The reviewer is the author of "Museum People: Collectors and Keepers at the Smithsonian."
Ellen Goodman's opinions land on doorsteps in nearly 300 communities across the land. Torn from the newspaper, they also fly through the air, mailed from friend to friend as gifts -- of laughs or insights or new "worry opportunities." Each ragged-edged clipping is a reminder that social issues are complex. This figure in the news, that fad, that family haggle is altogether scarier than it seemed, funnier, smarmier, sadder.
"At Large" follows "Close to Home," Ellen Goodman's last collection of her syndicated columns, by two years. The titles of these pieces tell that the concerns of this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and mother of a seventh grader, are both cosmic and domestic. Seeking connections between the two is her job, she says, and her second nature.
"I want to resolve issues the way others want to fill in crossword puzzles," Goodman claims. Yet the columns she produces twice weekly, in a style that's brisk to the point of abruptness, brim with qualms and quandaries. Beguiled by inconsistency, she is able to see herself, in a column titled "Squirreling Logic," as "a tall woman in a navy bathrobe, terrorizing a short squirrel in gray fur" who is at her birdfeeder. She can recognize that her daughter, wearing a save-the-seals T-shirt, is tucked up to a supper of lamb chops. Small ironies. "Still," she writes, "it occurred to me that this is a time of much greater sensitivity about all sorts of contradictions, not only in our natures but in our public policies." The New Conservatives use inconsistencies raised by government policies -- reverse discrimination, disincentives, unintended consequences of action -- to rationalize inaction. "But I have a sense that it's better to accept the inevitability of some contradictions, some needed adjustments, along with the possibility for change and improvement."
In this spirit Goodman bravely moves into such thorny issues as teen-age sex, adoption and the whole area of biomedical ethics where, she says, it is unfair for doctors to take "the rap for our own uncertainties." These may not be her most memorable columns, but they show her purpose and her ability in 750 words to pass sanely through the thickets.
A column called "Post-Partum Cheers" tells how tired she has become of the inevitable question "How do you manage work despite having a child?" It is that "despite" that rankles, the assumption "that children are bad for their mother's work." She makes the point that children have also been good for it: "More than one woman has come through this parenthood feeling grown-up and bucking for a promotion." And there is "no way of separating out the working us from the parenting us . . . We are who we have become 'because of' our children."
She celebrates the end of the superwoman myth. That myth -- that women can have it all, do it all -- "is exploding like an overstuffed sofa." Today it's men, she says, who ask themselves: Can we have it all? And those men who have taken on a caretaking role in the family find it "means intensity. It means the hook. It also means sitting for a portrait, rich, complex, not altogether flattering."
Goodman is an accomplished crab, effectively taking on kidporn, psychobabble and survivalism, and railing at the pro-family movement for making the role of the homemaker, which it lauds, riskier and riskier to choose. But she comes across basically as an appreciator, a person with generous impulses and a talent for enjoying as well as coping with the "dailiness" of living. She likes adolescents and expects even adult growth to come in lurches and gropes. She understands a bureaucrat who minds leaving his bunny at a strange kennel. Stock-taking conversations with friends and companionable exchanges of guilt trivia are her therapy; vegetable growing, too, though her contract, she says, prohibits her from writing more than once a year about her zucchini.
I like Ellen Goodman columns best as a treat to read right after Letters to the Editor. But having sent out more of the old ones than I received in the mail, I'm glad now to have this book for a full set.