Two Thoughts, Two Cents

1) If you haven’t seen the movie Sin Nombre (Without a Name), I highly recommend it.  It’s the story of people who cross — or attempt to cross — the border from Mexico and points south into the United States.  Those of us who live in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California know their faces well.  We see them in downtown worklines, taking jobs most other Americans don’t want, struggling for better lives for their children.  In this movie, you can see how desperate they are to escape the poverty of their home countries and the lethal risks they’re willing to take for a chance on this side of the border.

“But they need to learn English when they get here,” a friend from Virginia told me a few years ago.

I doubt that she’d ever known a Hispanic, although things may have changed in Virginia since then.  If she had, she would have known that the second generation of these immigrants is almost always fluent in English.  Most of them work hard, pay taxes, make our country a better, more dynamic place.

More haunting than anything, as you watch this movie, is the sense of randomness in life.  So much of who we are is determined by where we were born, which side of the border we start out on.  When you watch the determined and poignant faces of these people as they sit on top of trains, trying to go north, how can you not feel guilty?

2) Like everybody else, I was riveted by Christopher Buckley’s story of his parents in the Sunday New York Times.  See  I read it before bed last night, then had nightmares that I’m pretty sure featured Joan Crawford.

As Emily Bazelon points out in Slate (, Buckley’s mother, Pat’s often wretched and abusive behavior may have resulted at least partly because of her generation’s insistence on a woman’s staying at home as a full-time wife and mother.  I very much agree, having weathered both a mother and mother-in-law of that same generation.  Like Pat Buckley, both my mother and mother-in-law were extremely intelligent, curious women — at least as smart as their husbands.  But they had so little to do with their immense energy and ambitions that could only be expressed through the men they married and their children.

I know it’s not quite that simple.  It never is.  But the stark example of both of these women in my life, who were so often difficult and vituperative in their later years, strengthened my desire never to stay at home and be a housewife.  Having work I cared about has always seemed a lifeline of sanity and purpose to me.

What’s odd about Buckley’s portrait of his parents is how appalling it is.  His father, whom Buckley refers to more than once as a “great man,” comes across as a man only and always concerned with himself and a negligent father.  Reading it, I kept thinking how I would choose to have a good man, rather than a great one, in my life — assuming those who are great can’t also be good.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

4 comments… add one
  • M A Link

    Ruth, I thought the same thing about CB referring to his father as  a “great man” and I kept trying to understand why, based on what he had written about his father, he thought that he was such a great man.  Was it because he wrote and published all those books, because he was on TV, because he knew so many important, influencial people?  I thought WFB would have been a far greater man if he had been kinder and more understanding of the family who loved him and not such a jerk while sailing (he ruined everyone’s Christmas that time in the Bahamas…).

  • Thanks, Ruth.   I like your points, especially about the randomness in life. I haven’t seen the movie or read the article.  I’ll check the article out now and look for the movie.  I’m always on the hunt for a good, thought provoking movie.

  • Ruth,
    I read your essay in an issue of Heal I found in the waiting room of Cleveland’s Ireland Cancer Center just two weeks ago (funny, or sad, because the issue was from Summer 2008, not 09!). First I have to tell  you I laughed at your comment about the woman who spoke of her cancer only in the past tense, as if her sunny attitude was all anyone needed to beat this beast. When my then ten-month-old son Austin was diagnosed with bilateral Wilms’ tumor (cancer in both kidneys) in July 2007, I thought a lot about the power of positive thinking and wishing. I often felt strengthened by the idea that I simply could not, would not, let cancer take my child away from me. I almost believed that if I wished hard enough or fervently enough, it simply wouldn’t happen. And then I’d remember all the parents who did lose their children and it would hit me like a slug to the stomach: did I really believe they hadn’t wished hard enough? Did they not rail against the idea of their child dying? Were they not positive enough?!  Ha. The beast that is pediatric cancer, or any cancer I imagine, doesn’t care much about attitude or verb tense.
    Krissy Dietrich Gallagher
    Oh, and in reference to this current posting, I taught third grade in the city of Compton (outside Los Angeles) for three years and was impressed every single day by the work ethic and perserverence and undying respect for the institution of education displayed by my Latino students and their families.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Krissy — I’m hoping for the very best for you and your family.  Thanks so much for writing.

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