Civility

Bee's picture
Thu, 09/30/2010 - 21:00 -- Bee

For three quarters of my adult life I have earned as much or more than my partner. Going way back to my teens, this included a stake of cash - an emergency fund - consisting originally of blood money from the accident. Thanks to that haunted reserve I was able to cover rent, buy books, stay in school, demonstrate my academic skills, long enough to earn merit scholarships sufficient to pay for my entire education.

My daughter was born in my first year of university, and I went back to school and work six weeks later. It took two and a half years (total) to finish a four year undergraduate degree, because I was too thrifty to linger. In that time I always had a job, sometimes several.

Graduate school followed the same pattern: I held down at least two jobs, usually three, and also nabbed whatever scraps of scholarship or assistantship were available. While, remember, raising a kid with only a patchwork of help from friends and family. While pursuing a divorce from a threatening, recalcitrant, and then vanished spouse. While undergoing nasty, dangerous cancer tests.

I was working a policy job in the Governor's office before I finished grad school, and jetted straight into my preferred career upon graduation. Do you know how many ADA compliance experts were roaming the land in 1994? I was an advance scout of a rare (albeit cranky) breed. Paul Miller assured me that the world was my oyster, if I would only consent to attend cocktail parties.

But that was beyond me, not to mention the ugly clothes required by state service, so I quit and ran away to Portland. Where I became a first-generation web designer. And one of the first people to figure out how to monetize the work.

I picked up freelance and consulting gigs, started writing, moved into publishing, raised my kids, and supported my partner while he was in grad school.

I did not receive government aid, aside from a brief desperate few months of free milk as I recovered from the high risk delivery of my second child. I never applied for housing assistance, health care, disability income support. I did not have a wealthy or even middle class family behind me to help out with infusions of cash. And, critically, I did not fund my life on pure debt.

When I bought a house (and it was my very own demented plan) at age twenty-five I looked at over a hundred properties before selecting a derelict building in a dodgy neighbourhood, because I could afford the mortgage on my scant earnings. Gunshots every night? Drug deals in the garden? Who cares! It was mine and I did not need anyone to help me keep it.

Growing up poor, having cancer as a child, becoming a teen parent, working my way through school, the debacle of my first marriage, all conspired to make me self-sufficient. I had no reason to believe the world benevolent, no reason to trust anyone.

In fact, quite the opposite. If you have noticed gaps in my life, people appearing and disappearing, it is almost always about money. I can tolerate many bizarre extremes of behaviour, but if someone borrows (as opposed to asking for a donation, which is fine) money and fails to pay it back, that is the end of our acquaintance. As a general rule they would not agree, accusing me of all manner of cold-hearted treachery. But from my side of the argument, it comes down to cash. $50, $300, $50,000, it doesn't matter. I keep accounts. I know.

Saying that, I do not ascribe to the bullshit bootstrap ideology of the Lavender clan. I do not agree that anyone should have to work as hard as I did, do not wish my experience upon others. I do not think that people who need help are weak or inferior. Quite the opposite: I wish that some mysterious individual or agency had been there to help in those years when the budget did not stretch far enough to feed four people. I wish that I had been able to choose an education, career, and spouse because I wanted them, not because I needed the health insurance.

I left my homeland in search of a more reasonable society, where sick kids get the medicine they need without worrying about how to pay for breakfast.

One of the most basic tenets of feminist philosophy is the concept that domestic labour should be summed up and acknowledged. That has never been my problem, because I am not especially domestic. My children are feral, my household chaotic. I do not cook or clean or care.

No, my complaint is slightly more advanced: I object to the fact that my work, the jobs I have held, the income received, is subsumed by the very presence of a man. Who kept kith and kin together in the dark years? Who conjured a lavish life on a tiny budget? Who offered up not just practical bureaucratic advice but the visionary frantic energy required to launch this spaceship of a family? Me.

I joke about being a kept woman to my own detriment. This comes from the same contrary urge that made me claim to be retired during the years I was the sole support of my family, the same itch that spurred me to claim I had no career whatsoever when my book was in the front display at Borders. Funny? Maybe. Fun, no.

I find it difficult to ponder communal assets, not because I feel undeserving, but rather because I am aware that anything shared can be taken back again. But I do know that my contributions - either material or oblique - are worthy of payment.

The trick is that a lifetime of striving and deprivation means that when I get what I truly deserve, it feels strange . . . and people talk. From the creepy fans gossiping about my grocery shopping habits in Portland to the more current muttering about European profligacy, it is all the same flavour of pernicious nonsense.

It would be nice to have recognition that any treats I have snatched for myself were earned through sheer bloody persistence, not luck or virtue or by the grace of another. But that is probably the one thing I will never get, because you can't save up and buy it from the store. Civility is a value, not a commodity.