10/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin et al: Please Talk About Corn

On Friday night, Sarah Palin appeared on television as part of her interview series with Charles Gibson. I finally sat down to watch this woman, who is said to represent an average mother, like me. But since my youngest was having her thirteenth birthday party, three teenage girls watched with me. It was not pretty.
"So, wait - she doesn't have to actually answer the question?" one said, when Ms. Palin repeatedly deflected Gibson's queries. "We always have to answer the question."
"Wait - people actually want to wear their hair like that?" another girl said. "How do you get it to puff up like that?"
My daughter looked at me and we both burst out laughing. "Jackie Kennedy's hair is just naturally stiff," she said. We were both remembering the line of one of our favorite screen moms - John Travolta as the mother in Hairspray, refusing to believe that hairspray was necessary for a First Lady beehive.
But after we were done laughing, I waited. I waited for Governor Palin to say anything new and substantial, to offer specifics on the economy, especially, since she's a fellow mom. On Saturday, as she campaigned in Nevada, I couldn't believe she was still talking about the plane and the bridge. And today, in Denver, it is still the same plane, the same bridge, and the same old story. Her.
All I can say - as a single mother of three teenagers who has no plane, not much lipstick, and no moose - is that I wish she'd talk about corn.
Because I went to the store this week and peanut butter was $7. Not a huge industrial size. Not anything special or organic. It was Jif, Creamy, ordinary size. The kind I've been buying for nineteen years, since my first kid was born.
A loaf of ordinary bread was $3.29. Milk was $3.99. And Wesson corn oil - the most ordinary thing, the one we use to fry fish for tacos - was $6.99.
I almost cried. A woman in front of me was actually teary eyed. She had four kids. She looked at the five magazine covers near the checkout with Sarah Palin on the cover and shook her head. "Those glasses. I wonder how much they cost," she said.
I realized the story is still solely about Palin, her life, her clothes, her family, and not really about the rest of us at all.


We have some striking parallels, as American women. I'm 47; she's 44. She married her high school sweetheart, who was a basketball player; I married my high school sweetheart, who was a basketball player (though I met him in junior high, which is often embarrassing and parochial to admit). She has three daughters, and so do I. Two of hers are 17 and 14 year; two of mine are 17 and 13.
I probably beat her on municipal loyalty, though - I live three blocks from the hospital where I was born.
But I'm not a hockey mom. I live in southern California, where yesterday it was still 102 degrees here in Riverside. We don't have much ice. I've been a basketball mom - including administrative booster club jobs - for nine years. I've been a PTA mom and a school volunteer.
I also work every day, and after twenty years of teaching at the same university, I have pretty good hours - usually 9-3. So I'm the mom whose house kids come to early, before school, and stay late, after school. I have a foot in so many camps I feel like a centipede. A centipede who goes through three to four loaves of bread a week, with all those kids around. And a lot of peanut butter.
Look - among mothers like me, it's not always a good thing to trumpet how being a PTA mom prepared someone for political office. Some PTA moms have been nice to us. But many have been the kind who made us feel like we were never doing enough, and two in particular ruined the budget and camaraderie of my local elementary school. They are still famous in my neighborhood for making other mothers cry. The meaner one ran for city council here, immediately after her tenure. She lost.


I saw parts of Governor Palin's first, historic speech, the one that was supposed to make me feel as if she represented me. It was a Wednesday night, remember? I was spraying weeds outside, and hanging up laundry, and came in periodically to check the screen. People were saying a lot about Palin's family, and her clothes. I sprayed more weeds and came in, finished, to wash my hands.
My seventeen-year-old daughter sat on the couch, doing homework. My thirteen-year-old was beside her, doing homework.
I stood and stared at the screen. Palin was talking about being a hockey mom, selling a plane, getting rid of a driver and a chef, and saying no thanks to a bridge. OK. Not much to relate to for me. She made me feel a little small. I liked her jacket, though.
In that perfectly deadpan voice of a seventeen year old, my daughter said, "I thought she was supposed to be hot."
Ouch. I am the usual recipient of that withering tone.
But then she said, "Are those her kids? Is that her older daughter?"
"Shouldn't they be in school? It's Wednesday. Isn't she a senior?"
My thirteen-year-old said, "Is that her youngest daughter?"
"Isn't it - like, eleven at night there? And she has to hold the baby? She must be tired. And isn't she missing school, too?"
That was the sole extent of their comments.
But I realized all we were hearing about was Palin - her family, her life, and her story. And that's all we've continued to hear about. Her story, and little else. Nobody's talking about corn, or college, or immigration, or desperation.


On Sunday, I taught early morning Sunday School, and only had three little girls. One was visiting our church, so I asked about her family. She told me she had five brothers and sisters, and she was staying with one of our church families.
Before service, I talked to my friend S, whose son just had shoulder surgery, whose husband remains out of work after applying for five different teaching jobs. She had taken in the little girl, whose father was losing his small three-bedroom house that weekend, unable to make the payments. He, his wife, his own mother, and all six kids had to find an apartment to rent.
This is how things are for so many of us.
I asked S if she'd seen Governor Palin's speech, or subsequent interviews, and she laughed. "When would I have done that?" she said. "We've been crazy at my house, just trying to keep up."
Not a single one of my women friends - all mothers - have heard any of the speeches or interviews. At work, my friend N, an academic advisor, said, "Speech? I have a 102 fever and I'm still coming in because we're so shorthanded. I was asleep last night."
My kids' godmother, D, who is an accountant in Pennsylvania, said, "Speech? I worked really late, and then the Baltimore office called with some crisis. By the time that was over, I watched Bones."
I called my friend T, a supervisor at the IRS, who laughed. "Watch that? Girl, I had so much to do after work I wasn't even home yet."
At the post office, my friend Y, who works the counter, frowned and looked puzzled. "Oh, that. We're shortstaffed this week, so I had to work til 8. And my daughter has an early class, so I went straight to bed."
At the grocery store, my friend L, a checker, rolled her eyes at me. "Susan, I've been working swing shift for so long, I don't know when I've watched TV. Please."
But my neighbor watched part of Palin's speech, including her statement that parents of disabled children would have a voice in Washington. "She doesn't speak for me," she said vehemently. "She doesn't live anything like we do." S and her husband are in dire straits. The California budget stalemate means that her husband, a principal at our local adult school, had no job all summer. The school was closed, for the first time in its history (depriving low income youth, dropouts, and non-native speakers their chance at classes, by the way). And S, whose nineteen-year-old son has severe autism, hasn't been away from him for more than a few hours for months, since he doesn't qualify anymore for respite care or even a social worker.
My eldest daughter hasn't watched any of it, which surprised me, since she's usually obsessed with politics, as a History and African American studies major at a college in Ohio. "Who has time to sit in front of the TV like that?" she said when she called. She'd had a meeting about her tutoring project, where she helps junior high kids with history twice a week. She's excited about Teach America all of a sudden. Her college was the first to admit African-Americans, and to admit women. Social causes and community service are passions for most students. Instead, she talked about JFK's politics, having been obsessed with that presidency for years.
When I hung up, I remembered that Barack Obama's campaign talked about community service for tuition credit, among other things. College costs have spiraled out of reach for nearly every parent I know. No one seems to be paying attention to the fact that National Direct Student Loans, which were underwritten by the federal government for decades and sent me, my ex-husband, and countless others to college, were eliminated under Republican administration years ago. Most grants are gone, too. Now, my daughter is offered a high-interest private loan, and she has no choice but to take that. I started a college fund for each child when she was born, but given today's stock market free-fall, I nearly cried today when I realized how much her fund lost today, and her tuition bill is due in two weeks.
Scholarships and tuition credit are the only way many American will be able to send kids for higher education. I'll have two in college next year, and one in high school. The thought brings me to my knees at night, when I pray - yes, I pray, as a Methodist, which seems to be a distinctly unglamorous denomination these days.
(Apparently "end of days" is a major tenet of Sarah Palin's evangelical faith, but I can't quite bring myself to imagine that my three daughters - the fervent loves of my life - wouldn't have this world to live in. I won't think that way. Why work for Teach America and to make the world a better place if it will be gone in thirty years? My kids and I just do stuff like rebuild houses in Gulfport and raise money for Heifer Project. Pretty dull, in comparison.)
Last week I wanted Governor Palin, and everyone else, to talk about rising college costs - and corn. Corn meaning ethanol and crops and even food shortages around the world. Immigration. And maybe someone could pay attention to the fact that here, in California, we still have no budget. One of my students came by Friday - he's worried, as they all are, because no one can be offered a teaching position until the budget is passed, and classes start next week. My neighbors are suffering. This is a county with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, and the highest gas prices.
And peanut butter is $7. I didn't have a coupon.
But Saturday she said it again. The plane, the bridge. I don't care about the plane. My van is fourteen years old. I don't care about the lipstick - be serious. I don't care about the moose. We have five chickens, because we like having the eggs, along with fertilizer for my vegetable garden, and they're eating table scraps because chicken feed has gone up so high. That's cracked corn.
We don't have moose at our grocery store, so I don't care if she shoots one.
The moose and plane and bridge are autobiography, and ego. This cannot be the only story, because times are too hard for that.
Very soon, I hope we can talk about something beyond the autobiography of Sarah Palin. (The per-diem story, where she got paid to stay in her own house, was appallingly funny, though. I can't imagine someone paying me to stay here, on my block where the aircraft is the police helicopter, in my house with all these animals and kids and the bathroom to clean.)
I hope tomorrow someone talks about corn.

Susan Straight's most recent novels are about motherhood - Highwire Moon about an American foster mother and a Mexican immigrant mother, and A Million Nightingales about a freed slave who must buy her own son.