Madeleine Robins

October 14, 2018

Writing Angry

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 11:02 PM

I’m a coward. Let’s get that on the table first thing. I am not one of those heroines who stands up to a person in a rage and tells them off in some narratively satisfying way. My own personality, and early training, work against it. When I’m dealing with a volcanically angry person? I shut down. I get quiet and sort of “gone-to-my-own-private-island” absent until it’s over. It’s different if I see someone being bullied or harassed–but even then, my tendency is not to confront the bully but to take care of the bullied. Like I said: confrontation-averse.

Among other things, this means that for me, writing about being angry, or confronting someone who is angry, is problematical. (more…)


October 4, 2018

The Factory Girl’s Song

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,History — madeleinerobins @ 11:14 PM

Come all you weary factory girls
I’ll have you understand
I’m going to leave the factory
And return to my native land.
The Overseers need not think
Because they higher stand
That they are better than the girls
That work at their command.
–The Factory Girl’s Song, 1830

Reading up on something for work, I somehow got directed to an amazing document: a short book, The Woman Who Toils, by Mrs. John Van Vorst and Marie Van Vorst, published by Doubleday in 1903.

Mrs. Van Vorst and Miss Van Vorst went undercover, as we would call it today, as factory workers, to explore and expose what the lives of women working in factories was like. Undercover because both women were from the privileged upper class. The setup sounds like a movie–Black Like Meor Gentlemen’s Agreement:

My purpose was to help the working girl—to help her mentally, morally, physically. I considered this purpose visionary and unpractical, I considered it pretentious even, and I cannot say that I had any hope of accomplishing it. 

Mrs. Van Vorst (I have so far read her half of the book) chooses to start in Pittsburgh, “as being an industrial centre whose character was determined by its working population.” She puts together a shabby wardrobe, settles in a boarding house-cum women’ s shelter, and gets a job in a pickle factory. The work is miserable, 10 hours a day on her feet, doing things like capping pickle jars. It’s a brutal way to make a living. Van Vorst notes that there’s a real difference between how the male and female workers are treated: the men pay five cents a day for a hot meal provided by the company, where the women bring their own lunches: cake, jam, pickles–essentially junk food. When she comments on this inequity she’s told that if the women made a fuss the bosses would provide food for them, too. But of course the women of the time and of that class are unlikely to protest, so: no hot meals for them.

The book is a fascinating read in many ways, and I believe Van Vorst is sincere and her observations are frequently astute… but boy, do her prejudices shine through. Until she experiences the deadening experience of working in the factory, it’s hard for her not to be snarky about the fondness of her co-workers for what amounts to junk food: cake and pickles and jam sandwiches–until she experiences for herself the combination of  fatigue and monotony that makes her too crave sugar and salt–anything with a bright flavor that can cut through the dullness of the day. Van Vorst is sympathetic to the women who are working to support themselves or their family, but less sympathetic to young women who don’t have to work, but want money for clothes and other small luxuries:

This is the wound in American society whereby its strength sloughs away. It is in this class that campaigns can be made, directly and indirectly, by preaching and by example. What sort of women are those who sacrifice all on the altar of luxury?

As laudable as Van Vorst’s ambitions are, she can’t help judging the people–particularly the women–that she meets. She’s sympathetic toward young women who have dealt with the hardships of their lives with passivity, by shutting down; or with grit and determination, those “uniquely American” qualities. She doesn’t seem to have the same sort of sympathy for women who have become angry or desperate–she doesn’t say they’re not ladylike, but there’s that undertone. She doesn’t call out the old and the unpretty–but she does tend to dwell on their grotesquerie. And while her determination to go through with her experiment is laudable, she does know she can always go back to her real life:

In the Parisian clothes I am accustomed to wear I present the familiar outline of any woman of the world. With the aid of coarse woolen garments, a shabby felt sailor hat, a cheap piece of fur, a knitted shawl and gloves I am transformed into a working girl of the ordinary type. I was born and bred and brought up in the world of the fortunate—I am going over now into the world of the unfortunate.

It’s hard not to feel that this is philanthropy tourism: trying to help the lowly as a way of feeling better about your own benevolence. But by the end of her section of the book Mrs. Van Vorst is trying–really trying–to think of ways to help. She’s already figured out that merely exposing the poor to the the finer things in life isn’t going to magically improve their lives–like the main character in Sullivan’s Travels, she discovers that laughter is better than high art when your life is bleak. So what can she advocate?

In line with her prejudices, Van Vorst suggests separating the “breadwinner from her that works for luxuries.” The self-supporting women should be united with the others–men and children–for whom work = livelihood. These workers get the serious work–the work that will provide them with food and room and survival. But what about the women who have all the money they want, but not the money they need?

The non-self-supporting girls must be attracted into some field of work which requires instruction and an especial training, which pays them as well while calling into play higher faculties than the brutalizing machine labour. This field of work is industrial art: lace-making, hand-weaving, the fabrication of tissues and embroideries, gold-smithery, bookbinding, rug-weaving, woodcarving and inlaying, all the branches of industrial art which could be executed by woman in her home, all the manual labour which does not require physical strength, which would not place the woman, therefore, as an inferior in competition with man, but would call forth her taste and skill, her training and individuality, at the same time being consistent with her destiny as a woman.

The women who don’t need to work should be given work that engages their minds and calls forth “higher faculties”. Which leaves those who have to work doing the drudgery, the menial work, the crap. I’m sure that’s not Van Vorst thinks she’s suggesting, and I give her full marks for good intentions. But.

I cannot believe that Mrs. Van Vorst and Miss Van Vorst were not unaware of the settlement movement which was then in full swing. There’s a little bit of breathless “Oh, look! No one’s ever thought of this problem before!” I don’t know how much effect, in the long term, The Women Who Toil had. But it is, as I said, a fascinating read.

August 27, 2018

Scary Abundance, and its Pursuit

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 12:48 PM

GOld ToiletOn Saturday night, spur of the moment, my husband, my daughter, and I went to see Sorry to Bother You, which starts out looking like an urban maybe-failure-to-launch comedy and then becomes, not just sort of Science Fictional, but profoundly weird. I recommend it. But I did walk out of the theatre feeling like “What wasthat?”

And then last night we went to see Generation Wealth, a documentary about… well, not so much about wealth, but about acquisition of wealth, about what drives us as a society to valorize possessions–and often the most vulgar sort of possessions.

Generation Wealth is a series of interwoven narratives about, among others, a former hedge-fund manager who is still on the FBI Most Wanted list for financial malfeasance; a porn star; a plastic surgery addict; a female business exec; a one-hit wonder; the son of a rockstar; and the documentarian herself, Lauren Greenfield. Some of it is funny, some of it is deeply horrifying. It ends… not on a hopeful note, exactly, but on a note that suggests that hope is not entirely out of the question.

The thing that seems clear, watching all these people, is that each of them has a space they’re trying to fill. The hedge-fund guy, for example, is very upfront about his determination–his need–to be the one who wins, where winning is having the most money. He tells a story about sitting with his wife somewhere in the Mediterranean, looking out at yachts in the harbor, and pointing. “That one, that one, or that one. Which do you want?” And his wife telling him “What I want is for you to put your phone away and have a nice dinner with me.” Ow. Apparently it took him years to getwhat she was saying.

Or the woman who went into debt to go to Brazil to get a tummy tuck… which turned into new breasts and a perky butt and a new nose and a neck lift. By the time she got back to the US, she was so deeply in debt that she could not afford to keep her kids with her. As near as I can tell, she may still be paying for it–and there was a deep human cost to her as well.

All of these things had me leaving the theatre wondering what I stuff into spaces in my life. What do I valorize? What do I feel I could never have enough of? Money is nice, but it’s there to make things go more smoothly; stacking up piles of 100s would not, I suspect, make me feel more secure. I would love to be beautiful, and have always felt that it was something of a moral failing that I wasn’t–but it didn’t bother me enough to go for plastic surgery or a rigorous exercise routine or even forgoing a good chocolate truffle. The things I would stuff into the interstices of my life are probably more intangible: I always wanted to be really smart, and really witty, and really accomplished: those were the values that my family venerated. I suppose that, to me, there is no upward limit to how smart or how clever or accomplished I’d like to be–but I’m sure there would be a human cost there, too. It is probably easier to save up and buy a gold toilet.

Wallis Simpson famously said “You can never been too rich or too thin.” I think the ultimate message of Generation Wealthis that Simpson was wrong. The question is, will our society figure this out before we do ourselves and the planet in?

August 14, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 5:37 PM

WARNING: do not read if details about tooth problems give you collywobbles.

When I turned 21, my father took me out to dinner and gave me a piece of Fatherly Advice: take care of your teeth. This was more heartfelt even than it might have been, since Dad had, for about 20 years, neglected his teeth, and the bill, in every imaginable sense, had recently come due.

I inherited many sterling qualities from my parents. I don’t know which one gifted me with my teeth (I suspect my father, but he never copped to it) but they are the gift that keeps on giving me grief and taking my money. I am sitting in a Starbucks right now, weighing in on the chances that I can get an appointment with my dentist tomorrow morning. It says something about the state of my mouth that I cannot remember which root canal this will be (if that is, indeed, what I’m looking at) because I lost count after twelve, and that was a few ago.

I am not neglectful of my teeth. I brush and rinse and Do All The Things (okay, I’m weak on flossing because floss gets caught in all my crowns). But every dentist I’ve had in the last thirty years more or less looks in my mouth, shakes her head, and says “I’m so sorry.” One went so far as to tell me that, tooth-wise, I had gotten the fuzzy end of the genetic lollipop. Two sets of braces, mumble-ty root canals (the first when I was twelve and facing down my first set of braces), three implants (one because a tooth that had been root-canaled a couple of decades earlier developed an abscess which I did not feel because there was no nerve…). And a double-handful of dentists, orthodontists, and occasional dental surgeons. I am a well-trained patient, as you can imagine, and can keep my mouth open for an astonishingly long time.

My first dentist, Elias Karnoff, had an office on Washington Square North, and played WQXR in the waiting room. This is how I learned to love classical music. I got very familiar with the sound of the drill, the stab of needles bearing novocaine, the sight of Dr. Karnoff’s very hairy forearms. When you’re seven and a grown man’s forearms are two inches from your nose, it leaves an impression. I can’t remember the name of my first orthodontist, a round, bustling woman; I do remember that her receptionist was named Hanne. When we moved to Massachusetts from New York City, I couldn’t have braces long distance, so off they came.

I got my second sent of braces in college, which involved surgery to find and put a lasso around a tooth lodged in the roof of my mouth, to slowly tug it into place. My orthodontist was fascinated by the fact that I was a theatre major, and therefore gave me clear brackets for a while–in time for my star turn as Mrs. Peachum inThreepenny Opera; he even came to see the show, but apparently spent the whole evening looking at my mouth (“Sarah Bernhardt!” he exclaimed on my next visit. “You were great! The brackets didn’t show!”). This second set of braces led, accidentally, to another root canal: in order to put the bands on they had sawed through a double crown at the back of my mouth. “Won’t that cause a problem”, I asked. “Nah,” they said. They were wrong.

At this point I am pretty zen about my teeth. I get checkups, follow instructions, and mostly am okay (I did faint once and break off an upper incisor–the left hand partner to the one which is giving me grief today, but that could happen to anyone). We are fortunate to have dental insurance, which moves these things from catastrophic to merely horrible. So I will go in to see the dentist tomorrow morning (yes! they made a space for me!) and follow directions. In the meantime, there’s always Ibuprofen.

July 30, 2018

A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot

Filed under: Craft,History,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 11:06 AM
Tags: ,

I run a small museum. It’s a museum on the history of the book, and of bookbinding, and one of the things we talk about when talking about the book as object, is about its meaning as an object.

Only a couple of centuries ago, most people in Europe could go through their entire lives without seeing a book up close. Books were irrelevant to their lives. More than that, books were insanely expensive; they were investments, luxuries. Granted, after Gutenberg comes along with the press, the price of books dropped roughly 80%–which means they went from astronomically expensive to merely prohibitively expensive. As long as books were individually hand-bound, ownership was out of the reach of most people (it’s why subscription libraries flourished in England–when a 3 volume set of Sense and Sensibility cost the equivalent of $100, it was far cheaper to pay a subscription fee and have access to all the latest poetry, essays, and fiction).

After the British burned down the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson famously sold them his library as a “starter” to rebuild on. And turned around and used the money to buy himself more books, because… well, books. Books were wealth of a sort; you could sell them to raise money (or use them as collateral for loans). Having a library–even a collection of a few books–marked you as a person of property, even if you didn’t own your house or your land.

As with so much else, the Industrial Revolution changed that. Once books became affordable to the middle class, the meaning of book ownership changed.

Beyond mere investment, ownership of a book could signal a wealth of things:

  • I’m literate
  • I have leisure to read
  • I have the money to buy a book or books
  • I have the good taste to buy work by this author
  • I have the money to buy a handsomely-bound work
  • I value knowledge
  • I (as an immigrant) have imbibed the values of my new society
  • I (as an immigrant) have learned the language of my new home
  • I (as an immigrant) am trying to figure out the customs of my new home

That’s a lot of weight to put on a stack of paper between book-board covers. And yet, that set of Dickens, or Trollope, or the Brontës, could bear the weight. Especially if they were nicely bound. Even after the industrial revolution, the wealthy could still buy hand-bound, hand-covered, hand-tooled books; but publishers cannily realized that their audience wanted books that looked high-end, even if they were less expensive. The book-cover above would have been made separate from the binding of the book, and decorated using gold foil and a heated embossing press. It would still have been an expensive volume, but it was within the means of a middle class household.

What if you didn’t have the money for a beautifully bound book? There were editions for the budget conscious, less decorated, perhaps on flimsier paper. I found an ad for a complete set of Dickens for $0.48. I am reasonably certain those books, paper covered, were not the volumes you displayed on your mantel to virtue signal. And below those cheaply bound books were dime novels, stapled and bound in paper, and magazines, and tracts, and pamphlets. Arguably, these cheaper books were more about access: to story, to culture, to language, to information. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches narrative was promulgated through such books: hard work and virtue could change your fortune!

And if your fortune changed, perhaps you, too, could have a set of Dickens on the mantel to signify that you had arrived. And perhaps even to read.

July 25, 2018

Creak, Memory

Filed under: Being a Woman,Life — madeleinerobins @ 9:23 AM

Anna Hoffman Robins, 1918

My father made it to almost-98, sharp as a tack the whole time (as near as I can tell, all his very long-lived siblings did except for the youngest one, who had some sort of dementia in the last few years of her life). My mother died relatively young, but was reasonably sharp. However, my father’s mother (seen left) also had dementia for as long as I knew her (I was 14 when she died, and felt deeply swindled by fate, listening to all the stories about a Grannie Annie I never got to know).

In the last couple of years I have been spending more time with my beloved Aunt, my mother’s sister. She is 92, and lost her husband of 46 years after a long, excruciating illness. Throughout her life my aunt was always the one who kept everything and everyone organized. She had a demanding job which she loved and did brilliantly, but more than that, she was a natural stage manager, keeping track of where everything was and making everyone play well together. But in the last five years, between focusing first on my uncle, and then on her grief, plus some of the ordinary ills the 92-year-old flesh is heir to, her ability to multitask and to remember things has taken a real hit. And therefore, so has her idea of who she is. She’s a proud woman, and to have to ask for assistance in keeping her affairs in order just annoys the hell out of her.

I’m also a stage manager by nature. I discovered this, fortunately, when I was doing theatre in college. I wanted to act, but my real talent was in keeping track of every one, making lists, and keeping the trains running on time, all while keeping half-a-dozen plates spinning in the air. And I suspect my Grannie Annie, who had to raise eight kids (all the while improving her English–she moved to the U.S. when she was eighteen) and a household, making clothes, helping out when needed with the store her husband ran in their later years, was too. You don’t do that well unless you have a certain amount of organizational genius. So I come by it honestly. My anxiety, of course, is: will I come by dementia honestly? Is it sitting there waiting in my genes?

Cancer used to be the defining health terror for many of the adults I knew (adults meaning, here, people older than I was). These days, as I move inexorably and mostly amusingly toward senior-hood, the terror is Alzheimers or some other form of dementia. Every time I walk into a room to do something and *plink* can’t remember what I meant to do, the episode gets added to the collection in my anxiety box. Words–particularly nouns–which should leap to the tip of my tongue play hide and seek when I want them. (This is particularly annoying because part of my day job is as a docent at a museum, and when people are following you around expecting to learn things, it’s useful to be able to summon up the names of the things.)

I do not, seriously, at this time, think I am starting a long, slow slide into dementia. But I do think I need to find new ways of doing my thinking, and particularly, I need to reduce my multi-tasking. I need to remove distraction. I know that goes against the current trend that valorizes juggling (look! she can parent, work a 40 hour work, decorate cakes, and invent cold fusion in her spare time!) as heroic. I was always proud of my ability to keep balls dancing in the air. But I don’t think it serves me well now. So if I can find a way to think clearly about one thing at a time, and make the six other things that would like to be considered first wait their time, I think that my memory will last for another 30-35 years. I certainly hope so.


July 3, 2018

I Was Raised in a Barn: Cars

Filed under: Family,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:22 AM

I was thirteen when we moved from New York City to Sheffield, Massachusetts. There were many striking differences, but one of the big ones? Transportation. Unbeknownst to my mother, I had been secretly taking the subway to school in the mornings (this meant an additional 15 minutes of sleep, for the bargain price of ten cents a day…yeah, it was a while ago). In the mornings I would run to the IRT station and jam myself and my armload of textbooks in among a zillion of my fellow citizens (this was also before backpacks became something for persons other than mountaineers). I loved the subway.

And then we moved full time to the barn my parents had been converting into a home for the last dozen years, where I had to walk a mile to get to the school bus pick-up point, and it was five miles to either of the libraries I had cards for. And I was thirteen and wouldn’t have a driver’s license for another three years. That was a long three years. I could ride my bicycle, and did, of course, but this being the Berkshire mountains in southeast Massachusetts, three months a year or so, bicycling was inadvisable-bordering-on-suicidal: snow and ice made it dangerous, and cold made cold.

In Massachusetts, getting your Learner’s Permit, and then your driver’s license, was a rite of passage. Forget Bar Mitzvah: walking out of the DMV with your pink slip (temporary license) was the “today I am a woman!” moment. So there was driver’s ed, and the eye test (which is how I found out just how nearsighted I was: two out of 18 figures wrong, and my next stop was the eye doctor), and the driving test, and at last the pink temporary license and then the permanent license. Rumors flew among my peers that if you were pulled over for any reason while you were still holding the pink slip the cops would simply tear it up.

Once there were three drivers in the house, my mother retired from the field, which meant that most of the week, when my father was out of town working, I was the chauffeur. And in short order, my father decided we needed a second car. A specific second car: a third-hand Triumph rag-top that, in a pinch, was considered a four-seater (the back seat was a bench, but large enough that one could sit on it. If one didn’t mind resting one’s chin on one’s knees). Theoretically he and I shared the car. Let’s be real. I loved that car with a deep, abiding, love. It wasn’t just freedom: it was fun freedom. I was able to stay late at school for rehearsals and school paper deadlines. My dog and I could tool around the countryside with the top down (Fio with his ears waving, me with my hair rigorously tied down, lest it become hopelessly knotted). When my boyfriend had his license suspended for six months, I became the provider of rides: this was a little dicey, as he had a big car and kept offering rides as if that was what I was driving. On one notable evening I recall we had nine people stacked like cordwood in the car, with just enough room for me to shift.

There are various responsibilities that come with having a car. My drivers’ ed teacher, Mr. Menin, insisted that every girl in the class be able to diagram an engine, check the oil, and change a tire. None of us would ever be scammed by some guy at the garage telling us that our Fromiztistat had to be replaced. He also imparted some other bits of arcane information that came in handy. Notably: if your fan belt breaks, he said, a girl could use a nylon or the leg of a pair of pantyhose to make a field repair.

So one afternoon I was driving along Route 7 when I noticed that the engine was running very very hot. I pulled over, and sure enough: no fan belt. It hadn’t just broken, it had dropped off somewhere. So I acted on Mr. Menin’s advice, cut off a leg from my pantyhose, tied it on, and drove off to our usual garage in town. Where, as it transpired, a guy I knew from school was working. The conversation that followed was something like this;

Me: Hi, my fan belt is broken.

Him: It can’t be.

Me: Yeah, it really is.

Him: No, cause if it were, you couldn’t have driv (sic) in.

Me: Well, yeah, but I made a temporary fix.

At which point he opened the hood, saw what could broadly be considered a woman’s undergarment tied in place of the fan belt, and turned a deep, cherry red. And changed the fan belt.

Having a car meant I could hang out with friends, do school activities, go to concerts–all the things I could not do on my own in the days before I got my license. My mother was not always sanguine about this: the trade-off for me being driver and errand-girl was me being out of the house more. A town like ours had rituals around teens in cars. Like going to Friendly’s for ice cream (if you’re not a New Englander: Friendly’s is a chain of sandwich shops with good ice cream). The town where I went to school did not have a Friendly’s, but the town next up Route 7, which was home to our “rival” high school, did. And I’ll tell you: taking a tiny little Triumph with a Mt. Everett Regional parking permit into Monument Mountain territory had its hazards. This is a kind of tribalism I don’t get, but recognized that it existed and tried not to get snarled up in it.

But one night my friends and I went to get ice cream and I–rather than wait at the very crowded window–sat in the car. Which was spotted by a phalanx of large football-player-looking guys wearing Monument Mountain sweaters, who decided to go make a point about the interloper in their territory (me and my tiny car). Four of them picked up the car–with me in it–and carried it across the parking lot to an empty space and put it down there. And walked away.

My tiny car recovered faster from this than I did. The next time I went to Friendly’s I considered putting masking tapes over my parking permit beforehand. In the end I decided to let it be–and in the end so did the guys from Monument Mountain.

June 20, 2018

The Habit of No

Filed under: Life,Working — madeleinerobins @ 7:57 AM
Tags: , ,

IWouldPrefer I had a co-worker some time ago, relatively young and new to the workforce, who, over the time we worked in the same company, got the No habit bad.

There are lots of reasons to say No, in pretty much every possible situation in life. Would you like a sip of cyanide? “No, thank you.” Wanna hook up? “Eew, no, sorry.” Would you be willing to do this illegal thing as part of your job? “No, I would not.” Do you want lima beans? “God, no.” Can you take my shift while I go to my aunt’s funeral? “No, I’ve got my daughter’s graduation that day.” And so on. As the #metoo movement has been forcibly making clear, the right to refuse must be taken seriously. But like many rights, you maintain No’s power and authority by using it when it’s needful.

In improv, almost the first thing you learn is that No shuts a scene down. If your partner says “Would you like some roasted giraffe kidney,” perhaps you could come back asking if it was locally sourced. That gives you and your partner somewhere to go. In the same way, working in a public-facing businesses you learn, not that the customer is always right (because really not) so much as that you want to find a way to say Yes. “Do you have this in size 10?” “No” stops the interaction dead in its tracks, but “I don’t think so, but we do have this in a 10, would you like to try it?” gives both client and salesperson somewhere to go.

To return to my long-ago co-worker: we were working in a business in which layoffs were pretty clearly in the offing (the guy playing the Darth Vader death march on the PA system is a dead giveaway). Because I liked my job and, more than that, really did not want to have to go job hunting, I put a good deal of effort into saying Yes. If something needed doing–even if it was not in my job description–I’d help out. My co-worker started out doing that, but the longer they were in the job the more likely they were to pull the “Not My Job” card, building a little fortress of I’m-Sorry-No around their desk. Were they busy? Sure, but so was everyone else. After a while, the No generalized to a kind of “standing on principle” reflex that left co-workers extending themselves even further because LACW (long-ago co-worker) dug in their heels and said No.

You see where this is going, yes? Bartleby the Scrivener famously says “I would prefer not to,” which in his case starts with doing the work he was assigned, and eventually leads to him “preferring not to” eat, and dying of starvation. When the layoffs came, LACW was in the first wave.*

Tiny children learning to talk go through a NO! phase when they get giddy with the power of refusing, of controlling what happens to them. It’s often referred to as the oppositional phase, but really, I think it’s just a period of finding your own boundaries and testing to see if they will be observed. Drawing your boundaries and making sure they are observed is very important. But one of the things you learn, working with other people, is that everyone has boundaries they want to have observed, but sometimes a job that has to get done may lie outside those boundaries. At which point consider Yes as a strategy.

May 22, 2018

A Civil Society

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

raygunI think I was 14 when I read Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon. One of the world-building details was that in this society many people went armed (almost all of them men, but that’s another essay) and ready to duel at a moment’s notice.* Those who didn’t wore a “peace brassard,” a signifier that they were not armed; they suffered a lack of status thereby. The argument was that an armed society is a civil society, because if everyone has a gun, everyone is going to be civil to each other, right? My recollection is that this leads to a good deal of affronted bristling and dueling in the same tone as the duels of the 17th and 18th century (“My seconds will call upon you, sirrah!.”)

I have recently heard this “armed society is civil society” argument applied to current American society, and in the words of a 1920s New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and to hell with it.”

This is the portion of the post where I say that I’m not anti-gun, that I grew up with rifles, and while I never wanted to go hunting, I was happy to eat the venison my father brought home on the one occasion he hit a deer. All this is true. We had three or four rifles (from the rickety old .22 to a couple of shotguns) and my brother and I were taught to use them–and to respect the rules for their use. The rifles were part of a larger “know how to do things” belief both my parents had–it’s why I know how to lay an oak floor, and how to spackle and prep a sheetrock wall for painting (not well, mind you–I didn’t have that much patience). I can even recognize the allure of shooting some massively powerful gun just… to see what it does. To own that power for a minute. I also understand the attraction of random destruction, dropping a watermelon from a third floor window or blowing up a junker car with a tank shell. I’m as weird as the next guy.

So: an armed society is a civil society. The idea seems to me to break down almost at once: I feel like many of the people who go armed do so as a statement, and the statement that I would take away is “Go ahead, offend me, insult me, cross me. I’ll blow your head off.” Which is not a basis for civil conversation. Then there’s the notion that a person who does not go armed is an inferior: he doesn’t have the balls (or what have you) to risk being shot at.

The nested assumptions in the above attitudes are 1) carrying a gun is going to make other people treat you with respect; 2) when push comes to shove, your aim will be better than the other guy’s; 3) you will have no compunction in killing another person over a a slight; and 4) that it is more cowardly not to shoot than to shoot.

In my personal universe every single one of these assumptions is deeply flawed. 1) Two bozos with an attitude and a gun are unlikely to treat each other with respect, armed or no. 2) Can you be certain, going into a fight with a stranger, that he isn’t an Olympic pistol champion? 3) Faced with another human in your gun sight, do you really want to carry the burden of that human’s eradication for the rest of your life over a slight? And 4) you think it doesn’t take courage not to fight? Giving up the right to swagger with a weapon on your hip when those around you are swaggering and calling you a coward takes some courage.

I was mugged once, and, as it happened, I had a knife on my person, which I decided not to introduce into the tussle as much because I didn’t want to hurt someone as because I didn’t want this stronger person to take the knife away and use it against me.

Your opinion on all this may vary. That’s cool. Let’s just not duel about it; I don’t see the point. And if we must duel, let’s use words, or baguettes, or at the wildest extreme, rapiers. Fighting with a sword gets you tired and makes you consider what you’re doing in a way that pulling a trigger simply doesn’t.


* A lot of Heinlein’s work reads as satire, and Horizon can certainly fall into that category. And yet, as with Stranger in a Strange Land or I Will Fear No Evil, there are people out there who consider them a blueprint for living.

April 16, 2018

Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:21 AM

MrTrenchI was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even to me as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, usually wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird, shading toward wrong. I was still trying to be polite, and perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. Note: our stove was on an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gradually, Fritz moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head was the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.

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