Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman …

And getting harder 

Patricia Schroeder who served as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives as Colorado's first Congresswoman, 1973-1996 is famous for the quote, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”

I would change that quote to “I have a brain and a uterus, and they are both mine.”

My brain functions quite well, though granted, I’d hardly be the first to know if it did not. Inside my brain lives my belief structure, the product of 58 years of experience, a lifetime of learning and observing the world around me, thinking, evaluating, weighing the possibilities, making decisions and judgments and finally forming conclusions. The great thing about my beliefs is that they are entirely mine. Private.

I have no right to inflict my beliefs on others

We are all free to believe that which best fits our lives. This is the fundament of all liberties. Even in the strictest dictatorship where my actions and speech may be curtailed, my thoughts and beliefs can still soar in freedom.

My brain belongs entirely to me.

My uterus also played a major role in my life, even more than my brain it sometimes seems. Two live births, one eight-month still-born birth and two miscarriages before it gave up and went into retirement. (hallelujah!) Throughout most of my life, from menarche at age eleven to menopause a few years ago, my reproductive system went on its merry way, driving the rest of me along the normal hormonal roller coaster ride of womanhood, surprising me by circumventing all attempts to control it through contraceptive means and landing me with not one, not two but three completely unplanned pregnancies. Yes, three. And two miscarriages after that.

But why is my uterus and what I do with it suddenly a public affair? All women need to be free to make their own choices.

My choices

As previously stated, three times in my life I found myself unexpectedly and undesirably pregnant, the first time at seventeen. Did I practice contraception? Yes. But in 1969, more advanced forms of contraception such as the pill had just come into common use, and in the conservative world of Medicine Hat, Alberta, these medical marvels were not available to unmarried women. Even diaphragms were prescribed only to women with husbands. Seriously.

That left only the more primitive barrier method of condoms. (Or abstinence, as so many are quick to point out. Sorry. Not an option. The reproductive system often overrides the brain. Hadn’t you noticed?)

Faced with what was truly a catastrophe, I had decisions to make. Granted, abortion was then completely illegal but not unobtainable. Dangerous yes, but more common than people want to believe.

I couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t. Not from fear, but from an instinct that wanted that child as soon as the shock passed, from a belief -- entirely my own – that disposing of my child was wrong. That is: wrong for me.

So I did not have an abortion, a fact for which both my daughters are far less appreciative than they should be. At least as I see it. This pregnancy put an end to my education (I hadn’t yet completed high school,) threw all my dreams out to blow away on the wind and set my life on a completely different, difficult and impoverished course.

My mother decided I should go to the Salvation Army Home for unwed mothers. The child would be placed for adoption and that was to be that. I refused. The following two weeks will always remain vivid in my mind. My parents were more concerned with what the neighbors would think than what would become of their child or grandchild. Even my first doctor’s appointment was made in a town two hour’s drive from ours. Oh, the shame!

Two weeks of violent argument, verbal abuse and offers of scalding hot baths, castor oil and other such old wives’ tales and I was ready to leave. Anything, I thought, would be better than the nightmare of home. I went to my boyfriend’s family.

Quicker than you can say ‘She’s knocked up’ I was to be married. Hurry! A month later, wearing a dress cleverly designed to hide the slight roundness of my belly, I married an unsuitable, equally immature husband. To no one’s surprise, the marriage didn’t last two years.

But in the interim, I was – you guessed it – pregnant again, despite the diaphragm prescribed for me. And that old myth: you won’t get pregnant while breast feeding... A lie!

We were broke, living on an allowance of $200 month. Yes, you heard right. He was a student at a technical college. I stayed at home with the baby. Again, the option of abortion came under discussion. Again, I wouldn’t.

And that’s how I came to be alone with two children by my nineteenth birthday.

I spent my days with my babies and cleaned offices at night. I lived in subsidized housing – a cinder-block complex full of single mothers and their children called ‘Quail Ridge’ by the City of Calgary and ‘Tail Ridge’ by the young men of the area. But at least corralling us single moms in one place meant we could easily form alliances and help each other. I babysat one woman’s children during the day, and she mine at night. Bartering was big at Quail Ridge. None of us had a nickel to spare.

Later, when my children were older, thanks to subsidized day care at an excellent facility that my little girls loved, I was able to enroll in a government program designed to get drop-outs like me an education. I attended the Alberta Vocational Training Center, a facility as dire as its name, and learned the skills to work in an office. It was a beginning.

Thank God for those programs. Without that assistance, I don’t know how we would have made it. Working for minimum wage eight hours a night and babysitting during the day was not a sustainable life style. Nor did it do more than provide the very basics. And an equal thank you to the Canadian medical system, because my younger daughter had health issues, and not unsurprisingly considering the burden and a less than optimum diet, so did I. By the way, I also received free contraceptives.

The third unplanned pregnancy came in my early twenties. I was working at a good office job and taking classes, two a week, at night, at university, earning my Bachelor of Commerce degree. The father, a man I’d known for several months, was not interested in a family, which does of course bring up the question of why he was wooing a mother of two in the first place. Irrelevant, I suppose. But he would, he promised, pay for the abortion.

I should add, at the time I was using an IUD – 99% effective, or so it was claimed. It was removed by a doctor once my pregnancy was confirmed. ‘There should be no complications,’ he said, but to this day I wonder.

For the first time, I did consider an abortion. I had struggled so hard and still had a long way to go. I would be alone with three children. Yes, I spent many painful hours considering my options. In the end, I went forward with the pregnancy.

Unhappily, the baby died at some point around the eighth month. Labor was induced and my would-be daughter, Beth, was born dead, as expected.

“Just as well,” said an insensitive nurse who had been unpleasant and angry from the time she learned I was unmarried. It was not just as well. It was a bitter, sorrowful event. In spite of the difficult circumstances, I wanted that child with all my heart. The nurse did not press charges when I punched her in the face.

In my thirties, stable and remarried, I wanted another child, a child born to a mother and a father. I wanted that stick to turn blue and think, oh wonderful! Not, oh hell, what am I going to do? Twice I conceived and twice I miscarried, once at 12 weeks and once at 14 weeks.

Apparently my uterus had decided enough was enough. My brain came to agree with it and told my body to have a tubal ligation.

So now, here’s my stand on abortion

My decisions were my own, based on what felt right for me. I do not judge the choices others may make. I’ve held the hands of women close to me while they made this difficult and painful decision, accompanied them to the clinic, cared for them and comforted them afterwards. But these were all early pregnancy abortions.

If an abortion is deemed necessary (for whatever reason,) in my opinion, it must be done as early as possible, preferably in the first eight weeks, before the nervous system is functioning and certainly never later than the twelfth week. To me, that is the line in the sand. 

I am decidedly opposed to late term abortions and consider them a savage act that should be against the law. The idea of partial birth abortions -- in fact abortion is not the right term here. Let's call it what it is: the killing of a newborn -- this is beyond my imagination. How such an act can be considered anything less than wanton murder, let alone legal, let alone a medical procedure is truly disgusting.

It is my personal opinion that abortion rights have gone too far. While I am in agreement that no woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy and deliver a child against her will, there must be a point at which we say 'too late.' Many, in fact from my research I found most abortion providers draw the line at the first trimester, or 12 weeks. Only a few perform late term abortions. If I were in charge of the world, I would stop the practice.

But I also accept there may be exceptions where a late termination is deemed appropriate. I can’t think of one off- hand, but then my knowledge of medicine is superficial at best. Severe birth defects subjecting the child to a short life of misery and suffering? Perhaps. Another touchy area, here. The mother’s life is at risk? Certainly. 

The usual reasons given: a victim of rape or incest – surely such pregnancies can be terminated at the early stages. 

I believe the life and welfare of those already living, the mothers, must come first. For this reason, I remain neutral in the face of early pregnancy terminations. In other words, if you can’t get it together to do what you feel you must by eight weeks, twelve at the extreme outer limit, you should have your baby. If you can’t provide the child a decent life, there are many who would love to adopt, as just one option.

So, with that proviso, color me pro-choice. Which means I am for the right of others to choose for themselves, not pro abortion.

But what I am really is 'pro' birth control and the accessibility of birth control to all women. Such a program would obviate the need for abortion to a large degree. Abortion is, and should be considered a secondary choice, to be used only when other methods fail and the situation and conditions require the woman make that decision.

And her decision it must be, and remain. 

This article is about reproductive rights and choices, not the ethics of abortion. Across this land, the rights of women to decide when and how to avoid pregnancy and deal with pregnancy are under attack. The emergence of the authoritarian, patriarchal state is not a figment of the imagination. Come with me on a cross-country tour of laws, tabled legislation and downright bizarre and frightening proposals.

Thank you for reading this article. It is long; it is disturbing and it is an emotionally charged issue and the culmination of several weeks of research and painstaking writing. Still, it is important that we all understand what is happening, and what is at stake.

Sincerely yours,


Friday, February 18, 2011

The Restaurant Trade -- equitable employers or sweat shops?

It's a job but is it a living?
"You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." —President George W. Bush, to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005
Much of the world laughed at these words, but the sad truth of today’s economy means this is reality for many: multiple part-time jobs. In these trying times when jobs are scarce and the jobless plentiful, any kind of employment may be seen as a godsend for those trying to keep body and soul together.

The restaurant trade is a labor intensive industry and most, due to the nature of the work and often grueling schedules required, suffer high staff turnover and are always hiring. Or so it seems.

Do they offer a reasonable solution for those desperate for work – any work?
What’s it like, working in a restaurant these days?

This writer decided to find out. Come with me as I join the legions of workers in the restaurant trade.

For the purposes of this article, the restaurant industry does not refer to the five-Michelin-star establishments where dinner bills are tallied in the hundreds, but the ho-hum- everyday-every-city restaurants, the national chains such as, Outback, Olive Garden, Chili’s, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, Denny’s, Red Lobster, Hooters – those restaurants that dot the American landscape. In fact, in most suburban areas, the corporate chains make up 95% of dining out choices, at an average cost of $13.99 per plate.

The myth

According to Tom Emmer (Republican candidate (unsuccessful) for the office of Governor of Minnesota,) minimum wage legislation for the restaurant trade should be removed as “some wait-staff are making $100,000/year in tips,” and the money saved could be used “to stimulate more employment.”

Let’s leave aside if such a lofty income is probable or even possible for the moment, and the question of how removing minimum wages might create more employment – which beggars the imagination – or how it would do anything other than increase the profitability of the corporate restaurant entity, and take a look at what tips mean to the restaurant industry.

What happens when you leave a tip for your server in a restaurant?

Did you know the money you leave as a gratuity actually goes toward bringing a large percentage of the restaurant’s workers up to minimum wage? That’s right.

Here in Florida, the labor law as applied to restaurants is worded like this:
“An employee who regularly receives tips as a part of his or her pay also receives, under federal and Florida law, a minimum wage of $4.23/hr. In order to have this exemption from the minimum wage apply, the employee must regularly receive more than $30 per month in tips, and be allowed to keep all of his or her tips. The tips plus wages combined must add up to at least the $7.25 per hour minimum.”

(In perspective: The minimum wage of $7.25 per hour means I would have to work 27 hours just to pay my electricity bill for January of $193.00. My home (mortgage, insurance and taxes) requires my earnings of another 124 hours each month. My little car, costing me $150 month needs all the fruits of my labor for 21 hours. I would work 2 hours in order to purchase one meal in the restaurant in which I work.)
However, in the realm of the corporate restaurant, practice is otherwise.

Servers are required to enter their tips into the computer system for each shift and a portion goes into the ‘tip-sharing pool’ to be shared with those staff also deemed ‘tipable,’ such as the host or hostess, the food runners who assist in serving, the bartender, the ‘expo’ (quality control person who gives final approval on each dish before it is served.) All of these positions are considered tip-earning and paid only the base of $4.23 even though they do not directly receive gratuities from the patrons.

Yes, that 15-20% of your bill you so generously leave in appreciation of good service does not rest in the pocket of the hopefully smiling server, but supplements the restaurant’s employee costs across the board.

(In case you were thinking "well don't claim all your tips, then," consider this. In every restaurant there are sections more popular than others, and assignment to the better sections is based on your performance -- which is measured by your tips to sales ratio. So if you don't claim all your tips in order to put some in your pocket, you will find yourself working the four tables right beside the kitchen where nobody wants to sit and is unhappy if placed there, making less money anyway. Yes, sir, they got you every which way.)

Did you know?
Neither did I.

Meet lmmartin, hostess

Follow the link below to share in my adventures as a hostess in a local restaurant, part of a national chain. 

I hope you enjoy this inside view of the labor practices of the restaurant trade. It only cost me a few weeks of hard work, and two very sore feet.

Sincerely yours,


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What makes a writer?

Recently, I began asking myself what makes a writer. When does someone who dabbles in words earn the right to say "I'm a writer?"  These days, we're overrun with the products of a myriad of would-be's and wannabe's. Where is the line, and what does it take to truly be a writer?

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

By strictest definition, the term writer applies to anyone who writes. Period. Even a grocery list has a writer, after all. 
Therefore, anyone who jots down words can call themselves a writer (and often does.) These days, everyone fancies themselves ‘writerly’ and we seem to have more writers than readers out there.

Why is this?

We are a species of compulsive communicators; this much is sure. Should a naturalist from another planet do a documentary about us -- a la National Geographic -- we’d likely appear nothing more than a huge flock of birds all screeching at the top of our lungs. A huge gaggle of gabbers.
Our drive to communicate has much to do with the success of our species. That’s why we developed language, and since the invention, we have been driven to share our thoughts and often, to record them for posterity. Throughout human history we’ve told stories, made speeches, given sermons, and we’ve written it all down. 

Oh how we write! Letters, essays, journals, stories, books of all sorts. We’ve amassed knowledge in written form in great libraries, lost them, and written them all again – many times over.

No sooner does a human have a thought than he is driven to share it.

It’s what we are.

First, what is it we are attempting to do when we sit down to write? 

That's easy. We want to communicate. But what are we communicating?  What is it that makes a writer in the full sense of the word, as opposed to just someone who writes?

Is it our ideas?

We all have ideas, but I once read that if we have even one original idea in our lifetime we are so exceptional – and the metaphor escapes me, the chances are so astronomical. Despite all the feel-good pop-psychology telling us the opposite, our views, experiences, opinions are unlikely to be unique. Yes, yes, I know. We are all individuals and as such own a perspective entirely our own. If that were enough to be a writer, the planet is littered with writers. Seven billion of them.

I found an interesting quote addressing this ego-driven idea.
“The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors, and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of "We are all writers!" The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact that he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before it's too late. Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.” -- Milan Kundera
The very idea we are so special, so unique, so distinctive, exclusive, one-of-a-kind is the one thing we share with every other single person in the world.

No, our ideas are not enough to make us a writer. On the other hand, it’s impossible to be a writer without ideas.

But how many of us express ideas that are truly our own?

Do we give thought, analysis, evaluation, study opposing views, and  come to a considered conclusion? Not many. Most of us regurgitate the unexamined product of our programming (and yes we are programmed and very skillfully, too) without thought. We echo the words of our heroes sans question.

 Is this writing? (I mean real writing.)

I don’t think so.
Is it how we express our ideas?

Certainly, a facility with language is a necessity. One needs a decent vocabulary and the ability to use it.

Which brings up my favorite complaint.

A writer must have a strong grasp of the skills of writing. It amazes me how many not only sit down and write without any idea of construction, style or grammar, but publish the outcome!  Run-on sentences, lack of paragraph structure, poor grammar, no punctuation or poorly used punctuation, lack of consistent tense, shifting in point of view, improper conjugation of verbs – need I go on?

Can a lawyer practice without understanding the law? Can an architect design a house without knowledge of basic engineering? Can a doctor heal without studying anatomy?

Why then, oh why, do so many decide they are writers without a grasp of the tools of the trade? If you want to be a writer, then learn how. There are many, many places to do so.

Learn that a sentence has a subject and a predicate. And only one. Understand that a paragraph deals with one idea, one point of view, one speaker and when that changes, you need a new paragraph. That’s a start.

It’s not enough to gush out words. If they’re unintelligible, what’s the point? If reading your work is tedious, requiring great effort to understand, boring -- or worse having no voice, no point of view, no skill, no one is going to read it.
With considerable amusement I followed a forum  on Hubpages that asked: “Which is more important, grammar and punctuation or ideas?” Many argued that style and construction were of no importance in our modern world, and as long as you were understood, who cared? In fact, they were the majority. I went to read some of their work. I didn’t stay long. No matter how brilliant they thought their ideas, what they produced was babble. Insult intended. Don't ask me to give attention and thought to something scribbled off with no effort.

Have a little pride in what you do. You want to be a writer? Learn the ropes. Don't dash off any old thing and hang it out in the public eye. Use those tools anyone with any pretensions of being a writer should have at hand.

I’ve been a writer my entire life. I teach; I coach and I edit. Here I am with fifty years of practice to my name and I still keep three books beside my computer:
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Grammar: Writing, usage and style
I use them often. I do not rely on spellcheck, or Word (which can’t even recognize a sentence.) I've studied the mechanics of writing for years, and I'm still learning.

A writer must know how to write. That’s the first rule, and while it may be bent from time to time, it can never be broken.
Is that it? All we need is an idea and the skills of language? No, there’s much more.

  • A voice.  All good writers develop a voice, a style of writing, a tone recognizable as his in everything he writes. (I should add I don’t speak of ‘content’ writing which has no soul; after all, computers are competing with humans to do that. I speak of writing of artistic merit.) Real writers do this, but no one can say exactly what it is, where it comes from, how one gets it. It just is. Perhaps it's a case of some having the gift…

No, I don’t think so. I think the voice develops with practice, with a body of work. It’s unconscious, most likely, but grows as our experience and facility with writing does. I think it’s born of confidence. My favorite hubbers here have it. I can read their work and know immediately who wrote it.

They are not those who write in encyclopedic style, nor those writing what amounts to ad copy, though if they did write in those formats, it would still be their voice. There is a flavor to their work that defies description and this is what makes their words writerly.

  • Style. Part of voice, maybe, style also comes to a writer with practice and experience. Some writers just have a special touch, a way of turning a phrase, the use of simile, metaphor, vivid word usage that leaves us feeling satisfied, knowing we’ve read a real writer.

The development of style relies on having that necessary grasp of the tools of writing, without which it is an attainable goal. Sentence structure and how to vary it, the development of a certain rhythm, pacing and its usage, word selection and finding just the right one -- we’re right back at the last section. Without the skills …

“But I write naturally,” says the one who believes the term writer belongs to anyone who puts words on paper. And now we’re back to ego.” I’m so special and what I have to say so original and important, the rules of writing don’t apply to me.” Yes, it’s true some writers write outside the normal boundaries, and successfully, too. But understand, they do so with a full understanding of writing. They haven’t done this because they don’t know any better – they can break the rules because they are so skillful, they make it work.

Oh for the love of humanity, you cry, will you stop belaboring the point?

Okay. I hope it has been taken.

There’s one thing left to discuss. An absolute necessity.

A writer needs to use his soul.  A writer must write with honesty, with empathy, with understanding. A writer must write from deep within himself, must express that inner vision that speaks to the reader and finds common ground within that reader.

Which means what? First, write truthfully.  If you’re writing from your fingertips only, your words will be nothing more than that – superficial, empty, vacuous.  If something has moved you enough to write about it, then you must have feelings on the subject. Use them. Express them.

After all, your truth, your honest reactions – that is what the reader wants to share. 

We are trying to communicate, are we not? 

Sincerely yours,