Sunday, 13 December 2009

Marie Antoinette and the Recession

Of late there has been a lot of copy generated about coping with the recession. Salon for example has been running a series of lifestyle articles called "Pinched; Tales from an Economic Downturn". New York Times financial reporter Edmund Andrews wrote about his own experience of getting in far over his head with a house he bought in a memoir called Busted. Even a magazine like Elle, which must be the antithesis of a publication concerned with living according to one’s means, has gotten into the act with a writer’s account of her “Year of Living Frugally”.

These articles draw me like a magnet, and once I’ve read them, I proceed to the reader comments, which are often just as good and interesting (if not much more so) than the article. It fascinates me to read about how people arrange their lives and make the most of their resources. I’m always hoping to get some ideas for how to manage my own time and money to better effect, and to vicariously learn about what will not work without the cost and trouble of trying it myself. And then, too, sometimes reading such material gives me a healthy reality check as to how fortunate I am compared to others. But at other times it’s just food for ridicule, when it's not grist for irritation.

These articles run the gamut of quality. The best of them are written by good, thoughtful and self-aware writers who have come to terms with their situations with courage and a matter-of-fact acceptance of reality, and without self-pity. They have an understanding of how their individual standard of living measures on a global scale. They know they may have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like or move in with the in-laws to get by, but they are thankful to have paid work or generous in-laws, not to mention a computer and spare time to use for writing the article, or for that matter, enough to eat and clean water to drink. One of my favourites was "Excuse Me While I Stick My Head in the Toilet", a Salon article written by Rebecca Golden, who works as a cleaning lady, and who takes pride in being physically able to do such work now that she no longer weighs 600 pounds as she once did. And it’s a pure pleasure and inspiration to read the articles written by people who delight in their own resourcefulness, who honestly enjoy the contriving and the organizing and ingenuity they employ to live within their means, who realize that such mindful, careful attention to household management can mean the same or even a better standard of living.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The Elle magazine article mentioned in my first paragraph is possibly the best example of the worst kind of recession-geared articles. The writer, Laura Hollinger, is a New Yorker with a six-figure income, and her idea of being frugal is relying on dinner invitations to make her Aspen and Vail vacations affordable, or foregoing certain luxuries like having her hair professionally blow-dried as often or buying a new cashmere sweater (when she already has four piles of cashmere sweaters) so she can afford certain other luxuries like a Cartier watch. This article was roundly and deservedly mocked on Jezebel. I completely agree with the Jezebel poster who wrote that the problem with the article is not how the writer spends her income since she has every right to do whatever she wants with her own money, but how the article is positioned. Laura Hollinger is in the top 1% of income earners in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s obnoxious for Hollinger and Elle to frame this article as an example of frugal living when by any objective measure it is nothing of the kind.

Another failed article in this vein was a Salon piece, "Can It!", by Sarah Karnasiewicz. Karnasiewicz made jam and concluded that, as delicious as the jam was, it wasn’t cost effective. Salon's readers lost no time in pointing out that Karnasiewicz's math hadn't accounted for the facts that one doesn’t normally make jam from organic strawberries purchased at an uptown market or buy brand new jam jars for just one use.

In my own reader comment, I said Karasiewicz reminded me of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. Many of these articles do have either this "playing poor" or a "crying poor" quality. So many of the writers just don’t have the honesty, knowledge, experience, and insight to do justice to the topics they address. Edmund Andrews wrote an entire book about his experience of buying a house he couldn’t afford and losing it without ever disclosing that his wife had declared bankruptcy twice — the second time during the time frame the book covered. Rebecca Golden's article about working as a cleaning lady would not have had the authenticity it does had the writer only worked as a cleaning lady for one day, or if she didn’t have to actually live on what she makes cleaning houses. And it’s so tiresome to read accounts written by the truly clueless and entitled who whine and blame all their problems on forces beyond their control: they can’t lose that extra 30 pounds because they can’t afford to join a gym; they can’t get married because they can’t afford a wedding with 200 guests; they bought a house they couldn’t afford because evil bankers gave them outsized loans; they’re “broken-hearted” not to have made more than an average of 40K a year from writing.

The reader reactions to such articles are a phenomenon in themselves. Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of readers faster than the complaints of a writer who has had better financial opportunities than them. And of course everyone has to air their own story of how they’ve managed on less. As one of the Jezebel commenters put it, these threads are so prone to become a “pissing contest”, with everyone producing evidence of thrifty they are or how few advantages they have, i.e., “I make my family’s undies out of worn-out sheets, and WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Another Jezebel reader claimed such threads reminded her of the Monty Python's The Four Yorkshiremen, and indeed there are parallels. So, giddy as I am over my recent purchase of a secondhand, brand-new condition $13 cashmere sweater at a Value Village, I’m going to try to refrain from trotting out my own thrifty cred in this review. I don’t want to get sidetracked into claiming that my family “dreamt of living in a corridor”.

What I do wish to say it that it’s just as important for us readers to maintain a healthy perspective as it is for the writers. I’m not going to condemn Elle for running Laura Hollinger’s article, or even wish serious financial reversals upon her. It’s a high-end fashion magazine after all. Elle, as with all media corporations, gets far more of its revenue from advertising than it does from subscribers, and Elle’s advertising clients are companies like Dior and Tiffany. We are never going to see articles about how to make three kinds of bean soup or max out our coupon savings in Elle because the women who buy Dior clothes and Tiffany jewellery aren’t interested in reading about those topics. (And who can blame them? I wouldn’t be either if I had that kind of income.) Even if the women who buy Elle can’t actually afford Dior and Tiffany products, Elle has to at least appear to be geared for women who live at that level if it wants to keep its advertising revenue.

And then too, even if it were feasible in business terms to run such articles, it wouldn’t be desirable. Why should every personal account about cutting back or getting more for less involve living at or below the poverty line? Do writers really have to be homeless or unable to pay for groceries or major surgery before they are allowed to muse about their efforts to live within their means? No one has unlimited funds; we all have budgets to stick to. Setting priorities and deciding what we can and can’t afford is a universal experience, and I think we’d all benefit from seeing money management as the subjective, context-specific experience it is rather than preening ourselves on our supposed moral superiority over others who have more and/or don’t manage as well.

It would be nice if such “high-end” money management lifestyle articles were of better quality than Laura Hollinger's and evidenced more insightful, nuanced, and creative thinking, since I can’t imagine anyone benefiting from the revelation that wearing clothes that are already in your well-stocked walk-in closet is cheaper than going shopping. But then that’s a criticism I could also make of many money-saving ideas in articles geared for people living at a lower standard; a lot of these ideas are so obvious and old hat to those of us with modest means. It all comes down to that old writing truism "write what you know", but to that I would add, "be self-aware about what you don't know". If you can live like Marie Antoinette, don’t assume that you know all about the working class experience or talk about how frugal you are or expect sympathy from anyone because you’ve had to start buying fewer ball gowns. For that matter, if you're middle class, don't think you know all about the working class or have hit rock bottom because you must shop at the dollar store or have had to take a minimum wage job for a few months. And if you are the socioeconomic modern-day equivalent of a shepherdess, it's good to realize you are just as much in need of a healthy perspective and generous, ungrudging spirit as someone with many times your income.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick

Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.

As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.

I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.