Ellen Goodman on public policy and private life
Chicago — Ellen Goodman has a way of observing life's little ironies that often makes you chuckle and almost always makes you think twice. The focus of her Boston Globe column, which is widely syndicated and last year won a Pulitzer Prize, ranges from commentary on family relationships and social values to inflation and what she calls the Reagan administration's ''Nouvelle Cuisine for Kiddies'' - lunch at the public school - which deserves ''no stars, please'' and where the motto is ''Eat Light and Like It.''
As she sees it, public policy and private lives are not necessarily in separate categories. ''I'm always conscious of how people are affected by policies,'' she says. In fact, she claims to be as pleased over the inherent recognition of the seriousness and importance accorded ''home'' issues by the Pulitzer win as for the boost it gave to her own career.
Many of her most recent columns have found a hardback nest in a new book titled ''At Large'' (New York: Summit Books). In some she is clearly having a very good time. In a parody on the constant supply of new energy-saving tips put before us, for instance, she writes of Mrs. Down, a woman who does her laundry only in the wee small hours of the morning and who has discovered that pulling the dryer exhaust out of the wall not only heats the laundry room but is the fitting finish to a good shampoo. ''You do get some lint on your hair but it saves a bundle on the blow dryer,'' notes Mrs. Down.
In another piece the author sits behind a potted fern in one of the country's growing number of ''greenery'' restaurants. Overhearing conversations about the merits of exercising and undereating, the author observes that many people now eat out ''merely to graze and water themselves.'' But not Ms. Goodman. She was brought up on Winnie the Pooh (who knew quite well according to an internal clock when it was ''Time for a Little Something'') and admits to having to fight a sudden yearning for a ''hot oven grinder with a side of onion rings and catsup.''
Gentle jabs at herself and her habits - from her tendency to fall asleep at dinner parties to the difficulties she faces in keeping her checkbook balanced - seem a natural part of her personal approach to writing.
Her columns on the delicate balance of human relationships and the subtle changes in values probably net her the most mail. She was deluged with letters when she wrote about the grateful wife whose husband would always help with household chores when asked, but who realized she longed for a partner who would share the responsibilities rather than help on the assumption that all were hers.
''The mail from men and women was really quite different,'' she recalls. ''Many women strongly agreed. But men, understandably, felt I was raising the ante on them. After all, they were doing what their fathers never did, and I was saying that even that was not enough.''
Occasionally Ms. Goodman comes through with common-sense advice that hits straight home. She writes about a relative's marriage of 41 years in which the two people genuinely appreciate each other. Additionally, the husband admits he often reminds himself after a look in the morning mirror that he is ''no bargain.'' Allowing that she may have seen too many marriages in which ''6's think they're slumming with anything less than a 10'' and, taking the mirror as her cue, the author suggests: ''If you start the day by looking your own flaws in the face, you might work up a pretty good appetite of gratitude before breakfast.''
But Ellen Goodman is, as she describes herself in an interview here while munching on a breakfast muffin, always observing. She is searching for meaning, trying to keep the recommendations and judgments to a minimum. ''My columns aren't 10-point programs. I don't have a political agenda,'' she insists. She argues that people and issues tend to be far more complex than simplified categorizing and political labels suggest. She enjoys exploring the grays and assumes there is little that is pure black or white.
She is concerned that Americans may have become too ''cynical'' about their motives for exporting aid and taking in refugees, assuming that the country can ''do no right.'' While she suggests more careful thought in advance about the consequences of such action, she reasons that caring and the urge to help are perfectly valid motives. While America may not be able to ''save the world,'' she says, our retreating could leave it a much ''harsher'' place.Ms. Goodman also points to the irony of President Ronald Reagan's warm embrace of the traditional family in which there are two children, no divorce, and the husband is the breadwinner. ''Most of us actually live nontraditional lives, and the Reagans are a perfect example,'' she says. Their four children from two marriages include one who is adopted, one married for the third time, and another who was living with an older woman, she notes. All four children are college dropouts. Yet ''like most of us,'' the Reagans have ''nostalgia'' for what they regard as the traditional family, which accounts for only about 7 percent of the population in this country, she says.As the mother of 12-year-old Katie, Ms. Goodman touches frequently in her columns on the sometimes baffling job of being a parent. Success, she notes, lies in helping children develop the very independence that puts a parent out of a job. Also, despite any parent's natural desire to prepare and protect his offspring, children often have to learn hard lessons for themselves. Ms. Goodman cites author Doris Lessing's line that lessons must be learned ''exactly as if they had never been learned before.''In the interview Ms. Goodman also admits to being concerned about what she sees as a lack of discussion at home on teen-age sex - particularly among fathers and sons.''There seems to be a real silence over issues of values,'' she says. ''I think part of it is that parents feel confused and unsure of their own values and want to present only certainties to their children. They're afraid to present the whole range of their complicated thinking, so they don't share anything.''She thinks part of the reason for remaining mum is concern that talk may encourage sexual activity. Research, she insists, indicates that discussion is more apt to delay such activity.In the author's view, America in the 1980s has moved from the decade of self-improvement to concern about self-preservation and survival. While admitting that she is ''spooked by people waiting for the chance to defend their dried food and turf against the marauding hordes,'' she concedes that she thinks there is some reason for the concern.''I think the big question for the 1980s on some level is survival,'' she says. ''I think the leaders in our government and the Russian government are somewhat like 16 -year-olds playing 'chicken' on a highway - only they have the capacity to destroy the world . . . It's scary - and outrageous.''Ellen Goodman was a history major at Radcliffe who came to her present job by way of a research training post at Newsweek and work as a newspaper reporter for the Detroit Free Press and later for the Globe. Sometimes she spends hours just reporting in preparation for reaching the opinions that shape her columns.Though for occasional diversion she hikes with a new pedometer and is partial to squash, what she claims to enjoy most is the ample reading that goes into her work - and the writing itself. On words, she says she is a ''picker,'' always on the hunt for a better one.''A lot of people say, 'Don't you want to do something more than. . . ?' But I like doing newspaper work,'' she says. ''I like the immediacy. I like the working environment, the pace. I can't work without deadlines.''And no, the Pulitzer did not make that much difference.''You win it on a Tuesday and then on Wednesday you have to get up and do it all over again. It's not like winning it for a play or something that's done. In this business you can never rest on your laurels. Journalism is always work in process. You're always as good as your next column.''