Daughter of Revolution
“ Mom, he wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
My mother, eyebrows raised, looked down into her bowl of grapefruit sections. While she gathered her response, my stepfather chided her for her Republican fidelity. I pushed Cheerios around in my bowl. I was in my mother’s house for Christmas for the first time in twenty years. During that time we had painstakingly carved out an armistice in weekly Saturday night phone calls. Our war is undeclared and ill defined, but some of the battlefields are certain. We know not to discuss politics. But, sitting at the breakfast table, with the news of George Bush’s dubious election victory being discussed on Good Morning America, we were sucked into the fray.
“Well.” She rebounded. Her gray eyes refocusing, and then honing in on the spoon she was raising to her mouth. “ I’m going to write to him and tell him not to do that.” She slipped a bit of grapefruit between tight lips. She would write to him. I knew she would. She would summon up her sense of Daughters of the American Revolution entitlement, her Aries stubbornness, and pound out a well-reasoned letter about the importance of nature conservation.
My mother regularly writes to the greetings office at the White House, whenever a friend has a fiftieth anniversary or eightieth birthday, to request that they send a special greeting from the President and First Lady. I’m not sure how many people know that the White House has a greetings office that honors such events. My mother knows. It’s her White House. She learned this from her mother.
My grandmother sat at the table every morning, the paper spread out beside her toast and coffee, her glasses barely resting on the end of her tiny nose, reading every word, looking up occasionally to opine on current events. My grandmother was an obdurate Republican. On the dining room wall, behind her head, hung commemorative plates featuring Lincoln, Roosevelt, (Theodore not Franklin Delano) Hoover, Eisenhower and Nixon. She and my grandfather, who were disputatious about things like how well done his soft-boiled egg was, were given to hours of political conversation. During these talks, the contempt that he displayed for an overcooked yolk disappeared, and my grandfather’s eyes glittered with affection and respect for my grandmother.
I sat at the end of grandmother’s bed, watching while she did her morning stretches. Looking at the antique pictures on her wall and on her dresser, I saw my claim to citizenship. There was an oval reproduction of a painting done by Archibald Willard, The Spirit of 76. In the painting, three men march together through a Revolutionary War battlefield; the man in the middle has white hair; he and a younger man play drums. Grandmother pointed at the third man, the one with a bandage around his head and who is playing the fife. “That’s Hugh Moser, the cousin of your great-great-great-grandfather, Jeremiah Moser Sample. Hugh was a farmer in Massachusetts. He fought in the Civil War, so he was asked to pose for that painting. He played the fife the whole time he stood there.”
Willard made a cartoon drawing of the three while serving in the 86th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War. Years later, he showed it to an art dealer, James Ryder. Ryder thought that doing a more serious rendering, and using a name that would recall an earlier American war, might serve as a patriotic symbol for a nation struggling to see itself as one. The painting was a popular success, traveling from Boston to San Francisco. Critics pointed out that the Continental Congress didn’t adopt the flag in the painting until 1777. But people lined up to see it, wept openly in front of it. Willard made fourteen more copies of the same painting.
A daguerreotype of my great-great-great grandfather, Jeremiah Moser Sample was enshrined in a gold-plate frame, which featured a ceramic eagle on the top. Jeremiah was shot at Gettysburg. His wife, Sarah Sample, went to the battlefield to be at his side while he died. Both her sons died in the war. A stalwart woman, Sara was an active member of the First Methodist church, and at eighty-four she sang, “I’m a Pilgrim” at an anniversary meeting of the aid society. Her picture, in a smaller frame, was nestled beside her husband’s on the dresser. Her courage and character set a standard for the women in our family.
Jeremiah was the namesake of his grandfather who had been enrolled in a company of the Minute Men in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1776. He fought in the battle of Concord, considered the first serious engagement of The American Revolution. This ancestral line means that I can be a Daughter of the American Revolution, like my mother and her mother before her. The mission statement of the D.A.R. says they were established in 1890 to “perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American Independence.” In 1939 they refused to allow Marion Anderson, the first African American opera singer, to sing in their Constitution Hall. Upon hearing this, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House. I am interested in an American revolution, but not the one in which an African American woman can’t enter the hall.
As a child, these individual stories formed the mythos of our family identity. I helped my grandmother attach her DAR pin to the collar on her Sunday dress, and believed that I would someday have one of my own. My citizenship was institutionalized. I learned to trust America as an institution, and to see myself as its progeny. For my grandmother and my mother this battle-bloodied family history wedded them to patriotic participation. My grandmother was a poll worker in every election. I remember sitting in a folding chair, watching my grandmother, who sat at a red, white and blue streamer covered table, handing out ballots to the neighbors. My mother was in the curtained booth engaged in the mysterious process of voting. My grandfather stood outside, covered in buttons for the Republican candidates, talking jovially with people as they arrived.
My national and political identity was passed though the matrilineal line. My mother’s father was the first child born in America to his Welsh family. My father’s father was dead. There was little discussion of ancestry on my father’s side, but both my grandmothers regularly asked me two essential identity questions. The first, “What religion are you?” was easy, Methodist. The second, “ What political party are you?” required some duplicity. My paternal grandmother was adamantly Democrat. I learned to tell each what they wanted to hear. Although it was an oversimplification, my parent’s divorce was rationalized by the obvious political incompatibility. I was content to be a political switch hitter until J.F.K was elected. My paternal grandmother had a picture of him on top of the television. I had to admit he was handsome.
My maternal grandmother was able to resist J.F.K.’s considerable charms. “He’s from a family of bootleggers!” She abhorred alcohol. She was vexed about his Catholicism, and he was the youngest man ever to occupy the presidency. There was nothing about him that garnered her respect.
“ But, grandma,” I beseeched, “ He’s so cute.” When he said, “ Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I wanted to ask. He oversaw the creation of the Peace Corps; I wanted to join. He formed the President’s Council on Physical fitness; I wanted to do sit ups.
On November 22, 1963, I was in gym class. We had just finished a class in which we had been square dancing. We had not been required to change into our gym suits, and I remember the full, blue, plaid skirt that I wore. We were lining up against a wall to go to our homerooms when the teacher called us to attention. With a shaky voice she announced that the president had been shot.
We were told that school was closing early. When I walked out the door I was surprised to see my grandfather, waiting to walk me home. I slid my hand into his; he was uncharacteristically somber and quiet. All partisanship took a respite. The country mourned. And I began to understand something internally that would not be clear to me until years later.
A pile of students crammed into the teacher’s lounge, a room we were not normally permitted to use. We were meeting to discuss the formation of our own John F. Kennedy high school chapter of the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. We wanted to participate in the anti-Vietnam War protests, inspired by the recent visit of Rennie Davis. Davis was a national leader in the SDS. He had come to our school to engage our Principle in a debate about the war. We wanted a revolution, but we weren’t sure what that might require of us. Some of us worried about the use of violence.
Blue jeans, the more ragged and patched the better, and tye-dyed t-shirts were worn to belie our parent’s economic status. I sat on a table, legs crossed. A friend leaned against my back, head propped on my shoulder. Another sat on the floor in front of me, leaning back into my knees. We listened with rapt attention to our English teacher, Mr. Snyder. He had long, salt-and-pepper hair and a full beard. He wore thick glasses over eyes that moved in opposite directions, making it difficult to determine if he was looking at anyone specifically.
“The thing you have to understand about a revolution is that you can’t just go to a demonstration, and then go home to your comfortable suburban home, smoke some dope, raid your parent’s refrigerator, and listen to your stereo. If you are really committed to revolution there will be times when you are hungry, scared, tired. You will be harassed by the police, arrested on false charges, beaten. You may need to go underground. You will lose contact with friends and family. You may not know who to trust.” He spoke in a low voice. The entire time he pushed on an empty Coke can, smashing it between his hands. When the can was completely mangled he sat it on the table, and stopped talking.
I stared at the crumpled pile of aluminum. Kennedy was an experimental high school. Students were allowed to create their own curriculum, there were no bells, you either got yourself to class or you didn’t. The intent was to function like a college. Some students used this freedom to read, do art projects, or create performances. Others did drugs and sat in the halls talking. Science and math teachers and football coaches clung to the small group of students who wanted a more traditional high school experience. The choir teacher organized yearly recitals and musicals. Teachers offered classes that were akin to group therapy.
Mr. Snyder had given a class on a book, LSD Psychotherapy. During one class he sat, saying nothing, staring at us. During another he put his chair behind us, and again said nothing. Rumor was that he came to class on LSD. Students had a variety of reactions to his tactics. Some talked about the book; some wrote on the board; some had emotional breakdowns; some walked out. I stopped going to class.
One day Mr. Snyder approached me in the hall. “You aren’t coming to class.”
“If you don’t come to class, I’ll have to give you an F.”
I tried not to look at him. “Okay.”
“ So, you aren’t coming back?”
“Can I ask you why?”
I took a deep breath, my voice trembling with fear and petulance, “ I expect most of my teachers to fuck with my head. I just didn’t expect it of you.”
When the grades came out I had received an A+. I knew Mr. Snyder was trying to teach us things about the way he saw the world. He rarely said things in a direct or discursive manner. He experimented with us. I was never absolutely sure I knew what he wanted us to figure out, but I concluded that my A+ suggested that I was on to something. I stared at the crumpled Coke can, and wondered if I really wanted to be a revolutionary.
The assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X, the violence of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the general swirl of social events, terrified me. When Kennedy was assassinated the world began to feel dangerous. If the president could be killed, who was safe? Despite the obvious abstraction of that idea, it seemed to be borne out with each successive assassination. And when Mayor Daly and his police bloodied the streets of Chicago, Mr. Snyder’s lesson seemed clear. Dissent might hurt.
I wanted to be part of an obscure notion of saving the world, but the world was bifurcating into the establishment and the counterculture. The police, the politicians, the military and parents were not to be trusted. The institutions that I had grown up trusting seemed hostile and suspect. Abbie Hoffman said, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” The word politics was the lexicon of the straight world. It was almost an expletive. We, in the counterculture, were not interested in politics; we were interested in smashing the state.
Well, we were interested in smashing the state when we weren’t smoking pot, eating macrobiotic bread, listening to Joni Mitchell, and stringing beaded necklaces. And we were busy in consciousness raising groups, encounter groups, communes, collectives, and consensus groups. We were studying yoga, burning our bras, and raising our own tomatoes. We were busy trying to get laid.
My grandmother honored the men from her lineage who had fought for a notion of liberty and justice, and she believed that the America in which she lived was fully functional relative to those terms. She ignored the contradictions of segregation, gender inequity, and class division. When I noticed these contradictions, I believed it was my responsibility to work for change. But, how to create that change was not clear to me. I turned to gurus and rock-and-roll for my definition of freedom. I immersed myself in subcultures and ignored my citizenship.
The revolution itself was bifurcating. The personal was political, and for some that meant trying to understand themselves. The revolution was within. For others there were guns, bombs, and going underground. In a recent New York Times article on sixties radicalism, Erwin Chemerski, a constitutional law expert at the University of Southern California, talked about the “crimes of conscience,” acts of civil disobedience done in support of the civil rights and anti war movements. He said a debate formed around the question -- should the line be drawn at lunch counter sit-ins or bombs? For me, John Lennon said it best, “But, when you talk about destruction, well don’t you know that you can count me out.”
On May 1st, 1970 during an anti-war protest at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard fired into a group of student demonstrators and killed four of them. One of the students was Allison Krause. She had graduated from Kennedy a year earlier. Many students still attending Kennedy knew Allison. The next day, a group of them tried to lower the flag in front of the school to half-mast. Another group of students, who did not support the anti-war sentiment, attempted to stop them. I pushed into the center of the group, pleading with people to stay peaceful. A blond boy, with a crew-cut, sporting a letter jacket and a pin that read – “America, love it or leave it!” – stood nose-to-nose with a boy with long, frizzy, black hair.
“No fuckin’ way your gonna lower that flag you fuckin’ hippie freak!”
“ The fuckin’ fascist pigs shot her. When are you gonna fuckin’ wake up?”
“ That flag is a symbol of this country. It’s not fuckin’ coming down.”
“The fuckin’ flag has lost all its fuckin’ meaning.”
Just as I came up behind them, the blond’s fist pulled back to deliver the first blow in the confrontation. His fist met my cheek, leaving an imprint of his class ring. I fell to the ground, he was startled, the break in momentum created a space for some teachers to arrive and send everyone to class. I fancied myself to be quite the peacemaker, complete with a battle scar. I graduated from high school a month later.
In 1974 I moved into an apartment with two people, Robin and Tim, that I didn’t know that well. In the entryway there was a large poster of a Chinese revolutionary woman holding a flag and a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. I knew that Robin was involved in radical revolutionary thought, and Tim was doing his masters in history with a strong emphasis on Marxism.
Robin was majoring in dance and psychology. Our conversations were about personal process and art, but Tim and I found little ground for a relationship. I was just too self-absorbed, immature, and naive for him. He talked about CIA involvement in bringing heroin to the African-American community. He suggested that our phone might be tapped. He seemed entirely paranoid to me. One evening he and Robin asked me to join them at the kitchen table for a serious conversation.
“ There is a possibility that the SLA will be hiding here. Is that Okay with you?”
The SLA, (Symbionese Liberation Army) was a revolutionary group that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.
“No, no, I don’t mind. They can use my room.” I was lying with as much bluster as I could. I knew that I was not up to this kind of revolution. I felt like a frightened, middle-class kid, and they seemed so much more passionate and committed. Looking back, I think they might have been teasing me. The SLA never even stopped by for tea. I didn’t live there for long. I wasn’t able to find a job in San Francisco, so I moved to a ski town in Northern California where there was restaurant and hotel work, and no one who talked about revolution.
For most of the next two decades I ignored politics. I only voted in presidential elections, and I skipped the 1984 election, in which Reagan’s victory seemed inevitable, altogether. Local elections were full of ballot measures that made no sense to me. I had a passive interest in ecology and the no-nukes movements. While living in Colorado I joined a group of people who held hands and surrounded the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant. But, for the most part, I was completely disengaged.
I read an article in Rolling Stone during Clinton’s first days in the White House. It described the President of the United States, listening to Eric Clapton while Annie Liebovitz, the woman who had photographed John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was photographing him. My generation had arrived.
William Jefferson Clinton was the first Democrat in twelve years to hold the office. He promised to organize a new welfare system, institute a national service program for college graduates, and reform campaign-finance laws. He was married to a strong, outspoken woman, and he put her in charge of a special commission on health care reform. Those were heady days. For the first time, I voted for a candidate in whom I believed; he had won, and I almost trusted the electoral process.
But, Clinton had won with 43 percent of the popular vote, not exactly a mandate. His heath care plans never made it through the congress. Hillary seemed to fade into the background, and his presidency was under constant scrutiny from Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel’s investigations. None of the Whitewater, or Lewinsky scandals mattered to me. What mattered to me was that Clinton capitulated to the military with the “don’t ask -- don’t tell” policy, dismantled welfare, and championed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
NAFTA removed duties and restrictions on commerce between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Corporations moved production to Mexico, where the labor force is abundant and not unionized. A few token mandates for minimum wage and working conditions were added to NAFTA later. GATT did the same for 23 other countries, and set the stage for the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). His administration’s economic policies seemed more Republican than Democrat.
Like Kennedy, Clinton was handsome and charming. Unlike Kennedy, his personal misconduct was ubiquitous in the public discourse. It was annoying. Tangential to his administration was the technology boom. Money was everywhere, except of course in communities of color, schools and public health.
I had some money. I was managing a kitchen in a restaurant in San Francisco during the hey-day of Dot Com surplus cash. In my life, an abstruse notion of self-improvement had been a guiding principal. I worked to revolutionize my experience of myself. I was perennially restless, moving from state to state, job, to job, spiritual quest to drug use, rock-and-roll star to chef, and the years I spent working in this restaurant were like a coma. I worked long, stressful hours, came home, smoked packs of cigarettes and watched bad television. I was making money. But, money wasn’t enough. In 1997, when I was forty-four years old, I left that job and entered college.
Matt Gonzalez, a public defender in San Francisco, taught one of my classes, The Law for Poets. Matt ran for and was elected to the Board of Supervisors. One of the controversial aspects of Matt’s campaign was his switch from the Democratic Party to the Green Party, shortly before Election Day.
The Green Party emerged as a challenge to the two-party system. One night I sat watching the Green Party Convention on CSPAN. Cornell West, Michael Moore, Phil Donahue, all on stage, each one was just a little more awkward than the other. These were not the slick, highly groomed politicians seen in the other conventions. These were the folks I would have been friends with in junior high. These were the excessively studious, culturally rebellious, overly earnest kids who never got elected to student council. And Ralph Nader was the geekyist of all. He stood, a pile of papers under his arm, Winona La Duke’s arm around his waist, swaying a-rhythmically while Patti Smith sang “People Have the Power.”
Voting for Ralph Nader was among the scariest things I ever did. I didn’t believe he would win, I was terrified of a Bush presidency, but Nader was the candidate that most reflected my views on public policy. Voting for Clinton felt hopeful; voting for Nader felt moral. And, my mother wanted to vote for him. My mother is a savvy consumer. Before she buys a tomato or a car she does research to find the highest quality and the best price. She has been a long-time financial supporter of Ralph Nader’s consumer watchdog organization, Public Citizen. She believes him to be a truly honest man. For the first time in decades my mother and I wanted to vote for the same candidate, neither a Republican nor a Democrat. In what I believe to be an atavistic response, my mother voted for the Republican candidate. And then there was Florida. And then there was September 11.
On November 6th, Sara Jane Olsen, who had been involved with the SLA, pleaded guilty to an attempted bombing of two police cars in 1975. Olsen said she was not involved with the bombing. But she does not believe she can get a fair trail in the post 9/11 atmosphere. I tried to imagine myself having tea with Ms. Olsen in that apartment in San Francisco. Her life is Mr. Snyder’s crumbled can.
Recently, I asked my mother if she had ever written her letter to Bush about the oil drilling. She had done her research, gathered information from the Sierra Club, and it was sitting on her desk beside her typewriter. But, she doesn’t want to distract the president during a time of war.
Because I was interested in how Matt Gonzalez would do as supervisor, I began watching the Board meetings on public access TV. San Francisco now has district elections. The Board of Supervisors that came out of those elections is a portrait in Democracy. There are the glossy, politically savvy, centrist supervisors and the radical, rough, earnest supervisors. My own district supervisor, Aaron Peskin is smart and articulate. Matt Gonzalez does seem to be the most progressive. The meetings are compelling and I am more informed about local issues.
On November 6th I voted. For the first time I understood all those ballot initiatives. There was less than a thirty percent voter turn out. Ballots were moved from City Hall because of fears of anthrax. Five days later there was still no complete tally. Because a public power measure initiative trailed by only 300 votes, a recount was requested. The memory of my grandmother at a streamer-covered table haunts me. Was it really simpler then or was I just too young to understand?
What does it mean to be a political person now? And how do politics determine identity, or identity determine politics? Because I am fat, I experience “the damnable injustice of being born inside a body categorically destined for exclusion from the world enterprise.” Having a comfortable seat in a movie theater only became a certainty after a coalition of fat activists lobbied the Board of Supervisors to add height and weight to the diversity chart. There are only four places where this is true, Santa Cruz, Washington D.C. and Michigan and, now, San Francisco. In those few places, I have the legal right to demand access to something that many people take for granted. My relationship with my body feels political.
My revolution is a personal one. It is a revolution of the body, which incorporates all the things I discovered during my wandering years. The strength of that individuation has made my awareness of my place in the community more acute. I am more willing to be involved in constitutional politics, but I remain skeptical. I’m not sure what party engages my affiliation. I’m still answering the questions that my grandmothers asked of me so long ago. I’m still defining the revolution of which I want to be a daughter.