How Social Stratification Made Me Who I am

I’m an introvert by nature.  But there are so many interesting and amazing things I’ve seen and done and thought that, in appreciation toward modern sharing techniques, and since maybe some late night web surfer will find them interesting too, I’ve started this blog.  Sometimes it’s good to begin at the beginning.  And since the unusual circumstances of my beginnings have shaped my life, I’ll start there.  Actually, I’ll go back even further, and shed some light on my parent’s backgrounds.

My mother was born to Irish/English working class parents.  What today would be defined as the contingent class.  Her maternal grandparents worked in a factory, where they socialized with good New England Working Stock, and her paternal grandfather owned a bar, where he socialized with good Irish Drinking Stock.  Her mother graduated from high school, went to a business school, and went on to work at the same factory as her parents – only in the office.  My mother’s father was the only one of his siblings to go to college, aspiring to become a celibate Roman Catholic priest.  Grandpa’s story is a whole book in itself, but to make it brief, since he was exceptionally smart, he surely would have finished his higher education if he had not been asked to leave due to mental health issues (that’s right, the Church thought he was too nuts to work for them).  My mother grew up in a working class neighborhood in the 1950s where every household had two parents.  The dads went to work, and the moms stayed home and kept house and cared for large broods of children.  After working in a factory for years, her father became a librarian at St John Fisher University, which allotted her free tuition at Nazareth University.  My mother’s education up to this point was in Catholic schools that separated males and females.  For her Nazareth was a disappointment, having to sacrifice her dreams to get out on her own, give up a partial scholarship to Boston University, and settle for a prestigious, private, snooty school where she did not fit in and had to drive her father to work every day.  Being the oldest of six children, she was expected to relinquish these dreams to help out at home.  Consequently, after one year of abandoning her aspirations, my mother quit school and got a job as a clerk at Allstate Insurance Co.  She worked reviewing stacks of applications, in hopes of finding some way to charge people more based on what they revealed in their annual submission of “important information to make sure you are covered”. Throughout her life, she never had hopes of inheritance or financial assistance from her parents, whom always lived paycheck to paycheck, as does she.  By the age of 21 my mother was pregnant, married (to a loser), and moving out west.  In California, she got a job at Creative Publications where she was monitored by Stanford School of Business graduates and earned menial wages (considering she was raising a child). My mother worked odd jobs here and there and eventually went back to college at Chico University after leaving her husband.

The second crucial structuring of my background began when my father’s Norwegian great grandparents settled in the northern plains and became Hard Working Farm Stock.  His father joined the Navy during WWII and impregnated a young girl from California.  With his father off in Europe and his mother in North Dakota with virtual strangers, my father was placed in an orphanage and his mother moved back to California (never to be seen again).  My father’s aunts found him in an orphanage in Oregon, brought him back to North Dakota, and raised him on the farm.  When his father returned and remarried, my father became determined to get out of the house, and found his way out when he quit high school and joined the Air force.  He was trained as an aircraft engine mechanic and spent years in the Air force and Navy.  Military life was the only life he knew, and he remained an aircraft engine mechanic throughout his career, which abruptly ended when he made a stupid mistake, which he ended up being pardoned for eventually, and released from the military.  Out of the military, he worked as a self-employed carpenter and logger in New York’s Stueben County.  His carpentry experience made it possible for him to find work anywhere, and summers in New York and winters in Florida or Georgia fit well into his schedule. My father knew how to live self sufficiently.  He knew how to garden, how to bake bread, how to live off of alternative energy, trim the wicks, keep and outhouse going, and how to survive independently.  He has always been mechanically competent.  All skills attributable to growing up in the farmlands of North Dakota in the 1940s and to time spent in the Air force and Navy.  All skills attributable to why my mother ultimately fell in love with him and they started their lives together in 1977.

For a while, my parents seemed to be stuck in the ruts created by their parents: same old jobs, same old complacency, following in the footsteps of the contingent class.  But, somewhere along the way they had the idea that the Vietnam War was wrong and a waste of their lives and their friend’s lives.  As a result, my parents began to have doubts about our “great” government, and underwent immense changes in societal values.  They questioned not only the government, but their parent’s values as well, and their willingness to just keep working for some faceless corporation for 45 years without missing a beat.  And around the same time my parents were deciding to break out of that mold and try anything they wanted, my mother (the intellectual) met my father (the renaissance man) and the two of them moved back to New York from California, then back to California (selling almost everything they owned with each move…sort of an early retirement instead of saving if up for old age).  They had my second brother, moved back to the Finger Lakes in New York, and lived in a log cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water.

A little piece of home...not a bad back yard!

A little piece of home…not a bad back yard!

The cabin where I grew up.  Taken October 2013 (it's starting to go back to the earth from whence it came).

The cabin where I grew up.  Taken October 2013 (it’s starting to go back to the earth from whence it came).

My mother finished up her education at Alfred State University while pregnant with me. SIDE NOTE: I partially attribute my love of science and knowledge to the fact that I was taking organic chemistry and more as a fetus. Anyway, with her knowledge gained in science and horticulture at college, and the business experience at Creative Publications, she had the skills to start Moon Valley Plant Co.  Also, my father was able to provide all the survival/farm skills my mother did not have, as well as mechanical, electrical, carpentry, etcetera.

These were the humble beginnings of our family owned and operated greenhouse/garden center/nursery, which has grown substantially over the last 30+ years. We still grow everything ourselves, and when my parents began they would drive down to Seneca Lake in their beat-up pick-up truck and fill 50 gallon drums of water to bring back and water everything by hand with watering cans.

Moon Valley Plant Co.

Moon Valley Plant Co.

Moon Valley Plant Co.

Moon Valley Plant Co.

Some pictures of the family business today, which obviously looks different from when it began in 1983.

Some pictures of the family business today, which obviously looks different from when it began in 1983.

I was raised off the power grid in the outskirts of a small town (population ~ 1,000) surrounded by farmland and tiny hamlets.  We were poor, I wore hand-me-downs from my brothers (originally from the Salvation Army) and my mother was forced to rely on Welfare and WIC for a short time.  I did not have a flushing toilet and shower until I was 10.  To compensate for the lack of income the family business produced, both of my parents also worked full-time jobs.  They could have chosen a less rugged life, but they loved the cozy cabin in the woods and the fresh air surrounding them and the sweat of their labor going directly to their own business.  These humble beginnings made me appreciate the finer things in life and made me realize the enormous difference between wants and needs.  You tend not to deliberate over race and class when every breath of air you take is clean and fresh, when your bones ache from chopping wood, when your imagination runs rampant, and when you simply appreciate ALL life on earth.  Needless to say, I was a pretty happy kid!

Me and dad on the homemade benches, built from trees from our woods ... Moon Valley was literally built from the ground up.

Me and dad on the homemade benches, built from trees from our woods … Moon Valley was literally built from the ground up.

The people in my town, whom I rarely associated with, were, for the most part, unaware participants in a system of structural inequality, being either comfort or credential class republicans, or members of the excluded class.  They were not worldly, not liberal, not culturally diverse, and not open-minded.  The central school blatantly perpetuated separation amongst social classes and made few attempts to make students aware of the inequalities that permeated their everyday lives.  Fortunately for me, however, I learned from my parents to be liberal and open-minded, to question everything, and to be conscious of what made me happy.  Above all, my parents taught me (directly and indirectly) that I could do and be anything I wanted.  If I wanted to climb trees, skin knees, and race toy cars, I could; if I wanted to play with Barbies, make mud pies, and play dress-up, I could.  I was able to excel in whatever I put my mind to.  Consequently, my aptitude for academics, my capability of independence, and my hard work ethic landed me a full-tuition scholarship from SUNY Plattsburgh, which I attended for 4 years.  With full T.A.P and PELL Grants, I decided to attend college not simply to receive a piece of paper saying that I answered questions posed to me by academic institutions correctly, but as an endeavor for knowledge, a way to indulge my mind and expand my horizons, and to form my own questions.

After undergraduate school, I took five years off to explore the world, literally on a whim and a dime. It was certainly a cultural and educational experience, and sometimes a very trying experience as well. I know I was lucky to be able to do this. But I was still handed nothing, and given no money or allowances by my parents. Everything I did was on my own. I had to make it on my own. Not because I wanted to prove something, but because I had no money and no choice. Honestly, this made the experience all the richer. After goofing off for five years, I decided to go back to school (for all the wrong reasons), and eventually got accepted to Columbia University, all expenses paid, to pursue a PhD. Though I never saw myself in this place  or this role (New York City nor pursuing a PhD), there I was … trending towards being the only person in my mother or father’s family histories to ever obtain a PhD. During my PhD years I spent most of my time in New York City and summers in the arctic tundra in Alaska. I researched climate change and plant ecology/physiology in the arctic. All very relevant and important stuff in the 21st century. I got my PhD and, honestly, it was rather anticlimactic. So I took a few more years to do some soul searching. To make ends meet, I was a farm laborer and did some odd winery jobs. Occasionally people were shocked that I was doing what I was doing with a PhD from Columbia … but I’ve never been one to take ‘occasional’ comments to heart. Eventually I received a fabulous postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University, helping farmers and water resource managers plan for an uncertain climatic future. This meant I could stay in the Finger Lakes, where my heart always drew me back to, and be an environmentalist and help farmers. For me, this was a win-win-win situation.

The funny thing is, though I’m fiercely independent and have had to finance everything myself, with odd jobs here and there, I could never have accomplished any of what I’ve done without my mom and dad. My parents are the real reason I ever accomplished anything. Besides the obvious fact that without them, there would be no me, there is the less obvious fact that everything I have done and accomplished could (and should) be attributed to my parents. I am eternally grateful for the  common sense, independence, patience, determination, and hardworking grit they instilled in me.

I realize the economic stress and extraordinary hard work my parents endured to give me a better life, but I do not aspire to be rich, I aspire to be wealthy with happiness, which I’m sure would please them.  Certainly, a diploma suggests the accumulation of knowledge and skill, but my plans are to continue to travel and see more of the world, and eventually settle down and live self sufficiently much as my parents did.   I do not refute the idea that my contingent class background and femininity have had negative effects on my life, and my whiteness has had positive effects, but I do anticipate a living situation where these factors play no more of a role than creating an outward appearance.  I would not consider myself oblivious to race, class, and gender issues (as I am fully aware that they exist), but thus far in my life I have been relatively secluded from the cruelty of the “real” world.  Certainly life has afforded me the freedom from having to think daily about the color of my skin.  And going straight from high school to college makes for a cushy transition period where the only gender discrimination I have encountered has come from men who have their minds in their pants, otherwise I have not felt disadvantaged due to my sex.  As far as class, my after school jobs did not discriminate…everyone made minimum wage!  Of course, I had to get after school jobs to afford anything beyond the bare necessities covered by my parent’s wages (something I presume children of the privileged class with allowances do not typically encounter).  Moreover, I am not unaware that the social structure of this country is maintained in part by rich white males placed in powerful positions (in the WTO, Congress, Presidency, as CEOs of major corporations, etcetera), who benefit from perpetual racism, classism, and genderism.  However, I cannot hold a grudge for being born into a culture I did not create, and I cannot weigh myself down with thoughts of inequality.  Thus, at the risk of sounding cowardly, the effect structural inequality has had on my life is my resistance to accept it and my decision to put it aside for now until I will eventually leave it behind altogether.

The importance of my parent’s backgrounds is that I cannot deny my families long history of unfulfilled “American Dreams”, but I have realized (thanks to my parent’s mental revolution) that rather than continually attempt to claw my way up the rungless social ladder on the backs of others (only to be sucked back into the vortex of cyclic class structure), I can choose to break out of this cycle and live in what would be considered the excluded class.  Excluded, though it sounds unpleasant, to me means simplicity…off the grid.  Take for instance Gustavo Estava, a zapatista activist from Oaxaca, Mexico, who pointed out to me that, although he fits at least seven of the nine definitions of poverty (as defined by the “progressive developed” world), he considers himself to be one of the richest people he has ever met.  The point being, one does not need things and wealth to be content.  In fact, it requires little money, to fulfill your needs and deny the wants created by  “progressive” society.  Who needs the worries of retirement funds, the desire of economic power, or the burden of “ism” issues on their minds?  Frankly, the madness of modern life is enough to make anyone withdraw from the shackles of modern society.

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