How Far We’ve Come

It’s eminently frustrating when you can feel the story vibrating like a jet engine, just aching to go somewhere, but a measly trickle of words is all that comes out. Part of this is that the story isn’t finished “cooking” yet, and that jet-engine sound is the rumble before everything is unleashed and I start frantically trying to keep up with the download. But for right now, everything’s sort of in abeyance.

If there’s a part I like least about writing, it’s the frustration of knowing that the process is in a certain stage, one can’t rush it, but one does need to keep knocking away, disciplined and irritated, so that when the magic happens you’re Ready and Waiting. I have to say, this stage is only about 20% of my writing days…but it feels like a much higher percentage. I don’t have the luxury of not writing, so I spend these days fine-tuning and poking at different scenes like jigsaw puzzles, a little here, a little there. It all adds up to wordcount in the end.

In other news, last night at dinner the Princess asked me what Labor Day was all about. I explained the ideals behind organized labor as well as I could. The thing that made the biggest impression on her was the child labor laws. “You mean they would make [the Little Prince] work in a factory?”

“Yes,” I said. “Look, every advance in working conditions hasn’t come about because companies or corporations are magnanimous.” (Yes, she knows what “magnanimous” means. It was a word of the day not too long ago.) “They came about because people protested and fought. Nowadays a lot of people are saying we don’t need organized labor…but I don’t agree. You’ll learn more about that later. For right now, we celebrate people who work and look back at how far we’ve come.”

“Oh.” She thought about it for a while. “They would have made me work in a factory too?”

Or worse, I think. “Possibly. We’re not rich. For a long time, we weren’t even middle class. It’s very likely you would’ve had to work hard in a factory so we could survive.”

She digested this. “How would I go to school?”

“You wouldn’t.” I didn’t even want to tell her about how recent an invention compulsory schooling for all social classes is, even in the First World.

It was a good thing too, because she looked at me with undiluted horror. “No school? At all?”

“Yep.” I took another bite. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to school either, not for very long. We might not even know how to read.”

Well, that did it. She let out a gasp. “I had no idea this was so important! I just thought it was a day off school!”

“Well, you can go look up the labor movement. We can get some books, if you like. Be warned, though–some parts of the story aren’t very pretty.” I was thinking, in particular, of the story of Wesley Everest, as sung on Washington Notebook.

“I’m glad I get to go to school,” my good little Princess says. And from there we were on to other things. I figure consciousness had been raised enough for one day. Hers–and mine, because saying these things out loud to her made me think about them a little bit more. It reminded me of how lucky and privileged I am.

A lot of people moan about unions and the like, even as they reap the benefits of coffee breaks, lunch hours, the eight-hour day, overtime, or vacations. A lot of people will badmouth unions in one breath and move onto bitching about how their rights are violated in the workplace in the next. Unions aren’t perfect–no group of human beings is going to be perfect. But, again, no advance in human or worker’s rights has come about from the noblesse oblige of those in power. The advances are fought for, sometimes tooth and nail, sometimes shamed and driven into the social fabric. Stumbles and all, those advances are worth celebrating, remembering, and endorsing. The effects and fruits of those advances, those fights, are something plenty of Americans feel the benefit of every day.

Things are deadly rough right now. People are frightened, hungry, and angry. Paul Krugman is making comparisons to 1938. (Unemployment benefits came about in the US in about 1932. Just something I found out today.) For a long time jobs have been exported to places where the workers don’t expect–indeed, don’t even know they can insist on, or may not even be able to insist on–decent treatment. But a lot of people in the US don’t give a damn about that, because they’re suffering, hungry, and scared right now. Tea-party xenophobia is on the rise, fanned by demagogues who peddle hatred and fear while reaping obscene profits.

This is when things get dangerous.

So, this Labor Day, I’m hoping we can all be a little more Mother Jones. I’m hoping we’ll take the long view, and I’m celebrating just how far we’ve come. I’m damn grateful that I’m in a position where I can be reasonably well-educated and send my kids to school. With those benefits comes the responsibility not to forget those who raised hell, fought, and shamed society into taking those stumbles forward.

Happy Labor Day.

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