Becky O'Malley

Listen To Your Granny

One of the reasons our house is somewhat crowded is that we are reluctant to throw away perfectly good magazines which are just a bit old. The New Yorker in particular is a living reproach, because it comes every week and is full of good stuff which we can't necessarily consume on a timely basis.

All of this is a prelude to explain why I happened this weekend to be reading a September 2004 "Talk of the Town" piece by George Packer about what was going badly wrong in Iraq. He'd originally been a reluctant supporter of the invasion, but as the war progressed and he reported on it for the New Yorker he changed his mind. This piece was his last-minute advice to John Kerry to get tough on Bush's war, something the candidate never managed to do. Packer wrote that "the senator has allowed the public to think that the president, against all the evidence of his record, will fight the war in Iraq and the larger war against radical Islam with more success. If Kerry loses the election, this will be the reason."

And Kerry did lose the election, and that's why. Packer later released a book, "The Assassins' Gate," in which he detailed exactly what went wrong in Iraq.

On Sunday I missed attending my first meeting of Grandmothers Against the War because of a previous commitment. They sent me an instant email update about their plans, for some kind of direct action on Valentine's Day at a recruiting office somewhere as yet to be decided, which I forwarded to my oldest friends, now most of them grandmothers scattered around the country. Now that the grandmothers are getting organized, there might be some hope for taking back the Congress in the 2006 election and stopping the crazy war in Iraq.

Sometime in the last couple of years a woman with a Middle-European accent, someone we'd previously encountered as, I think, a supporter of some union organizing effort, brought the Daily Planet newsroom some banana bread because she liked an article in our paper.

"I always send my grandson some banana bread when he writes a good article," she said.

"Who's your grandson?" we asked. "Where does he write these good articles?"

Now I remember that she said her grandson was George Packer, and that he was a staff writer for the New Yorker. At that time I hadn't noticed his byline there, but I was impressed nevertheless. And we enjoyed the banana bread.

I don't know this for sure, but I just bet George Packer's grandmother knew from the start that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, long before he figured it out for himself. She seemed like that kind of woman. Young men, unfortunately, tend to have more optimism about the success of military ventures than do their grandmothers, who have seen wars before and know the outcome.

The popular press, left division, is full of pieces these days on the general theme of "us good guys need to get organized for the next election," which is now almost upon us. One smug young man who'd worked the 2004 election in Ohio for a national organization opined in The Nation that the problem was that too many amateurs tried to get into the act. He said he'd taken a call from someone who wanted his attention because she represented "GAG." What was GAG? Grandmothers Against George -- and he was supposed to waste his valuable time and money on people like that? Well, yes.

One big problem in 2004 was too much money thrown at too many self-important semi-pros who didn't really understand what was happening on the ground. Organizations like his relied entirely too much on bank calls from yuppies in California with cell phones and too little on savvy homefolks.

Eve Pell, a card-carrying grandmother and seasoned political writer, told me that she showed up in Philadelphia in 2004 to help get out the vote, having been recruited by one of these national groups. She discovered that the precinct to which she'd been assigned was already under control -- the African-American grandmothers who'd been working there for years had covered all the bases, and the turnout was terrific. The national guys hadn't understood or appreciated their work.

There are those who think that John Kerry really won Ohio, and thus the election -- that the thugs stole the vote there. It's possible that they're right. If the smug young man in Ohio had been more respectful of the Grandmothers Against George, they might have been able to help him figure out that the local Republicans had their hands in the cookie jar. Now that the Grandmothers Against the War are getting their act together, they might even be able to figure out a way to bring America's grandchildren who are in Iraq home again.

In the fall of 2002 I was able to snatch a young man of my acquaintance out of the very clutches of a dishonest recruiter, who had persuaded the boy to enlist because he was out of work, restless, and didn't follow politics enough to know that war in Iraq was looming. I was standing in then for his own grandmother, my good friend who died much too young of breast cancer, and who was a vigorous opponent of every war she ever saw. At the very least, if the Grandmothers are present at the recruiting offices, they might be able to make sure that no more young people sign up as he did without understanding the consequences.

Family Values

Today, Feb. 17, my parents have been married for 65 years. They are still living in their home by themselves, at 89 and 91. Our family is very lucky to have them still with us, still in good spirits and relatively good health.

We appreciate all they've done for us, and for others, during their long life together.

One of the nice things about growing up with two parents like mine was that they introduced their offspring to many different ways of enjoying life.

From my father, I learned to love music. Most nights when my sister and I were little, after he came back from serving in the Navy in World War II, he sang us to sleep with the deep bass voice that had made him a valued member of his undergraduate glee club. The repertoire didn't vary much, though it was democratically mixed: popular ditties from the '20s and '30s, college fight songs, spirituals, operetta standards, and always Brahms' Lullaby as the finale.

From my mother, I learned to love words. She knew about all the best children's authors of the era: Milne, White, Travers. When I got older, she'd read aloud with me from favorite poets. I particularly enjoyed our dramatic reading of Robert Browning's poetic thriller,"My Last Duchess." A high point of the week for both of us was the day the mailman brought "The New Yorker." My mother went right for the short stories, while I started off with cartoons but eventually moved on to the hard stuff. She also knew the best places to get used books, so we read lovely illustrated editions of all the 19th and early 20th century classics: Alcott, Hawthorne, Cooper, Scott, Dickens…

My mother has always known the best places to get everything to enrich life. She follows, without doing it consciously, William Morris's dictum "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," but her ace in the hole is that she's very good at finding what she believes to be beautiful at bargain rates. My childhood trips with her to "Father Dempsey's" thrift emporium taught me that you can turn your living space into a personal art gallery on any budget. She still loves to go to a garage sale of a Sunday.

My father liked outdoor excursions too when my sister and I were growing up, but nature walks rather than garage sales. He showed us the interesting things you can see on any outdoor path at a child's level: the way acorns come apart, and what caterpillars are up to.

My parents set a good example for their children; both my sister and I have been happily married for more than 40 years. We can testify to the many joys of a stable family life. My parents still take care of one another every day, and often, still, of their children, their grandchildren, and now their great-grandchildren.

That's what marriage is all about, in the end, people taking care of other people. Love helps, and of course passion (which is not the same as love) gets things off to a rousing start. But what marriage really means is that adults have voluntarily accepted the duty of looking after one another and of bringing up children if they have them. Many religions, including the Christian church, have traditionally viewed marital promises as being made by the spouses to one another, sometimes blessed by the approval of a priest or a congregation, but valid with or without the participation of the state.

When people agree to take on additional responsibilities to one another by marrying, the community as a whole benefits. That's why governments have historically conferred special privileges on those who are willing to get married, providing them with stable rules for property ownership, inheritance and tax benefits. Many countries such as France have two ceremonies, one in church and the other at city hall, to recognize the dual nature of marriage.

Of course people sometimes take care of one another even without marriage. Families, whether or not they are state-sanctioned, take care of each other much of the time. Friends do look out for friends, whether or not they've promised to do so. But the distinctive thing about the marriage contract is that it's both voluntary (unlike families) and intended to be binding (unlike friendships).

Until recently, the most obvious benefit of conventional marriage to the rest of society was that two grown-ups signed up in advance to raise the kids of the next generation. Religious groups have been wary about trusting members of other religions to do this important job, so they've often put barriers in the way of "mixed marriages." When my parents were married in 1939, they couldn't be married in church, because my mother was a Catholic and my father was not, though a priest did agree to marry them in my grandparents' home.

By the time I got married 21 years later, Catholics had dropped the rule against church weddings, but there were still state-enforced prohibitions of racially "mixed marriages." Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court outlaw "statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications."

Times change. Children in the upcoming generation of American families like ours have ancestors from Africa and Asia as well as from Europe. Their parents have gotten married in multi-religious or non-religious ceremonies. And 30 more years out, our descendants will be amazed to learn that it was once considered to be in the public interest to prevent consenting adults from promising to take care of one another, just because of what they do or don't do in their bedrooms. Statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of gender classifications will then seem as absurd as the unconstitutional laws against racially mixed marriages do now.

With the widespread availability of birth control, children are no longer considered an inevitable result of marriage, even when partners are of different genders. People who won't have children to take care of them in their old age need, even more, to make sure that someone has signed up for the job. It's not safe, in the age of Bush and Schwarzenegger, with managed care, attacks on Medicare, falling stock values, and looted pension funds in the news, to rely on government to provide a safety net.

But when children are part of the plan, it's even clearer that any kind of marriage prohibition is foolish. Those who want to conceive children can do so with or without marriage, but it's in the best interest of society to do everything possible to encourage those who want to become parents to find partners to help with the job. Religious groups, under our constitution, are allowed to have all kinds of silly rules about which marriages they bless, but we should expect more from the government. There is no good public policy reason for the state to dictate what the sexual relationship between parental partners needs to be.

My parents are different kinds of people, and that made them more creative and interesting parents, but the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman was not the most important difference between them. Every child deserves parents like mine. Many children have been successfully raised by single parents, but children are who come into the world, as I did, with two fine though different people already signed up to educate them about life and its pleasures, are very fortunate.

The new mayor of San Francisco has gotten a lot of praise for removing marriage barriers for same-sex couples, and he deserves it. There's no reason for officials all over the country not to do the same.

Becky O'Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.