Talking Heads Roll
Still gagging from this summer's star-spangled, corporate-sponsored, sanitized
salute to American Liberty"? Well, throw out your Pepto Bismol and plunge right
into PROCESSED WORLD 17, the special Termination Issue.
And remember: Lady Liberty does not have to work for a living.
The issue begins with a special section devoted to the subject of terminationfor
our purpose, getting fired. Here, Bill Dollar, Lucius Cabins, Florence Burns,
Lucille Brown and Zoe Noe recount their sometimes hilarious but more often infuriating
experiences of what is euphemistically called "being let go."
We also offer behind-the-scenes closeups of two contrasting job situations. Dennis
Hayes' WHERE'S THE DIRT? analyzes the frighteningly
invisible toxic menace to microchip assemblers in Silicon Valley and their even
more frightening passivity in the face of corporate prerogative. In FLEXING
MUSCLES AT FLAX we see the ups and downs of a grass-roots unionization drive
at San Francisco's biggest art supplies store, via Maxine Holt's interview with
two of the participants.
Also included are a riveting piece of fiction by D.S. Black, NAKED
AGENDA, a review by klipschutz of the poet Antler's magnum opus FACTORY,
and Lucius Cabins's and Dennis Hayes's review of the stage play THE
PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. Poetry and readers' letters (now found at the end of
the magazine) round out the issue.
But back to the subject of termination. The PW staff is painfully aware that job
loss Is a complex and serious issue, several dimensions of which are not covered
In the "Tales of Termination" Our stories express the viewpoint of young, single
white people for whom Bring poses a political indignity, but not an irrevocable
threat to their livelihood. There is no mention of the mass layoffs resulting
from de-industrialization, or of the plight of its displaced victims, for whom
the notorious "bad attitude" is probably nothing more than a frustrated fantasy.
For these unfortunates, termination represents a frightening tumble into a pit
of unemployment or underemployment from which there is little hope of escape.
Coincidentally, in a recent review of PROCESSED WORLD in UNSOUND magazine, writer
George Scialabba comments on PW's restricted point of view. He writes that the
magazine has "given a voice to the poets, misfits and rebels," and also shown
that "there's a good deal of the poet, misfit and rebel in ordinary people as
well." But he very astutely points out that "the reverse is also true: even in
poets, misfits and rebels there are 'ordinary' aspirations, e.g. for stability,
rootedness, and yes, for comfort and convenience." Would PW be able to address
the issue of "how to grow up and stay radical"? One PWer decided to tackle the
dip side of flippancy by recounting the paradox of her search for security.
AN AMERICAN FOR HIRE
I've always been security-minded. On the other hand, I've always resented and
despised the very idea of wage labor. Quite a dilemma for a first-generation American
who has never occupied the comfortable ranks of the middle class.
Economic stability has always been up there in my top five life goals, owing,
no doubt, to the insecurity of my childhood. My immigrant parents never really
took to the market economy in America. They remained helpless and insecure in
the face of go-get-'em individualism, living humbly and methodically according
to the precepts of pre-World War II Europe. My dad diligently paid all the bills
in cash, in person, never realizing that a checking account could "save time.''
Both parents kept the same low-paying jobs for eons, never aspiring to move up
the ranks into the conniving managerial class. Ambition, American-style, was to
them an extremely crass and distasteful pursuit.
However enlightened my parents may seem, their lack of adjustment to middle class
values caused me endless problems. As a kid I suffered adult-like anxiety about
money and our lack of it. I was constantly worried by our family's medical bills,
inadequate medical insurance, and perpetual indebtedness to this or that doctor.
All the anxiety this situation produced seemed to result in more illness, accidents,
and billsand less insurance.
My disquiet over the money problem was exacerbated by my old-world, anti-capitalist
father who gave us daily diatribes about the decadence of American mass culture,
likening it to the fall of the Roman Empire. He told his little daughters that
consumer goods were frivolities master-minded by the rich to keep the working
people in chains. They were "wasteful" products that contributed to a "weak" character.
Why vacation when you could work? Why eat out when food was just as good at home?
And piano lessons? Those were a luxury that only the rich could afford.
Yet our lives were made miserable by the chronic money shortage. My father refused
us most of the pleasure products that were de rigueur in sixties suburbia. Our
junky, used cars continually broke down on the freeway, the car being our sole
means of escaping to the beach or the mountains, or to look at the rich people's
homes. Our own house was excruciatingly insufficient, with seven people (two of
them elderly grandparents) and one very loud T.V., squeezed into its five rooms.
Luckily, my mom's employment at the local department store enabled us to pass
as middle class. Thanks to her 20% discount and her uncanny understanding of children's
needs, she defiantly provided us with some of the more affordable requisites for
membership in the Suburban Clubwhile teaching my dad a thing or two about the
fundamentals of human psychology. Nevertheless, at a very early age, I had an
advanced and quite painful understanding of the importance of money in our society.
As a teenager my deepest ambition was to act on the stage, but I quickly abandoned
it, realizing that the work was not stable enough for my tastes. Once out of college
I opted for a career I felt would better coincide with my political beliefs but
still provide a surefire paycheck every month. That "stable" profession was college
teaching. It was 1979. One hitch in the grand plan to marry ideals to economics
was that I detested graduate school. Another was that the job market for teaching
was closing fast. This only highlighted the absurdity of my slaving away in grad
school and the fawning acquiescence of my fellow students to the faculty.
I decided to try other careers for a while, which resulted in a 16-month stint
as a temporary word processor and a near nervous breakdown. No matter what the
job situation I would leave at 5 p.m. fuming at my dumb-shit bosses, who bolstered
their feeble egos by generating a feverish pace of work; a pace which, I soon
realized, masked the work's meaninglessness. This was also about the time I started
reading Processed World, which awoke me to the fact that wage labor was a no-win
situation. Whether word processing for the law firm or thought processing for
the university, the employee always loses, financially, psychologically, and emotionally.
It also became clear that any kind of career whatever under capitalism was a sham-and
especially so in the 1980s. Professionalization, I realized, was nothing more
than a tremendous ruse to get a swollen baby-boom generation to compete harder
than its parents for fewer jobs while feeling more important.
Yet, I returned to graduate school, more bitter and suspicious, but still tethered
to my longings for security. What mostly got me through three more years was my
enjoyment of, and devotion to, assistant teaching, to the exchange between student
and teacher. I learned to ignore the higher-ups and do my own thing in the classroom.
What also helped me through was my decision to chuck academia and start teaching
in the community colleges, which I now do part-time. I've come full circleI'm
a teaching temp. I get hired and fired at the whim of the administration, my pay
is ridiculously low, I have no benefits and no perks, and there are no full-time
jobs to be had.
If this were a few years ago, I'd probably walk out of this situation in a huff.
But now I am very carefully planning my ascent up the pyramid into full-time,
permanent status, with its insurance benefits, pension plans, and the rest of
the perks that buy off the average worker. I know that, as usual, I'll come to
resent full-time workthe same early hours, the same commute, the same four walls,
the same people, the same surrender of my Self to the institution despite my
appreciation of the students. But right now it seems worth it.
In part, this is because my now-retired parents live off meager social security
benefits, and my first-generation instinct is to help them. The other part comes
from the me-generation instinct, which warns against getting myself into their
situation when I'm old. I also realize that I would like to have kids and I sure
as hell don't want them to inherit my money anxiety. In other words, I am facing
adulthood and doing what I think is best.
Do I worry I'll sell out one day and become "too bourgeois"? Not really. Although
I've come to recognize and accept my desire for security, I am well aware that
it can't truly be fulfilled in corporate America. In reality, the stability of
middle-class life is very tenuous. Any serious illness, accident or layoff has
disastrous implications for people increasingly denied social services by the
state and lacking an extended-family support network to fall back on.
Without any guarantee of financial support should fate be unkind, Americans cling
to products of capitalism which symbolize security. They collect "things" as padding,
little realizing that the social structure creates the insecurity they run from.
Which brings me to my final point: I think that radicals who have consciously
embraced marginality have mistakenly tended to scorn working people's desire for
security, creating an artificial barrier more detrimental than useful. These artists,
intellectuals and outcasts choose to remain apart and above, married to a life
of self-denial and struggle in the best Christian tradition. Such people view
anything short of such sacrifice as "selling out.''
I desire the life that middle-class status affords: family, pleasure, freedom
from money anxiety. I'd be lying if I didn't admit it. I also think it's foolish
to pretend that anyone who has struggled or suffered in his/her life doesn't want
that. Just ask any recent immigrant slaving for minimum wage in a sweatshop, as
both my grandmothers did. Or ask me. I hate capitalism and wage slavery, and probably
always will. But for now, you can sign me, an American For Hire.
by Michelle L.P.