To truly understand the significance of the picture to the left, you would have to have experienced my downstairs bathroom as it has been for the past 20 years. I wish I had a picture. The old bathroom had a barf-pink tub and toilet and an ersatz vanity/sink. The floor was two layers of crumbling linoleum, half of which was peeled off and half of which was kind of barely nailed on. I insisted on a plumbing upgrade when the pipes got so bad I was literally showering with a hose in the milkhouse in the barn, hiding behind the bulk tank and hoping to heck the milktruck didn’t pull in. My very pregnant and naked self was not a pretty site. Demi Moore I ain’t. During one Thanksgiving, we made our respective parents pee in the lawn because the septic was so bad. My mom was much in fear of the rooster that was poking about.
We made do with this bathroom until Youngest was born in 1997, when we put a brand new bathroom in upstairs (we didn’t have an upstairs bathroom for the first 7 years, and by pregnancy number three, I was darn tired of waddling down the stairs in the middle of the night). So since 1997, we have had a nice bathroom on the second floor, and we tolerated the pink pit on the first floor. It served its purpose for toilet, brushing or gelling (Middle son) hair, washing the dog. We rarely (read “never”) had guests, and we bumpkins didn’t care where we relieved ourselves. Then the toilet broke, and it would only flush intermittently. AND we have hard water, and calcium and rust accumulate on the inside of the toilet and hold on to the … whatever else is put in there, if you catch my meaning. So it became useless to clean it, and things became worse.
Remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal is in the outhouse and the movie star is arriving? That is not too far off from my bathroom of the past two years. So last spring, in a fit of Spring Fever, Andy and I tore everything out: the cast iron tub had to be smashed to smithereens (lots of fun, actually). I was in charge of ripping off the lovely faux-marble laminate walls and the plaster and lath. We left the sink and the toilet in place, but then the milk price bottomed out and we had to put it all on hold.
But just after Christmas Andy stumbled upon a fabulous deal on flooring so he bought it. And then our neighborhood ace handyman hurt his back and couldn’t work, but he could do some stuff for us. So way-hay and away we go! Suddenly beaded board was going up and toilets were flying and flooring was going down and all of a sudden I have a pretty bathroom. Twenty years is a long time to wait, and it makes the one-year wait on doing this
seem like child’s play. I bought this switchplate in Durham, North Carolina, at Vaguely Reminiscent in April of 2009. I was spending the day with a fabulous bunch of people I had met online and we were all about to go and see Haven Kimmel and Augusten Burroughs. I bought the switchplate saying to myself, “This is the way I want that bathroom to feel.” One year – 20 years – later, I finally screwed it into place. It will remind me daily of that magical trip. But screwing that little thing of beauty to the wall got me thinking.
I don’t know if this is an Asperger’s thing or a first-generation farmers thing, but Andy and I got very used to delaying gratification in the early days. Any entrepreneur will tell you that if you want to succeed in business, you have to suffer through the early years when all the money you make gets shoveled back into the business, and you cross your fingers that some day the business takes off and makes it all worth it. Andy and I were so good at delayed gratification, that we usually just skipped the gratification part. We just went without, went without, went without, one-month splurge when the milk price was high, and then back to went without, went without.
The year 2008 was a record-high milk price year, and the money was a’sloshin’ around like crazy! Andy bought a boat, and the family got a pool. We got a little used to buying a little treat or a little toy or whatever. I confess to over-spending on Amazon Used Books, and Andy overspent on fishing gear. But then the Bush era finally took its toll and the country plunged into a recession.
If the dairy industry is any indication of what is happening in the economy at large, the prospects for recovery are looking grim. Over the past 15 years, the large farms have adopted sexed semen (meaning they have 90% heifer calves) and expansion and anything else that made them personally more profitable, with the result that the national herd is huge and growing, there is more milk on the market than the recessed economy can absorb, and as any economist will tell you, oversupply and shrunken demand equals low prices.
For the big dairies where large volume means that even a small profit margin keeps you in business, this is fine. For us small to medium-sized dairies, a small – or non-existent – profit margin means borrowing to stay afloat and watching years worth of growing sweat equity start to slow to a halt.
Andy (who has THREE Bachelors degrees, one of which is in Economic Theory) and I (who have learned all I know about Economics because I have to teach it) have been talking a lot about the shift that seems to be going on right now. From my perspective in public education, I have seen the past twenty years devoted to preparing America’s graduates to go to college, teaching them critical thinking and theory analysis. When I graduated high school in 1984, that worked. You got yourself a four-year degree, and everyone opened their arms to usher your brainy self in the door. Ask Michael Lewis. Ask Melanie Griffith. If you could think, you were welcome to come on in and help America’s growing companies make some money.
But Andy and I are both feeling like the years of graduating from college and easily attaching yourself to the corporate teat are at an end. First of all, many of those Jamals made it through the latrine, got themselves an education, and will now do what American graduates do better and for one-quarter the salary – and be happy about it! Most American graduates (self included) are so dependent on adhering to big companies or agencies like barnacles that they couldn’t start their own business if you gave them the money to do it. And with money being funneled to keep the economic Titanics afloat, no money is currently available for entrepreneurs wanting to do their own thing, where keeping your job is your OWN responsibility. Besides, what upstart rowboat can compete with the Titanic, even if it is bailing water?
The really frightening thought is that the economy we have known and enjoyed for the past twenty years might be dying away. The economic model we have embraced, enjoyed, and are now trying to save might not be savable.
This hit me pretty hard this past Friday. We had been struggling along between milkchecks until Friday when the milkcheck finally arrived. I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately went out and bought myself swim goggles, fancy soap, a video game for Youngest, and was heading toward Lowe’s to get the medicine cabinet for the new bathroom when I stopped myself. What happened to delayed gratification? Yeah, we had money again, but truly, it was all spoken for already. Had I truly gotten so used to gratifying my desires that I couldn’t wait for my own paycheck a week later to get the bathroom decorations? Maybe, in fact, I might need to wait a month – or even two – to get those pretty baskets and that laundry hamper and that shiny towel rack. Maybe I couldn’t get them at all. And in truth, Jamal would be happy with just having the darn toilet that was already sitting at home.
I fear some serious belt-tightening is going to be called for, and I know that lots of Americans have already had to do it. Part of what Andy and I are feeling is that by the age of 50 (or 43), it shouldn’t be a big deal to buy a cappuccino; we have truly worked our asses off to get where we have gotten with the farm, much harder than our peers who did pursue the big and stable salary. Shouldn’t we be able to buy at least a couple of luxuries in our middle age? Ask the middle-aged folks in Guatemala or the slums of Mumbai.
Could it be that delayed gratification – or no gratification – is going to be necessary in America? And what about the concept of the majority of Americans returning to physical or manual labor? Perhaps the economy is now calling for us all to actually produce something as opposed to spin it, analyze it, market it, train it, teach it, think it, televise it, or turn it into a video game.
As usual, through pure grace, I am currently teaching The Grapes of Wrath in my class. Andy used to joke that America needed another depression to get Americans’ heads out of their butts. Maybe then we WOULD get some Americans who would work as hard as Hispanic workers.
And now the joke is on us. We had lived like the Joads for years as we had started the farm, and like the Joads, we assumed that if we worked hard enough, we could at least have that pretty little white house in the orange grove. But unless everyone on the planet can have the pretty white house, it’s not going to happen. People living in cardboard boxes are going to take the jobs and be happy to upgrade to corrugated metal. And those who want to live in a Pottery Barn advertisement might find themselves replaced by someone who wants the job worse.
I am looking down right now at a Pottery Barn rug, one that I finally purchased after 18 years and with great guilt and trepidation. Maybe it’s the last one I’ll ever buy. And you know what? I have a roof over my head, more flesh on my body than I need, a job that I don’t think is going away, and healthy kids.
This was real:
And so I should consider this to be as much or more than I deserve in this lifetime. I used to think I would have been quite the survivor had I lived through the Great Depression. It might be that I’ll be finding out whether that is true.
I have met so many wonderful people as a result of this blog. It is nice to know that my random ramblings have been helpful to other spouses of Aspies. I have had the good fortune to chat with several of these people by e-mail in a more confidential setting. I thought it might be nice to have a protecteed chat space where we could “talk turkey” about day-to-day life in an NT-AS relationship. So I have added a page at right that is password protected and only for those married to an Aspergian. If you have already corresponded with me by e-mail, please e-mail me and I will send you the password. If you are a spouse and would like the password, please e-mail me for it at email@example.com.
I have a new colleague at work this year. We have lots in common: we are the same age, we both have three boys at home, we both teach these bizarre hybrid courses. But in many ways, we could not be more different. She is tall and blond; I am short and brown-haired with glasses. Her husband owns the country club; my husband owns a dairy farm. She is very organized; I am … not.
But here’s the most startling difference. The other day she referred to her husband as “the morning guy” in terms of kid duty. And then she described him: He goes to work out at the YMCA at 5:30 AM, comes home, makes coffee and brings my colleague a cup in bed, gets their kids up, makes them a big breakfast, gets them out the door, and then cleans up the dishes. My colleague has come downstairs by this point to join them for breakfast and say goodbye. Her husband leaves for work, my colleague takes a shower and heads to work herself. (NOTE: take her job and add to it five English classes, and that’s my job.) She is a gracious and lovely person and said she was so grateful that she could stay home and raise their kids and wait to find a job that she really loves.
For a typical day in MY life, please refer to Tuckered-Out Duck: A Day in My Life.
Now, let’s assume that F. Lee Bailey was speaking the truth and that Patty Hearst was brainwashed by her kidnappers into joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. And let’s also imagine that on April 15, 1974, she for some reason snapped out of it and found herself in the middle of the Hibernia Bank heist.
I imagine her suddenly looking around, looking down at herself holding an M-1 carbine, and saying “What the …”
That is exactly how I felt during this conversation, as if I suddenly snapped out of my 20-year relationship with My Favorite Aspie and found myself saying “Wait … THAT’S a normal marriage? What the heck is this that I’m doing?”
I am sure other people also wonder that as they look at my weird life. Every once in a while someone witnessing my husband and me together will give me pointed looks as if to say, “You don’t have to live like this. There are places you can go” or alternately “I don’t know how you put up with him.” I have actually had people say that exact sentence to me, and I have given them the innocent questioning face, as if to say, “What? All’s normal here.”
I had a similar “What the …” when I read Home Safe over the summer. WARNING: NT wives with AS husbands, do NOT read this book, especially if you are a wannabe writer. Read every other thing Elizabeth Berg has ever written but avoid this one at the risk of anaphylactic shock.
Now, I truly adore Elizabeth Berg. I eat her books like pancakes off a stack. And I have seen her in person: she is lovely and gracious and her books are all warm-hearted and magnanimous and read so smoothly it’s like drinking the best ever cup of cocoa in book form, but I just about threw Home Safe across the room in despair.
The basic plot is this: The protagonist is a successful writer who, for the twenty years of her marriage, has every day rolled out of bed and to her computer in her pajamas to write while her husband takes care of EVERYTHING ELSE. As the book starts, she has been a widow for almost a year (I truly was saddened by this) and she is trying to get herself restarted. She suddenly finds out that her husband has taken a big chunk of their investments and purchased a house in California, which he has had custom-redesigned and redecorated in order to create exactly what he knows is her dream house, right down to the bookshelves filled with all her favorite children’s books, a fieldstone fireplace, a pie safe, a six-burner stove, a bathroom with artisan tiles and a shower with its water falling over a rock ledge, French doors leading from bedroom to garden, a small wooden shed outside for writing, a treehouse shaped like a ship’s cabin.
I’ll stop there before I cry. First, I fully recognize how much I have personally given up to make the dream of the farm come true (giving up any of my writing ambitions in the process), so this protagonist’s pre-widowhood life is beyond my imagining. Second, it is astronomically far outside the realm of possibility for Andy to know and create my dream house. It’s not his fault; it’s the Asperger’s: limited Theory of Mind ability, limited empathic response, and whimsy regarded always as unnecessary and illogical not to mention inefficient.
In thinking about this recently, I know there are several very logical reasons why it took me so long to really realize that something was a bit amiss and that our marriage situation was somewhat askew.
REASON ONE: Kid Sister Complex
I am the youngest of my family, younger by five years than my sister and younger by seven years than my brother. I grew up as the little tag-along, always clueless, always mocked, always sure that EVERYONE knew more about how to act and what to do than I did.
Andy is seven years older than I am. When I met him, I was going through a Linda Ronstandt phase, of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra “What’s New” album era, and I was constantly crooning “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good, to one who’ll watch over me.” Yep, looking for a father/big brother figure. I confess it. And so I always assumed Andy knew better. He was much older. He was an A-Dult and I was a kid. I followed his lead. Easier and cheaper to paint every single interior wall off-white? I guess so. Every once in a while I would cock an eyebrow and question something, but rarely. I figured, Older is Wiser.
I also grew up in a dysfunctional family, loving but influenced heavily by alcoholism. I knew my family was not normal. I avoided bringing people to my house. I did not talk about what was happening at home. And I therefore saw all other families as infinitely more normal than my own. My in-laws, therefore, seemed paragons of normal. After all, they were both medical professionals, had a nice house and a vacation home, recreated with other adults, cooked gourmet meals. My family did none of these things. I assumed I was marrying into an incredibly normal WASP family and would be immersed into normal by means of their eldest progeny. Any choice of Andy’s I assumed to be normal with a capital N.
We knew, walking into the agricultural world, that nothing in our lives would be quite like other college graduates’ lives. Also, Andy was the Ag major. I was English/Art. I knew nothing about farming (besides what I had gleaned from the Little House books) and that meant that whatever I was told about anything related to the farm I took at face value. Also, we did nothing but work and worry for fifteen years. Work and worry, worry and work. Our situation economically and ergonomically was so outside the norm that all other components of it – including our marriage relationship – were assumed part of the lifestyle marginality. Work from 3:30 AM until 9 PM seven days a week? Normal, considering the circumstances. Constantly do things for the farm, never the house? Normal. Every cow problem a fatal catastrophe? Must be. Him’s the Ag major.
We are isolated here. I mean isolated. The long days, the far-away family, the lack of time for friends, the ten-mile drive to town, the five-mile neighbors. We had no real reflection of our lives in the eyes of friends or family, no one to pull me aside later and say, “Uh, Mo? Is everything alright?” Our families did this sporadically (Andy’s mother even said to me once “I do NOT like the way Andrew speaks to you”), but much of the odd behavior I was able to explain away by the omnipresent stress of starting the farm.
This one’s a stretch, but worth examining. According to the net’ s most reliable source of information, Wikipedia, Stockholm Syndrome explains an abductee’s or hostage’s love and loyalty toward his or her captor. The psychological explanation is that people will not allow themselves to remain unhappy for long because it causes cognitive dissonance. To resolve the dissonance, the person psychologically manipulates herself into being happy in the situation in which she finds herself, i.e. “I LOVE my captor. I CHOOSE to be under his control.” The other explanation likens the psychological strategy as akin to newborn attachment phenomenon. It is wise to attach to the nearest source of food and warmth since survival depends on it. And so, I was grateful for any let up in the endless grind. “My husband let me sleep in until 5 this morning! Isn’t he kind!”
But, there’s hope. I did find out about Asperger’s and can now differentiate between AS behavior and normal behavior. All this reading and breaking out of the NT-AS thang has liberated me from my blinders. Yeah, I’ve ruffled some Aspie feathers, but there’s a lot at stake here, especially my sanity.
Here’s Patty Hearst after her release from the Symbionese Liberation Army, with her former body guard, then fiance. Look how stinkin’ happy she looks! And look at that man – Is he going to ask her to lift a finger? No way. It’s going to be all about Patty. You go, girl! If you’re going to have a man with a gun glued to your side, make him not a captor but a bodyguard. And remember, you might have to be the one explaining to him which one to be.
The Perpetual Male Adolescence Festival (aka Shotgun Season) is in full swing here in Central New York. Mighty Hawkeye has already gotten four does with his bow and one monster buck (update : two monster bucks) with his shotgun (update: and one doe with his muzzle-loader). At the risk of offending anyone, I feel I must rant.
I spent too many years teaching Lord of the Flies to sophomores. I love Lord of the Flies, can practically recite enormous portions by memory; it was the sophomores that got taxing. It’s been eleven years since I cracked the cover, but one scene always jumps to mind when hunting season rolls around again, and so I cracked.
Ralph and Simon have been valiantly attempting to build huts on the beach while Piggy allegedly watches the Littl’uns and avoids asthma. Jack is rapidly devolving into primitive hunting mode, and is intently thinking like a pig, plotting his kill:
“Ralph gazed bewildered at [Jack’s] rapt face.
‘-they get up high. High up and in the shade, resting during the heat, like cows at home-‘
‘I thought you saw a ship!’
‘We could steal up on one – paint our faces so they wouldn’t see – perhaps surround them and then-‘
Indignation took away Ralph’s control.
‘I was talking about smoke! Don’t you want to be rescued? All you can talk about is pig, pig, pig!’
‘But we want meat!’
‘And I work all day with nothing but Simon and you come back and don’t even notice the huts!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other on the bright beach, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
“Mo gazed bewildered at Husband’s rapt face.
‘-they get really careless when they’re in rut. If you sit really still in one place-‘
‘I thought we were talking about Eldest!’
‘You have to be downwind, and brush your teeth with baking soda, and wear Scent-lock … ‘
Indignation took away Mo’s control.
‘I was talking about the kids! Don’t you care about their future? All you can talk about is deer, deer, deer!’
‘But we need meat!’
‘And I work all day downtown, which you would hate, and you come back and don’t even notice the 20-year-old bathroom!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Mo. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other in the kitchen, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
And so it goes.
I did make it to 50,000 words and got a big “You win!” graphic from the National Novel-Writing Month team (me and over 32,000 other people). Ironically enough, my novel is set in a future year when the people of Central New York are literally fighting for survival, and a good hunter is worth his weight in lost college-planning conversations.
And really, I must admit that I love venison, Husband is a fabulous cook, he is an extraordinarily skilled hunter, he is working on the bathroom, and if I were able to live a turn-of-the-last-century life and stay home cooking and baking, I would feel very different about the whole thing.
And much as I revere William Golding and his brilliant analysis of human nature, according to his biographer John Carey, he was “a reclusive depressive who considered himself a ‘monster’, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”
There are dangers in trusting the imagination above all things, as Husband is quick to tell me. Imagination alone might lead to a Nobel prize, but it doesn’t fill the freezer or keep the house warm. So, I tell myself, Back off, English geek! Once you publish a book and make some money at your hobby, you can sneer at your husband’s hobby, which does at least feed the family.
Meanwhile, me and my main man Ralph are going to shut up and keep working on the huts and keeping track of the Littl’uns.
In the past two weeks the New York Times has featured at least two different articles about the just-released film “Adam” starring Hugh Dancy, billed as an Aspie-NT love story. I gave it the old “askance glance” at first, having been irritated by certain other media portrayals of Aspergians.
I got hooked on Boston Legal through Netflix because I knew that in later seasons they introduced an Aspergian lawyer. I was not impressed when Jerry Espenson finally appeared. Perhaps he also has Tourette’s, but any Aspergian who has become a lawyer would have learned over the years to control odd hand and voice behaviors.
Same with Dr. Virginia Dixon, the heart specialist on Grey’s Anatomy. Any Aspie who could get through med school and land that job would have figured out how to accept a hug and not completely freak out. Asperger’s is not Kanner’s (I hope I did not just completely display my ignorance about Kanner’s since I don’t live with it.)
I DO live with Asperger’s, though, and neither of these characters seems anything like the Aspies I know and love.
However, the trailer for Adam seems a little truer, and (blushing boastfully) I gotta say my own personal Aspergian husband does have all the charm and good looks of Hugh Dancy.
So I have high hopes for “Adam.” It was an independent film, bought by Fox Searchlight for distribution nationwide, so that speaks well of its intent: not mass market. It won the Alfred P. Sloan Award at Sundance for its portrayal of science and scientists. And I liked Hugh Dancy in “The Jane Austen Book Club” as well as what I heard about his research for developing this character.
“Adam” has already opened in New York City. I will luckily get to see it in San Diego later this month. And it will finally arrive here Under the Rock of the more rural areas of the country on August 28.
If you see it, please comment!
We interrupt my regularly scheduled intellectual spouting to bring you my mid-life crisis.
First there was this: I snatched The Red Convertible off the new books display at the library because I love Louise Erdrich. I read the inside front cover, I skimmed the table of contents, I flipped to the inside back cover.
I said, What the heck! That’s not Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich is young and dewy!
But, apparently not any more. That → is the Louise Erdrich who wrote The Blue Jay’s Dance.
And that ← is the Louise Erdrich who just published The Red Convertible and who dealt with Michael Dorris’ suicide and many children.
Then there was this. Remember Kelly McGillis?
Yes, I mean THIS ↓ Kelly McGillis from Top Gun. Or even THIS ↓ Kelly McGillis from Witness.
Now she is THIS ↓ Kelly McGillis
And remember Meggie Cleary of The Thorn Birds television special? I wanted to be Rachel Ward. She was so beautiful she corrupted a PRIEST. Or I most definitely would have been Rachel Ward in Against All Odds. I remember getting THIS ↓ haircut and buying an orange bathing suit in order to embody Rachel Ward in this movie. I had no interest in Beau Bridges, just wanted to look like Rachel Ward. Well, now she looks like this↓.
Then there is Kathleen Turner. Remember her in Body Heat?
Here she is today in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Which is all to make me feel better about this↓:
We are most definitely NOT going to talk about THIS↓:
Though I would be very glad to talk about THIS↓:
Know what I mean?
For many years after we moved to our farm in rural upstate New York, I had a recurrent nightmare that I had not really graduated from Amherst College. In the dream I would be my waking age of 24, eventually 30 and later still 37, and yet I would have to return to Amherst for three more semesters, leaving my husband and child – then later two and three children – back at home. In most cases the dream began mid-semester, and I was very behind in my Religion course, owing a paper I had not yet started, nor had I even attended the class, leaving me unable to even start it.
This dream, needless to say, bothered me quite a bit, so much so that I dug out my Amherst diploma and my Phi Beta Kappa key and placed them prominently above my desk to remind me that I really HAD graduated. I also hung my Master’s diploma and my permanent high-school teaching license. But this did nothing to stop the dreams, which continued to recur once a month or so.
I am sure my mother and father, watching me receive my Amherst diploma in 1990 and then leave Massachusetts with my fiancé to buy a farm in Central New York, must also have wondered if I had really graduated. Or if I had, with a degree in what? Tractor Operation?
My father had grown up in Western New York, youngest child of second-generation Irish immigrants on both sides, on a small farm, hating it. He hated killing chickens and he hated milking the cow and he hated the No Irish Need Apply stories he had heard, and so he embraced America – the jazz and the City, and he dreamed of nights in a Harlem club, ringed in cigarette smoke, writing. Thanks to the GI Bill, he had just matriculated at Columbia’s Journalism school when his father’s death put an end to his dreams. He instead attended nearby Canisius College, studied accounting, cared for his widowed mother, landed a post in the GM executive building, and married the sparkling platinum blonde at the water cooler.
Meanwhile, my mother had also moved up in the world, from the ten-year-old whose mother (my grandmother) had snatched her and her brothers from beatings by her alcoholic father and evictions from apartment after apartment and had found respect caring for the children of the well-to-do, and my mother grew to become a popular high-school socialite. Later, with her high-school secretarial diploma in hand, she spent two years working at the Vatican and then returned to Western New York, the world-traveler and eye-catcher in the secretarial pool at the radiator plant.
Helped by America’s post-World-War-II prosperity and GM’s solid position in the Big Three, my parents managed to gain a firm toe-hold in the middle class, with a house and car and three healthy children. Even so, my mother always feared her own exposure as the sole non-college-graduate at Mothers Club, and my father’s unspoken dreams and unwritten books eddied around our feet like discontented waves in that house on Harrison Avenue.
We three children all felt it and sought to climb beyond the middle-class staircase landing, especially when our academic shining also served to blind others to the dark issues muddying the dull glow of the existence my parents had hacked out of their respective pasts. The Irish genes carried intelligence as well, and my siblings and I had a clear and unobstructed path to most any college we chose and beyond. My sister eventually earned a PhD and a prestigious educational consulting job, and my brother added an MBA to his engineering degree to move far above my dad in the GM hierarchy. By the mid-80s we all three were riding the up escalator of the rising middle-class.
In 1985 I was catapulted from my GM hometown into Central Massachusetts to land among the nation’s elite at Amherst. A veritable conspiracy of forces had propelled me there. In 1980 The Official Preppy Handbook hit my junior high school like contraband. We Italian and Irish immigrants’ children, still virtually loam-footed from digging the Erie Canal, pored over this book like a National Geographic full of naked bushmen, as stunned and confused by what we saw as by Papua New Guinea’s painted tribes.
Oddly enough, my best friend that year was suddenly plucked out of our canal town by the remarriage of her divorced mother to a movie magnate in DC. Her new life bestowed upon her a stone mansion in Georgetown and attendance at a prestigious all-girls prep school. She was the real thing, not the pseudo-preps my friends and I were at Lockport Senior High School in our K-Mart Oxford cloth shirts and Dickies.
The three prongs of that mighty trident – parental dreams, best-pal jealousy, and my own intellectual inheritance – prodded me to apply to the Little Ivies, and the Amherst acceptance clinched it by topping 1983’s US New and World Report listing of Top Liberal Arts Schools. The world was my oyster, and I was invited to sit smack in the middle of that pink cushiony mollusk.
However, something happened once I got there. Very few people are able to analyze their own historical context clearly, much less a young woman way out of her league among peers who were comfortably inheriting positions at the top of the heap. I was so stimulated by the rarefied intellectual atmosphere that I did not recognize the signs of decadence and over-consumption that were sweeping the national economic landscape and intensifying my culture shock.
Once the novelty of it all wore off, some underlying sense of unease set in. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb at Amherst; after all, it was not hard for me to pick out the other scholarship/work-study students. I remember my shame at how easily my name was forgotten or never learned by my wealthier classmates. I remember one in particular who wore his Exeter legacy like his own skin and another who co-opted our student art exhibition into her own personal soiree. I was shocked by this, though moral indignation took a back seat to intimidation and insecurity.
Nevertheless, by the time I met, fell in love with, and accepted the marriage proposal of a UMass Ag School graduate in my junior year, I was quite happy to turn around on the lingerie floor and take the down escalator past my parents and even further down, to our economy’s basement: farming. It is true I had fallen in love with an Ag major, and it is true that he was also a borderline Marxist, but it is also true that the chance to buy a farm and work very hard at manual labor struck a deep and resonant chord already vibrating within me, where law school or marrying a future Wall Street executive did not.
It wasn’t until years later, when I ran into Dr. Ruby Payne’s 1998 Framework for Understanding Poverty, that my subconscious collegiate reasoning was clarified. In the public education world, Dr. Payne’s theory is used to explain why it is so difficult to help students rise out of generational poverty. Personally, I was not so much struck by the “hidden rules” of the lower class (which engulfed me both in rural Central New York and my hometown) as I was by articulation of the hidden rules of the upper class, which I had divined in college but not previously seen articulated so clearly. This very prize had been right there, tantalizingly just inches beyond my fingers, and I could have quite easily ridden that late-Reagan/early Clinton wave right into fortune and luxury, but I did not. There was something in that glittering mirage that turned my stomach, that made me turn around, that made me run down that up staircase as fast and as far as I could.
Dr. Payne differentiates among the three sets of “rules” followed by the generational poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy with regard to seven different value sets. In terms of possessions, the poor focus on relationships, the middle-class on material items, and the wealthy on one-of-a-kind objects, legacies, and pedigrees. With food, “having enough” is the hidden rule for those in generational poverty, “quality” is important to the middle class, while the wealthy focus on “aesthetic presentation.” Regarding fighting, the poor resort to physical means, the middle-class to discussion, and the wealthy to social exclusion and lawyers. The poor focus on present time, the middle-class to planning for the future, and the wealthy to preserving past history and traditions. While the poor base their acceptance of others on liking, and the middle class judges a person’s achievements and success, the wealthy consider connections and social standing.
Of course these are generalizations and the many exceptions mock any indication of this theory’s irrefutability, but reflecting back on my Amherst days, this theory resonated with my own take on the unspoken social forces that caused me considerable unease in college, even granting the excesses of the era. I saw and heard and experienced these rules that guide the wealthy, and I turned and walked away from them. Social exclusion, preservation of tradition and legacies at the expense of justice, social standing as more important than people – these were not values I was raised with, and they were not values I aspired to adopt.
My husband and I chose instead one of the hardest rows to hoe, literally, and have sacrificed literal blood, sweat, and tears to dig our way out of the debt required to buy, equip, and stock a dairy farm. And yes, I felt foolish sometimes, and yes, that subconscious need to return and “finish” my Amherst degree seemed to indicate my doubt that I was right to turn and descend, my underlying sense that I had missed something that Amherst could have taught me about success and comfort and the easier life. Perhaps I just needed a few more semesters to get used to the idea.
The current economic downturn, however, has turned this all on its head. Even the middle-class status my family fought to attain appears to be crumbling. My older brother, whose GM division was sold to Delphi, just lost the retirement health insurance he had worked 40 years to earn. My mother’s generous widow’s pension is in question as GM itself has just teetered into bankruptcy. Many of my fellow 80s grads moved to the Bright Lights, Big City and became Less Than Zero, and the Wall-Street-bound might very well now be without work. Furthermore, the wider world, through the basics of supply and demand – is stealing away, at lower-but-welcomed wages, the very jobs that formerly bought us our large houses and multiple cars and weight problems.
I heard recently that in 2006, the average income of the country’s 400 wealthiest people was $263 million – each. Had it been $263 million total, that would still have been over $657,000 each – surely more than enough. But no, it was $263 million each. This meant that the wealthiest 1% of the population took home 22% of the national income. Picture a room in which there are 100 loaves of bread. One hundred people enter the room and ONE person takes 22 of the loaves for himself, leaving the other 99 hungry to split up the remaining 78 loaves. One person gets 22 loaves; the others each get less than four-fifths of one loaf. That’s the number 22 compared to .78. Would anyone want to admit to being that person? I would not, especially if this amassing of wealth was in the name of “preservation of tradition” to allow for “aesthetic presentation” and “social standing” won through “social exclusion and lawyers.” Hello, my name is Mephistopheles.
Now that two decades of economic growth and over-consumption are coming to a screeching halt, I would love to credit myself with prescience, but I think it was something more like a good grasp of reality. In the environmental world, exponential growth is simply not possible. A species’ population will grow until it exceeds the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, at which point it will drop off. A parasite will thrive only until its host sickens unto death. Even in the nursery school playroom, the other children will ignore the child who takes two toys, but when that same child takes ten toys, the scene devolves into Lord of the Flies.
I would sneer with an “I-told-you-so” smirk were it not for the faces of my own three children. Despite my climbing down economically to live on a farm, I still find myself imaging my own progeny at Harvard and Yale – the next step beyond my own college achievements. However, now that my eldest is thinking about college, I am fearing that schools like Amherst might be nothing but a dream. Like many parents in these economic times, I can only foresee for my kids a lower standard of living than my generation’s. I was expected to go one better than my parents, but there is the very real possibility that our kids will have to go one or two worse. Shrinking endowments, limited post-graduation job opportunities, a big non-American world now demanding its fair share. I suppose what’s coming is exactly what I felt was justified twenty years ago: a more equitable division of the world’s resources. But I find myself cringing at that how that will affect my own three babies.
The most dire and Apocalyptic predictions have us all holed up in bunkers, defending ourselves from rampant flu viruses or terrorists and happy merely for enough to eat. If that is coming, I suppose my husband and I made the wisest choice possible. At least after Armageddon we’ll still have plenty of milk and beef. I keep imagining those I love all ending up here with us, as jobs and economies continue to fall.
Rather than peddling credit default swaps or sub-prime mortgages, we joined the low-paid ranks of those .5% who provide the other 99.5% with their low-priced foodstuffs. I would never suggest that farming is easy: far from it. It takes everything my husband and I have and know to keep this enterprise afloat. Agriculture is a desperately competitive business, not because marketing experts are outmaneuvering each other to sell the “better” product but because high input costs and low prices for product make economic survival near impossible. It takes a profound knowledge of biochemistry, agricultural economics, management strategy, and a vast array of technical and mechanical skills to keep this dairy ship afloat. But we do it because it seems right.
Many a day it also takes an infusion of philosophy to keep us in it. When life seems so much easier in another place, it takes the ideas of Marx and Thoreau and Merton and Willa Cather and Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and Gaston Bachelard for us to carry on. And for this I am extraordinarily grateful to my Amherst years for giving me these.
My Dad was a veritable Hoover of ideas , just a great quiet curiosity vacuum for information and news and thoughts, and I still own the 40-volume Harvard Classics set my father bought in 1938. I also have his college copy of Readings for a Liberal Education. They sit in my study on the bookshelf he purchased to hold them, a bookshelf that sat in his own farmhouse way back. I also know that in his eyes they are not a rebuke of the choice I made to receive the pearl of great value, bought with all my parents had, and to bring it back to the country and hurl it before bovine; the presence of these texts is neither ironic nor anomalous here in my farmhouse in rural New York. They are, instead, the ultimate integration of all my father held dear. Because I think, really, that this is what he wanted and what he wanted for me: a life of the mind. Not the trappings, not the belief that I deserved more, that the well-educated deserve their 2200%, but rather that the profound and lyrical ideas of the world’s great thinkers are themselves the pearl of great worth.
And in that regard I did continue upward; that is the true height to which I have climbed. I have not used my knowledge to hoard more than my due; I use it to provide food to others – many others. My Amherst legacy is in the vast network of connections I am able to see, the literature to which I have been exposed and continue to seek, and the knowledge and analysis skills I pass on to my children.
Several years ago I stopped having that recurring Amherst dream. Perhaps it was turning forty. Perhaps it was hearing tales of the bubble bursting. I guess in middle age I have found peace with the choices I made twenty years ago. My mother has also, and I am sure my father, were he still alive, would affirm that I have attained that dream he had back on his own family’s farm.
I made a choice to grasp the brass ring of knowledge and bring it back down to the humus, the very root of existence, of humanity, and of humility. I can only hope that if we as a country are forced by world-wide inevitabilities to all do the same, that the wisdom we sought in order to attain our great wealth is enough to sustain us even without the financial rewards.
Feel free to join my rant in a comment or rant at me.