Monday, February 27, 2006

Pirate's Second Cup

Too bad
the work week's
grim reality
spills its thick dark
coffee headlines
on the weekend's
back page.

Why can't we
endlessly continue
in expectation
just one moment longer
one more game level, ma ...?

in Monday's high seas
privateers plunder
waves wash decks clear
of good deeds
freely paid
with just one squeeze
of the hand.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lapwing's Landing

Are you set for a landing
or a crash? A bird
never knows,
flying in defiance
of the laws
of aerodynamics.

Lava, lavender,
A temporal trinity
imparting life,
liberty, the pursuit of

Are you a seagull
seeking shelter, a vulture
circling doom, or a dove
bearing a reed
that announces
the end
of the deluge?

Friday, February 17, 2006


Several women in a Latin American e-mail list that I run (see Cara y Ceca) have raised the complaint that the liberation of women hasn't turned out to be such a great freedom after all and this has left me wondering. One of them went so far as to declare:

We'd be better off back in the age of the caves, when women only had to feed and look after the family. Now we have to be the one who supports it as well and that has consequences.

This is a professional who travels and lives what seems to be a comfortable middle class life. Another adds:

Due to the supposed "liberation," we are more enslaved than before.

A third offers a class analysis:

My experience shows me that the complaints come without doubt first from women of the upper classes, who generally have two maids, about whom they protest that "they are lazybones" as they themselves indulge in navel gazing. Middle class women are more evenhanded. They complain less and have more responsibilities. Lower class women, who don't complain at all, have the worst lot because they work at home and work outside the home while their men spend the day getting drunk. The strangest thing is that if the men leave them, they quickly search (and find) a substitute. What for? To support lazy slugs?

Asked whether the answer is for women to go back to kinder, küche, kirche, they demur. No, that's not it.

So I wonder whether the problem is merely that we've been a little too optimistic. We thought, circa 1972, when it was said that "sisterhood is powerful," that a few good slogans and a few laws and regulations and even a few good magazine articles and movies would change things radically.

But, let's face it, the setup between men and women that existed then had been in place since men left the caves to go hunt and women stayed behind cooking, mending and caring for the young. What are three decades of the second wave of feminism against 100 millenia or so?

In the prevailing pattern, moreover, women have a biological role that is irreplaceable and an emotional and developmental role that I deem essential and also next to impossible to replace.

So long as human reproduction involves gestation within a woman's womb for nine months, I don't see too many ways out of the conundrums that a woman working outside the home inevitably faces: mothering is just a huge responsibility that only a mother can fully discharge. Can a mother do anything else?

The Republicans seem to think so. They're willing to force poor women with infants to drop off the children with day care providers the GOP is unwilling to subsidize and attend "work activities" in order to receive federal aid that fails to lift them out of poverty.

Another exponent of right-wing ideology, none other than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, paid mothers and housewives who stayed home a small State stipend (I think it was a few hundred pesetas monthly) back in the 1950s.

More liberal views in our Western society, and I include Latin America as Western, seem to prescribe women engaging in a balancing act and men occasionally trading places. In the USA, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which at least holds a job slot, albeit without pay, for an employee attending to pregnancy or family illness. The house-husband and "Mr. Mom" arose in the 1970s, largely exceptional instances of this option. And, of course, day care.

Let me say something unpopular right up front. I think day care stinks. Care providers are mostly foreign or poor and uneducated women with the same fairly rough and tumble manner in which they were brought up.

I see them in downtown Washington, taking them to Laffayette Park in little carts that remind me of those ridden by prisoners on their ride to the guillotine; there's a cookie-cutter response to every child's question or problem and on the whole an evident desire on the part of the women, to let the little creatures play so they can talk about their dates. The university educated woman who leaves a child in such care is gambling with her child's sanity.

My younger son would have wilted in such care. He was an unusual boy of very inventive ideas that would strained the uncaring adult. For example, at one point he had a very complex set of substitute names for colors: blue was red, red was green, green was turquoise, etc. This changed every week, then every two days, then every day, until it stopped and he adopted the conventional vocabulary.

But I can imagine what would have happened at a day care center. Some young woman with an IQ to match her low pay would have exclaimed, "Speak right! This is blue!" Slap! And he would have gone off to be in a corner. Terrified.

He attends Harvard today. Would he have without university educated parents willing to do without a second income to make sure he was cared for by the person who loved and understood him most? And I have no idea what a single mother in that spot would have done!

But day care isn't the only problem. We simply need to come to grips, as a society, with the reality that motherhood and fatherhood are important roles that can't be delegated and should be supported.

Think about it. We all know that U.S. wages have pretty much stagnated in real terms since 1973. In fact, the average wage in 2004 was 22 percent below what it was in 1973. Is it merely a coincidence that in the intervening three decades the half of the population that used to stay home entered the labor market?

Why is it that our parents were able to support a family on one income and our children barely can on two? We, as a society, simply don't value the unique, unpaid labor of women and don't make it possible for men to share in it more.

I'm far from having "the" answer to such a problem.

Once again, I harken back to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the 1932 vision of a future in which human reproduction took place in industrial laboratories in which society was genetically engineered for harmony and sex was merely a pleasure without consequences. Men and women were precise equals, yet Huxley could not overcome his 1932 prejudices in sketching his characters.

It's a possible future. Otherwise, we're a long way, baby, however long we've already gone.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Way Things Weren't

Seductive as it may be to look back upon a supposed golden age of extended families and traditional marriage, once we examine the way things actually were, the story is quite different.

This comes to mind as I recall the words of my maternal grandmother Ercilia in one of the series of notebooks that she came to title her Home Encyclopedia. Writing in in May 1959, at the age of 82, she had this to say about old age and, implicitly as we shall see, extended families:

Old age is the most unfortunate stage of life: you become clumsy and unpleasant, your face wrinkled and ugly, you suffer hearing loss, you bother others with constant repetition. In such circumstances, it would be most sensible for there to be a "Retreat for the Elderly."

These words were penned three years before she died. Ercilia had gone to live with my uncle Firo and aunt Lila, who were devoted to her.

You might have thought of their house as an impromptu artist colony. Lila, a pianist, still had students and their manglings of Beethoven's Für Elise on one of her pianos will echo forever in my brain. Firo was an artist in retirement who turned his imagination to his garden and to telling endless stories to his nephew.

My grandmother was a reclusive writer, leaving behind a dozen or so notebooks of poems, recollections and famous epigrams. Firo, who himself had his share of ailments, famously brought his mother-in-law a whole variety of healthful teas.

Yet the bedridden Ercilia, my family's last 19th century grand dame, was a ghost of the lady who would never step out into the street unless she was dressed to the nines, in her stole and flamboyant black hat. She understood her decline and she obviously detested her state, wishing for her own version of an ice floe.

The same can be said about the marriages of friends and relatives of my parents' generation, whom I shall allow the safe haven of anonymity and privacy. Only now as they age and die are the torturous and closeted secrets of even the most "perfect" unions coming to light.

The newly deceased Betty Friedan described the woman's side in her localized and pointed description of "the problem that has no name" in her acclaimed 1963 work The Feminine Mystique:

It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — "Is this all?"

And the men? Who could forget John Cheever's story The Country Husband, in which protagonist Francis Weed experiences a crash landing outside Philadelphia yet can barely get a word in edgewise at home, between his bickering children and impassively efficient wife's serving dinner. It is the kind of scene that might have inspired Henry David Thoreau to write that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

It isn't mere happenstance that once men and women were allowed to voice their despair, 50% of all first marriages and 75% of all second marriages came to end in divorce.

When I think of appeals to a better time in the past when the aged were supposedly at peace in a Waltonesque family network of love or an age in which men were men and women were mothers in hallowed structures supposedly protected by law, I am wont to recall the title of Simone Signoret's memoirs, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Where's My Ice Floe?

Although the senilicide attributed to Eskimos was never actually a generalized custom, but rather an exceptional emergency response to famine in the 18th century, the idea captures my imagination.

It's not that I have elders to dispose of, as my parents and grandparents have been all dead for years. Rather, I find calm in the idea of climbing on an ice floe with the intention of drifting away in arctic seas without food or covering until death comes.

It seems a humane way of ending what at a certain age -- mine -- begins to become a useless repetition of failures and missteps that will only worsen. Instead of steady impoverishment, physical decline, probable dementia and an eventual long descent onerous to relatives and society at large -- not to mention supremely boring to myself -- the idea of drifting off leaves me in a supreme peace.

From my years in Canada I have learned that freezing to death is, among ways to die, relatively pleasant. Cold overcomes consciousness, one drifts into a sleep from which one never awakes. All in a matter of hours.

Let's face it, death isn't going to be easy or painless. A few hours of drifting away in subzero temperatures might entail a bit of initial discomfort, but it seems bearable to me.

No more waiting through useless decades of "golden age" ... just a quiet drift into silence. Where's my ice floe?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Worst Thing You Can Do To Your Lover

What's the worst thing you can do to the person you love?

You date someone, you kiss passionately, call each other at all hours, can barely spend a moment without thinking or talking about the other person. You decide you like the same books, generally support the same political party, go to the same church. You have ideas and goals that are similar. You want to have kids. Or you want to travel the world together.

You get married. Suddenly, the other person is there effortlessly. Out come the curlers and the creams, out come the streaked briefs and burps. One person wants the bedroom window open, the other wants it closed. One person's libido is stronger than the other's, eventually it all becomes mechanical: oh, it's Friday night, time honey (which sounds like "time, referee!") or even, oh, it's been a month.

Marriage is the worst thing you could do to someone you love.

Joni Mitchell sings it well:

We don't need no piece of paper
From the city hall
Keeping us tied and true

In fact, the piece of paper fails to keep 50% of all marriages from divorce -- let alone prevent physical and emotional forms of adultery and domestic violence.

Why marry at all? Absent children, what possible reason would anyone have to remove well-known and proven incentives for two people to continue trying to be attractive, interesting, respectful of and alluring to the other?

Why not have a romance that continues forever as the perfect third date?

OK, children. Here Aldous Huxley's Brave New World struck me as more sensible than our own.

In Huxley's futuristic world children were genetically engineered massively, with talents and proclivities suitable to the proportional needs of society for manual laborers, intellectuals, artists, engineers, etc. By design everyone was made for the tasks to which they would drift naturally. Childbirth and copulation for reproduction were banned and the imperative for birth control reinforced by nightly suggestion over the course of childhood.

You may think this is a long way off -- and what do I do in the meantime?

Fair enough. Coupling to serve as parents is a human imperative that perhaps requires the presence of two parents, at least for bonding and modeling -- even though most of us aren't such great models to begin with.

There are alternatives to the nuclear family. The Kibbutz, for example. And who says that outside the Israeli communal farm a married couple can't commit to be parents without committing to living together, to seeing each other at each other's worst, or without forswearing other people if the romantic interest wanes?

Whatever. I'm not a social engineer.

My point stands. Marriage is absurd.

Companionship, romance, sex, emotional closeness -- all these things can be shared between two people who legally remain entirely unbound and physically live apart. Or ... people can live together without the tie, so that when it stops working, when it stops being the way you want to live, all you have to do is call the movers, not lawyers and accountants.

What we have right now -- marriage, children, divorce -- is a pain! And remarriage ... well, how many times can you say "till death do us part" before you know you're a consummate liar, or a fool?

Sure, breaking up hurts and dating takes effort. But there's tons of poetry about it, movies, novels, and friends can really help for free and in a fun way. And you usually learn something from the romantic skirmishes of men and women.