November 16, 2008
Those of you who know me, know that I can be a little compulsive, a bit of a workaholic, and most definitely an extreme multi-tasker. So it is only natural and fitting that I multi-task my novel reading and let you all in on the fun. How about I give a little review of what I'm reading every now and then?
Most recently I read COST, a novel by Roxana Robinson. For me, the best thing about reading a novel is the sense of visiting another place, getting to know about other people's lives. But for the effect to really work, the characters in the novel have to be involved in situations that seem real to me. And it's much easier to become immersed if the concerns that run through their heads mirror the concerns of the people I see around me. In COST, the concerns are sometimes almost too close to home, or rather too close to that existential angst we all face.
We are treated to the perspectives of several family members during a family crisis around drug abuse. This would be a cliched topic except for the clear voice of self questioning that runs through the entire book. Each character metes out their own doses of self justification, come into contact with the reality created by the behavior they've been justifying, and then come to terms with it in various ways with different levels of success, depending upon their age and level of development. Husbands come to see the ways they haven't seen their wives in long years of marriage. Mothers try to untangle the webs of cause and effect between themselves and their children and even with their own parents. Brothers look to each other and come to see the adult that came from the child and in turn step into their own adulthood, or don't and fall into the abyss of drug addiction and personality loss.
Each character is believable. They share with us their interior stories about mistakes, about willful bad behavior and attempts and failures and good intentions, They share them in the sense that the author makes us privy to them, and in the sense that we know these stories and justifications from within ourselves. Seeing all these characters, all beside one another trying out their differing points of view of this same situation, brought the fact of my point of view into more clear focus. When immersing myself, serially, in the flow of these different perspectives I couldn't help but view my own perspective as just that, another perspective. Central to me, yes, just as the characters in this novel quite obviously experience their perspectives as central, but also existing beside the perspectives of the others in my life. Some novels buoy you up. This one puts you right down in the crowd, one of many and that's ok.
And, on a more somber note, each character quietly and with varying degrees of regret, come to realize the cost they paid in their lives for their personalities, for being committed to who they were. Ms. Robinson occupies the self of each character with such understanding that each cost seems to exist in a different dimension, in a completely different personal landscape with a different personal language. At the same time, it's the intersection of these personal dimensions in the real intimacy of their lives that creates all the action and interplay of the novel. This interplay and reckoning and regret is written in a sympathetic and loving manner. These characters do not come to hate themselves, but struggle to accept what they have, as we all do to some degree or another. In that regard, the novel is rewarding because it reinforces the value of our everyday emotional struggle to live in intimacy with those we love. And what is more valorous and worthwhile than that?
While I became attached to the people who lived in this world and understood their difficulties, it was not my world. The protagonist is a college professor struggling for tenure. The setting is a summer house, albeit a run-down summer house, but a summer house nonetheless. Her divorced husband lives in New York. They both struggle to pay thousands a month to send a son to a good rehab for an indeterminate stay. Their difficulties are not weighed upon by immediate abrupt financial hardship, as mine would be in the same situation. I'm used to that in novels. I look for my own working class background to be reflected but don't often find it. It gets a bit tiresome but I put up with it, even cheerfully, if the characters are as well written as these.
Alright, the book's tone is a bit glib. It move quickly. The sentences are not complex. But still, I can't remember reading such a good assessment of what it's like to try to be a daughter, a husband, a mother. Sons try to find their place. Brothers look at each other as brothers do and we get to see that. These people try to figure out what I've been trying to figure out, how do I be myself and still be these other roles, still have all this meaning for the loved ones in my life? It helps to see what they think as they go along, and it was enjoyable. And the little smattering of progressive politics doesn't hurt either.
Thumbs up for this book.
COSTS by Roxana Robinson is available at the Beaver Library (as soon as I return it).
November 14, 2008
Obviously Tina has fallen down on the job here, so I feel compelled to step in. I tried to get her to write this blog herself, but she said something about sleep and the alarm clock so I'll give it a shot. For the record, I can't figure out for the life of me why she gets up so early and runs around the house doing so much stuff. Humans, who can figure them out?
My name is Pierre. Many of you out there know me already. Yes, it's me, the standard poodle that lives at Tina's house. (Shout out to Emma if she's reading this.) I must confess, it does sometimes get kind of boring just lying around the house, so I thought I'd try my hand at blogging. Besides there's finally some national news that interests me.
Generally I'm apolitical. Well, alright, yes, I do occasionally attend the anti-war/peace vigil with my tree-hugging owners. Alright, alright, yes, I also used to wear a "Bite Bush" sign around my neck at the vigil, but that was mostly Tina's idea. I just went along with it to be polite. Well, I did think Bush was an idiot. But generally I'm opposed to such obvious simplistic political sloganism.
Which is why I'm happy to see that finally the media has hit upon an issue that requires both intellectual depth and emotional nuance to fully appreciate. In other words, an issue worthy of my attention.
Yes, I'm talking about the first puppy issue.
November 5, 2008
October 23, 2008
Alright, I've got 7 minutes left at the internet cafe here and sweat is running down my face in this little airless enclave, so this post will also read like a first draft.
Went over, got my hair braided, all the young guys left me alone once I sat down with Daisy. I ended up having a political discussion with an older guy over there. It was good. I bought a nice carved coconut. Felt silly for being afraid.
Came back to the resort, started mentioning Obama in my conversations with staff people. Eventually figured out to put on my Obama button. My vacation changed. I get smiles everywhere I go. The bartender invented an Obama Mama drink for me, instead of a Bahama Mama (get it?). People are being real and having conversation with me.
Sorry for any typos, times up.Read more!
October 20, 2008
Yesterday my sister and I, with a combination of accident and willfulness, wandered over to the little tin-covered huts on the beach at the edge of the resort. We were a little curious and as we walked over, several Jamaicans approached us and beckoned us into their little shops. The security person at the edge of the beach, (and I'm not talking about a big beach, the resort was still easily in sight) asked for our names and room numbers, which we gave him.
It was a little unnerving to be the only people available who had any money to buy anything. We surrounded and guided from hut to hut and given the hard sell on many items. I hadn't taken any money, but my sister bought an anklet. The real reason I went over was to try and find someone to braid my hair, instead of having it done in the resort. A woman who seemed to be in charge gave me a business card. I told her I wanted to come back tomorrow afternoon when it was too hot to be out in the sun. She said ok. A young man persuded me to take a painting I really liked (drummers in the picture, music pictures get me everytime) and pay him tomorrow when I come back.
Well, that meant today. I have to confess that if I hadn't taken the picture I might not have gone back because I felt a little afraid. Another woman had stopped me and asked me to bring food from the resort. So today, I emptied all my ziplock bags, brought some food to my room and filled the ziplock bags. I took a shower so my hair would be wet. My sister, who is tired of traveling and feeling guilty and so just tries to avoid interactions like this (believe me she has given planty of food and money away) said she was going to take a nap. So I sucked it up and headed over.
TO BE CONTINUED (sorry, out of time at the internet cafe)
October 14, 2008
Little Boy: "Well, who ya votin for?"
Little Girl: "Oh we're voting for McCain."
Little Boy: "McCain?!!? We're voting for Obama."
Little Girl: "Well, yeah. But it would be better if Sara Palin was President."
Little Boy: "Sara Palin ?!?!!!!!?!!!!!"
A few moments pass. Both kids are thinking their own little thoughts.
Little Boy: "Well Tina's voting for Obama."
Little Girl: "She is? Tina? Really?"
It's nice to be someone's last word. lolololol. Who ever thought I'd be a quotable authority figure?
October 8, 2008
This Monday was a little different.
I had spent a great deal of Sunday afternoon struggling with the computer, attempting to persuade the machine to allow me to design some tickets for an upcoming event we are planning. My local Progressive Democrats of America chapter will show a movie with a buffet dinner at the local Polish Natl Assoc hall on Nov 1st. The movie will be "Uncounted", a documentary about the voting irregularities in the last 3 presidential election. We will charge $15 per person. Last time we had an event like this, we got 85 people out, so we engaged the PNA, bigger venue, this time. We need at least 100 people to come. 125 would be better.
With a small pile of numbered tickets, it was time to deliver them. We gave some tickets to our computer friend and moved on.
October 7, 2008
Recently we've done some home remodeling ourselves. I'm sure the story of that process will be the topic of future posts since the remodeling is still ubderway and a huge part of my daily activities. Today it will suffice to say that we replaced the floor. We took up a ratty old carpet and replaced it with wood laminate. So I needed some area rugs.
In my typical fashion, I obsessed online over what to buy. I looked at a lot of rugs. You see, for one thing, this remodeling process has been the culmination of my awakening to color. For the first time ever I have color on my walls. My floor is a beautiful pale maple color. And now that I have the color on my walls, I can really feel what other colors each room is calling for. And the cool hardness of the floor needs some softness and warmth.
I'm still afraid of making color mistakes though. So I spend a lot of time online looking at color, and then walking into the room and seeing. And then imagining. And then trying to let the colors, both of the color of the prospective rugs and the color of the walls, just hit my eyes and go past all my words till I just feel the right color to chose. Sometimes that works.
And all the while I'm very worried about spending too much money. I was raised by a grandmother whose sole income came from Social Security, so I have money issues that I'm sure you'll end up reading about that at some point too. I don't have a lot of money now, for that matter. So I'm looking and looking, wondering about color and constantly looking for a better deal. And aking "Where's that web site?" You know the one, the one operated by people who have really figured out how to grab business online with great prices and selection. There's always one like that, no matter what you're buying online.
So finally I end up at eSalerugs. ESale rugs has beautiful wool rugs that I can afford, along with beautiful antique rugs and such that I can't afford. These are high quality hand knotted rugs. So I succumb and order 3 rugs. One is small, thick soft and pale blue. It looks perfect in my daughter's room. The long runner for the hallway is faded pink with peach flowers and green leaves to reflect the green I chose for the walls. And, most beautiful of all, a deep blue for the living room with a unique but unobtrusive pattern in it, so soft I went in on Friday and found all of the daycare kids snuggled together on it. What a cozy domestic scene, huh? And I'm responsible for creating it, lucky me.
However, where did these rugs come from? Tibet and Chna is where. So how much misery did I buy with those rugs? How much misery did I bring into my home? If I could afford them, it's likely someone was badly exploited to make them. And I can't forget that. It stays with me. I know the world economy has to keep functioning, and that generally it's good for a country to have functioning industry and to sell products. Still I can't kid myself. I can't leave the misery behind. With everything I buy, I carry that misery, I know.
So what to do? Humans, to some degree, must consume. And I think it's important for me to consume only what I need. Then the question arises, how much beauty do I need? And how do I acquire that beauty. Yes, I do create some of it myself. But as far as what I buy? Should only the wealthy have beautiful hand-crafted items? Don't the children I care for deserve the same asthetics that the children of Sewickley Heights deserve? As you can see, I often wind up in this circular mind trap with conflicting values and desires, feeling foolish for overthinking the most mundane of items I'm trying to purches.
I've talked to others that have these some problems with the consumer choices we're given, though. It's not just me.
I guess all we can do is keep trying to further human evolution and human consciousness, while making each individual choice as well as we can. It's just I get tired of everything being so difficult. Can't things just be easy sometimes?
Here's hoping that someday we can all share in the beauty of handmade rugs in a healthy world.
October 3, 2008
Ordinarily we wouldn't have seen the debate. We don't have any network tv in our house. We only watch movies on dvd. My opinion of the debates differs from my friends. I think the debates are an exercise in propaganda. I do think the study of propaganda can be useful. It can tell you things about what direction the powers that be are moving. It also can be helpful in political organizing, to know what the people around you are being exposed to. But I'm so busy that I don't usually have time to add that detail of knowledge to my schedule.
In the back of my mind, I knew I'd need to write about viewing the debate here, on my blog. Driving to my friend's house I was thinking about what irritated me most about the Republican message, especially in regards to Palin's speech at the Republican convention. What bothers me the most (and believe me, that's a long list to be at the top of) is the meanness.
Let's be honest, that's what really stood out in her convention speech, what was the most appealing in a sick backward kind of way. As a former defiant bad girl, I found myself responding to her tone of tell-it-like-it-is sassy-girl hostility even though I knew what she was saying was a misrepresentation. And I was disgusted. And I was worried. I thought she was showing a remarkable ability to induce people to bypass the frontal lobe, higher level, logical part of their brains and stay in the atavistic, more primitive region. She looked sincere. Her body language was sincere. She hit the right notes. I feared the Republican party would be able to do something with that.
The Sara Palin we saw last night was very different. Most of her speech patterns sounded as if she was reciting memorized passages. And that was the the better part of her performance. When asked questions at the end of the debate, questions that were not so easily predicted in advance of the debate, her answers were gobbledy-gook (to use early childhood terminology). And it seemed to me something was terribly off in her body language. I can't put my finger on it, but her body language gave me an uneasy feeling.
In watching the debate, I wanted to just let my emotional reactions emerge and try to gage how the rest of the nation might be reacting to the performances, instead of analytically listening to the words. I've always had the tendency to take a strong emotional reading in any given situation. Lately I've started to wonder if maybe I can use that tendency as a strentgh instead of bemoaning it as a weakness and struggling to keep up with my uber-analytical husband (not to mention other rising family members, I think you know who you are or which ones you're raising).
I know that the greatest influence on most people's decision-making process is emotion. And I know that as social creatures, humans are very sensitive to body language and tone of voice. Under that criteria alone, poor Sara didn't do too well, did she? And add to that the fact that she was up against Biden, who is clearly a master political debater, I feel bad for her. She's way over her head.
My prediction (lol), Obama wins the election by a healthy margin. The American public realizes that meanness is sooo over. We usher in a new era of kindness and respect, while fighting the good fight for a new New Deal in a good way. We are all much happier.
You heard here first. Read more!
October 1, 2008
Last week I gave my dog his last outside bath of the season. It's an event laden with emotion and excitement for the daycare kids, full of comedy and pathos.
I have a silver standard poodle named Pierre. I give him a bath every couple of months. The daycare kids love to help.
First, before we even go outside, I gather the materials needed, the Dr. Bronner's soap (I mix pappermint & tea tree, my dog smells good), and the dog towels. While I'm doing this, Pierre usually gives me a baleful look and hides behind the couch, especially if I use the word "bath". I must confess that I usually do use the word, just for fun. I know, I"m cruel. Pleae don't report me to Animal Friends. Usually at least one kid picks up on this activity and starts a chorus of "Can I help? Can I help?!" This only adds to Pierre's resigned low-key distress.
So then I gather up all the kids and we tumble out the door. By this time Pierre is pretending to himself that he misheard me and no bath is coming. When I walk around the side of the house to pull the hose out, he turns his head away so he doesn't have to look at this distasteful behavior I'm engaged in. He really hates the hose so he's in serious denial by now.
I grab the soap. The less water-challenged kids are, by this time, gleefully dancing around me. The more water-timid are hanging back, not wanting to miss the show, but no more fond of the hose than Pierre.
Now comes the fun part. By now the kids and I are talking about how Pierre doesn't like baths. Maybe one of them is even old enough to start remembering the last bath, and initiated the discussion. Pierre's physical manifestation of his dislike is really quite memorable.
I call Pierre over. His head sinks to the ground. I use my command voice, "Pierre, get over here." He stands up. "Pierre, heel", I shout in a really mean voice. Pierre lowers his head, sticks his tail was between his legs and slinks over like a cartoon dog.
I hose him down. Yes, I know the water's cold, but he's a dog, for goodness sake.
Then we lather him up with the sweet smelling Dr. Bronner's. Sweet little kids stand on each side of him and I place a glob of soap on his fur in front of him and the smoosh it around. Or they barely touch it with one finger. Or sometimes the give one rub and then stand and stare in amazement at the soap on their hand. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they wash a dog, lol. Sometimes a particularly observant child will intitiate a conversation about peepees and poopie holes (sorry if the graphic daycare language offends) as I wash Pierre's not-so-unmentionables.
Then another round with the hose, this time with the bolder children trying to venture close enough to get a little spray themselves. And more discussion about soap and water and skin irritation since my job involves explaining why I do everything I do at some point or other. (I have to be careful when I'm around grown-ups that I don't just unconsciously go off on a little spiels explaining all my movements and motivations,lol).
All this time Pierre has a look on his face like a long-suffering kidnap victim who has come to accept the humanity of his captors, but still doesn't understand their compulsions.
Then at the very end I turn off the hose, rub him quickly down with a towel, then jump back and say, "Go!". Pierre gives a joyful leap and bounds away. He stops about 10 feet away from us and gives himself one of those marvelous full-body dog shakes. He's usually just close enough to get us a little wet. The kids laugh, even the ones who at first look a little uncertain about the water-flying-through-the-air-unexpectedly thing. They squeal with delight as he pioroettes through the yard, leaping and jumping and dashing about as if he's just been relieved of a heavy burden and won the lottery all at once.
Have fun while you can, Pierre. Next week you have to get your ears cleaned. Read more!
September 30, 2008
But another part of me says it's not really that complicated. We had an economy that was increasingly built on moving money around, and then on creating money out of credit and inflated housing values. Instead of making products, selling them and making a profit, our economy was functioning on money from refinanced homes. I've been uneasy about that for sometime, hoping my husband was wrong with his predictions of financial catastrophe.
To complicate matters, I have these conflicted urges toward frugality. On the one hand, I find the rampant consumerism around me repulsive. On the other hand, I know that this economic catastrophe will be used to try and convince my people to settle for less. And I am definitely not on board with that. We need more not less, more healthcare, more healthy food in our grocery stores at affordable prices, more and better education, more free time, more vacations, more happiness, more jobs that we can be proud of, more community.
I know, I know. These are simplistic sloganistics statements. But I'm just trying to find my voice here, about these issues. As I write, I realize how deep my feelings and fears are, and how little I have tried to put them into words. I have relied upon doing much more that explaining. I soothe my fears with productive activity.
I know that some of you reading this are doing the same, stocking up your freezers, getting your house in order. So I know I'm not alone.
It just seems a small response when I know what pain is being suffered in this horribly inequitable economic situation. (I guess I forgot to mention my anger at those who let their greed run rampant over our lives.) I think that's why I feel compelled to find my voice. If I could speak my heart and mind more clearly, perhaps I could be a part of finding a bigger, more productive response to this situation, this crisis of the human race. I want to be a part of buidling the collective that will move my beloved humanrace forward, for surely that's where were going. At least it seems that way to me.
So let me try to put my small little self in the right place to do some good in the larger picture. Usually that means not being as melodramatic as I just was in this post, I know. Forgive the overblown prose. It's just that most of the time, politically, I have to practice such self control, try to be so practical and so reasonable and so reliable, while all these passions are roiling inside of me. Rarely do I get to soapbox like this.
More practical down-to-earth entries later, I promise.
September 29, 2008
So sorry for the delay in posting. I wrote a wonderful post yesterday. Honest I did. Well at least it seemed like a wonderful post to me. (Is that something like the huge fish that got away?)
I thought I had saved it while I navigated away to check a fact. That'll teach me to check facts. As it turns out, only 1/4 of the post was saved. (See, it was a good long one.) Unfortunately I had already used the time allotted to write a post. Other tasks were breathing down my neck, screaming for attention.
So I couldn't rewrite it. I had written about door-to-door canvassing, which I've been doing on Saturday mornings out of the local union hall. But I'll be doing it this Sat, so I'll have plenty of opportunity to write about it later.
In the meantime, my substitute for the daycare is due shortly. She comes once a week. I'll have 4 hours to go out and do about a million things. Wow, it's easy to whine on a blog, isn't it?
In other words, in a little while I'll get to go out and take care of some business and live my incredibly full and rewarding life. That's better, huh? I'll have lunch with my husband and decide which errands make the list and which ones get cut. Afterwards I'll try not to get sidetracked too long at the library. And I'll try to resist sneaking off to have a chocolate milkshake. (Loved ones reading this, please pretend you didn't see that last sentence.) Then I'll feel guilty about picking uo some supper instead of cooking it myself, but I'll pick it up anyway.
So, I'm off.
Once again, thanks for reading,
PS I found a great picture for this post but I'm having trouble accessing it. Maybe I'll figure it out, maybe not. If not I'll give a holler for some help. Read more!
September 26, 2008
Regarding the intersection of politics and everyday life, these are some of the things I'm trying do in the next couple of days,
1.Put primer on my kitchen cabinets so the time spent cleaning them up won't be wasted.
2.Feed, change, read to, hug, and help the daycare children.
3.Search online & order rugs for my hallway so my poor old dog won't suffer the slippy slidies anymore.
4.Prime and paint said hallway so I can send the rugs back within the 7 day grace period after they arrive.
5. Print labels for and compile a mailing for about 150 regarding the dinner and a movie event my local Progressive Dems chapter is planning. Oh, and recruit some help for this work.
6. Personally contact as many of my people by phone as I can to generate attendance for said event.
7. Get up early tomorrow and go door-to-door for Obama and local Dems in conjunction with AFL-CIO Get Out the Vote campaign.
8.Work with hubby on finishing the baseboard work in living room/dining room.
9. Eat, sleep, bathe & other normal stuff.
10. Clean bathroom, sweep floors & other normal stuff.
11. Oops, almost forgot, can't sweep bedroom till vacuum cleaner goes for repair. Do that.
12. Take yard sign for local Dem candidate over to my neighbor and ask them to display it.
13. Try not to worry about the pears that need picked & taken to ripen in the basement, or the apples still on the tree.
14. Cut basil & leave it in baskets to dry.
15. Laugh & have some fun with friends (yes really).
16. Maybe do some of above at the debate party at the union hall tonight.
I'm sure there are things I've forgotten, but I'm starting to freak myself out. Suffice it to say this is one way I experience the interface of politics and everyday life, as an almost impossible mishmash of demands on my time.
But what do I let go of? I enjoy everything I do. Some of it I have to do to make a living. Some of it I have to do to make a life. Some of it I have to do to get out into the world of grownups. All of it is very satisfying.
So, I turned my excuse of being too busy to post today into a post. How clever am I? Won't work everytime, I know.
At any rate, gotta go, things to do.
September 25, 2008
If you watch the NBC News segment below, you'll see Jack Lessenberry, a political analyst, wondering what's going to happen to us here in the Rustbelt. He says that we want to stay here, that we have lives here.
Well, yeah. We're trying to, at least.
So I've been thinking about that. Here I am, living in the so-called rustbelt. It's a densly populated area. The climate is moderate. We have few natural disasters, few poisionous animals. We have lots of rivers for transporting goods, a well developed highway system (though it could use a little work). All in all it's a great part of the country. It seems a natural location for industry. So why the heck don't we have any jobs?
We used to have jobs. We used to have big mills, where a man could make enough money so that his wife could stay home, and actually make a home. We were just getting around to making it so a woman could also get a job in the mill and make enough money to have a good life.
We had those good paying jobs because we had unions. That's right, unions. We knew the company was not our "partner". Before there were unions in this neck of the woods, things were pretty bad for us here (look it up or read Upton Sinclair). Basically, my people came to realize that they wanted a share of the pie. And they also came to realize that they wanted a pretty good-sized share, big enough to make them prosperous, not just getting by. Heck, mill workers were sending their kids to college.
So we had good lives around here. You know, small-town, kids-running-through-the-yards good lives, like you see on telivision commercials. People had 2 cars, went on vacations, had boats to put in the river.
And now? Well the steel mills went overseas so they could make a greater profit by exploiting some other peoples' misery. And now we don't make anything much here. Certainly not steel. Because our expectations for our lives are too high? Because we know how to organize a union here? Because we have an idea about how much of that proverbial pie is our fair share?
Well that idea and that expectation are my heritage. And I don't plan on walking away from that anytime soon. That's why I do political work. Read more!
September 24, 2008
Photo: Rick Kimbrough, retired Aliquippa Steelworker
Our Beaver County:
A Rural Slice
of a Big State
[I'm the Tina Shannon quoted in this article. All of us gave the writer a little help finding people to talk to, but he was a great door-knocker all on his own.]
By MICHAEL POWELL
New York Times
August 21, 2008
RACCOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Wander up a gravel road and ask George Timko about Barack Obama and John McCain and he wrinkles his nose. Neither of those guys strikes him as a prize.
Mr. Timko is a burly fellow, with close-cropped white hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a gold necklace that rests on his bare chest. “Barack Obama makes me nervous,” said Mr. Timko, a 65-year-old retiree with a garden hose in hand. “Who is he? Where’d he come from? ”
As for Senator McCain? He shook his head. “He keeps talking about being a prisoner of war back in Vietnam: Great. The economy stinks; tell me his plan?”
To roam the rural reaches of western Pennsylvania, through white working-class counties, is to understand the breadth of the challenge facing the two presidential candidates. But this economically ravaged region, once so solidly Democratic, poses a particular hurdle for Senator Obama.
Type rest of the post hereFrom the desolation of Aliquippa — where the Jones & Laughlin steel mill loomed at the foot of the main boulevard — to the fading beauty of Beaver Falls to the neatly tended homes of retired steel workers in Hopewell, one hears much hesitating talk about Mr. Obama, some simply quizzical or skeptically political, and some not-so-subtly racial.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York ran ahead 40 percentage points over Mr. Obama here during the Democratic primary. With its enclaves of white working-class laborers and retirees and fraying party loyalties, it has become a most uncertain political terrain and an inviting target for Mr. McCain — and one that could tip the electoral balance in Pennsylvania, a place packed with electoral votes.
Labor operatives line up behind Mr. Obama, and about a third of the 35 white voters who were interviewed leaned toward him. But no one feels confident predicting how many white Clinton voters will transfer their affections to Mr. Obama.
Raccoon Township sprawls atop a hill in Beaver County, a 92 percent white and deeply blue-collar province. For a century it formed a stud in the Steel Necklace, a stretch of Pennsylvania and Ohio defined by belching steel mills and robust union wages. But as the mills shuttered, voters tipped Democratic by ever- narrower margins: Al Gore bested George W. Bush by eight percentage points in 2000; John Kerry took Mr. Bush by less than three percentage points in 2004.
Political scientists tend to paint Pennsylvania in broad swathes: There’s Philadelphia and its liberal-to-centrist suburbs; the middle of the state, which is rural, gun-loving and rightward leaning; and the western third, which, except for Pittsburgh, tends to hold ever-so-tenuously to Democratic loyalties.
The Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., in a poll conducted last week, found Mr. Obama piling up big margins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but lagging in these working-class counties.
“This is not an easy land for any candidate, and you might say a black one has more trouble than most,” said G. Terry Madonna, the center’s director.
To what extent white voter concern has become a surrogate for racial anxiety is unclear..
Many voters talk of reading a stream of false and shadowy rumors purveyed by e-mail: Mr. Obama does not put his hand on his heart during the national anthem, he is a Muslim, he did not say hello to enlisted men in Afghanistan. Some disregard these rumors; some do not.
Mr. Obama is an Ivy League-educated lawyer campaigning in towns where an eighth-grade education and a sturdy back once purchased a good life. And he talks of soaring hope to people mistrustful of the same.
“People around here want pragmatic, practical language,” said Tina Shannon, the 49-year-old daughter of a steel-mill worker and a liberal activist. “They don’t want high-flown talk.”
This said, Mr. McCain quickens few pulses. Vietnam, where he served in the military and was held captive for more than five years, seems distant. And not all laugh at his commercials poking fun at Mr. Obama’s “celebrity” status.
Fifty yards down the gravel road from Mr. Timko’s home, Brenda Goff, 55, a pharmacy worker who describes herself as a “Hillary girl” but is fine with Mr. Obama. As for Mr. McCain?
“I don’t like his commercials — it’s like he thinks we’re stupid,” Ms. Goff said.
Issues might seem to break toward Mr. Obama. Only two of 38 people interviewed — most in random door-knocking — favored remaining in Iraq. (Mr. Obama advocates a 16-month withdrawal timetable; Mr. McCain vows to stay until the war is won but suggests that he would have troops out by 2013.)
Few want a handout, but fewer want government to abandon them. A simmering hurt suffuses their words, a sense that neither hard work nor their unions could save them.
James Stanford, a retired and still heavily muscled steel worker, stood behind his screen door and spoke of a pension that evaporated. “Obama got one thing right,” Mr. Stanford said. “We are bitter here.”
John Sylvester, 76, remembers when you could not find a parking space in Beaver Falls. You danced Saturday night at the Sons of Italy Club and drank with Dutch Town and River Rat neighborhood boys.
Mr. Sylvester labored in a steel mill for 42 years. Then the mill owner declared bankruptcy. Now he was bent over a chipped fire hydrant, putting down a coat of yellow paint for $7 an hour.
His blue eyes were piercing beneath a white sun visor. “I got a little money in the end but nothing to speak of,” he said.
Decades of job losses have created a youthful diaspora — you can knock on many doors without finding anyone under age 45. Declining enrollments forced Raccoon Township to close its elementary and middle schools. Political wisdom holds that such fractures favor the Democrats.
But Mr. Obama does not sound like a sure bet.
“Obama’s very charismatic but if you listen closely, he hasn’t said a whole lot,” Mr. Sylvester said.
In Raccoon, Kelly Dobbins, a middle-aged factory worker, offered the same. “I’m like a duck in the water — I float there but underneath I’m paddling hard as I can go,” Mr. Dobbins said. “What’s pushing me toward McCain is Obama. Who is he? Where does he stand?”
Such questions hint at a cultural disconnect. Mr. Obama would invest tens of billions of dollars in retooling mills and factories to fashion windmills and solar panels. He notes that Denmark and the Netherlands have grown fat off the new energy economy.
But environmentalism holds little attraction in a county where soot-covered stoops and dirty rivers were accepted as an unfortunate tradeoff of a prosperous industrial age.
“Until people see a factory transformed, they really don’t put much store by this talk,” said the Rev. Henry Knapp of First Presbyterian Church in Beaver.
Still, two-thirds of Pennsylvanians surveyed in the Franklin & Marshall poll ranked the economy as their No. 1 concern.
Hookstown sits surrounded by emerald fields near the West Virginia border. White-haired Art Seckman stepped gingerly off his porch.
Mr. Seckman puts no faith in Mr. McCain. “He looks tired, and he’s gung-ho about war,” Mr. Seckman said. “I was a Hillary guy, but Obama sounds honest and he’s young and he understands the modern economy.”
He paused, and laughed, “Maybe, funny as it sounds, it’s time for a black man to fix this mess.”
For a century, Aliquippa formed the primal heart of Beaver County. There was the mill, the company store and the Italian Renaissance library built by the daughter of the mill founder.
Ethnic communities occupied each hill. Croats, Slavs, Italians, Irish and blacks worked, fought, and drank together. Now the downtown offers swaybacked homes and boarded storefronts, and rubble. Aliquippa is 35 percent black, the highest percentage in the county. Glenn Kimbrough, 65, with a silver-tipped goatee and a neat Afro, came out of the mills after 37 years.
Mr. Kimbrough is an Obama supporter but he would not hazard a guess as to how his white buddies will vote. He said economic disaster had exacerbated racial tensions. With the mills closed, the work force is resegregating.
Carl Davidson, a white friend and an Obama supporter, sat in Mr. Kimbrough’s living room. “My father voted for Edwards in the primary and now he wants McCain,” said Mr. Davidson, whose father and grandfather labored in the mills. “Without realizing it, he’s wrapped up in white-identity politics.”
Sorting out white-voter discomfort with Mr. Obama is tricky business. Most speak of unease with his newness. But one in five primary voters surveyed in the Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in Pennsylvania said race was a factor.
Ivan Stickles, a carpenter, worked on his motorcycle in his driveway in Hopewell. Mr. Stickles, 57, is not taking what he sees as a gamble on Obama.
“There’s this e-mail that he didn’t shake hands with the troops,” Mr. Stickles said of a false rumor. “I don’t have the time to check out if it’s true, but if it is, it’s very offensive.”
In Hookstown, Kristine Lakovich, 48, works the counter at Kiner’s Superette. She likes Mr. Obama, a preference she keeps to herself. “If you ask people around here, he’s not exactly the right answer,” Ms. Lakovich said. “People are split between their politics and their prejudice.”
Nationally, the Obama campaign shies from talk of race, preferring to argue that the poor economy will dominate this election. Such delicacy holds no purchase here. An organizer with the United Steelworkers met with 30 workers in Beaver. He could not have been blunter. Mr. Obama, he told them, stands for national health care, strong unions and preserving Social Security.
“Some of you won’t vote for him because he’s black,” the organizer concluded. “Well, he’s a Democrat. Get over it.”