Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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I am consistently dismayed and horrified by the attitudes I discover within myself while reading The Sun. Though compassionate, educated, and motivated by spiritual principles, I keep falling into the trap of considering myself mostly free of bias. Then the latest issue of The Sun arrives.
Reading Jamie Passaro’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich [“Fingers to the Bone,” January 2003], I realized that I secretly suspected the minimum wage might be adequate, and that within my heart lurks the “straighten her out” and “give her back her self-respect” attitude about women on welfare. This, despite the fact that I was once forced to go on welfare myself, and that my daughter and her family have had to do the same in order to survive.
What is wrong with me? Though certainly not a member of the upper class, I am guilty of the self-satisfaction Ehrenreich describes. That’s why I need The Sun. It’s the best antidote I know of for ignorance, complacency, and intolerance.
I am a great admirer of Barbara Ehrenreich. Her dedication to speak and write on behalf of those who have been treated unfairly by our society has inspired and encouraged me. She is the greatest muckraker since Lincoln Jeffers.
Her book Nickel and Dimed was made into a thought-provoking play performed at the Mark Taper Theater in Los Angeles. The highlight of the production was when all the actors momentarily stepped out of their roles and confronted their affluent audience about the way they treat their own domestic help. It was a provocative and effective scene.
People often ask me: “Are you related to Barbara Ehrenreich?” My answer is always: “Oh, how I wish!”
Barbara Ehrenreich is right: welfare reform is really a plot to create a desperate underclass who will work for any wage, with no benefits, and feel lucky to have a job.
As a Californian in the seventies, when Reagan was governor, I watched his administration release the mentally ill from institutions, under the guise of granting them their “civil right” to live uncared for with a flimsy, shredded safety net. The homeless population is now overwhelmingly made up of the mentally ill. The real purpose of shoving these helpless people out into the open was to frighten workers into submission, lest they too end up on the streets.
The attacks on unions are also part of the plan to demoralize and disenfranchise labor. The recent corporate scandals highlight the elite’s true mission: to possess the wealth of America at any cost.
After reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book excerpt in The Sun [“Cleaned Out,” January 2003], I thought I’d purchase a copy of her book to see what I could learn. I was truly disappointed.
I admire Ehrenreich’s courage to try to make ends meet working as a low-wage employee in different parts of the country. I know it must have been challenging for a privileged Caucasian woman with a Ph.D. to work side by side with those “under” her. What I couldn’t understand was her rage and discontent with her circumstances, considering they were temporary.
She had resources people living in dire circumstances don’t have: She could escape to her cultured world any time she pleased. She had extra cash, just in case. And she was living alone without a house full of roommates or kids to support.
I did learn a thing or two for which I am grateful, but I have to admit I have never felt so much anger at an author. Her writing is filled with hypocrisy, snobbery, and self-pity, and lacks empathy and compassion for those less fortunate than her.
Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner wrote about the poor with dignity and respect. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about them with condescension. I get the distinct impression that she wouldn’t want to socialize with them in any significant way. She is merely parroting all the old extremist arguments. “I’m an old socialist,” she says. “Workers’ privacy is being invaded with random drug testing and monitoring e-mail.” As if an employer doesn’t have the right to expect a sober eight hours’ work for eight hours’ pay.
Ehrenreich says that menial jobs will always be necessary: “Why don’t we just pay people decently for doing them?” But isn’t supply and demand a better regulator than government-mandated wages? If domestics aren’t getting paid enough, then they should go into another field where there is more demand. Poor people often get on the bus and go to where there are jobs. They work two jobs, as many of us have had to do at some time. They work harder. They work smarter. They go to night school. They stop defining wealth or happiness in terms of their possessions.
In January 1980, I returned to college as a twenty-four-year-old single mother of a two-year-old boy. I learned all too quickly that my fellow students were likely to spend more on their cocaine habits than I received on welfare each month: $287, if my memory serves me right.
I was deeply moved by Frances Lefkowitz’s memoir “The Gifted Classes” [January 2003]. For the gifted members of this country’s underclass, the desire and opportunity to pursue our dreams doesn’t come without a price. Lefkowitz charted the hairpin turns and emotional tailspins of that journey with eloquence and tragic beauty.
I would not describe The Sun as a news magazine. Within its covers, however, I find more bare, naked truth than anywhere else. The stories, essays, and interviews cut away sensationalism to expose what happened and how people felt. There’s no slanted analysis or self-serving political commentary, just a picture of life and how we live it, and some thoughts on how we might do it better.
In his January 2003 “Notebook,” Sy Safransky says, “What if every politician started speaking nothing but the truth? What if every one of us did? My friend Jim writes, ‘Isn’t it odd that the hardest thing in the world is just to tell the simple truth? Without exaggeration. Without inflation.’ ”
Safransky has developed a magazine that seems to do just that.
Thank you for printing Lee Martin’s essay “Who Causes This Sickness?” [January 2003]. I have a chronic illness and often wonder whether it is punishment for a sin I have committed. Some people might say that I have made some “agreement” to have this illness, or that it is part of a karmic debt that I must pay. Regardless, the message is the same: that this illness is a result of my imperfection.
All my life I’ve thought that I deserve to suffer, because I am not the “good girl” my parents wanted. I remember as a child wishing to be sick so my mother would pay more attention to me and somehow love me more. Is this chronic illness the answer to that prayer? If so, it doesn’t get me the love I hoped for. Instead I feel the need to keep it hidden, like a dirty secret.
Martin’s descriptions of the various medical personalities, of his family’s beliefs and habits, and of his own inner ruminations about his illness are very like my own experience. Those of us with chronic illnesses carry demons no one can imagine, unless they too have lived with, as Martin puts it, the “constant and exhausting effort to be well.”
Upon returning from my father’s interment, where I made peace with my siblings, I read Sy Safransky’s December “Notebook.” I can’t believe how alike he and I are in our musings and our mental and spiritual gymnastics. I think that, despite what he says, Safransky does know that the spirit is real and the body temporary; that the invisible force that animates us all is neither created nor destroyed.
This truth gave me solace while I buried the ashes of my ninety-six-year-old father. My father was so old, his body had become translucent at the end. The truth of who and what we are does reveal itself, if we are brave enough and humble enough to see it.
Safransky quotes Flaubert: “Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times.” I would add that our ignorance of our true spiritual nature makes us libel the present moment.