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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:

"Lili" is an affecting and stylish first novel about a woman's search for love and redemption in 20th century France. The surprise lies in how and where she finds it. 

SWW Talks With....
At night, Beverly Goldberg curls up at home with history books. By day, she's at her vice-presidential office at the Century Foundation:  An interview with the author of Age Works, her book on corporate America's response -- or lack of it -- to an older workforce.

Dreamland, a documentary to air later this month on the PBS series POV, goes beyond the glitter and glamour of Las Vegas to explore the sadness and despair of the compulsive gambler.

SWW Talks With...Beverly Goldberg
      Lunch with Beverly Goldberg means a menu with much more than several inviting choices of salads. For starters, there are the issues of retirement, older Americans in the workplace, the aging of the baby boomers, the presidential debates and the future of Social Security.   As vice president of The Century Foundation (, a 80-year-old non-profit think tank in New York City that examines America's economic, political and social policies, Goldberg understands not only how the gears of the nation work but when and how they need to shift.  Over a mid-day meal in the sunny library of the foundation's restored Manhattan  townhouse, she talked about corporate America's response to the growing number of older employees and the urgent need to re-think the workplace. It's the subject of her latest book, "Age Works: What Corporate America Must Do to Survive the Graying of the Workforce" (Free Press; $25), and challenges companies to find better ways to make use of older -- and more valuable than ever -- employees. 
      Her book succinctly lays out the dilemma. By 2005--a date not all that far away -- "the painful fact is that labor force participation by those over fifty-five will have to increase by about 25%.  This means that corporations will have to do something to attract and retain millions of older workers if they are to survive the demographic shock wave.''  Echoing her conviction, a July 30 editorial in The New York Times pointed out that the corporate gatekeepers" have been doing their best to push older workers out for years, because they are paid more than younger ones. As the boomer generations begins turning 55 next year, corporate America should be finding ways to retain, retrain or rehire old workers.'' 
      In an op-ed piece that appeared in the Sacramento Bee in March, Goldberg stressed that it's not true that older people don't want to work. They do, but they "want to retire from the stresses and demeaning attitudes that are a constant in corporations.''  She suggests that corporations try to restructure schedules for older people, offering them seasonal, flexible, part-time or temporary employment. By shifting people who are nearing retirement to consulting or mentoring roles, they are granted an easier segue into their new life while the company makes maximum use of their experience and their knowledge of the corporate culture. "Right now,'' Goldberg says, "the most highly wanted skills -- if people are sensible in hiring -- would be flexibility, willingness and excitement about learning.'' And, she goes on, it's a "myth'' that those qualities can't be found in older workers. As for learning new computer skills, she contends that "the difference between training a 35-year-old and a 50-year-old is nothing.
       But a 60-year-old may be thinking, "I'm going to retire in a few years and I've learned six different programs in two years, and I'm tired of it.'' Older people aren't the only ones who feel that way. She hears similar complaints from younger people, recalling the words of a 40-year-old human resources director who told her, "If they make me go to one more boot camp I'm quitting."            Everywhere, she observes, young overworked employees feel they are ready to "crash and burn,'' and asks, "How is that different from older people who say, 'I'm going to check out retirement for a while?' "
     Checking out retirement for herself will not be on Goldberg's personal agenda for some time. She enjoys what she does at the Century Foundation. "We do a lot of what I think is valuable work here,'' she says, and right now the seeming endless process to elect a new occupant for the White House is an especially absorbing time. "We were the people who helped set up the presidential debates,'' she says, referring to the foundation's role in establishing the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. "We're very proud of that and our work on Social Security. It has made such a difference in the lives of so many people and because people contribute it is not charity.'' Long before Messrs. Bush and Gore were born, the foundation (then known as the Twentieth Century Fund) was weighing in on the goals--and the flaws--of the ideas being put forth about the government-administered pension system, urging in 1937 that the system be expanded to every adult with benefits to be paid for by general taxes. (The original 1935 Act excluded almost half of the nation's workers, including farm
and government employees, and workers' wages were taxed to fund the system.) 
        The good news now, she reports, is that contrary to many gloom-and-doomsayers, the sky is not falling. "Social Security is not a system in major trouble,'' she is pleased to say, "and we have been fighting that idiocy.  The whole notion of the need to privatize it to save it is a wonderful gift to Wall Street, but who wants uncertainty? It's the one leg of the retirement stool that everyone counts on to stay solid. It protects people whom others care about and who may not be so well off.'' She offers as an example a young person or couple living somewhere in the middle of the country with a parent whom they help out financially a little but mostly gets by on monthly Social Security checks. "The difference in their life if that wasn't being paid to Mama or Papa would be enormous.''  The foundation's newest study, Social Security: Beyond the Basics, warns that "The most radical suggestions for change in Social Security--especially schemes to privatize it--are neither necessary nor practical.'' 
      Before coming to the foundation, Goldberg had worked in publishing and administration, and when she was asked to join it more than 20 years ago, the fit was perfect. All her jobs have seemed tailor-made. She went straight from post-graduate studies at City University of New York to Washington Square Press to
vet a collection of Victorian literature. The self-confessed 'history buff' was looking at a manuscript of the firm's new dictionary of American history and spotted errors, and "So,'' she says, "they asked me to vet that too.''  She spent several years there and at other firms, among other duties, working on a new edition of Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia and heading editorial services for a textbook publisher.
      Along the way, she married, raised a son and daughter and was divorced. She has written three previous books, including the useful "Overcoming High-Tech Anxiety: Thriving in a Wired World." A whiz at the computer, she does much of her research online. "It's the only way to go,'' she says. "I know that. But I love to curl up with books at night. I enjoy a good, thick history book or an analysis of what's happening in government. This is where my heart is.'' 
      A personal hero for Goldberg is her mother, Bessie. "This is a woman who loved to work,'' says Goldberg. With her two younger sisters, Bessie learned bookkeeping during the Depression and worked to help her large family survive. She stopped after marrying--her husband didn't want her to work--and took care of her four children and volunteered with school and community organizations. As a widow of 70, she began volunteering almost full-time at a hospital near her home in Staten Island and with the local chapter of Senior Olympics. "She does everything and a lot of it involves her bookkeeping skills,'' says her daughter, who has dubbed her "Volunteer of the Century." Now 90, Bessie lives by herself--a son nearby assists with shopping--and every evening Goldberg phones to see how she is. She also rings Bessie's two sisters, in their late 80s, and the daily calls are reassuring.  "They know that someone will be aware if something is wrong,'' says Goldberg.
     As people live longer, caring for elderly parents will become more of a dominant issue, especially for the baby-boomer generation. And when they in turn are suddenly eligible for senior-discount fares, they will influence the way aging is viewed. But be careful, warns Goldberg, it would be a mistake to view the boomers as mere clones of each other, marching in lockstep toward their golden age. The oldest among them, those born in the late '40s, were formed by the ethos of World War II, and she says, "they are a little more comfortable with the idea of aging than this next group is going to be.''  The next group is more resistant to the notion of aging, and Goldberg muses, "I wonder what effect they will have?" But that's another story, and one that she may someday write. 

Hungry for Life

Lili by Abigail De Witt
(Northwestern University Press; 307 pages; $26.95)

      For a child, an awareness of the self existing in time and space bursts into consciousness with the sudden, startling brightness of a flashbulb going off. With a single sentence, the gifted Abigail De Witt crystallizes the moment for four-year-old Lili Ravaudet: "There were swallows circling above the blackberry brambles, swallows circling out toward Paris, rising and falling, and the tiny leaves of the vines were thick and cool beneath Lili and she remembered it: I am alive."  The 20th century is just beginning, and Lili, who lives with her family in the countryside just outside Paris, devoutly believes in God. She will be a nun, she thinks, and when she dies, will go straight to Him. Within a few years, France is at war, and the deaths of a much-loved cousin and her older brother André have reduced her innocent faith to ashes. God does not exist, she thinks, but for the rest of her life she will seek the deity whom she had first understood as the warmth and sweetness of her mother's embrace.
     The arc of Lili's life--from childhood through marriage, motherhood and a passionate affair with a woman, through war's devastation and the solitude of old age-- extends across most of the past century. The current of the swiftly changing modern world sweeps her along, but she retains a capacity for love and a fierce hunger for life. De Witt has a keen eye for the sensual detail and an unblinking ability to reveal a woman's deepest and most secret desires. The once devout Lili grows up to become an atheist and teacher of philosophy in Paris, haunted by guilt. There she meets Pierre, a geography professor who had spent some time in an asylum and is nearly as withdrawn from the world as she. They become lovers, and "Then for weeks,'' De Witt writes, "she hardly thought at all anymore, she was so drenched in sex. All night long, she lay with him in her narrow bed and her skin ached.''  Pierre would one minute cover her with kisses, and then the next, grow cold and blank. They marry and on a trip to the sea, Lili notices the way he "could vanish midsentence almost, his body still there but his voice and eyes emptyand yet when he returned, laughing, swing her around--there was on one in the world like him, then, no one so frank so unembarrassed, so true." They have a son, Claude. Lili is blind to the obvious truth that he is disabled. In the child's long pale body, fair hair and wide lavender eyes, she finds a restoration of innocence.  Pierre no longer makes love to her, but the couple goes on together, tending their child with tenderness and concern.  One day, Lili encounters an old school acquaintance,  Paule Jacobe, whom Lili remembers  only as a shy and fat little Jewish girl with enormous eyes. Now Paule is a smartly dressed beauty  woman with curly black hair and smooth olive skin. They begin an affair, but it ends when Paule decides that  her spiritual quest must be taken on the path of the solitary and the ascetic,  "not to be possessed by one's lust, to be possessed only by God.'' 
     In the cruelty of the World War II, many of Lili's family members are killed. Paule and her brother  Marcel are sent to Auschwitz. At the end of the fighting, Lili goes each day  to the Paris train stations as the prisoners return, and one afternoon, sees a group of Jewish women arriving. Writes De Witt: "They looked like the men--hairless, blind seeming, fleshless--except they walked a little differently, their necks craning forward, their shoulders curved around what was left of their breasts.''  A ravaged woman, nearly a skeleton, steps forward, and Lili recognizes Paule. Pierre and Lili take her to their apartment  and slowly nurse her back to health. When she is strong, Paule, a convert to Catholicism, enters
a convent.
      As the years pass, Lili faces more loss: Claude dies and Pierre slowly succumbs to madness. The last, affecting section of the book is almost a coda,  with Lili an old woman living once more in her family's country home. After falling asleep outside, she wakens early in the morning. "She was eighty-three, but she did not feel old at this still hour, sitting in the garden of her childhood. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, the sky was flushed, rose, scarlet, tangerine: a gold light slanted through the chestnut tree.''  Her fury spent, Lili retains her appetite for life; it has been the secret that sustained her. The guilt of failure-- the fear that she has not loved enough--dissipates.. She had never given up on those she loved--not Claude, not Pierre, and not Paule--and  in that is the seed of her redemption.  Like a composer De Witt introduces  subtle changes of tone and mood as she continues to build emotion. Her story of Lili Ravaudet will remain in the memory. just as the sound of the final chord echoes in the heart long after the music stops.

And Consider This

Dreamland Produced by Greg Little; Directed by
Lisanne Skyler
Point of View (POV); PBS

    The Las Vegas most of us know is an island of gaudy architecture, flashing neon signs and flashier entertainment where a quick if expensive thrill can be found by dropping a little at the tables or chasing luck at the slot machines. But behind the surface gleam and glamour are the casinos, gambling halls and pawnshops that thrive on the patronage of residents like Lou Gerard. At 75, the likable Los Angeles tailor had a cheerful fantasy about life after retirement. He is happy about closing up his shop in Los Angeles and moving to Las Vegas, where he plans to work part-time, socialize and, he explains, "do a little gambling.'' Sounds harmless enough, but for Gerard, as for other compulsive gamblers, a little turns out to be a lot.
      In the pleasant desert dreamland, the lonely Gerard soon has little interest in anything but getting a winning hand at one of the 55 blackjack tables at Binion's Horseshoe casino. "I block everybody out,'' he says, "it's just me and the dealer.''  According to a Las Vegas psychologist who treats gambling addiction, "Lots of the gambling in Las Vegas doesn't have much to do with money, fun or socialization. It has to do with escape.'' That was true of another local, Carole O'Hare, whose game was video poker. "I could stop feeling when I gambled,'' says the mother of three sons, who would play all night and then phone her sons in the morning from a casino or bar and tell them to get ready for school. Exhausted financially, physically and spiritually, she considered suicide. It wouldn't have been uncommon, had she succeeded.  More than any other addiction, Dreamland's makers tell us, compulsive gambling has the highest number of suicides, and Las Vegas has the highest rate of suicides in the nation. Instead, she joined Gamblers Anonymous. She has gambled since 1990 and is executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. 
       Of late, "compassionate'' has become an over- and misused word, but it best describes this revealing documentary. The one-hour program on PBS's POV series ( zeroes in on the sad underside of Vegas and the locals who in one way or another, win or lose, are dependent  on the gaming business. For a taxi driver, it has meant a good life, but his son David, who is a dealer at the Tropicana, has a more skeptical view of the city, especially its recent incarnation as a vacation spot for the whole family.
      "With 24-hour gambling, 24-hour drinking and legalized prostitution 50 miles away from here, we're not a family town,'' he argues. Skyler steers clear of preachy moralizing and allows the people her camera follows around to speak with candor and eloquence about what it's like to be consumed by the irresistible desire to gamble and to live where it can be done at any hour of the day or night and in the supermarket as well as the casino. Dorothey Elaster, a good-natured taxi dispatcher, calls the slot machine an iron pimp. "When you walk into a casino it calls your name. It talks to you.'' Reality sets in, she says, when you walk out into daylight and say, "God, I'm broke.'' Realizing that her addiction was no different from that of her children to crack cocaine, Elaster got to Gamblers Anonymous. Newly confident, she is slowly paying back the debts accumulated from the gambling years (Dreamland on POV is scheduled for airing on most PBS stations on Aug. 22, at 10pm ET. Check local listings.) ©


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