The Good Old Days

A favorite history professor of mine once opened a class asking if any of us wished we lived in another century, a more romantic century perhaps, before steam engines and interstate highways, when the world was fresh and green. He, himself, he told us, had no such wishes. His ancestors came from peasant villages in Germany and were rooting for bare sustenance in the Black Forest, living lives that were, as Hobbes described them, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I watched the 1956 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film - Gervaise - last night and was once again grateful that I wasn't born into mid-nineteenth century anywhere. The film was based on Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir - and if you ever thought laundromats were intolerable (and I did) - well, let's just say, after last night, you'll never hear me take the name of F.L. Maytag in vain.

Closer to home, closer to our time, the BBC has been running a wonderful little series the last couple of years that has its own cautionary tale to tell. For my money, Call the Midwife should be mandatory viewing for all contemporary women of childbearing age. It reminds us of a time, not so long ago, when there was no reliable birth control and no legal access to abortion, a time when having a child out of wedlock was a mark of shame, a time when poor married women could be forced to bear child after child after child, and when the occasional complications of giving birth resulted, more often than not, in the death of both mother and baby. The series is based on, a memoir by Jennifer Worth, who worked as a nurse/midwife in the East End of London at the dawn of the National Health Service.

People, when their lives are beset with pain, exhaustion, discomfort, and constant deprivation, are more likely than not to turn nasty and brutish, and to pass those traits on when their children emulate them. It's a constant wonder to me that we continue to have dreams at all.

Competent health care for everybody? Right up there with washing machines.