Re: My Family's Slave


I read that today. I was going to send it in, but today was election day so I already did one civil-minded thing.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 1:14 PM
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The author barely outlived his family's slave.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 1:22 PM
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Wow, that's sad. I'm glad he got a chance to write this.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 1:25 PM
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I never paid attention to the name before, but I see he also wrote "In the land of missing persons" which I recalled from last year when it came out.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 1:29 PM
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This article reminded me a lot of my college boyfriend's family's relationship with their maids. A lot of things were the same; the close relationship between the kids and maids/nannies. The expectation that the maids/nannies were available night and day; would pack the mother's bags in the middle of the night for an early flight. The expectation that they "came with the family" and understanding that it was OK, because the maid's parents had also been maids for their family. I didn't ask hard questions about whether and how much they got paid, but I was given the understanding that anything they had in America (and the maid's quarters in the Philippines) were so much better than anything they would have had without my ex-boyfriend's family that they should be grateful.

I do remember describing the situation to my Dad, and my Dad telling me it was obscene, especially if it was multi-generational.

Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 3:13 PM
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Yeah. If the situation in the linked article was different from that of my college boyfriend, it was only a matter of degree. Certainly, if their maids were paid, it was never expected that they'd use that for independence or to leave the family.

Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 3:16 PM
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And for sure, in my ex-boyfriend's family, the kids loved their maid/nanny more and more uncomplicatedly than they loved their parents.

Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 3:18 PM
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You know who loved their nanny more, but more complicatedly than they loved their parents? Brian May, that's who.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 3:32 PM
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I just read it. The whole thing was moving and gut-wrenching, and also rage-inducing, but where I really lost it was when the author described how Lola, as an elderly woman, taught herself to read:

Over the years, she'd somehow learned to sound out letters. She did those puzzles where you find and circle words within a block of letters. Her room had stacks of word-puzzle booklets, thousands of words circled in pencil. Every day she watched the news and listened for words she recognized. She triangulated them with words in the newspaper, and figured out the meanings.She came to read the paper every day, front to back. Dad used to say she was simple. I wondered what she could have been if, instead of working the rice fields at age 8, she had learned to read and write.

So much human potential, thwarted, and then mercilessly exploited.

Posted by: Just Plain Jane | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 4:33 PM
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This is worth reading, including the linked obituary:

Posted by: dairy queen | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 7:38 PM
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Also worth reading:

Because of twitter and its lazy-loading scrolling ways, it may work best to follow that link, scroll up and down a few times to make all the tweets load, then scroll up and read down. I purposely linked to the last tweet in the thread because usually that cuts down on distracting intermediate replies from people who aren't the thread's author.

Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:21 PM
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11 that is truly an excellent thread. Thanks for linking it and also for the useful too on how to weed out the clutter of all the Twitter replies.

Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:33 PM
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I guess that wasn't completely the end of the thread, but it still should work.

Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:34 PM
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11 useful tip, that is.

Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:35 PM
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14 to 12

Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:36 PM
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11 is great but god I hate twitter. If only there were a way to publish text of arbitrary length on the Internet! Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Posted by: X. Trapnel | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:50 PM
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Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 10:58 PM
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Should of been titled "my slave" stronger and more true.

Posted by: Asteele | Link to this comment | 05-16-17 11:17 PM
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Sure, but there's no way Richard Spence would gather a torch-bearing mob to defend his statue.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 4:50 AM
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One thing I keep thinking about is how, mostly because this story is located in 20th century United States, it resembles an abusive marriage in a lot of ways, more than maybe it resembles slavery in the south a hundred years earlier.

Like, the methods of control are primarily isolation and removal of all resources and extreme secrecy while keeping up appearances of normalcy. Violence is there, but as a way for parents to take out their anger on her, and is not really needed to prevent her from leaving.

It's a funny blurring of categories for me, to think about the ways in which an abusive marriage is similar to being enslaved.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 6:14 AM
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You should check out the thread linked in 11, which makes the same point.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 6:53 AM
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Also, a point Jeong makes (obliquely? But definitely) is that casting the relationship as familial/marital isn't exculpatory at all.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 6:57 AM
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In African studies (where we have a lot to say about slavery, both modern and historical), there is the concept of the "slave to kin continuum." The idea is that, in many African societies, the opposite of slavery is not liberty, but rather full belonging. Slaves are incorporated into families, but as the most marginal and exploited members.

This is a hard concept to explain to students, who often see it and think that family=love, affection, etc. But, perhaps obviously, families are very frequently the sites of the greatest power imbalances and the deepest exploitation. The contemporary US is different largely because we generally separate out abusive marriages as fundamentally distinct from other kinds of family relationships, rather than seeing them on a continuum of exploitation and coercion. To be clear, that separation is largely a good thing--I certainly want my own marriage to be very, very distinct from an abusive marriage--but it also obscures some of the ways that power continues to be built into family structures.

Posted by: Sarabeth | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 6:58 AM
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Feminists in the 19th century made the comparison between slavery and coverture in the fight against coverture.

Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 7:05 AM
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and think that family=love, affection, etc.

Why did you kick all the Irish Americans out of college?

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 7:06 AM
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and think that family=love, affection, etc.

"Kill your parents kill your parents, you have to get rid of them." yelled Jerry Rubin. former sports editor of the Walnut Hill High Chatterbox.

From a 1982 article in a local Cincinnati magazine (where Rubin was from) about Rubin in his new Wall Street businessman persona.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 7:46 AM
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I couldn't finish reading the story b/c my mother (in Narnia) was a maid abuser (psychologically, not physically), and as a minor I was powerless to intervene because when I tried I'd just be yelled at and cause my mother to feel even more angry at how she's "misunderstood" by the family (more anger = more abuse for everyone). I felt miserable seeing bad stuff going down and people's lives being destroyed (my mother went through multiple maids cos many wouldn't put up long and left early) without being able to do anything about it. Maids in Narnia are paid but employers get to keep their passports and the pay is so low that they have to work a few years just to pay off the loans they took to get the position. I can read stories about massacres etc. without flinching as much as I would reading stories about maid abuse b/c it cuts too close to home.

Posted by: Ponder Stibbons | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 7:58 AM
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The whole idea of abusing/enslaving somebody who lives in the same house, watches your kids, and prepares your food strikes me as a grave failure of the imagination (and a moral failure, of course). Aren't they afraid of being murdered in their sleep or having the nanny smoother the kids or something?

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 8:11 AM
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I think that question point to how radical the idea that everyone is equal is. The domestics in a lot of these cases might not like what happens to them, but don't really expect much different from their lives; the idea that "this is my station/lot in life" is widespread and powerful.

It's too bad about the abuse in this case (even apart from abuse being bad) because it's too easy to focus on that and not think about what other parts of an arrangement like this are offensive to us.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 8:17 AM
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Thanks for the link Heebie. The fucked up family-servile dynamic in the OP link and Sarabeth's 23.1 also extends to black maids in white SA families. One of the few things I credit my parents is that they never kept servants.* Just the notion makes my skin crawl.
*Not entirely, but I think mostly, for moral reasons.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:27 AM
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They must have loved you enough to not want you smothered.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:28 AM
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I appreciate this thread, and the discussion is useful, but I still can't get myself to read the article right now.

Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:38 AM
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That's usually my role.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:38 AM
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They fucking smothered me anyway, in other ways. Sometimes we ate avocados, even.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:40 AM
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But not on toast. That's just disgusting.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:40 AM
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11 is a good link. Thanks for that.


there is the concept of the "slave to kin continuum."

is a novel concept to me that upends how I think about things. I've always assumed that the alternative to slavery is escape, and you escape to a place where you have autonomy and recovery. Slaves wanted to escape and occasionally did, safe houses and the paradigm for abused spouses try to get them to leave the abusive spouse, etc. The idea of a continuum where you become more central, have more power, more belonging on the other side is totally different. Even stranger is the notion that people would ascend and descend along that continuum.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:41 AM
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You should have gone to Hebrewing school. It's right there in the part about Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:45 AM
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People criticize the piece staying away from deep analysis of the political and social context, but I kind that its focus is instead on the interpersonal dynamics - and on Lola as an individual rather than as a symbol of broader oppression in the world. This isn't a story about the forest, its a story about a tree.

Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 10:48 AM
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The people in 38.1 are churlish and despicable.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 11:03 AM
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I think it's a mistake to think of this relationship in terms of American-style chattel slavery. It's not (or wasn't, until very recently) uncommon in parts of the world to keep unpaid domestic labor in one's home. While this is literally slavery, it's different in many ways from what happened in the American antebellum south.

As people here and elsewhere have noted, people who served in this capacity may have been considered family members, albeit at a low level in the family hierarchy. Keeping servants, even unpaid servants or slaves sometimes has been, far from being a sign of moral failing, a kind of moral obligation. For example, in post-war Korea, families sometimes took orphaned or impoverished girls into their homes to perform domestic labor, sometimes without pay beyond food and shelter. Often these girls were related to the family. This was considered a kind of social obligation, because otherwise these girls would starve, or end up working in prostitution.

As ogged notes above, this particular story is complicated by the fact that the author's parents and grandfather seem crazy and terrible.

Posted by: jms | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 11:04 AM
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there are definitely cases in Narnia of frustrated maids committing crimes against their employers. Maybe if they were more common, people would actually think there was a threat. Of course, the maid is in a much more desperate situation---if they get imprisoned their family will go destitute from the unpaid loans. So that's gotta be a disincentive, and employers know how desperate they are to get $$.

Posted by: Ponder Stibbons | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 11:19 AM
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My family had live-in housekeepers through much of my childhood. The earlier ones I have poor memories of, but the later ones had sort of a mixed bag of closeness to the family. I certainly saw abuse directed by family of friends towards domestic servants. The slave-to-kin continuum makes a lot of sense from the way that my family interacted with domestic helpers and the way I saw them treated. There was most definitely a family aspect to it despite the gross wealth inequality. At one point my mom had 4 AIDS orphans living with her who were nieces and nephews of her House Keeper, fr'ex. Actually the same House Keeper named her son after me, which I feel weird about. That's one extreme of the spectrum of treatment I witnessed. At the other was outright violence. Slapping, yelling, throwing things.

Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 1:51 PM
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When I first lived in France there was a security situation that involved rigorous ID controls at the nearest metro stations to where I lived (6th floor maid's room in exchange for English lessons for kid on 1st floor, building near Elysee). Suddenly all the maids vanished from the neighborhood, as the typical modus operandi was to employ them at substandard wages on never fulfilled promises of helping sort out their papers. It was really marvelous to observe the deterioration in upkeep of various,apartments, all of which had utterly impractical surfaces, like endless mirrors, enameled walls, acres of white or black paint, etc.

Posted by: dairy queen | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 6:40 PM
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I read this and have been reading some of the reactions all day, and.... it feels pretty alien to me? which I guess is good? It's also making me unreasonably nervous about the housecleaners we have, who are paid, cash, and only show up every other week, but are still about the only relationship I have to not-immediate-biofamily domestic labor.

Posted by: Nathan Williams | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 8:50 PM
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It's okay, Nathan. Most people these days don't own slaves.

Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-17-17 9:09 PM
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The slave to kin continuum also made me think more deeply about my assumptions, and now I'm thinking about a triangle, with "slave" at one corner, "kin" at another and "hermit" at the third. Or maybe it makes more sense as a 2D graph, with one axis being the "slave-kin" continuum and one being "hermit-social" (i.e. one axis for how much power you have and a different one for how much independence). This makes clearer to me that, as someone above said, the assumption that the alternative to slavery is (independent) freedom is new and maybe unusual compared to the idea the alternative to slavery is social integration.

Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 8:17 AM
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The other thing about the slave to kin continuum is that it's not much use to field hands. I can see how it works in principle, and I know how it worked in practice in Rome, for example, where house slaves were commonly liberated and became clients of their former master/mistress, also taking their gentile name, so that within a couple of generations their descendants were more or less absorbed into the gens (didn't make them patricians if they'd been owned by a Cornelius, though.) But that was cold comfort for the poor bastards rotting on the latifundia, who had more or less no chance.

I suspect the societies where the slave/kin thing actually worked to any meaningful degree were also societies where large scale agricultural or industrial production run on slave power was not a thing.

Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 8:37 AM
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Right. The popular self-improvement book of past days, What Color Is My Leg Iron?", stressed seeking as much facetime with your owner as possible. You couldn't really do much if you were harvesting grapes.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 8:50 AM
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I have no use for a slave that doesn't close tags.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 6:37 PM
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47 - All true, it's a concept that was developed to describe societies with lots of domestic slavery. So slaves might be doing agricultural labor, but they were doing it on small farms under direct supervision of the family. It definitely does not describe plantation slavery well, and there are lots of cases in Africa that don't fit it particularly well either (particularly once the trans-Atlantic trade reconfigures internal patterns of slavery). But that's why it's useful, because it captures dynamics of slavery that are easy to overlook for those of us used to the plantation-slavery mental model.

Posted by: Sarabeth | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 7:12 PM
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I've been interested in the conversations I've been reading connecting this story to domestic workers more generally, but the first parallel that occurred to me was to Haitian restaveks.

Posted by: J, Robot | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 7:46 PM
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This is more in response to what's on twitter than what anyone's said here, where I assume it's taken as given, but it seems worth noting when contrasting familial-spectrum and plantation/antebellum slavery that the latter routinely included the enslavement of slaveholders' offspring and other biological relatives. I don't think it changes the arguments being made, but whatever.

Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05-18-17 10:04 PM
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Thorn - absolutely, but I think that actually highlights the difference. In one case, people with no biological relationship can become absorbed over time (usually over generations, not in a single lifetime) into the "family," albeit usually never truly to the center.* In the other case, people who are direct biological descendants are kept strictly outside the definition of the family with no hope of incorporation.

*There are obviously lots of cases where later generations are biologically related; wife/concubine status is a very typical way of incorporating enslaved women in such circumstances. But incorporation can happen even in cases where there is no biological relationship, such as when slaves marry each other and form a junior branch of the lineage.

Posted by: Sarabeth | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 7:13 AM
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...people with no biological relationship can become absorbed over time (usually over generations, not in a single lifetime) into the "family,"

Tom Hagen did it in less than a single lifetime.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 7:17 AM
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53: Total agreement. It's another piece that highlights the differences.

Speaking of, I've only seen one hot take on the overlap of this story and the dynamics of transracial/transnational adoption, but I'd expect the narrative on that front to trend in similar directions of trying to make complicity explicit.

Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 7:29 AM
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the story sort of elides a little what the author was doing during the period when he was an adult but not yet (actually at that point, more or less) employing his family's slave? he gives her an atm card so he has to be giving her money on the side to send home, right? but this isn't clear. I know he's not likely to report his own mom to the cops for a serious crime but surely there was something to be done there.
I talked about the article with our own maid here in narnia (she read it in part but it's long) and she said it used to be common for people with relatives in cities to end up like this, away from the rice farming area they were born in, and even just from manila to somewhere north you might not be allowed to go home. I think it doesn't happen anymore but I don't feel like I got the firmest answer there. certainly people are being employed in these positions in the philippines for minimal money.
that your maid might poison you or your children is the huge narnian shock/fear idea but doesn't seem scary enough to prevent a lot of abuse. hurting the children would be hard even for a hardened heart; one of the things that's painful to consider when employing a maid is that you're stealing the love she has for her children. not that she'll love her children less, but the little things like combing hair and playing games and going to get bubble tea that she should be doing with her own children lead to love for yours--and certainly your own children love her. jealousy and guilt on this front are a staple of narnian women's magazines.
now that I am so much healthier we don't need to have a maid and we are going to stop employing ours later this year. my children are kind of sick about the idea. she has been talking about it for a while because she thinks the girls need to learn personal responsibility. I am not even sure how to parse this totally--she wants a new employer here in narnia? she's not going to make as much money at all so it seems a bad deal. she wants to go home? that seems great and I know my in-laws are going to give her 10K but that won't last forever and then the forces are driving her to do this will drive her out again. she genuinely does love my children and thinks they are not going to grow up properly like this, but there are other solutions like making them do anything. she was home for five weeks just now and I hope it gave her some perspective on what she's going to do. as she does literally every time, she didn't come home when she said she would, burning a plane ticket. that's how sad it makes her to leave. after so, so many times I told her she actually had to buy the new ticket this time (by paying me back over time).
overall having someone wait on you all the time is maybe deleterious to moral fiber. one thing that I discovered in doing everything myself for five weeks is that I will have to adjust my standards down or I will drive myself nuts. not that I even vacuumed and mopped every day, but I could feel tiny bits of grit under my feet from not doing so, and it killed me. I also told my husband that he and I had outsourced all dumb arguments over housework for the last 16 years of our marriage and now we were going to have them even though they were dumb, so he had to keep that in mind. so, like, when I told him he had to wash, dry and put away every dish right away after he used it (our kitchen is too small for a dish drainer) he should consider whether saving 45 seconds by just putting the coffee cup in the sink and putting some desultory water in it was worth me being pissed off at him.
I actually related to a terrible thing in the article: his inability to make lola not do stuff. his mother wouldn't let lola be sick, but I have struggled mightily to make out maid ever rest even when I know she's sick. she'll go to the doctor eventually when I force her, but even when she gets one of her frequent bronchial infections and is on antibiotics I'll come home and find her doing some heavy fucking labor. "get in bed!" "I'll just finish this one room I started already or it's a waste" "no, you need to rest!" "ok ma'am but in 10 minutes." gentle, smiling, continuously resistant, passive-agressive ("I'm not like you it's better for me to keep moving or it will just get worse"), push-back along a line no one ever expects to be resisted on is actually hard to manage. I'm not going to yell, right? and I have to winkle it out of her when she is sick, with indirect questioning and observation, or my kids tell me. then the arguing about the doctor (I pay obviously; she just hates to go.)
one last thing I thought of, there was an ad on my browser yesterday for "health insurance" for your maid that covered one $70 doctor's visit and one dentist's visit?! I assume it cost a dollar or something? the image for the ad was dirty dishes piled up in the sink.

Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 4:43 PM
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Glad to hear you're feeling healthier, al.

Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 4:52 PM
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56: ugh visualizing that ad made me sick inside.

Posted by: Ponder Stibbons | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 5:03 PM
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Ponder, I'm sorry you lived through that. I'm sorry they had to. Thank you for being willing to talk to us about it. I've had some of your comments float to the surface of my thoughts all day. I can't say anything adequate or meaningful, but I appreciate this.

Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 9:01 PM
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Meta-pondering is the best pondering.

Posted by: Mossy Character | Link to this comment | 05-19-17 10:40 PM
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56:I don't know if I missed it or not, but this is the first I've heard of your improved health. I'm thrilled.

Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 05-20-17 8:21 AM
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