creative non-fiction

Factory Ladies

One of my first jobs was working in a phonograph needle factory.  And, no, this is NOT a piece of flash fiction set in the distant past.  Before you get too far ahead of yourself in guessing my age, I was a “kid.”  I worked with a couple of other “kids” on a part-time basis and we worked alongside a group of full-timers, all women, called respectfully, “the ladies.”

These were not highly skilled, specialized jobs.  I think I worked fifteen hours a week, for five bucks an hour doing a menial, low-tech assembly line type of job involving little pieces of plastic, glue and a machine scientifically called “the squeezer.”  The Ladies performed only slightly more sophisticated processes full-time, for eight hours, five days a week.  When school was out we kids could work eight hour days, too.   Thankfully we had a cap on our weekly hours because it was mind-numbing work.  The glue would stick to my fingers creating weird bumps and the fumes would sometimes give me  headaches.   One of the ladies also did pink-collar admin work for the factory owner, a guy who bore a striking resemblance to Pop-Eye, except instead of a pipe he bobbled a burning cigarette between his lips. Clearly OSHA wasn’t very interested in monitoring suburban phonograph needle factories, because the place was one spark and a bucket away from an arson investigation.

I got the phonograph needle factory job from networking (before that was even considered a thing).   My good friend worked there and she recommended me.    It was a pretty easy job, it was local, and it gave us something to talk about other than school.  We were sixteen years old and marking time until our futures arrived.  Or rather, until we left town to meet up with Future at college.    And we were accomplished, eager eavesdroppers.  We knew when the Ladies dropped their voices low that they were gossiping about the owner. However, there were three main topics of general conversation:

  • Food, or more specifically what was for lunch and what were you planning to make for dinner that night.
  • Death, or more specifically what recently deceased bodies looked like.  Sometimes there was a spiritual component to the conversation: was there a hell?  Was promiscuity punishable by damnation?  There was one Lady who calmly maintained her existentialism and this seemed to upset one of her co-workers who was sure this  position would send her straight to Hell.   After these vigorous debates the Ladies would break and all eat lunch together.
  • And the most provocative topic was sex.   The most vocal and continuing debate was over the sexiness of Elvis Presley, Chad Everett (star of the TV drama,  Medical Center, 1969 – 1976 ) and  Richard Chamberlain (Golden Globe winner for Best Actor, 1962, as Dr. Kildare.  Also outed as gay in 1989.)    Again, television medicine did little to answer their questions about death, but it led to some serious romantic fantasy.  The Ladies did not censor themselves.  I took their openness as recognition of my own womanly maturity — mostly fantasy itself.

These women were earthy realists.  Of the five, only one was married.  The others were divorced. Two had children, and clearly the single women were self- supporting.  The Factory Ladies were very nurturing, proud and protective of us kids.  We kids treated them with respect and found out more about their lives — how different they were from ours and how hard they were.  Even though they didn’t expect that their work lives were going to change very much, they knew that we were on the edge of a transition we were still too dumb to comprehend.  Maybe they remembered themselves, fresh at their own thresholds, wondering what they would have done differently?  Or maybe they were just cheering us on.

The bulk of my spending scratch and college funding had been raised from some cushy and steady babysitting gigs ~ a stroke of financial good fortune brought on by a deficient teen social life.  All of the women I met growing up were either mothers or teachers.  I didn’t know any lawyers or doctors who were women, and most of my friends’ moms worked at part time jobs during school hours, if they worked outside the home at all.   I did get a subscription to Ms. Magazine as a Christmas gift from the progressive family I babysat for, and my parents insisted on personal independence for me and my sister, but I had little frame of reference about my career options.  Although I watched TV, went to movies and read books I just never internalized that I could make a living creating any of those things.  And I venture to add that neither did my parents.  But working alongside these women gave me some insight to the meaning of work, of camaraderie and how to navigate a difference of opinion, that respect is due to all types of work.  They may have asked us to refer to them as “ladies,” but they were working women.  To this day I cringe (and then say something. I aim for humorous, yet pointed) when I hear anybody say in any work-related context, “Have the girls do it.”  Or, “I’ll assign it to my girl.”   I’ve heard both men and women refer to their associates this way, and in the recent past.

Women work.






Dr. Alison Jolly 1937 — 2014

Dr. Alison Jolly passed away on February 6, 2014 at the age of 76.  She was a primatologist (who also happened to be a wife and mother of four) who rocked the science community with her research in evolutionary biology that challenged the assumption of male dominance among primates.  Until her work with the lemurs of Madagascar in the 1960’s, the default assumption was that males dominated females of every primate species (including humans).  This theory was based on behavioral studies of chimps and orangutans (and presumably humans) and how they developed weapons and tools.  Of course, if you think all of evolution could only move forward by these mechanical methods, than that might seem like a solid theory.  But Dr. Jolly found another facet of evolution: the ability to form social networks and mutual ties, or to “specialize in sociability.”

She was also a spearhead of environmental activism, and an advocate for preservation of Madagascar.   In 2006 the Microcebus jollyae, a new species of mouse lemur, was named in her honor.

Oh, and she also wrote a series of children’s books with a focus on environmental awareness:  The Ako Series:  Madagascar Lemur Adventures

I regret that I never learned about Dr. Jolly in school (and I can’t recall either of my daughters learning about her either), yet she’s a wonderful role model for both STEM education and career paths for women in research.   Instead of getting all riled up about “banning bossy,” and asking “How does she do it all?”  we should be promoting ways to support women and girls to pursue education and to amplify their voices in science, mathematics, economics and the arts.




A Tribute to Erma Bombeck 2/21/27 — 4/22/96

  • Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.”
  • “My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”
  • “There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”
  • “Mothers-in-law who wear a black armband to the wedding are expendable.”
  • “The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again.”
  • “Ironed Sheets are a health hazard.”
  • “Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage.”
  • “Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.”
  • “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'” (my personal favorite)
  • “In general, my children refused to eat anything that hadn’t danced on TV.”
  • “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
  • “Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”
  • “Never loan your car to anyone to whom you’ve given birth.”
  • “The grass is always greener over the septic tank.”
  • “A child needs your love more when he deserves it least.”
  • “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
  • “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.”
  • “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

Every single one of these quotes is from the Original Domestic Goddess, The Mother who started it all.  Without her there would have never been Roseanne Barr, or any number of TV Moms.   Even Chelsea Handler owes a debt of gratitude to the giant that is Erma Bombeck.  Did you know there is an Erma Bombeck Writers’ workshop hosted by her alma mater The University of Dayton?  Check it out here for 2014.

Growing up in suburbia in the 60’s and 70’s my most consistent role models were the teachers and moms I encountered daily.  Sure, I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show every Saturday night while babysitting, but I did not make the connection that a girl could grow up to be Tina Fey and write comedy.   I did read our local newspaper from cover to cover (marveling at both the  “Women’s News”  and “Help Wanted: Female” sections), and that is where I found Erma.  She was a voice of both reason and humor delivered in the discipline of a newspaper column ( I did imagine your could make a living writing a newspaper column, even though I had no clue how you would get such a job.).  And she gave credibility to stuff  my own mother alluded to about home-making and motherhood.  In a number of ways Aunt Erma did more to raise my consciousness than my neophyte subscription to Ms. magazine ever did, because she made it look like a “regular” person could capture (and legitimize) the feelings of many people.  Her humor and soul made her observations both disarming and spot-on.

So this week I’m celebrating a voice that left us way to soon.  If you are so inclined, please look for any of the following books in either your local library/bookstore/amazon.

  • At Wit’s End, Doubleday, 1967.
  • Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own, Doubleday, 1971. Written with Bil Keane.
  • I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, Doubleday, 1974.
  • The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, McGraw-Hill, 1978.
  • Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
  • Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, 1983.
  • Family — The Ties that Bind … and Gag!, 1987.
  • I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer, 1989. American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor in 1990.
  • When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home, 1991.
  • A Marriage Made in Heaven … or Too Tired For an Affair, 1993
  • All I Know About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room, HarperCollins 1995
  • Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America’s Favorite Humorist

Long live, Erma!


Words So Scary

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification

Does anybody recognize the above language?  It’s very inflammatory, you know.  It’s the complete text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment that was initially introduced in Congress by Alice Paul back in 1923 and has subsequently been reintroduced in every Congressional session for half a century.  (

A couple of things have made me think about this little piece of legislation today.

It’s Women’s History Month which in itself is a national embarrassment since women are half the population and make history all the time.  Since when is making history a sexist occupation, and women only need/get a month’s acknowledgement?  I used to have this argument about the (thankfully) now defunct  “women’s news” section of the newspaper.

Cover of today’s NY Times “above the fold” features a photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and IMF Managing director Christine Legarde.  In case you have been without the Internets these two leaders are dealing with a big mess over in Europe right now.  You might recall that Ms. Legarde took over the IMF after Dominique Strauss-Khan ran into a little trouble last year.

Although seeing world leaders on the cover of the Times should not strike anybody as odd but, I was also half-watching Up W/ Chris Hayes on MSNBC where the panel cited the statistic that the United States ranks right up there with Turkmenistan (at # 78) with the number of women in national parliaments.   ( Hmmmmmmm….

……..Does that make you wonder why Elizabeth Warren is getting a groundswell of support in her run against Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts?  Who wouldn’t want a smart representative who got the boot out of the Washington for taking on the bank lobby with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?    Take it to the streets, girl!

Bruce Springsteen releases new album this week.  Wrecking Ball has some mad good songs on it that are scratching the surface of what’s really going on in our country right now.   I also find Bruce to be one of our country’s foremost feminists, giving voice to folks who go unnoticed by the world at large.. like poor working women.

Back in 1972 I was too young to really understand what all the fuss over the Equal rights Amendment was about.  In 1978 I had a college roommate whose father went on an absolute diatribe how women would be sorry if it passed.  How much it would hurt them, make them go into combat, create unisex bathrooms.  (yes, Trish the Dish, you were right about your Dad.  He was a jerk. ) But now I realize that people (especially people with their own ingrained notion of their own status) are deeply afraid of anything that would change the current balance of power, alter the status quo – even if the ultimate result is something so much better for everybody.  BTW, Dad Dish:  Although I’ve worked my whole life as a woman (I have no real choice in the matter), women are still making only 70 cents to a man’s $1, I’ve known quite a few women who have proudly served their country in the armed forces, and I’ve used a unisex bathroom with no ill effects.  It actually was a “family bathroom,” so presumably even a gay family could have used it.

So what is occupying the national debate right now?  Gay marriage and the requirement that healthcare should include coverage for contraception.  Really?  These are just distractions as far as I’m concerned – just like the arguments over those 3 sentences at the top of this post.

It proves that words alone are enough to rock someone’s world and it takes a consistent type bravery just to keep using them.  Word Up, All!


A Most Wonderful Story

Once upon a time there was a little girl who was the youngest of six children.  She was much younger — her elder sisters were already grown and on their own by the time she was born.  She would tell you that she was the runt of the litter.   Seems this last child used up whatever resources her mother’s body had left, and her mother passed away in her mid-forties when the little girl was only four.   But this little girl never felt lonely as her sisters and their families lived close by and she still had her father and her brother.  When she wasn’t in school the little girl helped her father in his shop where he sold butter and eggs.  In the summer she spent hot days at the beach with her Aunt, who was a very strong swimmer and a Communist.   The whole neighborhood looked after this motherless child, too.  Once she was picked to greet the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, when she came to her Brooklyn elementary school.  She would confess that she loved the attention.  (She couldn’t speak for Mrs. Roosevelt.)

The little girl grew up and helped take care of her sisters’ children, and when the time came she made her way into the wider world and accomplished more than a few wonderful things.  As a teenager she delivered a neighbor’s baby in the middle of the night when nobody else was brave enough to help.  She got a job in New York City selling cameras and film.  She waited on professional photographers and filmmakers, and became quite knowledgeable about how to develop pictures.  She had a keen eye for composition herself and won a contest with a picture she took with a “little camera,”  because, well, a woman would never be able to understand a “real professional camera.”  She worked as a bookkeeper in a fancy New York hotel and dated quite a few dashing men.  She was even a hand model for a nail polish print ad.

But she did eventually settle down with a handsome fellow she would describe lovingly as “a slob with no ambition.”  But that was just his scam to get her to take care of him, because he was a smart and funny man who was color-blind, but he was a helluva dancer.  So this happy couple began their own wonderful life together in a little apartment that was full of friends every weekend.

More time passed and they had a family of their own and our protagonist threw herself into being a wife, mother and home-maker,  and she was a success by every measure in those jobs.  In spite of themselves her boys were fed, clean and happy.  There was a lot of laughter in her house, and even when she got sick, she stayed strong for her family. She had breast cancer and talked openly about it long before people wore pink ribbons and ran races for it.  She was also a proud supporter of Planned Parenthood.

And when her sons were grown and had families of their own she became both a diplomat and cheerleader for their wives.  She opened her house, her arms and her mind to the ways of their world and listened to their stories.  She was proud of the young women who came into her life and encouraged them to bigger things, too.  Little by little she told them wonderful stories of the way she experienced the world, and in that way both generations discovered they had a lot more in common than the love of her sons.

It has been two years since she passed, and it just isn’t enough to remember my mother-in-law as just a mother and grandmother.  Women of her generation had wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) experiences that just weren’t deemed as interesting as a man’s.  But they did move about in the “man’s world” with humor and grace.  Truly, she did everything a man did,  just backwards and in high heels, with full make-up.   So today, Bravo, Mom.  May her memory be a blessing.


Forget the Keys to the Kingdom. Can I Have the Car Keys, Please?

In honor of the activist Saudi women who took to the roads of their country this weekend in protest I repeat this post from September, 2011: 

Saudi women this week were granted the right to vote and to run for office, but unfortunately they can’t go to the polls (or presumably their elected office) without a male guardian/close male relative to drive them.  On the heels of this progressive  edict, two days later a Saudi court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for violating religious rules prohibiting women in the kingdom from driving.  At least two more were expected to stand trial in the coming months.   Just to be clear — any woman is prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia — even license-holding women visiting from another country.  I know this sounds crazy to us because we see driving as a fundamental part of our independence.  (It is one of the reasons why it is hard to acknowledge when our faculties may diminish our capacity behind the wheel — but that’s another post. )

One of the most eye-opening memoirs I’ve read was the account Qanta Ahmed,  an Muslim doctor and citizen of the UK who spent a year working in a Saudi hospital.  Her book:  In the Land of Invisible Women:  A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, may not be the most polished literary tome, but it is fascinating in both its repugnance and in its capture of the personalities of the Saudi women.  Although publicly these women are covered by their abayas, they do not hide their hopes and dreams, and experience daily frustrations (and life-threatening ones) none of us would tolerate.  And they yet feel a recent optimism that these small, symbolic changes are real gains.  In reference to the right to vote, I quote from The New York Times below:

“It is not something that will change the life of most women,” said Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh, noting that she had just held a monthly dinner for professional women who were buzzing with excitement about the change.“We are now looking for even more,” Mrs. Bakr said. “The Arab spring means that things are changing, that the political power has to listen to the people. The spring gave us a clear voice.”

Every so often I’m huffing around the house about something that to me seems so plainly wrong: like the fact that women STILL only earn 0.77 to a man’s $1.00. My family (who love me very much) will tell me to calm down, but they listen to my words, because, my good people, we’re never really done getting huffy.  I’m not advocating that we spend all our precious time in rants, but every so often please do think about about the stuff that’s just accepted “because it’s always been that way” or that just one person can’t possibly make a difference.  Think about Shaimaa Ghassaneya who’s taking 10 lashes for the right to drive to the grocery store.

*note* More women have been encouraged to violate the driving ban in recent months, as part of the social media-driven Women2Drive campaign.

UPDATE:  King Abdullah revoked Shaimaa Ghassaneya’s sentence on Thursday 9/30 after I published this post.  Was it in response to public outcry?  Or was it diminishing the progressive luster of his granting Saudi women suffrage in 2015?