I first discovered Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing milling through her book, Natural Causes, after what I suspected was an unnecessary medical test simulated by two well spoken and beautiful medical professionals who acted more like sales clerks. Natural Causes, as you surmise by the title, is a book that is suspect of medical tests habitually prescribed (present nurse and physician warriors and pandemic specialists excluded, of course).
Ehrenreich’s writing is unlike some pedantic non-fiction books, meaning it’s chock full of wry humor. Sure, in her new collection of essays Had I Known: Collected Essays, she delivers some very bleak encounters, yet she does so with such humorous panache that you’re not left crying, but rather charged up and ready to do something to help.
Her essays are categorized into Have and Have-Nots, Health, Men, Women, God, Science & Joy and last, but not least, Bourgeois Blunders all offering buckets of rainy mood statistics destined to fire up your humanitarian spirit.
In her first essay from Harper’s Magazine entitled “Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America," Ehrenreich details her experiment as a laborer in the Florida Keys. What frightened me about this article was people living on the edge working two jobs, with the obvious realization that it has only gotten worse. Yet Ehrenreich makes you buck up and pay attention and want to do something about people who live on the margins. For myself, I plan to donate the silly bag of goods I previously planned to sell at a garage sale, to someone in need. A small gesture, but every good deed has a ripple effect, given our current crisis.
Within the Men section “Patriarchy Deflated” is an unconventional look at the possible solution to misogyny. God, Science and Joy contains nuggets like “Up Close at Trinidad’s Carnival”, an essay I read with vicarious awe given our current predicament. And as a perfect book end to this essay collection; “Divisions of Labor” from the New York Times in 2017, she hammers home the need for, if not unions, then some caring force ensuring workers are paid for their hard work.
I think now of the fun Rochester Red Wings baseball games I used to attend where a tongue in cheek “Waste Man”, a theoretical super hero advertising that refuse company ran through the stands, and realize now he, the garbage man, is truly a superhero, along with the home health aides toiling in nursing homes afflicted with Covid 19. This book is a well written reminder that we need to recognize that with fair pay, the people whose backs we stand on are keeping us all afloat.