Some years ago I was surprised to learn that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my mother and her girlfriends — all military wives — had seriously talked about moving off the Air Force base we lived on and into a big house together. This was more than a daydream kicked about over coffee and cigarettes — these women, whose husbands (including my dad) were on full alert and sequestered at barracks for two weeks, really wanted to set up a sanctuary where everyone would presumably have a fun time waiting out the apocalypse. Last week I was startled again. My sister, Patricia, a 33-year-old mother of an 18-month-old son, told me that she and other mothers have been having nightmares triggered by the impending war. It struck me that my sister and her friends were probably experiencing the same kind of fears Iraqi mothers have been harboring for more than a decade. Here is what they told me:
“I have two boys, 5 and 3. In one dream both of them fell into some water — a bay, I think. I had to jump in but I could only save one and had to choose which one. So I saved the older one because he was closer. Then I went back in the water but the younger one had sunk to the bottom. I never had these types of dreams before, ever, but now I've had so many and they've been ongoing. I'm not religious but the dreams are Armageddon-type nightmares — a lot of fire and brimstone, with me having to save my kids and feeling hopeless. A couple have had crashing planes in them. The apocalyptic ones are definitely war-related.” (Victoria, writer and waitress.)
“In one nightmare Sam [her husband] comes home from work early and I ask him why — it's only 6 a.m. and the baby's still sleeping. He tells me the Bomb has landed and a toxic gas has been released. I look out the window and everything is red, yellow and smoky. Then I realize I'm going to die. I go to the baby but fall down from the gas. My dilemma is, Do I wake the baby — because I want to hold him while we're both dying — or leave him in his crib, because maybe he'll have a pain-free death if he doesn't wake up.
“In another dream, I find out it's the end of the world — a nuclear bomb is on the way. I call up Mom and Dad and they tell me, 'Yeah, it's over.' Then it's clear that it's the end of Los Angeles and I'm going to die, but what's so heartbreaking is that I have to kill my baby before it happens, because I don't want him to suffer. I have to find a hypodermic needle and then find a 'suicide solution' and inject it into the baby. I cried for days after just thinking about that dream.” (Patricia, homemaker.)
“I've had several where I have to protect my daughters, who are 5 and 7. In the scariest one, my children and I were hiding from some kind of Arab soldiers in a field. I had spread us out so that my youngest child was to my right and my oldest was to my left. There were thousands of men marching through the field looking for people. At some point they found my youngest daughter and pulled her up and two guys had her by the arms and were about to tear her apart. I realized that I had to shoot her and then figure out a way to somehow shoot my other daughter before I got shot. The dream never progresses to the point where I pull the trigger. I felt what it is like to completely give up hope. If the intention of September 11 was to make plain old people here understand what it's like to live in Palestine or a place like it, it succeeded.” (Rezi, real estate agent.)
The “moms with nightmares,” as Rezi calls her friends, are not alone.
“As a pediatrician, I can tell you that all my patients are concerned about the effects of the war on their children,” said Dr. Paul Fleiss, who practices medicine in Los Feliz.
“Oh yes, I think moms are very frightened by the war,” says Dr. Lois V. Nightingale, an Orange County clinical psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression. “I'm even seeing older moms with 18-year-old sons upset. They see a connection between their toddlers and their sons eventually going to war. I also have seen an awful lot of postpartum depression — more than any time in the 13 years I've been practicing.”
Some of the cause, thinks Nightingale, who runs the Nightingale Center Healthcare Services in Yorba Linda, is part of a collective Jungian dream, although another part is found in the financial and existential uncertainty of these times.
“Life-and-death situations intensify the fears of mothers, who instinctually feel threatened by war,” she says. “Moms have these fantasies of ways their children could die and they rehearse these possibilities through what-ifs — even if they have to picture themselves as the perpetrators.”
As of this writing, the nightmare of the world's mothers remains a mere rehearsal, although that may have changed by the time you read this.
Consider this a dispatch from the borderland between parenting and politics.
On a recent weekday morning, my wife, Rae, and our 4-year-old daughter Sophie sat at the breakfast table, playing a “Who's that?” game with pictures in The New York Times.
“Who's that?” Sophie called out in her gravelly sing-song. “That's Michael Jackson,” Rae responded. “That's Nicole Kidman.” “That's Siegfried and Roy.” After a while, Rae turned to the front page. As is the norm in these dark days of aggression, she was greeted by the pinched and scolding glare of our prevaricator-in-chief. “Who's that?” Sophie asked. When Rae answered, “That's George Bush,” our daughter did not hesitate. “Fucking asshole,” Sophie said.
From the bedroom, I heard Rae's voice arc in astonishment: “Sophie. Don't use those words.” As I wondered what had happened, Rae appeared in the doorway, face crumpled in laughter, eyes tearing and red. “You won't believe this,” she began as she told me the story, pausing every now and then to laugh again. This is what no one tells you about parenthood, that your children are funny, especially when they're saying what kids shouldn't say. The problem, though, is once they see you laughing, any attempt at heading off their behavior is already a lost cause.
Of course, the thing about Sophie's outburst was that I wasn't sure I wanted to head off her behavior — at least not the message she had sent. It's not that I have any desire to hear my 4-year-old utter phrases like “fucking asshole,” but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't proud of her just the same. Sophie, after all, had nailed it absolutely: She'd used the right language, in the proper context, with pitch-perfect timing and grace. More to the point, she was expressing something I had taught her, if not quite in so many words. I am the political ranter in our family, the parent who rails against the president, who sees the right as un-American, as the enemy. I am the parent who tells my children not to trust either major party, who talks about our patriotic duty to dissent. I am the parent who swears and curses, the one who cannot keep my mouth in check. I am, in other words, the parent responsible not just for Sophie's sentiments, but for her choice of phrasing, because that is exactly how I describe my political adversaries.
A few years ago, I might have regarded all this somewhat differently, through a filter of restraint. During the summer of 2000, I watched Bill Clinton address the Democratic National Convention on television with my then-6-year-old son Noah, who bubbled with excitement at the idea of actually seeing the president. That night, I held my tongue, kept my own counsel, did not reveal that I considered Clinton little better than a two-bit huckster who had sold out the left at virtually every turn. Back then, it still seemed important to preserve a veneer of idealism, of objectivity, to give my son the illusion of a better world.
These days, however, that better world has become a bizarro world, in which everything — race, class, peace, international relations — is upside down. We live in a rogue nation now, where, as William Butler Yeats once wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” In such an environment, what do I tell my children when they ask me what I think? It seems a lie to talk about respect when we have a president so disrespectful of our institutions that he literally hijacked an election he didn't win. It seems another lie to discuss objectivity when what currently passes for objectivity is just a thinly veiled façade of propaganda — pro-war, pro-business, anti-civil rights. Parenting is, at heart, a matter of moral responsibility, and never more so than in a morally uncertain world. Yes, you might argue, I am biasing my daughter, but when almost every cultural message seems designed to co-opt her, isn't that my job?
Ultimately, I didn't talk to Sophie about her language, although if I had, here is what I might have said: It may not be okay to call someone a fucking asshole, but it is important to talk about how you feel. For those who think a 4-year-old is too young to know her own mind . . . well, I must admit I have no real defense. Except for this: If nothing else, at least she'll never have to wage a war to get approval from her dad.
—David L. Ulin
It's 3:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon and 17-year-old Andrea Garavito is surrounded by three friends at a Los Feliz coffeehouse — two pretty Latina girls and a 16-year-old with chin-length hair and glasses named Daniel Paredes.
“We call ourselves SOPA, Students Organizing for People's Alliance,” says Andrea, whose brown, doll eyes are traced with liquid liner. “We are not part of any club. We are a student movement that has a cause, and that cause is No War on Iraq.”
Yesterday, Andrea and her cohorts organized an anti-war protest at John ä Marshall High School as part of National School Walk-off Day. Approximately 500 students gathered on the football field to form a human peace sign, listen to speeches and then march around the block, mostly to the sounds of supportive cheers and honking horns.
“If you unite together, you can make a difference,” says Andrea softly, her streaked hair pulled back behind her left ear. She wears a “War is not the answer” button on her bomber jacket.
While Thursday marked SOPA's first political outing, Andrea, whose mom is a maid and whose dad works two jobs in restaurant management, has been an activist in her Elysian Valley community, a.k.a. “Frogtown,” since middle school.
“I've been doing this since I was 14,” says Andrea, who has an internship with L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, tutors fellow students, and is one of the youngest females ever to be elected to a neighborhood council in Los Angeles.
For Andrea, the chance to apply her skills to help like-minded students was an exciting one. “Daniel showed me the flier for the national walkout and we said, 'This can be our kickoff.'”
They approached Ms. Eldridge, Daniel's journalism teacher, for support.
“She backed us up all the way,” explains Andrea, fingering a manila envelope that holds a scholarship application. “We met with the administration. We started meeting every day during lunch. We met after school. We started in Ms. Eldridge's room and moved to the library, and then we moved to the room where Amnesty International was meeting. We teamed up with them and started spreading the word.”
“Handing out fliers,” interjects Daniel, who has pictures of Subcommandante Marcos, Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata on his gray T-shirt. “I'm really into the Mexican revolution.”
The “staff writer” for the school paper credits Eldridge for turning his academic life around. “I was a really bad student before Ms. Eldridge,” says Daniel.
“She helped me out a lot. I had straight fails for the whole semester. After I got in her class she had a talk with me, like a serious talk. Who was I really harming? I was harming myself. I was like, 'That's true.'”
“My girlfriend, she helped me too,” he adds. “That's my girlfriend.” Daniel points across the table to Jessica Jaimenez, a petite 17-year-old with shiny dark hair that falls into her eyes like Veronica Lake.
“I started seeing that people really cared. I thought, 'Maybe I should focus my energy elsewhere.' I started reading a lot. Just trying to make myself a better person.” Daniel now has “five A's and a B.”
Andrea says her inspiration came from her grandfather. After coming to Los Angeles 30 years ago, Andrea's grandfather was a bracero picking oranges. “He missed the whole farm workers movement but he tells stories about Cesar Chavez.”
Later, he got a job baking bread and eventually started buying property in her neighborhood, on land that once housed orange fields. Andrea says he only charges tenants $530 in rent, although the market rate is $800.
“My grandfather told me, 'When I was your age I just walked out of my parents' home in Mexico and said, I have to pursue a better life.' He only had $10 in his pocket,” Andrea explains. “He didn't even go to third grade. Currently, he doesn't even know how to read and write. He told me, 'Never give up. Be anything you want to be, as long as you're the best. Even if you're a maid. Even though I worked the fields, I always tried my best to be the best.'”
“That's like my father,” adds Daniel. “My dad got here in '72. They immigrated here through the hills and everything. That whole story. They are not even real citizens so they don't vote. Yesterday, when I got home, they gave me a big hug for what I did.”
We Have Our Issues
LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS
In recent Senate hearings, Ernest W. Lefever, President Reagan's choice for “State Department human rights watchdog” (as the L.A. Times describes the office), told us how we can distinguish our friends — the Forces of Good — from our enemies — the Forces of Evil. According to Lefever, it's very simple, really: the Forces of Evil are totalitarians, while on the other hand, the Forces of Good are only authoritarians.
—Hollywood Primary, a group of
“weekend satirists” which included
Ed Begley Jr., from “Who's Who in Human Rights,” June 26, 1981.