About halfway along this paper trail, I was invited to teach a course at Stanford on opinion writing, which I called, "Telling People What You Think."
This is the phrase my daughter came up with many years ago when a friend asked her what my job was. Katie said, "My mom is a columnist." Her friend then promptly followed up with: "What's a columnist?" At that point, Katie answered, "My mom gets paid for telling people what she thinks." I've never come up with a much better job description.
But when I arrived at Stanford and opened up the course catalog, I discovered my course had morphed into "Telling People What to Think."
After gagging a few times, I went down to the main office and explained the problem. The secretary was most apologetic and promptly sent out a campus-wide correction. When I opened up my e-mail, I discovered that I was teaching a course on "Telling People How They Think."
I had evolved from being a fascist to being a neurobiologist in one slip of the keyboard. I had gone from uttering dogma to reading minds.
Now I sit here with columns chosen from over the last decade -- across a trail on which I was both a fellow traveler and an observer -- and I think there was a tip in the typos.
Opinion-writing and opinion-speaking over the course of these years have become something closer to a combat sport: opinion-hurling. We moved into a time when politics became polarized and political debate became more like a food fight. The Olympic sport of opinion-hurling found a stadium on talk radio and cable TV, the playing fields of certitude.
Americans have felt ambivalent about many issues of the past decade -- from abortion to gay marriage, from welfare reform to globalization -- but rarely heard that ambivalence in the media. On the panels and round tables that dot TV, they only see two sides of an issue when people filled with certainty and untinged with doubt are invited to duke it out.
I confess that I've resisted lining up for the opinion food fights. I only agreed once to go on the O'Reilly Factor. That afternoon, as I raced to the car that would take me to the TV station, I literally ran into the glass door of my office building -- a door that had been there for as many years as I had -- and ended up with a black eye. That was God's way of telling me to give Bill O'Reilly a good leaving alone.
But generally I have found a less self-destructive way to avoid the opinion-hurling circuit. When the booker asks me for a quick view on assisted suicide or the death penalty or affirmative action, all I have to say is "well, that's complicated" or "I have mixed feelings about that." I can hear the phone heading back to the cradle.
On my travels back and forth to Maine in the summer, I listen to talk radio. The voices of the anchor and the call-in audience seem linked by anger as much as politics. I am not sure why certitude is so much the rage. And rage is the right word. I have on my desk books written by folks in the Telling People What to Think business: Useful Idiots, Treason, Stupid White Men, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. You get the picture.
When I was testing out names for this collection of columns, a friend joked that to fit with the tenor of the times and baritone of the bestseller list, I should call it I'm Right, You're Wrong, or Shut Up and Listen to Me.
I've tried to stay on my own, somewhat separate trail through this increasingly noisy corridor. The columns on these pages were written for people who argue with both hands, the one and the other, and occasionally end up with them clasped together.
Most of these pieces began with curiosity rather than conclusion. I set about writing with a question for myself as well as readers: What's going on here? Do we really want to be putting human eggs for sale? What do we make of a world in which some folks hide women under chadors and others expose them on your laptop? Why, in the wake of the Columbine high school shooting or the Oklahoma City bombing or even September 11, do people talk about the need for closure? Do we really think the loss of a child or a homeland can be healed in time for dinner?
The other day after I gave a speech in Des Moines, a woman came up and said: "You're always writing what I'm thinking." I laughed and answered, "Well, we're both in trouble then." But I suspect that I write what she's thinking about. We both open up the morning paper or log on to the computer or turn on TV and say, "Oh no, now hormones cause Alzheimer's?" "Now marriage is the national anti-poverty program?" "Hillary did what?"
But of course most people then go to work or to the cleaners or to pick up the kids from school. It's my odd business to figure out the promises and dangers of, say, cloning or zero tolerance or the search for the perfect mom.
The questions that most intrigue me take time, and time is the commodity in shortest supply. In the decade reprised here, our lives have gone on fast-forward. The one thing that typified this era beyond the polarization of debate was the speed.
News became 24/7. The Internet now has a new edition out every minute. A scandal is treated like a commodity to be marketed. A story becomes all the rage and disappears as quickly as the suitor in Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire. Or for that matter Princess Di.
I labeled one part the Speed Zone, because this is the neighborhood that we moved into. Multitasking became the norm. Our attention span shrank faster than the sound bite. Our learned attention deficit disorder is now so acute that we skip from Elian Gonzalez to Elizabeth Smart, from O.J. Simpson to Kobe Bryant, from one "trial of the century" to another "trial of the century," from one superstar and reality program to the next.
The op-ed page that's been my home for more than twenty-five years is one of the few places in the media reserved for those who want to resist that trend. It's the designated thoughtful corner of the newspaper.
It's always been a challenge to reflect on deadline, let alone in 750 words. It's been tricky to write with perspective from the inside of an ongoing story, whether it's a sex scandal in the White House or war in Iraq.
But I can see how much trickier it became during the time span covered in these pages, when I often worried that speed would trump thoughtfulness and the sell-by date on a commentary seemed shorter than ever.
I have been aware of this speed zone, been affected by it and resisted it as well. As I chose the columns for this book, I revisited the stories that came and went as quickly as Wayne Bobbitt. I left many columns by the wayside, especially the ones about political flaps that seemed so important -- for a day or two. I included others as souvenirs from the trail, small pieces of paper to mark the way.
There are four columns in these pages on Hillary Clinton as she evolved from first lady to wronged wife to Senator -- an incredible journey for a woman who has been an icon or perhaps a Rorschach test for her generation. There are as well a handful of pieces on the Lewinsky scandal. Remember when the feminist slogan was "the personal is political." Be careful what you wish for. In this decade the political became (too) personal.
In the time I have followed the women's movement -- what I think of literally as the "movement of women" -- there were arguments over everything from burqas to Botox. In the welfare reform debate, the right and the left, the Republicans and the Democrats, men and women signed on to a social change so radical that no one actually acknowledged it: A mother's place is in the workforce. Or should I say, a poor mother's place is in the workforce? We completed a huge transformation without answering the question that was asked at the outset: Who will take care of the children?
Meanwhile the family-values debates that once raged around working mothers raged with all the same intensity around the issues of gay rights and especially gay marriage. Abortion remained a flashpoint, but it also became the issue behind new bioethical debates from cloning to stem cells.
I cannot retrace my steps along this trail without stopping short a few times. A column from the 2000 presidential trail, a campaign of trivia and factoids that took place while in a soaring economy and a peaceful world, was eerily prescient. I worried in print that we'd forgotten how fragile the economy could be and how dangerous the world could become.
A year later, early on September 11, 2001, after sketching out a column on Serena and Vanessa Williams, I logged on to the Internet to send the outline to my office. There on AOL was the shocking image of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I rushed to the television in time to watch the twin towers come, incredibly, down, and then another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crash in the Pennsylvania soil.
I have included here the rawest of impressions from that day when I felt and wrote that "everything has changed." Did everything change? We still don't know exactly how much our world tilted. But the war on terrorism evolved into a war with Iraq in ways we are still unraveling. September 11 led all of us into a life of bag searches and homeland security alerts and the uncertain leadership of a photo op president in full gear on a flight deck.
My companions on this trail have been skepticism, the perspective that we call humor and, I guess, something in the DNA that says, "wait a minute." Did the President call it preventive war? Wait a minute. Did you say that Bill Bennett, the virtue monger, is a gambler? Wait a minute. Did you say the doctor offering to clone himself is named Seed? Whoa.
But these columns are not just about the wider world. When I first began as a columnist, I deliberately set out to write across the retaining walls that separated private life from public life. So I have written as someone on this trail as well. I've written as an insider -- not to Capitol Hill battles but to everyday struggles with growing kids and aging parents, with culture wars and gender skirmishes.
At the beginning of this trail, cell phones were relatively rare, e-mail had not yet become universal, Spam was still in a can, and Google wasn't even a company, let alone a verb. Like all of us, I have been playing catch-up to technology and questioning it. Like many, I have lived on a two-trail life, fast and slow. I have felt that tension between the pace of the Internet and the natural rhythms, especially those of a tidal cove in Maine.
Some of these columns are about the American family; others are about my family. Some are as universal as Thanksgiving and others as personal as my daughter's wedding. My "true confessions" are limited to a blushing admission of golf or coffee addiction.
I actually chose Paper Trail as the title for this book after hearing someone dismissed as a potential political candidate. "He'll never make it," said a colleague. "He has a paper trail a mile long."
A paper trail was a liability? I couldn't disagree more. I think of this trail as a record, a running commentary on these times and my times. This is my path tracked through the newspaper pages, to remind us of what we've been through, where and who we are.
Finally, these ten years have been surprising ones for me. This is the time of life we optimistically call "midlife," as if we were all going to live to be a hundred. It has been richer, less settled, more questing, than I ever imagined as a young woman.
For all the events of these years, the ones that have touched me the most have happened in the last months -- the birth of a grandson in Montana and the arrival of a granddaughter from China.
There must be some pheromone, some chemistry that marks the entry into grandparenthood, opening up new emotional spaces. Logan was born three weeks early into a troubled world, a small life-affirming wonder. Our Cloe arrived, at a year old, the arc of her short life transformed from being abandoned to being treasured.
They have already taught me how small the world and how wide open the future. Their trail begins here and now.
Copyright © 2004 by Ellen Goodman
Common Sense in Uncommon Times
Common Sense in Uncommon Times
For over twenty-five years, nationally syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman has been training her lens on contemporary American life. A marvelously direct writer with keen insight into what makes the average American tick, laugh and occasionally boil with rage, Goodman takes her measure of the national psyche in a voice that is at once perceptive, witty and deeply humane.
Paper Trail, her first collection in more than ten years, journeys through an era that has been golden in its advances and bleak in its disappointments. In a voice both reasoned and impassioned, she makes sense of the cultural debates that have captured our attention and sometimes become national obsessions. She wrestles with the close-to-the-bone issues of abortion, working mothers and gay marriage, the struggles for civil liberties and equal rights, and the moral complexity of assisted suicide and biotech babies. As she wends through the era of the Clinton scandals and the "amBushing" of America, the dot-com boom and bust, the horrors of September 11 and the War on Terrorism, Goodman pauses to celebrate some of our lost icons, including Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana and Doctor Spock. She reminds us as well of the fleeting fame of such instant celebrities as Elian Gonzalez and Lorena Bobbitt.
The lines that separate public and private life dissolve under Goodman's scrutiny as she shows us how Washington politics, Silicon Valley technology and the national media culture infiltrate our jobs, relationships and minds. With the trademark clarity that readers count on, she walks us through the dilemmas posed by new technologies that range from cloning to cell phones and makes us laugh at the vagaries of Viagra and Botox and unreality TV. And in a world that sometimes seems to be stuck on fast forward, she holds on to values as timeless as a family Thanksgiving and a summer porch in Maine.
Including more than 160 of Ellen Goodman's lively and stylish columns, this timely collection walks us along the paper trail in a voice that is both crystal clear and original.