Modern? I was born in 1942. But things have been going downhill for quite a while now. Let me tell you about it. Today, American men are sitting in the waiting room while the women give birth to a new nation. They have taken themselves out of the conversation. For me, the abandonment started with dancing. I was often given the choice of either dancing with a woman or not dancing at all. I hate dancing with women. My boobs are big and they keep bumping up against my partner’s boobs. It’s a free country. Men don’t have to dance. But even if it’s just out of compassion, they could reach out their hand and take a whirl every once in a while without making us feel like we were forcing them to do some kind of penance. We solved the dancing problem, turned into a joke by the women who keenly felt the absence of men, with standalone dancing. If you want to dance, you go out on the floor and strut your stuff. During social dancing, you have to enter into the rhythms and style of another person – a much more daunting interaction requiring training, humility, and forgiveness. And bringing a special kind of joy. I used to tell my son “If you want to meet girls, you should take ballet.” Hahahaha. Little boys in many countries take ballet, not here. I’d like to see a football player do what Mikhail Baryshnikov could do. I was raised to be someone’s wife, and had no objections to that. But the world changed, and I had to go to work. That meant working a full day, then coming home and doing all the housework, laundry, childcare, and cooking. “Who me?” men were saying. “I don’t know how to cook.” To which my friend Rita answers, “If you know how to read, you know how to cook.” They sabotaged chores, like putting the darks with the whites in the washing machine, ruining more than one white blouse, leaving the clothes to dry in the dryer, causing them to be hopelessly wrinkled, or burning a shirt with the iron. Talk to a woman my age. She’ll tell you all about it. We have solved the problem by having nobody cook. The restaurants and takeout joints are thriving, to hell with nutrition and togetherness, not to mention financial sanity. And we solved the cleaning thing by not cleaning at all. “Come in. It’s a mess,” is the new password. Our immune systems will probably benefit. When I started dating again after two divorces, I found there was no place to meet men. The women’s magazines earnestly urged women like to me to get out of the house. “Go to the adult school. Take a ceramics class. A dancing class. A class on welding.” Trouble was that in the ceramics, dancing, and even the welding class, almost all of the participants were women. For the past few years, I have given memoir workshops in libraries – almost all women. I have joined writing groups – all women. I was part of an all-woman choir, and my church choir has three-to-one women in it. I was a college professor for eight years, from 2007-2015, and over the years, the classes became more and more female. The freshman writing class was required, so everybody had to take it, yet there were more and more women as a percentage of each class. (One memorable class contained the entire men’s soccer team, but… well, we won’t get into that. Let’s just say that I discovered how to conduct a kinetic writing class.) Even when there were men in the class they would say such things as, “I’m afraid to say what I think because I don’t want the women jumping down my throat.” I’m organizing a carpool for the kickoff of the Poor People’s Campaign on Sunday. Eighteen women and three men, all three of whom are accompanying their wives. I have sought to explain men’s absence from public community life, and have come up with a couple of explanations which are entirely unscientific, but satisfactory to me. American men have a serious case of performance anxiety. For men my age, they had not only to perform in the bedroom, but they had to support their families. Braggadocio does not put food on the table. When social dancing, they were required to “lead” – failure was on them. I would put down the college freshman’s fear that women might “jump down his throat” to performance anxiety. A young man should be able to stand up for himself against even an onslaught of criticism, as Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump are showing us. You don’t have to be insulting to stand up for yourself. These young men were afraid. When I started dating again at sixty, I discovered two kinds of contemporary men; the ones who were still living in 1959 and the ones who, like all their women contemporaries, had been forced to change their expectations and behavior with the times. At one high school reunion, the [male] organizer in charge of music refused to play any music from Elvis Presley on. We were dancing to “Earth Angel” and Perry Como. Men of my generation were raised to be providers and community networkers – think golf club and Rotary Club. Over the years, their wives went out to work, but they chugged along as a family provider, and nobody stopped them from going to the Rotary Club. These men jumped in front of me to open doors. I appreciate gallantry, but theirs was a gallantry that suggested that I couldn’t get through a door unless there was a man there to help me. It was a matter of attitude. I have no problem with someone calling me “honey” or “girl,” but sentences like, “She’s a nice gal,” sound archaic to me. I would have trouble sitting across the breakfast table with someone who uttered such sentences without realizing the baggage they carried. “I respect women” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it took time to figure out what it meant to each man. My first husband did nothing around the house. I can’t tell you how thoroughly he did nothing. So before I married my second husband, a great respecter of women, I insisted on a solid agreement that would free me from some household duties – we were both working full-time, and it was only fair. We wrote down a series of household chores, divided them up, and signed the agreement. He was on board, “one hundred percent.” Then one day, after he had finished his three chores, he announced he was taking the kids to play baseball for a while. “But who’s going to sweep the porch? We need to clean out the refrigerator!” “I’ve done what I agreed to do,” he said and was out the door. It’s those dozen extra things that you can’t put on a list that keep you from having a fun game of baseball instead of sweeping the porch. He had not thought past that list. It’s a matter of attitude. So here we are today. Women are protesting, facing accusers in court, coming out publicly with their stories, complaining to their bosses though it might cost them their jobs, fielding painstaking parsing of what constitutes “harassment” – does it count if your boss just grabs your butt? while the men sit in their chairs and supervise. Sexual harassment and abuse is not a women’s problem. It is a men’s problem. There should be men’s marches, men’s unique hats, men’s tee shirts, and men’s testimony in court. We need a Truth and Reconciliation commission. My partner abandoned me when I was pregnant at 18 and the partners of numerous acquaintances who were in the same situation abandoned them, too. The men walked away. “That’s something for the girls to take care of.” And still, and still, and still, it is the women who are wearing their little pink hats, traveling to marches, testifying, railing, demanding respect and dignity. Where are the men? Are men taking on the job of escorting women to abortion clinics? They’re half the reason they’re there. Male doctors have not spoken up in their hospitals so that abortion can be moved to where it belongs, in hospitals. Leaving them in clinics makes the clinics and the workers in them vulnerable. If they were working in a hospital, there would be a measure of privacy and dignity. The doctors have allowed themselves to be intimidated by blowhards who don’t want the taint of abortion around them, though the one-third of American couples who have had abortions includes members of every demographic, including evangelical Christians and Catholics. In today's news, the female Olympic gymnasts are just halfway through the roster facing their abuser, Dr. Nassar in court. They are the public face of his abuse. Where are the men who were complicit, who covered up the girls’ stories, who promoted and voted for Nassar to join their boards of directors, who knew what was going on but did not send another woman into the examination room to protect the girls -- they were just girls, 12, 13, even younger? But to begin with, would some men please join our church choir?
We didn’t tell the Irish, “Time’s up! They’re growing potatoes again. Go back home.” We didn’t tell the Jews, “They’re not killing Jews any more in Ukraine. Go back home.” We didn’t even tell the Vietnamese, “The war’s over. Now go back home.” We did kidnap Africans. They raised our children, built our homes, grew the food that sustained us, and worked our fields, creating prosperity for the rest of us, and then, and then, and then, we told them to go back home. Yes, there was a time when there was a movement to send the black people back to Africa, though when southern Americans were not busy terrorizing black men for looking a white woman in the eye, they were turning Africans more white. When we grew impatient with the tiresome Native Americans, we set them on fire, slaughtered them and their children, and sent them to march to Oklahoma, or Canada, or someplace else, where they froze and starved. Indians have been called bad well into my lifetime – the Lone Ranger, and – now listen, “Tonto,” which means “Moron,” was my favorite radio program when I was a child. We put Indians in the dry places so they would thirst, and killed their buffalo so they would starve. When they refused to die off, we took their children away to turn them into “Americans.” Americans. I walked through Dachau, imagining the smoke curling into the air, the crowds being sorted, the Germans eating their schnitzel in comfort and plenty. And at the end of the tour, I felt nothing. Why? How could I be so hard-hearted? I turned away from the last exhibit in their museum of things , and said, how hypocritical you are, Ann. If there had been six million Indians, we would have tried to kill them all. Yet there was no strange fruit hanging from German trees. Even Anne Frank did not feel the terror that African-Americans felt, sometimes every day. At least she could hide. And we call ourselves righteous. We are Philistines, moneychangers in the temple, we are the pharaoh trying to bring the plague on his slaves. We are Nebuchadnezzar, who wanted to throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (or, as the Rev. William Barber refers to the last of those, “A Bad Negro”) into the fire for not worshipping the golden image. When I visited Memphis in 1961, there were WHITES ONLY signs, and sharecroppers doffed their hats and lowered their heads when our host came by, "Mawnin' Mistah Hickman." Joseph McCarthy lived in my lifetime. Lynching, segregation, serfdom, and McCarthyism are not "history." They happened in my lifetime. I thought the hippies had brought some light. They said, smoking their peace pipes, “Hey man, we’re all the same.” They loosed women, wrote music that still inspires us, and refused to kill a made-up enemy half a world away for what looked like, and proved to be, no reason. They dared prison by burning their draft cards. They formed communes so they could be there for each other. But war, criminal political behavior, cynicism, and fatigue broke us. We were reviled for our peaceful thoughts, and humiliated. We were thrown out of the temple because we wore our hair long and the men wore plaid pants. We made ourselves strangers to our own land, and were beaten down. It takes stamina, courage, and persistence to win. We can look at our black neighbors to see what that looks like, and they still haven’t won. I have energy left from those days of hope and togetherness in my youth. And a lot of anger, too. It’s time for young Americans, and young people living in America even if they are not “Americans,” to grasp the country and make it in their image, but I will help.
The data is in, the tears are being shed, and “nothing works,” “we can’t do anything about it,” “it’s the price of freedom,” are not solutions to our lamentable situation. Here are a few thoughts on how we can turn the great ship of our culture around. Some of them can be done by individuals, others would have to be done by governments or the media, with our support. There are surely many more -- these are what I thought of this morning. What else is there?
- Stop having “active shooter drills.” Call them “fire and safety drills.”
- Collect research on the most effective ways to protect oneself both at home and outside. Compare Senator Thune’s “become small” advice with some good advice.
- Do a comparison of domestic experiences with guns. Comparing us with other countries is helpful, but makes many people defensive. Is the death-by-gun rate in highly regulated U.S. states/cities lower than in lightly regulated states?
- Find out about gun regulation legislation presently under consideration. They nearly passed a law allowing more silencers, and I’ll bet there are a lot more laws in the wings. Your representative or senator may be able to provide this, and even if they cannot, they will notice that you asked.
- Share stories of victims who were not killed, only wounded. Occasionally there is a story in the news about them but not nearly enough. As a rule of thumb, there are many more wounded than dead.
- Share individual stories of people affected by gun violence; family members, observers, law enforcement officers, soldiers, and so on.
- Keep a running ledger of all the people killed by guns in the U.S. In the same week as Las Vegas, five people were killed in Lawrence, Kansas. We didn’t hear about them.
- Expand the ledger on the money received by politicians from the gun lobby. I have only seen figures so far about the NRA contributions, how about the gun manufacturers or other pro-gun groups?
- Find out what John McCain, who has gotten over seven million dollars from the gun lobby, does with the money. Does it benefit him personally? Does he share the money with Republicans running for office? Pay office staff? Take private planes? Leave it in the bank? Where does it go?
- Research the history of our gun obsession. Where did it come from? Why is it somehow related to religion and geography? Why the urban/rural divide? How did colonial and proto-Americans use their guns, and how many had them?
- Detail the differences between a blunderbuss and modern weapons.
- Place gun legislation in the context of other legislation where politicians have been bought (pharmaceutical industry, energy companies, big tobacco, etc.)
- Focus on white people. Pro-gun people can’t let go of “Chicago,” which is a code word for out-of-control black people. This is a white person problem -- we made the laws, enforce the laws, and can change the laws. I don't know this for a fact, but I'll bet as many white people, proportionally, are killed as black people, yet the news does not reflect this.
- Focus on tourism. I have been turned off traveling, for example, to Texas, by photographs of people walking openly down the street with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders or holsters on their hips. Make it visual. As you travel, post signs or photographs which shock you. “Leave your guns outside” at a Dunkin’ Donuts (I don’t know if any such things exists, I’m just imagining) would shock the hell out of me.
- For an academic take on gun control, read this, and find other essays and tracts. It was written just before the Heller decision which made gun ownership the right of an individual, not only a “militia.” http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf.
- The Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill which mandated that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” (Wikipedia) The effect of this amendment was the prohibition of any studies of gun deaths as a public health problem. Pressure your representatives to act for repeal of the Dickey Amendment. The last time it was renewed, with only Republican votes, I understand, was just after the Newtown shootings.
- Learn your local and state gun laws and regulations.
- Support organizations which advocate for gun control. In New Jersey, there is Ceasefire New Jersey. I have not done extensive research on this, but you can begin here: https://blog.greatnonprofits.org/9-organizations-making-progress-towards-gun-control/. Michael Bloomberg is one of the well known people funding and supporting gun control groups.
- Take Gabby Giffords’s pledge: “I promise you that if we cannot make our communities safer from gun violence while protecting gun rights with the Congress we have now, I will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s.” The organization founded by her and her husband after she was permanently affected by a gunshot meant to kill her, is Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC.
- There are a thousand other ways to turn things around, but my final suggestion is that you settle in with a deeper personal philosophy which undergirds not only your views about gun control but your views about everything. I follow the Rev. William Barber, a minister informed by his Christian background but ecumenical in practice and outlook, an inspiring speaker, and a spreader of peace. http://www.breachrepairers.org/ Whatever your view of powers greater than you, there are others within your group who are fighting gun violence. Find them.
No grumbling, I told myself. Get out there and do something. So I did something I have never done before; I joined a political campaign as a volunteer. As long as I’m not parading around with a swastika on my arm, any campaign would do, but the one I joined is JimJohnson4governor in New Jersey. He’s a progressive Democrat, I know his wife slightly, and respected friends speak highly of him (“I’d move heaven and earth to get Jim elected”). So instead of staying home grumbling about the daily cascade of scandal and chicanerie, at least I’m doing what a citizen is supposed to do. I think. My mother was a politician for a while, and I can tell you, it doesn’t run in the family. This is my first personal immersion in what they call the “political process.” My first outing was on Washington Street in Hoboken, getting signatures to get Jim on the ballot in New Jersey. He already has the required 3,000, but we want to get as many as we can. I am told that after the signatures are presented, in the beginning of April, the campaigns sit down with them to see how many of them they can get disqualified. One woman, for example, said she’d already signed a petition for Phil Murphy, another candidate for governor. You can’t sign two petitions. I also needed to sign an Affidavit as a collector of signatures, including getting it notarized. I have been impressed by the rules for campaigning, and I haven’t even had contact with the fundraisers. Just collecting signatures is tightly controlled. Next, I canvassed my building with Pilar, a young, Hispanic, bilingual paid member of Jim’s staff Brad, a young, black, college student from Union City who is interning in the campaign. You can’t just waltz into a building and canvass, you have to have a resident with you. This made me a valuable member of the team, though I made myself more valuable as we went from door to door because I’m really interested in each of the people we talked to, and I got a gold star for schmoozing. There are 25 floors, 9 apartments per floor – 225 apartments in all. It took us three and a half hours to cover half of them. It was exhausting, but fascinating. We started with a list of all the people in the building who were registered Democrats, though I could see it was out-of date. I don’t know every person in the building, but did know for sure that some of the people had moved to a different apartment, or had moved away. Since I knew the list was out-of-date, I didn’t know what we would find – maybe one of those people who said “F—k you” to me when I was canvassing on Washington Street. Maybe people would be offended or disturbed at our visit – I didn’t know what to expect, and was nervous. It went well. Some people were busy, and we exchanged a few words, left a flyer, and moved on. Most had a few moments to discuss what they considered an important political race. We encountered one woman on her way to the trash compactor. She was interested in Jim, but annoyed with our mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who was “turning the place into yuppy heaven, with bicycles all over the place.” Yup, I could see how old-time residents of Hoboken would be disturbed at the gentrification of their town. Another old-timer said, “Zimmer wants to build parks for the homeless to sleep in.” This aversion to spending our hard-earned taxes on the least among us sounded more Republican than Democratic, but she was a hardcore Democrat, and she’s got a heart of gold – she has raised two adopted sons who have developmental problems. She’s walked the walk when it comes to people in need. Three times I handed over the flyer for Jim, who is black, and the woman at the door looked at Brad, who is also black, trying to gauge whether he was Jim Johnson. One of them said, “Oh, you’ve brought him with you!” I was embarrassed. Jim is a good thirty years younger than Jim, and his skin color is much darker. I experienced vicariously one of those experiences that black people talk about – “Can’t tell them apart….” As if one black person spoke for all. I took a chance on sounding the wrong note, but had to say SOMETHING, so I put my hand on Brad’s shoulder and said, “Just in case you thought that white people don’t notice this sort of thing, aren’t bothered by it, I want you to know I noticed.” Brad is a gentleman, raised to courtesy and good humor (he calls me “Miss Ann”) and was gracious about it. By the time the afternoon ended, I was tired. But I’ll do it again. I got a lot more than political capital out of the afternoon; I got to know my neighbors and learned their opinions, which I would never learn in the elevator. I exposed my own political beliefs to the people I run into every day; that was a little uncomfortable, but turns out to be a good thing.