I love to find new and bizarre stuff. I’m lucky enough to have a number of friends who like to read and listen to music. I also have a very indulgent spouse who doesn’t mind when I occasionally make purchases of odd things. Like, for instance, at Christmas, I bought Bill a juice strainer with a replica of Angela Merkel’s head on it. I also bought him an egg separator that had a nose on it that allows egg white to pass through the nostrils like snot and a Margaret Thatcher nutcracker. I have a Donald Trump toilet brush in my bathroom. Hell, just a few weeks ago, I bought a baseball cap with an old picture of Mister Rogers on it, flipping the bird with both fingers.
A few weeks ago, my former shrink was posting about something on Facebook and one of his friends– a psychologist colleague, I suppose– recommended that he read The Pop-up Book of Phobias by Gary Greenburg and Matthew Reinhart . Or maybe he suggested it as a gift. I was very intrigued by the concept. I was also kind of repulsed by it. I have a phobia of mushrooms, so the idea of a book that had one popping up at me was a bit horrifying. Fortunately, mycophobia is not a particularly common phobia, so it didn’t rate an entry in this book, which isn’t very long and takes a minute or two to “read”. I looked for a link to mycophobia, having actually written an article about it myself some years ago. Unfortunately, all of the articles I found had pictures of mushrooms on them, and frankly just the sight of mushrooms gives me the willies. But at least nowadays, I don’t freeze up and scream the way I used to when I was a child and found them growing in the yard.
I see The Pop-up Book of Phobias is out of print now, and I probably spent a lot more for it than I should have. I was still pretty delighted by it when it arrived last night. The art is well done, and I loved the way the artist managed to convey the concepts in “3-d”. Check out these photos. I didn’t get a photo of all of the entries, but this is basically the gist of the book. My copy was very well used and appeared to be much beloved by the previous owner.
I really appreciate the ingenuity and creativity it took to come up with these concepts and put them in a pop-up format. Just the engineering of the paper alone is impressive. How long did it take to come up with a method to arrange the paper in such a way that the snakes and spider pop up like this? The clown page is especially intriguing, as the main one has creepy eyes that open as the pages spread.
Looking on Amazon, I see that Matthew Reinhart has done a few pop up books, including one called The Pop-up Book of Nightmares. That one appears to be widely available, even though it’s been out since 2001. Since Bill has been studying Carl Jung and analyzing his dreams, maybe that would make a good present for him on the next gift giving occasion. It definitely makes for a fun gag gift, if not a pricey one. The one drawback is that it’s not much of a book in terms of reading material as it only consists of 22 pages. But it might be fun to glance at as you drop your morning deuce. Or it might be fun for the coffee table, although I would recommend not taking it to the bathroom if you’re going to put it on your coffee table. Accidents happen.
I was glad to get the book yesterday. It was a nice distraction from the news of the day. It seems like there’s very good to report, and the overall mood is ugly as COVID continues to wreak havoc worldwide and people continue to fight over public health measures. I’ve seen a lot of rude, callous, mean-spirited comments and behavior on both sides of the issue. It makes me wonder if people really are as horrible as their behavior online indicates.
Add in “healthcare professionals” who take it upon themselves to post disinformation about vaccines and/or inject people with saline instead of a vaccine, and you have a truly ugly situation brewing. I might be able to get onboard with people who simply wish to avoid the vaccine. I don’t agree with their opinions, but I can kind of understand the concept of “my body, my choice.” But it really is criminal when a nurse decides for her patients to trick them by injecting them with saline instead of giving them a vaccination that they requested.
Also… I am quite baffled by “healthcare professionals” who keep insisting that COVID-19 is not as bad as it’s being portrayed in the media. I know the journalistic mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads”, but how is it that some doctors and nurses are so exhausted and upset about the virus and some are claiming it’s not so bad? Seriously, a self-proclaimed master’s level nurse at a level one trauma center posted on the Facebook page for the University of South Carolina, claiming that this is all a big hoax. My guess is that he’s lying, either about his “credentials” or where he works. I wouldn’t want an unvaccinated nurse taking care of me, to be honest.
My public health and social work master’s degrees were both earned at the University of South Carolina. Former President Harris Pastides, who was teaching in the Arnold School of Public Health when I was attending, is back to being the interim president, because Bob Caslen, who was Pastides’ successor, was forced to resign. Dr. Pastides is well-informed about the COVID situation and is promoting vaccination on campus. He was a tremendously popular president. It’s nice to see him back, doing the right thing. Too bad so many people are making the vaccines political.
Anyway… I’m glad it’s Friday, at least. I am expecting to get new guitar strings today… and I have a feeling I will be trying to put them on my guitar instead of practicing. I hate this chore, but I think it’s time to do it. Maybe I’ll be back later… maybe not.
In the wake of the decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan, I’ve decided to repost this review I wrote of Frank Schaeffer’s book, Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine Corps. Frank co-wrote this book with his youngest child, his son John. I discovered Schaeffer about 20 years ago, when I was hanging out on a messageboard dedicated to people who had attended Pensacola Christian College. Schaeffer was raised in Switzerland by two famous missionary parents, and he had written a trilogy of very entertaining novels about the experience. Someone on the PCC board recommended them, so I read and loved them. He’s also written many non-fiction books about religion, some of which I have read and reviewed for Epinions.com.
Schaeffer had no experience with the U.S. military when his son, John, decided to join the Marines just before 9/11. He wrote several books about his son’s military experience, as well as a great novel called Baby Jack. I wrote this review for Epinions in February 2004. I believe John has since left the Marines. It appears here as/is.I see by visiting Frank’s Web site that he’s written a new book about Trump. Guess I’ll be downloading that one, too.
First off, let me preface by commenting that Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine Corps (2002) by Frank Schaeffer and his son, John Schaeffer, is a wonderfully honest and poignant book. Frank Schaeffer, an author of three novels (two at the time this book was published), is the father of three children. His older two, daughter Jessica, and son, Francis, had done what all of the other kids in Schaeffer’s social class had done and, after graduating from private high schools, gone off to private colleges.
Youngest son John had always been a good athlete and a talented writer (he specializes in poetry and aspires to one day own a bookstore and write for a living), but he was not a good student. Nevertheless, Frank and his wife, Genie, had always assumed that John would follow in his older siblings’ footsteps and go to college, if not for academics, then for athletics. Instead, John decided to join the Marines, an entity that was totally foreign to the Schaeffer family. John Schaeffer wrote that he was not particularly concerned with what his parents thought about the direction of his life, although he did listen to what they had to say and respected their opinions. He had joined the Marines without consulting his parents. I got the feeling that this decision really hurt Frank Schaeffer’s feelings, especially when he pictured his boy coming home in a casket, draped with an American flag.
Frank Schaeffer confesses that he had always felt particularly close to John because his youngest boy had come along when he was “supposed to have children”. The elder Schaeffer became a father for the first time at age eighteen. His second child arrived when he was twenty-one. John was born when Frank was fully twenty-eight years old “almost a grown up”, he says. He got to enjoy his youngest child. I also got the sense that he shared a sense of adventure with John as well as writing talent. Frank Schaeffer grew up the son of American Calvinist missionaries based in Switzerland. He didn’t learn to read until he was eleven years old, vacationed in Portofino, Italy every summer with his three sisters. Schaeffer chronicles his experiences in his novels, Portofino and Saving Grandma, both of which I have read and reviewed on Epinions.com. Frank Schaeffer enjoys cooking, and his son John loves his father’s Tuscan pizza. Frank enjoys his youngest son very much, but I got the feeling it went beyond the fact that they were merely blood. It seemed to me that they were also very good friends.
This sense of friendship was apparent as Frank and John Schaeffer wrote about how they spent their last summer together before boot camp. John had a girlfriend named Erica whom Frank did not like. Frank found Erica cold and distant. She didn’t want to spend any time with the Schaeffer family and Frank felt that she was taking his son away from him, especially since there was precious little time left before boot camp would begin. And this is where the honesty of this book comes in. Readers begin to read about situations in which Schaeffer behaved in ways that may seem, quite frankly, embarrassing. Many people would not want have wanted to admit to admit to some of the behavior that Schaeffer writes that he exhibited in the face of losing his son to boot camp. He comes across as, well, a father hen facing an empty nest.
And then when John starts basic training, we get to read about Frank’s angst at never hearing from his son and the constant letters that he sends his boy. We also read from John’s side as he experiences life on Parris Island– the constant harassment that he suffered as a Marine recruit– the abuse that others suffered, especially those deemed “Fat Bodies or Diet Trays (overweight recruits)”. John’s letters home are painfully short with one or two lines of information and maybe a request or two. He asks for Power Bars and Gatorade, which Frank gladly sends on several occasions. The treats get stashed in a foot locker for the drill instructors to eat or dole out to all of the recruits. Some of the recruits get no mail at all, but John gets a lot of mail– mostly courtesy of his father. He actually gets punished for this a few times.
I found the description of the basic training fascinating. My husband has often told me tales of training, but he didn’t enlist and he’s in the Army. It was interesting to read another point of view. I also used to live in South Carolina, which is where Parris Island is located. I was living there when John Schaeffer was in basic training. In fact, he wrote of having to be evacuated for Hurricane Floyd. He didn’t mention the storm by name, but I know that was the storm he was referring to because it had the distinction of causing one of the worst traffic tie ups in hurricane evacuation history– and it never even really struck land.
I also found John’s stories of the Marines doing what they could to get their fellow recruits through the course inspiring. He wrote of one recruit who developed double pneumonia right before the final 52 hour test, called the Crucible. There was talk that the recruit would not be allowed to take the test. The other recruits, unbeknownst to the sick one, split up the heavier contents of his pack, and carried his load for him. The Senior Drill Instructor said he would get him through the Crucible if he had to carry him through it himself. In fact the recruit played the injured recruit during the Crucible whenever the test called for an injured recruit, and he ended up passing and becoming a Marine.
We are also treated to several scenes where drill instructors dispense fatherly advice coated in profanity. For instance, they tell their recruits “not to get married and buy a bunch of stupid crap for Suzie Rottencrotch” the minute they get out of basic training– instead they should hold off until they make rank and can afford it. They also advise their recruits that there will be plenty of sex to be had once they are Marines and a lot of women will want to “nail them.” But they shouldn’t try to “bang sixteen year olds” because they could go to jail for that in the Corps. And they add, “Fer Chrissakes, don’t get any of ’em pregnant!”
Interspersed within these inspiring stories are John’s poems, stories of life at home in Massachusetts, and Frank’s yearnings to hear from his son. At one point in the book, John writes home to tell his parents that he has decided to change his job once he gets out of training. The job change means that he will add another year to his contract. Frank is angry about this change of events and scolds his son for not consulting him first, or at least talking to the one person the family knows who is a Marine. Frank’s reason for being angry is that the training will require John to move further away from him for a longer time. Originally, he would have trained in the DC area, but his new job would require him to go to Arizona and then Florida. He wrote an angry letter to his son about this development and then got in a fight with his wife… more embarrassing scenes that one would think might be too embarrassing to include in this book. But that’s what makes this book so good. It’s quite honest and Schaeffer shows his very human side. Incidentally, my first reaction to this scenario was that Frank Schaeffer was really in for a rude awakening. Service life is all about frequent moves and going wherever the government decides to send you. I’m sure Frank Schaeffer knows all of this now, though. And I’m sure he’s allowed his son to grow up and distance himself a bit.
As it turned out, once John graduated from basic training, he completed some training in North Carolina, then he ended up spending eighteen months in Arizona while he waited for his security clearance. He had left for Arizona four days after meeting Mollie, a woman to whom he really felt attracted. This part of the book was interesting, as John wasn’t doing anything in particular but waiting. It was a time in which he proved his allegiance to the Corps, since he had injured his foot and had to have surgery. He had the chance to leave the Marines, go to college, be with Mollie. He stayed in, went to Pensacola, and became an exemplary example of a Marine, just in time for September 11th, 2001. According to the back jacket, John Schaeffer is currently serving in Maryland.
As expected, this book does do some bashing of the other services, especially the Army. As the wife of a Soldier, I found myself getting a little annoyed at the generalization that all Army Soldiers are slobs. But then again, I know that the Marines have the toughest physical standards of all of the services. I know they take exceptional pride in their appearance. I’m also an Air Force daughter and I used to hear my dad bashing the Army, too (though not quite as much as this book did). I also found myself laughing aloud quite a lot.
This is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much as I have enjoyed Frank Schaeffer’s novels. I read passages of it aloud to my husband, who also wants to read the book now that I’m finished. If you have a loved one serving in the Armed Forces, especially if he or she is a Marine, this book might be a worthy investment of your time.
Frank Schaeffer has written two follow ups to Keeping Faith, Faith of Our Sons, and Voices From The Front.
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Earlier this month, I took part in a Zoom meeting memorial my group of Armenia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers held for our former colleague, Matt Jensen, who was struck and killed by a speeding black Rolls Royce in Brooklyn, New York. During that meeting, I learned that another member of my group, Loretta Land, also died this year. She passed in January, having reached the age of 86 years.
I had recently been in touch with Loretta via Facebook, but she hadn’t been posting in awhile. I was afraid she might have stopped following me, as a lot of people tend to do when they don’t like my raunchy humor or outspoken posts about Trump. But, as it turned out, Loretta had simply moved on from this world. It wasn’t a total surprise, given her age, but I was a bit sad about the news.
I knew that Loretta had published a book about our time in Armenia. I decided to download it, and I’m now about halfway through it. It’s a pretty quick read, and if I’m honest, not the best edited or accurately fact-checked book I’ve ever read. And yet, I’m enjoying reading her book so much!
I always really admired Loretta, who was in her early 60s when she joined the Peace Corps. Loretta was about my dad’s age, and I think that had my dad not been married to my mom, he would have liked being in the Peace Corps himself. He was very excited when I told him I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as my eldest sister, Betsy, had in Morocco during the mid 1980s.
For some reason, Loretta always made me think of my dad… the best parts of him, anyway. Dad and I had kind of a rocky relationship, but he had a very altruistic, adventurous, adrenaline seeking side of him that was fun. Loretta was like that too, as I’m discovering as I read her book, Yes, You Can! Have a Second Life After 60.
I remember when we arrived for staging in Washington, DC, Loretta was interviewed by a reporter for the Associated Press. A newspaper article later surfaced about Loretta’s decision to join the Peace Corps at her age. She was the oldest one in our group, but the subsequent groups I encountered also had older people serving.
Loretta served as a business volunteer, and lived on the outskirts of Yerevan, not too far from the very last metro stop heading east. I never visited Loretta, even though I also lived in Yerevan. Yerevan, in the 1990s, was like a really big village, but it’s also pretty vast, with over three million people living there. Her work was in a village about fifteen kilometers away from Yerevan called Zovk, while mine was at a Yerevan city school that, at least when I was there, served kids of all ages. Now, I believe my former school is what’s called a “basic school”, that doesn’t serve the youngest or oldest children. My students were all among the youngest and eldest at the school.
It’s been so much fun to read Loretta’s memories of our time in Armenia. There are some things in her book that I never knew about– a lot of it is about her specific work in Zovk, as well as Yerevan proper. She’s written some things that were common experiences that I don’t remember, like when our training group was asked to write letters to ourselves about what we thought our last day in Armenia would be like. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we must have… because I remember the training director and his wife, and it’s exactly the kind of exercise they would have had us do. Unfortunately, someone lost the letters we turned in, although Loretta said she’d kept hers, but then decided to throw it away instead of reading it. She wrote that she was sorry she’d done that.
She’s also spilled some tea about some things that I knew nothing about… like, for instance, that a couple of Volunteers traded their kerosene for a car and a driver (which they were not supposed to do). She doesn’t mention their names, but she does mention the area where they lived… and I have a feeling I know who they are. But at least they got something truly valuable for the kerosene. I remember one lady who lived with a host family came home to find that the family had traded her kerosene for 200 kilos of potatoes!
I got a kick of reading her mentions of people we knew from our group, or people in the very small and close-knit American diaspora that existed in Armenia in the 1990s. So far, she hasn’t mentioned me. I don’t expect she will, despite my unforgettable charm. 😉 But I have seen some names of our colleagues, as well as Peace Corps staff and other Americans in the community during that time. I had forgotten just how challenging and difficult life in Armenia could be back in the 90s. Reading Loretta’s account makes me proud that I managed to survive that tough existence, even if I wasn’t as amazing and effective as a Peace Corps Volunteer as she was.
Loretta’s book is reminding me of the traditions and customs in Armenia, as well as the very warm and hospitable nature of its people. I got pretty bitter and depressed during my time there, and I think I lost sight of what an amazing opportunity it was to get to experience life in what had been the Soviet Union, just after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. When I think about it, it just blows me away that I joined the Peace Corps. It was not something I had really aspired to do until I felt the itch to do something drastic to change my life. My life didn’t change in the way that I thought it would, but it did change. If not for my time in Armenia, I’m not sure I’d be living in Germany, for instance.
I find myself oddly gratified, too, to read that, like me, Loretta experienced depression while she was in the Peace Corps. I remember, back in those days, feeling like such a loser. I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything. By the end of my second year, I had actually done some good things, but they felt insignificant. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been suffering from depression, which is a medical problem. It wasn’t until many years after I had been treated for the medical problem that I realized that, in fact, I had done some things that made a lasting and good impression. One of my former students now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I had nothing to do with him landing that job, but I do realize that at least his experiences with me didn’t turn him off of Americans. 😉 And yes, he still remembered me many years later, and now we’re friends on Facebook.
I expect to be finished reading Loretta’s book very soon, and then I will write a proper review, which I will post on this blog, and probably the travel blog, too. But for now, I just want to post that I’m glad I bought the book and am now reading it. I wish I had read it when Loretta was still alive and I could talk to her about it. She was an amazing lady and I am so honored that I got to meet her. Honestly, I met so many incredible people thanks to my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. It truly changed my life in so many wonderful ways… even if it didn’t always seem like it at the time.
Recently, I watched a video done about Karen Carpenter by YouTube shrink, Dr. Todd Grande. Dr. Grande does videos about mental health topics in a trademark “flat” kind of way. When I first encountered him on YouTube, I didn’t like his videos that much because his delivery was so dry. But I kept coming back, because he chose interesting topics. After awhile, I realized that I enjoy his videos and even his “flat” style… especially when he throws shade in kind of a bland way. In the video he made about Karen Carpenter, Dr. Grande remarked that in terms of her musical talent, Karen was “like a Ferrari stuck on a go cart track”. He implied that she was much more talented than her brother, Richard, is. I got a kick out of that observation.
Personally, I disagree with Dr. Grande that Karen’s talent was that much more impressive than Richard’s is. They had strengths in different areas. Richard is a fantastic pianist, and he’s a great arranger. He knew what songs went best with Karen’s vocals. Karen was a magnificent singer and drummer. Together, they worked well. Both of them worked apart with somewhat less success. I do think that Karen and Richard had a very controlling mother, and personally, I think if anyone should be blamed for what happened to Karen Carpenter, it could be her mom that deserves the most shade. Agnes Carpenter was overbearing and overreaching… and she didn’t want her children to be independent adults. Moreover, she obviously favored Richard, which probably took a toll on Karen’s self esteem. Maybe that had to do with her development of anorexia nervosa. I don’t know.
Anyway… I enjoyed watching Dr. Grande’s video about Karen Carpenter and realized he’d done a bunch of similar videos about other celebrities. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on Christy Henrich, a brilliant 80s era gymnast who famously perished from anorexia nervosa in 1994. So I left him a comment. Maybe he’ll read and heed it. I really think it would be interesting to hear Dr. Todd Grande’s deadpan views about Christy’s public struggle with anorexia. She had a tremendous work ethic, which extended to her illness. At one point, Christy’s weight fell to 47 pounds. It’s not that I admire her for being that emaciated. It’s more of a comment on her sheer will power and relentless pursuit of her goals, self-destructive as they were. I’m sure a mental health expert would have a lot to say about her.
In the meantime, below is a repost of an article I wrote in February 2014 about Christy Henrich for my original blog. It was inspired because Bill and I went on a “hop” to Spain and Portugal in January of that year. On the way back to Texas, we landed in Missouri and drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. I thought of her as I realized how much Missouri reminds me of Virginia. As usual, the repost appears “as/is”.
Remembering Christy Henrich
Back in the late 1980s, I had a brief but intense obsession with watching gymnastics. I would catch meets on ESPN or Home Team Sports. In those days, ESPN only had one channel and I believe HTS is now defunct. I remember seeing very old footage of Shannon Miller when she was just 12 years old. I remember watching Brandy Johnson and Phoebe Mills. I could never so much as turn a cartwheel myself, but I really enjoyed watching the tiny girls compete. I admired them for being so tough and strong. I was into horses myself, though.
I also remember Christy Henrich, who was less than a month younger than me. When I first saw her, she reminded me a bit of a soccer player. Short and muscular without an ounce of fat on her, she didn’t have the long, graceful limbs of the Russian or Romanian gymnasts. But she was very strong and had an amazing work ethic. Her coach, Al Fong, even called her E.T. for extra tough. Sometimes, that extra tough work ethic worked against her, as you can see in the video below.
Not being privy to anything going on in gymnastics that wasn’t aired on TV, I didn’t know about Christy Henrich’s eventual slide into anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Back in those days, I had a bit of an obsession about eating disorders, too. I knew a lot about them and even flirted with them. If I had known about Christy, I might have even admired her for her anorexia. That’s how dumb I was at 16.
I remember watching the very intense 1988 Summer Olympics gymnastics trials. I was kind of rooting for Kristie Phillips, an adorable strawberry blonde who had seemed poised for gymnastics stardom. A growth spurt and weight gain had sidelined her in 1987 and she was back to try to win a spot on the team. She placed 8th and was named a second alternate. She would not be going to Seoul unless someone got hurt. Christy Henrich missed the team altogether by .0118 of a point. There was no hope for her at all, unless she set her sights on 1992 in Barcelona.
In 1990, a judge supposedly told Christy Henrich after a meet in Budapest, Hungary that in order to be a serious contender for the Olympics, she would need to lose weight. At 4’11” and 93 pounds, Christy didn’t have much weight to lose. But she took the judge’s words to heart and went on a serious diet, quickly shedding five pounds. She was praised for the weight loss at first, but then she slid headlong into a battle that would eventually cost her her life.
By January 1991, she had lost so much weight that her coach, Al Fong, kicked her out of the gym. A week after he kicked her out, she came in to tell him she was quitting the sport. Though she had a loving family and a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, the eating disorders had taken hold of her. On July 26, 1994, she died of multiple organ failure. She had just turned 22 years old and she weighed less than 60 pounds. At one point, her weight was just 47 pounds.
I remember reading Joan Ryan’s book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. In fact, I read an excerpt of it in the Washington Post just days before I left the country for Armenia to serve in the Peace Corps. When I got home in 1997, I bought the book and read it. It was about female gymnasts and figure skaters. In 2000, Ryan updated the book, including discussion about Dominique Moceanu’s desire to be emancipated from her parents because her father was spending her money.
I don’t know what made me think of Christy today. It’s not her birthday or the anniversary of her death, though in July of this year, she will have been dead for 20 years. That amazes me. It seems like yesterday, we were 22 years old. The older you get, the faster time flies.
Last month, as Bill and I worked our way back to Texas from our trip abroad, we drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. We stayed a night in Kansas City, which is where Christy died. For some reason, I even thought about Christy’s mother as we passed through. It was frigid during our brief time there and, looking around, it didn’t look like the kind of place that would excite me. On the other hand, I did notice how nice and folksy everyone seemed to be. It seems like the kind of place you could get to know your neighbors.
I’m sure that the last twenty years have been tough for all who knew and loved Christy Henrich. What happened to her was just gruesome. I still like watching gymnastics today, but remember Christy’s story reminds me that the sport has a bit of a dark side. To read more about Christy Henrich, I recommend the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
Edited to add: in 2014, I still had no idea how dark gymnastics can be… that was before we knew about John Geddert and Larry Nassar.
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Like today’s title? I wish I could claim it as my own quote, but I actually read it first in a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Back in 2001, I was a second year graduate student in a state where I had few friends. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, looking for something interesting to read. I found Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. At that time of my life, I still considered myself fairly conservative in my politics, although looking at today’s right-wingers, I see that I’ve always been more of a moderate. But back then, I voted Republican.
I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, not knowing anything at all about her. I read about how, at different times from 1998 until 2000, she tried being a member of the “working poor”. She worked at Walmart, Menard’s, a hotel maid, waitress, cleaning woman, and at a nursing home. She moved from Florida to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodging she could find and whatever jobs she could find. And she tried to live on the wages she was paid. In the course of her research, she lived in trailer parks and at residential hotels. And, at one point, while scrubbing a toilet while working as a cleaning lady, Barbara came up with that beaut of a phrase… “well-fed butt”. She was referring to the comparatively wealthy white people who employed people like she was pretending to be, thinking nothing about what it was like to be a member of the “working poor”, surviving on minimum wage and “not getting by”.
At the time that I read Barbara’s book, I was a social work and public health student. In 2001, my focus was exclusively on social work. Oddly enough, I really hadn’t known anything about social work when I applied to the program. I was mostly looking for a way to be employed, making more than the low hourly wages offered at big box stores and waiting tables. I’d had my fill of dealing with the public and wanted to do something less taxing… because, as Barbara Ehrenreich had discovered, there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor”. Even working in food service at Busch Gardens was physically and mentally taxing, on hot days when the park was full of people, lines were long, and tempers were short. For that, I made $4.75 an hour during my last year, back in 1992.
Eight years later, as a graduate student editing and writing about the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, I made $10 an hour. But I only worked ten hours a week, so I had to supplement that money waiting tables at a country club, where I earned $8 an hour, the odd (and rare) tip, and occasional free meals. The rest was paid for by student loans. If only I had discovered Epinions.com back then. I could have made a nice side income writing product reviews. I didn’t discover Epinions, though, until 2003. Sadly, Epinions is now defunct, as are a lot of the other online writing gigs where I used to make my own money.
For some reason, I thought of the phrase “well-fed butts” as I was vacuuming today.. I always vacuum on Thursdays. I hate doing it. This morning, I joked to Bill that I wish I had a riding vacuum cleaner. It just seems like such a pointless activity, since as soon as I’m done sucking up the household dirt and dog hair, one of the dogs or another human invariably tracks more dirt, dog hair, or grass clippings into the house. On the other hand, I am always kind of gratified when I see the canister fill up with debris, which I can later dump into our “black bin” (trash that goes straight to an incinerator, rather than being recycled).
When Barbara wrote of “well-fed butts”, she was leaned over a toilet bowl, scrubbing shit stains and urine splashes. She wrote a snarky comment about how she was making low wages, cleaning up the residue left from “well-fed butts” belonging to rich people who had no appreciation whatsoever for her low paid labors. She had been vacuuming the carpets in a company patented fan style, leaving marks in the pile so that the customer knew that the cleaning woman had properly cleaned. Barbara confessed that the techniques were actually just cosmetic, since the cleaners weren’t using a lot of water or soap as they mopped floors and scrubbed grout. They were under pressure to be fast, so a lot of things got missed. She wrote:
“The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it”(54).
It’s interesting to look at Amazon reviews of Nickel and Dimed. The book gets an overall score of 4.3 stars. Many people liked it and learned from it. Others considered Ehrenreich preachy, judgmental, and occasionally racist. More than a few mentioned that as a well-educated woman who was merely acting as a low wage worker, she had no idea of how difficult it really is to be a member of the working poor, especially since she could scrap her experiment at any time. For whatever it’s worth, The Guardian ranked Nickel and Dimed 13th in its list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. Since we’re only 21 years into the 21st century, it seems kind of premature to be ranking books for this century. But writers are always looking for ways to make content, aren’t they?
Barbara Ehrenreich’s book reminds me of Soul Man, a 1986 movie that was kind of popular, but today would likely be taboo. C. Thomas Howell, who was prior best known as one of the “Wolverines” in the anti-Soviet propaganda film, Red Dawn, played a rich White guy whose family cuts him off from the family fortunes. Howell’s character, Mark Watson, wants to go to law school at Harvard University, but as a rich White person, he doesn’t qualify for financial aid. So, his solution was to take tanning pills and pose as a Black student so he can qualify for a scholarship that is only available to Black people. Naturally, this role required that C. Thomas Howell wear blackface, which led to protests against the film’s release.
Today, Soul Man probably would not have been made, although I remember many television shows and movies where blackface was used in the 80s. In fact, I was watching The Kids in the Hall, a hilarious 90s era CBC/HBO comedy show last week, and noticed that at least two characters were in blackface. James Earl Jones and Rae Dawn Chong were both in this movie. And while many people think Soul Man is “racist”, the last scene kind of sums up things nicely. In that scene, Mark Watson is talking to his law school professor, Professor Banks (James Earl Jones), who tells Watson that now he’s learned what it’s like to be Black. But Watson reminds the professor that he doesn’t actually know what being Black is like, because he could always “escape” it. Real Black people can’t do that. Likewise, Barbara Ehrenreich could have bailed on being a member of the “working poor”. She was a successful writer with education and notoriety who had money. But she didn’t bail, and managed to write a book that was compelling to a lot of people, despite the “woke” naysayers’ complaints.
I think it’s too bad that so many people are so “woke” that they miss the main point sometimes. Our society has gotten to the point at which if you’re not spouting off politically correct rhetoric, you will get shouted down by the masses, many consisting of people who don’t stop to think about anything for more than a minute or two. They read or hear something, have a knee-jerk reaction to it, and just drive on without another thought. They don’t always stop to see the other sides of an issue and think critically. And if you dare to bring up the other sides, they get all ragey about it, which is why comment sections are often useless and reading them does nothing more than raise my blood pressure and occasionally provide fodder for my blog.
Soul Man is kind of cringeworthy on its surface, because it shows a clueless White person pretending to be Black– and frankly, not very convincingly, as I don’t think C. Thomas Howell really pulls off racial appropriation. To me, he doesn’t really pass. But that final scene, in which he talks to his Black Harvard law professor about the trick he pulled, the main idea of the movie is spelled out. And I think a lot of people miss that, and just want to crap on the film because they think it’s “racist”. If it was meant to be a racist film, that last scene would not have been included. That being said… Soul Man is not a great film, in my opinion, although I do think the people who made it had good intentions. But thinking about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book this morning made me remember it.
Rae Dawn Chong, who is mixed race– Black, White, and Asian– reportedly was very offended that Spike Lee took exception to Soul Man. She said:
“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it… He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it,” she added, recalling that it was a time when Lee was coming up in his career and making headlines for being outspoken.
“He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake,” Chong asserted. “If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”
That was my take, too… although my favorite part of Soul Man was the music. The soundtrack was pretty excellent, if I recall correctly.
In any case… I hope my days of being a member of the working poor are over, for I know that is not an easy status. But one never knows what the future holds. I have been very lucky, but as Don Henley pointed out in his song, “New York Minute”, everything can change in an instant. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re gone… So I try to keep that in mind as I clean up after the two well-fed human butts and two well fed canine butts in my household and feel great relief when my vacuuming chore is over for the week.
Bill managed to get his second Moderna shot yesterday. He was feeling okay until about 3:00am, when the shot kicked in. He woke up this morning feeling achy and flu-like. I’m glad we washed all the bedding yesterday, so he can enjoy clean sheets while he recovers. He worked so many hours in Bavaria that he’s taking most of this week off. I wish we could have used the time off to see some of Europe, but the weather has been positively horrible lately. It’s currently 54 degrees outside and cloudy. Yesterday and Tuesday, it rained for most of the day. I did catch a rainbow, though…
Well, it’s time I got on with the rest of the day. I don’t know if I recommend Nickel and Dimed. I liked it a lot when I read it, but at 20 years old, it’s now a bit dated. But I do like that turn of a phrase, “well fed white butts”… and I hope Barbara Ehrenreich meant it when she expressed empathy for the working poor… just like I hope C. Thomas Howell learned something from his turn as “Mark Watson, Soul Man”. I guess Barbara Ehrenreich and C. Thomas Howell really do have something in common besides having well-fed butts of their own.
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