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A Personal Note

in memoriam:  William Ernő Balla, 1918-2006

This recent month my father died, four months shy of his 88th birthday.  At his funeral service in Lapeer, Michigan, my brothers and sisters reminded me, as eldest of the ten kids, that I might say a few words.  And so, as I faced those in the church, and began to remark on the kindnesses during my childhood from both parents, especially from my father, something more important from him also arose.

Excepting the time as a young man with the U.S. army in in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan during and just after WWII, my father spent his workng life as an industrial designer.  The immediate benefits to me during boyhood came in the 1950s when, from the design center of Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, he would often bring home the bright, shiny emblems and metal insignia that Ford attached to the hoods and dashboards of its new cars at the Rouge plant on the Detroit River not far away.

My friends on our Dearborn street also typically had fathers working for the car companies throughout the Detroit area.  Almost without exception the dads were all, like mine, second-generation ethnic:  born in the U.S. to inner city immigrants just before the Great Depression, experienced in the various theaters of WWII, and now suburban American prosperous.  Some bought a new Ford, Chevy, Studebaker, Nash, or Buick every year – or every two years turned over their Mercurys, Hudsons, Pontiacs, or Plymouths (no upscale Caddies, Lincolns, or foreign cars in our neighborhood).  Ford had owned almost all Dearborn's second- and third-growth woodland where the new post-war subdivisions rose – it still paid generous taxes on its office complexes and test grounds here – and, thanks to Ford paternalism for white people, we had some of the best and newest public schools in the nation, well-kept public parks with swimming pools and arts-and-crafts centers summers, free ball fields, and a great, Carnegie-given public library.  We baby boomer kids enjoyed the largest mass prosperity of the world till then, and likely since.  Every September, gathered again in our schools in our new, store-bought clothes, wearing shoes with leathers still not yet broken in, we could take for granted small class sizes with good teachers, ample, free books and supplies, clean halls and gyms, and subsidized cafeterias of invariably good food – with unlimited, virtually free cartons of milk.  We knew the local baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, would again be in pennant contention, they and the New York Yankees.  The football team, the Lions, were champions.  Septembers, too, annually saw the week when Life and Look magazines would again appear with multiple-page spreads showing the newest evolutions in fenders, tail fins, grilles, and headlights on the new cars all soon in local showrooms, from where giant searchlights beamed up into early fall skies.

Every Sunday many of my Dearborn buddies would drive off with their parents and brothers and sisteers into Detroit's old ethnic neighborhoods.  Grandparents would have prepared for them Sunday meals of their native Sicilian, Neapolitan, Armenian, Irish, Hungarian, German, Polish, or other Slavic cuisine.  The old ones yet wore Old Country clothes, shawls for women, fedoras for men.  They read newspapers from Detroit's several-dozen languages, and supported the neighborhood bakeries' exotic breads and pastries.  (In Dearborn itself everyone ate only wax-paper packaged, pre-sliced, air-filled white bread.)  Sunday nights my buddies were all back in Dearborn.  Cocooned in our living rooms, we'd watch Ed Sullivan that night, just as on the three national networks we watched Walt Disney, The Honeymooners, Gunsmoke, Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie & Harriett, and the others we could all discuss next mornings in school.

My dad's parents lived farther off – St. Margaret's parish in Cleveland's Hungarian neighborhood.  My mother's family lived still farther away, East Tennessee and, farther still, Los Angeles.  The Hungarians had come in the great pre-WWI migrations.  The east Tennessee family had come to the Cumberland in the earliest Scotch-Irish tides that throughout the southern Appalachians included Crockett, Boone, and Jackson.  The L.A. contigent had gone west during the Dust Bowl era.

Both my father and mother wanted to shed themselves of their origins and, in a new place – the Detroit suburbs – to become good, normal, Americans.  They did this.  In Dearborn till the very end of the 1950s (when we all went back for a year in Los Angeles), we knew nothing but the middle-class prosperity that typified all union Detroit workers and, by extension, all teachers, nurses, and others across Michigan who floated off Motor City's union-scale wages.  My father wasn't union, but professional – though after voting twice for Ike in the '50s, he thereafter voted mainly Democratic.  As a stylist, he played as key a role as anyone in America for drawing in our most expansive, optimistic lines.

During his time at Ford – almost the entire 1950s – he worked on design teams making the annual style changes, and on separate assignments, such as the insignia and emblems that so thrilled me when he brought samples home.  With seven engineers and their supervisor, he designed the original Ford Thunderbird so sportily evocative of the mid-'50s.  At the end of that decade, before our move to California, he did the Ford Econoline – was thus responsible for one of the earlest prototypes for what much later became America's mega gargantuan SUV culture.  But all what became fat, menacing, and aggressive from the '80s on was still streamlined innocent in the days of first Playboy bunnies, international style office buildings, long-roofed subdivision houses, and tail-finned sports cars, station wagons, and sedans.

After Ford, my father spent many more years freelancing – hundreds – thousands of design projects.  He did packaging for the new, TV-dinner market in frozen food dinners.  He did billboards festooning our highways' burgeoning happy choices.  He designed electronic percolators, new generations of automatic washing machines and driers, technologically evolving lines of refrigerators, toasters, blenders, and waffle makers, clothing packaging, office park landscaping, recreational vehicles, neon-row highway storefronts, modular homes, and others of custom-built Cape Cod, ranch, and modernist styles.  As much as anyone in America, he shaped the choices our marketers targetted and advertisers celebrated.  He did it all anonymously, living fairly well for it, raising ten kids, and allowing Sonja, his wife, never to buy any of her kids' clothes second-hand, but always be free to shop at fancy department stores, like Hudson's in downtown Detroit.  Wearing her post-Easter white or post-Labor Day dark gloves, sometimes she took us kids along – we could have Saunders' hot fudge sundaes in Hudson's white-tableclothed dining room.  She could have everything home-delivered:  couches, draperies, armchairs, carpeting, dining room sets, twin beds, bunk beds, desks, clothes, toys – and have her re-uphosterings, new wall paper, and upgrades in television, radio, and hi-fi sets.

My father never disciplined the kids; he was always gentle or – interpretation may differ – remote.  He liked to work.  He liked the quietness of being off in some office, surrounded by crayons, colored pencils, inks, drafting tools, and paper and clay mock-ups.  He liked driving to and from work and seeing roadway landscaping, commercial fronts, billboards, housing estates, on and off ramps, all the while having some a.m. radio station on with its jingles hymning the products of an America wide open to him, his family, and millions of his fellows.  Even black Americans were coming into this economy now on more or less equal terms – my dad loved seeing it for everybody.

At home, while he never once raised his voice at any of us kids, he never talked particularly with any of us, either.  It was as if the stuff were doing all the talking.  The stuff sufficed.  He would drive me on a nighttime paper route I had while a young teenager, and, too, drive me to and from a three hour evening adult education class in Russian I began at age fourteen.  But we never especially talked.  Life had no peculiarly human secrets I felt I ought to know or to plumb.  I never saw people in any nuanced or otherwise private ways – only as varieties of those also in our public venues.

This innocence, or blindness, would have its costs, which I didn't discuss at the  funeral.  I began, rather, with the role of religion in our family.  Giving my remarks as we were in the Catholic church in Lapeer, Michigan, everyone knew Bill and Sonja hadn't attended masses much in recent years.  Many of those listening to me, many of the grandchildren, had meanwhile on their own become super religious, of evangelical Christian sects, and I harbored anger at them.  Their pieties notwithstanding, I knew they had done virtually nothing for my parents when, in old age, before moving to their care facility, they had been living in their home outside of Lapeer.  There, increasingly with the years, they had been more and more unable to maintain steps, windows, roof, decking, shrubberies, lawns, and inside.  While the house deteriorated, these grandkids, the super Christians chiefly, couldn't trouble themselves to fix, repair, or attend to anything, while they could spend priorities of time at their mega churches, singing their happy Christian songs, and visiting exotic parts of the world on "missions" (where none bothered to learn host languages or cultures).  Summers I could organize work parties at the grandparents' home, and my brothers and sisters would enlist their kids to help.  They'd come and pitch in, even the Christians, though, as I knew from phoning my parents through the year, and from the evidence of annual deterioration, none of the Christian nieces and nephews ever aided their grandparents apart from these times (which some would avoid, too, for Christian summer camps and internationally more exotic "missions").

For years seething with anger I never expressed at the ways these Christians set their priorities, I thought at my dad's funeral I might say something.  Prior to my turn to talk, my ire increased – I found myself disgusted with the priest.  At the foot of his vestments he wore not leather nor any other shoes shined and respectable for such an occasion, but something like worn-out tennis shoes, or raggedy house slippers, dirty, with heels collapsed under the priest's three-hundred pounds having sagged them.  This priest, incensing me more, had nothing specific to say of my father.  With words confined to banalities, slogans, and cliché, he mired in language as slovenly as his shoes.

In discussing religion, I began with my dad's parents, Sándor and Anna, their coming to Roman Catholicism, and my parents inheriting it.  Then it hit me:  it was all in the "stuff."  Grandfather Sándor had converted to Catholicism only because, to marry Anna, that was necessary in those days.  My mother similarly converted because that was still necessary to marry my raised-Catholic dad.  Neither of the men were ever particularly religious – though my parents always took us to church:  station wagon filled with slicked-down, well-groomed kids.  But as economic hard times hit when we were nine kids, and then ten, both parents shed their liturgical enthusiasms.  In talking, I didn't go into these less-than-reverent details.  I didn't use the occasion to scold the pious among us –I had gotten it in perspective:  both my father and mother had come to equate their religiosity not in church, but in the American ways that survived Great Depression and war, and flowered in that unprecedented '50s.  They had come to conflate their values in all that "stuff" they dedicated to home and children.  All those carpets, appliances, clothes, and car mediated sincerest beliefs in family, community, and nation.

I couldn't blame those in my family who, these years later, also had fit themselves to niche culture, even if it made them witless regarding my parents' deteriorating conditions.  I, too, had long been as insensitive to actual people.  I, too, had fit belongings in my ways – as we all did in a corporate culture that profitted by selling us our groups.

I confined my eulogy to celebration.  Even though when younger I grew apart from America's consumer-oriented culture, now I simply credited my father with his joy and generosity in designing so much of it.  In all the vital areas all inhabit – food, clothing, transportation, buildings, and landscape – he had styled hundreds, thousands of the daily choices we had all had.  Were we aware that most of us were not only freed but also limited by these choices?  My remarks didn't go into these, the negative gravities.

I could say God bless, and thanks to my father for having designed so many of these, the basic instruments of all our lives.  He had bequeathed this to me – I owed him the debt that Essaying Differences might show how our public styles reveal us.  Churches and their interior design bespeak some needs.  So, too, do those big, fat, expensive SUVs all waddled together out in the church parking lot.  All of us inhabit our own odd combinations, each of us like some atomic orbit of valences, quarks, protons, electrons, and neutrons – ours in our styles of food, clothing, landscape, buildings, and transport.

In this same month as my father's death and funeral, America passed the three-year anniversary of our invasion of Iraq – entering another year of bloody, messy occupation none of our elected leaders had had the brains to foresee.  They had assumed Iraqis to be more or less like the rest of us – that once we had rid them of Saddam, all could settle into the political and economic corporate structures we delivered to them.  Our leaders couldn't imagine that it might mean something if Iraqis prayed in very differently designed buildings than ours in the West.  These same leaders couldn't credit differences in Iraqi diets as signifying much, nor their differences in clothing, or landscape.

Also this recent month, San Francisco Chronicle reporters filed more stories on the corporate-privileged culture atop the University of California system.  In the March 16 issue Tanya Schevitz and Todd Wallack reported on many more hidden hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to keep the president of the UC system happy, and its ten campus chancellors.  These included over $30,000 for one chancellor to add a dog-run to her free campus home.  In their office suites, perks recently included  $132,000 in remodelling for the Berkeley chancellor, $82,000 in renonvations for the UCLA chancellor's office, and $60,000 at UC Irvine.  The UC president himself got $30,000 in an extra, upstairs kitchen – beyond the one just downstairs in his mansion.

Corporate culture doesn't just coddle its bureaucrats.  In lobbyist-run federal government, as in entitlement-excessed corporate academe, corporate culture makes a larger, more blinding promise:  that all can belong so long as all learn the impersonal posturing key to all the flow chart hierarchies, departments, divisions, and subdivisions.  This promise joins all in one culture, where all ethics reduces to the quantifiable.  Head counts, statistics, standardized tests, and bottom lines replace literacy.  Humanity ("the humanities") isolates as specialization, consumerism choice, entertainment niche.

I thank my father, and my debt to him:  that while corporate culture goes on – on one side blind leaders heaving American military might, on the other academics modeling isolations – we may yet begin to see real others:  by, for, and in all that stuff all inhabit.

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