Title:The Fiddler in the Subway (Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2010) Author: Gene Weingarten is a nationally syndicated humor columnist and writer for The Washington Post. He is the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. With his son, Dan Weingarten, and cartoonist David Clark, he is the author of Barney & Clyde, a daily newspaper comic strip launched in June 2010. He lives in Washington, D.C.
What happens when you pick up the last book you will ever read? When the writing is so good that it will ruin everything else for you? Gene Weingarten’s writing did that for me. This book — The Fiddler in the Subway — is a collection of feature writing he has done at The Washington Post. Two of the pieces won Pulitzer Prizes.
Only three stories in — The Great Zucchini, The First Father and The Ghost of the Hardy Boys — and I thought, “If you want to write, read this book. If you want to teach others to write, use this book. When I write, I want to write like this.” It is beautiful, masterful stuff.
Reading further, I thought, “I can’t recommend this book. I just can’t. It will ruin every other writer for you until the end of time. I don’t know if I can read anything else after this book.”
Then I mustered my best Jimmy Dugan voice and yelled, “There’s no crying in journalism! Why is he making me cry?”
I read “Pardon My French” on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. It’s the one that made me laugh out loud. Then giggle at how delicious it was that he found just the right way to get the most honest responses from French folks. He calls it the Machine. I call it hilarious.
Every paragraph in “Fatal Distraction” is a punch to the gut. I almost couldn’t bear to read it. But I let Weingarten take me by the hand and gently lead me through the horrific experiences of the people in this piece.
Weingarten quotes Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” This is the heart of everything he writes. This is what breathes life into every word.
Is this the last book I’ll ever read? Well, no. I could no more stop reading than I could stop breathing. I will, however, measure everything else I read against Weingarten’s writing.
Thanks to Jeff Sharlet, who suggests so much good writing. He led me to Weingarten. “Thanks” is not enough, but it will have to do.
She had me at, “I call bullshit” (on p. 14 of the Introduction.)
“She” is Jennifer Pozner, and the book is Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. This is actually the last book I read last year. Yes. I’m that far behind. So let me get to it.
Pozner set out to explain our “social beliefs” and how networks, advertisers and media owners exploit them for profit through reality television — and what we can do about it. I must say, she did a mighty fine job.
She drags reality television, kicking and screaming, out into the light of day and shows it for what it is. I can’t help but think of this page of photographs of women arrested for prostitution.*
On the surface, reality television looks all sparkly and pretty and maybe even a little princess-y. (That’s my nod to Peggy Orenstein. More on her book in a later post.) Or, at the very least, clean and presentable. It’s all the soft lighting, candles and makeup. (Well, until we get to Jersey Shore.) In the harsh sunlight, though, reality television looks more like the last picture on each row of photos (their eighth arrest) than the first.
Pozner doesn’t admonish anyone for watching reality television. Instead, she wants to educate everyone about media literacy, critical thinking and healthy skepticism.
She covers everything from “twisted fairy tales,” in which humiliation is the flip side of “happily ever after,” to supermodel shows, eating disorders and battered self-esteem.
She mentions a red-carpet moment at the 2009 Emmys, where Ryan Seacrest told Jenna Fischer, “Congratulations on being a size 0,” as if that were a laudatory achievement — disappearing into nothing. (Now I know why it bothered me so much how Seacrest fawned all over Jennifer Hudson this year, after she showed up everywhere thinner than ever, thanks to a contract she signed with a weight-loss company.)
Pozner only mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer a couple of times in the book, but I knew she was a fan, believing Buffy to be a strong, positive female character. A feminist, even. Wow, I thought. I’ve never had the slightest interest in watching that show. I was far enough removed from high school that a cast of high-school students had little appeal. (OK. So that doesn’t explain why I enjoy Glee now, although there is a tiny Joss Whedon thread there, I suppose.) Besides, I cut my eye teeth on Stephen King. I figured I’d had enough ghoulishness to last a lifetime.
But the topic kept popping up, and I started to wonder, should I at least watch one episode.
Nah. Why should I? I don’t need to waste my time on that. (*cough*)
Apparently, my possessed dvr had other ideas. (Yeah, I think I’ll start calling it Christine now.) I sat down one night in my comfy chair, checked my list of recorded shows and chose RuPaul’s Drag Race. (OK. Now you know. RuPaul is my guilty-pleasure TV.) There were several episodes, so I thought I’d settle in and catch up. Guess what came on? Buffy. I swear. On every single RuPaul show. Somebody thought I should watch some Buffy, so I did. And I could see what Pozner was saying.
She also covers everything else — from embedded advertising to unapologetic misogyny, racism and violence. She watched hundreds of hours of reality television … so I don’t have to. She went behind the scenes to explain how things work and whose interests drive reality television. Guess what. It’s not your interests. She ends with a section of media literacy and a ton of great resources.
It really is a must-read.
“If we care about independent thought, artistic integrity, and cultural diversity, we must demand that programming improve, not accept its erosion with a yawn.” (p. 295)
*This is a copy of page 246 in Carolyn B. Maloney‘s book Rumors of our Progress have been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting Any Easier and How We Can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters, which I wrote about a while ago. It was originally published by Prism magazine in 2007, and Maloney said it made the strongest case against sex trafficking she had ever seen.
“Writ small, this book is about reframing debates about work and family. … Writ large, this book is about reframing American politics. Work-family issues have not been placed at the center of an analysis of U.S. politics, but it is time to rethink the assumption that they do not belong there.”
Wow. Joan C. Williams knows how to start off a book. She knows how to end it and fill the middle, too. But I’ll let you find that out by reading Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. (I highly recommend reading it. Williams is brilliant.)
Litigation has accomplished a lot, but federal employment law cannot give us social subsidies or workers’ rights. The only way we can get those things is through legislation. The only way we can get that legislation is by very significantly shifting the political culture in the United States.
The only way to shift the political culture is to start a national conversation about gender pressures on men, she said. Until we do that, we won’t see much progress for women.
Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock, authors of Mommy Guilt, will understand this book. Even though their book is about mothers, most of the work they do is about parenting. They spend a lot of time reminding others that parenting is something both mothers and fathers do.
Statistics show that both mothers and fathers in the United States feel the scales overwhelmingly tip in favor of work and short-change their family lives.
When asked, American parents — 90% of American mothers and 95% of American fathers — say that they wish they had more time with their children. These levels are sharply lower in Europe. (p. 2, Introduction)
Why are these levels lower in Europe? Because European countries structure workplaces around their workforces, recognizing that everyone has a right to a personal life.
They have a saying in Norway, “We don’t live to work, we work to live.” It’s just the opposite in America, a Norwegian might say, as he straps his baby on his back for a mountain hike — one of many during his nine weeks of “pappa leave.” When the leave is over, he will return to his 35-hour workweek, which enables him to pick up his child from daycare in the afternoon and still have several hours of family time before bedtime. Every day.
A Swedish father wrote a guest post for me about his experience as a parent in Sweden. He asked three years ago, regarding non-existent benefits in the United States, “… how do we change the system to make it easier to combine children, family and work?”
He’s not the only one who’s been asking that question. Many have been asking how to get family-friendly legislation passed. Williams looks at why we haven’t been able to get it. To answer the first question, we must first have an answer to the second question.
For one, there’s a class culture gap that polarizes employees and keeps them from coming together on specific issues.
In reality, most companies on that list don’t want to offer comprehensive benefits or even one guaranteed sick day for each employee, based on lobbying efforts on their behalf by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
As the largest lobbying organiztion in the United States, the Chamber spent $91.7 million on lobbying in 2008 and $144.5 million in 2009. It — along with the companies it respresents — opposes any efforts to expand Family and Medical Leave Act leave or to mandate paid sick leave. It opposed a bill that would give employees seven paid sick days a year. It opposed SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) and the Employee Free Choice Act. It aggressively opposes union-backed proposals to increase minimum wage.
Some of these “listed” companies are multinational corporations with offices not only in the United States but also in Norway and Sweden. Benefits for white-collar American workers at these companies might be better than most: six weeks of paid maternity leave (and maybe up to a week of paternity leave for fathers), lactation rooms and maybe they can even buy vacation time. (Yes, that was touted as a “benefit.”)
Their employees in Norway and Sweden, however, get paid family leave of one to three years, the option of part-time work, shorter workweeks, paid sick leave and paid vacation. Why? Because all of that is legally required in those countries.
In Europe, … paid leaves are financed through social insurance, which leaves European employers more competitive than U.S. employers, for two reasons. First, European businesses do not have to pay the steep 30% ‘benefits load’ — the cost of a benefits package as a percentage of a worker’s salary — that many U.S. businesses pay. Second, because European employers are not responsible for covering the cost of paid leave themselves, they can afford to replace the worker on leave. In contrast, when U.S. employers pay the wages of workers on leave, often they simply heap leave-takers’ responsibilities onto their remaining workers, with no compensating increase in pay. This practice fuels workplace resentment. (p. 35)
In the United States, “The notion that having a child is a private frolic that does not deserve community support is implausible. There is no reason to expect that society should be able to privatize the costs of raising the next generation of citizens — from which all society will benefit — onto the backs of the women who bear them. This habit impoverishes women economically and men emotionally.” (p. 107)
Williams finally, finally, finally asks (and answers) the same question I’ve been asking for years. It’s not, “What’s wrong with women?” as Leslie Bennetts, Linda Hirshman and several others have asked. It’s, “What’s wrong with the workplace?”
In the first chapter, Williams expands on work she did in 2006 on a paper called “Opt Out” or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict, The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce, which debunked the “opt-out revolution” myth perpetuated by media reports.
Even better for me, at that time, was a journalist debunking the myth — which had been perpetuated by journalists — for an audience of journalists when E.J. Graff wrote The Opt-Out Myth essay for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007.
Graff explained: “Here’s why this matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.”
And how are American institutions structured? With masculine workplace norms.
… although work-family conflict traditionally is associated with women, a prime mover of work-family conflict is masculinity. Inflexible workplaces have proved so hard to change, in significant part, because of the intertwining of masculinity with work schedules and current understandings of work commitment. (p. 33)
What do masculine workplace norms get us? No paid family leave. Long hours. Unequal pay. And motherhood as the strongest trigger for gender bias.
As a culture, we need to stop lying to ourselves, stop pretending that the ‘choices’ thrust on us by outmoded norms are actually choices made of free will. We need to stop ignoring the fact that the available choices are dismally inadequate. (p. 40)
I couldn’t help thinking of the movie 9 to 5 when reading this book. Didn’t Judy, Violet and Doralee take care of flexible work schedules and job sharing 30 years ago? Sure, they had to poison, hogtie and hold captive their sexist boss. But, hey, they got the job done, right?
Well, OK. Real life is much harsher. Many employees are “one sick child away from being fired.” They are often forced to make the impossible decision to choose between work or their children. When they pick their children (because they’re sick and daycare or school won’t take them or, worse, they’re headed to the emergency room), employees are often fired.
This is not just a working-mother issue. It affects fathers, too. Current research shows that this kind of inflexibility is not just an issue for women:
“Roughly 55% of the arbitration that WorkLife Law studied involved men.” (p. 56)
But it’s time to realize that the workplace is a “gender factory” constructed for “ideal workers” without family responsibilities.
Let’s begin with pregnancy. The only reason pregnancy represents a problem for employed women is because the ideal-worker norm is designed around someone with a man’s body (no time off for childbearing) and men’s traditional life patterns (no time off for child rearing or other care work). Once again, the issue is not whether men and women are really different; the issue is why this particular difference matters in this context. As Martha Minow pointed out long ago, men are as different from women as women are from men. What gives women’s difference salience in the workplace is the weight of unstated masculine norms. (p. 129)
“The ideal-worker standard and norm of work devotion push mothers to the margins of economic life. And a society that marginalizes its mothers impoverishes its children. That is why the paradigmatic poor family in the United States is a single mother and her child.” (p. 103) Emphasis added.
Williams does a great job of breaking down the differences between classes and explaining the need to bridge those gaps and rebuild an alliance between progressives and “the Missing Middle.”
“The most refined fuel for class resentments is the culture of casual insults leveled by progressives toward the white working class. Changing U.S. politics will require an embargo on such insults.” (p. 152)
“As Theda Skocpol pointed out nearly a decade ago, progressives tend to focus so intently on poverty that they miss Americans in the middle of the income distribution. Skocpol finds it ‘puzzling’ that ‘our policy debates deal so little with the fate of working families of modest means.’ She recommended ‘a new family-oriented populism’ that offers supoprt for working families on the type that exists in Europe, namely, universal programs, rather than means-tested programs that are limited to the poor. Her analysis has been largely ignored.” (p. 161)
Maybe it’s time to stop ignoring this.
Williams challenges cultural fantasies about feminism (especially Sarah Palin‘s version of it — the five pages she spends deconstructing Palin alone is worth the price of the book), and she says she wants to start a national conversation about gender issues.
I just finished reading Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer — And What You Can Do About it, edited by Karl Weber and compiled as a companion piece to the movie, which I also just watched. I actually watched the movie (by Robert Kenner) first, not realizing that was the correct order of things.
I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, watched King Corn: You Are What You Eat, a documentary by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, and read quite a bit on food, the food industry in the United States and food safety (or lack of it). Food, Inc., gathers much of the information out there and puts it all in one place.
In any case, if you eat, you might be interested in this book and film. The film was done first. The book contains information from people who weren’t in the film. Schlosser says the film and the book are not just about food. They’re also about threats to the First Amendment and the corrupting influence of centralized power.
Contributors include (listed in order they appear in the book)
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal from 2001 and the movie in 2006
Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food
I think the information provided by this book and film is very important, though not half as fun as reading Barbara Kingsolver’s take on food issues in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I’m reading now. In fact, her book was written before Food, Inc., and I wondered, hey, did they read Kingsolver? Because if they didn’t, they should. But sure enough. She was listed in the “to learn more” section at the end of the book.
Obama “praised the organization for its research,” though it’s unclear if she read any of the research or looked beyond a press release. If she had, she would have found layers upon layers of conflict of interest and even direct opposition to her husband’s policies.
Obama also said that “some 22 million working women don’t have one paid sick day.”
Many of the CVWF members would keep it that way through lobbying efforts on their behalf by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with which they are affiliated through local chambers. The Chamber opposes any efforts to expand Family and Medical Leave Act leave or mandate paid sick leave. It opposed a bill that would give employees seven paid sick days a year. It opposed SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) and the Employee Free Choice Act.
Headline: “Capitol Hill goes gaga over Brad Pitt.” Read the breathless AP copy and you might think the press went a little gaga too. I mean, dig the photos. One mug shot isn’t enough. Here’s an entire montage, showing Pitt looking left, then looking right, then raising his eyebrows … you know, in case you want to rip it out of the pages of Tiger Beat and tape it to your bedroom wall.
Pelosi mentioned Pitt’s work in New Orleans and how he “serves as a model for the rest of the country.” Model … how? What exactly has he done? What does he plan to do? How does it all work? What does this have to do with what’s happening in Washington, D.C., today?
Pelosi didn’t explain any of those things. Neither did anyone else.
A person close to Kennedy denied her “personal reasons” were concerns about the health of her uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is suffering from a cancerous brain tumor discovered last summer. The person wasn’t authorized to disclose the conversation between Kennedy and the governor and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Have you heard about the “miracle on the Hudson” yet? It’s the plane that went down in the Hudson River yesterday. Everyone on board survived.
It’s nice to have good news, right? Sure, but our media seem somewhat uncomfortable with the whole idea.
I heard about the crash on Facebook, and I didn’t see anything about it on television until later.
I watched Larry King interview two doctors who treated people from the flight. One was in the studio. The other stood outside, probably getting dangerously close to this hypothermia he kept talking about. His nose was red, and his words got more slurred each time they went back to him.
Anyway, at some point, someone told King that everyone survived.
“Hunh,” King said, followed by a weird little silence.
This morning, I watched part of the news conference with the mayor and the rescuers. Some of the questions couldn’t quite get the whole “good news” idea.
“How cold was the water and how long would it take for someone to DIE in it?”
“How does this mission compare with others you have been on?” (You know, others where people DIED?)
The news conference was so relaxed that it even made time for a Spanish-speaking rescuer to take a question from a Spanish-speaking reporter … in Spanish … which CNN, of course, immediately started chattering over, recapping the unbelievable story in which nobody DIED.
I’ve seen Campbell Brown on television for years. I watched her (on and off) do election coverage during the campaign, and I saw her “free Sarah Palin” opinion piece.
Then I caught one of her first No Bias. No Bull. shows, where she said she planned to hold President-elect Barack Obama accountable for all the promises he made during the campaign. I thought, yeah, OK, we’ll see. Then I never watched again. Oh, I planned to watch and even programmed the show into my DVR. But I never got around to watching.
Then I caught about three minutes of tonight’s show, where she takes on Gov. Edward G. Rendell, D-Pa., for perpetuating stereotypes about women. He said that Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., would be perfect for the job of Secretary of Homeland Security (she’s Obama’s nominee for the job) because she “has no life” and “has no family.”
Hmm. I might have to check out the ones left on my machine.