Monday, August 31, 2009

Living in History: "With the Depression On"

I wrote a chapter for my story, "My Sister Rosalie," entitled: "With the Depression On" that looked at (thematically) the philosophies of economy and abundance.

Reviewers didn't get it.

Or, more correctly, they judged that chapter and the characters' actions in that chapter as people informed by modern experience. These reviewers come at it from nearly a century's worth of experience in economics and politics: "Oh, Bella shouldn't have reused her bath water, she should have ..." "Oh, Rosalie's wasting the planet's resources, she's being much too ..."

We are forgetting something here. The Depression's on in 1934. You know? The Depression? The Depression where twenty-five percent of American people are jobless, where checks don't bounce because banks are bouncing. Where rich, rich, rich people are throwing themselves out windows of sky scrapers. Where the Wheat Belt has become the Dust Bowl. Where prizefighters queue up with the rest of us just to get a shot at hard labor for the day so they can be paid a pittance. Where the lamentation "Brother, can you spare a dime?" was made into one of the most popular songs of the day.

Where parents, if they are the lucky ones that have flats, are watching their own children fade away and die because the heat bill hasn't been paid in months, so never your mind about getting a doctor to look at the wee ones. Doctor? And pay him with what? Today's gruel? That is, the only meal of the day?

When you read this chapter, please don't judge your Bella with modern sensibilities. Put yourself into her woolen socks. Look at those rich kids over there, sharing one apple. Go up to them and ask if you can have the core after their done with the apple. Have them look at you with disdain and tell you "Nope!" as you watch them eat the core, and feel the emptiness in the pit of your stomach.

That would have been a nice dessert, a nice change, from the one meal you've had today, and yesterday, and, if you're lucky, will have tomorrow.

Put yourself into the mind of a person not too distant from her parents' immigration from the Old World, where saving was considered to be an act of Faith. Saving? Money? The Old World had its own issues, including pogroms and potato famines. The New World, the streets are paved with Gold. So what did you do when the streets weren't, but you still were getting money for work (instead of just working for the roof over your head and a meal on the table)? You horded it. You buried it in the back yard. You stuffed your mattress with it. You put it into a bank because you got 5% interest, and then the bank went belly up, so you learned a hard lesson there: hold onto what is yours with a death grip, because times are hard now, and they'll be harder later.

Now, eat off a paper plate. What are you going to do with it after you're done? Throw it away? Never. You are going to wash the paper plate, because who knows when you'll ever see another paper plate again in your life?

Do you have that mindset now, with this understanding?

No, you don't. Because, even in today's "troubled" situation (and it is troubled, but it's nothing compared to the Great Depression that our (great-)grandparents went through with no context of a prior Depression to help them weather that interminable storm), we are surrounded by abundance: cars and homes and cellphones and 50" HDTVs. You can't put yourself into a scenario that doesn't exist in your experience because you can always pull yourself out and say "Oh, well, Bella should have done ..." as you grab the remote and switch to ESPN.

But maybe you can be grateful to the people who fought in the Great War and then fought in the Second World War and who built this country up from its infancy through the Roaring '20s through the Great Depression to now where there are hot running water and heating and air conditioning. Maybe your modern sensibilities, that they earned by the sweat of their brow for you, can judge them a little less harshly, and maybe you can drink your morning coffee as you do (or don't) read your morning newspaper with a wee bit more reverence.

Yes, I do say that this is the best of all possible worlds, but, unlike Voltaire, I do not say it with biting sarcasm. I am appreciative of what I have today, and I am grateful to the men and women who committed their lives, then and now, to give me it.

This whole entry points to the fact (sad but real) that people do not learn from history. But we can be comforted that we do, now, have ESPN. Just like the Romans had the Colosseum. Oh, what happened to the Romans? Who knows? Who cares? Besides, the game's on, pass the chips.

1 comment:

Diane said...

There is hope because there are people like you, who still remember. Now geroff the fanfiction and save the world!