After the Sexual Revolution
The new music
I don’t write the songs and for a long time I’d been uneasy listening to them. The new domestic music . . . My children of childbearing-childrearing age, sons and daughters alike, declaring against having children. A friend, father of three, seeming to take his own divorcing casually. (He: “Jane and I are through.”I [overpious]: “I’m sorry, I really—” He [lightly]: “Not at all, not at all. Should’ve happened ten years ago.”) A friend, bored with the search for euphemisms, settling on the term “um” to denote members of an unmarried couple. (The friend says parents of these couples depend on that sound when alluding to their child’s partner. “My daughter’s . . . um . . . friend.” “My son’s um . . .”) Anti-weddings, wherein clerics scrap the language, “in sickness and in health,” in favor of “I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations. And you aren’t in this world to live up to mine.” Sonny and Cher with the running joke last season, from Sunday to Sunday, in the family hour, about Cher’s sportif pregnancy. A women’s magazine polling 10,000 mothers on whether they would choose to have children again and reporting that 70 percent said No. Couples in their mid-thirties talking as though marriage were a survival epic, theirs the only union not on the rocks in a whole circle, neighborhood, college class. (Grimly, through clenched teeth: “It’s not going to happen to us.”) Our former neighbor Herb, down from his retirement home in Maine, coming in for a drink and telling us he’s here for a wedding, to give away the bride. Herb has no daughters—is he giving away a niece? No, says Herb with an amused grin, his daughter-in-law. She’s remarrying. She’s the mother of his grandson and has just divorced his older boy. The girl is remarrying and she wants her father-in-law, Herb, to give her away.
New domestic music.
If I sound condemnatory, that isn’t how I feel, or how I felt. A certain stiffness before the journey I’m writing about—but not condemnation. The stiffness was traceable, moreover, to confusion and muddle and frustration, not to any bottom-line moral clarity. Sometimes, during conversational and other encounters of the sort I mention, I’d feel myself slipping into the stock response to new music, new anything, among people like myself WASPs entering their forties and fifties. The stock response—I’m assuming a reader young enough to wonder—is disgust, a feeling that leads on through posturing and highmindedness toward eventual emotional freeze-up. Or, in short, to another evasion.
My problem was, quite simply, that I believed a right and decent way of thinking or responding—a place to stand regarding the New Everything—truly did exist, in me, in everyone. Not a revelation or brilliant stroke, merely a decent way of thinking. Something unmysterious capable of cutting away these clogged contradictory feelings . . . disapproval, worry about being prudish, vague hypocrisy, simulated disgust. Something which, if said out loud, wouldn’t make me wince when I heard it, or feel false—softer or holier or dumber than I am.
Something available on demand.
Believing in the existence of this golden inner text, though, wasn’t sufficient to produce it. For whatever cause—swallowed up in the bad old middle-class silence?—the “right response” was some kind of an inexpressible. No birds sang.
A far-out thing to do with such a problem is to take it seriously, take time off and work on it. Treat it as worth wrestling with. Try to loosen yourself up. Read relevant books. Rent some money and travel with the problem in mind—talk to old friends, to experts and specialists if you can locate your trouble as part of a “field.” Go find the strangers who write the songs, and talk to them. I thought, too, of looking in on my kids at some point, the three who are twenty-one-plus— catching them and myself by surprise, being the visitor for once, instead of the visited. Surprise is your only teacher, said Charles Sanders Peirce.
Laziness, embarrassment, and self-mockery intervened, naturally. Also an inside voice distracting me from my own purposes by pompously inflating the subject. Futurology kept seducing me, as though what I was after was a prediction, news about things to come. Is our age a period of transition; are we moving from A to B? The inside voice insinuated that the true source of my discomfort was only that I couldn’t see the direction (B); that I was aware only of loss and deprivation and people behaving as though tomorrow is all; that my real need was for another issue of the magazine Daedalus on the year 2000, or a weekend with Herman Kahn. As the sequel proved, there was plenty to be done before I could go on the road to any purpose. But the first step was grasping that futures weren’t my business. What mattered to me was the missed inner connection—the lack of an unphony language to think and feel in when I heard the new tunes. For tripping itself to be better than another evasion, I had to know the true nature of my need.
On the road I went to singles bars, talked to creeps and mucho-machos. I listened to Home Ec and Family Life specialists, spoke with marriage counselors and militant feminists, with friends who’ve recently been divorced, with “career women” and “young marrieds” hopeful and dour, with militant male feminists, with graduate students in “guidance,” education commissioners, university chancellors, school supers and principals, my editors, my students, my kids. I visited some newish institutions like day-care centers, marriage clinics, a “human resource” college, schools for pregnant unmarried teen-agers, and “one-stop multi-human-service centers,” moving up and down the coasts, and from Lauderdale to Laramie.
I heard about torments, triumphs, gains, and losses that were altogether new to me (maybe not to others).
I fumbled with questions which, I admit, seldom had an edge, since they were in essence only attempts to locate a missing cue.
And, despite my awareness that I needed to stay on my own beam, I was often beguiled away from personal need by irrelevancies—negatives and positives, affirmation and despair about The New Manners, The New Domesticity, The New Nurture. (This figures below as onehandotherhand-ism.)
Gradually the mists burned off. Pieces began coming together. Hints, cues. One midsummer Saturday morning in the heartland, I heard three rural women fighting for their self-respecting life against some militant eastern sisters. As I listened, a button was touched under the map and I felt a dozen lighted-up links among places I’d been in the past few months, and among people I’d talked to. Epiphany. I woke up the next morning with something unlocked inside, and afterward everything was easy.
That, though, was a few thousand miles up the line from where I started. First came the books and numbers, several weekends in the library.
The book version
“Wake up, I got news for you,” says the Janis Ian song. “Nobody needs you anymore.”
Damned straight, the numbers say.
Last year more than a million U.S. couples were divorced—twice as many as in 1966, three times as many as in 1950. (Children under eighteen in these marital breakups numbered about one million in 1975, as in each of the three previous years.) Between 1970 and 1975, households with a female head increased by 30 percent and the number of people under thirty-five maintaining a household alone doubled from 1.5 million to 3 million. There were fewer marriages in 3975 than in any year since 1969, and a steep, if difficult to measure, increase in “unmarried but living together” pairings. The fertility rate for women of childbearing age dropped to 1.8 births, less than the 2.1 rate necessary for replacing the population. In 1960, according to the Office of Population Research at Princeton, 13 percent of the married women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were childless; last year the percentage rose to 21.
The most interesting discussion by contemporary academic intellectuals of issues related to these trends still depends heavily upon Hegel, Marx, and Engels. But all commentators, regardless of school, and regardless of whether they float light loads of knowledge or heavy, in short words or long, toward mass audiences or learned clubs, enter sooner or later into warfare about whether the domestic trends in question are Good or Bad. Among the major battles are these:
Faith vs. Consciousness. At its simplest this is the skirmish between the First Lady, Betty Ford, and Ethel Kennedy. When Mrs. Ford gave hesitant approval to the “living together” syndrome, Ethel Kennedy countered with church-based moral disapproval in a Family Circle interview.
Mrs. Kennedy: “. . . the feeling you got [was] that maybe she [Mrs. Ford] thought, ‘Well, it’s a new generation and maybe it’s okay.’ ”
Interviewer: “Do you think it’s a new generation and it’s okay?”
Mrs. Kennedy: “No. I think it’s a new generation and it is definitely not okay.”
A variety of spokespersons filled out the First Lady’s position, before and after it was taken— among them Gail Graham Yates, women’s studies professor at the University of Minnesota. Professor Yates hailed the new conventions as signs that intelligent, rational commitments will soon be the norm. Marriage today, she added, “is becoming stronger because it’s more deliberate. The assumption that you have to be married is changing very rapidly. This generation of college students is going to decide—really decide—to get married rather than just drift into marriage, as was more the pattern of even a decade ago. . . .”
Fidelity-as-Creation vs. Fidelity-as-Suicide. The porn merchant’s message is that a little secret dirty fun nowadays costs peanuts; the pop philosopher’s message is that the road to promiscuity is also the road to spontaneity, in-touchness with one’s physicality, and honesty about human nature itself. Each is part of a saturation-coverage Heed-YourInstincts campaign—heed your instincts, forget your inhibitions, advance from prudery, break your marital contracts—seemingly designed to reach everybody in America regardless of class, income, educational level, sex, age, or taste. (Other antifidelity campaign workers include poets, novelists, ministers, and seers.)
The secular resistance to this tide starts not from the Decalogue but with critiques of modish values like spontaneity and honesty. Conceding that fidelity is widely perceived as a symptom of evasive conventionality and spiritlessness, they hold that this perception is wrongheaded. “Fidelity is extremely unconventional,” according to Denis de Rougemont in Passion and Society, “. . . not in the least a sort of conservatism but rather a construction.” Indeed, in this view it’s the only kind of truth human beings can construct. Heed your creativity, say the new moralists, not your instincts; reject the adultery bandwagon.
Egomania vs. Caring. A secondary operation but interesting. On this front the fight is between those who read the statistics as evidence of heightened self-absorption and ego-obsession and those who see, instead, a movement toward broader, less “privatistic” modes of concern. Edwin Schur, a New York University sociologist, holds that we’re falling into an “ethic of self-preservation” which teaches that, since you and I “are surrounded by self-interested schemers,” we had “better fight fire with fire”; the product is a “kind of interpersonal laissez-faire.” D. Keith Mano, National Review columnist and novelist, claims that people are beset by fantasies about secret talents and undiscovered gifts, and that these fantasies, which induce a rage to “discover ‘the true self,’” are responsible for contemporary disparagement of “conventional roles . . . the husband and the wife, the mother and the father.”
The opposition counters that what’s in progress is the growth of wider sympathies than were practicable under the rigid, priggish rule of Family—a new concern for “problem population groups” . . . an “age of caring.” Yesterday a high school girl who became pregnant was expelled from school; today she transfers to a special school and studies infant nutrition. Yesterday divorced people raising children alone were solitary in their alienation from social norms; today an organization with thousands of local chapters helps them to share their experiences and problems with people like themselves. Yesterday a young mother with sexual problems or a physically abusive husband had nowhere to turn for aid; today many communities have agencies and hot-lines providing immediate assistance. Yesterday young married couples thinking positively about improving their marriages had no assistance from outside; today a dozen organizations sponsor “marriage retreats,” with professional counselors in attendance, in every section of the country. New occupational categories in “people worker” fields—male mothers, marriage savers, rehabilitation counselors, death therapists, divorce therapists, and the like—are constantly surfacing, all signifying the opposite (so goes the claim) of ego-obsession.
“New Luddites” vs. “New Lifers.” Some observers tie marriage and birth-rate declines to an outbreak of cavalier attitudes toward life, citing in particular developments in medicine: molecular engineering, prenatal screening, psychosurgery. genetic manipulation, abortion, and euthanasia. Doctors perform abortions on no other ground except that the child’s sex is in the parents’ view wrong . . . The New York Times’s Op-Ed page entertains the argument that homosexuality is a sane means of controlling population growth. And some New Luddites are persuaded thereby that the most momentous event of our age is the murder, by technology, of awe.
Other New Luddites indict not only science proper but industrialization-modernization in the large, focusing on the obliteration of family life and functions by industrial capitalism. The classic twentieth-century statement on the subject is a 1930s essay by Max Horkheimer called “Authority and the Family,” detailing stages in the reduction of parental function to subpersonal status. Horkheimer held that even at the time he wrote, owing to the “demands of extensive industrialization [which] do away with the present home,” there was no longer any possibility of a private familial existence with its own intimacies, satisfactions, and values; soon children would cease to be regarded “in the old way, as ‘one’s own.’ ” More recent works, as for example the psychoanalyst Herbert Hendin’s The Age of Sensation (1975), trace a relationship between “home life as a factory for producing people who fit into the economic system” and the advent of a “generation of young people who are trying to stop their own romantic impulses in the suspicion that intimacy may end in disaster.”
New Lifers, on the other hand, are all cheer, excited by visions of new emotional possibility and sexual gratification—newly expressive lives. . . . Their academic spokesman, Professor Edward Shorter, a specialist in family history, in The Making of the Modern Family (1975) spiritedly welcomed the age of “the free floating couple. . . .”
Other specialists in his field have challenged Professor Shorter’s theses, and one of them, Professor Christopher Lasch, slated the man, in The New York Review of Books, as “the Helen Gurley Brown of social history.” But the high optimism of the New Lifers, their positive sense of change, hasn’t been deflated by academic sniping.
“The constant impression [liberated women] make,” says Elizabeth Janeway in Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening (1974), “is sheer enjoyment of life and good-feeling with each other . . . overwhelmingly energetic, cheerful, funny and goodnatured.” “What a vast laboratory ... is being conducted by our young people,” says Carl R. Rogers in Becoming Partners (1972). “Unheralded and unsung, explorations, experiments, new ways of relating, new kinds of partnerships are being tried out, people . . . inventing alternatives, new futures, for our most sharply failing institutions, marriage and the nuclear family. . . .”
The key (and archetypically American) theme here is, as often as not, that of the new start. Time and again it resounds in the media, in self-help manuals, in a flood of upbeat renamings—for example, divorce as “breakthrough” or “act of creation.” This past summer it filled an issue of Harper’s Bazaar, billed on the cover as “Your Complete After-Divorce Guide to a Happy, Health, Successful New Life,” and offering writer after writer noodling round the theme. “Divorce may be exactly what was needed,” beamed Rollo May, “to bring you a new life—more enriching than the one that is past.”
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
I learned a lot in the library about the principal domestic wars now raging, came upon much heady suggestive writing. Most of it, however, felt overgeneralized and class-bound, too tendentious, too heady. Too far out. too far behind, too spiky, too beamish, too Coruscatingly Brilliant, speaking to genuine needs, no doubt, but not to mine.
Time to fly the maze and try talking to people.
Parents Without Partners
An attractive, soft-featured woman in her early thirties, diffident in manner, an Ohioan, mother of three, Ellen has been divorced since 1972. I’ve known her for a dozen years, and when I looked her up and told her my problem, she produced a bottle, ice, glasses, put her cigarettes on the table, and talked for close onto an hour and a half with few stops. She’d just been, as it happened, to a Parents Without Partners meeting, a chapter meeting—her first and, as she claimed ruefully, her last. Why had she gone? She’d had a dream, Ellen told me. She wrote a box number in the local paper, got back a newsletter that told about activities for parents and kids and that also had “little boxes with numbers in them.” In the newsletter, it seems, there was a squib about how many children grow up in singleparent families. Two out of every five kids born in the seventies will spend at least five years with just one parent. Twenty to thirty million children.
“I never saw the figure before,” Ellen said. “So, suppose you go to these things, the hayrides, the trampoline, whatever . . . Wouldn’t it maybe teach them—my brood—something? I mean . . . they’ll see they’re not all that different, not freaks?”
PWP members are good people, Ellen insisted. The meeting was held in a Sunday school classroom with a mid-fifties man in a sky-blue knit suit signing up new people at a card table, and when you sat down people introduced themselves to you. Forty or fifty in the room; a dozen newcomers, all women, in their twenties and thirties, but the others, except for two or three men, were old—“I mean stooped and white-haired and trembling hands, widows and widowers. Their kids would be thirty and forty if they’re a day.”
The meeting started with the reading of the PWP “Preamble.”
“It was nice,” Ellen said. “Simple, dignified language. It said the group’s only reason for being was to help the single parent with his children; children were hurt the worst by death or divorce; it’s the overriding responsibility of the parent to lessen—to try to lessen—the hurt. It was decent and good and hopeful. I felt something, honestly. A shiver. It wasn’t just some kind of unreal joining-a-club thing. Rotary or Kiwanis. There was—for an instant—a thrill. I can’t explain. You’re not just joining. You’re singled out. you’ve singled yourself out. You’ve had a loss and now you aren’t going to hide it anymore, you admit something—”
Ellen shook off her words impatiently.
“It wasn’t a joke. For that one minute when I was going in ... I felt shy and very exposed and very hopeful. A beginning. Just to be there felt hopeful. Just to go out and admit something—my failure, my need. My feeling outside of everything. My feeling new and wanting to express it. They may be naive and simple but they do know what you’re feeling. They work so hard to be hearty, to make you welcome and feel accepted. It’s like going to the altar to be saved. The congregation’s happy for you and rooting for you and they’re solicitous, they know how you feel—you feel you’ve maybe done something a little crazy. You’re embarrassed and they worry about that. They care about you. They enjoy being solicitous. Oh, it’s a moment.”
Ellen let out her breath. A pause. Another frown.
“The trouble is there’s nothing afterward. That’s it. You’re saved and it’s all over. You go from that one moving moment where you see yourself so clearly and are seen by other people, where it doesn’t matter about the knit suit or about anything, it’s all about people and real things. You go straight from that into a committee and it’s all bureaucracy from then on. Not even a singles bar. Just a committee. It’s all about raising money and slates of officers and last names beginning A through B bring salads and K through P bring desserts and Camilla wants people to promote Stanley Products, have a Stanley party—
“It lasted about one minute: my experience. It was like a confession. One minute afterward I was standing around collecting invitations. Camilla—she was absolutely huge. Would I come to her house party? She was the ham raffler and the knife seller. The spark plug. The vice president said. ‘Any more business?’ An old lady—the front row—said she’d sent a card to Lois. ‘Lewis who?’ the vice president said. I almost wept right then. I was in a daze. How dare I come there in the first place? How could I have believed—”
She shook her head once more.
“Outside I was getting into my car and somebody called out at me from across the street. ‘Hey, Ellen, you ever see the insides of a mobile home?’ It was the man in the sky-blue knit. I went for the tour. It would have been worse not to go. He showed me everything. He showed me how it ‘slept eight.’ We looked into every closet, every drawer. I saw the ashtray from his Nassau cruise. Monarch line. I felt so indecent, so detached. I got an explanation of toilets in mobile homes. ‘You have two kinds of toilet.’ He demonstrated his toilet for me. I mean the flushing mechanism. Twice.
“I should have raced out of there. The last thing I wanted or needed was something pathetic. It was foolish. So foolish. They do so much for each other. They tell each other they’re handsome and ‘self-possessed’ and that they’re having fun, and of course it helps them. But I don’t care. I said, ‘You have a very nice place, a very nice—mobile home.’ ‘All it needs,’ he said, ‘is a girl who can cook.’ He was really nice. But I don’t care. It’s pathetic. It’s pathetic when people need so much so badly they can’t know any more about each other than to say, ‘All it needs is a girl who can cook.’ ”
“I gave her a bad time about her sewing, so she left”
In my first days on the road the “learning” consisted mainly in this: the breadth of variation, among divorced people, in need and desire to tell whole stories, to share—with one’s child, with one’s own new beloved, with a stranger—the full, tortured intricacy of a complex attachment shredding itself.
One afternoon, heading east from Rochester, New York, on the plaza by the mini-serve island of Bill’s Mobil, W. Kulakowski, Prop., the owner— “I’m just a dumb Pole”—passes along in minutes the story of his own separation. Stylized, to be sure, feelings in check, a comic frame . . . but I feel no holding back. The paperback on a pile of magazines beside me on the front seat is a work called Creative Divorce by Mel Krantzler. Coming around about the oil, Bill K. notices the book, wants to know what it is about. I tell him and he moves his head in a way that seems to cancel his interest. A big, wet-lipped, sandy-haired man in his forties with weathered, sandy-bristled cheeks. But then:
“My wife left me,” Bill says. “I gave her a bad time.”
He goes on, matter-of-factly, with the story. A twenty-year Army man, he’d come back to his hometown meaning to wipe out the time from Korea to his first pension check. He bought into the Mobil, married a girl eighteen years younger whom he’d met at a “St. Biddie’s” bingo night, and considered himself “set.” But home from the honeymoon he discovered his bride “has this mania. She sews a new dress every night.” Bill’s wife works in a bank as a teller and all the women tellers her age are great sewers, new outfits for every day of the week. “It kills them, they stay up all hours, three in the morning. All over the house these papers, cutouts. Paper dolls.” Bill “took it” for a month, “ding-a-ling all night long after supper” while he sat in his chair. “Finally I said, ‘Listen, what is it, are you going to stop?’ ” Bill got on her. It wasn’t the money, he explains. “But every night a new dress . . . It was, like, ridiculous.” So he got on her and rode her until she said he was a “dumb Pole that didn’t understand creating.” And “she up and left.”
A whole story? The conversation lasts barely longer than it takes to pump sixteen gallons of gas. Bill finishes and I say I’m sorry about the breakup, maybe it’ll still work out.
“Yeah,” Bill shrugs. The feelings in check, his way clear to “the humor of it.”
Clipboard and pen to him, credit card to me. “Have a nice day.”
1 move on.
Some new domestic music on the car radio
a performer sings on my car radio,
The more I feel my love increase
I’m building all my dreams around you
Our happiness will never cease
’Cause nothing’s any good without you
Baby you’re my centerpiece
Along a country road a piece
A little cottage on the outskirts
Where we can really find release
’Cause nothing’s any good without you
Baby you’re my centerpiece
Shining as she reeled him in
To tell him like she did today
Just what he could do with Harry’s House
And Harry’s take home pay.
“Harry’s House—Centerpiece,” says the disc jock, his voice up and over the closing bars. “That was Joni Mitchell.”
“I spied on your mother to see if she was stupid”
Beginning as I did with “broken homes,” I was made over, within weeks, into some kind of sadness freak. People like Ellen who had bitter-funny anecdotes to tell pushed me that way, naturally. So did the odd. offhand, unprepared-for narrative like Bill’s at the gas station—stories that had a detached and final quality, like a sign announcing a blasting area, firmly fencing off response. More than a few divorced people I spoke with were able to move through their domestic story from start to finish without once uttering the former mate’s name, as though it had been forever wiped clean from the mind. But as you listened, the unsaid name became a nerve and the refusal to touch it made the hurt all the more fearfully palpable.
Hardest by far, though, were the Believers. “One of the most creative and transforming experiences,”
says the fashion magazine doctor discussing divorce. “A time to create a new more fulfilling life for yourself . . .” Believers spoke sometimes in this verv idiom, fully meaning their words. A friend I’ll call Dick—a prep school history master and coachtold me his story in company one evening, looking away repeatedly and lovingly, as he spoke, to the two young women on the couch opposite us—Jen and Lindsay—with whom he was making his new life. All three were Believers. Jen is his daughter, a fully matured, beautiful sixteen-year-old who’s decided she’s happier with her father. Lindsay is the twenty-eight-year-old art director who has lately moved up from New York to New Hampshire to live with Dick and Jen. They had “won through,” Dick told me. His wife, Jess, would never have believed in “us,” in Jen and Lindsay and Dick together—“in this room, in Lindsay and Jen and me being able to talk and be happy and open together, really sharing.”
But his present happiness has heen earned, Dick insisted. Beforehand, nothing but frustration. It stemmed from his wife’s attitude about “the movement”—women’s liberation. “I brought women’s lib home myself,” Dick explained. His former wife took the position that while the movement was a good thing in the abstract, it was just too much trouble for her. Dick pushed. He read the books and started them off cautiously with houseworksharing, and “it was so good in so many ways that I used to go to sleep happy and wake up looking forward.” The chief benefit was self-knowledge, and Dick tried to share the knowledge with his wifefeeling that he was caring for her, reaching out, concerned about her growth as well as his—but the conversations went poorly. (“She wasn’t there.”)
He began looking differently at his own life, his own house. “I saw I was just dodging it, going over to my office, leaving things undone, not pulling my oar. Why not learn how to cook? My God, I still remember it. I was adding things to myself. I was, dammit. I mean, I wouldn’t be what I am now, what we are, the three of us . . .”
Dick smiles across at Lindsay, and she meets his eye gently. They are in love.
“I can’t disavow it. I mean, Lindy cooks, Jen cooks, I cook . . . We all clean . . . The whole thing is shared. But it’s not just that. It’s attitudes, everything was different. And I thought it was changing things for Jess.”
Dick hesitates, thinking back. There’s no time like it in a man’s life, he tells us. He’ll never forget it. “It dawns on you that, holy shit, you may not be correct in your assumed view of your wife, your partner, or of the degree to which you’re sharing the same understanding. For years and years . . . My tries at thinking things through ... I was sure we were together.”
He began spying on his wife, watching and listening to her with Jen and Mike, his daughter and son. “I was spying on your mother,” Dick says, looking across at Jen, “spying on her in our own house to see if she was stupid.” He actually tried to think the worst of himself—which meant, he believed, that he was still loyal. “Was I dumb too? I’d just happened onto a new way of looking at things but maybe I was dumb too. Why do we all think we’re so smart? I was still loyal because the first thing I did when I suspected Jess was dumb was instantly protect her from being seen that way by me. I started knocking myself.”
Recounting the sequel Dick turns wry. His “first step” had been to run off for a month with the “nearest intellectual woman”—as though to discover whether certified brilliance would see anything in “Richard the Jock.” The intellectual woman, also married, “went along for the experiment,” and, when they both woke up—“You know what happened,” Dick says to Lindsay with a glance indicating ‘we’ve discussed this’—“she was able to go home, she could let herself be taken back.” Dick couldn’t. Not because his wife was stony but because he himself knew that he’d turned a corner and it would be wrong—“anti-life” is Dick’s word—to turn back. “Jess believes in things as they are.” And their children were supposed to be continuous with the world as it is. The problem is simply that his wife “can’t think.” She simply believes in money, authority, the right opinions. She never was private. The familiar forms are the right forms. “People couldn’t live together and stay together and make full commitments to each other if they stepped out of their regular roles, the conventions . . . She couldn’t reach for anything— new feelings, better feelings . . .”
Dick shakes his head at a burden that’s passed.
“The greatest thing that’s ever happened,” he repeats. The tone is close to wonder. “It’s made all the difference.” To Jen: “Like coming into Seal in the fog that morning, remember? Everything suddenly has a shape and I know what I am. We know what we are. We’re free. And every single word and thought for nineteen years was wrong . . . opposite.”
Dick’s eyes are moist as he looks across at “my women.” Jen drops her gaze. Lindsay is steadfast, sharing again the weight of their victory. Feeling wariness somewhere close by, a sadness freak’s fear of his too great hope, Dick comes back to me impatiently: “Can you begin to imagine what that’s like?”
“Hi! It’s Ben. How’d you like to come over for a drink, you and Sally? Sure, now, why not. Who? I’m sorry, who? Ned? Ah, of course, sorry. Of course, bring him along. Love to have him.”
In the old pre-study, pre-journey days, I was dimmer about the Neds of this world than I’ve been lately. What I knew in those days was that nice Ned cooked and ate with Jim and Sal, made wine and baked pies with Jim and Sal, chose the records for Jim and Sal’s dinner parties, vacationed with good old Jim and good old Sal . . . and that whenever he was part of the scene I registered a slight intensification of social ambiguity. Now, launched on my “project,” however, I seem to have moved an inch forward toward—where? Well, it’s come to mind that Jim and Sal and Ned are, just conceivably. A Threesome. It was last month, in my study period, reading Alex Comfort, that I learned about Threesomes, viz:
People who are on frank terms say. “We’re going to make love, would you care to join us?” It’s better to be forthright than to try to set someone up. A threesome starts best by gentle proximity, with the odd-sex partner in the middle. The couple then both pay attention to the guest (massage is a great start, unembarrassing between males, which can gradually become sexual). Sometimes gentle intimacy all night with mutual intercourse seems the right sequel—or it can get wildly playful. We heard of a man being tossed for by the two girls—the wife won and had the orgasm of her life. Sensible people don’t program this or any other sex experience, however. If it goes wrong, they have the sense to stop, at the request of any of the three players, and switch to simple intimacy—sleep or listening to records.
I remember an old Eudora Welty story in which a sexually curious adolescent keeps asking, But what do people do? I see that I’ve taken over the kid’s project. Mid-life sex education: I’m learning what people do.
Singles joint on Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, the weekly wet T-shirt contest. (Pedantry: a wet T-shirt contest offers a cash prize to the woman contestant dressed in T-shirt and bikini bottom and soaked by hose or bucket whose breasts seem, in the opinion of the judges, more pleasing than those of the other contestants.) Today’s prize is $250 and the scene feels chaotic, partly because of the jam-up in the doorway, partly because of the racket made on the amps by Springsteen’s “Hidin’ in the Back Streets,” but mainly because of Jack, my neighbor on the next barstool. Jack has chosen this time and place to air a gripe at the state of Florida.
Here we are, my neighbor and I, enticed to this parlor by a streamer flown behind a plane above the crowded weekend beach. Girls lined up in a planter filled with sand . . . crowd in a semicircle. The girls have been dampened with pails of water amid much spluttering, merriment, shouts, exhortation. Judges arrive, Bruce wailing high—“back streets— WAAAA-O-O-WWW . . ."—you can feel the beat in the footrail. Jack is now shouting in my ear. We’d begun a chat earlier about porn, and Jack had started detailing, in a reasonable voice, various porn rip-offs in the Citrus State. He was only slightly sauced, but for some reason he got madder as he proceeded. A few feet from us, Honey, Bunny, Bette, and Lee stand soaked and bulging, laughing, kidding each other, with the judges peering, taking up peculiar angles of vision, clearly men of research interests, scribbling notes on their pads. ZERO-ZERO read one T-shirt. HERMANN HESSE, another. LOOK STOP TALK, another. Cheers for each girl resounding. Springsteen blotted out but returning strong.
“Hey, Bunny—wink!” a voice cries from the crowd.
“Hands off, Freddy.”
“Fucking Aloha,” Jack shouts in my ear. The Aloha is some kind of adult motel—jelly beds, overhead mirrors, X-rates in your room. “Twentyfive bucks—”
“X is shit!" Jack shouts angrily. “Deep Throat— all you see in Deep Throat—”
“I mean down here,” Jack shouts. “Florida, X is shit here.”
“Number Four, please step forward. Bunny—”
“All you see is her head bobbing, remember? They cut it to pieces. It’s a rip-off!”
As the man with the hand mike announces the winner and runner-up, Jack falls silent. He seems dazed, frowns into the cheering and applause, the music. He squints at me sincerely, no longer shouting. He shakes his head at the still-dripping girls.
“They wrecked it.” he tells me sadly. “Fuckers. It used to be wild. They used the beer hose, you know? What the hell they want to fuck it up with water?”
The last word. The decline of culture: no more hosing down wet T-shirt girls with beer.
When you achieve this measure of detachment, you discover just how much your culture can do for a soul surfeited with other people’s absorption in each other. Along Las Olas I was on the prowl for pure nullity, and I found it in spades, shedding in the process some piety. Having laughed, cheered, and applauded with the gang—the only bad humor in the place, really, was Jack’s—I left the saloon feeling the fine companionable relaxation that comes over you when you grasp with full forgiving understanding that you are part of the problem, absolutely, aren’t, can’t ever be, anything like the solution.
Fending off isn’t easy
The following evening, in a different southern city, I eat with a married couple named Ross and Alice who have a problem but are uncertain how to focus it. They are, let’s acknowledge it, Jack and Jill Armstrong WASPs in appearance, nifty clean-cut blonds, bloomy, fresh-faced, desirable-looking people. They’d met “vaguely,” these two, while they were at Oberlin, but Alice was at the conservatory, and Ross, son of a philosophy prof, was pre-engineering and not thinking about girls. Alice’s widowed mother had run a successful music school, secondary level, and after their southward move here, where Ross had lucked into a site-planning job with “one of the only three idealistic land developers” in the country, Alice thought of teaching—and then thought herself out of it. Being married was enough for a while. Plenty of time later to take some pupils.
But what to do, laze around, practice, or work, wasn’t the problem. What comes out, slowly, as we talk, is that as people just turning twenty-five, they prefer not to be too hip too early, aren’t ready for cynicism about their marriage, yet they’ve found, to their depression, that fending off isn’t easy. They liked feeling open and unfurtive . . . and they’re upset because too many things go against them. This place they’d moved into, Alice said. It wasn’t a swingles place when they moved in, or, if it was, who knew? Were they so innocent? But now the kids—Ross and Alice—don’t go down to the pool much anymore. Lots of spacey types down there. People smoking dope discreetly, staying apart from each other. “You’re sitting there and you hear somebody talking about, You should have been there last night at Harriet’s, wow, what a scene, must have been eight or nine couples, all . . .” And then the other day, an incident. Some girl in the house went topless at the pool and people tried to make her get dressed. She wouldn’t—topless was her cause, you see—so they sent for the police.
It seems to be partly the inconsistency or the pretense that bothers Ross and Alice. The other tenants, swingles folk, acting as though topless was a crime—it made things feel even sinful. Everybody secretive and false, suddenly people worrying about “outsiders,” “the place’s reputation.” For Ross and Alice the heart of the trouble was, Who wanted to know about any of this? Why did they even have to hear about it or have an opinion about it? Sleaziness and hypocrisy . . .
Listening, I think: Is it harmful to be swept into knowingness? Neither one of these two is attempting to pass himself/herself off as an innocent. But because of their past, their interests, perfectionist temperaments, Ross and Alice led lives of (more or less) relaxed asceticism until bumping into each other after college at a wedding—it was the first party either had bothered to go to for almost a year.
Alice says, “Shouldn’t people be allowed to be newlyweds? What’s wrong with that?” “I fixed it,” Ross answers easily with a grin. “We’re allowed.” But while his tone brings his bride partway back toward conversational lightness, nobody feels like laughing. The point is serious. If you value your innocence and would like for a while to continue to feel your newness before each other, shouldn’t you be free to do so? Must you be hip overnight? Anyone who can remember that time of life, the lovely combination of pride, uprightness, sensual release in the first year of marriage old-style, would be touched by this couple’s talk, their confused protest.
But it’s not important that I’m touched, rather that I see something I’d missed. The trouble with porn, and the surrounding jungleland, is that it is contemptuous of the life cycle—jumbles the stages of human life, rushes the tempo, asks you to play ahead and behind the beat simultaneously. A fully matured person, with a stretch of variegated living to look back upon, has a clear idea—assuming selfhonesty—about the quality of his moral life. He’s reckoned his distance from innocence and toted his crimes and—since we’re not now speaking of saints—therefore usually can’t be affronted by porn.
But the jungleland—the permissive, sexually liberated, “nonrepressive” society—includes tens of millions who haven’t matured to this clarity, who might in fact maintain touch a bit longer with an idealizing self if they weren’t hounded out of it daily by porn and border porn, by X and marginal X, R, PG, by the universal tide of knowingness that tugs and nudges, thickens the air, loosens the principle, mucks up every good act by reminding it of its exceptionality. — You should have been there at Harriet’s, of course you’ve seen Deep Throat, how’d you like Emmanuelle? Special privileges for charter couples at Club Cupide in the Aloha!
The precocity of the cynicism gets to you, everybody racing toward hipness. Couples in their twenties divorcing—on TV—at year’s end and remarrying in January to collect a tax refund bundle and float a Jamaica holiday. Couples every age electing to be closet marrieds, hiding their wedded state for financial, social, and “image” reasons. (By report these people exist by the tens of thousands in California.) Couples consenting to be spied on by their employers, fitting familial and sexual life to the rules of The Game. (Players on National Football League contenders who are caught sleeping with their wives the night before a game are fined, and some recorded fines run as high as $2000.)
Nobody has to finger the girlie books to be aware that every month a torrent of weirdo knowingness pours through their columns. “My mistress and I,” runs a recent letter in the “Playboy Advisor” column in Hef’s magazine,
have practiced to perfection a provocative technique that. I am convinced, produces the ultimate in male orgasm. Immediately prior to coitus, the lady employs fine-grained sandpaper to remove a thin layer of epidermis from the whole surface of my penis. The results are an incredible sensitivity and an unbelievably prolonged climax. The only difficulty is the progressive loss both in diameter and in length of my copulatory organ. Recently. I have found it necessary to notify my partner when I have entered her. Please advise —L. H., Detroit. Michigan.
Why say anything? answers the “Playboy Advisor.” It should be obvious that you’re not all there.
Nobody has to hide out in the back streets to know that some discos in Los Angeles cater to homosexual teen-agers; others, in New York, to exhibitionist odd couples and triplets. A gas. The couples and triplets mock-copulate on the white plastic couches of Les Jardins on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Nude female wrestlers, five shows daily, belt shit out of each other in a mud pool in a Pussycat Theater, 79th Street, Miami. Hurry on down. It’s the texture of experience and you breathe it as a kid, and the result is that the ineluctable sweetness of true beginnings cannot be assumed any more.
Fighting for your innocence ... a concept new to me.
“Sexual relations with persons other than a spouse are now becoming common,” I read on a plane, turning the pages of Rustum and Della Roy’s Honest Sex. “When human need is paramount, such relationships may serve as the vehicle of faithfulness to God.”
More new domestic music.
When everything in the world adds up
Midsummer afternoon in the New England Berkshires, brilliant sunshine, high clouds. Ted and Carolyn, Ted Jr., Chrissie, and Susannah (the last three are Ted and Carolvn’s children) are visiting friends who have a one-room house on the side of a hill and this quite nice swimming pool. Ted has been helping Chrissie, six, with a diving problem. Each time Chris pulls herself together for another try she calls out to Carolyn—“Mommy, watch!”—and Carolyn watches, afterward commenting encouragingly but undemandingly. Naked intrepid Susannah, twenty-one months, pooped from running up and down the hill from the pool to a clump of blueberry bushes, plops down on the towel beside Ted Jr., eleven. She puts her thumb in her mouth. Young Ted, with nothing but a sleepy mindless love in his head, extends an arm and pats her shoulder, without opening his eyes. “They’re an item,” their mother says mildly, watching.
Chrissie’s problem with the front dive is that, concerned probably about picking up a snootful of water, she can’t seem to go in headfirst. She leans over, leans still farther over, her daddy holding her gently by the waist, talking to her calmly, reassuringly. “That’s it, hon, little bit farther . . .” But then, amazingly, she does some kind of incredible somersault flip instead of just falling in, and lands on her back. Hesitant about pushing on, because these have been real hits that Chris has been taking, frowning at his inability to figure out the right words of instruction, Ted the daddy is ready to knock it off for a while. The ice is melting in Chris’s Tab, how about they take a rest and try later? But Chris is remorseless, gutsy, will go again. Ted speaks to her very quietly, we can’t hear what they’re saying, and by wit or wisdom they find the formula this time, something about being a stone and dropping herself, and, terrific, Chris does it. Headfirst into the water. ‘Ray! Chrissie Flagg’s first front dive. She comes up happy to her mother’s and Susannah’s applause, shaking the water from her eyes. Her father is on the end of the board, hands on hips, grinning down, pleased with himself. “See how easy, hon? Didn’t it feel nice?”
“That was good, Chris,” brother Ted says soberly. Approval from the truly significant elder.
Bored with clapping, Susannah begins doing what Ted Jr. calls her fat walk, moving about in stately gait with her tummy hideously protruded. Nobody has specially requested this number, as Susannah becomes aware. She pauses briefly and, when everyone’s glance has been drawn to her, pees studiously on the concrete walkway. “I think that was intended,” Carolyn says. She empties the ice cubes from her glass, walks round to the dark spot, and rinses it away with pool water.
Susannah disappears down the hill, Ted Jr. in pursuit.
A tanager lights in a nearby cherry tree and everyone sits motionless. The color is stunning.
Chrissie does another dive, better than the first, asking this time for no witness.
Lying quiet, no sound in my ear now except the small whir of the pool filter, a flutter of birch leaves, I’m afraid something will break, someone will cry out in protest. This is the way life is supposed to be, and how long can it possibly last?
All the pregnant teen-agers
Somewhere on toward the middle, or institutional, phase of my tripping, a seesaw Yea or Nay motion began that soon became insufferable—a kind of entrapment. On the one hand, on the other ... If Parents Without Partners was wrong for Ellen, other new instruments, schools, agencies, therapies kept surfacing, some of them wholly admirable. The longer I was on the road, the surer I became that a “new nurture” does indeed exist—substitutes for traditional familial nurture, inventive new ways of helping people cope with a life in which official or received values and dailiness are wildly out of sync, and maternal and paternal authority—since it can’t teach what has to be learned —is bereft of power and control.
On Long Island I visit the Ida B. Wells School, Miss Bernice Moze, principal, 92-10 165th Street, Jamaica, Borough of Queens—enrollment limited to pregnant high school girls.
It’s Friday afternoon, and after I look in on classes for a while and talk with Miss Moze, I spend an hour with Constance Kelsick, the guidance counselor, pressing like any visitor for understanding of methods and goals.
“All we do,” Mrs. Kelsick tells me in her office, “is teach that you have to care. Nobody else is doing it. just you. You’re the parent. Right from the beginning, that’s where you are. All right, they can have a baby-sitter if the child’s grandmother or the father’s mother or somebody is willing to sit to make a contribution. Fine. They have a babysitter. But don’t you ever forget that baby is yours—you brought that life into the world of your own free will and act and it’s up to you to do some parenting, take hold and help that child grow.
“That baby is yours, that’s what we teach. She’s not your mother’s. You have your schoolwork and you have your baby, yes, and it’s a lot, but you’re thinking about the long run, you’re thinking about being able to bring in a little something at any point. So you know you have to keep up in school. Too much at stake. That little baby is yours and you’re doing it to care for her, you’re doing it because you’re parenting, and it’s your job.”
I’m importunate again, wanting more on the how of it. Mrs. Kelsick, a former nurse, a pretty woman with a positive, earnest manner, shows me teaching materials for that morning’s class and tells me, thoughtfully, how it went. It was their weekly problems discussion —her group, Veronica, Michelle, Santee, Denise, Dolores, and Rosanna. The sessions are open-ended; if a debate develops that promises to sustain its interest, discussion runs through lunch in the cafeteria and sometimes on into the first afternoon period. Today’s subject was responsibility and blame. The focus was a sheet of mimeographed excerpts from a year-old newspaper horror story—a couple claimed to have lost two children in a midtown department store and later confessed, when the charred corpse of an infant was recovered from a nearby parking lot, that they had killed both.
“Whose fault was it? Who deserves the blame?” said Constance Kelsick, putting the query to me.
That was the question she put to Veronica and the others, and apparently there were plenty of hands. For a time the group pointed a finger at the city hospital. It seems that one baby had once been treated for bruises that suggested a battering, and nobody at the hospital had taken an interest in the case. No follow-up. The doctors’ fault.
But no, you can’t let off the dealers and pushers. The husband had a habit, so what about the pusher? He was to blame? Veronica and Denise were quick to approve each new suggested criminal, and most of the others went along with them easily.
Mrs. Kelsick pauses, looks at me.
One girl wasn’t talking, she says. The girl was Rosanna. She had delivered, as they say, five months ago, would shortly be leaving Ida Wells to return to regular school. Mrs. Kelsick felt her being separate from the others, shaking her head at them as though their opinions were naive or plain wrong. The others had come back to the father with the habit again, Michelle pointing out that, according to the story, he wasn’t even the real father, so maybe the one to blame was the real father and nobody knows who he is. The girls giggled, Mrs. Kelsick said. Another girl thought it wasn’t the real father’s fault, he didn’t know anything about it, it was the man’s fault because probably he was running short, the mother had other kids and then here was this new one and you know they’re all short and he can’t feed them so—
Mrs. Kelsick interrupted herself.
“Rosanna shut them up,” Mrs. Kelsick said abruptly, nodding, looking stern. “Rosanna said, ‘You know what? How come you so sure it wasn’t the mother? How you know she wasn’t the one that lit up those babies?’ ”
Mrs. Kelsick sits nodding, seemingly with her whole body. “I said, ‘You’re right, Rosanna. We never said one word about the mother, did we? How come we missed that?’ ”
Rosanna didn’t want to talk further just then, said Mrs. Kelsick, so they, she and the social worker, Anna, who teaches with her, turned away from her and repeated the question to the others. How come they didn’t ever think about the mother? Blank expressions. Did they think the mother could do such a thing?
“Rosanna came in again,” Mrs. Kelsick said, pushing her lips out, reconstructing. “Suppose that baby’s a crier. One of them. The husband, the man, he doesn’t like it, but what about her? She wants to sleep. Supposed to do something. Not his worry. He’s telling her, Shut that baby up. Maybe he isn’t even telling her, he’s out, maybe she’s just telling herself . . . she doesn’t know how to shut that baby up and it’s getting her, just starting to get her.”
Then, said Mrs. Kelsick, Rosanna spoke the words—the perfect words for them to hear, and they hugged her for them.
“‘That baby got some rights,’ Rosanna said. And I said, ‘Rosanna, that’s so right and good.’ ”
Mrs. Kelsick pauses again, seeming to see it freshly, then comes back to me.
“That was the ‘how,”she said. “That was today.”
It was toward the end of the sixties that the city board of education dropped its push-out policy for unmarried pregnant girls and began encouraging these students to stay in school, creating new schools offering programs in infant care, nutrition for mother and child, and homemaking in addition to the usual academic fare. Moving about among the crudely partitioned classrooms, offices, cafeteria, and library, I heard a lot that roused, simultaneously, pity, fury, frustration. Without exception teachers, principal, and custodians address classes or groups of girls as “ladies.” (“Ladies, today we’re working on the run-on sentence”: English teacher. Called to order, the friendly. curious eyes of a thirteen-year-old large with child turn away from the visitor. “Ladies, please, your attention, ladies . . .”) Last month the class worked on Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, not for the flight into an ideal world of love but for deadly school purposes (“identify asides, soliloquies, foreshadowing”).
But these are places of love, not in the end depressing. Much that is taught is the opposite of asides and foreshadowing—substantive, necessary knowledge . . . the nonpliancy of the past, the need to tie and root yourself ever more clearly to what has happened, to deeds done, the nonmalleable yesterday. No new bride to give away. Belief in “the strong for the weak” is alive in the air, in the eyes of teachers and students alike.
“I see them all afterward,” says Bernie Sabel, economics teacher, talking to me in the cafeteria. “They’ll be downtown with the baby and you see them coming out of the super and you stand there and b. s. with them a tittle about what’s coming down, their problems, how’s it going . . . They want to talk. They like school. They all want to come back to Baby Day and bring their kids. They’re gone and they’re back in the old school but they remember we’re friends and they feel friendly. I can tell.”
At the marriage counselor’s
But there was a seesaw. Nays as well as Yeas. And the seesaw was a long time stopping. On the one hand, Everything Costs, the new life, change, promise, the end of prudery. . . . On the other: How much good comes from Change! You can walk straight out, I was telling myself at this point, into the midst of these various ongoing sexual and sex-role and marital and abortional revolutions, and recover—close to the field of fire, mortars thumping in your ear—a feeling for first things, for the nature of the behavior that created the human world in the beginning. You can have an encounter with a dozen major truths—a reminder that the creation of the human world preceded by millennia the birth of the values of psychological self-expression and spiritual liberty. But you can also walk straight out into these various ongoing revolutions and stumble not upon Jesus but upon swarms of people at each other’s throats for money. No revelation here. Porn is money. Defacing human physicality is money. Faking relationships is money. (“Men!” cries the massage parlor ad in the Miami paper. “Linda’s BACK!”) Improved fucking is money.
The handy directory in the appendix of Joanna and Lew Koch’s The Marriage Savers (1976)—it’s entitled “How to Find a Marriage Counselor”— provides some thirty tightly printed pages of information on people and organizations under these headings:
Marriage Encounter/Marriage Enrichment Programs
Sex Therapists/Sex Clinics
Social Service Organizations
In several major cities the stink of hard-sell competition for the troubled soul’s buck rises from the newspaper ads that ask: “Is YOUR MARRIAGE BETTER THAN NO MARRIAGE? If you’ve begun asking yourself this question, you’ll probably want to talk to us . . .” (Some entrepreneurs, like the owneroperator of a Boston service called the Divorce & Marriage Counselling Center, Inc., are quite upfront about profits. “We’re business people,” James Heimen of D & M tells a reporter. “We wanted to short-circuit the delayed-referral process so we went to direct advertising.”) And the likelihood is that thousands will shortly be in the game. Edna Barrabee, member of the American Association of Marriage Counselors: “In this field anyone can do anything. Anyone, from any walk of life. That’s how open this counseling practice is today . . . This new commercial counseling center is openly a superservice agency . . . Boy, are they smart. The next thing you know they’ll be opening like those income tax places, one on every corner.”
The private heart goes to market, courtesy of Social Science.
On the road I visited a “non-profit” service in Philadelphia called Wives Self-Help, whose advertising borrows snippets from old extra-strength Excedrin campaigns:
. . . a unique and innovative service created in January, 1974 in answer to an urgent need for help to marriages on a positive, preventive basis. Two out of five marriages end in divorce. Those who are struggling to maintain viable marriages in the face of these overwhelming odds need help. Families experiencing stress and strain often do not know where to turn for counseling or are afraid to go. Furthermore, the high cost of mental health coupled with the overcrowding of many of our clinics is often a deterrent to those seeking help for marital difficulties. The immediate relief and direction provided by WIVES SELF-HELP can alleviate a stressful situation before disastrous complications result.
Throughout my interview with the president of the organization and a senior marriage counselor, a third official, the secretary-treasurer, is on the phone with a client in the same office: “Look, we’re not gonna hold you up. We know. Thirty dollars a week, that’s a lot of money.” And the interviewees’ style of address to my questions is uniformly business-brisk.
Thinking of my divorced friend Ellen, I ask about first visits, clients’ feelings at the time of the initial class or appointment. Is there much guilt? Sense of failure?
“Nothing,” says Helene Halpern, the counselor. Helene looks to be in her late twenties, an attractive, mod-jeaned, frizzy-curled blond, a student at Bryn Mawr in psychiatric counseling. “When they come in, it’s just”—she crosses her arms, index fingers on each hand pointing angrily in opposite directions—“‘It’s his fault. Her fault.’ ‘So wait a minute,’ I say, ‘if he’s such a bastard, why do you put up with it?’ ”
“They try to hang you up on their presenting problems,” Maxine Schnall, the president, explains. Maxine is mid-fortyish, divorced, dresses in knit pantsuits, and is studying law at Temple. She mentions a name to Helene, who nods and grins. “The wife came in and she said her husband had a vasectomy and never told her. ‘How’d you find out?’ I said. ‘Was he grasping himself down there in terrible pain?’” Maxine chuckles. “Well, no, actually she overheard it on the phone. Later he told me why—he just wanted to test himself, it was a courage test. Could he do it? But the thing is she’d come in with this as the presenting problem and later it turned out she’d had her tubes tied herself three years before and never told him.”
On her preferred methodology Helene is crisp and downright.
“What I do,” she tells me, “is find out how her crap fits his crap. Okay, this guy is running but his wife is the suspicious type. ‘I don’t know why I do it,’ he says. ‘I just do.’ Well, I know why. He was in an orphanage as a kid and anyway it’s available—he’s very good-looking—so why not? But she says, the wife, “Well, when I was a kid I wanted to be a detective, I wanted to get to the bottom. I wanted to get to the bottom of everything!’ So right away, this was how they completed each other’s neuroses. But he could say, ‘Hah-hah, see, it’s your fault, you’re suspicious so I only do it because you make me.’ So I anticipated that and I warned them right off it. We’re not fixing blame on one person. If you can just get them to take a measure of responsibility for the situation and move on, just see that . . .”
On overall objectives, whether to “save” marriages or junk them, Maxine is clearly a little left of center, headed toward the creative split school. (“Sustaining the marriage—oftentimes that’s not what you want to do. It’s not best. Divorce could be the most creative thing.”) On the sources of the problems she deals with, she talks cliches: “This is the crossfire generation—thirty to thirty-six, caught between what Mother told me and Cosmo says— wanting more sexual freedom, satisfaction, something . . . And the media, it talks divorce and sex . . . opportunities.” About the domestic future she speaks as though the issues are more or less closed: “Everybody I know is insisting their daughter have a career aspiration, not marriage and babies.” And continually in the background, as I said, the secretary-treasurer was on the phone, cash-nexusing: “Ten is fine. Ten a session. It’s okay. ”
A phony negative. Stock response. What that I know escapes the domination, the hegemony, the superstructure, the System, the Profit Angle? As for coarseness, I’m to cast that stone? Nothing “wrong” at Wives Self-Help except the unfurnished quality, the way in which the counselors’ heads have to view the world. The bareness. The client arrives naked—no family, no past. He’s a spot of time, a little quick cross of relationship existing here and now. “I want to start over.” When the client calls, the counselor works with what she hears, sees, picks up. Spot-check. Somebody’s starting over and the point is that he or she, the client, has a decision ahead, and the counselor’s energy has to gather toward that. It’s the present, the state of mind here and now, that’s allconsequential. This is where we are. and the weight of what has been and what the client was before this decision, this movement to “therapy,” isn’t in the equation. It’s not even supposed to be felt, it’s a distraction. Causes and backgrounds summarized in thumbnail phrases—“the orphanage” . . . constant foreshortening of the past, telescoping of it to formula, making it manageable, keeping the eyes focused on the Decision ahead, the Options.
Max Horkheimer: “. . . a process of reduction to sub-personal status occurring within the family.”
I was having an intimation at this point, meanings brimming but still not clear.
“Your daughter’s in the hospital”
Stopping off in Montgomery, Alabama, to visit my daughter Jo, a filmmaker attached to a local TV station, I discover she’s in the hospital. Surprise is the only teacher. A minor operation, her friend Jeff tells me on the phone, thev hadn’t wanted to scare us. There was a knot in her thigh, doctor wanted to be sure, penicillin not working. It turned out to be a minor infection, possibly a spider bite, no big deal . . . We eat supper in the hospital restaurant and Jo, looking fine, tells some funny Deep South stories that break me uppeople met while she and Jeff were shooting. They both talk excitedly about their current project. I press for an errand when it’s time to go—nothing for a concerned daddy to do?—but they can’t come up with much. Jeffie’s been coping, it seems. He’s solved the murmur in their best camera, fed pills to Pie, Joey’s cat, also ill, “done a shtick” to their house, scrubbing it top to bottom in preparation for The Return, and this morning went off and bought a new mattress and box spring for the bed they liberated “somewhere in South Carolina.”
In the hall by the elevator, saying goodbye, we’re another family trio. Noticing Jo leaning a little on Jeff’s arm, I catch myself just in time. (Don’t say, Take good care of her.) Later on the plane I think: They do seem to like their lives. Later still, with a wink at the face in the dark window: Jeff’s a good um.
“That one over there, that one is real feisty”
The promise of growing space for variousness: this is what lies at the heart of the new nurture. To be a citizen, a worker, and an artist in a single lifetime, to hunt in the morning and be a music critic at night, to express one’s sexual self, one’s parental self, one’s familial self, to move ceaselessly toward fuller individuation, development, enrichment . . .
Which institution is pivotal in the service of this dream? As pivotal as any, probably, is the day-care center. In her Working Mothers (1976), Jean Curtis separates “groovy” centers, where parents themselves play a key role from day to day, from “custodial” centers, staffed by outsiders only, stiffer and chillier in atmosphere. I’ve also read descriptions of day-care centers to come, like those envisaged by Elizabeth Janeway:
. . . facilities at industrial plants, commercial centers, educational establishments—everywhere that parents go to work; model care facilities cosponsored by unions and imaginative educators, with programs offered by libraries, museums, musical conservatories, theater and dance groups, the inheritors of ethnic and cultural traditions. . . . They should engage, use and entertain a coming-and-going population, directed by a professional core, of children of all ages, adults of both sexes and all the generations that could be called on, interacting, teaching each other, connecting.
Not unattractive visions. Furthermore their specificity reminded me that it’s absurd to deal with day-care issues in a purified, noneconomic context, as though day care had one and the same meaning in every sector of the society.
Still . . . My attempts to see these places, groovy or custodial, from the “right” perspectives, evaluative, future-oriented, “social,” felt off from the very start: remote, once more, from the core of feeling. And one day at a Presbyterian church basement operation run for married university students in Laramie, Wyoming, I finally caught some light.
I don’t remember every detail of the place perfectly. I remember arriving just at the hour when the majority of the children were being dropped off, 7:00 A.M. or so, and noticing (coincidence, naturally) that in a succession of cars, about a halfdozen, the little boy or girl rode alone in the back seat. The car would stop, the driver would reach back and open the door and wait while the child descended and moved up the church walk, slowly or otherwise, no baggage; before he was inside, the car door was shut and the driver too moved on, no waves, no looking back.
What else? A minor episode of shoving, featuring a boy I’ll call Brook sitting in a tree and a three-year-old I’ll call Amy. Amy advanced to where Brook sat in the crook of the tree, midmorning break, and told him he shouldn’t do what he was doing. Brook climbed down from his perch, walked purposefully toward Amy, pushed her onto the ground with a wordless two-handed shove, and returned to his tree. Rising, Amy did not weep, did not comment, did not look for justice, expected no line to be thrown. She rose and stared at Brook, kept her distance.
Jo Davis, the director, is a short, energetic woman in her forties, wearing a short red skirt and having the build and manner of a champion lady golfer. I had the standard tour. Ms. Davis identified one or another child as he hove up as “real feisty,” “a learning disability,” “a newcomer here for four days and already working into the group.” My notes say that on my private comparative scale the Laramie center rated C-. “Basement spacious but dark, stale air. Semicircle of small chairs set in rows before huge TV. Ominous. Two-hour afternoon naptime! Too much talk from JD about money, keeping charges down to $3.50 a day, problems of being cook, staff director, accountant, general negotiator all at the same time. Depressing sights . . . dark unfurnished windowless ‘isolation area’ for sick or hurt kids incarcerated until parents pick up . . . weeping three-year-old girl, clutching father, begging him not to leave (JD: ‘He has custody’). Numbers: one aide to about every ten kids, staff of six, six and a half. Half of all children who’ve attended this center over its four years are from divorced parents . . . Children who spend longest days at center, from 7 to 5 P.M., are the young ones, the three-year-olds . . .”
There are worse as well as better centers. All that happened—my other “intimation”—was that as I was leaving this place, walking past a group of kids playing in clayey mud in a culvert, I realized I hadn’t spoken to any of them, the children. And that I had probably never spoken to any children on any similar visit to any other center in the past. I’m a gregarious type with kids, and here I lacked confidence. It meant—?
“They”—that large abstraction I’ve made for day-care kids—“they” don’t feel kidlike to me. They’re lean, stripped down, unencumbered. They have their wits about them. Public people, living far beyond the pure moment of intimacy of parent and child, into SATs, into admissions interviews. They live by their wits, have objectives. No waywardness need apply. “They need a lot of one-onone”—how many times I heard that from day-care people. But no matter how true it was, it didn’t feel true. They didn’t need me, a fooling-around grown-up. You heard about the “thinkers,” as some called them, the isolated children who sit alone, not watching the others who gather in groups or circles, watching their toes. The forlorn— there were always the forlorn . . . like the little girl who arrived weeping that morning in Laramie. But what I felt, what I came to see that I felt, was something within them that lay beyond teasing, a gathered quality. These were copers, objectives, dealers with the world on the world’s terms. Their capital lay in the world and they’d learned how to manage, invest, buy, sell. Good timing. As for helplessness, luxurious helplessness, secret intimacies, dream of sleeping within, never moving, breathing her breath, his scrapy cheek—forget it. Plucked out, provided with Museum of Science challenges. A chenille rug and a doll and a coat peg . . . Making do. Making out. Making it. Grouped by ability . . . professional staff . . . seat work with numbers . . . rates $20/18 . . . comings and goings.
They were new to me, and at length I defined the newness, felt how it firmly edged me back, cut me out of my habitual bid for paternal intimacy, closeness. I’m willing—my tone of address to a child saysI’m willing to let you lean on me a while. Go ahead, lean. But no leaners in the crowd. Somewhere in here, it seemed, in the difference of these kids . . . Was this the secret theme, my buried language?
The weight of the past
No, the buried language was—as I’d all along believed it to be—a plainer thing, as simple (it turned out) as the language of memory. Once it was in my ears, once I heard somebody speaking it naturally, reasonably, for no purpose except to maintain self-respect, I realized that I knew the words perfectly myself, had always known them. Little fluency, at first, only a sort of telegraphic stuttering. Never do dirt on what you were, out of that came what you are. Bring baggage when traveling or you’ll be too light to land. Before liberty and equality came fraternity and it invented the others, it made the world. Whatever is to come will be as good as the good in what was before, and will be made of this good, grown from this good—or else worthless.
Even now the precise place and occasion seem hardly to matter—could it have happened anywhere? The actual place was a conference in a university campus building in Madison, Wisconsin. Mid-morning, sunny skies. Outside a file of summer-session kids, tanned and glowing in T’s and cutoffs, sloped away down tree-shaded walks to a beach picnic and Frisbee by the lake. Inside the campus building a hearing was in progress, a heartland consultation of the kind that’s probably taking place in a half-dozen cities, on somebody’s issues, as these words are written or read.
Today the citizens’ panel in residence in Wisconsin was called the Presidential Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs—I belonged to it myself a while ago, for a year—and it was inquiring into “educational needs of rural girls and women.”
Like many another meeting of the sort, this one was intended to become a pressure point, a means of “raising consciousnesses.” Certain that exploitation and oppression were worse in rural areas than elsewhere, council members had come to the boonies to drive for faster, surer progress toward “women’s equity.” They’d mau-maued vulnerable male witnesses. (One poor brother had observed that he knew a little about women’s problems because “I have four of them in my house.” “You have four of ‘them,’ ” snapped a scornful young militant. “Okay ... I date one of you. I don’t like the way you talk.”)
What’s more, the councillors had been skeptical of presentations made by the farm women themselves, even by those like Jo Anne Vogel of Cato, Wisconsin, who had been active in seeking changes in IRS rules, inheritance law, and other matters of special rural concern. It was the directness of the pressure that produced the talk that met my need. During the first hour there were out-and-out scraps between the militants and the farm women. Asked how she felt about “assertiveness training” and “women’s lib,” Betsy Thronson of Blue Mounds. Wisconsin, struck out wildly.
“Farm wives were liberated long ago,” she said. “A farm wife is so liberated she can’t hardly stand it. The minute you put them on a tractor, they’re liberated.”
“I resent the term ‘feminist,’ ” Betsy went on strongly. “It sounds like you’re some real radical. We want just to speak out and express our opinion . . . That doesn’t mean you’re a weirdo.”
Cries of protest.
“I take exception—”
“I’m a militant activist feminist and—”
“If you describe liberation as the opportunity to do real hard work that men have always done, then all right, rural women are ‘so liberated they can’t hardly stand it.’ But that’s not what liberation is. Rural women are very unliberated. Put these words aside.”
Three farm wives sitting together like stone, rock-stern expressions of solidarity on their faces. Abrasion. The gap. Impactment.
But soon enough things changed. Several local guests experienced in counseling farm wives were in the room and they spoke up firmly, building a bridge back to communication, reaching beyond resentment and defensiveness, retuning the atmosphere, soothingly strengthening the wives’ belief that, if they did utter their true minds, they might be understood. (“You see,” said a 4-H person from Grand Forks, North Dakota, “you see rural women think that what urban women are saying is that it’s not right to be ‘just a houseperson.’ When that really is a very creditable thing to be doing . . .”)
And a rural historian and extension professor named Robert Gard introduced a historical theme—the greatness of the Wisconsin pioneer women—that did wonders in easing the wives toward their words. Gard had barely launched upon talk of the Old Generation—“theirs was the true greatness”—than the farm women were contributing details of their own. Pleased, stimulated, he spread out a bit concerning his research into the early years of struggle—the time when survival was “related to physical strength and human idealism—the hope of having something better later on, better opportunities for the children . . .”In those days you hadn’t a chance if you couldn’t clear one to five acres a year, so everything depended, Gard explained, on the strength of the men and the women. “And the women took the beating,” he said, pushing out his bottom lip as though he’d seen the suffering himself. He’d gone through the old cemeteries, he told the group, in Dodge County and thereabouts, looking at the headstones, the ones you could read, and how many women were dead before fifty—overburdened, overworked, bearing six, twelve, seventeen children because a big family was an asset. A man would wear out two or three women, they would literally work themselves to death. “And somehow, out of all this,” he went on, with the farm wives nodding, everyone listening hard, out of “this whole crucible of struggle we’ve come all this whole way to here. And now you’re talking about better ways of living . . . rights and tenure . . . it could not have happened if it hadn’t been for this vast other thing . . . what happened in the past.” So, he told the group, the right action is to honor these sacrifices, make them known. Because they were the source of the good to come.
They are the source.
It seemed to set off a whole new current in the room, producing talk remote from the gut issues of the movement, a spontaneous celebration, a feting of farm women as persons continuous with a noble past, winning their way forward out of deprivation.
Comforted, Betsy, Jo Anne, Nancy Smidle from Kewanee, Wisconsin, found fresh speech. They found, that is, a way of declaring that if living according to the new vision required a refusal to honor sacrifices made under the old, then they would hold back. If being in tune with, endorsive of, or hopeful about the new nurture, the new freedom and variousness, required an absolute repudiation of the past, then they would hold back. If a downward re-evaluation of the worth of the strongest cooperative and loving relationship they had known was required, then they would hold back.
“Our husbands are exceptional men,” said Jo Anne, going on to explain to the group how her family’s supportiveness made it possible for her to do her chores as a working farm woman, in the barn at 5 A.M., at eleven, in the evening again, and also to be a political activist on behalf of farm women’s interests. “My husband,” said Nancy Smidle, “never feels above me. If we’re going to buy something . . . or go to the church picnic, we decide together.”
For reasons I know and can name, each of the wives seemed to say, My past holds me, lifts me— my luck in my husband’s goodness and generosity, in his noticing my need, in his willingness to share housepersonship, to help ... I go to a university and a conference or a hearing and I meet and talk to people—strangers—and learn to care about them. Once when we watched the weather on TV and there was frost in New York, I’d think, Oh good, now we’ll get a price. But then at a meeting I got to know a new friend, apple growers in New York, and we became like sisters, and there was a closeness, a knitting together of all the commodities, and now I don’t want to profit from her bad luck or anybody’s.
Always, though, the voices that speak of broadened interests, wider sympathies, insist upon adding a word of history, a word about origins, about the onset of “activism,” why we can’t rush forward—can’t embrace a new multiplicity, an objective view of attachment, a condescension to careerless wives, or to husbands who think of themselves as allowing and permitting . . . “They sacrifice for me,” Jo Anne Vogel explains. “My sons, my husband. A woman can’t do it by herself. Our whole family discusses my experiences when I come home if I go away—like to here, this hearing. My daughter will he able to do better things. Our sons will have the past, the background, to let their wives do this and more. Our husbands are exceptional men.”
I come from somewhere. I am my past.
Two point five percent of the population live on farms: can a principle of universal application, good in cities and suburbs, good for the alienated and the divorced, the adman and the ghetto kid, be derived from the domestic faith of a few rural women? Positively. The principle for which the farm people spoke, memory as virtue, is nowhere inapplicable.
The women’s liberation movement is the freshest, most energizing popular cause of our time: if somebody finds an answer to interior needs in words that only hesitantly salute liberation, hasn’t the cause been denigrated? Positively not, because the hesitation in this instance belonged to the surface, not to the core. In the end the farm wives were speaking simultaneously for liberation and for the other sources of their own best selves—and it was the complexity of the affirmation that met the need.
Much that was said could have come from Ross or Alice or Ellen or a dozen others whose stories lie well off this page, also from many who play it hip. Blithe divorcers, TV stars who tease paternal obligation by treating their own as “a bit,” Bel Air cosmopolitans who pretend that squares alone are distraught at the sight of breakdown in their children’s lives, liberationists who affect to despise the sacrifices of the unliberated—as often as not these types are only hung up on another version of shock-the-bourgeois. Inwardly they know that the proper human work goes beyond framing jokes or forging special identities, that it involves learning the imperatives of care—growing out of illusions of invulnerability and into full understanding that others elsewhere, foreign, unknown, unborn, dead, those who came before and pushed the process forward, people under the hill whose minds and eyes made my mind and eyes, and made more extended vision possible, all have claims upon us and must be remembered.
If in the new domestic music remembering is the forgotten sound, more than a few who swing to this music themselves secretly yearn for changes, another rhythm.
The differences amongst us haven’t to do with ends, maybe, but with means—with the how of human development. And what was unique in the hearing room was a feeling, a conviction about how people learn. Half words, half “tone,” wisps, fragments, never fully articulated but always somehow present . . . a belief in the family as the essential classroom.
It’s crazy. One minute I talk about the care and kindness of my own children for me. The next I’m talking about my own children’s care and kindness for their mates once they’re old enough to have them. The next I’m talking about my sisterly feeling for somebody who was a total stranger to me a week ago—but it’s really not a puzzle. I know how you get from one feeling to the next. I understand the flow. It goes from feeling for the nearest to feeling for the farthest. When my child was weak and I was strong, at the sign of his hurt or heartbreak I was with him at once, suffused with awareness of helplessness, longing to ease his hurt because it was painful to me as to him. That’s my past, my moral capital. I’ve hardly ever seen myself as “good” except in my responsiveness, whenever I’ve been responsive, to my children’s needs. It was this way that I caught my glimpse of a meaning in “human interdependency.” In family things . . .
It’s parent and child together, parent and parent and child and child together, through the bonds of love, pride, and blood, who feel the imperatives of care most directly. That is the beginning. It’s within the family that the force of steadiness of concern for another as deserving of emulation comes across most directly to the young—little ones. It’s here that grown-ups are best placed to observe and foster the progress of the young in this . . . imitating the good. Is there any hope for an end to hunger in the world except in this progress?.
As I say, once a hint of the music was in my ears, I realized that I too knew the words and could say them aloud unembarrassed. Tell me about the broader family to come, the comparative insignificance of broken bonds, the glory of the more encompassing commitments ahead, the good sense of stepping forward from provincialism, from home, marriage, family—my island—and I’ll listen and may one day believe. But I’d expect also to go on believing that true morality is remembering— Malraux said this once—making visible the tradition that gives you your form. That couldn’t change. Because the good of the imagined future can only have grown from the good of the shared past, the experience accumulated in the narrower family, experience of kindness, control of selfishness, authority denying itself dominion, conjoining power with remorse . . . The narrow dream nourishes the wider dream. It’s as simple as this, my inner truth: whatever is good in the new nurture will be made of the same principles as the good of the past; therefore don’t patronize the past, don’t mock. Let it breathe.
The other Miami: singers on the beach, sound of the ocean
On toward dusk Fridays and Saturdays at the Pier Park Recreational Center, 9th and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, a fair-sized crowd begins gathering, moving up the walkways toward benches set in rows at the edge of the beach in front of a platform and hutch. The people are locals, old folks mostly, guests at the Sorrento, the Ocean Garden, the Balfour, a dozen tiny hotels along the Drive and Washington Avenue, unposh places with wide porches and interiors that Edward Sheeler might have lighted, lobbies where card games, played at big round tables with glary tops, last to midnight and beyond. Here and there a familiar Miami style stands out—white-on-white patterned shorts, white and gold-tasseled moccasins, the New York Times folded under an arm. But plainness is the norm. More than a few of the women are in heavy black knit cardigans and peasant kerchiefs, and the men’s clothes are nondescript, shiny serge trousers, straw hats, faded canvas shoes. The accents and sometimes the spoken languages belong to the Old World.
The magnet for the crowd is “the singing,” a concert of folk tunes, lullabies, and love songs performed in Yiddish and other tongues by selfselected soloists. At about eight the walkway lights come on and a beach cop named Harry Rivetz, a sober, good-looking man in his mid-twenties, steps forward from the shadows with a clipboard, rousing anticipatory jostle and laughter along the benches. He tests the mike, welcomes the group, and asks whether there’s anybody here who wants to sing and hasn’t signed up. People are still arriving; traffic sounds mix with the washing of surf and the shouts of kids fooling around somewhere in the distance on the darkened beach. The first singer is announced and he leads the group through “The Star-Spangled Banner”; then, one by one as Harry Rivetz calls off his list, the other performers rise and do their numbers. Occasionally a singer opens with greetings to the crowd or offers a comment on the tune he’s selected; occasionally quips are traded with the front rows. If your German is as weak as mine and you have no Yiddish, you can get help for the whole evening by asking one question of your neighbors early on. A mike failure or a drunk or junkie hovering on the fringes, mumbling to himself, can be a problem, but real interruptions are rare. When Officer Rivetz’s flashlight picks out the last name on the list, he lets this be known and at the end there’s protracted applause. The light goes off in the hutch behind the platform and the mike is unplugged and the cord rolled up, and the crowd makes its way back to the street, dispersing onto the hotel porches or into the lobbies, resuming the endless game.
Insiders attend “the singing" to refresh their memories and brighten old attachments. For me it was a lucky last stop that caught and held like a stunning museum, bemusing the head with forgotten stvles of connectedness ... an inventory in words and music of vanished ways of cherishing and being cherished. An old lady pours her heart out in a chant in memory of a temple destroyed 2000 years ago. Mr. Edelman, strong-faced, tanned, with a forceful tenor, sings “A Chazzandl Oif Shabbes,” a folk tune about the different ways in which a gifted cantor is prized by a tailor, blacksmith, and drover. (The refrain has eight oys— Oy, how he did sing!—and, guided by Edelman’s authoritative spacing, the crowd joins in with a will.) Max Greenberg, affable, a star in worn blue canvas shoes and battered boater, invites the audience to relish the modesty of its shared longings and desires, singing “Just a Little Bit of Luck” in several languages, leading the assemblage with graceful hands:
Who wants so much?
(Unison) Not so much ... Not so much
Just a little bit of living
Just a little bit of luck
The dominant themes of “the singing” are, predictably, familial and generational. There’s a song about a mother blessing her daughter’s new mother-in-law, begging the latter— Dear relative, sweet relative—not to wake the child too early, not to mourn if she sees that her son loves the girl . . . (“If she displeases you, please just forget it as I’ve always done.”) Another mother in another tune pleads and teases for a letter from a loved one—shribe geshvind, leebes kind, write quickly, give consolation to your mother. There are musical toasts to the solidarity of the generations: “Toast the young and toast the old./ Toast ourselves both young and old”:
Ay-ay, ay-ay, ay!
Family roll calls ring out in holiday celebration songs:
Get Aunt Susie and Uncle Josie
Let’s everybody have some fun!
There’s a fine number about a poor relation arriving at a wedding with nothing but a lively heart and a threepenny gift who’s instantly swept up into the dancing:
Though she be poor, an aunt’s still an aunt!
Mrs. Waxman sings “Oh, Papa!,” a child’s ecstasy at her father’s playful teasing, and I notice, across the aisle from where I’m sitting, a tiny huddled woman in a black shawl beating perfect time, open hands slapping her knees, eyes bright, lips apart.
Toward the end a performer introduced by Officer Rivetz simply as “Helen” announces that her song is a son’s farewell. “Zayt gezunterheyt, mayne libe eltern,” goodbye, my dear parents, goodbye, she recites, then pauses. The surf behind her seems louder. Helen is dressed in a pink woolen sweater and black kerchief. All at once a single minor note comes from her lips, held, shaped as a long lament in itself, and the strength and sweetness of what follows are overwhelming. Helen’s voice is delicate at some moments, eerily powerful at others. The stars bend to it, all traffic noise gone, and her audience is motionless, passionately attentive, sustaining her, lifting her like the sea a strong swimmer. Helen sings as though she hadn’t a mike in her hand, as though the volume came effortlessly from the deep darkness behind her. In every note something that bids for tears seems to float, a depth of longing, affection beyond measure. When she finishes, holding a single unwavering note, beautifully clean of vibrato, a voice near me murmurs into the stillness, loud enough for all to hear: Ooooh, gut. Then volcanic applause.
“These are gentle people,” says Harry Rivetz, talking to me later about his job as emcee, and it seems a fair judgment. The poorer singers are applauded as well as the best. The audience calls out helpfully when words are forgotten, joins good-naturedly in the refrains of the comic songs, allows itself to be caught up, reverently transfixed, when, as with Helen’s song, an old favorite is stunningly done. But kindness isn’t the point. What matters is the inventory, the re-animation of the tones and idioms of the traditional languages of nurture, reminders of the range and variousness of the older modes of human caring—within, as we say, the “family context.”The idea of “the singing” is that of sustained relation, the sound is that of people who don’t know how to let go. The trick, I thought, is to learn to speak from this sound as though it were present when it’s vanished, to learn how to carry it in mind when there’s nothing like it for ears to hear. It is the tuning sound, the pitch worth holding: a clarity about whence the best of me came. □