronic!”

She laughed and said, “Oh my.  It’s horrible.  I’ll send you some links.”

So thanks, Brooke, for the research.

Another Unreasonable Thing from the Christians

Purity Balls are silly and creepy, and–more than anything else–another way for young Christian girls to be tutored in their inequality.  Taking a girl’s power over her own sexuality away is another way of saying “you are not to be trusted with this body, you are not to be trusted with this self. Here, let daddy fix it up for you.”

Having some kind of commitment ceremony, signing some kind of compact on fancy paper with her dad is NOT going to stop a young woman from, eventually, wanting to have sex.  And a person should, absolutely, in her late teens and twenties want to have sex.  It’s a biological imperative.  Plus, it’s fun, good exercise, and important to practice.  It gets to be more fun the more one practices.

Dads’ jobs are to

1) Make sure their daughters are informed.
2) Make sure their daughters feel loved.
3) Answer their daughters’ questions without judgement (which has to be incredibly hard, but can be done b/c I’ve seen it).
4) Acknowledge that children, even girl children, become grownups with all the hangups, pleasures, responsibilities of adulthood, and to prepare them for it.
5)Accept Dad’s own fallibility.

Same goes for moms.  And for moms, I add affirming that a woman’s power is nothing to be feared or abhorred by demonstrating assertive, self-actualized womanhood.

About the promisor.

Asking a girl to make a promise to her father to “be pure” before she’s really able to understand the full implications of such a promise sends the message that her purity, and–by extension–her choices are not her own.  Worse, that they belong to men: first a father, and then a husband.  What?!

Plus, it opens Pandora’s Box of utterly odd expectations for young women (daddies have been cooking a while, they’re typically better at life than fresh-out-of-the-box, young, horny boys), potential family crisis when the promising young person realizes that sex is way more fun than pleasing daddy, and an unnatural amount of authority for daddy over whom daughter will be allowed to date and marry.

I won’t dwell here, but it is not a drastic leap between daddy being surrogate and actual boyfriend.

Daddies, though well-intentioned, and huge assets (if they are good), are not always right.  They need to let their daughters make mistakes.  But if they’ve done their jobs as outlined above, their daughters will make mistakes everybody can live through.

A Journalist from Glamour went to a purity ball, and said that a lot of the young women there are home schooled, and after school, often enter family business.  She said that the girls pledging range in age from 4.  Four! Seriously?!  Some four-year-olds are still in diapers!

And The Promisee.

These moms and dads and daughters think ONLY in the construct of Fundamentalist Christian Philosophy.  Some of them call themselves “thinking people” because they allege to have psychic abilities with “right and wrong” and are able to see the world in “black and white,” thanks to their good buddies the father, son, and holy spirit.

But what they mean is, “I’ve been indoctrinated to believe that my views are marginal and I therefore have to stick up for myself against ‘the world’ which is out to turn me into a ‘pagan/heathen/sinner’ because they don’t know Jesus, which is the only way to a righteous life and/or heaven.”

I’m not going to call this view of the world delusional, but I can’t come up with a better adjective, so this is me not saying that being paranoid about the world around you while talking to Jesus your imaginary friend about how hard your life is, is delusional.

Daddies can’t have too much say.

Picture this: 19-year-old daughter meets a boy wherever, introduces to daddy who’s guardian of daughter’s purity, announces the pending courtship, what does daddy do?

1.  Shoot the bastard.

2.  Tell daughter she is not allowed to date said boy.

3.  Welcome boy with open arms, but menace boy with framed purity contract.

4.  Buy daughter stainless steel locking chastity belt.

5.  Act like a regular person and smile suspiciously and go have “holy cow, my kid’s growing up” moments in private.

Except for in the last option, I can see no potentially positive outcome for any of that.

Look, I’m not saying that parents can’t and shouldn’t weigh in.  I’m just saying the bigger the weigh in, the less likely the teenager/young adult is to listen.  We all remember being there, don’t we?  Hell, my parents were pretty sane and reasonable, and I ran out of their house the earliest moment possible because I felt like they were trying to control me.  I may be particularly willful, but I know plenty of people with similar stories.

And teenagers/young adults who follow all their parents’ advice, allow their parents to pick their spouse, will probably end up one of the following ways:

1. Divorced anyhow (one of the stated benefits of the Purity Ball is that it diminishes the divorce rate, which is bullshit, b/c when people don’t have full access to their frontal lobes–people don’t fully develop this way until into their 20s–they will do something foolhardy like get hitched so they can have sex).

Just a quick little thing from The Dana Foundation: A central tenet of neuroscience, for example, is that the brain continues to develop its “wiring diagram” at least well into a person’s 20s. The frontal lobes, regions critical to high-level cognitive skills such as judgment, executive control, and emotional regulation, are the last to fully develop.

2.  Full of bitterness and regret at like 30.

3.  Parents to 10 children before age 30, and at 50–when said children are reared–lost, alone, confused, stymied, broke, and ill-equipped to handle the world around them.

4.  Going totally wild and wooly but without any smarts about how to do so safely, and winding up a single parent, dead, infected, addicted, or a prostitute.

5.  Sort of normal, but overly devout & dangerously absolutist.  Think Unabomber.

6.  Totally ending their relationship with their parents in order to lead a normal, independent life.

Look, I’m not advocating for total freedom for teenagers.  But I’m advocating for parents–especially Christian parents–to understand that even if God is the way they choose to have impulse control, their teenager may not agree, and their teenager should not be forced to.

I am advocating for parents to respect themselves and their children–who will eventually be adults, and who will need the tools to live their own lives–enough to try to find a place in the middle.  And I’m advocating for people to be real about sex.  There’s no reason to make it taboo or try to control it via indoctrination or fear.

The best way to help your kids about about sex is to give them all the facts, to explain their options to them in clear language, and to encourage them to talk to you about it if they decide to have sex when they’re teenagers.  Which is likely.  The sex part, probably not the talking part.  But I bet if you’re paying attention, you’ll be able to tell.  You’ll have to acknowledge that your kid’s sexy parts have developed though, in order to stave off denial.  I’m not saying this is going to be easy, people.

Also, if you have sons, please–for the love of all that is holy–teach them how to use a condom.  I leave you with this advice: pinch the tip, and use a banana.

And About Marriage?

Really.  Why bother?  All right, all right.  I know.  Pledging in front of god and man, blah blah.  Accountability, snore.  (Sorry, Smellen).

But here’s the thing: aside from that there isn’t a serious economic imperative to have a marriage anymore–sure, it’s easier with two people, but it’s totally not impossible with one–there’s not a social one either.  Marriage–even monogamy–is no longer as much the norm, according to this piece in The Daily Beast.  Read all the linked articles there that provide a less permissive view of monogamy.

For me?  Marriage seems like a pretty crass, complicated bet.  I feel really young.  After all, culturally, 30 is the new 20, according to AARP. I’m growing and changing still.

And if I think of the me at 25, she’s as different from the me at 20 as the me at 30. I’m different now, at 31, than I will be next year this time.  The world is going at warp speed, and it’s unreasonable to expect that there won’t be irreconcilable differences in any relationship I choose for myself at some point along the way.  Why invite the expense and complication of divorce?    Why not just have a messy, sad, difficult, but far cheaper, breakup instead?

So to me, it seems like it’d be a lot more practical for the fundamentalists to invest their time, money, and energy from these Chastity Galas into self-improvement books, college funds, and educational materials about sex, pregnancy, STDs, and monogamy.

And for Christ’s sake, just let your daughter grow up.