Dual-Earning Dangers

What happens to communities when everyone's always pooped?

AN outraged woman called me on the telephone recently. She said she went to her son's school for parents' night and only about 100 out of a possible 600-1,000 parents bothered to come. There was a meeting on the future of the polluted Long Island Sound a few weeks ago, too, with experts on hand to give education and advice. Only about 50 people showed up.

An angry newspaper reader writes a graphic letter describing how disabled American veterans in hospitals become wretchedly depressed because so few volunteers ever visit with them.

You can blame apathy, or self-centeredness, or an unwillingness to care.

I blame something else.

I think just about everybody is working. People are busy; tired.

Holding a job doesn't excuse people for not showing up at citizens forums, and most expecially for not caring enough about their child's education to go to an open house at a school.

But it sure does offer an explanation.

There are nights when you would have to set some people's hair on fire - mine included - before they would rouse themselves from staring, slack-jawed, at television in the evening.

I began to think about this more when I started an evening class one day a week, and so I began to go into the office late every Monday.

In some ways, it is an unsettling experience.

Each time I take my daughter on our morning walk, I get the eerie feeling that a neutron bomb has hit most of the neighborhoods.

It's a ghost town. Nobody's home.

Shutters rattle in the wind. Traffic is non-existent.

When I was young, there was only one married woman on my street who wasn't home during the day. All the other women stayed home. They were out often - hanging laundry and sometimes taking a moment to visit with each other.

There was life in our neighborhoods. It was a community. And staying home at least supplied a ready population of people who had the energy left at the end of a day - not to mention cabin fever - to go to a civic forum.

Not anymore. I know more couples stretched to the limit than I can count. Most of us are out chasing a paycheck during the day, more out of necessity than choice. Middle class American salaries haven't kept pace with the cost of living since the early 1970s. Incomes have lost ground. Women entering the work force have helped their families tread water.

Given all that, it is no surprise that in a recent Time magazine poll, four out of five of the 505 people surveyed said it is ``very difficult'' or ``somewhat difficult'' to balance a career, marriage, and children.

That's the truth.

Another truth: I don't know anyone who is working to buy a second Cadillac or go on a cruise every year, although I'm sure such creatures exist.

I picture most of us like hamsters in a cage running on a treadmill, especially on those mornings when I walk deserted streets with my daughter.

There has been a lot of worry in the last few years about the death of the American family because of the soaring rates of divorce.

I worry more about something else: the death of community.

As community declines, so does involvement.

Yet community is an aspect of life most people long to experience. And, like everything else, it may have to be redefined in view of societal changes.

M. Scott Peck, in the book, ``The Different Drum,'' argues that community isn't a place or a geographic location, but a way of communicating, of being able to share one's deepest thoughts and feelings with others without fear or guilt.

It sounds almost mystical. But given the present circumstances, I can't help but wonder how working stiffs will get the time to develop that kind of experience of community.

Somewhere in conversations between the water cooler and the office parking lot?

Maybe retirement.

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