Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

511. Start as you mean to go on.

In Aging, Books, reading, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases, Work, writing on May 11, 2022 at 12:43 pm

It’s going on 11 am and here I am sitting up in bed with end-of-term grades to submit, two outings to dress for, my daily walk still ahead of me, and a To Do list as long as my arm. One is supposed to get the grades in before starting in on the summer proper, but as usual I have allowed life to flow in and utterly derail me. I had resolved that because I have a lot on next week, I would get down to grading single-mindedly and submit the final grades for my classes early—for the first time ever, mind you. But here I am again, doing everything but, and with every hour that passes, dooming myself to an inevitable all-nighter a week from tomorrow.

But this is all very tedious. Let me tell it differently, with reference to literature. In R.K. Narayan’s delightful second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), the wayward college student Chandran finds himself “face to face with November”, and the realization that half the college year is “already spent.” His B.A. examinations are looming and he has done nothing to prepare for them. “What one ought to do in a full year must now be done in just half the time.” So in a grand gesture that I well recognize, Chandran resolves to begin a rigorous programme of right living: to rise early, bathe in cold water, and give up smoking—just for starters. Then he draws up an ambitious programme of study.

He took out a sheet of paper and noted down all his subjects. He calculated the total number of preparation hours that were available from November the first to March. He had before him over a thousand hours, including the twelve-hour preparations on holidays. Of these thousand hours a just allotment of so many hundred hours was to be made for Modern History, Ancient History, Political Theories, Greek Drama, Eighteenth-century Prose, and Shakespeare. He then drew up a very complicated time-table which would enable one to pay equal attention to all subjects…Out of the daily six hours, three were to be devoted to the Optional Subjects and three to the Compulsory. In the morning the compulsory subjects and Literature at night.

Chandran duly arises at 5 am the next day; but from the very outset, the comedy of life begins getting in the way of his elaborate schedule. Something of great urgency turns up and utterly consumes his time for a fortnight. He has no option but to revise his initial programme to make up for the lost time.

He consoled himself with the fact that he had wasted several months so far, and a fortnight more, added to that account, should not matter…The time wasted in a fortnight could…be made up by half an hour’s earlier rising every day. He would also return home at seven in the evening instead of at seven-thirty. This would give him a clear gain of an hour a day over his previous programme. He hoped to make up the ninety study hours, at six hours a day, lost between the first of November and the fifteenth, in the course of ninety days.

But, notes the narrator wryly, “Man can only propose.” Chandran is inevitably drawn into other escapades that threaten to derail his programme yet again. And as it was with R.K. Narayan’s protagonist, so it was with me. As a junior faculty member facing the deadline for the submission of my book manuscript, I too drew up a rigorous—and altogether unrealistic—timetable with a certain number of hours per day and week allotted to the preparations. When, inevitably, I found myself a few weeks down the line having made no progress to speak of, I too sat down to revise my schedule by increasing the required number of hours of work per day. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not the first to have to revise my programme in this way. After all, the wildly prolific R.K. Narayan’s protagonist had had to do the same thing, hadn’t he?

But a few weeks soon became a few months, and, like Chandran’s, life had broken in and steamrolled over my best intentions. Once again, I found myself re-calculating the number of hours remaining until the hard—and fast-approaching—deadline and once again revising upward the number of hours per day that I would have to apply myself to the increasingly daunting task. I’m ashamed to say that this happened yet again, and yet again, I consoled myself with the example of my fickle—and, I neglected to acknowledge, entirely fictional—literary predecessor.

Somehow I muddled through, and the materials were duly submitted, though not before I had put my family to a lot of unnecessary heartache. For they were packed and ready to set out on our cross-country road trip with the motor running while I assembled the final manuscript and revised the cover note for the umpteenth time. We mailed the package Priority Mail on our way out of town. But this is not my point.

Some time later I returned to The Bachelor of Arts to revisit my hilarious and reassuring fellow-procrastinator who had had to revise his unrealistic timetable repeatedly. But although I went through the text with a fine-tooth comb, I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I had to accept that it wasn’t there. Sure enough, in chapters two through five, Chandran had drawn up his programme and then had had to revise it after events in his life overtook it. But he had only had to do so once. After that initial two-week delay, he had in fact stuck to his punishing schedule of rising at 4:30 am and not retiring to bed until 11:00 pm. He had not lapsed again.  He had not had to ratchet up his hours per day yet again. I, on the other hand, had fallen away from my initial resolve repeatedly and had to revise and re-revise my daily timetable. My consolation, that the great R.K. Narayan’s comic hero had done the same, turned out to have been an utter fiction.

The realization shook me, but I managed to shake it off and soon returned to my bad habits, though now without the reassurance of fiction. Now I just hated myself.

So here it is, past noon now, and, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers used to say on National Public Radio, “you’ve done it again, you’ve just wasted another perfectly good hour.“ As retirement sets in, I am inevitably making resolutions. It is important to start as you mean to go on, I tell myself—and not for the first time. I am at the other end of life from the young Chandran, who was just starting out. But I recognize his feelings as his college career came to a close:

As they dispersed and went home, Chandran was aware that he had passed the very last moments in his college life, which had filled the major portion of his waking hours for the last four years. There would be no more college for him from tomorrow. He would return a fortnight hence for the examination and (hoping for the best) pass it, and pass out into the world, for ever out of Albert College. He felt very tender and depressed.

Chandran does pass his exams and another, very poignant, chapter of his life begins. If you haven’t read R.K. Narayan’s early trilogy—Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher—you have a treat in store. For my part, I still intend to start as I mean to go on. Stay tuned.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

510. School’s (Nearly) Out

In Aging, Education, Stories, Teaching, Work on April 9, 2022 at 1:56 am

As retirement looms—why does that sound ominous?—I’ve found myself thinking back over all the jobs I’ve done over the years. Counting them up, I’ve remembered at least twenty-five, from waitress, house-cleaner, and gas-station attendant to teaching assistant, research assistant, college professor; and everything in-between. It has always irked me that people outside the teaching profession think that college professors have a cushy life when, in fact, we’re always on the job, the classroom hours being just the tip of the iceberg. As I prepare to retire I’m still feeling defensive about the work I’ve done because to my mind it will never have been enough. I think the praise I value most came when, at age 21, I’d put in a day of hard labor on a farm and the manager (Pete Hill, our friend Michael’s dear father), said—with some surprise—that I certainly knew how to work. How much I’ve put that knowledge into action since then is one of the things I find nagging at me as the countdown begins.

I’ve already written about the paper round, Godine Press, the Merit gas station and the Blue Parrot, house-cleaning, the Posh Bagel, and Whetstone Press. There were so many more jobs in my early, checquered career: shop assistant at Party Favors in Coolidge Corner, circulation assistant, Widener Library, caterer in Belmont, free-lance laddu-maker, greenhouse worker, technical editor, Environmental Research & Technology, first employee of an (anti-)nuclear information and resource service (NIRS), newspaper editor and board secretary at a food co-op federation (NEFCO), newspaper stringer, The Winchendon Courier, medical receptionist (for a week), substitute teacher (for two whole days). And none of the above counts my unpaid or volunteer work. 

Teaching was a profession I came to late, in my thirties, and have been at for the past 35 years, in different capacities and at five different colleges and universities. Strangely enough, I haven’t written much about it—the so-called life of the mind.

I wonder why not? Something about not telling tales out of school, perhaps. Something to revisit after retirement?  In my current state of exhaustion I think, not bloody likely. For now, here’s a handful of teaching stories—one set in the 1980s and the rest between 2017 and 2020:

Reaganomics 101
teaching in the 80s

Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?
an end-of-semester rant or, I’m so old that. . .

Scattergram, April 2017
teaching in the age of Trump

Free from Thought
still in the age of Trump

during the pandemic 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


491. Anticipation, Not Dread

In Aging, Music, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on January 26, 2021 at 2:06 pm

I’m one of those people who can go from zero to sixty in an instant: a human panic button. It doesn’t matter whether the precipitating factor is a trivial matter like the milk for my tea going bad or an enormity like the war on Yemen: in either case I’m on a hair trigger. I’ve always insisted that I’m not really anxious, that it’s just my way of letting off steam; but this has allowed me to dismiss the corrosive effect of my explosive behavior, not only on my own well-being, but also on people around me. It must be exhausting to interact with someone who is perpetually on high alert about one thing or another. And, I’m increasingly recognizing, it can be exhausting to be that person.

“There’s no problem here.” This proposition has presented itself to me two or three times in as many weeks, raised by different people in different settings. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as irresponsibly acquiescent, when vigilance and resistance is required at this time. Of course this world is rife with problems. But as Pete Seeger reminds us in Turn, Turn, Turn, there is a time and a season for everything. And nobody would accuse the author of If I Had a Hammer of acquiescence. 

What would it mean to tell oneself that there was no problem here? Our meditation teacher has asked us to give this question some consideration. Of course there are many problems, internal and external, small and large. But what purpose does it serve to identify with every problem? Perhaps it does nothing but get one’s knickers in a twist. Might it not be better all round to be able to discern whether or not a given situation needs to be considered a problem in the first place, and whether making it a problem does anything but give one an adrenaline rush?

Moving from the impersonal “one” to the first person—me, that is—how might it be different if I pushed a mental pause, rather than a panic, button when each new situation presented itself? It would give me time to think and space to breathe. It would allow me to assess the seriousness and scope of the situation. It would enable me to determine whether it was something I could affect positively by my actions, and if not, to simply set it aside rather than fretting needlessly about it. And if it was something critically important to me, that pause would allow me to consider how I might address it most effectively.

An example that I’m dealing with now. Next week I start teaching again after a semester-long sabbatical leave. During this time my colleagues have been learning how to use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do. I could sound off about it—and believe me, I have—or I could start addressing the situation. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, because I have the time and the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem. However, my default mode would be to make a tremendous fuss about it and demand that all my friends and my long-suffering spouse make a fuss about it too. Wouldn’t the best course of action simply be to get on with it, asking questions and getting answers, revising my syllabi for the new situation, and reminding myself that my students are likely to be struggling with it much more than I am. It is in the nature of this situation that we will encounter problems—personal, political, psychological, technological—but we are in it  together and we must deal with it together. The trick for me is to look upon my return to teaching not with dread, but with anticipation, and to prepare for it accordingly.

I can’t do anything about the zero-to-sixty phenomenon that seems to have turned me into a Senior Citizen overnight; but I can adjust the hair-trigger 0-60 setting on my fight-or-flight response. In fact I must: it’s unsustainable at my age. What I’ve come to see is that a panic response makes it impossible to deal with any situation optimally. Quite the opposite: it turns every new situation into a problem.

Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s one of my own making.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

486. Fingerprinted and Found Wanting

In 2000s, Aging, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Work on November 2, 2020 at 2:04 am

immigration fingerprinting (Chris Schneider)

After decades of living in the United States as a Permanent Resident Alien, I began the process of applying for citizenship. I suppose I had waited a long time to take the plunge, so perhaps it was only what I deserved to be kept waiting in turn–interminably, it seemed. I filled out and submitted my application for naturalization back in July 2007, in plenty of time to be able to vote in the 2008 presidential election, or so I thought. But nothing happened for a very long time, and all in all the process took nearly two years. My citizenship test and interview were not scheduled until August, 2008, and it was not until March 2009, when the election had come and long gone and the new president had already been inaugurated, that I finally attended my own inauguration into U.S. citizenship, the mass swearing-in ceremony. But the first sign that the wheels of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) were starting to creak into action had come in mid-December 2007, when I received a letter informing me of my appointment to be fingerprinted.

Both the citizenship interview and the swearing-in took place in Boston, but the fingerprinting operation was in Hartford, Connecticut—a little bit closer to home but, as it turned out, much more alienating. It took place in a crowded, dingy office where I was given the distinct feeling that we were already considered guilty until we could somehow prove otherwise. The waiting area was the most unwelcoming place, rather like an old Greyhound Bus station in the sleaziest part of town. All the applicants—whether pregnant, elderly, or infirm it made no difference—were treated with casual disregard if not outright hostility. Although I knew I was a privileged immigrant and had had an easy time in comparison to many others, in that office I got just a taste of what it felt like to be just one of many miserable supplicants abjectly seeking entry into the most powerful country on earth.

At last my name was called. The man rolling and squishing my inked fingers made no effort to be personable, to soften the humiliating ordeal, and as he worked his irritation seemed to increase. Finally he remarked that my fingerprints were very worn, and managed to make it sound like an act of defiance on my part, or if not, then some kind of character defect. I had been tried and found wanting. Was he suggesting that I had deliberately worn down my prints so as to pervert the course of justice? Or simply saying that I was an inferior specimen? I did my best to disregard him, but again, was given the distinct impression that I was a dirty foreigner who didn’t deserve the honor I had had the presumption to seek.

Apparently bricklayers, who handle rough materials, and secretaries, who handle lots of paper, are the most susceptible to the wearing-down of their fingerprints. In my early 50s by then, I had done both–heavy manual work at the greenhouse and the farm and plenty of paper-handling at the press, not to mention mountains of washing besides. But I was not ashamed of my washerwoman’s hands, evidence of hard work (and of forgetting to wear rubber gloves when I did the dishes). So yes, my fingers were work-worn; what did they want to make of it?

My prints may now be part of a massive digital fingerprint file going right back to the 1990s. In 2018 the USCIS announced a plan to digitize their entire archive of fingerprints taken from applicants for naturalization, in a move to be able to deport people retroactively, even after they have already become U.S. citizens. Just knowing this keeps you on edge which is, no doubt, the intention. Don’t get too settled! You’re still an outsider.

Here are a couple of songs for all the hard-working immigrants out there—Hoyt Axton’s Boney Fingers and the Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth. Hold your heads high. Make no mistake, no matter what Homeland Security and the Border Patrol might say, America needs you; it is not just you who should have to prove yourself worthy, but this country that should have to earn your respect.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm


In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

457. Farming

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Childhood, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States, Work on April 7, 2020 at 11:01 pm

This is the sixth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


From 1984 to 1990 Andrew and I lived with friends from the Boston area on a 60-acre farm in Winchendon, a small town in North-Central Massachusetts. In truth it was mostly woods, with less than 20 acres of cleared land, an old red farmhouse and barn, and a run-down chicken coop. We had been having conversations since 1977 about forming some kind of collective and moving to a farm, sustained economically by some of us having paying jobs in the community; but when push came to shove most of the others bailed out, all of them economically more solvent than we were, and in the end there were just five of us. Since 1980 Andrew and I had been running a small press in the Boston area with his sister Eve, moving to the farm meant shuttling back and forth to Boston every week, which we had to do until we could move the operation to the repurposed chicken coop. Letterpress printers don’t make much money, still less when half the customers, mostly environmental groups and community organizations, get a political discount; but we had to keep working at the press and couldn’t afford to get involved in another marginal start-up. In the end our housemates started a small business growing perennials and eventually added a CSA, delivering vegetables in season to local families and our friends in the city, while all five of us maintained a big kitchen garden for our own use, including putting by large quantities of food to carry us through the winters.

It was hard farming in Winchendon, which turned out to be just about the coldest town in the state, so the growing season was very short, from after Memorial Day in late May to the week before Labor Day in late August, so one couldn’t grow crops that needed an extended period of heat, like okra or peanuts. But we were still able to grow a few crops that normally thrived in the heat because we ordered from Johnny’s up in Maine who developed seeds especially for northern climes, including a terrific variety of hot chili pepper.  Maureen and Rudy had the forethought to put in strawberries and asparagus for rare times of pure extravagance, and we produced a wealth of potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, beans and leafy greens of all kinds, and lots of culinary herbs. I say “we” loosely: I was never really a farmer, though I benefited from the hard work and expertise of the others. I helped a little with the weeding, killed potato beetles and tomato hornworms when they threatened our precious crops, collected eggs from the hens, picked when it was time to harvest, cooked, and ate my share—and then some.

But however isolated the community, inhospitable the climate, and rocky the soil, living on a farm was idyllic in the dark decade of the Reagan Years, when all our social activism of the previous decade seemed to have come to nought, when the very concept of society and community was under challenge by the defunding of the public sector and an ethos of individualism. We were actively engaged with raising our children–Andrew and I had one child and Maureen and Rudy another, three months apart, so Nikhil and Eric were brothers. They played at farming with Playmobil (Eric’s first word was “tractor”) and grew their first crop of scarlet runner beans at age four out of a seed packet they’d brought home as a party favor from the birthday party of a little friend of theirs, whose parents were also farmers.

In the mid-1980s, at the very time when we moved to our little farm, American farming was in crisis. Many farms, particularly in the Midwest, were up for sale. Farm debt had recently skyrocketed and now prices had collapsed and incomes were plummeting. It all added up to a consolidation of land in big farms, and small and medium-size farmers going out of business.  According to Iowa PBS, the “trend toward very large farms was initiated during the 1980s and it continues unabated up to the present day.” In September 1985 dozens of artists, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, organized Farm Aid, that started as a benefit concert that raised $9 million to save family farms, and still continues as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep them on the land.

Interestingly, a parallel movement to the consolidation of land in mega-farms has been a “concurrent, ongoing trend. . .for the development of small family farming enterprises, mostly organic, that is producing many new farm people” (Iowa PBS). The little farm we lived on, at least the business side of it–I can’t claim any credit for the work–was part of that movement as a member of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, catering to the growing desire for high-quality organically grown produce (hence our hand-culling of potato beetles and tomato hornworms).

Although compared to the average American farm, our production was small potatoes (our ascerbic housemate Charlie Gamble got a kick out of near-obsolete agricultural idioms); although it never made anyone a living; and although complaints about the weather and arguments among the adults were a-plenty, we certainly put in our share of honest effort, and our son spent his formative years unplugged, in small-town America, living on a farm.

Here’s The Who singing Now I’m a Farmer: and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging.
And here are more stories of life on the farm:

127. Going Up the Country

69. Wonders in the Woods

10. Ghosts of New Boston

86. Bottled Sunshine

177. The Sugar Snow

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

454. Cooperation

In blogs and blogging, culture, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on April 3, 2020 at 11:26 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Cooperation. The United States is proud to be an emblem of capitalism. It believes religiously in capitalist ideology, and sees the spirit of competition as its engine, associating competitiveness with good health and individualism with freedom. When Americans speak of fostering “healthy competition” I’m never quite sure whether they mean that there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to compete or whether they consider competition to be inherently healthy. Most of the time, it seems quite clear that they mean the latter: that competition itself is healthy, and any other way of engaging with the business of living is suspect.

What of competition’s opposite, cooperation? Despite the lip service given to cooperation, I find that in the U.S. it tends to be thought of as a sign of weakness or passivity, certainly not a leadership quality or a source of creativity. When someone is labeled “uncooperative,” it really means that they aren’t a “team player”—that they aren’t willing to shut up and do what they’re told. Funny, that contradictory message: you are supposed to be a self-motivated individualist, but only when carrying out the orders of your superiors. If you’re a maverick, as John McCain called himself in his 2008 presidential campaign, is that a good thing? It depends who you ask or what you’re refusing to fall in line with.

Is she ever going to stop this rambling, you may well ask. Sorry, I digress. I want to tell you about how I discovered various kinds of cooperatives in the 1970s, my first decade in the United States, and how they changed my life. To varying degrees, they all sprang from dissatisfaction with the dominant modus operandi—which is, Get the best deal for yourself and screw the rest.

at a Co-op reunion

I was introduced to cooperatives as an undergraduate, when I decided to move into a cooperative  house in the Spring semester of my senior year in college. Had I discovered it much earlier, I would have had a much happier college experience. What was the difference between living in the co-op house and living in the college dorms?

First, we saved money by cutting down the college’s profit margin, cutting out middlemen, and doing much of the work ourselves. Although the two houses that made up the Co-op were owned by the college, they were relatively autonomous in that while we rented them, we were relatively autonomous. We lived in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from campus. We didn’t have custodians cleaning and making repairs, neither did we have to purchase a college meal plan; instead, we bought our food in bulk from the local food cooperative federation and did all our own cooking and cleaning. We did have a resident advisor based in the house, a graduate student, but his presence was low-key and he maintained a strict hands-off policy with regard to just about everything. One of the college’s main deterrents to students trying to save money by moving out of the dorms was a hefty Off-Campus Fee that wiped out all possible savings; but if one moved to the co-op house, the Off-Campus Fee did not apply. Perhaps they saw us as a necessary safety valve for misfits and malcontents.

Second, because the college removed itself from our lives at the Co-op House, we had a much more interesting group of housemates, students who, for a wide variety of reasons, wanted to put a little distance between themselves and the prevailing culture on campus. Boyfriends and girlfriends who didn’t attend our college were embraced by the community as well. We had a resident Elder, a homeless man who moved in one night and never left (see TMA 158, The Pagli and the Tramp. Co-opers generally eschewed displays of class status, intellectual arrogance, or academic competitiveness; tended to be less politically conservative than the average student; accepted everyone, regardless of their personal idiosyncracies; and even tolerated a wide range of culinary skills on the part of the self-selected cooks.

I signed up to make dinner once a week because not many people ventured to prepare meals for 40 people, so cooks were in demand. A bonus for me was that if you cooked at least once a week you never had to perform any of the onerous house-cleaning duties, which were decidedly not my strong suit. An endearing Co-op custom was to cheer for the cook at every meal, and people did so religiously no matter what fare had been served up, though they would cheer more full-throatedly for meals they really loved. The trick was to keep both the meat-eaters and the vegetarians happy, which I could reliably do with Indian food, which was universally liked, even when it was all-vegetarian. In contrast, living in the college dorms as a vegetarian in the mid-1970s was miserable.

The third difference was the feeling of family, best exemplified one evening when the phone on the landing rang for a housemate. Now, even though we were close, I didn’t know all the co-opers equally well; but I was able to tell that caller exactly where the person they were trying to reach had gone and when she would be home, realizing in that moment that I could have done the same for just about everyone in the house. We listened to music, attended concerts, and took trips together, enlisted each other in improvement projects and contributed to murals for the house, enrolled in some of the same courses, helping each other with assignments and deadlines, created and tended a garden, compost heap and all, and played group volleyball every evening, all the while having the delicacy not to pry into each other’s private or family lives unless our housemates chose to share them with us.

It’s hard to how explain exactly how co-op house culture differed from life in the college dorms. The Good Old Boy, secret-society, prep-school, legacy ethos was entirely absent. We had a dartboard with the images of notorious dictators like the Shah of Iran and President Marcos of the Philippines, and took bets on who would be the first to be bumped off. We had a Workers of the World Unite! mural with that slogan in numerous languages—my contribution was Hindi. We held periodic multi-course banquets to which we invited non-Co-oper friends. We had a housemate whose sole duty it was to cultivate and maintain our supply of yoghurt. It was a gentle, nonjudgmental space where I never felt out of place as I regularly had in the dorms.

That early experience of cooperative living set a standard for me in my life after college, where I went on to live in a series of group houses with like-minded friends who shared the cooking and cleaning and much else besides. Even after our marriage, Andrew and I lived for seven years in a group house in the country where our son Nikhil was born and lived until age five. When we moved into our first home as a nuclear family, we did appreciate the new experience of privacy, but missed the company. For Nikhil, group living was the norm; he had never known anything else. When someone he liked came over for dinner, he would regularly ask them if they were going to stay over; if he really liked them he would ask hopefully if they were moving in.

I have not discussed the many other kinds of cooperatives and cooperation that have been so important to my life, and only have time to mention them here: participating in unions at work (TMA 375, 400) co-founding a cooperative news service (TMA 102), and engaging with food cooperatives at a number of levels (see TMA 114). They all had a spirit of egalitarianism, sought to reduce profit margins and eliminate the profit motive, and emphasized the sharing of knowledge and working for the common good rather than seeing others as an obstacle to one’s own individual advancement. Fundamentally, I believe, competition is inherently unhealthy and cooperation is eminently sane. Don’t mean to be pompous or polemical; cooperation has been a lot of fun.

I realize that after 50 years in the United States, I am fundamentally out of step with it in my beliefs about the unhealthiness of competition. However, I also know that there is a strong and perhaps growing minority of Americans who are sick of what rampant U.S. capitalism has brought us and, in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic, who know that the system itself is just plain sick.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

451. Life Depends on It

In Books, health, Inter/Transnational, reading, reflections, Work on March 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Still from David Gladwell’s film adaptation of The Memoirs of a Survivor

A friend just wrote to me that she feels as if she is living in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor; so do I. So do I.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly we can make drastic changes in the way we live if our lives depend on it and if the authorities tell us that it is essential to do so. One day we hear the term social distancing for the first time and the next day we are practicing it (and rightly so). One day we are getting up and going to work and the next, we are working from home indefinitely (with or without pay). One day we are in the thick of a critically important election campaign and the next, primaries are being postponed with little to no opposition, despite fears of the general election going the same way. No such drastic action followed when more than 50,000 children died of starvation in Yemen in one year alone; or when we received dire warnings of impending climate catastrophe from the scientific community; or on the numerous occasions when the current U.S. President has overstepped the limits of his constitutionally defined powers for what seemed like one time too many.

Passengers in a train in Chennai on March 19, 2020 (PTI)

We are living in conditions we never dreamt of just a few short weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, I’m sure that even as each of us goes through the motions mandated by our leaders, a part of us is watching and seeking to understand what it all means. What kind of a world is going to emerge at the other side of this crisis, and what can we do to help shape what that world will look like? We feel the need to act, not only for ourselves but for the future.

COVID-19 scenarios and benefits (Washington State)

We know that the wealthy and powerful are working hard to ensure that they come out of this on top, that even as patients gasp for breath, healthcare workers run out of masks, and hospitals out of ventilators, they are in the process of restructuring the system to consolidate their power still further. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has called it a pandemic shock doctrine; in a March 16th video, Coronavirus Capitalism—and How to Beat It, she warns of this opportunism but suggests that the unfolding  global disaster also offers the opportunity for transformative change from below—if we demand it with the same urgency that we are now putting into hoarding toilet paper.

Yesterday I read an article about the millions of workers in India’s informal sector who are suddenly out of work; there are no provisions or protections for them. It’s the same with gig workers around the world, or part-timers without benefits. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, pointed out on March 15th that because the United States doesn’t have a public health system worth the name, millions of Americans will be left without adequate care and coverage. In the face of this crisis, authoritarian rulers around the world are acting to protect themselves and their own but, aside from empty posturing, have little of substance to offer their people except for draconian measures that may well become permanent, unless we act and keep on acting to create a different future.

In the meantime, we do what humans do: we hunker down, obey orders from above, share frenetically on social media, and do our best to ensure that we and our loved ones survive. But we are also working hard—albeit  in place—to gain an understanding of this developing situation, reaching beyond and deep within ourselves to help create a just and sustainable future for us all. Life that’s worth living depends on it.

P.S. If you read The Memoirs of a Survivor, do let me know what you think. Love, J

Shelves at a Tesco supermarket after panic buying (Picture: Michelle Davies)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm

My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the interview with our aunt.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: