05/27/10 12:00am

In my head, I’m back in the early ’60s. Two unconnected news items took me there, and I’ve been stuck ever since. The first was the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; the second was the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s becoming legal. It’s not logic but feelings that trigger remembrance. Those times were special. We had gone from the quiet, well-behaved ’50s to the tumult of that next decade. However we characterize them, each period also featured a great deal of quiet formation that the labels don’t catch.

The ’60s were also a personally formative time for me. In the ’50s I started married life and had children; in the ’60s I took on the business of being a single mother. Looking back, I was greatly influenced by becoming a public school parent and by the women’s movement. For me they are very much entwined.

My generation of women was probably among the last that was raised to be seen and not heard. Becoming a public school parent, I encountered a political arena in which it was appropriate to make noise for my children’s sake. Whatever one’s reason for getting into the way the world works and trying to affect it, the bottom line — the politics, the pressure points and the big money — all turn out to be essentially the same. What I learned for the sake of my children changed me into an organizer and activist, and taught me to ask questions. But first I had to start.

The recent nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court took me back to those times because she is so clearly a New York City public school product. Her father’s activities, especially with the United Parents Association, sealed it for me. Because during that time parents’ associations fostered the political liberation of women, teaching and training women of all colors and backgrounds how to set and accomplish their goals.

Every fall the UPA held workshops for parents who were chosen for specific tasks: for example, doing the newspaper and publicity, being treasurer, creating the programs that the parents’ associations offer throughout the year. In short, everything parents (usually mothers) needed to know about making their group effective. If specific issues came up, the UPA would advise you or connect you with people who had dealt with the same problems. Nowadays we call that networking.

Reflecting on ’60s ferment, I realize that other organizations were doing the same kind of training, notably tenant activists and groups involved in other housing issues. The process was the same: teaching people how to build a group and keep it together. Saul Alinsky wrote, “organizing is teaching,” and I think of that as a practical liberation. A tenant organizer told my group that if the landlord’s agent came to see any of us, trying to split us from the group by offering to buy us out, all we had to say was, “I’m busy now. I have to bake a cake.” Her advice taught us how to say no without feeling we had to explain and without complicating the issue by saying anything that challenged the traditional feminine stereotype.

Which brings me to the second trigger for my journey back in time: the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s legalization. That meant contraception became available to young unmarried women and the women’s movement could express itself in down-to-earth ways. I learned about one way when I discovered my daughters were pasting referrals to women’s health clinics in their school’s bathroom stalls. It made a huge impression on this ’50s product for whom family planning was unavailable until after marriage. As Gretchen and Susan made their own connections to the women’s movement, I learned from them, and we were able to explore women’s changing roles together.

There’s more to “liberation” than contraception, but being able to control when you have children is still central to it. For me, it was a matter of learning to see the ways my perceptions had been skewed by the givens I was raised with, and learning to ask questions — a constant process. Asking questions and challenging one’s basic understandings is an unsettling process, but the ’60s provided a setting for becoming comfortable with that bumpy way of life.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

05/13/10 12:00am

The U.S. Senate is now considering financial reforms that might protect us from another meltdown like the one we’re still struggling through. The hearings began right after the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit alleging fraud by Goldman Sachs, one of the biggest players on Wall Street. The suit itself is an eye-opener. Moralistic phrases come to me like “callous disregard,” but they’re tame in comparison to the real thing. Are these Wall Street guys for real?

Well, yes, and they didn’t appear overnight. A friend of mine worked for the House banking committee in the ’60s and, later, in the ’70s and early ’80s, for the Congressional Budget Office. Even back then, she was a longtime Federal Reserve watcher who carried its institutional memory. She once commented that her colleagues in the financial world, the young men she worked with, had never experienced a depression and didn’t believe such a thing could happen again.

Even financial innocents like me knew better. My generation grew up hearing about the crash of 1929, about stocks valued for more money than the buyer actually had, and, in whispers, of this or that man who lost all his wife’s money “playing the market.” We heard a lot about people who bet everything on winning the brass ring, and the tragedies that ensued. My father used to say, “No man ever committed suicide with a sweepstakes ticket in his pocket.” It reflects the life-or-death stakes in 1929 — and also the fact that in those days skyscraper windows were not sealed and suicides took place right on The Street. Those of us who grew up in the 1930s heard about it over and over again.

Fast-forward to a more recent example of the mind-set my friend was talking about in the ’70s: President George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security. It was clear that young sophisticates thought they could do much better with their resources than Social Security. “Let us loose and we’ll do a better job” was the idea, and many other people subscribed to it, too, lured by the idea of having their own Social Security money and thinking it would be easy to manage.

Personally I found this a scary idea. I couldn’t imagine that I, with so many other things on my plate, could also manage the role of serious investor; I knew it wasn’t my calling. As the complexities of the market and the advantages professional traders have become clearer in various Congressional hearings, I often think, Aren’t we lucky that Social Security did not become privatized? It was a near miss.

Reading some Goldman Sachs details in the government’s lawsuit and considering the traders’ duplicitous presentations, I’m grateful my welfare never depended on them. And by the way, the Goldman vice president who had the neat idea of putting together and selling derivatives that were bound to fail was in his mid-20s. It’s not that older people were born wiser, but that they’ve been around longer and are seeing these things for the second time rather than the first.

Some provisions being considered for the financial reform bill offer hope for change, such as limiting the size and amount of debt an investment bank can carry and banning such a bank’s trading on its own account or acting in any way that creates a conflict of interest (such as betting against the derivatives it is selling). But a great deal of money is being spent to influence this legislation. Will the people’s representatives have the courage to resist the huge financial incentives now in play?

Pay attention. We’re likely to be living with the answer to that question for some time to come.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

04/22/10 12:00am

When I was a teenager, I knew exactly what I’d do with my life. The script was written, down to the last detail. Naturally, it changed a few years later. So much for planning my life to come.

The older we get, the less certainty there is. Nevertheless, once we’re in our seventies or eighties, it’s important to begin to plan ahead, not because everything will work out as we predict, but just so those closest to us have some idea of our priorities and direction. It’s not the same as planning for retirement (however we define it) in our 50s or 60s. It’s more a matter of where we want to be for the rest of our life — “be” in the full sense of the word — what we want to be doing as long as we’re able and who we want to live near. We can be pretty sure that at some point we will have debilitating health problems. Where would we turn for help? What are our thoughts about end-of-life care? These are always part of our thinking in later life, even if they’re only implied in our decisions. Meanwhile, no matter what our age, it’s important to look or move toward something.

When I was a children’s book editor, our managing editor, Ada, often spoke of her retirement. She would have a room a block or two from the library and spend her time reading. Meanwhile, she was the heart of the children’s book department and also caring for two elderly aunts. Her release came at night, when she’d read mysteries until the early hours. She was 80 when she retired. Her aunts had died by then and she had a few years to live her dream. She never missed a beat, even when battling cancer. She surprised me on one of my visits when she showed me an article in a scholarly journal by my daughter Susan, then a graduate student focused on 16th-century England. This was a relatively brief time for Ada but, in its own way, very happy and fulfilling.

Some of my friends have chosen to move into a retirement community, and it’s made their lives easier and richer. They have new friends, pursue a variety of learning opportunities and continue to be active in the larger community. The couples among them know that the one who becomes the caregiver will have the necessary support, and that the one who lives longer will be cared for, too. No one knows how the future will work out, but they have done what they can to make it satisfying and easier.

My mother arranged to join a retirement community at least three times and each time, at the last minute, she backed out. When she finally moved in, most unwillingly, she was over 90 years old. It didn’t work well for her because she didn’t want to be there and kept looking back. Sometimes it’s hard not to, but it isn’t helpful. My mother’s home was eight to 10 hours from me, which made helping her very hard. When my friend Marilyn was dying, her daughter commuted between New York City and Washington, D.C. — not an easy distance either. So geography is important, too.

Why am I thinking about this? With children either across the ocean or on the West Coast, it’s time for me to consider being nearer to at least one of them. A few weeks ago I put my house on the market. I know that the way real estate is these days, it’s likely to take some time to sell. So I’m using this period to enjoy my friends and savor my life on the North Fork. I’m doing some grieving, too. When it’s time to leave, I hope to be looking toward the rest of my life.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

04/08/10 12:00am

A new energy is in the air. Spring? Well, it’s nice to feel the warm sun, but I think it’s something more. All last year, it seems, we were just slogging along, dutifully watching health-care deals being made in Congress, listening to an earful of nonsense on both sides and steadily sinking … sinking. The hope for health care for everyone was dying and all we could do was watch. We were exhorted many times by e-mail to rescue this or that, sign a petition or send money, but it was always the same — people seemed to be going through the motions and nothing was really happening. A lot of us were discouraged and disillusioned. In their own way and for different reasons, Tea Partyers expressed those feelings, too.

Then something happened amid the posturing and spin. Suddenly some real things were being said. The whole struggle merged into a larger context, and we were talking about what we believed and what might be. Health care for all was suddenly in reach: We were racing to the finish line, and even a few votes beyond the predicted photo finish.

Let’s stop for a moment and reflect. We are on the way to establishing health care as a right. No more watching your sick child and wondering how you can afford the care she needs. I remember the days when doctors would discount their fees according to what you could pay, and I was always grateful when they did, but how much better to know, as we do now, that the bills will unquestionably be paid. And no more “charity” care that often shames the recipient even as it rescues her.

Now we can believe in the impossible. People are energized all over again. If you were for the health-care law, the good goal has been achieved — how seldom that happens! If you were against it, the energy is gathering around repealing the law and starting over. Here’s another interesting thing: Those who wanted more in the law than it contains have also begun organizing to change it. Now the law is in place, let’s make it better. If we can do the first thing, we can do a second, and maybe even a third, making the law better each time.

If I were in the prediction business, I would never have come up with all those scenarios.

There are some other things to think about, however. I hope some of the new energy will lead us, however we feel about the health-care law, to take on the bigger thing: the debt our nation is in and its predictable increase in the years to come. The health-care law is necessary if we are to reduce our national debt, I believe, and we still have to spend our way out of recession. But it’s more than time to begin looking at problems emerging with Social Security and Medicare. The sooner, the better.

Somehow we have to come together, the “yes we can” folks and the “no we can’t,” and tackle some really hard problems. We do, in fact, live in the same world, we all care about our country and we need each other more than ever.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.