Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Keening Ladies

When I was 21, there was a death in the family, and then the wake.

All that day, and at that wake, I was in a strange state.  When I walked into the funeral home, with my shattered family, I heard a dreadful, howling, moaning noise coming from one corner of the room.  Several women were sitting together, looking down, making the noise.  "What is THAT?" I asked my father.  "Those are the keening ladies" he answered.  This was what the keening sounded like:

Keening Sample

My father went on: "Those are ladies who come to wakes to keen".  He treated the whole subject in an offhand way.   Looking for distraction, I immediately wanted to know the gritty details of being a keening lady.  Was money involved?  How were new keeners recruited?  Was there a central clearing house so that keeners ended up where they were needed?  But the conversation ended,  other events intruded, and I was forced, very much against my wishes, back to the matter at hand.

 I didn't think about the keening ladies for the next 40 years or so. One night I was doing a "life review" -- the obsessive wading through all painful times, whether as actor or acted on -- and the keening ladies popped up.  My first thought was that I must have misunderstood the whole situation, but the second was that keening and keeners made perfect sense.  These were, after all, the South Side Irish, in Chicago, whose odd rituals were hidden far from the surface, disguised as the ordinary, and whose emotional lives are still a mystery to me after all these years.  Still, the keening ladies were an odd note.  Where had it all come from?

From Ireland. Christianity reached Ireland -- St. Patrick, of the snakes -- in the 6th century.  It was a loosely organized religion;  there were monks and nuns and all, but there was also leftover pagan ritual and song from the pre-christian days. And keening, I'm sure.

Around the 12th century, order was imposed, and pagan ways were no longer welcome. Rigid doctrine accompanied rigid emotional control.  The sources I found report that by the late 19th century,  after 800 years of effort, the church was satisfied that keening was found only in the most primitive parts of Ireland.  And the south side of Chicago?

How could that be?  In the 1950s, the first generation of adults born in America took control of Irish life, and expunged their own history.  There were exceptions, but the ambitious upwardly mobile, the new heart of the urban middle class, put all that behind them.   All of the habits and objects of the old country just vanished.  Except the church.

We all pretended that the church was sui generis, even if everyone in the parish was Irish, including the priests.  There were no ways to think about what we came from, of what our own group, or church, had as history.  We had no special food,  Irish Gaelic never made it across the water, there weren't any unique clothes to be brought out on holidays.  A few exceptions, not many;  middle class teeth ground when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were mentioned.  There wasn't dual consciousness.  Irish was the dominant culture, but there wasn't even single consciousness.

And then, from the corner of the room, keening.

How does that noise stay in a hidden place, maybe for generations?  How did it just appear when my family was broken? My father certainly knew about keening, even saw it as commonplace.  But I think, in any other circumstance, keening was not known to him.  Knowing and not knowing at the same time is not unique to the Irish, but edging so far into not knowing leaves an awful lot of room for confusion.

Four steps distance from keening:  in the 5th century from pagan to christian.  In the 12th century, christian/pagan to rigid christian. In the 19th century immigration, old country to new. And, in my 20th century, peasant to nascent middle class.  Keening made it through with us, even if we didn't know.

At the wake, middle class ceremony went on as usual,  and the social expressions of sympathy and grief were made.  But, over there, in those chairs, were the keening ladies.  They were not an intrusion;  their keening was in the air, and nowhere else.  Keening altered our minds and emotions, and tore through all our cells.  Almost 50 years later, keening is what I remember of that day.
Now, I go to school every Saturday so I can learn to play the uilleann pipes, a uniquely Irish instrument.    I still haven't quite stopped not paying attention to what isn't there.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dead people

The Giffords episode was just so painful to me. Giffords had stayed faithful to herself and her supporters while politically surrounded by screaming, raging, sexually-charged mobs. No wonder she was so despised, and no wonder she was a target. A Democrat and a Jew and a woman in the most reactionary state. And so on. Surprising that she lasted as long as she did.

And now we go back to ground we know so well.

I've seen folks who had terrible brain injuries. They are recognizably themselves, with their old speech tics, hand motions, gait, and so on. And so it is with the degenerative diseases, the Alzheimer's, the "wet brain", the Parkinson's, the other dementias. The strokes.

Gaby Giffords isn't a regular adult, and won't ever be. No more "heroic" recovery, no more "She's a fighter!". After a while, with a lot of treatment, she will regain some language. She will look the same as before, and maybe  walk the same, and probably gesture the same.

So, what of me? Well, tricky stuff. Some of the changes I've gone through have been mild, some drastic. I can't tell what is TLE and what is aging and what is a combination. There will be another neuropsych coming in a month or so, and my best guess is that there will be some pretty drastic changes in cognitive stuff. I know that there are technical things I can't grasp now. I repeat stories and perceptions -- horribly embarrassing. And so on.  Just aging?

I've completely changed diet, music, wardrobe, fitness, sleep habits, work habits. My emotions are labile and exaggerated. A streak of rage has emerged, and has scared folks. Hell, it's scared me. I've become interested in narratives of torture and pain, and unable to tolerate narratives of loss and recovery. Redemption and triumph hold great interest. Probably not just aging.

In a small group today, I told a story that I've told three times before. I've begged the group to tell me when I repeat, and I know they won't. They will humor me. They will pretend that I'm telling them something they haven't heard before.

Now the ugly part. I kind of want them to pretend. I may say "Tell me when I repeat", and know I repeat, and yet I really don't want to be told how defective I am.

This is all very confusing. The Giffords thing is confusing too. I'm sure folks tell her that she has made a stunning recovery, and will be back to here normal self. No, no, no.  What does she think?  Does she ruminate about what she has lost?

One little nubbin that I forgot to mention:  showers.  When I take a shower, I can't turn while I'm in the water.  To wash the other side, I need to back out of the water, turn, then step back in. Sort of makes sense.


Since I originally wrote this entry, I have had another neuropsych eval, with surprising results!!!  I'm better!!!  Looks like anxiety mangled my performance the first time.  Forgot that anxiety and fear make you stupid.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Gas line explosions and my grandfather

Maybe ten years ago, maybe more, there was a terrible gas explosion in a home in my town. The house was destroyed; the owners were outside, doing garden work. They were not hurt, and not amused at the "Aren't you lucky?" comments.

I felt a connection; my grandfather Linehan had started his career digging trenches for the People's Gas, Light, and Coke Company, in Chicago, and worked his way out of the trenches. Before he retired, he wore a suit to work. He used a pocket watch, and I always liked to look at the chain.

His parents came from Ireland in the mid-19th century, in the years of diaspora after the famine. He never finished high school, and was part of the first generation of Irish cops, firemen, phone guys, electric guys, others, who built the city. They became the middle class, mostly uneducated, smart and ambitious, craving respectability, who made sure their kids went to college.

He was the one who gave me the Notre Dame t-shirt when I was 4. He died when I was 7; I remember him as a cheerful guy. His friend Tony Mullaney, the fire commissioner, gave me a ride on a fire engine, and even turned on the siren. I never met any of his relatives. His life and death were never mentioned in my family; only intense questioning of my grandmother got me anything at all about him, much later in my life and toward the end of hers. She found him, she said, on the kitchen floor, dead from a stroke, with the water in the sink running. I didn't know how much I missed him until much later; an image of the two of us, of him walking me to school when I was in first grade, sometimes floats into my mind. I don't have an actual picture of him. So it goes with the Irish.

The movers and shakers of that generation were all men, all white men. The women worked in the lower paid and lower status jobs. My grandmother, for much of her life, was a telephone operator. She was able to say "Number, please" and happy to make sure that ni-yun sounded completely unlike fi-yuv. My other grandmother ran a penny-candy ice cream fountain near a school. One earner families showed up after WWII, at least in the middle class.

My mother also worked as a telephone operator while she was in high school. More ni-yuns and fi-yuvs.Then she went to a "normal" school, a teacher's training college, and worked as a teacher for several years before marrying my father. Married women couldn't teach back then, and so her career was very short. I never knew if she really wanted to be a teacher; my sense is that she did not. Teaching was the job open to girls from ambitious Irish families, and that was that. The other choices were nursing and nunnery.

I know, though, that I would not want to be a student in her room. At a guess, she was the sort of teacher who rules with a chilling emotional intimidation. But, my experience of her at home may not have much to do with what she was like at her job. Or maybe it did.

I know that she kept the friends from her years as a teacher for at least 40 years, until they began die, or moved to a warmer place. She had only one new friend for all the years I lived in the house -- several drinking buddies, but one friend. That may have been the norm for women who came of age, and the middle class, at the end of the Depression. Their warmth was left behind. The friends they made early adulthood were the closest in their lives. Moving to the middle class meant moving their most basic connections to their husbands and children. I know that the times she did have lunch or dinner with her early friends were happy times for her, but I can't say how I know that.

The People's Gas, Light, and Coke Company is now Integrys Energy Group, a new name not so Maoist. The gas, light, and coke are now moved through trenches dug by folks of color, replacing the Irish. They will move to the middle class. Unions are powerful in Chicago, and still provide decent money for their members. Their children will go to college; their grandchildren will run the country.

60 years ago, I was six, walking to school with my grandfather.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The ten day week

The item on the radio: Corporate profits are at an all-time high, worker productivity is at an all-time high, unemployment is still horribly, miserably high. Why am I not surprised? Companies have discovered that they can get along without the dead wood. There is plenty of dead wood in the so-called private sector, as well as the public sector.

Fortunately, there is a solution. And, just as fortunately, the solution will drive everyone totally nuts. The solution is the ten day week. I used to bring up the ten day week as dinner party chat, and was generally ignored. No more.

Turns out my whole new structure to life was tried before, during the French Revolution, as part of the attempt to rationalize everyday life. I have been legitimized. Or delegitimized, depending whether you are a French aristocrat or not.

Before the revolution in France, necessities were priced in a delightful way. Bread was sold by the loaf; if the price of wheat went up, the loaf was a little smaller. If milk was scarce, a little water was added to the bottle. And so on. But the peasants, in particular, always paid the same amount for the loaf of bread or the bottle of milk, and were a bit insulated from the varying prices of staples. Folks who cheated the peasants were driven out of town.

But the revolutionaries demanded that, by golly, the system should be rational, and this foolishness must end, and the peasants must pay for a measured amount of bread or milk or anything. The peasants would have none of it; together with a bunch of similar bad moves by the revolutionaries, the emphasis on rationality in daily events turned the peasant class against the revolution.

The ten day week was another of those doomed ideas. Revolutionaries divided the year into twelve 30 day months -- which were renamed -- and each month had 3 ten day weeks*. At the end of the year, there was a five day holiday period. Each day had ten hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and so on. They were obsessed with the decimal business.** Didn't matter; the bible said seven days. The revolution was doomed.

That was then. Fortunately, we are no longer in the grips of religious fundamentalism. Snarky. The new ten day week will be divided into one five day unit called the First, and another five day unit called the Second. Half the population will work during each unit. A job will have two...hmm...occupants. Everyone will have a job for five days of ten, everyone will have leisure for five days of ten; the economy will blossom, and lions and lambs will do whatever together. Note that I have, with my usual modesty, not named the half-weeks after myself.

There will be some problems. What about families in which two parents, say, are working? Well, if they both work the First, or both work the Second, the family will have the whole other 5 days together, and will need day care for only five of ten days, rather than five of seven. If the adults work different periods, all day care problems are nicely solved. Vacation scheduling will be easy. Couples can take the same half-week, or the opposite half-week, depending on how they are getting along. Work scheduling will be difficult and will provide jobs for all the extra middle managers.

Strange loyalties will develop, and perhaps the Super Bowl will be played between the winners of the First and Second divisions, at some time during 5 DAY, those magical five extra days.

The big, big deal: there will be no unemployment!!! None at all!!! An immediate demand for workers, and then, of course, demand for goods and services. The ten day week saves civilization!!! And all my idea!!! Time to pick up my Nobel. I hope I know how to act at the dinner.

Whatever solution exists, there is no question about the problem. Current financial blahs are demand based, not supply based. There is plenty of capital around looking for places to settle, but not enough demand to buy stuff. If there was ever a time to take the wealth from the wealthy, this is it; the usual rationalization, that wealthy folks provide capital, is even more goofy now. We don't need more capital!!!! We have capital up our ying-yangs, or whatever the plural of ying-yang is. We need people buying stuff!!!

The French revolution and the ten day week aside, what are we to do with all the extra folks for whom there are no jobs, and never will be? Our young men, for instance, can't all go into the killing vocations. We need manufacturing jobs for them; we need the factory floor. Office work won't do; "Hell's Angels, Wayland Branch" colors may go fine in the factory, but not at Chase bank.

The ten-day week is my best idea -- actually, my only idea. I don't think anyone else has any ideas to compete. During the last boom, the killing industries provided jobs, and the housing industry provided jobs. One of them (guess which!!) is out of business, and it looks now like the killing industries are going to be able to get along with the labor they already have. This is where our enslavement to the supply/demand nonsense really gets annoying.

There are more of us than there are jobs, and we have no clue about how to cope. Until we pull manufacturing back from wherever it has gone, we will suffer the disastrous consequences of trading jobs for wealth. Bad idea when we started, worse idea now. We need manufacturing. We need factories.

Once again, we had what we needed, and we gave it all away.

That total isolation thing? Starting to look better, isn't it?

*Of course, Thermidor appears in Lobster Thermidor, a dish rumored to have been prepared for Napoleon I during Thermidor. In the Julian calendar that was about July 13 to August 12; the name is derived from the root therm, meaning heat. Duh. The common rule-of-thumb, no shellfish in months without an "r" in the name, applies only to oysters. Turns out the best time to eat lobsters is in months ending in "r", except December. No idea how this maps onto the revolution month names. Blah, blah. I love this stuff.

**The French revolutionaries, we should note, did not divide their ten-day weeks into two five-day units, so I can still revel in my creativity.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Just so awful.

Oh, Gabrielle Giffords.

The bad all comes out now, a day and some later, awful. Why is this so awful? Hundreds of thousands are dead, and this is so awful.

Everything changes again, turns bad. She is a storm: a woman, a Jew, a democrat. How could she live and work ? Her brain is shattered. I'm so sad and going through the motions again, and thinking about her brain and my brain.

Heard the old "What's that sound? Everybody look what's going on" song and went back to the King and Kennedy year, and remembering that I knew just then that we were always going to lose. No more thinking it might work out, knowing we were always going to lose and that it was over and just go home.

2008. 40 years. Watching Grant Park, and sort of bobbing the head up and down and sideways and crying and thinking maybe it's not so bad, and maybe it payed off. Forgot for a few minutes.

1991, standing on the Common with signs on Sunday mornings, the kids 9 and 7, counting the cars that went by and keeping track of who beeped and cheered and who yelled "Commie" out the car window and who gave us the finger. Saying what the finger meant and saying what "Commie" meant.

The signs are in the garage, and one says "Persian cats for peace". I knew in 1991 that we were going through the motions, but the rage again, and that time scared that it was so easy for them and would go on forever.

Went to Dunkin Donuts one of those Sunday mornings for food; we were the olds, we could feed the youngs. Waiting in line, and two old guys sitting at the counter, and one says "It's all the damn niggers fault", and the other says "Yeah, it's all the niggers fault", and just hearing it, and knowing that it would be a hundred years more.

Then Grant Park, sort of surprised, wondering what was coming, and thinking it was going to go bad and then seeing it go bad and not knowing how bad it would be.

And now this, and it's all so sad, and more going through the motions, and maybe how sad will count this time. Her brain is exploded and it always will be, and most of the time I only think what will happen to all of us and my own brain.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Corpses and Little League Fields

During the French and Indian War, starting around 1708, bounties were offered for the scalps of Native Americans. Each side paid for the scalps of different qroups -- the French for Iroquois scalps, the English for Abenaki scalps. Scalps for money lasted, intermittently, until the late 1870s, in different parts of the country. The practice was finally abandoned for lack of demand, not lack of supply.

The big problem with scalps for money was that the whites could not tell whether the scalp was from a member of a friendly tribe or an enemy tribe. Woo-hoo!! Open season on members of any tribe who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lo, the poor Indian.

Now, forward almost 200 years. Iraq, and the contractors. There are many, many issues with contractors in Iraq. Questions:

How does it make sense to pay contractors so much more than soldiers?

What is the system to make contractors accountable (and we are so in love with accountability) if they are murderous beyond their duties?

What sort of military control do we have over these people?

What on earth do we want these people to do?

There are more, I suppose, but let's start with those.

Contractors are overwhelmingly used for protection of diplomats and visitors. Contractors and their agencies are paid by the hour. A lot. The longer the war goes, the more they make. Not exactly a recipe for quick success.

The rationale is that we just have too few soldiers to be used for what, after all, is usually a mundane task. At first glance, this makes some sense. Soldiers fight the enemy, not watch doors.

Let's think about it another way, like the 18th century folks did. They had sensational success; their enemies were completely wiped out. We should be so successful!!!

Let's reverse roles. Soldiers, formerly in the field shooting people, moved to guard duty, taking care of the people and buildings we most value. Contractors moved to field operations. And the payment system changed. Contractors paid per corpse. How do we tell if the corpse was an enemy? Easy. The same way we do now!!! Success guaranteed!!! Lo, the poor Al-Qaeda!!!

I am not opposed to privatizing. Not at all. I just want privatizing to be successful, and I want privatizing to lessen the role of the state in many areas now ignored. Contractors in Iraq may have been a bad idea, but no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Look around. What is the least noticed, but most necessary, function of local government? Easy again. Parks and fields. Particularly Little League fields, also used for adult softball.

I propose we offer towns good money to sell all their fields to us, along with an agreement that they will build no more. The towns already have a monopoly on fields, and get paid for their use. Easy stuff, particularly these days, with towns starving for cash.

Then we can jack up the user fee astronomically. Yessss!! A monopoly!!! The dream of every business. Hey, let somebody try to compete. With the price of land, no way!!! We do away with the town rec person, who has such enormous power and is widely despised. Instead, we get a scheduling web site. The software is easily available. Problems? Call customer service, in India. Nothing is more important to adult Americans than softball.

In the deal, we get catering rights for the fields -- something not even thought of before private industry took over. And we subcontract the serving of decent, healthy food for the little folks and the big folks during and after games. No more sugary treats. Beef Wellington? No, not so upscale. Deli platters, maybe.

In my town, there is a statue, a magnet for tourists. They stand in front of it and have their pictures taken, often by passers-by. Well, the mall does the same thing, with Santa. And charges the big bucks. And so will we. Our statue is there year round. Plus food stands!! Plus souvenir stands!! Plus a dunk-the-Brit booth!! The possibilities are endless, and so are the profits. Or course, not all towns have an attraction like the statue. We can be creative with parks, though.

Fire department? Already privatized. Street repair? Already privatized. Stick to parks. User fees for dog...performance? Alert Reader groans at inevitable appearance of poop in the chapter. Well, too hard to enforce anyway.

Schools are a sticking point. The charter school movement has left the mouth-breathing right salivating and producing other body fluids; finally, a chance to crush the teacher unions, which they seem to despise with a virulent hatred. There seems to be no such disdain of police and firefighter unions, for some reason. Perhaps the collision of beliefs.

But.....schools are tough. Seems easy, but you end up dealing with amphetamine-addled howler monkey parents, who won't be put off with a help line to India. They have a murderous rage, inflamed by the least issue. I wouldn't put it past them to hold corporate officers personally responsible for pain inflicted on their children. We can't have that. Stay away from schools.

Ah, the point. The commons are, well, common, usually for a good reason. Local institutions we hold dear, such as Little League, are not so easy to privatize, and are held in common for the community, much as sheep-grazing commons were in the early days of settlement.

There are also beloved national institutions immune from privatization. Soldiers are not in it for the money; we are taught to despise mercenaries, starting with the Hessian troops who were on the British side in the Revolutionary war. Soldiers are part of the commons. I don't know how the Iraq contractors have been able to escape the mercenary label. I always thought that folks fighting just for pay were mercenaries.

Teachers are treasured until they reveal themselves as "in it for the money" like the rest of us, and are no longer part of the commons. Same with stern but kindly librarians; they are the first to go, since they are old and cost too much on the health insurance. Same with the addled brother-in-law of the town manager, whose duties focus around field lines in the summer, and shoveling out town hall in the winter.

Where will it end? I will not allow the blog to be sold off to the highest bidder. Well......

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Clubbed Like Baby Seals

It took a long time. A generation of politicians, economists, think-tankers, all the powers-that-be, have been totally, wildly wrong, stupid in a very debilitating way. I, of course, will now take time to set them straight.

Trade between nations is not about money. It just isn't. Trade between nations is about jobs. Just jobs. We're losing jobs, very badly, to the point that the rest of the world is sitting back, hands in their plump laps, smiling seraphically. Or is it cherubically? Our clocks are getting cleaned, our lunches are being eaten, our faces pushed into the mud. Put your own metaphor here. My personal favorite: We are being clubbed like baby seals, and then skinned.

Yipes. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India; they all have more people working. We have fewer people working. They have industrial development guided by groups of smart people. We have smarmy, big haired people, making sure that industrial development isn't guided by anything smart.

We love our delusions. We keep saying that we are more creative than all those Asians; they can only copy, not be creative. We are the smart, creative folks who will lead the world in everything intellectual. Race-baiting swill. Japan beat us in cars and electronics -- creatively. Europe is beating us in bio-tech -- creatively. China is beating us in gew-gaws, or tchotchkes, or whatever you call them -- goofy little things that we like to buy. Stuff. OK, not so creatively.

Our biggest export to China, our intellectual value-added American-made stuff, our grand product of the best-in-the-world educational system: junk. Junk metal, and junk paper and junk plastic, shipped to China and morphed into the stuff we buy back. Ack. Your Alert Blogger is stunned!! Wasn't supposed to work like that. We somehow got on the wrong end.

Ok. Lemme hear it. They are: Slave-mongers!! Environment polluters who work in dreadful factories for dreadful wages, spoiling it all for us.

Well, sure. They have discovered, though, that having a job is better than being a peasant. Just like the Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, Poles, and all the other peasants who left their homes to come to American jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs: all that matters. Jobs.

So, if I'm so smart, what do I think we should do? I hate to say it -- well, not so much : we need to put up our fists, jab, float like butterflies, sting like bees. No More Mister Nice Guy. How? Easy, really. We stop buying stuff we didn't make.

No more Toyotas -- 200% tariff No more Porsches -- 300% tariff. No more grapes in the winter -- 2% tariff; I like grapes. No more tchotchkes -- 10,000% tariff. Thank god -- no more tchotchkes. No more Columbian coffee. No more stuff we didn't make. We just stop. OK, I'll give up the winter grapes, in the interest of the majority -- 100% tariff.

Sure. Right. You can't do that. The last 50 years of economic theory show that mercantilism -- what we are talking about here -- is a dreadful failure. Except when it isn't. The last 50 years show that guided development and strategically aimed tariffs work very well, thank you. There are, I suppose, exceptions -- Cambodia comes to mind, but no matter what, Cambodia wouldn't work. India and China, though, the largest of the Asian nations, seem to be OK. Why? Lots of jobs to go around.

We have made a dreadful mistake. We have put wealth before jobs. Please note that all the folks pushing for this wonderful world of free trade are sitting back, burning money in their barbecues so the steaks will be nice and tender. Yet again: I've got mine, the rest of you just go away and die.

When will we finally notice that class warfare is class warfare, and the weapons are jobs? When will we finally notice that the big earners still are working, and we aren't?