Wednesday, April 26, 2006


This reservation (and some small towns) made a lot more sense to me when I learned to see the flow of non-monetary compensation. This is especially important when there is no money; for instance, among prisoners who create an economy out of cigarettes. I’m also talking about things that are not material, like secrets, sex, access and privilege. They are most visible when the mini-economy is affected by something that makes it shift. For instance, sex is so easily available (now that the threat of unwanted pregnancy or garden variety VD have been removed) that those who try to make a living by selling “sex” must move to some kind of more intense specialty: the addition of violence or perversion, for instance, or they won’t make money. That, in turn, affects what is accepted in a noncommercial context, in private relationships.

Secrets as commodities are doing a lively trade on the governmental level these days, with the President trying to buy exoneration for bad decisions with selected leaks and disgruntled insiders leaking other shocking facts and then the identity of the leakers becoming new secrets, except when the Vice-President leaks who certain blabbermouths are. But then his pockets go flat -- or ought to -- when the secret is told that it was he, the VP, who leaked this last secret. Of course, he -- as is clear from his income tax disclosure (and the real amount of his income was no doubt secret) -- doesn’t really have to dabble in secrets because he has cash money. Or maybe simple money isn’t really as valuable as secrets.

But what I wanted to get at in this little piece is some kind of understanding of prestige, status -- the sort of thing that used to be called honor, dedication, or even sometimes professionalism. At one time doctors had it. Today in Great Falls the doctors are in a big food fight over who can own a hospital and whether they have to take in emergency patients who can’t pay. This was once unthinkable. Religious orders ran hospitals as mercies, not income generators. Doctors used to signal their professionalism by wearing suits under their white coats, but now many don’t wear white coats at all and most of the doctors around here wear jeans to work. Only people who have little power are reminded to be “professional” by dressing in an expensive manner. But how can a doctor feel “professional” when patients come in waving print-outs of the latest research -- which the doctor has had no time to read. He can only recover his credibility by charging a lot of money. If the insurance company will pay that kind of money, he must know something, right? Sort of a technie.

Teachers on every level -- even as they have begun to do much better financially -- have taken huge losses in prestige. Religious leaders from Fundamentalist preachers to Catholic priests have become figures of mockery. Easy enough to lay this at the door of their own follies: in my generation it would have been inconceivable (!) for a female elementary teacher to become pregnant by her student. And public schools were temples in their own right that churches invaded at their peril. I suppose many will blame immigration which burdens schools with the duty of assimilating them. Maybe others will talk about the Sixties revolution valuing the questioning of authority or maybe that wicked Derrida crowd, who questions our very reality.

What I’d like to reflect on for a moment, is what all this feels like from the inside. My Protestant Irish grandfather desperately wanted to be a person respected in his community, for most of his life the rough little lumber town of Roseburg where he tried to be an orchardist but actually made his living doing construction. Because the little prune farm where he lived had been the home of the school clerk, who left the books behind in the house, my grandfather became the school clerk. Though he repeatedly ran for office, he never won because he constantly quarrelled with his “betters.” School clerk was about as far as his accomplishments went. His chief contribution was getting a new school house built -- the old one had blackberries growing through the walls.

He impressed on his oldest daughter, my mother, that same craving to “be somebody.” Her route to the goal was the PTA where her major contribution was the construction of an outdoor barbecue in the park adjacent to the school, plus a lot of event organizing. If one’s community is small, one needn’t build the pyramids. Vernon neighborhood in Portland was a small town embraced by what became a city. My mother became a school teacher and then the librarian at a small elementary school along the Columbia River. This was her microcosm and she ruled with vigor and laughter.

My mother expected me to become a high school English teacher. She never proposed that I become a college professor, which seemed to her quite exalted. When my first high school teaching job was on the Blackfeet Reservation, she thought that was a nice little adventure before real life began, rather than the lifetime preoccupation it has been. She never expected me to marry, so my relationship with a “famous sculptor” was a puzzle for her, esp. since he was 26 years older than me and a “cowboy” sculptor with a “museum.” She couldn’t figure out whether marrying someone older was a prestige thing to do -- hard to imagine me as “arm candy” -- or whether a cowboy sculptor or his museum were anything but mockeries of the real thing. If I’d been in Manhattan or Paris, she’d have had the literary references, but she’d never heard of Charlie Russell. I thought I was very clever to have succeeded through someone else, so I couldn’t be accused of showing off.

One of Bob’s central preoccupations was wringing respect out of his community for his family and respect out of his family for himself. It took me a long time to bring to consciousness that this was one of the ties between us. What I really wanted to do was to be a writer of significance and Bob promised to support me doing that once he was famous. Rich was not so important, beyond basic survival. We always recognized wealth as a mere instrument. In the meantime, the rest of society came more and more to believe that wealth was not just an indicator but a goal, the definition of success. Screw Hemingway or Rodin -- imitate Donald Trump or that, you know, that computer nerd with all the money.

When I became an animal control officer (a dog catcher) back in Portland, my mother, teachers and friends took this as a total betrayal of any kind of prestige and I rather did enjoy the in-your-face part of it. Iconoclasm came from my father’s side, the Scots prairie homesteaders and inventors. They were social progressives -- my father devoted himself to cooperatives. So I came to define animal control work in terms of reform and progress. (My mother stopped euphemizing that I “worked for the government” and bragged that I was the Margaret Sanger of dogs and cats.) That worked well. But it wasn’t enough.

I’d always been serious about religion (in general, not Christianity) and decided on ministry, at least in part because of the Pacific Northwest groups of Unitarian Universalist ministers at that time. They were all men: powerful, charismatic, driven, and as joined as Arthur’s round table. (Or so I thought.) My mother felt that I had exceeded myself -- she said to me, “Why can’t you just marry a nice minister?” The whole thing became moot when the UU ministry became a second career for middle-aged women. Exactly what I was trying to escape -- them, too, I guess. But in the process of transforming, the UU ministry went from high prestige to just another pink collar vocation.

So here I am back with writing, still believing in the creative as a blessing and a key to significance. Most of this little town would only be impressed if I made a lot of money. I myself was expecting to make at least a little money. It appears that I’ve reached this point just as book-writing has become a kind of sausage-making -- stuffing content into pre-determined categories (none of which my writing fits) and replacing all the wonderful charisma of British-style publishing with a kind of hip-hop blogging, blooking and podcasting that’s all in bits and caught on the fly instead of coherent, nicely bound, and perceptible on the shelf.

My mother (who began to suggest that maybe I ought to get into politics -- she still believed in Mark Hatfield and Neil Goldschmidt) has died and her estate let me buy this teensy crumbling house in this village on the edge of the reservation. Blackfeet crave prestige far more than I do, even their rebels and Neo-Traditionals. But I’ve begun to turn my own iconoclasm on status. What is being a big shot or a saint all about? Why should I want it? What good is it? Why make the sacrifices, carry the burdens, make the efforts, if you don’t get no respect? Where’s the non-monetary compensation? Why participate in that economy? Am I being brave and honest or just trailing along after the culture again?

By now I’m much less invested in prestige than in simple understanding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You can't put it much better than that, Mary. I too am clergy, retired - UCC and UMC. Having pastored 2 very large churches, I tasted the celebrity life with a vengeance. With 7 years to go I moved from a 2,500 member church to a 330 in order to get away from the "good life" and to try to reestablish a deeper, more personal lifestyle. I don't know that the small was any more authentic than the large. Being an introvert in the ministry is an adventure in itself. I feel good about it all.