Economics and Gender Issues and Government and Politics and Psychology and Relationships and Social Issues17 May 2013 03:03 pm

My dad came to the US from Italy when he was 13 years old. My mom was born in the US in a small Italian community which was where my dad’s family eventually settled. My mom’s parents married shortly after they had come to America and quickly started a family.

My dad, who was 13 years older than my mom, lasted less than a year in public schools and began working to help support the family when he was 14. My mom lasted into her freshman year of high school, but too, had to quit school to help support the family.

My dad was a firm believer in the idea of coming to America to “make a better life”. He, like many of contemporaries, felt that hard work and sacrifice were necessary to accomplish this goal. Living in the US was seen as an opportunity to escape the poverty that had dominated his family for generations in southern Italy. Success, for him, was being able to provide for his family so that they had food on the table and would not have to spend their waking hours worrying about basic safety and survival.

After my parents married they moved to a nearby factory town on the shores of Lake Michigan. My dad took pride on his working his way up from the railway yards to become a ticket agent at a train station. He talked of his being fortunate of no longer having to do “menial labor” nor having to work in the factories that dominated local employment.

In my early years I rarely saw my dad for he found it necessary to  have a second job to make sure we could not only survive, but save some money for the future. My dad got up at four in the morning,  got ready for work and returned home about 3 in the afternoon as we were coming home from school, we than would eat before 4 so that my dad could make the evening shift at some restaurant or at the new fast food establishments.

On the rare evening my dad was at home he would take his slide rule and racing form to the kitchen table and spend hours doing the research that went into his small wagers on the horses. On weekends we either went to relatives houses many of which still lived in the Italian community a half hour away, or some relative would come to our house. Larger family parties occurred regularly celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays and church functions. On Sunday mornings we always went to church before seeing relatives for the remainder of the day.

The men in my hometown talked about work and factory life far more than any other topic. Even in family gathering it was unusual that someone didn’t vent a little frustration over their work situation, boss or the lack of security in their employment. 

Maybe it was just what we chose to watch, but the topic of labor and work even seemed to dominate the entertainment industry. I remember movies and plays which dealt with coal miners, factory workers, union strikes and the plight of failure and emptiness in characters such as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.

While Marx was not someone my blue collar world had read, people and TV often talked about feeling the “dehumanizing” role of factory work, or how mass production work was like living in a prison, or how insulting and degrading it was to have to kowtow to every boss or supervisor and how the work itself took away a man’s sense of dignity and self-respect. Even the popular comedies on TV made numerous jokes and references to the ever present possibility of being fired or laid off.

At a very early age I became highly fearful of ending up working in a factory, or being forced to engage in some labor of endless repetition. Even the professionals in town with careers or those in management positions seemed to be kowtowing to some boss and being tethered to a long and highly structured work week.  In my mind I began to equate work with a loss of freedom, autonomy and any hope of  a decent quality of life.

My mom had worked from the age of 15 until she got married in her late 20’s. She took pride in being a strong peasant woman and in the old world values of the immigrant mother’s she idolized. She liked the role of  mother and homemaker, and took a particular delight in cooking.

My mom’s life of a housekeeper mother was filled with menial labor and “drudgery”.  Yet, the ardor of her work load and the time required to complete a task seemed to lessen with each invention and advance in appliance technology. Going from washboard to wringer was not that drastic, but the jump to washing machine was dramatic and much appreciated. Even the advance in fabrics reduced ironing time. The list of appliances, technologies and “conveniences” which reduced housekeeping time and effort was expanding on a monthly basis. Even in lower middle class families such as ourselves the quality of life of the homemaker was improving greatly.

By the time I was four or five my mom was able to entertain herself with radio or TV while she tended to her household tasks and chores. She was able to take breaks to watch a favorite program or visit with a neighbor lady for an hour or so, and still get dinner on the table by 4.  My mom actually found enough “leisure” time to reengage in hobbies/crafts of her latter childhood such as embroidery and crocheting.

Most of her daytime TV was divided into two areas. One area of interest was quiz type of programs such as “Concentration” and the other were the emotional tearjerkers such as “Queen for a Day” or the “Millionaire”. 

While the advances in technology appeared to be a boon for the housekeeper, it did not seem to improve the quality of life for the factory worker. While advance in assembly line technology did reduce the physical demand on a worker, it also reduced the scope of their activity to one part or cog of a product. No longer could they even take pride in the completion of an entire product such as a clock, radio or car, but only in the installation of a front fender, minute hand, or some other part of the complete product.

While technology reduced the time it took to housekeep and the strain the tasks took on the body, in the factory it just increased production expectations and the fears that the technology would replace your need as a worker. Advances in technology made it possible for my dad’s work load to be decreased, and he could have theoretically played a radio while he worked. Yet, his “higher ups” sent out memo’s stating playing a radio would result in termination of employment, and the railroad found many new and additional tasks for him to perform to insure that he had no free time or that his work load was reduced in any fashion or form. To the contrary it seemed that each passing day my dad was required to do more, and be responsible for more, with no additional pay.

In general I found my mom’s life more tolerable than my dad’s. I found his perpetual working, subservience to bosses, and the lack of autonomy and development of outside interests to be boring at best and humiliating at worst. I could never reconcile my relatives story of my dad’s past with the dad I knew. The man who played trumpet, read philosophy, travelled the country, was an avid Ham operator, gambled, made his own sausage, cheese and wine, etc. was  nowhere to be seen. The last vestiges of that man were only seen at the rare moments he listened intently to the opera on the radio, or took time for himself to read reflective nonfiction.

The time I remember him being the most vibrant and alive was when I was 6 or 7 and his union went on strike. My dad become a leader of the workers at this time and set up camp at the downtown hotel in our town. He shined in the role of organizer, giving people instructions, speaking at meetings and being part of the negotiations with management. Though he was glad when the strike was over, I kind of missed the dynamic man who was my dad for a short time.

My dad’s sense of pride and self-esteem had him adopt the stay at home housewife preference. He felt it was his obligation and duty to be the “breadwinner” and that he would be a failure if his wife “had to work”. Yet, when I was 8 years old my mom decided that since all the kids (I was the youngest) were fairly self-sufficient that she wanted to do more to help make our family financially more comfortable. It took only a couple of weeks to convince my dad that she nor their friends would think she “had to work”, but that she just wanted a new challenge and it would allow my sister an opportunity to learn how to cook and manage a home.

My dad helped my mom get a job as a ticket agent at another station on the same line as my dad. She enjoyed the challenge and it gave them a shared interest which brought them closer together. Yet, it wasn’t long before the luster of the new job wore off, and my mom began to complain about the routine just like all the men. Yet, at the end of the day the sense of financial security she got from the job outweighed its deficits and she stayed on the job until about a year after she was robbed at gunpoint and never again felt safe at work.

By the time I got to high school I had made the following assessments of the world and lives of men and women.  I viewed being male as having almost no options and being destined to a laborious life spent in servitude, with little hope of privacy, autonomy or time for personal development. Most of the men I knew seemed empty, emotionally vacant and resentful. The boys my age were trying to sow a few wild oats before conforming to the fate of being male.

I did have some distant male relatives who lived in Italian communities or neighborhoods that seemed to truly enjoy their lives. They were artists, musicians, entrepreneurs (organized crime?), or individuals who somehow got by with minimal labor. They were fun loving, funny, emotional, and their lives seemed to be filled with meaningful relationships. Quality of life, joy and relationships were their priorities and they made you feel good just to be able to bask in their energy.

The Italian lover’s of life philosophy summed up by the colloquialism “dolce far niente”  (sweet idleness) was something that I harmonized with. Another version of this Italian art of living philosophy was offered by North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano when after being diagnosed with cancer  said: “To me, there are three things we all should do every day…..You should laugh every day…You should spend time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears…If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special”…

The life of most of the adults I knew seemed hollow and meaningless. Life seemed too incredible and precious to me, to waste it in toil or mindless activity. Most men were doomed to an empty existence of endless labor, we had no choice in the matter. Women on the other hand were beginning to have options, my mom could work or stay at home. Technology and social change were opening a whole new world to women in which they began to talk of issues such as“quality of life”, “consciousness raising”, “intimacy” and the richness of human emotion and experience.

Just when I was beginning to feel that I would have little or no opportunity to lead a fulfilling and rich existence the women’s movement emerged as a beacon for a vision of living a quality life. While the majority of men were consigned to a life of labor and subjugation, a growing percentage of women were entering a new age of self-exploration and enlightenment.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue show and feeling a growing sense of hope and optimism. Women were leading a discussion on the direction of society. The gospel of the women’s movement seemed to be that men were leading an empty life of labor, ambition and the thirst for power, and that women were in danger of leading a “shallow” and “superficial” life filled with pettiness and gossip. Women were being called upon to join together in a quest for a fulfilling and meaningful life. A life of freedom, dignity, respect and personal development. 

The majority of my male friends in high school were either already becoming emotionally vacant and empty, or just partying until the music stopped. My female friends were more into self-disclosure and talking about their feelings. 

I became close to a small group of verbal guys who talked at length on science, philosophy and the future. I also found another mixed group of friends who talked about art, literature, music and social revolution. The majority of female friends I had, talked about relationships, human communication and the soap opera of adolescence. 

Though I sometimes found the conversation of my female friends to be petty or emotionally tedious it was far preferable to the alternative. I found myself introducing or advocating my female friends to become more engaged in the women’s movement and its basic philosophy.

Advances in technology were already showing that automation was the future, and that many factory jobs could be replaced by automated machines working faster and more efficiently than human workers. We already were showing signs of having too many workers for too few jobs, and that productivity goals could be met through less full time workers.

The women’s movement and pop psychology were informing us that “self-actualization” and “intimacy” were far more important than work/labor and making money. That, in fact, monetary ambition and long working hours were injurious to health, quality of life, and the development and maintenance of fulfilling friendships and enduring familial relationships.

Despite the murder of some very important leaders of social change much had been accomplished not only in the growth of the women’s movement, but civil rights, and the ecological and anti-war movements. Watchdog agencies, whistleblowers and journalists were exposing the corruption in government, business, medicine, finance, academia, the media and the military in a way that seemed to promise better management and accountability.

Human dignity and respect was on the rise for workers, women, minorities and students. Fear and hatred was being replaced by tolerance and understanding. The landing on the moon had been a sign that we can accomplish anything we commit ourselves to and that war, poverty, and world hunger were problems we could address and solve.

We are fond of saying that it is darkest before the dawn, yet one person’s dawn is another persons dusk. And just at the moment when I felt that the journey of self-actualization and quality of life was about to take flight, the forces of anger, control, hatred, and oppression seemed to silently turn us back towards the prison we just escaped.

Almost overnight the messages of personal development, quality of life, human intimacy, freedom and autonomy were being subtly modified and replaced with messages speaking of consumption, making money, and national and cultural superiority. 

The advertising and business world targeted minorities, women, and students as emerging lucrative consumer markets. Equating new found freedoms and social status with making money, consumption and having a new and expensive image. Drinking malt liquor and wearing specific clothes became synonymous with being a hip and successful black person. Virginia Slim’s proclaimed, “you’ve come a long way baby”, to hawk a product “designed for the modern woman”. 

Soon the women’s movement humanistic message of quality of life and intimacy became lost in the desire for equal pay and full employment. Entering the evil and destructive male dominated world of power, money, servitude and labor became the goal and battle cry of the movement. 

While I fully supported equality and rights for all, I felt stunned that the goal had now become for all to become slaves to money, labor and subjugation to corporate owners be they white male, female or minority. I personally cared little if the warden were black, white or female, I just wanted out of prison. My concern was in the quality of our lives and in our ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships and a societal respect for my and your privacy and autonomy.

Now forty years later I still have the same longings, desires and goals. I look back at the women’s movement like a photograph of an old girl friend who ended up sleeping with my old tormentor. We could have shared so much together, we could have had made the world an intimate caring place. Instead we now live in a society in which two paychecks don’t even have the purchasing power of one back in the 50’s or 60’s.  And where quality of life, life expectancy, health, happiness quotients, and leisure time have been on the decline and falling behind other more “socialistic” nations around the globe.

While I look back at what I experienced as a lost opportunity its hard not to be frightened by our surveillance society and the loss of all the freedoms and privacy we struggled to achieve and the fact that the only real growth industry left in our decayed capitalistic system of empire is fear mongering , prejudice and intolerance. 

Jim Guido

 

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