Fiftieth Anniversary of ’64 Civil Rights Legislation

Combining the 1964 Civil Rights Legislation and the problem of starter marriages (which last only a year or two) in The Accidental Marriage, might seem like a stretch, but women moving into the workplace in the 1970′s strained marriages and poked and prodded society’s concept of the roles of men and women.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Much has changed in fifty years. My grandfather, a delightful man, raised five children without ever changing a diaper or washing a dish, because my grandmother would have been horrified if he had. In 1964 sexual harassment was normal, comic relief, innocent teasing. Women were only paid sixty percent of what men earned for the same work because that was fair market value. How much of societal change is the direct result of the Civil Rights Act? Probably a lot; and here’s something most people don’t know: the legislation almost didn’t pass.
A wily group of southern senators tried to put the kibosh on the whole thing by including equal rights for women–a repugnant notion. I wasn’t there but I can imagine them plotting and scheming in a back room blue with cigar smoke. I can almost hear them speak with their hair slicked back and dark rimmed spectacles resting on their noses.

In a green leather club chair with his skinny legs crossed at the knee, Smith, the Senior Senator from Virginia drawled, “It will pass. I swear it will. They have the votes.” He tapped a half inch of ash into a candy dish. “Lyndon will ram it down our throats.”
Eastland, a cotton planter from Mississippi had held his senate seat longer than them all. “He’s got dirt on everyone alive.”
“Then let’s add something to the legislation,” Smith said. “Something so repugnant the American people will reject it out of hand.” He unsheathed his fountain pen and scratched a word across a paper napkin. “Sex.”
Senator Elliot chuckled, “You’re going to toss women in the stew?”
“Sure,” Smith rolled a cigar between the tips of his fingers. “If they want to outlaw racial and religious discrimination, we’ll make them include women.”
“Women’s groups will be holding teas and writing their congressmen.” Eastland grinned. “Add gender and the civil rights act will go up in smoke. None of those gals wants to get up in the morning and go to work.”
“Gentlemen,” Smith dropped his empty glass on the table as though it were a period at the end of a sentence. “We have found our solution, and I for one, am going home.”
Standing at the far end of the room in half light, the young woman who’d been mixing drinks and passing sandwiches all evening bit down on her tongue. She needed this paycheck. When Senator Long reached his meaty fingers down the front of her shirt and tucked a five dollar bill in her bra, she forced herself to smile and wish him a good night.

In spite of the best efforts of that handful of good ole boys to derail the Civil Rights Act, it passed. But then what? How do you enforce an attitude, or police an off color remark, an unwanted touch, or an unjust promotion?
Shared parenting and domestic compromises, which seem so simple today, were a novelty in 1964. My son has three little children. He’s in charge of baths and bedtime; he’s an excellent cook, a pillar of his church, an MBA, and knows his way around a dirty diaper. In fifty years, much has changed. Thank Heaven.

Happily Ever After

My most recent teaching assignment was in an urban high school squeezed between a strip mall and a row of used car dealerships. The only students remotely interested in educational pursuits had been siphoned off into the AP courses, and the other seniors (that I was assigned to teach) were enduring their last few months of seat time before the public education system unleashed them on society. I intentionally saved ghosts, death most foul (poison dribbled into the ear), berserk girlfriends, and shameless mothers for the endless month of February, but even Hamlet couldn’t hold the interest of the last section of senior English before lunch.
One dreary day, I set Hamlet aside and said, “Take out a piece of paper. Let’s fast forward ten years and project where you’ll be.” Suddenly, they were completely engaged–energized. Their specificity amazed me. They knew the square footage of their two story homes in posh neighborhoods; they knew the make, model, and color of the cars in the garage; without a doubt, they were all going to be airline pilots, doctors, dentists, lawyers, or highly successful entrepreneurs; they knew the number of children they were going to have, and every single student (except the pot head on the second row who was gazing out the window at nothing in particular) was going to be happily married, svelte, and always know what bands were cool. When I asked them what steps they were going to take (starting today) to achieve those goals, I faced a sea of blank faces. I wanted to cry. Even if their names didn’t match their guardians’ surnames listed in the computer, they were absolutely positive they were going to have successful marriages–as though happily ever after were etched in their brains.
The thought of a handful of species–swans, bald eagles, wolves, vultures, turtle doves, and love birds–that mate for life brings a soft warm glow to the center of our chests. Show us a wrinkled, toothless couple married for sixty-seven years, and we give a heartfelt sigh and smile. We love the thought of monogamy, we want it, we need it, it makes us healthy and live longer. So why, do nearly fifty percent of marriages in the U.S. fail? Three years ago six adorable young people in my neighborhood bounced back home in emotional shreds after less than a year or two–because their marriages failed. Why?
I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I’ve tried to address the questions in my new novel, The Accidental Marriage. Hopefully, we can look at that person in the mirror who brushes our teeth each morning and have a serious conversation about how we contribute to the success or failure of new marriages, middle-aged marriages, or those nuptials that have endured nearly to the end.

A Gift of Tongues

I have a new short story, “A Gift of Tongues” in the Fall issue of Dialogue. What’s it about? Global warming, drought, raging pandemics that kill small children and old people, the Seventh  Article of Faith, the solidarity of women, and the futility of coloring gray hair. In short, there is something for everyone who enjoys being anxious.

Years ago, I was in a lit class at the University of Iowa taught by David Morrell, the man who gave the world Rambo. We were reading  Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, or a Novel as History by Norman Mailer, as talented an old rascal as ever there was one. Prof. Morrell was being fairly condescending about Mailer when a student–probably all of nineteen–raised his hand in the back of the class and said (without being called upon), “How can you criticize Mailer when you write the kind of stuff you do?”

The room of a hundred students was dead quiet. Morrell gave the kid a long stony gaze. I could almost see the D- flashing in his eyes. Then he spoke in measured tones–no dopey student was going to get under his skin–”We write what moves us or what frightens us, or we rewrite the endings of our own stories.” The guy was quick on his toes. He just happened to be a close personal friend of Stephen King and said that Mr. King, who is ridiculously rich, sits at his keyboard and terrifies himself. He concluded by essentially saying that Rambo might not be great literature, but the franchise has afforded him a very nice lifestyle. Yes, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

I wasn’t the mouthy kid in the back of the room. I was a mother of three small children who carved out a few hours a week to stretch her brain, and that morning I took every word to heart. When I wrote this story, everything that terrifies me about climate change and over population and the last days came down though my fingers and onto the page. The conclusion is the only one that gives me any hope.

A New Book: An Accidental Marriage

Nothing happens and then EVERYTHING happens at once. The big news is a contract for a new book, An Accidental Marriage. Ta Dah! Release date: December 2013.

Combining the problem of starter marriages (which last only a year or two) and the 1964 Civil Rights Legislation might seem like a stretch, but women moving into the workplace in the 1970′s strained marriages and poked and prodded society’s concept of the roles of men and women. I’ve tackled serious issues in this novel, but young love and new marriages are inherently comic, and I have to admit, writing this story was a lot of fun.

I hope An Accidental Marriage will appeal to anyone who has successfully navigated the first years of marriage as well as those folks who have floundered. The story is set in the early 1970′s, an interesting decade when gender roles were shifting. The groom in this tale is very traditional; the bride is not. After a tumultuous courtship, Nina, the main character, finds herself teaching at a junior high, learning to keep house in a miniscule apartment, and living with a young man who doesn’t know anymore about being married than she does.  Intimacy, cooking, laundry, lesson plans, and a tug-of-war with a possessive m other-in-law prove to be more new experiences than Nina can successfully manage.

At work, Nina is plagued by sexual harassment, a term not yet coined, which twists the plot and drives Nina to deception. She’s caught in the social cross-currents of the burgeoning women’s movement; her young husband refuses to compromise his rigid expectations; and consequently, the young marriage teeters on the brink of failure.

An Accidental Marriage

Part One

     Nina Rushforth was not raised to be a failure, anything but. The lofty expectations in her parent’s stately brick home were almost palpable, and now she can’t believe the disappointment her life has become. Standing at the black board with thirty-six pair of young eyes watching her face, Nina grasps a stick of chalk in her fist, and using a yardstick, she draws an intricate web of white lines. Swallowing hard and forcing a tight smile, she bisects the baseline with a quick horizontal stroke and hands the chalk to a freckled boy sitting in the front row.

     ”Okay George, do your stuff. Fill in the subject and the verb.”

     In the back of the extraordinarily long room, a spit wad flies through the air and sticks with a silent splat to a construction paper daisy decorating the edge of the bulletin board. Giggling, Robbie Eder peels another strip of paper off his assignment and crams it in his mouth like a couple of dry sticks of gum. Nina notices but she doesn’t care. Rowdy boys flipping spit wads are at the bottom of her list. Newlyweds or not, her husband didn’t come home last night–that makes eleven days in a row–and she wonders if he’s ever coming home at all, and how will she keep breathing if he doesn’t?

       Slapping her hands together as though she’s announcing a party with streamers and hats and a box of silly favors, she asks the class, “And the direct object?” The guest at this party. “Where does it go?”

      Sounding like she’s responding to a dapper game show host, Amanda Church sings out, “After the verb.” Nina can only give the girl a significant nod, because at that particular moment nothing can bypass the lump lodged in her throat. But crying is not an option, not in front of a classroom of farm kids–not in front of anyone. Jill Ferney tiptoes to the front of the room and hands her a wrinkled pink tissue.

     Sighing, Nina drops the chalk in the railing next to the black felt erasers. Blaming her well-intentioned father or her domineering mother-in-law, blaming the vile type teacher out in the portables or the curmudgeon in the front office, is simple during the day, but not so simple at three a.m. when she dreams the sound of her young husband’s key in the lock. Night after night she stumbles out of bed blinking through thick glasses balanced on her nose–and opens the door to nothing. Standing in the cool breeze, feeling the goose bumps rise on her skin, she knows she has only herself to blame.



Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

At the Haws household, this has been a year of odd coincidences and miraculous occurrences.  We have discovered that not only do Charlotte, Betsy, and I share the exact same shoe size, but unbeknownst to each other, we also have been using the same three word password—no kidding, to the letter– which I would share except that Charlotte has declared that disclosure would destroy her life. Suffice to say, it involves the continuous consumption of iconic American pastries—not Twinkies.

Charlie and I celebrated our  wedding anniversary on the very same day and in the very same place—Sun Valley, Idaho—where the journey began.  It was a lovely week and included a day organized by Betsy at Red Fish Lake where Pete and Ben caught and released eighteen fish, or maybe they caught the same really stupid fish eighteen times. No one is sure. The fish isn’t talking.

In April Charlotte moved to Portland, Oregon “where young people go to retire,” but not Charlotte who is diligently working in a large gynecological-oncology practice.  Half of her income goes to student loans which will finally be repaid when she’s white haired, but she is not deterred because she loves her job; in particular, Dr. Tseng, a hilarious doctor Charlie’s age, who has assigned himself the task of being Charlotte’s mentor and life coach. Thank Heaven.  Charlotte has lots of Dr. Tseng stories, but our favorite is his entry into an exam room occupied by a cervical cancer patient. His opening remark was, “Well, Mary, let’s get to the bottom of your bottom.” Obviously, he and Charlotte are kindred spirits.

Betsy has left the world of corporate law to work for Salt Lake City as a civil litigator. Not only has Betsy become very stylish, she also argued her first case before the State Supreme Court, and you can be certain her mother was in the audience critiquing her performance.  Her office is in the old City County building (haunted by five ghosts—no relation) where my grandfather worked when I was a little girl. There’s some symmetry there. Bets ran her first triathlon in July. I was her Sherpa.

Pete continues to be beset by the difficulties of managing a busy pharmacy.  He was horrified last summer to discover that in addition to being unable to alphabetize and spell instructions on labels correctly, none of the techs could pass the naturalization test.  No one knew the answers to the first three or four questions, like what country the colonists fought in the Revolutionary War.  So now, Pete is conducting an afterhours seminar on American Civics for his staff.

Andy and Nollie have a new baby daughter, Lauryn Elizabeth, obviously named after Lauren Bacall  . . . and Elizabeth after Andy’s sister, my aunt, Charlie’s sister, Charlie’s grandmother, Bess Dunn, and the Queen of England. So the little namesake will be theatrical, adversarial, creative, loyal, lovely, flamboyant, and regal. I think Andy has his bases covered.  Good luck, Baby.  Ben and Lucy, her older siblings, alternate between being completely adorable and totally berserk.

Andy also purchased a piano. He told me he felt like a void in his life has been filled.  It’s grossly unfair that after spending umpteen hours sharing the piano bench with four children as they practiced, I can’t read a note, play a Christmas carol, or hum a tune on key.  I keep thinking that if I could just rearrange the furniture in my head, I might find the missing piano. What are the chances?

We feel very grateful this year. We have all the organs we started out with a year ago, and no bones or treaties were broken. We haven’t lost any of the people we love. We’ve forgotten what it is we don’t remember, so who cares?  Merry Christmas anyway! And a happy whatever it is that comes at the first of the year.