Born in a small town, and raised in a lower middle-class home, I was acutely conscious of the fact that we did not have a car, when all of our neighbours owned a fairly up-to-date model. I was also conscious of the high cost of dental repairs following a hockey accident that sheered two front teeth. People of the “upper class” (layers, doctors, engineers, accountants, dentists) were readily identified, as were their less than modest homes. Their kids were also a little ‘different’ without necessarily being deliberately condescending; some were, in fact, quite friendly with us but seemed a little more familiar with the kids from more affluent homes. Summer tourists, from the United States, primarily New York and Pennsylvania, were owners of cottages that dotted the shoreline and islands of the adjacent great lake. Carrying their groceries to their cars, I invariably found a large and costly vehicle whose trunk simply swallowed the grocery order.
Prior to summer jobs, like the rest of the “town kids” I was a regular at the town dock on a Thursday afternoon when the cruise ships from Duluth visited, and those on board threw pennies and nickels on the dock, imitating a peanut toss. Of course, we innocently chased the scooting coins, as a kind of tribal ritual, without thinking about the gap in wealth between the tourists and the town kids.
Playing the piano for special events held by local service clubs offered an adolescent peek into the world of those upper class couples whose wardrobes highlighted the latest fashions. Appreciation for the few moments of entertainment was never scarce, yet I was also acutely conscious that these people knew me as a kind of “performer” not as a whole person. Age, status and wealth differences, while never completely alienating, were always part of the ethos, without attributing a deliberate snobbery or overt condescension to any of the hosts.
On the local golf course, again a haven for the town’s affluent, I carried a refurbished set of wooden-shafted golf clubs courtesy of my father’s careful handiwork, complete with ‘elastoplast’ wrapped grips. Caddying for the local doctors and optomitrist, I also watched a kind of professionalism and skilled execution that those of us who “learned by simply playing the game” never really mastered. We searched for lost balls in the swamp along the fourth fairway, among the mosqitoes, so that we did not have to buy the needed balls. These are not complaints; rather they are merely a description of the path that was offered, different from both the path travelled by the kids from wealthy families, and also a little different from the path of the kids from the “east” side of the river that flowed through the middle of town. That river existed as an unspoken boundary between the ‘town kids’ and the ‘harbour’ kids, whose elementary school experience at Victory School reflected an ethos whose character was even more acutely conscious of the gap between their families and the upper crust families.
Some ‘harbour’ kids quite literally had and showed contempt for the ‘town kids’ whom they considered snobs; if only they knew how segregated were those of us on the town side of the river from those on Belvedere Hill. Wealth segregation was compounded by religious segregation, given a deep and wide divide between protestants and Roman Catholics. Ethnic diversity, while minimal outside of the WASP community, comprised a few Italians, a few Chinese and a very few French Canadians, with two rather large communities of First Nations one to the north and another just across the swing bridge on the island. It was really a kind of racist culture, without a wide band of skin colours. And we were, all of us in the WASP community, made even more segregated by the division between the evangelical and the more liberal christian churches. Evangelicals evangelized, even holding Sunday evening church services on the town dock, in a vain attempt to recruit converts. The more reserved United Church, Anglican and even Roman Catholic “brand of religion were restricted to their church suppers, Sunday Schools, and church picnics. Occasionally, one church would sponsor and perform a musical event like Handel’s Messiah. Ceremonies like Remembrance Day, the normal statutory holidays, and uniquely in our town, the 12th of July celebration of the Battle of the Boyne when the protestants defeated the Catholics. So, we endured the religious intolerance of Northern Ireland without the guns and bullets.
Acquaintances, rather than friends, were everywhere. Privacy, so the extent possible to sustain, was a value deeply ingrained in our psyches, especially the privacy of what was going on in our homes. The arena was one location where people from all over the town gathered to watch the local junior, juvenile or intermediate hockey teams played. Some years a few NHLers came to play a charity game against the locals, garnering a full house and a pot of cash for worthy cause. We all knew who the “boot-leggers” were and where they lived. We also knew which of the lawyers were “prompt” and which were “very slow” in completing their files. We knew which doctors had a gentle bed-side manner and which were much more gruff.
This class, faith, wealth, and ethic consciousness, while born differently by each, was a kind of social wardrobe that came with us in all situations. And while I was honoured to know and be accepted by many, I never lost sight of my “rank” as it were.
We never spoke about our individual identities, nor did we openly criticize the identities or affiliations of others. We never uttered a public word of disdain about the ‘rich’ or the members of a different religion. We simply kept our own identities to ourselves. This “privacy” has the obvious benefit of avoiding and evading public controversy; it has the also obvious down side of embalming an individual’s opinions in a tomb-like existence. Business transactions, the lifeblood of the earnings and income of the retail sector, in which my father worked, and the encounters within the schools, library, hospitals and civil service were conducted with a veneer of detachment and small talk, mostly about the weather, with the possible enhancement of the local hockey scores. A teacher who asked a grade ten class if they considered this small town of 3500 ‘rural Ontario’ the students objected, preferring the small community of a mere 200 just north of town as the example of rural Ontario.
It was not only a personal choice to hold our personal stories ‘close to the chest’; it was also a community archetype to reject a ‘rural’ attribution, as if aspiring to urbanity. Visiting large cities as a vacation was a rare blip on the town radar screen. Hunting and fishing weeks and weekends, along with minor hockey and the local curling rink bonspiels and local golf tournaments dotted the social calendar.
Social segregation, then, was a way of life; personal privacy preserved that segregation. It also preserved one’s identity from exposure to the rest of the world. (In my case, family violence and abuse were just ‘naturally’ in this ethos, kept within the four walls of the tiny brick salt box where we lived. Whether this “individual isolation” stemmed from an imported culture like Great Britain, or Ireland, or from a work-ethic that consumed all social demographics, was really never discussed.
As one who bridled against the silence, asking questions without regard to their ‘political correctness’ (we had never heard those words), and who recoiled from the violent shouting matches within our home between our parents, I welcomed any breath of fresh air from outside the community. Men who had served in both first and second world wars were well known for their unwillingness to discuss even the most innocuous details of their experience publicly. They had served and had closed that chapter of their lives. Occasionally, a nurse would be reported to have left town with a different man from her husband, or an adolescent co-ed would leave town to have a child from an unmarried pregnancy. Occasionally too a wave of shock would flow through the town following a suicide by gas from a car engine or a gun shot, or a hanging, (all of them in my memory, men).
University, then, in a much larger city, where kids from every corner of the province, and the occasional student from a different country, with professors ‘with accents’ from different countries (specifically France, England, and the United States) offered a smorgasbord of cultures and tonal colours that enriched the small town lack of diversity. However, that small town ignorance provided a base for mere interest and curiosity, and a more troublesome objectifying of those “others”. Naturally, unconscious of that kind of reductionism at the time, I am now quite ashamed of my own participation in encounters where I might have been enthusiastically engaging without ever following up on getting to know the ‘stranger’. My own habit of distancing another who is “different” is something of which I am not either proud or comfortable.
Teaching classes in which students of various cultural ethnicities, too, was an experience for which I am quite unabashedly ashamed, given that some of those students were removed from their indigenous homes, boarded in a white family and expected to meet ‘white’ standards of language and cultural experience. I was an integral part of that ‘experiment’ in racial management and deculturalization….essentially robbing these young people of their racial and cultural heritage. (Just this week, I learned that the Essex Board of Education has introduced a grade eleven English curriculum of exclusively First Nations Literature for all students as a mandatory course in English!) Late, but better late than never.
Like Mr. Roberts (the television personality)who sought out the people who were ‘helping others’ I also liked to champion those who saw pain and offered their support, who saw injustice and risked alienation by protesting, and who imagined a different way of seeing and doing things and offered words of support, if not physical engagement. Making bridges between two warring parents, however, was the formative apprenticeship for this desire to build bridges.
However, an identity forged in a small, conservative, community in which personal privacy was protected as much as national security is today, is one that reaches out sparingly, warily and cautiously to engage in change-making. Often, too attempts in this direction come, while cautiously as I perceived it, also carried a flush of energy that often overwhelmed those into whose company I injected myself.
That’s probably why I so admired the Obama return to Chicago to do community development work, after graduating from Harvard Law. Conventional wisdom says that he did not have a real job as a community developer. Somehow, returning to Chicago to work with indigents and dispossessed, rather than choosing a platinum-plated law firm on Madisson or Fifth Avenue in new York, was not the “preferred” choice.
High society’s “preferred choices” tend to the Ferrari’s, the penthouses, the island vacations, the blooming even bursting stock portfolio, the 2.5 kids (or is it more like 1.7 now?) attending the vine-covered prep schools where the tuition ranges upward to $50K annually, and the summer camp fees hover around $5k/week. Serving like-minded high-end achievers, hosting them at dinner parties, vacationing with them, reading their books and listening to their “Ted” lectures, while balancing invitations to the “talk shows” and in the area of political issues and choices, tilting toward the corporate “ethic and ethos” not to mention the corporate “unfettered capitalism” free of even the most basic tax returns to Uncle Sam, hedging their bets on the “science” of global warming and climate change….these are markers of the “successful lifestyle” that demonstrates the American Dream writ large and lived in full.
A marketer’s dream demographic, the plastic cards possessed by this class are manoeuvred into purchases and investments that undergird the “reputation” that this lifestyle choice expects and perhaps even requires.
Of course, there are millions of small circles of influence emulating this “ideal”, sometimes rationalized on the premise that “our kids need the role models to follow (that we are offering). This morning, my wife and I walked through a section of the city previously unexplored. We passed wooden buildings, brick additions, paint peeling from the wood, the occasional aluminum or vinyl siding patch here and there, and the even more unique tendered front garden prefacing a tidy, trim and self-effacing respectability. “Old” city buildings house real people whose lives rarely make the daily newspapers waiting only for the obit pages. They neither know or care about the “ritzy” crowd who live in the gated communities on the shores of our lakes and rivers.
These ordinary folks are not suffering from the same “drivenness” that sits behind the wheel of most BMW’s, and behind the oak desks in most legal, accounting and corporate offices. Type “A” personalities, while apparently essential to keep the engine of the economy running, and increasing both its speed and its torque. Yet, there is a clear downside to its demands.
Among those demands are a general personal cover-up of the deep and troubling pains and anxieties, unless addressed by prescriptions, including “retail therapy” and social events that continue to dot the “Life” sections of the dailies (and the requisite ads for the ‘exclusive’ tokens that bring friends, respectability and status).
This personal cover-up of course, is not restricted to the rich; it simply takes different ways of expressing itself depending on the neighbourhood. The people living in the bruised and broken and bent houses in the ‘old city’ are unlikely to visit a shrink, preferring to seek solace and comfort from their peers at work, in the coffee shop, in the pub or at the corner confectionary. Increasingly, fewer and fewer recognize their neighbours, unless and until a special effort or event provides a chance for introductions.
The masks of pride behind which we hide, are of measureably different thicknesses depending on the “class” to which we belong. The “beautifulpeople” like the Obama’s have a deep well of personal confidence that comes, in part, with repeated achievements like graduations from high school, eminent universities and even more eminent graduate schools. For many of those people in the ‘old city’ people like the Obama’s are ‘stars’ not unlike the sparks that glitter in the night in their being faintly observable, and out of reach.
Yet, the Obama’s were not always ‘stars’….their respective families of origin were very ordinary, making their life narrative even more compelling. This is not a pitch like the posters that once papered the walls of too many classrooms, “Learn to Earn,” that proposed to motivate adolescents to hit the books, in order to cash the cheques. It is rather an obvious reflection on the rarity of the Obamas’ life story. Too many times we hear parents expressing satisfaction “that the kid will be alright” now that s/he has been hired by a large corporation, or a legal or accounting firm.
Too often we neglect the downside of that accomplishment preferring to bask in the glory of “their” achievement as if it were ours. The question of how their life is unfolding from an emotional, psychological, spiritual and social perspective (exclusive of their income and status levels) is left unspoken and even, most likely, unconsidered.
Happiness, and deep and profound authentic human connections do not either know or respect investment portfolios, bank accounts, brand names on vehicles, sneakers, shirts or even jewellery. No beating the drums to the contrary will change that truth. No amount of advertising, political campaigning, or intellectual dominance will erase that deeply engrained truth in the soils and the tombstones and the museums of all of the religious, cultural, political and spiritual cultures from antiquity to the present.
Our continuing failure to close the gaps between the ‘have’s and the ‘have-nots’ and our apparent insouciance about the need to make the effort, preferring instead to grab whatever we can individually, and for our families. Our ‘little people’ without a voice, without political status, and without the kind of pedigree that rarely experience the kind of acceptance among the elite all have a wealth of profound experience and wisdom that is currently being excluded from our public debates, that is untapped creative energy that our public institutions require to sustain their effectiveness.
And yet, and yet….more and more evidence continues to mount that exposes our denial of our shared individual and collective responsibility for our eroding social, political economic and historical institutions. The current American administration will only accelerate the process of atrophy.
Only the public’s accessing and shouting from a well of courage and compassion for the nature of the devolution of a public agenda, not just nice words and sunny ways, will begin to restore any authentic confidence that we can and will overcome our current hubris, myopia and preferred privacy. I was raised on it, suffered immeasurably from it, and continue to resist it with all the energy I can command.
Do you care to join my little ‘voice in the wilderness’?