Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm


This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.
Not!

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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387. Not So Posh

In 1970s, Food, Stories, United States, Work on August 6, 2016 at 10:46 am

rfl_20857

In the late 1970s, when Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, I worked as a waitress at an establishment by the name of The Posh Bagel. In those days bagels were still a specialty of New York, not yet a national food (no national chains like Bruegger’s, no breakfast “bagels” at Dunkin Donuts) and so they were a novelty in the Southwest. Not satisfied with plain old cream cheese or even with the magisterial cream cheese and lox, The Posh Bagel dressed up its bagels with all sorts of other non-traditional fillings, like roast beef. It further embellished its menu with ultra-cheesy attempts at humor. Nearly 40 years on, I still remember that the roast- beef bagel was called “Rubber Buggy Baby Bumper” and a dessert fruit bowl was called “Can’t Elope (O Honey, Do).” The bagels were okay, nothing to write home about but they were fresh and, in any case, the Posh held a virtual monopoly on them in Albuquerque. My co-workers were friendly, as were most of the customers (except for the West Texans, who were notorious for not tipping) so the job would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for the manager-proprietor, my boss.

Thankfully I have long forgotten his name, but I remember him as a weaselly man, always trying to sniff out employee graft. He didn’t seem to realize that disgruntled employees are much more likely to steal, especially if they work in a restaurant that doesn’t give them free food. Every time I worked the morning shifts, which ended at lunch-time, the cook would make me up a lightly-toasted sesame-seed bagel, loaded generously with cream cheese, thickly-sliced tomato, and red onions (I can’t recall whether or not it contained lox, and if I did, I’d probably plead the fifth) and slip it to me surreptitiously on my way out. I don’t think I’ve never enjoyed a bagel so much; my mouth waters just thinking of it. If the boss had allowed his employees a free bagel after every full shift, I might not have enjoyed it quite so much; and I certainly wouldn’t have taken such pleasure in conspiring with the cook.

My manager wasn’t just a miser; he was a lecher as well. At the time I was passionately involved with an anti-nuclear group called Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the rather unfortunate acronym CANT), which was working with a statewide coalition to oppose the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a high-level nuclear waste repository (dump) planned for Southern New Mexico, right near the Carlsbad Caverns. So one day my boss, finding me alone, actually offered to give me a donation for the cause. But of course there was a catch: I had to give him a kiss. If you’re saying “Ewww”, that’s the sort of person he was.

Another mark of his character was his anxiety to present a posh exterior coupled with a disregard for basic principles of health or hygiene. One day, needing to find busywork for me, he asked me to fill the half-empty tomato-ketchup bottles on all the tables. When I demurred—surely it wasn’t good practice to pour fresh ketchup on top of old—he ordered me to do what I had was told. So I did. Later that day—I must have been working the afternoon shift—I heard a loud report, as if a gun had been fired; and, in short order, another. Then a wail from a hapless customer: it was the ketchup bottles exploding! Hah!

ketchup2

I must confess that I took a malicious delight in my manager’s consternation. The jumped-up Posh Bagel, and its equally puffed-up proprietor, didn’t look so posh that day.

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377. Writing

In blogs and blogging, Stories, Work, writing on April 29, 2016 at 12:15 am
Amrita Pritam, 1919-2005 (mid-day.com)

Amrita Pritam, 1919-2005 (mid-day.com)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

WSometimes you just have to get it down, even if your heart isn’t in it. Sometimes the words lie down and play dead and you can’t lift them off the page, let alone make them soar. Or they put their ears back and refuse to cooperate—with each other, let alone with you. The gap between what is and what you once saw clearly—alas, fleetingly—in your mind’s eye is too great. All you can see is an eternity of revisions, futile because the end product only seems to get worse with each successive one.

If you step back, you may see that the work is in fact getting better all the time, but you will not allow yourself to see it. Perversely, you insist that the whole thing is tiresome, tedious, a total waste of time. Strewn about like a broken string of beads, your writing doesn’t hold together. But once mended, it looks seamless, a necklace adorning the Goddess of Language; or is it clasping her by the throat?

Writing is a process, I tell my students piously; trust it, and it will take you there. But if truth be told, the word “process” papers over a world of pain. It is a torment from which I perpetually flee yet to which I am drawn back time and again, with fascination and yes, with joy. Those words that play dead? Play is the operative word. Tease them, tickle them into life. The sulkers? Caress and cajole them into your corner. Keep your eye on that fleeting vision of perfection, for without it, you have nothing. All evidence to the contrary, writing brings me joy.

And now, I must press Publish or else I will press Delete.

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375. Unions

In blogs and blogging, Education, history, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on April 26, 2016 at 2:40 am

cropped-FINAL-GEO-LOGO-SMALL

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

UI’ve just returned from a 25th anniversary celebration of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), UAW 2322, a union of graduate students that organized and went on strike to gain recognition while I was in graduate school. We went from abjection to dignity through standing up and demanding that our work be recognized as the work it patently was, and not merely as part of our graduate education. We also won year-round family health insurance, fee waivers, a decreased workload, and a substantially increased rate of pay per course.

I am extremely thankful for the trade union movement, for the struggles of workers in the past to secure rights, benefits, and working conditions that I take for granted today. Andrew’s grandfather was a union man, and I have written before about how, when his union won a half-day on Saturday, he began taking his son—Andrew’s father—on a special outing on that half-day. My mother has always been a strong supporter of unions, and it was a great disappointment to her that by the time her workplace finally got around to unionizing, she had technically been promoted to management. As for me, I have been a member of three different unions over the years, the IWW in the 1980s, GEO in the 1990s, and the MSCA over the past 10 years. Without them, I would be insecure, lonely, alienated, and broke.

UnknownWhetstone Press was organized as a three-person worker’s cooperative. We collectively owned and operated the business and gave ourselves excellent health insurance but very little else; we couldn’t afford it. A significant portion of our business involved printing for non-profit organizations who would only use a union shop, so it was imperative that we unionized, but at a grand total of three, we were too small for just about any union to accept us.

Except for the Wobblies. Their slogan was One Big Union, and no one was too small for them. We paid a pittance in dues and became proud members of the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to enjoy reciting the preamble to the IWW Constitution, which begins:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

imagesThe funny thing was, of course, that in our case we were the workers as well as the employers! The irony wasn’t lost on us; it just gave us all the more delight in declaiming the “revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wage system.’” That worked, since we didn’t make any wages to speak of and had few prospects of doing so in the future.

I tease gently, but make no mistake, I do not mock, for the Wobblies, the union of Joe Hill, have a noble history and I’m proud to have been a tiny part of it for a short while.

Now I’m thankful to be teaching at a public university whose faculty is unionized as the MSCA, under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It’s strange indeed that we are forbidden to strike; everyone knows that the strike has historically been the principal weapon and ultimate recourse of a union. Then, too, not all professors think of themselves as workers. But we are workers nonetheless, and I’m glad of the solidarity across disciplines in a system that can be stratified and competitive.

Unions bring me joy. Sing it!

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong
.

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367. Movement

In blogs and blogging, health, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, Work on April 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

The Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil (survivalinternational.org)

MYesterday Andrew and I had made a date to sit down to file our taxes; well, not quite the taxes themselves, the deferral forms for the taxes. Deferring the start of the work on the deferral, I took a little walk out to the mailbox to pick up the mail from the day before.

It was a glorious day. The sun warmed my back and a gentle breeze played through the trees. The daffodils were out and everything was alive. As I walked, a delightful ache streaked through my limbs and quickened my step. Far from walking to the mailbox and back, I felt that I could go on walking forever. I was made to move.

One bright Sunday morning when I was nineteen, I had set out for a little stroll in the park and ended up walking some 23 miles (see TMA #39, Two at a Time). Now the weekly extent of my movement was the sum of distance from the house to the car, the car to my office, the car to the supermarket, and back again, the trips up and down the flights of stairs at home and at work; oh, and the trips down the driveway to pick up the mail and take out the trash and recycling bins. Pretty pathetic. That’s why the ache I feel in my limbs most of the time is the ache of disuse rather than the welcome ache of dormant muscles waking up after a long hibernation. For we humans suffer when we stop moving.

Think of our lives when we were hunter-gatherers. We are still at optimum health when we adhere as closely as possible to that lifestyle: continually on the move—on foot, of course—just to gain the minimum number of calories necessary for our basic subsistence. And now, I think of how many hours a day I spend sitting in the car, just driving back and forth to work; hunched over a desk; sprawling on the couch; lying in bed.

Recent research in the news has found that people who spend too much time sitting are at greater risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. They recommend that all of us, especially office workers and others with sedentary jobs, spend more time standing and moving:

  • Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch.
  • If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.
  • Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings.
  • Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day (Levine)

418cFeVoQuLDozens of contraptions are now available that allow one to stand, or even exercise, while working on one’s laptop computer. Colleagues of mine are now routinely grading while standing up. No longer can I collapse on the couch and watch my favorite soap, EastEnders, guilt-free (not that I ever could); I am keenly aware that I ought to be pedaling furiously at the same time.

There is another kind of movement that gives one the same delightful feeling of exhilaration as a long walk, and that is a social movement toward shared goals. These times of cuts and austerity measures are alienating and enervating in the extreme, and neoliberalism turns us into lonely, isolated individuals. But there is an antidote: collective action. This song by Bob Marley, from a live performance in Boston (1978), is guaranteed to restore a spring to your step.

In the end, of course, we all gotta move, right out of this life. Mississippi Fred McDowell says it best. So while you’re here, shake a leg. I guarantee that it will bring you joy. I know that movement brings me joy, only somehow I keep forgetting.

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

(Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

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355. Accomplishment

In reflections, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases, Work on April 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

Bringing Me Joy: Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016

AAccomplishment (pronounced accumplishment) brings me joy. Carrying a task to completion delivers, with the deep breath drawn in the moment of its fulfillment, a quiet confidence that has been fully earned. In the very next breath, new doubts will certainly arise again, and old business that demands attention; let them come in their time, but for now, I must savour this moment, look upon what has been done, and know that it is good.

There is a world of difference between accomplishment in the active sense of accomplishing something and in the passive sense of being accomplished. It is not for nothing that the expensive institutions where young women from wealthy families were sent to be prepared for their entry into fashionable society were called finishing schools: they were polished so as to be polished off, so to speak; with their suitable marriage, it was thought, there would be an end to it, no need for further accomplishments on their part besides hanging like an adornment on the right man’s arm.

More than 200 years ago, Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), displayed a healthy cynicism regarding society’s expectations of the accomplished woman in her time. Here’s the infuriatingly snooty Miss Bingley and the aristocratically aloof Mr. Darcy rehearsing the requirements for membership in that exclusive club, followed by Elizabeth’s cool, clever reply:

     A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
      “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
     [Elizabeth:]“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women.  I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”   [Pride and Prejudice, via Modern Mrs. Darcy]

Being accomplished entails being worked on, staged, as it were, for the marriage market. Setting out to accomplish a task, on the other hand, is an active process that produces positive change. Real accomplishment is a product of hard work, skill, and persistence over a period of time. For me, among all the registers in the range of joy, a sense of accomplishment is one of the most deeply satisfying.

A change is achieved in the day it is done.

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354. The Pursuit of Happiness

In blogs and blogging, Family, reflections, Words & phrases, Work on March 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm
(from fitforaframe.com)

(from fitforaframe.com)

A few years ago my brother-in-law Dan, computer wiz extraordinaire, designed a little game for each of our computer desktops. He called it The Meaning of Life. In those days, about all I knew about computers was that in order to open an application you had to click on it. I duly took hold of my mouse and aimed it at the little Meaning of Life icon: but it slipped away from me. I tried again: again, perversely, it darted out of reach. Yet again: no dice. Once more: still no joy. Eventually I realized was that this was, in fact, Dan’s point. No matter how hard one tried to get a fix on the meaning of life, it would remain elusive. It was bound to be a lifelong pursuit. That is, if one saw life in such terms, as a pursuit.

This anecdote has come to mind as I have been contemplating my no-doubt foolhardy decision to sign up for the April Blogging from A to Z Challenge with my chosen theme of things that bring me joy. I had thought it would be quick and easy to write a daily paragraph on something that lifts my spirits, brings a smile to my face, or makes me laugh out loud. But today I’m feeling doubtful about the task, and wondering whether this whole Pursuit of Happiness business—enshrined as an inalienable right in the United States’ Declaration of Independence—is misconceived. What is the pursuit of happiness but the lifelong attempt to play Dan’s little game, self-defeating by design? Isn’t happiness something that comes quietly, unsought, like grace, when least expected? Isn’t it the by-product of consistent hard work, of loving commitments kept, furthered, moved closer to realization?

My parents’ generation didn’t seem to believe in the pursuit of happiness; at best, they distrusted it. They felt that doing something simply because it made one happy was mere selfishness. Instead, even while showering the fruits of their labors on us, their children, they attempted to instill in us the principles of hard work, thrift, and delayed gratification. What we saw, even at the cost of their personal happiness, was their continual, habitual self-sacrifice, even when we felt it to be unnecessary. While we supposed it was kinda noble, it was also infuriating. We wanted to be happy, and we also wanted them to be happy. Young and restless, we wanted it all, and wanted it now.

I’m now older than my parents were when they routinely infuriated me with their self-denial. I still want personal happiness, but I’m enough of my parents’ daughter to distrust it for its own sake. I hope that if I can manage to keep up with this year’s one-a-day challenge, my month of daily posts will explore the visitations of happiness in all its facets and forms, from overflowing joy to quiet contentment, from hot-footed pursuit to simply letting the mystery be.

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349. A Chair for My Mother

In 1980s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, parenting, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on November 7, 2015 at 10:58 am

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BK100160AWhen Nikhil and Eric were young, one of our favorite picture books for them was Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother (1982). It became a Scholastic title as well as a Reading Rainbow book (remember LeVar Burton of PBS’s Reading Rainbow?), and Maureen, who taught kindergarten, must have brought it home as she did all the new and classic Scholastic books she would order to preview for her students. I don’t know who loved it more, the boys or us. We also read and enjoyed Vera Williams’ Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986), which, like all her books, she both wrote and illustrated in her distinctively bold, colorful style. A Chair for My Mother, though, was far and away my favorite.

I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing the plot; do pick up a copy and read it to the children in your life. Just know that its characters are a little girl, her mother, her grandmother, and, of course, the eponymous chair. They don’t have much in the way of possessions; the mother works hard for their living; and the love and warmth of its spare text and lavish illustrations continue to light up American children’s literature through the generations.

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When I heard of Vera Williams’ death last month, I felt a pang and a deep sadness. I read in her obituary that after her divorce she moved from New York to a houseboat in Vancouver, British Columbia, where, in her late 40s, she began to write and illustrate children’s books. What constitutes the sense of home is personal and elusive, but A Chair for My Mother captures what’s essential. That stage of my life is long gone, but the chair, and all that it stands for, sits squarely in my heart, inviting me to come home.

Chair-for-my-mother-chair

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